The power of goal setting

Monday 24 September 2018

Having just returned from his longest ultra yet, Andrew reflects on what he's learned from setting an ambitious personal goal.

Back at the end of 2016 I applied for a place in the 2017 CCC, the little sister of the Ultra-Trail de Mont-Blanc (UTMB), regarded by many as one of the most difficult ultra runs in the world. At 101km with over 6,000m of ascent, this was going to be a decent jump from Lakes in a Day (LIAD), which was 50 miles across the Lake District with a mere 4,000m of ascent. However, I wasn't successful in the ballot and so started to look for alternatives - which is when I came across the Ultra Tour de Monte Rosa (UTMR), a race created by Lizzy Hawker after using the area for training for her numerous wins in the UTMB.

UTMR is very similar to UTMB, with 2 main distances - 170km with 11,300m of ascent and a shorter route of 100km with just 6,420m of ascent (or just over 21,000 feet!) - it was the shorter distance I was interested in (for now). As there was no ballot, entry was down to vetting by Lizzie rather than the luck of the draw and so by early 2017 I had a place confirmed. That was the easy bit done.

UTMR 2018
Don't set a goal which feels achieveable - go for something that seems almost impossible. Coming down from Passo Monte Moro at 2,868m.

Once I'd committed to the event, the next thing was to do something - however small - to cement the commitment. For me, that was re-focussing on my low-intensity training regime during the winter months and the best way to do that was to buy a turbo trainer. This meant I was less likely to get put off training due to the horrible Yorkshire weather and made it really easy to stick to my 140bpm training rate - and for £60 from Halfords it was a no-brainer. Getting into a routine of using the turbo twice a week helped me believe my goal was achievable right from the start.

Next, I needed a plan for the rest of the year to set some key milestones to focus on. It was fairly easy to find a few events and part with the entry fees - and then I pulled this altogether in my personal goal page so I could start to see an outline of my plan. I carried on with training but was then accepted on the Goldman Sachs business course, which gave me a real dilemma - it was a brilliant opportunity, but very intense and I knew I wouldn't be able to do both (and run a business, stay married and still know my kids). So UTMR took the knock and I deferred my place to 2018 - I carried on with some training and did the Ripon Ultra as a consolation, a mere 35 miles around Nidderdale.

Ripon Ultra 2017
Ripon Ultra - my consolation in 2017 for deferring my UTMR place.

Fast forward to January 2018 and I had to re-visit my plan - I signed up for Ripon Duathlon to give me a focus and an excuse to buy a lovely new road bike and then decided to give the Tour de Yorkshire a go, 129km with just over 2,000m of ascent. What a fantastic route, although obviously I'm biased (if you want a free place in next year's event, enter here). I did lots of cycling in early 2018 because it meant I could incorporate training into my daily commute and I could ride socially with the other guys from our village - which in turn helped to keep motivation up.

Tour de Yorkshire 2018
Tour de Yorkshire finish line - cycling helped keep motivation up as well as pick off some training milestones.

September loomed and out came the running shoes, I was going to need to start covering some serious distance if I wanted to stand any chance of finishing 100km. My training regime seemed to be serving me well - the low-intensity approach of Maffetone combined with eating natural, real food and avoiding sugar and processed stuff meant I was feeling pretty slim, I always seemed to have plenty of energy and I hadn't had an injury for the last few years. This is what I call 'foundational fitness' - get this right and you feel like you can do anything; get it wrong and it feels like a struggle.

After lots more miles; an interesting conversation with my doctor about the irony of charging me £140 to sign a form to say I was fit when he was happy to treat a room full of people making poor health decisions for free; hours researching and testing new kit; even more hours sorting out the logistics of the race weekend itself; and a last-minute massage to iron out my back, I was finally heading to Switzerland. I felt good, I was happy with my kit and I had a bag full of my home-made flapjack - what could possibly go wrong.

Ironically the only thing that did go wrong was something completely beyond my control - the bus taking us from Switzerland to the start line in Italy broke down, which meant we spent 7.5 hours on a bus and had no time to eat properly before the race or get our heads in the right place. That aside, it was a fantastic experience. Lizzy describes the route as brutal and she's not wrong. I only just made it round within the 28 hour cut-off (27hrs 49mins) - but only 46 of the 76 starters made it round, so I don't feel too bad about that.

Start line of UTMR 2018
If you take on a big goal, try and turn up at the start properly fuelled and relaxed (and don't rely on Italian buses!).

I'm thinking of going back next year for the 170km route to take on the lessons from this year - firstly, not to rely on anyone to get to the start line so that I'm properly fuelled and relaxed; and secondly, to use trekking poles to save my knees and help move faster over rough terrain.

I've also been thinking about whether I've learned anything that's relevant to the workplace and I actually think there are three key lessons I'll be applying at work.

First, we'll continue to support team members who sign up for events - we already pay entry fees but I think we'll take it beyond that and really encourage people to challenge themselves physically and mentally. It will undoubtedly benefit them personally and therefore can only be a positive thing for the business.

Second, we need to stay agile - if something happens that we didn't foresee, we might need to change our plan. Pushing on regardless might not be the best option and it might in fact lead to a bad outcome. And always keeping an open mind on the best approach is key - if I hadn't bought treking poles in Saas Fee (the last checkpoint), I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have crossed the finish line within the time limit.

Finally, I think I've under-estimated the importance of milestones at work - we set goals but I think we need to be better at celebrating milestones on the way to achieving those goals to help motivation and morale. So just to test whether any of the team read my blog, if you've got any ideas for celebrating - let me know!

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