Goals are funny things. Far from being fixed and unchanging, they are shifty little objects, always bouncing around from one level to the next. There is undoubtedly a ranking system to the goal hierarchy—a daily objective, for instance, doesn’t quite carry the weight of a lifelong aspiration—but even the upper echelons are not secure. The highest goals, once attained, simply become a new standard. What we formerly viewed as exceptional suddenly becomes expected. The achievement of our mission simply establishes a new status quo.
It is a strange alchemy that transforms our goals to ever higher standards. Once we’ve crossed the finish line with a PR, it’s hard to settle for anything less. Our personal best is not easily surrendered, for in achieving our best, we realize that we are capable of more. We realize that our limits were not as close as we thought. We realize that, maybe, we can go just a little bit further. We realize that, maybe, we can go just a little bit faster. Maybe, we were selling ourselves just a little bit short. We realize that our goals are not the objects themselves, but merely our perception of them.
And so, we push for more. We are tantalized by the prospect of what might be possible. Former goals fade in the distance as we strive to accomplish that of which previously we wouldn’t have dreamed. But while we are always looking up, always looking forward—as we should be—we must remember that the attainment of new goals does not diminish the value of the old.
Ironically, it was the lowering of the bar, not the raising of it, that instilled in me a newfound appreciation for previously attainted goals.
Enter the flu. I’m a very bad sick person, perhaps because I’ve had very little practice at it. I don’t get sick often. Thus, when I do find myself incapacitated by fever and headaches, confined to the couch and the intriguing artifices of daytime television, my reaction is, “What? What the heck is this? This is so dumb!”
Sitting up was an impossible proposition, much less running, and I spent seven full days quarantined in my house. In a very short time, I learned everything I’d ever wanted to know (more, really) about Publisher’s Clearing House, Nutrisystem, litigation lawyers, denture creams, the incredible retractable garden hose, life insurance, and government-issued collector’s coins. I was urged to act now, don’t delay, call within the next thirty seconds, and, my personal favorite, “avoid disappointment and future regret.” I was presented with countless life-changing marvels, many of them bearing an eerie semblance to bathroom cleaner, all of them fast, simple, convenient, and– incredibly enough—just one easy payment of $19.95. By the time I emerged from my Nyquil-and-Vic’s-VapoRub-induced coma, I was eager to return to the mileage-loving ways of a seasoned distance runner. Clad in the brand-spanking new tights I had received as a Christmas present and had been torturously unable to try out, I strapped on my running shoes after a two-week hiatus and headed out the door.
Re-enter the flu.
I felt like I had a ShopVac lodged in my esophagus and my organs were shriveling up like a salted slug. Running—the kind of running I remembered, the relaxed, unfettered stride of a marathoner out for a Sunday joyride—seemed like mere fantasy. The twenty-mile pace runs I had chalked off just a month before seemed distant and impossible. Heck, home seemed distant and impossible.
So much for that.
As I struggled through a two-mile slogfest, tormented by leaden quads and a Garmin that seemed to mock me with every ticking second, I became acutely aware of how far the sport of running has taken me. When thousands of miles separate you from your first run, it’s easy to forget the start line. Mine was a winding country road. I was with my dad. We ran two miles, and even then I had to stop and walk. But I finished. I never dreamed I would one day run marathons. I don’t even think I knew what a marathon was. The two miles had seemed an impossibility. But that was my goal. And I was so proud.
Finishing my faltering run, I returned to the couch and was once more barraged with a panoply of “As Seen on TV” products. Sure, I was no longer under the dizzying auspices of the flu, but I was suffering from its lingering repercussions. It would be another week or two before I would feel anything close to capable of a long run or, dare I say it, speedwork. In the meantime, I wouldn’t be fast. In the meantime, I wouldn’t feel strong. In the meantime, I had to make new goals.
Such as run two miles.
Goals are a wonderful thing. We need them. The drive us. The push us to do more than we ever thought possible. Goals are made to be reached. They are made to be conquered. They are made to be propagated to ever higher standards. But they should never be taken for granted. To run a hundred miles, we first have to run one. To lose fifty pounds, we first have to lose five. To set new goals, we first have to have old ones.
So here’s to old goals. They have gotten us to where we are. And may our list of them be ever growing, so that we may grow as well.