Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 5 Sep 2000 08:38:05 -0400

Aiming to Please

(from RC 320)

Goals have never been good to me. At least not the types of goal-setting that athletes are asked to do: aim for the stars; your reach must exceed your grasp; if you don't dream it, you can't do it.

I caved in to the pressure of such goals from the start. Two starts, in fact.

Race one: In my first high school mile I aimed to beat the big boys. The only one beaten up by a too-fast start and quitting the race after little more than a lap was me.

Race two: In my first college race I set as a goal breaking 4:20 in the mile, though I'd never gone that fast and this event followed a season of slow training. The time fell short by a dozen seconds and left me despondent.

My best times have nearly always come as surprises, not as a result of hitting lofty targets. "Goals are stopping places," I once wrote. You either reach them and stop because you're satisfied, or you don't reach them and stop out of frustration.

By setting high goals, you set yourself up for high pressure and a high probability of failure. Low goals lead to low pressure and surprising results.

My goals are never lower than on normal daily runs. The aim there is to run 10 minutes, or about a mile, and then decide what more to do -- if anything.

This minimum standard gets me out the door without having to face an imposing assignment for the day. Once moving, I almost always go well past the minimum.

"At-least" goals act as floors, not ceilings. They give you a solid platform to spring from rather than an elusive target to bat at.

Instead of reaching for the highest point you might touch, you see how far you can exceed a minimum standard. Instead of straining to make things happen, you relax and let them happen.


HERE'S ANOTHER tale of two races. The earlier ones were both miles. These are both marathons.

They seem to have little in common except their distance. They were my first and latest marathons, spaced 33 years apart, one on the East Coast and the other one the West, my fastest and next-to-slowest.

Race one: Boston 1967 was my marathon debut, and the longest training run had been 20 miles at eight-minute pace. Holding that same pace for the extra 10-K seemed a reasonable goal.

I started as planned but steadily nudged up the pace. To my shocked delight I averaged 6:30 miles in that marathon. The new goal became that pace or better, which I never averaged again.

Race two: This spring my aims were barely perceptible. I'd entered but almost didn't start the Napa Valley Marathon after a minor injury had limited training. The excitement of raceday drew me to the start line, though even then the plan was to go anywhere from a few miles to at most half a marathon before hailing a sag-wagon.

The early testing period passed while giving no compelling reason to stop. The half-marathon came and went with a promise to a companion, Marathon & Beyond publisher Jan Seeley, to go 16 miles with her.

She stopped as planned. I said I'd like to run "a couple more" -- which led to even more, until I'd sauntered across the finish line.

I'm not quite ready to tell you, "Aim low," which sounds like a pathway to mediocrity. What I do suggest is taking a look at goals from another direction. Instead of thinking as them as the most you might achieve, consider them as the least you're willing to accept.

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