Three things I learned from running five marathons

Last Sunday I completed my fifth marathon at the Virgin Money London Marathon and earned a new personal best time of 2:56:44.

Over the last five years, I crossed the chasm from being a casual runner who ran 5 kilometers one time a week to a pretty serious runner who routinely runs 70 miles a week while holding down a full-time job.

I have been lucky enough to run four consecutive personal best times, finish two marathons in less than three hours, and complete 50% of my goal to run the six marathons majors around the world.

While I hope to have many more decades of running ahead of me, here are three things I’ve learned so far from my time as a runner.

1. Manage Your Mindset

Memories from my youth convinced me I was not born to be a runner. I was born with flat feet, never enjoyed cross-country running in gym class, and I had shortness of breath whenever I would run more than five minutes.

I started running in my late twenties when I was looking for a budget-friendly way to exercise and chose running since it was practically free. I began as a casual runner who ran once every six days at an average distance of 2.8 miles and average pace of 9’18”.

Then, after attending a personal leadership workshop in New York, I realized how much I was being held back by the stories from my past. To move forward, I made a conscious decision to let my past stay in the past and made a self-declaration that I was a runner.

This psychological hack was important to helping me fulfill my potential. Before this deliberate action, I had major imposter syndrome if I referred to myself a runner. And because of this, I viewed running as an unenjoyable activity that I did just to stay fit.

Declaring that I was a runner was essential to break out of the past and create a positive relationship with running. The shift in thinking enabled me to start being, acting and thinking like a runner, and ultimately motivated me to up my mileage and view running as more play than work.

Soon after this mindset change, I registered for several short 3-5 mile road races and generated the momentum that led me to love running. Within a few months, my running frequency doubled (3x per week) and average pace improved to 8'28". If it wasn’t for my change in mindset, I may have never explored running as a sport and miss out of the experiences I have had so far.

I learned that we all have areas in our life that can benefit from dramatic shift in perspective. Figure out what those areas are, start mentally redefining who you want to be, and new things may open that were were not possible before.

2. Make Friends with Failure

I have been lucky enough to run one marathon every year since 2012 and achieve a personal best time every successive race. I am really proud of this accomplishment and every single one of my marathon times, but there is one secret that most people don’t know: I failed to meet my target time every single race.

As you can see in the chart above, while my achieved time progressively got faster with each marathon, I consistently failed to meet my target time. This was by design.

Ever since I was in college I have believed in the power of setting ambitious goals to help achieve things and tap into my full potential. This strategy has worked well in school, work, and running. However, the crux of this approach being effective is that you can’t be afraid to fail.

Fear of failure causes us to set attainable goals that will likely lead to average performance. While there is nothing wrong with this strategy, most people don’t get excited or focused when we have high confidence that the goal will be met. It’s much more interesting and fun to set stretch goals where there is a real possibility of failure.

If you fail to meet your goal, so what?

From my experience using this strategy in various areas of my life I learned that following the process to achieve an ambitious goal will lead to better performance than following the process to achieve a reasonable goal.

My progressive improvement in marathon times wouldn’t have been possible without this strategy. And how many people do you think have ever reminded me that I didn’t achieve my target time? Zero.

Whatever it is you want to achieve, embrace your fears and focus on your potential to do something great. You will be proud that you shot for the stars and landed on the clouds.

3. Think Like a Farmer

One of the things that I love about marathon running is that there are no short cuts.

Properly preparing for a marathon requires on average four to five months of training that includes running at least 40 miles a week spread across five days a week. Even the best elite marathon runners do not run more than two races a year due to the time it takes to properly train and recover.

I learned this the hard way in my first marathon. I was not very disciplined with my training. I ran a couple times a week and my total distance per week was less than 50% of the recommended minimum training volume. I didn’t put in the hard work on a daily basis to reap the rewards of a great race. In return, I hit the infamous “wall” very early on in the race and had to succumb to an unexpected run-walk approach for the final miles of the race.

The marathon taught me how important it is to think about my long-term goals and to design a lifestyle that supports habits and a discipline that ensures I am investing my time accordingly.

This rings true especially for two critical areas in life: our health and our relationships with our spouse, family and friends. While we know how important heath and relationships are to our long-term wellbeing, it is easier to divert time, energy and attention away from these areas to shorter term goals (e.g. getting promoted, traveling abroad, or eating at the best new restaurant) that provide much more immediate satisfaction.

Like a farmer preparing his land for a big harvest at the end of the season, being a marathon runner taught me the importance of investing early and often in the things that will truly matter at the end.

Thinking deeply about what type of life you want to have in the long term will make it much easier to determine where to spend your time, money and energy today.

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