Three things I learned from running five marathons.

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Image by Paul Petch and available as stock at http://paulpetchstockphoto.com

This year I completed my fifth marathon at the Virgin Money London Marathon and earned a new personal best time of 2:56:44. Over the last five years, I crossed the chasm from being a casual runner who ran 5 kilometers one time a week to a serious runner who routinely runs 70 miles a week while holding down a full-time job.

I have been lucky enough to run four consecutive personal best times, finish two marathons in less than three hours, and complete 50% of my goal to run the six marathons majors around the world. While I hope to have many more decades of running ahead of me, here are three lessons I’ve learned so far from my life as a runner.

1. Manage your mindset

Memories from my youth convinced me I was not born to be a runner. I have flat feet, never enjoyed cross-country running in gym class, and I had shortness of breath whenever I would run more than five minutes. I started running in my late twenties when I was looking for a budget-friendly way to exercise and chose running since it was practically free (other than the cost of running shoes). I began as a casual runner who ran once every six days at an average distance of 2.8 miles and average pace of 9’18”.

Then, after attending a personal leadership workshop in New York, I learned how much I was being held back by the stories from my past. To forward, I made a conscious decision to let my past stay in the past and made a self-declaration I was a runner.

This psychological hack was important to helping me fulfill my potential. Before this deliberate action, I had major imposter syndrome if I referred to myself a runner. And because of this, I didn’t run much nor view running as something I enjoyed. Declaring that I was now a runner was essential to break out of the past and create a positive relationship with running. The shift in thinking enabled me to start being, acting and thinking like a runner, and ultimately set me up for future accomplishments in the sport.

Soon after, I registered for several 3 to 5 mile road races and generated momentum I needed to embrace the sport more. By the end of that year,my running frequency doubled (3x per week) and average pace improved to 8’28”. If it wasn’t for my change in mindset, I may have never explored running as a sport and miss out of the experiences I have had so far.

We all have areas in our life that can benefit from dramatic shift in perspective. Figure out what those areas are, start redefining who you want to be, and start living into that vision through your actions.

2. Make friends with failure

I have been lucky enough to run one marathon every year since 2012 and achieve a personal best time every successive race. I am really proud of this accomplishment and every single one of my marathon times, but there is one secret that most people don’t know: I failed to meet my target time every single race. As you can see in the chart above, while my achieved time progressively got faster with each marathon, I consistently failed to meet my target time. This was by design.

Ever since I was in college I have believed in the power of setting ambitious goals to help achieve things and tap into my full potential. This strategy has worked well in school, work, and running. However, the crux of this being effective is that you can’t be afraid to fail. Fear of failure causes us to set attainable goals that will likely lead to average performance. While there is nothing wrong with this strategy, most people don’t get excited or focused when we have high confidence that the goal will be met. It’s much more interesting and fun to set stretch goals where there is a real possibility of failure.

If you fail to meet your goal, so what?

From my experience using this approach over the last ten years, the process to achieve an ambitious goal will lead to better performance than the process to achieve a reasonable goal. The progressive improvement of my marathon times wouldn’t have been possible without this strategy. And how many people do you think have ever reminded me that I didn’t achieve my target time? Zero.

Whatever it is you want to achieve, sweep your fears aside and focus on the potential to do something great. You will be proud that you shot for the stars and landed on the clouds.

3. Think like a farmer

One of the things that I love about marathon running is that there are no short cuts. Properly preparing for a marathon requires on average four to five months of training that includes running at least 40 miles a week spread across five days a week. Even the best elite marathon runners do not run more than two races a year due to the time it takes to properly train and recovery.

I learned this the hard way in my first marathon. I was not very disciplined with my training. I ran a couple times a week and my total distance per week was less than 50% of the recommended minimum training volume. I didn’t put in the hard work on a daily basis to reap the rewards of a great race. And in return I hit the infamous “wall” very early on in the race and had to succumb to an unexpected run-walk approach for the final miles of the race. The marathon has taught me that it isn’t wise to take short cuts and cram work at the very last minute to make up for lost efforts (very different from what I could get away with at school!).

Rather, I learned that it’s essential to know what is important to me in the long term and to create daily habits and a discipline to make sure I am investing time in the areas that will yield the biggest results. This rings true especially for our health and relationships with our spouse, family and friends. While we know they are important, it can be easy to divert time, energy and attention away from those areas and into other spheres of our life that provide a more immediate results.

Like a farmer preparing his land for a big harvest at the end of the season, training for a marathon taught me the importance of investing early and often in the things that will truly matter at the end. Think deeply about what type of life you want to have in the long term and invest resources in those areas today.

Article also published here.
Header image available as stock here.

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Justin Pang

Justin Pang

Strategic Partnerships at @Google. Cat dad, marathon addict, and coffee drinker. Views expressed are my own.
Justin Pang

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