Most of us tend to think of marathons in terms of miles — 26.2. But break that down into its smaller parts and that 26.2 becomes 138,336 feet, or about 29,000 strides for women and 22,400 for men, on average.
Those are some pretty overwhelming numbers. Yet every year in the United States, nearly half a million people take on and complete these long-distance races.
Those numbers become even more staggering when you consider ultraraces like the Leadville Trail 100 Run: 528,000 feet; 110,000 strides for women; 85,600 for men. The mental training required to achieve this physical feat is significant. While only about 105,000 people in North America tackle extreme races each year, those who do (including Clare Gallagher, who shares her story in “Running for a Reason.”) know that it’s about taking it one step at a time.
For each individual, it starts with a single stride, putting one foot in front of the other. Each step matters as runners make their way along the course. Each step gets them closer to their goal.
Races could make the process of setting big goals and then breaking them down into smaller parts more obvious. Yet the sheer number of all the small parts can also be overwhelming, and too often we talk ourselves out of starting in the first place. The endeavor can appear too big or the impact of each small part too small.
But the truth is that we just need to start by taking that first little step and then keep moving.
I think about this when it comes to the bigger challenges we’re facing as a society, such as the degrading health of our planet and the incredible amount of waste we create. To tackle those issues on my own can seem futile, yet I know that finding ways to repurpose what I already have and picking up even one piece of garbage instead of throwing it down do make a difference.
On a recent vacation, for instance, my family and I encountered a lot of garbage near the beach where we were staying. Rather than leaving it for someone else to deal with, we grabbed some trash bags and filled them up. My 10-year-old son even came up with the idea that the person who cleaned the biggest area would get a prize. Not only did we all get involved, but some of our fellow beach-goers joined in, too.
I’m also reminded of my mom and her practice of reusing common household items like paper towels and plastic bags. I smile every time I think about how she used to rinse out Ziploc bags and then hang them over the faucet to dry. I’d wonder, somewhat naively, how much she thought she was really saving. She lived through an era in Iran that was equivalent to the Great Depression, and her efforts were less about environmental conservation than being frugal. But it turns out that her small efforts to save money were also better for the planet.
Now imagine if all 7.7 billion of us would reuse plastic bags instead of throwing them away, like my mom did, or commit to picking up just one piece of trash every day for a month. It may not seem like much from the individual perspective, but the magnitude of the potential effect as a whole is immense.
This is how big changes come about, whether the goal is personal, professional, communal, or global. It goes back to the old saying about eating the elephant one bite at a time: Break every objective into its smallest pieces and take action with just one of them, even if it is the smallest one and seems insignificant.
When that’s done, move on to the next piece. Find support and invite people to join you. Bit by bit, one effort at a time, you’ll make forward progress and begin to see change.
It’s this kind of mentality that helps marathoners and ultrarunners commit and keep going with miles still ahead. As Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville race series, always says, “Dig deep! Never give up. Commit; don’t quit.”
No matter how daunting the next goal or challenge you’re facing may seem, know that it doesn’t all have to happen at once. Take it one day, and one step, at a time.