When you live with and are married to your coach a good number of conversations tend to be about training. Fortunately we both love endurance sports so it usually results in some good convo and almost always with me learning something or looking at something in a different way than before. Recently, the conversation has been revolving around two common beliefs: 1) That unless you occasionally fail, you aren’t setting your goals high enough, and 2) Unless you are suffering, you aren’t tackling a hard enough challenge. Well Carrie had some great thoughts on the subject and I wanted to translate them through my own words. Unfortunately, every time I tried to write the post I came off sounding like an egomaniac or an asshole. Luckily, Carrie is much better with words than I am and was willing to write it out for us. So, without further ado….

IMG_0357“It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself, but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.” — Arnold Toynbee

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I withhold information. If someone asks me what the goal is for my next race (which was recently my first Ironman), I usually say, “O, well you know. I’ve never done something like this before so really I’d be happy with finishing.”

Now I am all for getting across that finish line. Sometimes THE goal is to cross the finish line. But what happens when a little piece of you knows that you can actually reach a little bit further.

“I’d be happy with finishing.” is only half my answer. Inside a voice is screaming “and I want to break 12 hours” or “and I want to be top 10 in my age group” or “and I don’t want to be last.”

So why hold back? Why the secret goal? Because I know that if I said the other half of my answer out loud, then the person I just told would now hold me to what I said. And that’s scary, because now I’m accountable.

Whether you have a secret goal or you shout it from the rooftops, you have to have a plan. Let’s say your goal is to finish your first ultra marathon, and sure enough you have that other secret goal of “x”. Awesome, let’s define what “x” is. Let’s solve for x, the unknown variable.

Solving for x means you have to define what is realistic. Part of the “SMART” goal-setting process is the idea that a goal needs to be realistic. Overreach and you run the risk of disappointing yourself. You may not even want to try again. Sell yourself short and you might feel unfulfilled and like you wasted your time.

How do you determine what is realistic? As an athlete, you should have a pretty good understanding of what is possible for a particular race. If you’ve never thought about realistic goals, take some time and lay it out.

First, others’ experiences cannot be the gauge for your personal expectations. Just because a guy you know finished his first 50k while setting a course record doesn’t mean everyone will break records on their first try. It’d sure be nice! Trail and Ultra marathon running is an individual sport, so keep this in mind and set your goals as an individual as well.

Second, get a coach and use outside resources to help you define what is realistic. Bounce around some ideas, look at your athletic history, decide how much time you have available to train, and study the race course itself.

Third, set mini goals to use as clues for your big goal. Enter in shorter races and get a feel for your average pace. Your performance with the mini goals will help you define and refine what is realistic.

After setting your goal, you train, race, and by golly, you achieve what you set out to do. Does this mean your goal was actually kind of wimpy? Did you wind up selling yourself short? Heck no! Realizing a goal is the result of careful planning and realistic expectations.

Eventually, you might find that you missed your mark. You didn’t finish a race. Or it took way longer than you planned. So what? Learn from the experience. What could you have done differently? Did you plan enough? Did you train enough? Did something surprise you? Add all of these variables to your athletic repertoire, and move forward with planning your next goal. And see what happens when you make your secret goals public knowledge. Solve for x.

So there you have it, I couldn’t have said it better myself (obviously)! Make your secret goals public, have a plan to achieve them, and find success. 

See you on the trails!

Carrie Jesse, MS is an endurance coach and personal trainer in San Diego, CA. She splits her time between the ocean, the trails, and the occasional burpee. Check out Carrie Jesse Coaching and read more about living a life full of adventure, balance, and creativity on her blog, The Honu Life.