21 Lessons by 21 — #5: Act Small, but Aim Big.

Earlier this week, I attended a talk given by Mohammed Lahna, an athlete who swam from Morocco to Spain across the Straight of Gibraltar, completed Ironman triathlons, and competed in the Marathon des Sables — an ultra-distance run through the Sahara desert, among many other successes.

While all of this looks natural, you’d be surprised that all of these achievements were made possible while being physically disabled, as Mohammed Lahna was born without a right femur as a child, and was told that physical activities would be limited.

Yet, this year, Lahna made an astounding appearance at the Paralympics in Rio, where he won a bronze medal in the triathlon, making him the first Moroccan and Arab, ever, to win a medal at the Paralympics (this tells you something about disability in Arab countries).

At the talk, he said: “While I could previously swim because of my early childhood training, as well as bike when I got my hand on my first mountain bike, it never occurred to me that one day I could run with my prostheses. But I still dreamt of doing a triathlon one day. The only problem was, I had no money to pay for a three-wheeler. So I went ahead and contacted a friend a friend and we started building our own. After my first race with the three-wheeler, I was spotted by a sponsor who gave me the opportunity to race in the US. As I went there, I met a girl who had exactly the same disability I had. But… she ran with her prostheses! All my life I was told that I couldn’t run, and now, 23 years and an ocean away later, I realize doctors back home never even gave me a single ounce of hope that I could possibly just try using my legs. I felt betrayed, as if I lost 23 years of my life. But I had to catch up and start somewhere. I couldn’t obviously run straight, though I did try; but 5 minutes past the start I was already dead on the floor. So I bought crutches, and I tried a minute more every day, until I could finally run independently using only my prostheses. When I was finally ready, I decided to make the big leap into a real triathlon.”

Similarly, he experienced the same mindset in the Marathon des Sables, where he described the experience as one of the most challenging ones he had ever tried. Every day during a week, MDS runners had to run between 20 to 80km in the Moroccan desert to complete a total of 250km, under a heat that would go up to 50 degrees Celsius.

He said: “At the start of the race, a guy who rides a camel follows the same path. If the camel goes past you, you’re out of the race. At every 10 km, there is a water break and a quick medical and technical check. At my first 10km, I was among the last three men of the race. Tears burst on my face. It was impossible for me to finish that race. The camel was not even out of sight. Imagine my distress, my shame and my self-esteem, all crashed by the simple thought of not being able to finish that race. I didn’t care about being the first or the time I needed to perform. I just wanted to finish the race, yet I was already tired and losing hope for my big goal. So what I did was to convince myself to just finish the next 10km. At each 10km stop, I would tell myself again: “just another 10km and we’ll see from there”. And there I was. Performing 10km by 10km, until the race was over. The point here, keep your big dream in mind, but work it out in small measurable steps, and repeat until you eventually get there.”

Three years ago, when I first started running. I never thought I could run more than 5 minutes at all. I had a short breath, heavy legs, and a special disdain for running and endurance sports (I even told asked my uncle once what type of crazy people would just run aimlessly in the streets like they did). I thought runners had a special ability, a God-given numbness to physical variables such as time and effort.

But I did start. I started with 5 minutes. Added a 5-minute every other week. Had breaks in the middle to regain momentum. And I built up endurance, day after day, injury after another, until I could go all the way up to almost 2 hours worth of running.

I started dreaming of completing a full marathon (42km), but then I had to first complete a half (21km), and before that I had to go through a (15km), after my first ever official 10km run, built up through group runs from 5 to 8km.

I still have my big marathon goal in mind, but I know the steps to get there, and the hard work that goes into it. And I run everyday with that big goal in mind. Perhaps I am working slowly to achieve it (mainly because I experienced many injuries over the past years), but I know where I am heading, and I keep that goal somewhere in the back of my head, while putting forward the smaller tasks and steps I need to focus on.

The lesson to take away from here is: Always work backward from your end goal, have a visual map of all mini goals that will build up to it. Procrastination is very similar in the sense that people tend to delay for later what they can do now just because the end goal seems so big and therefore daunts them from starting now. Eventually they end up not doing anything at all, or performing really bad.

Big is great. But you don’t have to be great to start. Start Small. Small eventually builds into something greater.