The Real Story on Authentic Goals

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By Mara Abbott
2016 Olympian, CTS Athlete, and new CTS Contributing Editor

When you commit to your true goals, they will demand hard work and require concessions. They will request that you sometimes give up the certainty you are going to make it through all this in one piece. Your true, authentic goals are the ones that matter enough to you that they begin to dictate your other life choices.

I’m not talking about the little guys, those benign building-blocks like signing up for a casual race with friends, or sprinting to see if you can to make it home in just five songs from a shuffled playlist. I don’t mean your New Year’s Resolution to brush your teeth every morning – though I do support that. No, I’m talking about the goals that are a bit frightening – you know they are possible, you can feel how much they matter, and terrifyingly, attaining them is by no means assured.

“You are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.” –Richard Bach.

Finding My Own Authentic Goal

Two personal motivations drove my cycling career. Mountain climbing started it. As a kid I refused to do boring things, such as hiking with my dad. However, he successfully discovered a loophole: Just add one summit into the itinerary and I was helpless to resist. As a cyclist, mapping gradients and playfully varying cadence around successive switchbacks was as compelling to me as the actual racing part.

Early in our relationship, my coach, Dean Golich, decreed that there would be a “no climbing” phase. I think he called it “working on your weaknesses”. Since one of my weaknesses is ceding control – and because I got the climbing back once I stopped fighting him, I retrospectively call it the “breaking the horse” phase. I made it through by practicing micro-rebellions – I would start riding up canyons until they got steep and my cadence slowed… then turn around and ride down. Several times. On the same canyon. Technically: not climbing, Coach. 

Being a “climber” has a certain mystique to it, but it isn’t the best strategic career move. The women’s calendar is more suited to all-rounders, to the point one team director told me during a salary negotiation, “You know, I only hired you for the Giro.” I didn’t get that raise.

Of course, the Giro Rosa was really the biggest reason I was racing too, so I eventually accepted the “specialist” label. After all, my irrepressible love affair with going uphill was what kept me going. All the hours taking tight turns and avoiding potholes in an aggressive bunch, bombing scary descents, enduring long car transfers, and ensuring I wore the correct matching kit in public… were all made worthwhile by those few hours within the year I could play to my strengths on mountaintop finishes.

It is a fine line I generally tread between noble and idiotic.

My 2013 comeback after a year-long “quitting the sport” episode was partly-predicated on learning what the 2016 Olympic course profile looked like (mountainous, see above), and succumbing to a feeling I had spent the early years of my career with one foot out the door. I wanted to return to cycling and work toward Rio because I wanted desperately to see just how good I could be if I committed. My primary motivation became devoting myself to the abstract value of living out my full potential. As I look back, every thrilling, heartbreaking, pavement scraping second was worth it. My motivations were unconventional, but they were mine. I never could have sustained in sport trying to live out someone else’s vision.

It’s your turn – what are you here for?

Where I grew up, in Boulder, Colorado, the pervasive assumption is that every able-bodied person desperately wants to do an Ironman. Conventionally, this is indeed a very impressive goal. Yet, unless the full experience means more to you than it does to the guy admiring your new tattoo, it probably won’t be terribly fulfilling. Maybe the Life Pundits have defined you as a talented runner, but you’re genuinely more enthralled by taking risks and learning to whitewater kayak.

Goals change over time, too, and that’s okay. Perhaps you have always been a driven competitor, but your craving now is to find mindfulness and presence in your movement. Authentic goals don’t always develop linearly, are frequently surprising, and I am fairly certain their insistent magnetism does not obey our commands.

What’s it worth to you?

The answer is virtually never: “Everything”. Family, friends, work, and play are necessary for any athlete, no matter how stubborn (ask Dean – I tried). Our willingness to sacrifice – and more importantly, what we consider a sacrifice – is as unique as our crazy goals. At times, foregoing training for Saturday morning family waffles will make you stronger. At times, finding balance and sustaining intimacy outside of sport actually is the goal.

If your path is authentic, the sacrifices and hard work will make sense. If you are truly clear at the outset about what you are willing to give, and if you are the one setting those parameters, it will be easier to go to bed when Beer #2 sings his siren song (and you won’t mourn the loss when you get up early the next morning).

It’s frightening to admit how badly we want something when we don’t know if it will work out or how others might judge that commitment. Yet, if you weren’t somehow drawn to this level of risk I have a tough time imagining you would have found your way to this page in the first place – and you certainly wouldn’t have read this far.

If it’s yours, it will be worth it.

I promise.


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Comments 16

  1. Pingback: Why You Need Goals Worthy of a 4:30AM Wakeup - Mara Abbott

  2. We would like to invite Mara Abbott to our 13th annual Pebble Beach Authors & IDEAS Festival in September. Please forward her email so we can do so.
    Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Mara Abbott and the Power of the Panda Planner - CTS

  4. Pingback: Olympian Mara Abbott's Winning Winter Training Strategy - CTS

  5. A lot has been said about goal setting.
    In these short paragraphs, Mara sums it all up better than I’ve ever seen done.
    Kudos Mara.

  6. Pingback: Ultra Trail Daily News | Thursday, Jan 18 | Ultrarunnerpodcast

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