When Goals Become Toxic – Let It Go

I was browsing writing prompts for various fitness groups that I am a part of and one topic that really caught my eye was “Let It Go.” (Yes, the song from Frozen hadn’t stopped playing in my head either.)

Immediately, the first thing that came to mind was my ongoing quest to qualify and actually RUN in the Boston Marathon. Runners are generally obsessed with the Boston Marathon and talk of qualifying (running a “BQ”) is often a focus of conversation. Running the Boston Marathon had been my unicorn since I was a near-miss in 2012 by 23 seconds (which is fitting since a unicorn is actually the Boston Athletic Association symbol). It had been a point of ongoing frustration for me for about 7 years.

I wasn’t always fixated on running Boston. When I trained for my first marathon in 2011, I specifically recall a conversation with a running partner where we decided there was no way in heck that we would ever be able to run the qualifying standard (which, incidentally, was 10 minutes and 59 seconds slower than it is now). Boston seemed like a pipe dream – something for “elite” runners – not for people like me. I trained and ran my marathon (finishing not even close to a qualifying time) and life moved on.

The next spring, I started having small inclinations that running Boston may not just be a pipe dream after all. I started training more seriously and I was slowly starting to see my speed coming back (it had been nearly a decade since I did any sort of speed work). I ran a few races and posted times that showed that qualifying for the Boston Marathon may be a realistic goal. I spent the remainder of that summer training with the potential of a BQ looming over me. Things went good for a while, however, in late August I suffered from some pretty bad IT band issues. By late September I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to run the marathon at all. While I was able to hold myself together until race day, I went into the actual race with no expectations and purposely started myself off at a very conservative pace. By the time I hit mile 13 I realized that somehow the injury that had plagued me every single training run for the last two months had miraculously vanished and I decided to pick up the pace. Having no idea what my time was (my Garmin went haywire early on) I just ran. I finished in 3:35:23 – which was just 23 seconds shy of a BQ. Good – but not good enough.

After missing qualifying for Boston by just 23 seconds I became obsessed. Knowing that I had the potential to do it – every ounce of energy went into training over the winter so that I could attempt to run a qualifying time again in the spring. After a cold winter (my last long run the week before the race was in long sleeves, pants, hat and gloves) race day ended up being in the upper 80s/low 90s and extremely high humidity. Needless to say, my body was not acclimated. I decided to give it a go anyways and ended up losing pace at mile 18 (ultimately suffering heat exhaustion and ended the race in the back of an ambulance). A far cry from the BQ I had been dreaming of.

I continued training during the summer of 2013 and by fall of 2013 I felt ready to try again. I knew that I was in the shape to run substantially faster than the BQ cut off (which had dropped to 3:35:00) and struggled with deciding whether to play it safe and run a time I knew I could run or to go all out and to try to run to my potential. I ended up choosing the slightly more aggressive route and *finally* my training paid off. I ran a 3:24:02 – which was nearly 11 minutes lower than the time I needed to qualify. I couldn’t have been more excited. The only downside was that because my qualifying time came so late in the year, I had actually qualified for Boston 2015 rather than Boston 2014 (so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to run until nearly a year and a half later). During the winter of 2013 and spring of 2014 I continued training, hired a coach (I felt this was a necessary step to take my running to the next level), and set my sights on a  3:15 marathon. I became more confident by the day and it seemed like all of the hard work was finally starting to pay off.

Of course, life doesn’t always go as planned. In early 2014 I started having issues with my right leg (which I won’t go into too much detail over here – you can read my FAI posts for more details on my injury diagnosis and recovery). The bottom line was that I ended up having surgery on my right hip and was taken out of commission for nearly all of 2014 and I continued to suffer from residual injury issues for most of 2015. Training with any goal other than simply finishing was out of the question. There were many days where I felt like I had lost my identity as a runner – asking myself “where do I belong?” I wasn’t the athlete I was previously and I had no idea what the future had in store.

By late 2015 and early 2016 I finally started to feel healthy enough to pick up with serious training again and I started training for a spring marathon. However, in March 2016 I found out that I was pregnant so training again took a (much welcome) backseat to real life.

Then in 2017 I finally put Boston back on my radar. I ended up taking more time off than most women typically do post baby (thank you pelvic floor issues) but by early February I was starting to rebuild with walk/run intervals. By May I had rebuilt my mileage back up and ran a half marathon that while far from my PR, was indicative that maybe a BQ would be possible that year. Initially I was looking at a fall race, but then the crazy thought crossed my mind to just go for it then with the intention of just going for the BQ (not a PR and not testing my fitness). I found a race in June and with 5 weeks of training managed to pull a 3:31:48 (3:12 under my qualifying time).

But again- life happened. Registration that fall was the most competitive it had been to date, and the buffer needed under the BQ standard was more than a minute faster than it had been the year prior. I got “squeeked out” of registering by 11 seconds. I was absolutely devastated. How many YEARS could this go on for — of being “good enough” but still not good enough?

I became bitter for a while and decided it was time to take Boston off the radar. While I know it is the most celebrated and “prestigious” marathon in the U.S., quite frankly, I was over the obsession. I ended up having some major thyroid issues and missed the remainder of the 2017 racing season.

By 2018 – something changed. I realized that while I still “cared” (because let’s be honest, I do) I truly didn’t care in the same way that I used to. Throughout my training cycle, Boston wasn’t even on my radar. I wanted to run a PR. I wanted to test my potential. That wasn’t something I felt that I could do if I let qualifying for Boston drive my goal setting. So I let it go. Interestingly, a few weeks prior to my marathon the qualifying standard was dropped by 5 minutes and the new standard for my age group became a 3:30:00. At New York, I ran a 3:19:52 – over 15 minutes under the old standard and over 10 minutes under the new standard. And do you know what? It didn’t even dawn on my until hours after the race that I had qualified. This was when I knew that I had finally, truly, moved on.

The point of all this? While I believe that goals are important and necessary – there is a point where they can become a full blown and obsession and counter productive to ever finding one’s potential as an athlete. For a long time, I was so fixated on qualifying for Boston that it came at the expense of a lot of other things in my life. It was something that I let quantify my value as a runner. The problem is that there are no guarantees. There were times where I neglected friends and family and sacrificed things that I shouldn’t have all in search of the elusive BQ. People used to ask me if I was going to wait to start a family or change jobs or make other major life decisions based upon running the Boston Marathon. There was a time where I probably would have answered “yes” to that question (clearly something I changed my mind about 😉 ), but I quickly realized that my life should not revolve around running Boston. No matter how much you plan – there are never guarantees. While I love running – I recognize that there needs to be balance.

So here I am. It has been 7 1/2 years since I have proven my fitness was sufficient and yet, I still haven’t run Boston. If I’m completely honest, I still do have a slight chip on my shoulder – but it’s now about “principle” rather than actually worrying about proving myself. I have finally let it go.

This change in mindset has also substantially shifted the way that I train (both myself and the athletes I coach). While it is good to have quantifiable goals – I am far more concerned with focusing on potential (whatever that may be on a given day) rather than arbitrary, external measures. I have no more “value” now than I did before I ran a BQ. A runner who posts a 1:59:45 half marathon is no better of an athlete who posts a 2:00:10. While our goals are important and can be positive, it is important to recognize whether you are controlling the goal, or whether the goal is controlling you. If it’s the latter – it may be time to reframe your training.