Running at 20,000 to 50,000 Feet – Taking a View of Your Horizons

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Photo Credit: layers of sky by Flickr user Crispin Semmens, used under a Creative Commons license.

Our reasons for starting running are many and varied.  Maybe it was just something we did because our friends or family did it when we were young. Maybe track or cross country seemed the cool thing to do in school, or we found running helpful to our other athletic endeavors. Maybe we came to it later in life, to improve our physical or mental health, or to generally feel better about ourselves.

Regardless of the initial reason we ran, we all reach a point where we really need to step back and understand our bigger purpose in continuing to do so. A loss of motivation, injury, or missed goal can be the driver to do so, or we may actually find success and begin to wonder “what’s next?” or “how far can I take this?”.

This topic struck me while I was out for a short quick lunch run the other day. I hadn’t planned a run that day, so it was essentially “free miles” to do with as I pleased (though most runs really should be viewed that way now, while I’m recovering from injury). It was an unusually warm and sunny mid-March day, and I opted to run with my non-prescription running sunglasses, limiting my ability to see fine details.

However, it was the kind of day where the details didn’t matter – what mattered was the “macro” view, not the “micro” view.  It was a joy to be able to run, something we often take for granted. It was a pleasure to feel the warmth of the sun, to hear the birds (and even the neighborhood landscapers our far earlier in the year than usual), and to smell the early spring scents.

Far too often we get wrapped up in the details of our running – the pace we need to hit, the miles we need to record, or, when we do even let the details go a bit, the perceived effort. This is what can make running seem like a chore, to create stress when we miss a workout goal, or get anxious when things don’t feel as they should.

Sometimes we need to step back and take the longer-term view of our running – far more often than we do, in fact. David Allen provides a nice context for this, in his analogy of viewing our purpose and goals from different altitudes, as if in an airplane.  I’m a big fan of his [amazon_link id=”B000WH7PKY” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Getting Things Done[/amazon_link] approach to personal productivity, and this includes his perspective on long-term goal setting (covered in greater detail in [amazon_link id=”B001AO0GRC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Making It All Work[/amazon_link]). Translating his levels into a language that is relevant for runners, they are:

  • 50,000 feet – Our overarching purpose in running. This should be more specific than “to be healthier”, “to see the world through running”, or “to challenge myself” by including the reasons why we desire these things.  Maybe we want to be healthier to be present for our family as we age, or to compete to have an outlet for frustrations from other aspects in our life, like our career.
  • 40,000 feet – Our three to five year goals. This is a typical timeframe for a goal that takes several seasons of development to achieve, like qualifying for Boston. It is also the time we spend in a given age group and eventually becomes the period over which we can achieve our lifetime PR’s – which is a critical time to understand your 50,000-foot view. Only a good understanding of our purpose in running lets us keep congruity in setting our long-term goals.
  • 30,000 feet – Our one to two year goals.  This is where we can get more specific about what we seek to accomplish in the next three or four training cycles. These, in turn, should be a subset of or help us build towards the three to five year goals.
  • 20,000 feet – this is our areas of responsibility. In a full-life context, it would include running among our other obligations (family, career, volunteer, etc.), but each broad category can have it’s own areas of responsibility within it.  These are where you need to focus your time and energy to achieve the higher levels of goals and commitments. For running, it usually goes beyond just the training itself. We need to commit time to learning about our sport, to selecting and planning our races, to developing injury-prevention approaches, and other endeavors.
  • 10,000 feet and below (runway) – these are the projects (planning your race participation, building your training plan, etc.) and tasks (run a 5-mile tempo workout, read [amazon_link id=”B0026IUOX2″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Advanced Marathoning[/amazon_link], reserve hotel, etc.) respectively. I covered this aspect of GTD in a previous post.

All too often we get caught up in the 10,000 foot level and below. Obviously we need to spend a lot of time there to meet today’s priorities. But it is occasionally helpful, even in the midst of that, to be able to elevate our perspective and regain the view of our horizon.  “What will this difficult workout deliver that meets my long-term goals?” can be a more motivating question to ponder than, “Do I really need to hit this split?”.

Not investing the time in developing our high-level views is what leads to:

  • A loss of motivation or direction when a shorter-term goal is achieved (i.e., I qualified for Boston – what’s next?)
  • Frustration over a missed workout.
  • Pushing too hard during a given season and the resulting burn-out (or injury).
  • Impatience that leads us to return from injury too soon.
  • A sense of despair when we reach the point that we can no longer improve our results due to our inevitable aging.

So take the time on a regular basis even when things are going well to review your longer-term goals and purpose.  And lift your eyes to the horizon when you face a bit of adversity.  You may well find the energy and answers you need to help overcome malaise and build and sustain some momentum in your running.

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  • Salty

    I have been really bad about taking a long-term view. For most of my running career it was all about the season at hand. I was spoiled early on in that I did achieve my goals or significant PRs, but especially as it comes to the marathon I did not even approach my potential. Even this last time I was way better about realizing that I probably do have potential to really run a fast marathon, but instead of chipping away at my PR I had to go for the sub-3. If I would have just gone for the sub-3:10 I’d probably have a nice 3:03 PR right now! Oh well. Live and learn. It’s something I’m personally working on and I like this breakdown! Thanks!!!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comment Salty. I’ve suffered from a few issues in the past due to not taking a long-term view – losing motivation after my first BQ and running the subsequent Boston in 3:56 (an all-time worst), giving up running for a few years after our sons were born instead of just doing at least something fitness-wise (and thus gaining 25 pounds – now lost, fortunately), and maybe pushing too hard of late to go for 2:50 or below too soon, instead of taking it more patiently. As I look to turn 40 next year, I also need to face into the fact that there is a limited (though still long-enough- for now) horizon for improvement available – so this topic has been on my mind a lot of late.

  • Tim Meier

    Really great post for a lot of reasons Greg, and like you hinted can be translated in many areas of life.  I think the long-term perspective helps us make much better daily decisions in life in general because it combats the instant gratification that we’re all plagued with in this society.  In terms of running this is challenging me, not just to think big picture, but to come up with some goals for the next 3-5 years.  I’ve hit most of the stuff I wanted to do (with the exception of nailing a marathon) but haven’t thought in the medium range at all.  Thanks for an insightful post and I hope this gives you good motivation to stay engaged while injured as well!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Tim, it is funny but it seems that the older you get, the better you get at taking the long-term view, even if the horizon is closer (especially in terms of running abilities). Your challenge will be finding new goals to motivate you in the many years of gains you still have left.
    And don’t worry about me being engaged, while I’m not posting them (too boring and repetitive), I’m hitting the leg and core work pretty consistently, and the progress on the Achilles seems OK.

  • Mark W

    I’m a big fan of David Allen & GTD as well, so this post was really interesting to me as I’ve never consciously looked at running with that lens. I think most of us are stuck on the runway stuff – and just keep milling about there (i know that i have been at least), and unfortunately, I think it takes a forced timeout (injury, etc.) sometimes to get us thinking about the bigger picture. I think only in the past 9 months have I started setting long-term running goals & I’m excited about having a perspective & a target beyond “the next race”. This is another great post Greg. 

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Mark, most of us practitioners of GTD focus on the tools and techniques for the runways, and maybe the projects (10,000 feet), but I imagine many of us struggle with the higher level view. And you can debate if the David Allen approach has anything unique to offer for this – there are plenty of other sources like Stephen Covey who have advises to offer on long-term goals and purpose.

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