What happens when you set a goal and fail to achieve it?
In January of this year I set a personal goal. Made it public on this web site. Tweeted about it almost daily. Posted weekly updates on Facebook. I worked at it just about every day – hours of exertion, sweat, even a little actual blood.
The day of reckoning came last Saturday, and in the end, I was not equal to the test. I failed. But does goal failure make us failures?
Doing Everything Right
The goal was to complete the Mile Run Trail Challenge Half Marathon on April 1st in under two and a half hours. I was starting almost from scratch, hadn’t been on a decent running routine for over a year. My first run was only two miles long.
I did all the things you are supposed to:
Made the goal a SMART goal.
Set weekly and daily sub-goals.
Established some accountability.
Tracked my progress
Adjusted the program to meet reality.
The January post goes into all that detail, and I have to say I did a pretty good job of sticking to it. There was not only a clear, specific goal in mind, but an architecture of support to help me hang with it day after day.
And as Wally Bock would say over at Three Star Leadership, I had embraced the grind, prioritizing my habits around the daily task of getting a little bit better. And then doing it. Every day.
A Series of Unexpected Events
Race day came on the first day of April. Maybe I should have been suspicious based on the date, but I felt confident and prepared for the challenge. The course would be tough – nearly 4,000 feet of vertical ascent over the course of 13.5 miles – and of course another 4,000 feet to get back down.
Between the start and the finish, lots of things happened. I’ll offer them here not as excuses, but as a way of describing the action and supporting the conclusions I’ll draw at the end.
It wasn’t my proudest moment. Here we go:
- I missed the start. The published start time was 10:30, but at 10:10 when I looked up from where I was sitting in the car trying to keep warm, I saw a crowd of runners moving away. I gulped some water, tore off my sweat pants, and jogged after them, thinking they were just walking down to the start line. No. The race had begun. I started my stopwatch about two minutes after they started theirs and ran to catch up. April Fools?
- My pacing strategy was a mess. The course started on a gravel road and headed up hill. After half a mile it turned off onto a narrow, rocky trail. With 400 runners, there was sure to be a bottle neck. Now starting dead last, I got stuck in the masses. The next six miles was a series of little sprints trying to move around people when the trail widened enough, attempting to make my way steadily forward in the field. It was definitely not the calm, steady pace I had been practicing the last three months. I would pay for that later.
- The route had changed. I had found a contour map of the route and memorized it ahead of time. I knew where every aid station was, where the major climbs were, and what to expect around every corner.
But with a sudden left turn after mile three, it all changed. We plummeted down when were supposed to be going up, and scrambled steep embankments when it was supposed to be flat. I had only a general sense of where we were until mile 10. Not knowing what to expect, I had to run more cautiously and attempt to save some energy.
- I took a tumble. On a ten-point scale, it was maybe only a six – not spectacular, but it might have made the highlight reel on a slow news day. I thought the trail was clear but my tired feet found something to trip over. I landed on my side with a thud; no major damage.
Falling is to be expected in trail running. You just try not to get hurt, brush yourself off, and keep going. Still, you lose some time and you become more cautious after it happens.
- I expected to be surprised, and I was. On the map, the last two miles were the same as the first two, just in the opposite direction. The way the day had gone, I knew it would be presumptuous to assume that we would be able to sprint downhill on the open road for the last half mile to a glorious finish. That would be too easy.
Just before the road, there was new tape across the trail redirecting us into a rocky creek bed. For that half mile we picked our way gingerly over the mossy, slippery rocks and through cold mountain water. It wasn’t running so much as “sprained ankle avoidance.”
Always be mentally ready for something more, right?
- Tunnel? What tunnel? Where the stream intersected Interstate 80, the highway engineers had constructed large tunnels to allow the water to flow underneath the roadway. We had to follow. Seven feet square, the tunnels were long and dark. The confined quarters brought the water to shin-depth. By the end of the tunnels, my feet were numb and clumsy. All I could manage was a fast walk.
- A final insult. At the end of the tunnel where the water left the concrete surface, the river had carved out a hollow, much like you might find at the base of a waterfall. Not thinking the depth might change, I pitched into the frigid water to chest level before finding some footing and wading out.
I think the spectators thought it was funny!
Mission Failure (?)
Cold, wet, tired, and cramping, it was a relief when the finish line finally crept into view. I wouldn’t call my finishing speed “running” but it was as good as it was going to get for the moment.
Official time showed 2:35:47. Five minutes and forty seven seconds too slow. So close.
I missed the goal. It was goal failure. So, was the whole experiment a failure?
I’m going to say no.
Circling back to my “WHY,” the whole point was to become more physically fit and mentally strong – to exercise those attributes the same as you would a muscle.
Preparation to meet the goal had me out in the rain, wind, and snow. It woke me earlier and it rearranged my day to make it more efficient and productive.
I logged over 320 miles, ran at least five times each week, and covered ten miles or more on five different occasions. My weight came down by 13.1 pounds, and my energy and speed both improved over the weeks.
And given the race description above, you could argue the race itself was a good test of my mental as well as my physical fitness.
I may not have completed the race in the time I gave myself. But I came close. I did cover the distance. And I was very clearly in better shape than I was in January.
Goal Failure – The Takeaway
I think that if the effort to achieve your goal brings you closer to your vision, then you are doing it right. Even if you fall short, you have progressed. That’s the whole point.
When you set a good goal, you accept the risk that you may not achieve it. It’s a lot like running: every step is a controlled fall in a forward direction.
There’s no guarantee that you won’t stumble. Goal failure might happen. But if you want to move forward, you have to take those steps.
So set a clear goal, put the supporting systems in place to keep you on track, and dare to give it your best shot.
Hopefully you will achieve it. But even if you don’t, if it carries you tangibly closer to your vision, you can still consider it a success.
After your “day of reckoning,” however it turns out, it’s a good idea to sit down and make an assessment. Think about where you are, what you need to adjust, and then set your sights on your next goal. Take that next step.
As for me, there’s a marathon out in Minneapolis coming in October that has caught my eye…
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