Thinking about the ‘big picture’ takes work

My coach and I have recently been doing a lot of talking about long-term running goals. Broadly, my working goal for my future running is to compete in the 2016 Olympic Trials marathon and distance track events. Wait a second: it’s July of 2013, and I’m thinking about races that are at least three years in the future? You bet. I’m talking about ‘big picture’ running thinking: training on the scale of which daily runs, monthly races, and even season peaks blur together into one groundswell of fitness.

This weekend, my sister and I were running up the infamous (at least to us New Mexicans!) La Luz trail – which gains nearly 5,000 feet over 7 miles – when, mid-run, our conversation moved to our long-term running (and life) goals.  As we puffed and panted, scrambling over the rain-slicked granite scree slopes, the analogy of climbing a mountain seemed appropriate for my long-term training goals.  Today, I am in the metaphorical foothills of the mountains that are professional running.

Does this really need a caption?
Professional baby-jogger-pusher.

Behind me lie the flatlands of professional baby-jogger-pushers. For me, the path forward, which has been largely masked in fog over the past year, is coming into focus: I see steep hilly sections, others that wind gently downhill; there are peaks, canyons and saddles to traverse, and there are areas where the path is cloaked in shadowy forests, obscured from my sight.

The path forward.
The path forward.

The summit of this mountain range lies in races three years in the future.  To throw down some numbers, that is over 1,000 days in the future.  At an average of 70 miles per week, every week of the year(s), that equates to nearly 11,000 miles run, or, at an average of 7 minutes per mile, nearly 1,300 hours spent running (not to mention strength and cross-training!), and approximately 28 pair of training shoes to work through between today and my running goals.

Big goals are big decisions with big questions.  How do I justify to my brain, body and, most importantly, to my husband and daughter, that my investing that much time, energy and other resources will be worth our while? Where do I find the patience and determination to work, day in and day out, toward a goal that is sometimes so remote as to be invisible?  These are serious questions, and every runner faces them to some degree, whether their goal is to improve a half marathon PR, lose 20 pounds, run injury free or be able to run two miles without stopping.  Over the many years of running, I have come up with a personal method to tackle these ‘big question’ activities by asking myself the following:

  1. What is my activity?
  2. Is this activity enjoyable and sustainable? Do I derive happiness/fulfillment from it? What is the return on this activity?
  3. What is my level of commitment? Can I define goals for this activity? Are these goals realistic? (Face it: I will never make the Olympic gymnastics team!)
  4. Does this activity contribute positively or detrimentally to:
    1. My health?
    2. My “regular” life (marriage, family, study/employment, etc.)?
    3. Other pre-existing commitments or limitations?
    4. Can I realistically balance this activity –at the level of commitment I envision– with the rest of my life commitments?
    5. Do I have the support of my spouse/partner/etc. in this activity?
It's a long climb to fitness, but we're on the way up!
It’s a long climb to fitness, but we’re on the way up!

Having answered, or at least put down some thoughts about how I answer each of these questions in respect to my ‘big’ running goals, I now feel more free to move forward with my three-year running plan.  Defining and being able to communicate my big picture goals clearly, I feel more confident in completing smaller, seasonal, monthly and even daily training goals.  I am able to easily structure my daily schedule and modulate my mental and emotional strength to promote these running goals.  Most of all, as I think about the level of commitment required to be competitive, I am reminded that even for me (who loves running beyond most things!), distance running is a long grind (how many miles???) and, I am filled with glowing gratitude and appreciation of the dedication of my supporters (my coach, husband, family, running partners…), who will weather the ups and downs of the next years of my running and competition!

How do you approach ‘big’ training goals? What are your tips for making a giant goal manageable?  How do you justify the time, energy and mental commitment to running (or any large endeavor)?

More about staying positive with long-term goals next time!

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