What Pardons Can Teach Us About Marathons
by Coach Extraordinaire, Janie Hayes
My boss is Jewish, and today she celebrates Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and during this day Jews spend 24 hours asking forgiveness from God for promises broken during the past year.
This morning, as my boss explained different parts of the holiday to me, one element struck me as particularly remarkable. During the Yom Kippur service, one of the traditional prayers absolves the congregation of any responsibility for promises they may have made the preceding year but that they were unable to keep. In fact, it requests explicitly that “these vows not be considered vows, these oaths not be considered oaths, and these promises not be considered promises.”
Just like that. Boom. An automatic pardon from the best intentions that turned out to be unattainable. What a score! was my immediate reaction. Can someone please work this – like right now – into our 21st century goal-obsessed, ambitious-at-all-costs American psychology?
And then I got thinking about goal setting: how we do it, why we do it, and how we know where to draw the line between aspiration and attainability. Of course, the guiding principles of Yom Kippur were not intended to shape the marathon-training process, but I wondered whether this idea, if applied, could help us more healthily manage promises we make to ourselves.
But another part of me was skeptical: If you know you are to be absolved in the future of liability for any past commitments, does this Yom Kippur-type pardon provide an unfair automatic “out,” or at least less of a reason to fulfill your promises or accomplish your goals?
Which is how pondering someone else’s religious holiday led me to the following ruminations on goal setting my next marathon.
First off, if you currently find yourself plugging through the marathon-training program at this point, I need not lecture you about goal setting. However you came to it, you know how to set a goal (“I’m going to run a marathon”), figure out how to get there (“Join a training program”) and take the steps you need to move towards that goal (“Show up at long runs every weekend, stick to my training schedule, eat right, stay hydrated” and a myriad of other small steps that will help get you where you’re trying to go.)
Case in point: you are reading this essay, trying to collect more information to help you along the journey to reach your goal. Either that, or you are really, really bored at work.
So congratulations. You are not a slacker.
But chances are, you knew that already. Chances are, you are the type of person who sets goals on a regular basis and achieves them. Most marathon runners tend to be that oft-admired, but slightly annoying, type of person who other less-admired, even more annoying, types of people disdainfully call “go-getters.” You probably have spent much of your life going after goals – and you probably have been reasonably successful at achieving many of them.
You know how to make a plan and stick to it. What you may have more trouble discerning is what really drives you.
Discovering the answer to this complex question of “Why?” will actually allow you to get much more out of the marathon experience than simply logging a date on a calendar and running like hell until it arrives.
Get clear with yourself on these questions: Why have you decided to run a marathon, or run it in a certain amount of time? Why now? What drove you to set this goal? What are you going to get out of this accomplishment? What happens if you can’t achieve your goal? How much are you willing to sacrifice to attain it?
Understanding your own motivation is a crucial step in successfully managing any goal, from running a marathon to finding a new job. Knowing exactly why you are doing what you are doing allows you monitor your progress along the way and makes the end result that much sweeter.
Understanding what inspires you also allows you to monitor change within yourself, and to see that one of the benefits of setting goals is the related opportunities that crop up along the way and allow you to challenge yourself further. Maybe you started training for a marathon primarily to drop a few pounds, but now see a certain time goal for yourself that looks within reach. Maybe you started the program with the singular goal of hitting certain race splits but now realize that this program is also an opportunity for you to make new friends.
Most times in life, the beauty of setting a goal is not merely, or even mainly, in the end result; it is in watching your life expand in ways you didn’t imagine as you reach towards that goal.
Knowing why you are heading in a certain direction also helps you cope more
successfully with failure. It is a sad reality of marathon ambition that some of you will get hurt, or sick, or be unable to complete this marathon for one reason or another.
Maybe you will train your butt off and simply not make your splits. Or your dog will come down with the measles and you’ll have to nurse it back to health all night every night the week of the marathon. Or your grandmother will win the local quilting bee and insist that her last wish in life is to have you there for the award ceremony on marathon morning. Or, come race day, you just won’t be “on” like you were supposed to be.
But life is like that. It isn’t fair, and it doesn’t always jive with our expectations. Marathon running, too, is full of a horde of variables we don’t always like to admit exist. Goal setting is a delicate dance between pushing ourselves to our limits and realizing where those limits lie. Especially when it comes to running 26 miles.
But being able to appreciate, on a day-to-day basis, what you are getting out of the program will help you cope more evenhandedly with the end result, whatever its outcome may be.
Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, back to Yom Kippur. The great thing about this Yom Kippur pardoning business, it seems to me, is that it forces us out of the idea that setting goals is simply about achieving them. It taxes us to figure out why it is that we want to reach that goal in the first place – and then do everything we can to get there in spite of the fact that we will not be held liable if we do not achieve all we set out to do.
Knowing that it is okay if we do not accomplish our every ambition allows us to drive ourselves forward motivated by something other than fear – of failure, or guilt, or of just not getting where we set out to go.
So test yourself. See why you made your marathon goal in the first place, and why you are still plugging along at it. Don’t operate out of the fear of failure, but out of the expectation of success. Because in the end, you will be absolved. And the best thing is this: That no matter what, you will know more, you will be stronger, and you will be looking ahead, not behind, to whatever your next goal may be.