What Running a Marathon Taught Me About Goal Setting

I wasn’t participating in the first race that I went to.

I went because my friend Chris was running. When I was there with his family, they asked me when I was going to sign up for a race. I promptly replied, “oh, I don’t run.”

Three years later, I ran a marathon.

My running journey has taught me so much, particularly the importance of good goal setting skills.

Many of us in higher education have been taught SMART goals, which is the best and simplest place to start out with goal setting. As a refresher for those of us who are over acronym-ed, SMART goals stand for:

S – Specific

M– Measurable

A – Attainable

R – Relevant

T – Timely

If this doesn’t ring a bell, I encourage you to read about the basics of SMART goal setting.

Running makes setting SMART goals fairly simple; the mere act of picking out a race covered the basics. For me, I wanted to run 26.2 Miles, in Nashville, on April 18th. My first goal was to finish the race, but my reach goal would be to finish the race in 6 hours.

When I signed up for the Nashville marathon, I had completed two half marathons and was in the process of training for my third, so I knew I was capable of running for distance and had the resources (shoes, time, etc) to help me. It was specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

Forrest Gump running

Goal setting in your career might be less obvious to coordinate but is still extremely important. Maybe you want to go back to school, create a new program to support students in a different way, or hold a leadership position on a regional or national association board. Applying the principles of SMART goals to your professional aspirations helps direct your energy to where you want to be next.

When things are a bit murkier, there are things we can do beyond SMART goals to set ourselves up for success.

1. Map Out the Details

When I started my training plan, I wrote out exactly how many miles I was going to run (or not run) every single day for the entire 16 weeks. Sure, it took some time and research up front, but it was setting me up for success.

I know if I would have had to calculate how much I was going to run each day, it would have complicated my decision and ended up being a self-sabotaging move. Instead, the only decision I had to make daily was when would I get my miles in (which was tricky enough with a full-time job and full-time grad school).

The same process can be applied to larger goals at work. If you are looking to write a new leadership curriculum for your students, map out what needs to get done for you to achieve that. Give yourself daily or weekly tasks to accomplish; maybe you want to write one new learning outcome every day, or maybe every Monday you will carve out two hours to dedicate to developing them. Find out something reasonable and commit to it.  

2. Use the Buddy System

Being around people who believe in you and are achieving alongside you is wildly important in running and part of the reason I even considered running a full marathon.

It wasn’t until I met my friend Adrienne that I was inspired to run a full marathon. When I came around to the idea of running a full, she was there encouraging me every step of the way (pun intended). She was there to run with me Saturday mornings on our long runs, and for the quick three mile runs to practice pacing after work.

Tricia Timney & Adrienne McBroon Nashville Marathon

Adrienne & me before running the 2018 Nashville Marathon.

The buddy system is equally as important in your professional career.

Find a mentor or colleague who has done what you want to achieve and share your goals with them. For instance, if you are interested in getting involved in an association, find someone who is part of the association and pick their brain. How did they get involved? Why did they decide that the organization was best for them? What strengths can they bring to the association? And then continue to check in with that person! As you develop a relationship there is accountability and someone to support you through your work.

3. Balance Your Plate

Often American culture glorifies busy-ness to a fault but here is the daunting truth: there are only 24 hours in a day. It’s unrealistic to think that we can keep adding more to our schedules without taking something else off of our plate.

This was not something I fully thought through before signing up for my marathon. I knew that my distance running was going to take more time than I was used to, but it became increasingly hard to set aside more time. There were times I had to say no to other things to make space for my running – I couldn’t go out Friday nights because I knew I needed to be well-rested and hydrated for a 6 am run on Saturday morning.

I couldn’t stay up late with friends because I knew I needed to be well-rested for my five miles before work the next morning.

If you are adding more to your workload, be sure to talk with your supervisor to make sure they are on-board with you focusing your energy on this new goal. If this is not a priority for them, then realize you may need to take time outside of your typical working hours to focus on your goals. Is that something you can (and are willing) to do?

4. Listen to Your Body (or Your Gut)

I was about two-thirds of the way through my training plan when my hip started really bothering me. Not just the typical “I’m fatigued because I ran 16 miles” type of hurt, but hurt like an injury.

This was terrifying to me – when I mapped out my training plan, I did not include time off for injury.

I took the time off anyway and I am convinced that is the only reason I could complete the marathon. Resting and recovering was what I needed, and it ultimately didn’t set me back nearly as much as I thought it would. It was important to assess how I felt and alter my plan to fit my needs.

The same is important with professional goals. Being in tune with your gut and changing your plan can be the very thing that drives your success. Say your goal is to present at a national conference, but due to budget cuts, you are now working two jobs, which limits your time to prepare a quality presentation.

Instead of just calling it quits altogether, maybe you can find someone to co-present with. This changes your plan, but still gives you the opportunity to present and achieve that goal!

5. After You Achieve Your Goal

The most surprising thing about running a marathon was the sense of loss I experienced just days after completing it. Here I was, having just pushed through the most physically exerting challenge I’ve ever attempted; something a mere 0.5% of the population completes, and yet my excitement lasted about as long as my legs ached.

Feeling the post-race burn after the Nashville marathon

Feeling the burn after completing the marathon.

I had no more races or big goals to focus on, so it was completely normal (though unexpected) for me to lack motivation and feel a sense of emptiness.

This is where the importance of long-term goal setting comes into play. Adrienne combated this because she has a long-term goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, so she knew that after a few weeks of rest, her next goal was to improve her speed.

Adrienne & me after running the 2018 Nashville marathon

After Adrienne & I ran the 2018 Nashville Marathon.

When you are thinking about your professional goals, it’s helpful to include long-term goals as well as shorter goals. This is not only useful when you are trying to decide what goals are strategic to your career path, but can also prevent you from feeling the sense of loss after you achieve what you have set out to do.

I am still in disbelief that when I met my friend Chris three years ago I couldn’t even run a full two miles, and now, I am a marathoner. I have learned so much about myself and seen how goal setting in any aspect of life can teach us valuable lessons.

What goals have you set for this upcoming school year? Let us know on Twitter @TriciaTimney and @HelloPresence!


Tricia Timney

About the author: Tricia is a freelance writer, coffee lover, marathon runner, amateur curler, and world traveler. She's available for writing and blogging projects, especially related to travel, wellness, and higher education. You can contact Tricia at tricia.timney@gmail.com or on Twitter at @TriciaTimney. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.