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The Danger of Achieving Big Goals: The Other Side of the Finish Line

Back in November 2011 I attended a seminar in Saigon delivered by professional development trainer Brian Tracy. At the time I was unfit and overweight, but inspired by the talk I decided to set myself a number of disciplined health, fitness and career goals. My immediate focus was on losing weight and getting into shape. After a year of gradually stepping up my exercise regime I decided to take the plunge and signed up for 10km race and then a half marathon (21km). I continued with a strict training programme and in July 2013 completed my first full marathon (42km). As the day of the marathon drew closer I began to become worried about what would happen after I’d crossed the finish line. Would I lose my motivation and drop back into old bad fitness habits like sleeping in late, not eating healthily and making excuses for avoiding training sessions? Would I be tempted by pizza, pasta and burgers as well as too many late evenings with my mates at the pub?

The answer was to think bigger – triathlons. With this in mind I bought a bike and started to take swimming lessons. At this point I didn’t know whether I would complete a marathon, let alone a race that also included swimming and cycling (I couldn’t swim crawl at the time and hadn’t been on a bike in more than 15 years!) But as life coach Bob Procter teaches, it is important to set a goal that is so big it scares you. I set my sights on the ultimate triathlon race – the IRONMAN. After getting in touch with Stephane Laporte, a triathlon coach, we developed a long-term training plan to make sure I reached my goal.

It was the start of an amazing journey. I gradually stepped up the intensity of my training and increased my speed and distances. My confidence was growing and in August 2013 I signed up for IRONMAN Sweden, a race that was to take place a year later in my hometown of Kalmar. On 16 August 2014 I completed my first full IRONMAN race – a 3.86km swim, 180km cycle ride and 42.2km run, all of which needed to be completed in less than 16 hours. I crossed the line in 12 hours 28 min.

I managed to reach this fitness goal by being focused, disciplined and having a very clear plan that allowed me to move forward one step at a time. I firmly believe that if I can do it then any healthy person can complete an IRONMAN. The problem is that many of us cannot visualise ever crossing the finish line of such an arduous race. We are unwilling to commit to the disciplined training. We find it hard to say no to dinners, or parties or the television. Completing anything takes commitment and with something like an IRONMAN one is either in or out, there is no half-way.

During the 12 months of training I was often woken by my alarm at 4.30am. It was dark outside, I was tired and it was extremely tempting to turn over and go back to sleep. It is the easiest thing in the world to come up with a reason not to do something at 4.30am. So I forced myself to think of the bigger picture – my ultimate fitness goal and crossing that finish line in Sweden. Whether I had slept just a couple of hours, or not at all, I would force myself out of bed and stick to my training plan. This “no excuses” attitude sometimes included a 35km run, even though I had arrived home at midnight after a business trip. I am proud to say that I only cancelled my training sessions on a handful of occasions. As I became fitter and healthier it became easier and easier to get out of bed. I was losing weight and gaining energy. My daily exercise regime was paying off. My natural endorphin levels were up and I was actually becoming “addicted” to my new routine.

And then it happened. On 16 August I crossed the IRONMAN finish line. I had completed my ultimate fitness goal. But what now? I had been focusing so hard on completing the race in the 12 months leading up to it that I’d forgotten to think about what life would be like afterwards. Although I had signed up to other marathons and triathlons my motivation had left me. I felt empty. The month after IRONMAN Sweden was a real struggle. I began to cancel training sessions and eventually gave up completely. I had post-race depression; something I have since found out is commonly referred to as “IRONMAN blues”. Although I have managed to pull myself together and get some of my training motivation back, it is not the same as before. I simply feel there is no point; after all I’ve already achieved my ultimate fitness goal.

The finish line in Kalmar was a stopping point. But I’d worked so hard to get there. Such a huge and inspiring goal gave me the motivation to push myself through all that training, healthy eating, early morning runs and the race itself. Even though crossing the finish line was an amazing experience, and well worth it, Kalmar was like a brick wall. I now have to climb over it and start all over again, and starting over seems harder than ever starting in the first place. It has been said that achieving success can cause people to stop moving forward, like writers or musicians who fail to deliver that second novel, or second album, after the huge success of the first. We reach a feeling of completion, and that is bad news for creativity and maintaining discipline, or in my case keeping fit.

I now have to push myself much harder to get out of bed. I have cancelled more training sessions over the past five weeks than I ever did during the 12 months I was training for the IRONMAN. I consider those five weeks a personal failure despite achieving a personal best in the Bali half marathon on 14 September.

I have decided that I need to stop thinking about crossing the finish line in Kalmar and the training I put in during the months before the race. I need to set new goals and find fresh and exciting new targets. As my friend Doug Anderson reminds me: “A person is defined by how well he rises after he falls.” I am already registered for the Jakarta marathon on 26 October as well as the Phuket Half Ironman on 30 November and three full distance Ironman races in 2015.

I am also determined to explore bigger goals such as 100km ultra-marathons and more challenging Ironman races. Although I am still concerned about how I will feel once I complete these more difficult races, I have decided to focus on improving my times in the races I have already run. I am aware that I need to find new ways to motivate myself. Perhaps I will concentrate on health, strength and stamina rather than focusing on my time at the finish line. But one thing is certain, I need to get back into training and stop making excuses!

Doomed to Die Young

I may be doomed to die young. This fact was made clear to me recently after my 61-year-old father had a heart attack. Fortunately he survived, but I know that heart problems are often hereditary. So I telephoned my grandfather in Sweden last week to ask him if our family has a history of heart problems. I was shocked by what he told me.

His own father died of a heart attack at the age of 49 and I was stunned to learn that three of his brothers and one of his sisters had also died of heart attacks when they were even younger. Even my grandfather, who is 81, recently underwent heart surgery. I now want to understand how he has survived against the odds and perhaps more fully understand how I can improve my own chances of avoiding the same fate as so many members of my family.

My father suffered his heart attack on 1 October this year while he was at the gym. He was rushed to hospital where surgeons performed bypass surgery. Fortunately he made a speedy recovery and is now back on his feet. But why did he have a heart attack? He does not have an unhealthy lifestyle; he eats well and exercises regularly.

He suffered a heart attack because of his genetic make-up. His body is conditioned to suffer heart problems. The only reason he survived is because he is fit. I have since been studying the subject and have learned that I am also at risk. I now have to decide how to prepare for something that may be inevitable.

At the time my father had his heart attack I was training for my first half-marathon. This meant I was already in an intensive fitness regime. The news that my father had become ill further spurred me on to stick to my training, and on 2 December I completed the race.

Brian Tracy taught me the importance of discipline, something that I could not have completed the half-marathon without knowing. He says:

“The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term, is the indispensable prerequisite for success.”

I left Sweden 14 years ago, and since then have not remained in close contact with my grandfather. This was the first time we had spoken properly in over a year but I needed to pick up the phone and learn more about my family’s medical history. What he told me convinced me that I have to live a healthier life. I know that we will all die some day, but I also know that we can put that day off for as long as possible by getting more exercise and eating a healthier diet.

The combination of my father’s heart attack and the conversation I had with my grandfather gave me the push I needed to commit to a lifestyle change. I have since read books and articles on how a healthier lifestyle can help to prevent heart problems.

One of those books is ‘The Zone’ by Barry Sears. In it he describes how to revolutionise one’s life plan, how to lose weight and how to get the body and mind back into balance. From chapter one I knew that telephoning my grandfather had probably saved my life, and I am now getting the information I need to live a longer and happier life.

Like me, there is a history of heart attacks in Barry’s family. He explains that he is a genetic time-bomb and that his body is programmed in a way that makes it more likely he will suffer from heart disease when he is older. It was a shock to find out that I am the same. However, because I now know this I can face the fact and make the difficult choices that need to be made.

In the couple of weeks since completing the half-marathon I have found my discipline slipping. Although I have still been exercising several times a week, my diet is not as healthy as it was when I was training for the race. It is also Christmas, which doesn’t help!

My grandfather’s warning has pushed me back on track. I will be fitter, I will lose more weight, and will gain more strength. I have already signed up for my next half-marathon on 10 March 2013 in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. I know that if I am to complete the race in a good time I will have to commit to regular training sessions, healthy food and almost no alcohol. I did it before, so I can do it again!

So, why do I push myself so hard to be fit? In the short term I just want to feel healthy. I now have more energy, I am happier and I can perform to a higher level. In the medium term my goal is to run a full marathon before my 40th birthday; and in the longer term, I want to live full life and be around to see my son graduate from university.

I have learned that it is only when we are pushed to the edge of a cliff that we are forced to change. It is only after knowing failure that we can decide on what needs to be changed in order to win. For me my father’s heart attack and what I was told by my grandfather were a stark warning. I am now determined to take control of my own destiny by changing the things I need to change now.

Fat before fit. Drunk before sober. Unhappy before happy. It seems like that we have to fail before we win.