This article originally appeared on Trail Runner
When Tyler Green set his sights on the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run several years ago, he knew he wanted to be a top ten finisher. But he didn't expect to nail that goal immediately, which he didn’t.
The Portland-based Nike Trail athlete ran his first qualifier in 2015. It took him three tries to earn a Golden Ticket and secure an entry into the race. And when he ran from Olympic Valley to Auburn for the first time in 2019, he finished in 14th place, which was a respectable effort, but not quite the performance he wanted.
When Green returned to States in 2021, he ran to second place--what would be his first of three consecutive top five finishes at Western States, including another second-place finish and the 11th fastest time in race history this June. The fact that it took him several years to reach and exceed his goal wasn't because his approach was flawed--it was a key part of his success.
Chip Away at Goals
"For so long, it was a distant goal to finish top ten at Western States," Green, 39, says. "I've learned you have to keep chipping away at the thing for weeks, months, and years to get a result you're really proud of."
It's a formula that also helped Green finish seventh in this summer's Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), another project he says was "years in the making." It's also an approach that seemed to work well for other American men at UTMB, including 2023 winner Jim Walmsley, who moved to France to spend multiple years working toward an eventual victory at UTMB.
While these results make a compelling case for playing the long game with running goals, it's not always our go-to strategy as runners. It's easy to fall into the trap of just thinking about what we want to do in the coming year. We set a goal in January, train for it, and then measure our success by what we did or did not achieve in the course of 365 days. Rinse and repeat, year after year.
But does this approach limit our potential and performance? What could we do if we gave ourselves more than a year to do it?
Let Bigger Goals Guide You
Green is also a running coach. As soon as he starts working with a new client, he always asks them the same question: What do you want to do five years from now?
"I tell them to dream as big as they can," he says. "We can get a lot more out of ourselves when bigger goals guide us."
A longer runway can help us see the possibilities we might not fully appreciate if we’re only thinking about the next 12 months. If you're just getting into trail running and your longest run is a marathon, it might feel impossible to imagine ever finishing a 100-miler. But what if you gave yourself several years to get there?
Maybe that's easier to believe.
It's a concept that resonates with me. One of my biggest dreams when I got into the sport was to run the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. But the first time I set foot on the course, I stared out from one of the highest passes and didn't understand how the steep, scree-filled chute below was part of an actual race course. It didn't seem compatible with human-powered travel, at least not without a lot of tears and butt-scooching.
I couldn't have pictured myself completing the run within the next year, but after six years and a lot more experience in the mountains (including a healthy amount of butt-scooching), I can say that I've now traveled over every inch of the course and have kissed the iconic rock at Hardrock's finish line twice.
Play the Long Game
Chipping away at a big goal over time is one of the most effective paths to success, says Brad Stulberg, a performance coach, researcher, and best-selling author of the books Master of Change and Peak Performance.
If you look deeper at many of the greatest success stories across sports, art, and science, you'll see that they weren't quick wins or overnight breakthroughs. Stulberg points to Charles Darwin, who worked on his theory of natural selection for over two decades, Vincent Van Gough, who painted two of his most famous works, including Starry Night, two years before his death, and Shalane Flanagan, who didn't win her first major marathon until she was 36 years old, well over a decade into her professional running career.
"Most breakthroughs rest upon a long-standing foundation of steady and consistent effort," says Stulberg.
A benefit of a patient approach to performance is that it can relieve pressure and help us make better decisions, says Stulberg. It's a huge weight on our shoulders to expect specific performances on an arbitrary and rushed timeline. "When we have timebound goals that we hold really tightly, we can get discouraged if we miss those goals, and it can throw us off our path altogether," he explains. "Or, we can make reckless decisions to reach a goal that can hurt us long term and contribute to injury, illness, and overtraining."
Make Small Steps for Big Progress
After an athlete shares their biggest dreams with Green, he helps them map out the key steps they need to tackle so they can make incremental progress over time.
One of Green's next big goals is Hardrock. Because of the competitive lottery, he doesn't know when he'll get the chance, but he'll start getting ready with things like racing at altitude and running on terrain that mimics the steep and rugged course through Colorado's San Juan Mountains.
Stulberg recommends establishing process-based goals to help you develop the skill set, mental tools, and fitness you need to achieve your biggest goal. Think about what you want to accomplish in running--what qualities and training do you need to hone to become that kind of athlete?
"Break your goals down into their component parts and then focus on those parts in your daily training," says Stulberg. "If you're constantly building fitness and experience in running, you're giving yourself a higher chance at having those really good days."
Make sure you enjoy the process, too, he says. It's hard to keep showing up if you're not having any fun with it.
Unlock Keys to Long-Term Success
Playing the long game can also help shift how you deal with inevitable setbacks, disappointments, and failures. Long-term growth isn't linear, says Stulberg, and subpar performances and challenges can be an important part of how you grow over time.
"Instead of seeing shorter-term goals and efforts as a be-all-end-all success or failure, look at them as points of information to help you in your greater pursuit," he says.
When Green was working toward a top ten finish at UTMB, he decided to race the full course in 2022, despite knowing his result probably wouldn't align with his hopes for himself. And he was right. He finished in 52nd place, but he believes that experience helped fuel his seventh-place finish when he returned this September because it taught him so much.
"I've learned that each race hands you a key that you can use to unlock a new understanding about how to get better," says Green. He looks at his long-term goals like a puzzle to solve, and he's constantly piecing together insights about things like racing strategy, competency on different terrain, and sustainable training practices. "It's OK to be disappointed in a result," he says. "It's only a failure if you don't do anything with it."
Endure with No End in Sight
A fun thing about playing the long game is there might not be an end game. Even if you accomplish what you set out to do, you probably won't want to stop there. Green certainly isn't retiring anytime soon. When I finished Hardrock for the first time, I saw it as a celebration of progress, but not the end of a journey.
While results are an exciting and rewarding thing to work towards, the long-term approach is really about growing into the kind of runner and human you want to be. And that means you will have plenty of ways to succeed, no matter what your UltraSignup results say.
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