Fortunately, life really is all about the journey. Now that I’ve had the experience of spending 6 months training for a marathon only to get injured 3 days before the race, I am finally able to grok this. While running a marathon had been one of my life-long goals, I earned something more valuable from the half-year of consistent training than I could possibly have gotten from demonstrating my progress in a 1-day event. Popular culture does a great job of emphasizing the impact of singular, heroic events. From an observer’s perspective, I don’t disagree. It’s exciting to watch Rocky Balboa, beaten close to death, find the inner courage to overcome a daunting opponent. That’s truly inspiring! But Rocky’s real battle was fought during his months of training prior to the event, a struggle that we only get to observe in the form of a joyfully-soundtracked montage.
For my birthday in March, I got a new pair of running shoes (thanks, Mom and Dad). I haven’t had a decent pair of running shoes…ever. I ran a half-marathon in 2011 with a pair of old, thin-soled crosstrainers that I convinced myself would qualify as “minimalist” shoes. In reality, they provided neither cushioning nor a consistent footbed, likely leading to the pains I felt after running back in 2011. So, after a year-long hiatus, I set a goal: run a marathon in 2013. I was by no means starting from couch-potato status (I play in an Ultimate Frisbee league and do some recreational road cycling / mountain biking with friends), but running was a unique challenge for me. I saw the value in the end goal, but the training process seemed…boring. My friends at Johns Run/Walk Shop had slipped me a 9-week training plan to go from scratch to 5k-ready, so I started with this smaller goal. It incorporated a very important step for me: walking. In my previous attempts to become a consistent runner, I always began my workouts with static stretches (apparently, that’s now considered a bad idea) and immediately after that I began to run. Walking always seemed like the 2nd-class motor skill for “those who cannot run.” Yet, placing my trust in a well-loved local running shop, I swallowed my pride and began my first few runs with the prescribed 5-minute walk. And it was incredible.
While walking got me started, it was a spreadsheet that kept me going. I learned a bit about reward loops from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. In this book, Duhigg discusses the challenge of turning Febreze from a novel chemical composition into a $1B+ brand for Proctor & Gamble. Initially, the product was targeted as a cleaning aid: when your stuff smells, use Febreze to fix it. Unfortunately, people whose stuff smelled didn’t actually notice that their stuff smelled, and sales were much slower than expected. However, many people have home cleaning routines: pick up stuff, make beds, dust, vacuum. P&G found out that if they inserted Febreze at the end of that routine as a celebration of a house-well-cleaned (not in the middle as a cleaning step), then people would buy and use Febreze more. While I probably smelled somewhat ripe after my morning runs, the reward that helped secure my habit was tracking a simple number that I invented: Workout Efficiency. When I run (or bike), I wear a Garmin GPS watch with heart rate monitor. This helps me to easily track two key stats: average speed and average heart rate. I then use these as the output and input values for my calculation of Workout Efficiency. As I progressed in my training, this efficiency number would consistently increase. If I took a week off, didn’t sleep enough, didn’t eat well, when it was particularly hot outside (or when I was injured), it would drop. The motivation of wanting to go to my spreadsheet to calculate this number after every run was a surprisingly large part of what kept me going. It turned out that seeing my efficiency number increase wasn’t even the most important part. It was just getting to enter the stats from a new run into the sheet. Creating this small reward was a key motivating factor in the success of my training.
It’s quite possible that I will never run a marathon, but setting that race as a goal engaged me in a worthwhile journey. I learned three lessons that will carry over to future journeys on which I embark: set a meaningful goal, start small, and keep track of your progress. If I had not chosen the significant challenge of running a marathon, I would have lacked the motivation to keep running when the training got boring or my life got busy. My mission kept me focused. Walking, as awkward as it felt, was the small step that helped me form and maintain my habit of running. And without the feedback loop (and reward mechanism) of tracking my pace and heart rate, I would have had no idea if I was getting closer to my goal or not. And these lessons are why I don’t feel bad about not running a marathon.