Is Life (and Running) All About the Process?


“Life (and running) is not all about time but about our experiences along the way”  ~Jen Rhines

My husband, Coach Terrence Mahon, saw this quote pop up on a running calendar last fall and asked me: did you actually say that???  In fact I did.  If I remember correctly someone from Adidas Running promotions asked me for a quote to use on some autograph cards.  When I said this as a twenty-some year old athlete I absolutely meant it.

I had recently spent my first summer traveling on the European Track Circuit.  I had met lots of new people, including some that became friends and training partners for the next 15 years.  I had opportunities to travel and race in many countries; I could go on for hours about our adventures.  As a goal driven and detail oriented person (I was an engineering major in college…) who focused on absolutes, I realized that there was a lot more to being a professional runner than just clicking off the splits in practice. The times and places that I ran in the races that season were important, but so were all of these new experiences.  I learned a lot!  The training, racing and traveling were all part of a plan developed by myself and my coach to give me my best chance at making my first Olympic Team the following year.  There were many skills I needed to develop, both physically and mentally.  One year later I did accomplish my childhood dream - I made the US Olympic Team.  However, it wasn’t just because I had so many new experiences the previous summer; I had a process that was designed to achieve and end.  And that final result matters.

When I reread this quote in the present it reminds me of something that I hear people say quite frequently:  “that they learned so much in the process.”  This is true, experiences can be a great learning tool, but it’s important to not forget about the end result. One definition of “process” is: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular endIt’s easy to use the saying “it’s all about the process” as an excuse for falling short of the end goal.  We may rationalize that the end result doesn’t matter since we learned so much along the way.  In my eyes that end result needs to remain our primary focus.  We don’t always achieve what we set out to; falling short happens to all of us.  Sometimes someone else is simply better, other times we haven’t mastered all the skills that are required of us for a particular task.  It doesn’t mean we are bad people, or total failures, it just means the process needs to be reviewed and revised.  On social media we often gloss over our failures by focusing on the positives, and even when we do mention the negatives we get a barrage of well wishers telling us it’s ok.  While this support is well intended - it’s not ok if we don’t reflect on where we went wrong or where we went off course.  The sooner we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge our shortcomings the sooner we can move forward.  This new awareness will open new doors we simply weren’t seeing in the past. 

Preparing for that next big endeavor is a great feeling. I always enjoyed the end of the season review with my coach.  I found it exciting to go over what worked and what didn’t, and what needed to be tweaked to work better.  After this review and refinement of the process I always felt refreshed and ready to tackle the next season, even knowing that many challenges and unknowns were lying ahead.  Sometimes analyzing and discussing our short comings isn’t an easy thing to do.  This can be tough to do on your own; it takes a rare individual who can step back and take an unemotional assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  I suggest having a trusted coach or friend help with this analysis.

We know when we don’t achieve a goal that we need to review and make some changes to our system. This also holds true after a big achievement.  The Sydney Olympics were an amazing experience for me; it was huge accomplishment to be part of the US team.  However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.  I was eliminated AND lapped in the prelim of my event, the 10,000m.  I was relegated to watching the final from the stands…this is not ideally where you want to be as an athlete competing at the Olympic Games. There were many things that I could have done differently both at the games and in my preparation.  After several years of these reviewing and refining cycles I did qualify for an Olympic final. Walking out onto the track and being announced in the 2008 Olympic 5000m final was a career capping moment. If over the years I had focused solely on celebrating my experiences and skipped over the critical review process, I would have never had this moment.

I still find this fine tuning process exciting today.  I’m not chasing the same goals that I was 20 years ago, but the reviewing and revising process is the same.  I feel that same buzz when I start a new training cycle or begin a new venture. Our environment is constantly changing - we can repeat the exact same things twice and not get the same results. In addition to our own learning curve we have to be ready to respond to these external challenges.  In running, both the times we run and our experiences along the way are important.  In all of our life pursuits we should continue to create new experiences for ourselves, while always keeping an eye on the big purpose.

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