What Signing Up for the Boston Marathon Taught Me About Goal-Setting
Plus, how you can tap into your inner motivation to reach new fitness goals.
I always thought that someday, I might (maybe) want to run the Boston Marathon.
Growing up just outside of Boston, Marathon Monday was always a day off of school. It was also a time for sign-making, cheering, and handing out cups of water and Gatorade to some 30,000 runners making their way from Hopkinton to Boston. That day, many local businesses close and people flood the streets of the eight towns that thread the 26.2-mile course. Many of my childhood spring memories involve this race.
Years later, as an adult (and a runner myself with a few half marathons under my belt), when work brought me to jobs in both Pennsylvania and New York City, I remember wondering why people were working on Marathon Monday. I missed the electricity of the day in Boston. I could still feel it, even from afar.
When I moved home to Boston and signed a lease for a little apartment right near the course, I continued to watch the runners go by every year. But last year I found myself thinking more seriously about my quasi-goal of running the race. I should do it, I thought. I could do it. Watching the sea of runners (including a few friends!) crowd Beacon Street (a part of the race's path), I was almost kicking myself for not doing it. (Related: Meet the Inspiring Team of Teachers Chosen to Run the Boston Marathon)
But months went by and, as we all do, I got busy. Noncommittal thoughts of a maybe-marathon run subsided. After all, running a marathon is a massive commitment. I wasn't sure how I'd balance a full-time job and the demands of training (in the cold Boston winter no less). Plus, while I truly do love exercise and the way it makes me feel, I've never been someone to push myself physically past my place of comfort. Maybe it just wouldn't happen, I thought.
Then, this past January, I got an email-an opportunity to run Boston with Adidas. It was just the impetus I needed to say yes. I committed. And at that moment, I wondered why it had taken me so many years to take the plunge. I was nervously excited, motivated by years as a spectator, thrilled at the chance to run in my hometown city.
Then, the scarier thoughts came: Would I really be able to do this? Did I really want to do it? The motivation was certainly there, but was that motivation enough?
"There are as many motivations as there are runners entered in the race," is what Maria Newton, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of health, kinesiology, and recreation at the University of Utah, told me when I informed her of my plans.
On the sanest of levels, I don't think anyone desires to run 26.2 miles (though elite runners may disagree with me). So what makes us do it?
Like Newton says-all sorts of reasons. Some people run for personal gain, others for an emotional connection to a race, to challenge themselves in new ways, or to raise money or awareness for a cause they care about. (Related: Why I'm Running the Boston Marathon 6 Months After Having a Baby)
But no matter your reason, your body is capable of a lot. "We can obviously finish something if our goal is external to ourselves," says Newton (think for a coach or parent's approval, or for praise). But, "the quality of the motivation won't be as good," she explains. That's because, at its core, motivation is all about "why," she says.
Literature on the topic suggests that when we choose goals that are meaningful to us, we're more motivated to achieve them. I can certainly agree. There have been times in my training-namely running up high hills time and time again in snow or rain-when I know I would have stopped had it not been for my connection to the race. The only thing that kept my legs moving when they felt like jello? The thought that this training was getting me closer to the finish line on race day-something I did want to do. (Related: 7 Unexpected Perks of Winter Race Training)
That's the crux of intrinsic motivation, explains Newton. It helps you persist. When it starts pouring rain, when your legs are cramping up, or when you hit the wall, you're more likely to question yourself, not try as hard, and even give up if your "why" has little to do with you. "You won't persist when stuff gets difficult, nor will you enjoy your time as much," she says.
When you own your "why," you'll get through the hard parts, push yourself when you're feeling tired, and enjoy the process. "There's a huge difference in persistence if motivation is autonomous." (Related: 5 Reasons Your Motivation Is Missing)
It's because you're invested in the process and the outcome. You're not in it for anyone else. "Folks who persist, persist because if they don't, they're letting themselves down."
Finally committing to Boston was the hardest part about all of this for me. Once I did, I discovered a goal I almost didn't realize I had. But it required being open to a new idea-a new challenge.
That's something Newton encourages people to do if they're looking for a new way to challenge themselves: Be open and try new things. "You don't know whether something resonates with you until you give things a shot," she says. Then you chart your path. (Related: The Many Health Benefits of Trying New Things)
Of course, starting with activities that you have experience in and enjoy (what I did) makes sense, too. Often it's as simple as returning to activities we may have enjoyed growing up, whether it's track, swimming, or anything else. "Revisiting those things and challenging yourself to find the same passion that you had is a great strategy for finding a meaningful goal," says Newton. "Re-engaging with those things you were once excited about can bring you great joy."
And just about a week out from Boston, that's what I'm starting to feel: joy.
Here in Boston, the marathon is more than a race. It's a part of the city inextricably linked to its people and its pride and, in many ways, I suppose it's always been a part of me. I've done my training, I've worked hard, and I'm ready to face the starting line.