For 2012, don’t just set a goal, set the ‘right’ goal

“You know,” Chris said, “there aren’t too many people who could do this.” After catching his breath, he added, “And I don’t mean people our age. I mean people, period.”

Chris David atop Wayah Bald.

We were on day three of a four-day, 50-mile backpack trip on a particularly rugged region of the  rugged Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. Specifically, we were about a third of the way up a climb that would see us gain close to a thousand vertical feet in less than a mile. It was not the first such climb we had encountered. In fact, much of this trip had been something of a roller coaster, with long, slow, steep climbs followed by long, slow, steep descents (I said something of a roller coaster). My quads and calves ached on the former, my knees on the latter. Yet here we were, me at 55, Chris David at 67, plugging along at a good clip, averaging about 2.5 miles per hour.
Chris’s proclamation wasn’t old guy braggadocio or uninformed speculation. He’s been backpacking since the early 1960s, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1983, and has been leading hikes for the Sierra Club for more than a decade. He’s hiked with beginners, he’s hiked with people who are on the trail as much as he is. He knows backpackers.
“I’d say about 1 percent,” he said, throwing a statistic into the mix. “No, make that one tenth of 1 percent.”
I won’t deny I found some satisfaction in Chris’s assessment, but I was mainly just glad that I could do this. That I could hike all day with 35 pounds on my back, that I could experience the winter-clear 360-degree view from atop 5,342-foot Wayah Bald, that I could stand beneath London Bald and stare down a treed bobcat not 10 feet away, that I could survive the wild gorge trying to contain Ledbetter Creek and stand atop Cheoah Bald, enshrouded in a cold rain trying to turn to snow wondering what the view might be like. That I, an absent-minded guy who is just as likely to find his car keys in the fridge as in the key bowl, would be able to remember nearly every step of this trip two weeks hence.
That reminded me of the one other thing I’m good at remembering, the thing that made it possible for me to be here in the first place:
The importance of setting the right goals.
Set a goal and the rest will follow. Advice that may seem obvious on this, the first day of the new year when so many of us are intent on erasing our bad habits and charting a new course. Goals are the carrots we employ to help us achieve an end to a means. Unfortunately, many of us won’t make it to February with our goal for the year intact.
Why?
We may set goals, but often we don’t set the right goals, the goals that we’re truly motivated to achieve.
Take Chris. Chris is a long-time runner, with 68 marathons under his belt since his first, the Marine Corps, in 1986. But it’s not the races that continue motivating him to run 50 miles a week. It’s the opportunity to do trips such as this, or his recent 63-mile backpack trip through the Smokies, or the 155-mile solo trip he did in the Nantahalas a couple years back. Or that make him think about another thru-hike on the AT. Backpacking in the wild is his true motivation.
My mountain biking buddy Peter Hollis is likewise driven by what for him is the right goal. Most people either lie about their age or demure when the topic is broached. Peter is likely to bring up his age, apropos of nothing, in the first sentence or two of an encounter.
At the start of the Huck-A-Buck cross-country mountain bike race at Lake Crabtree this summer, Peter lamented the fact that they didn’t announce our ages at the start (at 59, he was the oldest contestant — and proud of it). When I ran into him at Umstead a few days ago, the second thing he said (after updating me on trail conditions), was, “Well, as of January 1 my race age for this year is 60.” Peter claims he races to stay in shape, not to win. But he’s quick to add that he wants to be the fastest 60-year-old on the trail, and if he can whip some 40- and 30-year-olds in the process (which he does), so much the better. Being able to ride a gray streak is his true motivation, his real goal. If he wins the race, and he often does, so much the better.
Setting the right goal may require a little introspection.
Take the No. 1 health-related goal that so many people will set today: to lose weight. Is it really the weight that’s important? Is it strictly a numbers game, to see the scale record 10 fewer pounds by the end of January, 10 fewer still by Leap Day?
Or is weight loss a secondary benefit of your true goal? Is your true goal to fit into a size 4 dress  by prom? To abandon your 1920s-fashionable tank suit http://fashion-era.com/swimwear.htm for a bikini come summer? To shave three minutes off your 5K time? Focus on your true goal and secondary benefits, such as weight loss, will follow.
Knowing your true goal will also make it easier to come up with an effective strategy for reaching said goal.
During my junior year in college (my second junior year), I had managed to balloon up over 200 pounds going into winter break. For Christmas, Santa brought me a lime green polyester Addidas running suit. The running boom of the ‘70s was just kicking in and I decided then and there that I would be able to run 5 miles by the end of the semester. Starting that afternoon and continuing for the next four months I put one foot in front of the other faster and more often than I had the day before.
Darned if the semester didn’t come to an end and I was running 5 miles. And darned if I hadn’t lost 45 pounds in the process. Walking across the quad one day in April, a former suitemate whom I hadn’t seen in a while stopped me, eyes agog, and asked, “What the hell happened to you?”
I hesitated, both to let my friend twist over what he could only be thinking — that I was deathly ill, because in our acquaintance I had never once demonstrated anything resembling discipline or restraint — but also to ponder the question: What the hell had happened to me?
I thought back to my rotund self sitting next to the Christmas tree contemplating the lime green polyester Addidas running suit which had inspired my true goal.
“I became a runner.”

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  • To help jumpstart your thinking about how to set the right goal, check out this OutsideOnline piece in which staffers test-drive seven potential resolutions, from giving up caffeine to a body cleanse.

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