When a Goal Becomes a Barrier by Mark Stone

January 2012. Last week I accomplished a major goal: running 5 miles in under 40 minutes (39:44 to be precise).

Three years ago I resumed running as an antidote to feeling sorry for myself about the poor shape I was in after a 10 year battle with back problems. I was 49, looking ahead to a significant 50th birthday, and in the "New Year's Resolution" mood. I resolved that I was going to stop worrying about how fragile my back might be, and actually test what I was capable of doing. That meant returning to my first passion in physical activities, distance running.

In the back of my mind I had the aspiration to run 5 miles in under 40 minutes by my 50th birthday (roughly 10 months later). You see, that's a run I had been able to do when I was 20, and again when I was 30 after I quit smoking. I was robbed of the chance to try for it again at age 40 by my back problems.

My first day of running I covered a mile and a half, and had to stop twice to catch my breath. So 10 months wasn't nearly enough time to achieve my goal. I came close; my best 5 mile run that Fall was under 42 minutes. But I just couldn't close the gap. Indeed after another year of running, I was little closer. I felt in great shape overall, I had lost 40 pounds, I was covering 5 miles consistently, and my back was holding up great. Those were all reasons for joy, and accomplishments I should be proud of, but it felt a bit hollow because I wasn't reaching my goal. I began to have the thought, "Maybe I'm never going to get back to 5 miles in 40 minutes."

My goal had become a barrier. Instead of pushing me forward, it was weighing me down.

And then, somewhere around New Year's of 2011, I had my koan moment. I realized that to achieve my goal, I must abandon my goal. I set two goals for 2011 that were both significant running goals, and neither of which had anything to do with my "5 miles in 40 minutes" goal. The first was to run the Seattle 15k, a distance I had never before run in my life. The subsequent goal was to run the Black Diamond Half Marathon, an even further distance that I had never before run in my life. I achieved both of those goals and suddenly found myself contemplating a goal I had never really taken seriously: running a full marathon.

The marathon is tricky. It isn't about speed per se, but it is about efficiency, and there is a clear sense in which running more slowly can be less efficient than running faster. Think, by way of analogy, of what goes on in your car's engine such that you get better gas mileage at 55 MPH than you do at 25 MPH (but also better than you get at 80 MPH). To run a marathon at all you have to be able to run efficiently, which means running at a decent, but sustainable pace. So if I was going to contemplate a marathon, I had to know that I could pick up my pace, and sustain that pace over distance.

So at the end of September I set myself three speed goals:

  • Run 5 miles in under 40 minutes
  • Run 10K in under 50 minutes
  • Run a half marathon in under 9 minutes a mile

And suddenly my barrier wasn't a barrier any more. It was an intermediate goal on the way to bigger things. But it still feels very good to put that goal behind me. And in fact this week I achieved 2 of my 3 goals. Here's how the week went:

  • 5 miles in 39:44
  • 10K in 49:57
  • My best wind sprint / hill climb day ever (I'm now moving the grade of my hill routine from 7% to 8%)
  • A very strong 8 mile run (9:03/mile)

So a pretty good week. Is there a marathon in my future? I don't know yet. I want to run an actual 10K race, and then I want to switch back from working on speed to working on distance in preparation for another half marathon. My half marathon time will decide for now. But in the back of my mind I recognize that every week now I routinely run a distance greater than I had ever run in my life a year ago. So whatever the future holds, it is bright with possiblity.

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