The Gift Of Goal Setting

We’re four days into the new year and you’ve probably come across at least half a dozen articles on resolutions and goal setting to go along with countless mentions by individuals on social media. There’s a reason for this. At least half of this combination really works for running goals, at least for me.

While admittedly a semantic distinction, I view a resolution in line of the dictionary definition “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” You’re in or you’re out, come hell or high water. The same dictionary might define a goal as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort.” You aim for something and work toward it.

The resolution bit? It most certainly works for a small cadre of folks whose mental wiring flourishes on an all-or-nothing approach. Perhaps, they can ride the all-in wave for long enough to change actual habit. (Some say such pattern shifts cans happen in 21 to 30 days.) Good for them! Three cheers, as well, for those who recognize they need to make a resolution to alter some sort of life-crushing situation, but those aren’t the sort of resolutions most folks are considering come the new year. For the rest of us, being ‘resolute’ can feel too stiff. If we falter, we fail, and the time we adhered to the resolution may be seen as a waste. That’s defeating.

Although I may be skeptical of resolutions as a means for meaningful change for the masses, goals have really come to grow on me. While out on my last run of 2016, I reflected on having failed to meet both my primary running goal for the year as well as each of a few secondary running goals. At first I thought, despite failing to meet all those goals, I had what I’d consider a good year of running. It didn’t take long to realize that, more likely, it was because of these goals that I had a good running year, even if I failed to hit them.

For instance, one of my secondary running goals from last year was to run sub-30 hours at Hardrock. That didn’t happen. However, that goal had me training with great consistency last winter, encouraged me to log a couple incredible weeks in May and June, and, come mid-July, had me in possibly my best ultrarunning fitness ever and, without a doubt, in the best-ever mountain-specific fitness. Coming out of my off season and back into routine running these past two months, many of those gains remain with me today and have me extremely eager for 2017!

It was only a few hours into the new year that I came across the following from Harvard professor emeritus and Pulitzer-Prize winner Edward O. Wilson, “[XX] is a goal—and people understand and appreciate goals. They need a victory, not just news that progress is being made. It is human nature to yearn for finality, something achieved by which their anxiety and fears are put to rest…. It is our nature to choose large goals that, while difficult, are potentially game changing and universal in benefit.”

I have a slight discontinuity with the above statement that comes from its goal being aimed at a society-wide issue, specifically biodiversity loss, rather than a wholly personal goal. In the latter case, I do think individuals are motivated by progress, when a concrete goal is in mind. At least I am. On the other hand, just making progress for progress’s sake, that can work sometimes, but it is prone to intermittent failure, from which reengagement is less likely unless there’s a finite goal.

What’s more, having an audacious goal can be much more motivational than a conservative one. The latter feels more like a pledge. For example, if were to tell myself that I’d run 1,800 miles in 2017, that would not get me out the door for a single run considering I’ve run 500 to 700 more miles in each of the past two years and 2,000 miles seems like a baseline for my running through the decades. On the other hand, if I shoot for 2,500 miles in 2017, that’d be more than I ran in either of the past two years (which I consider solid years) and more than I’ve run in a long time… maybe ever. Now, I hope I wouldn’t think about this daily or even weekly, but, at least for me, it would a helpful and motivating reminder to be consistent, to stay healthy, to not overtrain in the short term, etc.

Setting Goals

Now, this is a website and a column focused on running, but I’m going to zoom out here for a bit. We only have so much time, energy, money, motivation, and so on and have to divvy those resources up across our entire lives. As such, I go about my annual goal setting across my entire life all at once. Specifically, at the end of every year, I sit down with the Dreamlining Worksheet taken from Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week. (Note: For this exercise, you can ignore the cost/expense aspects found on the sheet.) On it, I quickly daydream approximately five things I’d like to have, five things I’d like to be, and five things I’d like to do over the coming 12 months. I then go on to star three to five of these items. These are the goals I focus on for the coming year and, indeed, often subsequent years, as well. Likewise, unstarred goals remain in the background and, if they’re accomplished without being a focus, that feels good nonetheless!

Still, it’s those three to five primary goals that I find I can consciously work on and work toward throughout the year. I don’t think about them everyday, but they’re back there in my mind. I also do pick up the handwritten sheet (or sheets, if I include previous years) to remind myself of what I’m working toward in a given year.

Whether written as part of an initial written goal or later developed in one’s mind, it’s important to develop the steps, the very actions that must be taken to reach ones goals. Building Rome isn’t going to happen unless you buy some marble blocks and hirer some engineers. I dive into a personal example of developing these intermediate steps toward a goal in the next section.

My 2017 Running Goals

In my dreamlining session last week, I ended up starring two running-related goals for 2017.

The first is quite amorphous on its face: Be a better runner. That’s ‘nice,’ but nebulous. Fortunately, it’s followed by the parenthetical (2,500 miles, 10 20-plus mile runs before summer, some ‘workouts’). As I reflect further about my year to come, I’ll surely come up with additional concrete aspects to flesh out a plan and act as more structured sub-goals. In the meantime, that 2,500-mile goal will have me aiming for steady, consistent running through the winter with an eye on running throughout the year; I hope that the long-run goal will get me out the door for at least two or three 20-plus milers before running the Moab Red Hot 33k in mid-February; and, hopefully, I can overcome my apprehension about injury and dip my toes back into the speedwork realm this month.

My second running goal for 2017 is more audacious: run sub-19 hours at Leadville. Okay, it’s out there. It’s near the fringes of what I think my maximum ability is having run 20:42 and 19:54 a while back. This is a goal that I’ve long thought possible, but improbable. It will make me refocus on running after a few years of training for Hardrock, which included lots of hiking at the forefront of my training. It will make me reevaluate my work and my travel with an eye toward more consistent training through the first seven months of the year. (No 113-mile March this year!) It will help me stay focused on keeping my Achilles and lower legs functional in the face of chronic tightness. I will have to either redevelop a long-race nutrition plan or gain confidence that my current approach will work well enough at Leadville after a couple rough goes stomach-wise in 100 milers the past few years. I will have to hone my drive and competitiveness (inward focused) to push those final 25 miles. All in all, one goal will help me work on improving many aspects of my running… whether or not I actually achieve it!

(This latter goal is entirely dependent on my getting into Leadville. With that in mind, I do have an additional race-focused goal written down, but it’s one or the other, so I’ll keep it under my hat for the moment.)

Ps. Starting and sticking with this column was one of my secondary (or at least non-starred) goals for 2016. Mission accomplished!

Call for Comments

  • Have you found goal setting beneficial? If so, how do you go about it?
  • What goals did you accomplish (or not) in 2016?
  • What goals have you set out for 2017 and what’s your plan for achieving them?

There are 17 comments

  1. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Thanks for sharing this, Bryon. It inspired me to brainstorm a “5 things” list of 5 things I want to have, do and be this year. Running-wise, I think 2500 miles is a great goal. I had to work hard in 2016 to reach it and did just barely (2503 miles); it felt like a Goldilocks target of volume–just right. I’ll go public with two of my running goals for ’17, to hold myself accountable: finish and hopefully podium at the inaugural Mauna to Mauna Ultra stage race in May; and, set a 100M PR at JJ100 in October (which for me would be sub 21:43; I’d like to go sub 21). That’s it — that’s enough! (My non-running goals are too private and corny to share!)

  2. Jackie

    Well I for one really hope you continue with this column, it’s so insightful and nudges me towards introspection. Thanks for all the great work you, Meghan, and everyone else at IRF do. I never thought of setting a milage goal for the year. I started running 6 days a week this summer and that went pretty well. Maybe it’s time to get more specific with my goals.

  3. AJW

    I love that Bryon is writing this column. Keep it up!
    My running goals for the year:
    Hard Data Driven Ones: 3500 miles, 700,000 vertical feet, 700 hours
    Hard Results Driven Ones: Run 4 races
    Soft Generative Ones: Stay Injury Free, Run Happy, Open Self to Vulnerability

          1. Andrew

            2500, 3500 miles is a huge amount of running. My target is 1000 miles and doubt I ever would have the time of inclination to do more

            I’m intriqued by the volume as a lot of coaches in the UK suggest that you don’t need to do huge mileage for ultras but more specific training.

            Do you run the miles because you enjoy it or it is the training that is successful for you or both?

            1. AJW

              As for me, I simply enjoy running and feel better on the days that I run vs. the occasional days that I don’t. As a coach I certainly do not subscribe to the more is better methodology as each runner is different. I know many runners who have incredible results on 2000-2500 miles a year. I just like running so 2500-4000 MPY is typically what I shoot for. This year, since I have moved to a more mountainous locale, I am shooting to increase my total vertical rather than my mileage. In the end, we are all an Experiment of One.

  4. Clint

    Great goals! The dreamlining system is a good idea for figuring out running goals for the year, and other life goals. Keep up the good work, and we I will look forward to seeing you accomplish these goals. Cheers!

  5. ClownRunner

    I think your only goal should be to conduct interviews with Kilian and Luis Alberto in Spanish, your interviews with Francois D’haene in French, your interviews with Gediminas G. in Lithuanian, etc. etc. etc…. You’ve created a global franchise, and now it’s time to step up your game to an even greater level ;)

    1. Bryon Powell

      CR, humorously enough, Luis Alberto and I had joked about doing an interview with me talking entirely in Spanish and him entirely in English this year… alas, I think both of us ended up with other “off season” priorities.

  6. Andy M

    Great and thought-provoking piece, Bryon. Other great insights about goal-setting appear in Ultrarunning’s recent interview with Kaci Lickteig. “Set a primary goal to work towards, then take it day by day. Make small goals each day that you can accomplish leading up to the big goal. When you look back and see your success each day leading up to your goal event/challenge, it should give you a lot of confidence and help you perform the best you can. And never think a goal is too big or too small … Reach for the stars and make your dreams come true!”

    To me, ultrarunning is the perfect vehicle for goal-setting: excitement and anticipation long-term, a piece-meal approach to get there and, perhaps most important, intrinsic reward in each of those steps along the way. A great hill workout, or an enjoyable long-run, feel good both in the moment and as part of an overarching plan. The process is as good as the outcome! And when the big goal (e.g., target race) is accomplished, the feeling of reward leads inexorably to new goals. All of life should be like that!

    1. Andy M

      PS – I accomplished a target 100 in 2016, one that had foiled me twice previously. So for 2017 I’m more focused on the “essence” — less on a target race (e.g., no WS qualifier this year) and more on what and where will be interesting, beautiful, and inspiring.

      1. Bryon Powell

        Andy M,
        Aside from the goal of finishing Hardrock, my primary goal for my two big races in 2015, Hardrock and Ultra-Trail Gobi Race was to enjoy them for as long as I could. I managed to enjoy them from start to finish and, I think, that was a big reason why I had relatively good performances at both events. Focus on having fun, whether on a small scale (race) or large scale (most of your training), and you’ll get the most you can out of running.

    2. Jackie

      “The process is as good as the outcome”- that’s how I knew I had found the right sport for me with trail/ultrarunning. Each week is a joy, tiring and sometimes scary, but a joy.

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