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The Goal Underneath Every Other Goal

When Plan A goes out the window, knowing the ultra-realistic goal you can control will help you find Plan B and keep you on the road to success.

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In October 2014, Australian professional triathlete Mirinda Carfrae arrived on the Big Island of Hawaii as the odds-on favorite to win the women’s division of the Ironman World Championship, and for good reason. The 33-year-old run specialist had smashed the event record in claiming the previous year’s title and had shown no sign of falling off since then, winning the ultracompetitive Challenge Roth triathlon in July with one of the fastest women’s iron-distance times in history. In a prerace interview with espnW.com, Carfrae conceded that anything less than victory would be a disappointment.

Imagine how she must have felt, then, to find herself in eighth place at the bike-run transition, more than 14 minutes behind race leader Daniela Ryf of Switzerland. No athlete had ever overcome such a large deficit to win in Kona, a fact that the reigning champion was well aware of, saying afterward, “I didn’t believe I was going to win. I had to let go of that hope. So I figured I’d try to put together the very best race that I could and change my goal from winning to getting in the top five.”

In pursuit of this more modest ambition, Carfrae blasted out of the bike-run transition at 6:30 per mile, exceeding her own course-record pace. Despite the aggressive tempo, she managed to pass only two other women in the first half of the marathon. But then, at 14 miles, Carfrae scored a three-for-one, overtaking a trio of competitors in the span of seconds and sliding into third place. Just like that, Plan A was back on the table.

Conscious of the need to tamp down her rising excitement, the pint-size Aussie concentrated on making smart decisions, such as slowing down just enough to get the fluid and calories she required at aid stations instead of barreling through to save seconds. Her reward was another victim, Britain’s Rachel Joyce, who ceded second place to Carfrae at 20 miles. By now Daniela Ryf was visible ahead, and the final outcome a fait accompli. Carfrae grabbed the lead at 23 miles and went on to consummate the greatest come-from-behind victory in the 36-year history of the Ironman World Championship.

Best Redefined

As this story exemplifies, Plan A doesn’t always work out in running (or triathlon). There are times when, due to factors beyond your control, your original goal falls out of reach. But such experiences need not end in disappointment. I believe that true success is defined not by whether a particular goal is achieved but by whether the athlete does the best they possibly could have done, all things considered. True, Carfrae did end up winning in this case, but that is incidental. The lesson in her story lies that in her willingness to truly embrace the Plan B goal of making the top five, and I am certain she would have been proud of her race regardless of the outcome as long as she was able to look back and know she’d made the absolute best of her situation.

Don’t believe me? Let’s consider a very similar example with one key difference. This one concerns another legendary triathlete, Dave Scott, who won the Ironman World Championship six times but is most proud of the 1996 race, where, at the age of 42, he overcame a disastrous bike leg to move up from 26th place at the bike-run transition to 5th at the finish line on the strength of a 2:45:20 marathon. “No one would introduce me as Dave Scott, six-time Ironman champion, and oh, by the way, he got fifth in 1996,” he told me in 2010. “But for mental fortitude and tenacity, it was one of my best races ever, if not the best.”

My name for athletes like Mirinda Carfrae and Dave Scott is ultrarealists: athletes who understand that the goal underneath all goals is to make the best of the reality you’re presented with. The ultrarealist perspective on goals is wiser than the common perspective because it factors out luck. Most goals depend on factors that are within the athlete’s control and also on factors that are outside the athlete’s control. For example, the goal of setting a new PR for 10K might depend on good pacing, which is within the athlete’s control, as well as on favorable weather, which is not. All runners seek PR’s, but whereas an ultrarealist is able to quickly pivot from a Plan A goal to an alternative goal when luck doesn’t go their way, others do not.

Realistic About What You Control

Ultrarealists recognize that it’s foolish to define success in a way that makes success dependent on factors they can’t control. This is why, at the very highest level of all sports, not just running, you see example after example of athletes who are pleased with the outcome of a competition despite falling short of their original goal. Among the examples I offer in my new book about ultrarealism, The Comeback Quotient, is that of British rower Katherine Grainger, who came into the Rio Olympics as the defending gold medalist in the double sculls event. But after leading the final for 1,800 of 2,000 meters, Grainger and teammate Vicky Thornley were passed by the Polish boat and relegated to silver. Yet Grainger was not disappointed.

Victoria Thornley (L) and Katherine Grainger of Great Britain pose with their silver medals after finishing second in the Women’s Double Sculls Final A on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

“That’s why you don’t see tears, you don’t see upset, you don’t see disappointment,” she said in a post-race interview for the Olympic Channel. “Because I genuinely don’t know what more we could have done. The aim for every athlete at this level is to put out your best possible performance for the day, and if it’s absolutely spot on, you’re better than everyone else, you come away with the gold. I think we put out our best possible performance today, and it was good enough for most of the race to be gold and in the end it was silver . . . And I’m happy with that.”

This past year was one in which, due to factors outside of their control, most runners saw their Plan A goals go up in smoke. We all hope and expect 2021 to be better, but that remains to be seen, so it behooves you to approach your future goal-setting like an ultrarealist, with a firm understanding that the true goal is always to make the best of the reality you face, no matter how bad it is. If your Plan A goal drifts out of reach due to factors beyond your control, set a Plan B goal and go after it with the same enthusiasm you would have brought to bear in pursuit of your original ambition. As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle advised, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”

Visualize Your Best Self

There are two specific tools that I have found especially helpful in setting and pursuing Plan B goals. One entails thinking about the type of athlete (and person) you want to be. When you have a clear vision of your best self, you have something solid to fall back on when unforeseen circumstances leave you scrambling for a new goal. In a sense, you’re asking yourself, “What would my best self do in this situation?”

For me, the goal underneath every goal is to race bravely and smart. No matter what happens within a given race or how far off my Plan A goal I finish, if I am able to look back on my performance and know that I could not have raced with any more courage or intellect, then I am satisfied. Having this personal athletic credo in place makes it relatively easy for me to know what to do when the you-know-what hits the fan. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.”

Accept Uncertainty

The other tool that I find helpful when things go wrong is acceptance of uncertainty. One of the things I learned in researching The Comeback Quotient is that the human brain hates uncertainty more than just about anything else. According to the latest findings in neuropsychology, job number one of the brain is to minimize uncertainty so behavior can be planned and executed in a way that serves one’s needs — hence the expression, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

It’s not surprising, then, that runners tend to freak out in situations of uncertainty, as when a problem emerges and it’s not immediately clear how best to solve it or the future is too ambiguous to even know how to make plans. But not everyone freaks out in such situations. Another athlete profiled in my book is Jamie Whitmore, a world champion off-road triathlete who rebounded from a horrific cancer battle to win a gold medal in cycling at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. In the period of greatest uncertainty for her, when she did not know whether or how she would be able to become an athlete again, Whitmore told an interviewer, “If someone tells me it’s impossible, I refuse to believe there is not another way to do things. . . Maybe I will not be able to go from point A to point B in a straight line anymore. But I will still get from point A to point B.”

Being stressed out by uncertainty is, to a large degree, a choice, not a necessity. It is to say, in essence, “Unless I know now exactly how I’m going to get from point A to point B, I’m going to assume I will never know.” Don’t make uncertainty out to be any more than it is. If you lack an immediate solution to a problem, stop wishing you didn’t and put your energy into searching for one. Who knows? The solution you find might allow you to pull a Mirinda Carfrae and achieve your Plan A goal after all!

Matt Fitzgerald is an endurance sports author, coach, and nutritionist. His many books include The Comeback QuotientRunning the Dream, 80/20 Running, and How Bad Do You Want It?