The Day My Goal Caught on Fire: Teleology for Runners

An essay about teleology for runners.

By on July 17, 2019 | Comments

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

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time U.S. champion and World silver medalist. She’s previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200k disciplines.