Eyes on the Prize – But What’s the Prize?

A recent posting on the Seeds4Life blog has me thinking.

When You Have One Eye on the Goal, You Have Only One Eye on the Path – Zen Master

Here a student asks the Zen master how long it will take him to achieve enlightenment. The master’s response basically tells the student not to worry about getting there, but to focus on the path.

Zen cat

My first reaction on reading this was something like: Yes, that’s very Zen and all, but it doesn’t make sense for everything. Like running, for example. Goals are what get runners off the couch and out the door, right? We all set goals for ourselves, whether it’s a 5K, a marathon, a trail ultra, or just being able to run a few miles in the fresh air.

Then I remembered my 100K attempts at Run Woodstock, and how I’d set myself up for failure in 2014 by thinking about how much distance I had left rather than where I was and how far I’d come. This year had been different, as I’d reminded myself to focus only on the trail directly ahead of me. By keeping my mind on where I was at the moment and letting the milestones unfold, I kept myself on a mental even keel and finished the race.

Perhaps this is one reason why I prefer trail runs for long distance running. In a road race, you don’t need to look down at the road, and the mile markers are clearly visible. With less mental energy needed, there’s more to worry about how much there is left to go, and how tired you already are.

By contrast, in trail running there is a literal reason for keeping both eyes on the path. You need one eye to watch where your feet land, as there are stones, roots, slippery spots, and sudden elevation changes to deal with. You also need to keep an eye out for the trail markings. Let your mind wander too much and you’ll wind up on your face in the dirt, or off in God-knows-where-land trying to get back on course. (Ask me how I know.)

DWD Devils Lake - Heading Down

Not a good time to put a foot wrong. (Dances with Dirt Devil’s Lake 50K, 2014.)

So how should goals fit into my running? As an important part of my training. But once out there running it, there’s no value in thinking about the finish line except as part of following my race plan. I’m running this pace because I’d planned to run this pace on loops two and three. I’m picking up the pace because I’m on safe, flat gravel road instead of tricky singletrack. I’m easing back because I’m ahead of schedule and don’t want to burn out.

When I took a Running 101 class five years ago, we were all asked to write down a goal for after the class was over, and how we’d reward ourselves for achieving it. The idea was to give us a reason to continue running regularly, and not stop when the class ended. I chose “run a half marathon” and promised myself a new pair of running shoes when I did.

That goal drove my training for five months, until I ran, and finished, the half marathon. Would I have continued running without that goal? Most likely, but I doubt I’d have improved as much without that 13.1 to work toward.

And it was finishing that race that convinced me I was capable of a full marathon, if I set that as my next goal and continued to train. And so on from there. And having completed the 100K, I’ve set a goal of running my first-ever 100-mile ultra next year. You heard it here first! (Actually, my wife and my running coach heard it first, but you’re next.)

You know, a road 13.1 sounds pretty good right about now.

You know, a road 13.1 sounds pretty good right about now.

Now, how about this? If I can agree that the journey is at least as important, if not more important, than the destination, what happens when the journey becomes unpleasant but I still have the goal? My thoughts on that coming up.

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