I have often given people the advice to never give up on their goals. Based on recent experience, though, I’d like to revise that slightly, and say: “Don’t ever give up on your goals and — be mindful about how you achieve them.”
I share this precept as I reflect on my pursuit of a particularly aggressive goal: completing this summer’s Leadville Race Series, arguably the most challenging endurance series in the world.
Held annually in Leadville, Colo., the series includes five running and mountain-biking events, all completed in the span of 49 days: The Leadville Trail Marathon, Leadville Silver Rush 50 MTB or Run, Leadville Trail 100 MTB, Leadville Trail 10K Run and the Leadville Trail 100 Run. All in all, thousands of athletes compete in these events. Fewer than 68 complete them all, and this year, only 25 completed the multi-event series within the allotted time.
All of these races are famously intense — that much I knew from experience. In previous years, I’ve competed in various events and suffered my share of discomfort. But this was the first time I’d taken on all five races, and also the first time I’d attempted a 100-mile run.
It was that final, excruciating challenge (for me, 30 hours and 45 minutes through rough terrain at high elevation, much of it well above 10,000 feet) that pushed me past my own healthy limits. And it brought a lot of athletes far more accomplished than I am quite literally to their knees. You can read some of their dramatic first-person accounts at www.leadvilleraceseries.com.
I won’t go into the details of my own race experience here (except to say that past mile 30, it wasn’t pretty). But I do want to share some of the insights that came to me in the days following the event, as I recovered from its strains.
I realized in retrospect, for example, that I’d made several assumptions about the course, and about my ability to complete it, some of which turned out to be misguided.
First, because I’d trained rigorously and was probably in the best shape of my life going into the Leadville Race Series, I had a great deal of confidence that even if it was grueling, I could complete all the events. I wasn’t out to win anything — just to finish, and to give my best all-out effort in the process.
Second, not being much of a runner (I far prefer biking), I knew full well that a 100-mile trail run would prove daunting for me. But I’d done some math, and figured I could complete the course at something like a jog or fast walk. What I didn’t realize until the race had begun was that the cut-off times for certain sections of the course would force me to move at a pace substantially faster than what I’d planned to maintain, and to do so for long intervals.
Third, I was prepared to suffer a lot of discomfort, and I knew I had the mental grit to endure it. What I didn’t know is that my mental grit might prove greater than my body’s ability to withstand what I was asking of it.
In the past, during the course of some far less demanding races, I’ve had to talk myself out of quitting prematurely. But in this race, for some reason, I never ever considered quitting, even when my body was screaming and threatening to shut down. I simply never allowed the thought to approach (much less enter) my mind.
In retrospect, although I’m glad I finished the race, I can see that there was a ruthlessness in that attitude — a tunnel-visioned rigidity that in some way fundamentally disrespected the mutually protective connection between my mental and physical faculties. My body paid the price.
Ultimately, I recovered. But it took me weeks to regain my full vitality, and during that time, I reflected on how one of my greatest strengths — my drive to successfully achieve my goals — also has the potential to become a real liability if I allow it to. Somewhere along the line, I realized, I’d lost track of my priorities. I’d allowed my desire to achieve this important but temporal goal to eclipse a more central and permanent value — the value I place on my health.
I came away from this experience deeply grateful for my body’s resiliency, and painfully aware that for all it means to me, I’d nonetheless made the mistake of taking it for granted. That’s a mistake I am determined not to repeat.
So often, it is the most fundamental gifts in our lives that we have the strongest tendency to overlook, and it is the manufactured and more dramatic problems that get all our attention. If you haven’t recently contemplated how this dynamic shows up in your own life, I encourage you to. And whatever goals you are driving toward, I hope you’ll approach them with the balance and mindfulness that make their achievement all the more worthwhile.