In 2003, I ran my first and only marathon. During that race, I discovered an important lesson about those biggest of goals, those big fat hairy goals that look scary because they are so big.
In the January of that year, I decided to tackle the Chicago Marathon. I know going in, that it would take 9 hard months of training. Nine months of slowly increasing my mileage and endurance to finish the race. I had a training schedule that I kept to religiously. Each week I would up my distances by 10%. By mid-September, I was running an average of 40 miles a week with at least one 20 mile run. Things looked good. As the October race day rolled around, I was ready.
The Chicago Marathon is no small affair. 40,000 people annually run the race. The course runs around downtown Chicago and past many of its landmarks. Along the course, thousands of spectators cheer us on. In some places, bands play. At regular intervals, water tables help replenish sweaty, thirsty runners. A bar along the route offered free beers to runners as they strode past.
With 40,000 runners, the mass of teeming bodies lined up at the starting line based on expected running pace. My goal was just to finish, not to set any time records, so I lined up three-quarters of the way back among the slower runners. At 7:30 AM, the first wave of top professional runners started. 30 minutes later, the mass of amateur runners joined in. I started jogging with a friend who was racing the marathon too.
The first 10 miles or so were a breeze. I sailed along at a nice clip and enjoyed the fresh cool air. The excitement of the crowds and competitors was invigorating.
After 15 miles, I noticed a small pain in the arch of my foot that slowed me down. But I kept cruising. By mile 18 that pain in my foot had grown. Grown so much that I had to stop and walk. With each step pained seared through my foot. I tried stretching, but to no help. Even when I walked, the pain remained. I began to doubt that I could finish the race.
I told myself that the pain was there whether I ran or walked, so I might as well run so I would be done sooner. I started a slow pain-filled jog, wincing with each step. For more than an hour, I pushed through the pain – half jogging, half walking. I had to finish this race. I had trained too long and too hard to give up now.
I saw the sign for Mile post 22. Then mile post 23. The pain kept flashing up my leg.
Mile 24… mile 25. I was almost there. Just one more mile.
MILE 26! I saw the sign. I rejoiced. I made it. I’ve finished.
And then I realized something. The race wasn’t done. A marathon is not 26 miles. It is 26.2 miles. That last 2 tenths of a mile is the longest 2 tenths of a mile in existence. I felt crushed. I just wanted to end. I just wanted to sit down and rest. I wanted the pain to go away. And now I had .2 miles to run.
I had to look deep within to find the strength, but find it I did. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t waddle across that finish line. With a final marshaling of perseverance, I ran that last .2 miles. As I crossed the finished line, I fell to the ground exhausted, as much from the mental fatigue as from physical. With some well placed ice, ample drugs, and some support from my girlfriend, I limped back to my car and drove home.
That marathon helped me to learn the value of perseverance. I learned that big fat hairy goals sometimes trick you into thinking the finish line is earlier than you think. If you celebrate too soon, you might miss the actual finish or at least demotivate you from making it. Often big fat hairy goals will be a breeze in the beginning but gets progressively more difficult, painful, and time-consuming. Progress might even slow so much you want to give up. But giving up won’t help you reach the goal. Giving up, while giving you short-term gratification, doesn’t give you the tools to handle the big things in life.
So take on big fat hairy goals. Yes, they are scary. Yes, they can make life painful for a while. Yes, you’ll be motivated to quit. But the end is worth it.