The Day My Goal Caught on Fire: Teleology for Runners

In June of 2008, I tucked into a crowd of runners in Olympic Valley, California, awaiting the pre-race meeting for my first Western States 100. I was eager to race, coming off of one of the strongest training blocks of my life. I ran high mileage for the months preceding, with a lot of elevation gain, but I was not overcooked. I slept and ate well, ran intervals, and did my core work. Judging by the nervous energy of the crowd of runners, they felt likewise ready to go—to ascend the mountain and run all the way to Auburn.

But I never got to run the race that year. No one did. Wildfires hit the course, and the pre-race meeting became a race-cancelation meeting. My goal (quite literally) went up in flames. It was surprising and disappointing, and the whole crowd lamented in the way runners are apt to do—by quietly dispersing to go for runs to process things. Training is a substantial investment of time, energy, and attention. And—just like that—it all became a bad investment.

Or maybe it didn’t. It depends on what I made my investment in.

Knowing My Why

If I made my investment solely in a race outcome, then, absolutely, my investment turned sour. I never had the chance to see my training pay off, and I will never get that time back to redirect it toward something more fruitful. But if I invested in personal character growth, new experiences, community, the stewardship of my physical abilities, or something more solid than the outcome of the race itself, then this was a good use of time because—win, loss, or fire—my work was secure.

Race cancellations for poor conditions are not unprecedented. Neither are bad days, injuries, illnesses, or other oddities that prevent us from running well or even finishing our races. So, while our explicit life activities are often aimed in the general direction of acquiring or maintaining race fitness, there needs to be a deeper goal or purpose that extends beyond our races so our investments are not in vain when things go awry. Because things will go awry. We are trail runners. Our sport is basically running as fast as we can through the woods. Trust me, things will definitely go awry.

The Concept of Telos

I can’t answer the question of what your ‘solid thing’ is—what your ultimate goal or deeper purpose in life is. Only you can do that. But there is a way of conceiving of what I mean, which has helped me to order my priorities, and this is using the language of ends, or telos. Aristotle and Aquinas, among many others throughout the history of philosophy, offer much richer accounts of causes than I can offer here today, but there is one distinction I find helpful in thinking about my running. It is this: For any action or activity, there are two broad types of ends—proximate and remote—and we should be thinking about both on a regular basis.

A proximate end is a local goal or immediate cause of the action. For runners, this would be training to compete well in a race.

A remote end is a distal cause or a final orientation, which includes the larger context for the action. For runners, the remote end is the deeper reason or purpose for our running, which carries over into the rest of our life outside of the sport. Some examples are character growth, community, exploration, or various theological ends.

A non-running example is this: The proximate cause for my writing an essay is to answer my professor’s prompt. The remote causes are: (1) so that I might earn a degree, (2) so that I can become a professor, (3) because teaching is how I invest in people, and (4) investing in people is how I can love them. If my greatest allegiance is loving people (remote end), then the work I will do on my essay (proximate end) should be transformed by that love—such as by fairmindedly representing the ideas of others in my work, listening well, and reflecting on whether or not I am equipped to teach people what I am learning.

A running example is this: The proximate cause of my training is to compete well at Western States. If my remote end is to grow as a person of good character, then I will use that narrow practice toward the end of working on my virtue. If my final end is to be more disciplined, then my running should reflect that bigger goal and be transformed by it. Then—win, loss, or fire—I will have grown in discipline through my training for the race.

Likewise, if my remote goal is to love people well, then my training and racing will reflect that love—such as by investing in younger runners, sharing trail time, maintaining the trails so they have higher bequest value for future generations, and racing with integrity to love my competitors well. These are practical investments I make in my training, but they are not things that can be lost by canceled races, bad days, or injuries. They are secure investments.

As I said, I can’t tell you what your remote cause is. You have to figure that out for yourself. But having something more solid that you are investing in, beyond the outcome of races, is invaluable for giving your life coherence and directing your training toward fruitful ends that extend beyond running itself.

Final Thoughts

In June of 2008, I stood in a crowd of runners in Olympic Valley, and I found out my goal race was canceled. In what has since become one of the most teachable moments of my life, my mom—who was standing behind me in the crowd—tapped me on the shoulder after the announcement was made and whispered, “You’re going to be joyful through this, right?” No, I was not planning to be joyful, to be honest. But I have since come around. Having my goal race canceled was disappointing for sure, but it was not an occasion for despair because my remote causes are secure from my performance outcomes.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you share the proximate and remote ends of a particular running goal you have?
  • And how about the rest of life? Do you have an example of something in life that drives you, and that has both proximate and remote causes?
  • Has there been a time in your running when you haven’t been able to see the forest for the trees or vice versa?
Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 12 comments

  1. Kris

    I would argue there’s nothing metaphysically binding about runners’ potency or actuality as they relates to running goals, either as particulars or a universal and therefore not teleological, at least not in an true Aristotelian sense.

  2. Sabrina

    Hi Kris, I mean telos as final cause. Aristotle opens the Ethics asking that question–what is the best good for humans–and only in answering that question can we figure out what virtue is, how to live, etc. His answer is eudaimonia–flourishing in accordance with virtue. What this flourishing consists in–well, people throughout the history of philosophy have had different answers to that, but it’s going to involve certain activities that get you toward that end. I just used the distinction of local and remote ends (more colloquially today divided in terms of “process and outcome goals”) because it’s helpful to ask what our through-line or overriding might be for that “process.” Someone I think who does this very well is Clare Gallagher who deeply cares about stewarding the planet well, and it impacts the way she lives as a runner. Thanks for your comment. Big questions for a small post!

    1. Kris

      Hi Sabrina, I understand what you mean and I don’t necessarily disagree with the intent of what you’re stating, but unless it’s the case that for any given runner (∀r) or there exists a runner such that (∃r) the telos or final cause is immutable between an infinite number of temporal states (T1, T2, T3…Tn) what you’re describing may be good advice, it’s just not teleological.

      1. David

        Hmm . . . I see your point Kris, but it seems to me that you are insisting on a definition of “teleological” that is much more restricted than is typical in contemporary philosophical discussions — at least those discussions I’m familiar with. (I’m not even convinced that Aristotle would count as “teleological” under your definition, but I could be wrong about that. He certainly would find your definition baffling.) In any case, nothing in Sabrina’s article implies a commitment to “strong metaphysical teleology” (the kind that came under suspicion in the 17th century) which seems to be what you are concerned about. But because this is a discussion of human purposes and goals, the language of telos and teleology is entirely appropriate and enlightening (in my view).

        1. Sabrina

          Thanks for this response, David. Super helpful. It’s interesting because in Aristotle’s biological works and even in the Physics/Metaphysics you definitely get something like necessity in his teleology. But then in his ethical texts…I mean…the fact that he says we can get our telos wrong, there’s not strict necessity. There’s even some ambiguity about what he thinks the proper end is–the contemplative life or the political life. I also think moving through Aquinas you get a proper telos suitable to natural kinds (but we’re not just natural beings in our actions; we have nomos/logos/custom), and again we get our ends wrong. He talks about this with moral error quite a bit. In any case, I just meant to appropriate the language of causes in a looser, vocational sense–not like a Spinozistic conatus or something like that. I appreciate the debate. It’s difficult to distill down an idea into a bite-sized running-friendly content for such a short article. A telos can mean something more narrow and technical than I meant, and I think I am not alone. But thanks everyone! I appreciate the conversation.

  3. Graham

    Hi Sabrina, that was a very thought inspiring post and something I have thought about (though not couched in formal philosophical terms!) in my previous nearly-40 years of running. I have to say, in the words of the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, that I “run because I like it, through the bright broad land”. Races (common proximate goals, I suspect) just come along now and then and until my first ultra a few years ago which I did do some specific work for, I mostly turn up on the day with a background of whatever it is I’ve done in the preceding months. Proximate goals for me are mostly what running does to my head in my day to day running, and remote goals are to keep doing it for as long as possible. That’s probably what has helped see me through a knee injury thats grumbled on for nearly a year where others might conclude that their running days are over (happy to say it is getting better!)

    1. Sabrina

      Graham, thanks for these reflections! I also love the day-to-day feeling of running, and I’m glad your grumpy knee is improving. Happy running to you!

  4. Kaare Meldgaard

    well i do agree with the aristotelian aproch to the question – but i like to take a multifacetet aproch – a kantian notion of something being valueable in itself and not for teleological or outside goals sometimes plays a strong role in my running – and there tends to be many meanings and reasons often at the same time in running – some runs i just run for the running, some i run for the goal of a race or preparing for fastpacking or something – and the teleological aproch is also in many layers – from the more “technical” (meaning running as exercise, more purely a means to an end) to the more self reflective and in some ways deeper ( running to discover yourself, natur and other people) – for me there is also this strong existential nomadic content to it (i.e. Satres “and am not who i am but who i am not) so running is one of the most pure metaphorical activities where the physical act and the existential happening coexists – (in a metaphorical sense the telos is also understood by means of searching, running, walking – and the greek word for question literaly means “roadblock”) just a few thoughts – but yes, philosophy is a great way of refelcting upon the why of living

  5. Rachel

    Great article. As someone that is studying for a PhD in sport and exercise psychology, I see so many uses of this mindset and it’s one that I need to work on. There’s ‘process’ and ‘outcome’ goals within my field, which touch on the mechanistic parts of training on a day to day basis to the wider picture, but I like how this philosophical way of looking at it really touches on what the deeper values of running.

    My proximate goal is definitely to do well in the race I’m training for, however I think having a proximate goal alone leaves the runner to lead an all or nothing approach. I think it’s really important to draw on how both types of goal are needed to mindfully and happily live, as a person. My remote goals are to develop a stronger character and manage my anxiety, and to be a happy runner for as long as possible. These goals all interact with one another and I don’t think you can have proximate goals without really having those remote goals, either.

    Fab piece of writing and one I’ll definitely be saving!

  6. Jackie

    This is a wonderful article, thank you for sharing! Your words always give me something to reflect on during weekend long runs.

    This article was particularly well timed for me as I was trying to decide whether I wanted to sign up for an upcoming race. I knew I was not in a season in my life where I could put in the hard training to PR (my wife is pregnant and we are moving from East to West coast next year), but I’ve run the race before and could at least put in solid training to get a “good enough” result. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it.

    Your framework helped me ultimately decide to sign up for the race. My proximate goals are to show up to the finish line healthy, run joyfully, and use this race to say goodbye to the city before we move. My remote goals are character growth, be a good steward of my physical and mental health, and practice the virtues of discipline and gratitude that I hope to model for our future child.

    Thank you, as always, for your wisdom!

  7. Patrick

    This is a very apt post for me right now, I returned to running after a 28 year layoff, about 5.5 yrs ago. I decided to switch from road and cross country racing to ultras, particularly trail ultras this year, when I turned 60. My proximal goal was to run in remote ultras, starting with a 65km race through the very remote Tarkine Rainforest in NW Tasmania and then running a qualifier for the 2020 Cradle Mountain Run, through the remote centre of Tasmania. Although, the Tarkine race was not a qualifier (it needed to be 50+ miles), and my drop bag of food was miss placed, resulting in a DNF, I still managed to raise over $1500 and develop a much wider awareness of the cause of saving one of the oldest temperate rainforests on the planet (there are plants still growing in the Tarkine that are on the fossil record in Antarctica). So while my proximal goal was a failure, my remote goals of exploring my own place in and doing my small part in saving the planet. With my next proximal, the Cradle Mountain Run through the remote centre of Tasmania, in mind, I set about trying to find a qualifier. In trying to balance various proximal and remote goals, we always have to face up to the realities of our own weaknesses. I entered a local 100km trail race a few weeks ago and again DNFed, this time because of injury. Now, with entries opening in a couple of months, a serious injury and still no qualifier under my belt, my proximal goal seems even more remote than the races I want to run in, however, my remote goal or purpose still remains intact. I now have more time to raise money and awareness for saving the Tarkine.

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