When Goals Are Too Small

Setting an audacious goal

I am a runner. Not the type of runner that jogs around the block once a week. I’m that runner who hit 90 miles of running in the last seven days. I am psychotically passionate about running (and don’t you dare ever call me a jogger).

I set my first running-related goal seventeen years ago as a freshman in high school. It wasn’t your average goal of completing the season or making the varsity team. One day at practice I heard my coach talking about his experience of racing in the Olympic Marathon Trials (aka the race where you tryout for the US Olympic Marathon Team), and I thought to myself “I want that.” So at the age of 14, with only a few miles under my belt, I set the audacious goal to race in the Olympic Marathon Trials.

This event happens once every four years, and between 200 and 400 women in the entire US are fast enough to qualify. To put this in perspective, the sought-after Boston Marathon has over 30,000 runners qualify to run it every year. Of those who earn a spot at Boston, the top 30 female finishers might run fast enough to qualify for the Trials.

This is a goal many talented runners set and never achieve. What I didn’t know then (and what took me 16 years to realize) was that the audacious goal I set as a 14-year-old was too small, and it would end up holding me back.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Getting lucky

I ran and raced my way through high school and college, seeing more success and heartbreak than I knew was possible in sports. I kept improving each year until I was winning almost every race of my senior season. When I graduated at the age of 23, I decided it was finally time to go after the big goal. The next year was an Olympic year, which meant there would be Olympic Trials to decide who the Olympians would be. I wanted to try out and race against the best in the nation. I had no thoughts of actually becoming an Olympian—I just wanted to be fast enough to try out.

It was 2011, and I was coming off my collegiate running career and in incredible shape. I trained hard, and by some miracle, I ran fast enough to qualify! Somehow in the first marathon I ever ran, I was fast enough to earn a spot trying out for the Olympic team. But I barely qualified; I squeaked by just 13 seconds under the needed time. Out of about 200 women who would join me in The Trials I was ranked 187th. Wow, had I gotten lucky or what?

“This had to be luck,” I thought. I didn’t really belong in a race with the best in the nation.

And so, considering it all luck, I raced the 2012 Olympic tryouts. About 200 women raced that year, it was my second ever marathon, and I finished 112th. I was arguably the 112th fastest marathoner in the nation on my second attempt at marathoning. Yet, I viewed all of this as a fluke.

But this story isn’t about that race.

Getting lucky…again?

I continued to run and race over the next few years all while asking myself, could I possibly get lucky enough to do it again? Could I run fast enough to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials? I dreamed and trained, and this time I ran within just one (yes one) second of the standard for qualifying for 2016.

“Luck had struck again,” I thought.

And so, on a racecourse in LA with record heat, I once again lined up with the fastest runners in the nation. This time though I did not fare so well. At just the halfway point my feet were a bloody mess, and I had small pink dots on my core (a symptom of heatstroke). I dropped out minutes later.

“Oh well,” I thought. My goal was just to get to the race, but I still don’t actually belong racing alongside these runners.

But this story isn’t about that race, either.

Sidelined and anxious

After that second experience racing in the Olympic tryouts, I once again returned to running and racing for fun. However, within weeks I developed some health issues that would sideline me for the following three years. Suddenly, I couldn’t run, I couldn’t train. I lost my fitness. I gained weight. After two years I no longer recognized me. I went to doctors and chiropractors and acupuncturists, but no one could solve the root problem.

Finally, at the beginning of 2019, I began growing frantic. For some reason, I still had that goal of once again qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials. I tried everything desperately, anxiously.

And in May, I finally solved it! My abdominal muscles had not been functioning properly. Because our body parts are interconnected, when my abs stopped functioning right my hips were thrown out of alignment which caused my quads and hamstrings to not work right and so on down the chain all the way to my feet. Your ab muscles are literally the core of everything.

I was thrilled I had finally found the root issue, but now I only had six months to get my fitness back and race to qualify for the 2020 tryouts. This was surely impossible. I wasn’t starting the journey with incredible fitness. I had been sitting on the bench for three years. Should I even try?

This story is about what happened after that race.

The training montage

Every good sports movie has a montage where you see the protagonist training hard, putting in the work. May to December of 2019 was my montage moment.

Picture this: speed workouts on a lighted track on a dark and stormy night, breaking down in tears on the side of the road during my second run of the day, gently cleaning my bloody feet after a 23-mile run, alarm blaring at 5 a.m. so I could hit a ten miler before going to work for the day, all while “Eye of the Tiger” plays in the background.

Okay, it was less dramatic than that, and I was more likely to be listening to Imagine Dragons, but all those events did, in fact, happen. And low and behold, my body started changing.

In six months, I had somehow transformed myself. I dropped twelve pounds and 4% body fat, increased my blood iron level (an essential element for transferring oxygen in the blood) from the anemic level of 17 ug/L to 80 ug/L, I improved my body’s ability of recycling lactic acid and jumping on boxes. There were countless protein shakes and salads and miles and weight-lifting sessions.

And it felt like everything changed. My body was changing so fast during those six months that some days I’d wake up and feel like it wasn’t even mine anymore.

Then it was race day. I had found a race that was just before the last day you could possibly qualify in order to maximize my training time. I would have one shot at qualifying for the 2020 trials. Months of work would come down to one single race. That race was incredible and will need to be a story on its own. But here’s the short version...

Race day

The race was in Sacramento, California on a cool crisp day in December, and I executed my race plan to a T. I ran the exact per-mile pace that I needed to run for the first 23 miles. I was never more than three seconds over or under the needed pace, mile after grueling mile.

By mile 23 my body was screaming at me. Fires had been set in both my lungs, someone had added 20-pound weights to each quad muscle, and I was seeing black spots floating in the air. I pushed, but I had one bad mile where I missed the pace by about ten seconds. Then I somehow recovered and got back on pace.

The marathon was 26.2 miles long. There was a sign at mile 26 that read “.2 to go.” I checked my watch, checked it again, and again. Oh shit, I had to sprint. I knew it might still be possible, but I had to sprint. IMMEDIATELY.

I gave everything in those last 90 seconds. Everything. I cannot explain the pain or the desire. To be honest, I can hardly remember it. It was just this blinding drive to beat that clock set up next to the finish line.

The aftermath

The plane ride home was bittersweet.

In the end, I had missed my goal of qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials by nine seconds. Let that sink in: nine seconds over a 26.2 mile race.

I had dared to reach for something despite what seemed like insurmountable odds and had been able to graze it with my fingertips. I had missed but transformed myself along the way.

I sat in my tiny plane seat processing my three attempts at qualifying for the 2012, 2016, and 2020 Olympic Trials. Despite the time standard being different for each of the three races, I had come within 12 seconds, one second, and now nine seconds of the standard on each of my three attempts. I had been over or under by less than half a second per mile every single time.

It finally struck me: I was capable of running fast enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials. It wasn’t luck; it was ability. It had taken proving it to myself three times over eight years to realize that I was capable of reaching that goal I had set so long ago. That goal that seemed impossible was within my ability.

With that thought, a flood of emotion poured over me. If that goal was, in fact, possible then what was my actual limit? If I had set a loftier goal as a 14-year-old, would I have hit that?

It was like I finally realized a glass ceiling had existed above me, limiting my running, and in the same moment that I realized it existed, it also shattered. The tiny pieces of limitation clattered to the floor around me.

I was capable of running in the trials. I belonged in that race. I finally believed in my own talent as an athlete, and I was left with wide-open space above me. The only question left to ask was do I dare to dream bigger?

Dreaming bigger

I’m 33 now. Most runners peak in their mid-thirties. Some peak close to 40. I should be entering the most powerful years of my running career. And yes, say it louder, YES, I wanted to dream bigger. But how big?

I began throwing numbers out in my head as if they were going to stick to the back of the seat in front of me: What about a new goal of running a marathon in two hours and 40 minutes? That would be three minutes faster than I’d ever run before. Okay, that felt doable. But wait, did I want “feels doable”? No, I wasn’t going to build another glass ceiling above me.

Okay, then. What about 2:39? That was still too comfortable.

2:38? Nope. 2:37? Nope. 2:36? I started to get nervous. 2:35? I started to sweat. 2:34? Oh, keep breathing.

I kept pushing that number down until it felt absolutely impossible and unbelievable. That, yes that, would be my new goal. The goal I would now chase and probably never achieve. But this time, I told myself, as I reinvented myself chasing that goal, I would be ready for the day when I needed to reinvent that goal. I wouldn’t wait eight years to believe I was capable of doing something.

And here I am. It’s been nine months since that plane ride, and I just finished my 13th mile for the day, ordered more protein powder, and am still sore from lifting last night. I don’t know where this journey will take me or when it will end. But now that I’m free of my original goal that was limiting me, I’m running some of the fastest workouts of my life. I’m chasing my full potential as an athlete.

Every race has been canceled this year thanks to COVID, but the day races reopen, I’ll be ready. I can’t wait to see how fast I run. I know I’m going to shatter my old records.

My challenge to you

When you set crazy big goals and chase them with everything in you, regardless of if you reach those goals or not, you will end up reinventing yourself. You will change so much that at some point you will need to reinvent your goals. Don’t wait eight years like I did.

Written by

Kristen Schafer

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