I can still feel the jolt of electric energy that rocketed through my body the second I crossed the finish line at the 2014 Green Bay Marathon.
I immediately vomited, spewing Gatorade as my body attempted to alleviate the side stitch that had plagued my final four miles. But none of that pain mattered. My throw up-covered shoes couldn’t do anything to sour my mood. I had a face-wide grin that wouldn’t disappear for days.
Why was I flooded with joy, even with my body wrenching in pain? It’s because I had reached what was, at the time, my ultimate goal. One that, a year before, seemed forever away. I had qualified for the Boston Marathon. By eight seconds. My 3:04:52 was barely below my age group standard of 3:05). I still didn’t get into Boston, but more on that in a second.
I started the Green Bay Marathon that year with high expectations shaded with a lot of doubt. I had tried to BQ nine months before in Washington State, a race that resulted in a gigantic flop. I overheated, developed a migraine from pushing too far past my body’s limit, and almost dropped out. I ended with a PR by just a few seconds and was still 40 minutes away from my Boston goal. My goal to qualify for Boston after a single marathon buildup had been nothing but a fantastical daydream. Reality slapped me in the face. Hard.
So I regrouped. For my next race, I set a more attainable goal. After three months of training, I cut 11 minutes off my time with a 3:33 at the First Light Marathon in Mobile, Ala., in January of 2014. Then, a month later, I ran 3:25 at the New Orleans Rock-n-Roll Marathon. In April I had my biggest breakthrough with a 3:15 at the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon in Louisville.
Then came Green Bay.
While those other PR races were exhilarating, I knew they were just pit stops on the way to my bigger goal. Hitting that first BQ taught me much more than fighting through pain at the end of the race. I learned the importance of primary and secondary goals.
I have never had a problem dreaming impossibly big. As a teenage, I was convinced I had the basketball skill required to play in the NBA. Why pay attention to my parents’ advice to contemplate other possible career options. As a college student and young writer, I was confident I had a long career ahead. I would probably make a quick leap to covering the nation’s top stories for Sports Illustrated. I don’t think I need to explain the end results of those gigantic aspirations in detail.
For the past few years, I’ve expected many of my running goals — small ones like hitting my 5K PR after focusing on nothing but endurance for months or large like running across America coast to coast — to fall one by one like a row of dominoes snaking across the floor.
But I should have taken a hint from my first Boston qualifying struggle. Running, like life, isn’t automatic.
Once I qualified for Boston that first time, I thought donning a blue and yellow jacket was going to become a yearly habit. Instead, I missed the cutoff for 2015. I got over that failure quickly. I would surely lower my PR immediately and secure my spot for 2016, right?
I struggled an entire year trying again to lower my marathon PR significantly with one big swing, whiffing in a theatrical style like Casey at the Bat. I aimed too high and ended up shaving a paltry one minute and 27 seconds from my PR to lower it to 3:03:25. Aiming so high for every race wasn’t working.
So I refocused my goals. I stopped thinking about how I would run a perfect, effortless race. No more daydreams of shattering my PR.
Instead, I concentrated on the next small step. I worked to gain the fitness I needed to be three minutes faster, shooting for a sub-three-hour marathon that would surely secure my spot in the 2017 Boston Marathon.
That patient approach worked. I ran Charleston this January in 2:59:03 and then Phoenix in February in 2:57:58, times that will give me a place on the starting line in Hopkinton next April. Each of those races felt as good, if not much more satisfying, as Green Bay did two years ago.
So as I set up my future running and life goals, I’m going to try a new approach. I’m going in expecting setbacks, struggles and pain. I no longer write down specific race time goals in Sharpie. I know it might be a slow process getting faster, like a river cutting through limestone to make a new canyon. But the result will be worth my sweat.
I will never stop dreaming. Some of the goals bouncing around in my head are so outrageous I’m embarrassed to say them out loud or even type them.
But I’m focusing more on my next step. Not some hulking leap to the top of a mountain from its base. Simply my next step. Right now that means working for the Portland Marathon in October and Indianapolis Monumental in November, with several half marathons and a few 5Ks to help sharpen up on the way.
To anyone out there who thinks you will never reach your goals, because they are too far away: let go of that fear. It might not come easy, but there is so much possibility. You (and I) can work to get closer to our targets.
To those who expect easy miracles, as I have for much of my life: sober up. Reaching the top will take much more than you are prepared to give.
Setting and reaching your goals is an art. You shouldn’t set your daily gaze too high, and staring straight down at every shuffling step is equally paralyzing.
Instead, find the middle ground.