Setting Unrealistic Goals

Today we welcome back our resident man on all things coaching and advice, Andy DuBois – and what an apt title after my weekend’s running. I think we all like to set ourselves big goals, but what about when we don’t reach them. I personally missed a goal I’d set myself at this weekend’s Glasshouse 100kms. Am I disappointed? No way at all. In fact I’m over the moon with what I accomplished, because without aiming high you never know quite what you could do. Here Andy offers a little bit of insight and advice if you’re seeking to set yourself that next big goal… and it doesn’t just apply to racing ultras, it applies to all goals in life really.

We all know that the goals we set ourselves should follow the S.M.A.R.T principle . Specific, measurable, achievable , realistic and have a time frame. We think of anyone who sets unrealistic goals as having a few screws loose in their head.

So imagine the response from an experienced Everest mountaineering guide when he was approached by a completely blind man who wanted a guide to help him climb Mt Everest.

Or the Director of a company who was approached for sponsorship of several £100,000 for an expedition involving two men pulling sleds weighing over 200kgs each, over a distance of 2500 km across the Antarctic continent, something no-one had even come close to achieving before.

One of the most ridiculous ideas I have heard recently was from a 47-year-old man with no history of running ,who trained for 5 weeks and then attempted to run 43 marathons in 51 days. Lunatic! What on earth was he thinking. People train for months or years and struggle to finish one marathon and he thought that 5 weeks training would be enough to get him through 43 in 51 days. Complete nutter obviously, with no idea at all about how hard it would be.

All of these goals are completely unrealistic by anyone’s definition except for the individual’s involved. Despite what everyone else thought, they were convinced that they at least had a chance of achieving them and for them that was enough to warrant making an attempt. Saying you are going to do something and actually doing it are two different things. Did our totally unrealistic goal setters come anywhere close to achieving their goal?

Eddie Izzard on his way to finishing 43 marathons
Eddie Izzard on his way to finishing 43 marathons

On May 25 2001 Eric Weihenmayer became the first blind person to summit Mt Everest.

In March 1992, ninety-three days after setting out, Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud crossed the entire Antarctic continent unsupported.

The 47-year-old trying to run 43 marathons in 51 days – well he was and still is a complete nutter but on September 15th 2009 British comedian Eddie Izzard completed his 43rd and final marathon in 51 days.

If these people set realistic goals they never would have achieved what most people would say is impossible. They set completely unrealistic goals then found a way to make them possible. They sacrificed a lot, suffered a lot and took some big risks but to them it was worth it. In the words of Michelangelo “the greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it , but that it is too low and we reach it. ” Too often we sell ourselves way short of what we are capable of.

T.S. Eliot once said “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” You never know what you can achieve unless you try. Don’t let your own beliefs or other people’s beliefs put you off.

When setting yourself goals, allow yourself to dream a bit. Play out the “what if I could achieve anything I set my mind to ” scenario in your head. Let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you. If you find something that really inspires you then investigate it further and see what you would need to do to make it a reality.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes (left) and Dr Michael Stroud at Gould Bay, on the Filchner Ice Shelf, at the start of their attempt to make the first crossing of Antartica on foot, and the longest-ever unsupported Polar journey.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes (left) and Dr Michael Stroud at Gould Bay, on the Filchner Ice Shelf, at the start of their attempt to make the first crossing of Antartica on foot, and the longest-ever unsupported Polar journey.

Once you understand the sacrifices, risks and time commitment necessary you can then determine if it is still a goal you want to pursue. For example finishing a marathon is a fantastic achievement and one that many people would love to say they have done but a lot fewer people are willing to undertake the training and suffer the pain that it will undoubtedly involve.

There is nothing wrong with this, it just means achieving that goal is not as important as other aspects in your life. If you decide that the hard work and sacrifices would be worth it (sometimes you don’t know and it is a risk you have to take) then the next step is to start getting realistic. Break down the big goal into smaller realistic goals.

You don’t even need to believe that you can achieve your big goal as long as you believe that you can achieve the smaller goals along the way. Break any goal down into small bite size believable chunks.

Eric Weihenmayer at the top of Everest
Eric Weihenmayer at the top of Everest

As some of you know I run Ultra-marathons and before my first race of 155km , my longest training run was 75km. Trying to mentally deal with

the fact that the race was twice as far as I had run in training was difficult so I broke it down into smaller sections of less than 20km. At the end of each section I forced myself to forget about how far I had come and how far I still had to go and just focused on the next achievable section. Mentally I could cope with the thought of running another 10-20km as long as I ignored the fact I had already run 60,70,80km beforehand and the fact that there was still another 40,50,60km to go.

Achieving a progression of small believable goals allows you to realise big seemingly unbelievable goals.

Here’s my three rules on goal setting.

1. Don’t be afraid to dream of achieving remarkable things.
2. Work out what is necessary to achieve your goal and then determine if you are prepared to do what it takes and make the necessary sacrifices.
3. Break down what you need to do into smaller realistic goals. Don’t think about how far there is left to go or how far you have come, focus only on what you have to do next.

4. Believe in yourself even if no-one else does.

Sorry that’s four but the fourth one is the most important.


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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

8 thoughts on “Setting Unrealistic Goals

  1. I find that adding an ER helps me determine what is a worthwhile goal and what is just an interest or passing fancy.

    E stands for Edifying – Instructing or improving me morally or intellectually (or even physically).
    R stands for Rewarding – There has to be something in it for me, or for a cause which I hold dear. The reward can be intrinsic to the goal or extrinsic.

    Who wants to really struggle to achieve a goal that doesn’t do these things?

  2. I am definitely one to set unrealistic goals. In October 2011 I had only been running for about 3 months after a six year break. The farthest I had ever run was 12km. But I heard about the 45km Rainbow Beach Trail Run and just had to do it because I wanted to go to the lighthouse. So, with two weeks to go until the event, I signed up. It took me 7:30 to complete the 45km including a long 10km stretch on soft beach sand at low tide and a 500m wade through waist deep water. I didn’t wear shoes and I didn’t quit. Since then, I’ve known that anything is possible if you set your mind to it. If I kept doing the sensible realistic thing, I might still not have had the courage to run a trail marathon.

    That said, sometimes I pay the price for this kind of behaviour by getting myself injured (like when I ran a marathon last year just 3 weeks after running my first 50km without having actually trained properly for either). But the more times I do crazy things, the more my body adjusts and the more I learn how to push the boundaries without as much risk of injury.

    I reckon it’s all about being willing to risk failure to explore new dimensions, possibilities and realities.

  3. Love this.

    I entered my first 100km before I’d even run 10km. I dropped at the 85km mark. But went back the next year and finished it. Crossing that line was insanely emotional, and had I not jumped in the first time, I probably would have put it off year after year, always thinking I wasn’t ready.

    Sometimes you just gotta start.

  4. Most goals are achievable if you do not attach a time constraint to it. ie I am going to run 100km. The problem is when runners attach a time goal to a distance that is not achievable. By all means, have a stretch ”A’ goal, B goal and then if necessary a C goal. But the A goal has to be representative of your training and ability.

    The amount of times I have heard goal times thrown around and you know that it is simply not achievable. Sometimes you hint, other times you let them find out for themselves. By setting an unachievabe goal, you are also breaking the realistic rule.

  5. Nice one!!! On the day you wrote this very fine article me and a friend were sitting in a restaurant and I told her that I was planing to run the 100 Mile Berlin Wall run next year in August. I run a couple of marathons for fun and was thinking about doing an Ultra for a while already but always thought that it was indeed “unrealistic”. So why 100 miles and not 100km first?!? Because for me as an East German Berlin and the Wall is very emotional place and thus being able to run on the former “death strip” makes it magical event. Anyhow, at the end of this evening in the restaurant not only I decided to do it but she as well did agree to it. So,… with both of us never run further than 42km, this weekend we signed up to have a little jog together in Berlin next August 🙂

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