Thinking too small

Last fall I ran my first backyard ultramarathon, and this unique race type displayed a very visible lesson that has stuck with me ever since. The race starts with a lap of 6,66km that you have to complete within an hour. Exactly one hour later you have to be in the starting area for another lap, or else you drop out of the race. This kept repeating for 24 rounds, so 24 hours. When people run for 24 hours, it’s easy to witness that a lot is going on inside everyone’s head. And one big, nasty difference with a non-stop race is that you’re given an easy opportunity to quit 23 times. This messes with a lot of people.

Most of the solo runners dropped out of the race at some point (only 4 out of about 17 finished). I’ve seen a lot of people quit. Some got injured or sick, simply rendering them unable to run any longer. Others quit for other physical reasons. But still others quit because of their mental game.

A few laps into the race a fellow runner said that he was hoping to last for 80km, because that would be his longest distance ever. He ran strong and steady without pushing the needle too far into the red. We ran close to each other for a number of laps, and he kept looking like he could go on for hours. But during the night I was surprised to hear that he quit around 80km. I heard the same story various times. Another runner had shared his goal of setting a new max at around 65km, and that was exactly the distance at which he dropped out. I’m not blind to the pattern here, and it got me thinking.

Lots of PRs were set that day and many celebrated running their longest distance ever. I shared the joy with each of them and found myself inspired amidst so many people pushing their limits. In the meantime, however, I couldn’t help but notice an unusual amount of people dropping out right after breaking their PR. When you aim to run 80km and that’s your horizon, a switch turns in your head after reaching that number. You’ve reached your target and it no longer feels disappointing or strange to stop. There is no specific goal anymore, leaving you without motivation to overcome the painful hurdle of starting another lap.

Passing a historical landmark while trying not to look sleepy (©Leo Goes)

Nietzsche’s famous quote ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’ applies to situations like this too. I met people with a strong why to run 65km or 80km. They pushed and persevered, and found ways to bear their hows. But then the negative of this quote took on flesh: after reaching said goals they had no why to run any further, and they quit. If they still had a why, I’m sure those strong runners could have found ways to bear the how of another lap. This shows they started the race a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want to be very clear on one thing: running 65 or 80km is an enormous feat and is a highly respectable goal. Still I can’t help but see the parallel: we usually aim to reach our goals and not our full potential. Laying the bar too low can lead us to indeed improve, but still stay far from our actual limits. The goals you set may become your own self-fulfilling prophecies. Be aware of this when setting goals, and decide if you want to aim for improvement or for really challenging your limits. Because if you raise the bar, you just might pass it.

I unconsciously processed this lesson before starting the race: I didn’t want to give myself an easy out. To reach a goal early in the race and then find all motivation to press on evaporating. So my goal at the start was to finish the race completely. I aimed to last for 23 laps and then try to run the 24th lap a lot faster. This was my north star, and my default after every lap was to eat and get ready for the next. There was no room for doubt, no space to weigh all the accumulating reasons to quit. I remember that moment in the dark of night when I celebrated the 100km mark with two other runners. I remember a few hours earlier, seeing 73km on my watch, breaking my PR of 72-something. I remember tears at 128km when the walls around my emotions were coming down. Those were all moments loaded with meaning. But my goal was to run 24 laps and the switch in my head didn’t flick. I knew my goal and stuck to it.

This lesson is not just about running. For me, it’s starting to translate to other areas of life. I never had the confidence to set big goals, but I now see examples everywhere. Concurrent with the prep for this race I started studying SQL to better understand the data requests our team sometimes gets at work. But then I realized this goal is smaller than what I’m capable of. If it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy anyway I might as well aim for building a set of data-skills to become a specialist for our team or even prepare for a future career step. And that’s just one example.
Is there any area in which you are setting too small goals yourself? They might prevent you from writing that book, starting that newsletter with delicious recipes or building your own candle making business… Or fill in the blank.

It might be valuable to review our goals and question whether we’re leaving too much on the table. Not setting a (bigger) goal is the surest way not to reach it. You might just sell yourself short if your goals are too small. If you look at it like this, you can sometimes choose your own self-fulfilling prophecies. Which ones will you choose?


-I remember having read this valuable audiobook that strongly connects to this topic:
David J. Schwartz – The magic of thinking big.

Devil’s Trail homepage, they host great runs. Also: official results and Strava for this race.

Upcoming races:

24hour National Championship
Deventer, The Netherlands
July 13, 2024

Blog archive:

The dip
Sept 13, 2023

July 16, 2023

The people that surround you
June 17, 2023

The beauty of racing
Apr 26, 2023

Ready, fire, aim
Apr 4, 2023

Race prep
Mar 12, 2023

Thinking too small
Feb 20, 2023

Permission to not achieve
Feb 1, 2023

Why I run
Jan 1, 2023






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