Goals are meaningless, apart from the meaning they provide

December 23, 2020

I started this year without much in the way of goals or resolutions. Just as well really, given what 2020 has brought for us all. I certainly didn’t have any plans for big running or cycling events - between looking after my daughter, working, and navigating a divorce, I had more than enough on my plate, without adding a gruelling training regime. Exercise would just be part of my mental health self-care routine, a chance to take a break from screens and get some fresh air and time to myself.

But in mid-November, Strava told me that I’d run 870km for the year to date. I was running most work days, taking time to go outside at my employer’s recommendation, so at the rate I was going, I would finish the year tantalisingly close to a nice round number. So for December I decided I was going to run every day. Even if I wasn’t in the mood, even if it was raining, I’d drag myself out and run.

At times it felt like a slog, an unnecessary commitment. I’d wonder why I was putting myself through this. I’d twist and turn through ridiculous mental gymnastics about whether to keep going. I shouldn’t quit. I should listen to my body and have a rest. The me of today shouldn’t be constrained by a decision made by the me of the past. I should renew my commitment to the goal every day. I shouldn’t burn myself out.

In the end, I did take a rest day, then a big push to the finish line with a long run in the countryside, which predictably ended up being longer than I’d planned, as I missed turnings and followed paths to dead ends. It was the longest run I’d done since the marathon, and it felt fantastic.

It started with a muddy trudge along the river, but then turning a corner at the top of a little hill, I got a view across the Ouse valley, a segment of rainbow hitting Mount Caburn, and a big dumb grin spread across my face. Even as the next part of the trail was muddy and steep, and the rain started, stinging my face as the wind drove it at me sideways, I couldn’t help but smile. It was a real runner’s high, and I don’t think I’d have experienced it without the slog.

Once I hit the target, I allowed myself to relax. I didn’t “need” to run every day any more, so I didn’t run at all for a few days. I had earned a rest, and the rest felt good.

The goal was entirely arbitrary. Nobody cared about it except for me, and even for me the goal didn’t really mean anything. Except that it did. In the act of setting the goal, I gave myself motivation. Without the self-imposed discipline of wanting to tick the box, I wouldn’t have had the drive to go as far as I did, and I wouldn’t have experienced the high that only seems to happen after pushing through the lows.

So I’ll keep setting myself these arbitrary goals, and keep working towards them, all the while acknowledging that they are arbitrary, meaningless and absurd.