The sublime pleasure of setting a goal only to smash it to pieces

A happy, sweaty, sore runner.

This weekend marked my first half-marathon of the real Florida road-racing season – the Halloween Halfathon down at Fort De Soto, which is this gorgeous barrier island-turned-county park that has miles of trails and is perfect for racing.

For the first time since taking up running, I had worked hard in my off-season with the explicit goal of becoming a better runner. I had run my second-fastest 5K and 10K during the hot months of the year, plus I was consistent about doing speedwork and my long runs.

On top of all of that, I spent the summer doing a pretty serious weight-training routine, including squats, lunges and deadlifts, and I had changed my nutrition up pretty dramatically.  I was anxious to see how all of my efforts had paid off.

This is how badly I wanted to run this race.  My best friend had a Halloween-slash-wedding party the night before, and we left at 9:30 so we could get enough sleep before the race.  I bailed on free beer and party food and hanging with my bestest friend in the whole world for this race, is what I am saying.

I had a goal in mind, a pretty ambitious one, I thought.  I only started dipping below two hours this past winter, and I had no clue if I could actually pull off my new goal of breaking 1:50.  However, Brian thought I could, and because he is part of the grand tradition of Spouses Who Know Everything (I serve this role for him, by the way), I decided to trust him.

We started out behind our pace by 30 seconds, which was disappointing. Plus, my legs felt leaden and I felt like I had to gasp for breath.  I had to remind myself that I have never, ever, ever run a single race that didn’t start off with at least a mile’s worth of wondering whether this was going to be the race in which I totally and completely failed to perform.

Fortunately we got on pace for the next few miles, and even picked up a minute, which was great, because when we hit mile five, we started running straight into what felt like gale force winds blown right at my face.  Brian let me draft off him a bit, but mostly I just focused on getting to the turn-around, which was where nature’s torture device would become nature’s gentle helping hand.  Sure enough, miles eight through ten passed like a dream – an effortless dream made of sea breezes and palm trees.

We made one of the final turns past the mile 11 mark, and I looked at my watch and realized that I had twenty minutes to cover 2.1 miles.  Once upon a time, that would have been enough for me to say “Fuck this PR, and while I’m at it, fuck you, too” but I knew that current me would have had to completely wipe out due to some freak accident, like, say, a wild egret attack to miss that goal.

Brian also saw the time and he told me, “That PR is yours.  Now the question is, how much do you want to smash it by?”

I wanted it so bad, I cannot even put it into words.  I wanted it the way I want turkey on Thanksgiving Day – no, worse than that.  I wanted it the way I want a cold beer on a hot day, or a cozy bed after a long day at work.  I’d worked so hard for it, not just on that day but all the days leading up to it.

My mind started doing battle with itself.  Part of my mind, the part of me that is always saying things like, “Don’t work on your writing, there’s a Law & Order episode on!” was telling me to slow down and take it easy, but the other, louder part of my mind was like, “Bitch, when are you going to run a half-marathon this fast again?  MOVE IT.”

So I ran as hard as I could.  I ran so hard that my perception narrowed into a tunnel, that my legs started to tingle and go numb.  We turned the corner and I saw the digital readout displaying a time that had once seemed impossible.  With that, I kicked into a full-bore sprint – right across the finish line.  As soon as I stopped, my legs seized up in cramps.  I’d never run a race like that before, never finished one that left me feeling like I had absolutely nothing left to give.

My final race time was 1:48:05.  Average pace was 8:15 per mile.

I had beat my previous best by a full seven minutes.

For the rest of the day, I kept looking at Brian and laughing.  “Holy shit,” I’d say.  “I ran a half in 1:48!  Holy shit!”  I simply could not believe that I was capable of a race time like that.  That was the kind of time I’d expect of a sleek cheetah-woman, not lumbering ole me.

I’d gone through similar waves of disbelief when I broke 25 minutes in the 5K. I could not believe I was capable of such things, and yet there I was, doing them.  I had set those goals for myself a long time ago, goals that seemed almost impossible in their ambition, and yet through hard work and determination and persistence, I’d managed to shatter them.  It would have been unbelievable, were it not for the incontrovertible fact of those numbers looking back at me.  I could argue with myself, but I could not argue with numbers.

Brian and I talked a lot that day about the intense joy we took in setting and surpassing goals.  Brian made the point that, when you set your goals high and you hit them, it forces you to revise the way you look at yourself.   You can’t just fall back on the previous stories you’ve relied on to explain yourself to you.  You have to come up with new stories that can accommodate your achievements and all the cool things you can do.

Brian then went on to make the point – and this is where it comes in handy to have an athletic spouse who is also a professional counselor, I swear it’s like having my own personal Alberto Salazar – that my biggest barrier to success has almost always been myself.  He likes to tell a story about the night before a 5K, when he asks what goal I have for myself.  “Well, I think I’d like to break 27 minutes,” I told him.  He stared at me, then said, “You’ve already done that.  A few times, even.”

On Sunday, as I walked around with my medal around my neck and a cold beer in my hand, I realized he was right, that I had put all of these psychological caps on my performance as an athlete, and to what end?   Why did I do this to myself?  Was it fear?  Did I just not think I was capable?  I still don’t know the reasons why, but what I do know is that those stories are all just bullshit, just things I made up based on the limited and flawed information I had access to.  Those stories have as much basis in reality as the Tooth Fairy.  (Sorry, little kids who read my blog.  Also, sorry for all the cussing.)

So now a whole new world of distance running has opened up to me.  Not just marathons, but Boston qualifiers.  Not just half-marathons, but sub-1:40 half-marathons.  Not just ultramarathons, but maybe even 100-milers.  Nothing seems impossible; everything is there, just waiting for me to achieve it.  Whether or not I actually do these things is besides the point.  What matters is that it all seems possible.

So now it’s time for me to write new stories for myself, and to set new goals.  The stories about myself will be a little bit bigger, and the goals a lot more ambitious.  And I can’t wait for the days when I smash those goals to pieces as well.

13 responses to “The sublime pleasure of setting a goal only to smash it to pieces

    • Thanks! I’m running a trail half this Sunday, so I’ll probably post something about that.

      I’m glad to hear my story has such a positive effect on you. That’s such a cool side effect of my PR. 🙂

  1. Oh that is fantastic!!!! it is because of finding and reasing your blog that I joined Nerd Fitness, entered my very first 6 week challenge – and found out that I can do 3 sets of 10 inverted rows! YAY to doing what you never thought possible.

    You should be so proud of your hard work.

    • Thank you! And you too! Inverted rows are tough. That’s awesome that you can do that many. Good luck with your six-week challenge!

      And yes, NF is awesome and inspiring. I love how the philosophy seems to be all about simplifying – like the anti-diet industry. Love, love, love that site.

  2. Amazing! I love the part about writing bigger stories for ourselves. I’m stealing that to argue with the part of my brain that says I’m not an athlete, cool?

  3. Beating your PR and your expectations of yourself by that much creates an interesting dilemma, doesn’t it? When I beat my half marathon PR by 15 minutes last month in Victoria BC, my first thought was — oh no, I’m done, I cannot ever possibly be that fast again! But now I’m starting to think that it wasn’t a fluke and, with a little but of pushing myself, I’m capable of much more.

    I like your idea that this is really about creating new stories for yourself and your potential. The trick, I think, is to set tough but not impossible goals, and then allow some leeway for the unexpected. In a race I usually give myself two “goal” times — the IDEAL and the GOOD ENOUGH. If I can finish between those two, I’m happy. I’ve never beaten the ideal before now, so now I really don’t know what to expect for the future — which makes the future all that much more exciting!

    Here’s to big hairy audacious goals and the courage to attempt them!


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