How do we measure success? | A Column by David McNeill

Last weekend, I decided to call it quits on season: 2015. The human body is a lot like a computer: leave too many applications open at once for too long, and everything stops working as efficiently. The hard drive gets clogged up with too much cache, cookies, and downloads, and performance is compromised, and a reboot is needed to restore function. Races, travel, and suitcase living are a little like cache, cookies, and downloads; with time, the accumulation of physical and mental fatigue warrants a reboot, even when everything is otherwise intact. My reboot signal came in the form of mounting frustration: failure to achieve the goals I had set for 2015. In fact, I didn’t really achieve any of the goals I had set for 2015. Yet, in the last conversation I had with my coach in closing out the season, we noted that there were many more positives than negatives to have come from my first year with my new training group. This was absolutely true. Two PBs, no injuries, 4 race wins, more races in the year than I had run in the previous four years combined. As runners – the most stubbornly goal-oriented people on the face of the earth – failure to reach goals and improve happens often, particularly as we get older. But are we reaching too high, or should we be measuring success in some other way?

Why do goals go unachieved? This is a loaded question, but in my case, 10 years into a career competing nationally and internationally, I probably have less than 10 years of truly competitive performances left in my legs. Over time, as we come closer to approaching our physical limits of performance, gains become increasingly sporadic and marginal. Where once we ran 20 second PBs, now a 1 second PB can be reason to rejoice. Training, planning, and periodisation is as much an art as it is a science, and sometimes, even with our best and most thoughtful intentions, things don’t go to plan.

My goal for season: 2015 was to be competitive at the World Championships in Beijing. I first made an attempt at qualifying in the 10,000m, and fell short by 0.01 seconds. I quickly regrouped, and turned my attention to qualifying in the 5,000m, but faced more hurdles in the quest than I expected, eventually leaving me a little dejected, and in need of a reboot. In every other measurable way, I was a better runner this year than at any other point in my career. I have done things on the track, in the weight room, and up countless hills that I would never have been able to do before this year. But when it came time to showcase it, it didn’t always show. And it didn’t afford me the chance to compete at the world championships. Maybe I left my best performances on the trails and training tracks in 2015. Did I do it all wrong?

Probably not. When I ran my 10,000m race in May, I ran an 18 second PB (what was that about 1 second PBs?). Had it been 0.01sec faster, I would have come half-way to achieving the goal I had set. In every other way, this performance, and all the hard work that led to it, had success written all over it. It wasn’t all that I had hoped for, but perhaps a goal-oriented approach to measuring success isn’t sufficient.

When we fail to achieve our goals, we reflect on what we can do better the next time round. If our failure to achieve our goal was the only measure upon which we instigate change, we would overcompensate every time; try to do everything bigger and better, and never find the sweet spot where success happens. 90% of the factors that played a part in preparing me to qualify and compete at the World Championships were met this year. I have only minor changes to make during my reboot phase, with perhaps the biggest change I make being a reevaluation of how success is measured. After all, my undoing was most likely frustration born from measuring my success on the end goal rather than all the boxes I ticked along the way.

What I will not be doing is lowering my goals and expectations, or becoming complacent. An unmet goal does not necessitate that we aim lower. Equally, it does not mean that we cannot aim higher the next time around. When a goal goes unmet, progress is still inevitably made, and the factors on which we assessed our first goal to be reasonable are no longer reasonable. Every time we set a goal, we get a little better, whether or not the goal is met in its entirety. Each new goal should reflect our growth, not our shortcomings.

Success is not a destination. It exists on a spectrum. Sitting near the end of that spectrum is our goal. And with each outcome, we land somewhere along that spectrum, from which point our next goal is set. Always be optimistic and always aim higher next time you go to reboot.


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