As a child, I dreamed of running in the Olympics. I imagined wearing the red, white, and blue while racing in a packed stadium. That vision motivated me to set goals—incremental objectives that would bring me closer to my dreams. My goals motivated and guided the actions I took and fueled the emotional tank I reserved for chasing dreams.
What do you dare dream? As you imagine your dreams coming true, how do your goals motivate and guide what you do today, tomorrow, and beyond?
As Cathy Utzschneider says in her book, Mastering Running, “Setting a goal changes us. The word ‘goal’ itself stirs up mixed feelings: excitement, fear, and questions, ‘Will you meet it? Do you really want it?’”
With this perspective and my own experience as a coach and athlete, I see that both outcome- and process-oriented goals provide value for runners, no matter where they are in their career. Outcome goals hinge on specific results (say, setting a 5k PR). Process goals involve the practice (say, committing to training consistently). By breaking our big dreams into little tasks, we focus on one manageable action at a time.
Outcome and process goals both help mark a path towards the destination of our dreams. When clearly defined as stepping stones, goals of all types help ground us in the moment, celebrate growth, and invest in the hard, rewarding work of training and racing. Most importantly, goals ask us to be mindful of the step we are taking right now.
In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to practice using goal-setting in different ways, and lead others who’re doing the same. Here are three lessons I’ve learned about unleashing your inner champion with goal-setting:
1. Take It One Step Further
When I was 8 years old, I announced to my family that I would run to what we called “the house behind the rock.” I didn’t know it at the time, but this goal was both a process-oriented and outcome-oriented one. It was a challenging adventure that stirred exciting nerves within me. I arrived at my destination in two minutes! The sense of satisfaction was awesome. I smiled, grabbed a stick, and drew a deep line in the dirt on the side of the road. I declared, “I’ll go one step further, next time.”
At that moment I adopted the mantra, “Every step I take is a step closer to my goal.” The goal became running far enough to connect two canyons via a steep dirt road, for a total of five miles. Thirty-eight years later, this route, which I call the Poorman Road run, is still my personal barometer. Each time I run it, the hope and joyful anticipation of chasing a dream are re-ignited.
2. Find Another Route
No path toward a goal is free of potholes or roadblocks. When we encounter obstacles, we are called to stop, step back, and gain some perspective—figuratively and literally! Often these obstacles require us to go off-road and chart a new path out of necessity. As we are challenged by the uncertainty of a global pandemic and countless canceled plans, this is more true today than ever.
To maintain motivation when our path is altered, practice patience. Stopping and stepping back gives us a better view of both our long-term goals and the passion that running dreams stir in us.
In college, I faced a big detour. When I went to the University of Oregon, I was expected to make a seamless transition from high school and continue running at the top. That didn’t happen. With injuries and the grief of losing my mother that summer, I plummeted to the back of the pack. After a tough freshman year, I took the advice my mother had given me; I took a year off. I needed a break and it afforded me perspective. It inspired me to take the long road back to the top, one step at a time.
It took me five years to run faster in college than I had in high school, but I did it—while winning the NCAA indoor track 3,000-meter championship title in my senior year.
3. Practice Perseverance
At 38, pushing master’s age, I began dreaming of making the World Mountain Running Team. I had never trained to be competitive at the international level in this steep, challenging race scene. I asked the U.S. World Mountain Running Team leader, Nancy Hobbs, for training advice. “Run uphill, whenever you can and at least once during every run,” she said.
En route to reaching my dream, my process goals became clear: run up. And up and up! This was a fun challenge and a practice ingrained in me from childhood. As I tackled the training, I defined my outcome goal: finish in the top four at the U.S. Championships to make the team bound for Worlds in Italy.
I noticed that my running life was coming full circle. A pattern of goal-setting had afforded me a strong foundation from which I could push off time and again. I finished second at the U.S. qualifying race, and scored for the U.S. team that took gold.
Goals continue to give me clarity in times of doubt and a sense of purpose each day. They adjust the compass in my heart, so I can focus on authentic passion. This is what is so powerful about goals. They align us with what’s necessary to reach our dreams.