Racing the Sun Part II: Adapting Your Goals and Re-framing Progress
My brother, Jason, and I skittered down the rocky, narrow trail like mountain goats. The switchbacking path to Horseshoe Mesa was wildly steep, and no wider than 2 feet at times. The rugged ground was a stream of loose stones that skidded us like ball-bearing towards the canyon’s edge.
The path required constant attention and quick footwork to avoid the shifting rock and sheer cliffs. However, our spirits were high! Jason and I joked, took our time, and soaked up the surrounding ochre-landscape. Periodically, the shadow of a raven would streak the path before us. Its sun-baked silhouette spiraled above like a silent companion.
We had just descended 2500 feet in two hours, making it to our campsite around 5:00 PM. We crouched among the scattered ruins of a 19th-Century mining operation, the only opportunity to escape the unrelenting sun.
It was time to assess the situation. As any hiker knows, trekking downhill wears out the legs more due to the constant eccentric load. Add desert conditions and a couple of inexperienced Floridians into the mix, and Jason and I were already feeling the dull ache in our legs. We arrived at the level Mesa with only 24 ounces of water consumed between us. That meant we had 4 bottles left. We needed enough to re-hydrate from the trip down, cook dinner, and make the journey back up to the rim the following day. Given our limited carrying capacity, we would need to take 2 trips to the water supply, at a place called Miner’s Springs. No problem!
As Jason checked the map, I saw the color drain from his flushed face. The trail to Miner’s Springs, which appeared as a short jaunt from camp on the 2D map, was in fact another 1000 ft of elevation from our campsite, and the steepest part of the trail. Factoring in a second water trip the following day, and we were facing an unplanned 2000 feet of elevation in addition to the hike back up the canyon. Exhausted and ill-prepared, we had severely misjudged the canyon and ourselves. We had a decision to make.
Adapt Your Expectation to Match Your Reality
When it comes to setting goals or forming new habits, our best intentions often cause us to bite off more than we can chew. We underestimate the impact that stress, work, and life will have, and overestimate our willpower and discipline. While the goal you set may seem feasible in an ideal situation, rarely does life go according to plan. What happens when life prevents you from achieving your S.M.A.R.T. Goal?
Most of the time, human nature often reverts to the all-or-nothing approach. If you can’t do what you originally intended, give up and try again some other time. This is particularly true with nutrition and exercise goals. How often do you hear yourself say something like, “Well, I’ve already eaten over my limit. I might as well go all-out and eat whatever I want. I can always try again tomorrow.” Or, “I’m too busy today, I can’t workout for an hour! Tomorrow will be better.”
This mentality is surrender and procrastination disguised as perfectionism. Failure to complete the goal to a T should not be grounds for not attempting the goal at all. Any goal must also be adaptable.
Adapting to plans going awry is practically the definition of an adventure! Whatever your goal, identify a plan B. If you can’t make it to the gym as planned, what can you do? Instead of claiming the day as a wash and hopping onto the couch, go for a walk, find a follow-along workout video on Youtube, or just stretch for five minutes.
While it is important to have specific goals to strive for, you must also remember why you set those goals in the first place. If your primary objective is to become more active, any activity should be considered a success. Thus, approach any goal with an adventurous spirit by creating several alternate routes during times of stress, low motivation, or injury, so that you can still make progress towards your goal.
The goal of the Grand Canyon trip was to bond with my brother, experience nature, and have an adventure. Instead of fixating on the fact that things hadn’t gone according to plan, or that we may be in a dangerous position, I focused on the fact that I was still achieving the goal I set out to do.
Our plan B couldn’t be giving up, for that meant perishing in the canyon, or shamefully getting rescued by helicopter. And climbing deeper into the canyon for water could be a Pyrrhic mission that only left us more dehydrated, sore, and at the mercy of an overbearing sun the following day.
Jason and I both knew what we didn’t want to accept: in our current condition, the energy spent getting to the spring was not worth the measly 36 ounces of water we could carry. Our best option was to conserve what little water we had, immediately turn around, and hike back out of the canyon.
Originally planning to spread the hike over 2 days, our new task would be a challenge before even considering the elephant in the room: our rendezvous plan. Our family was not expecting to pick us up until the following afternoon, and they were staying 12 miles from the trailhead. Cell service didn’t exist in the park, so we would be stranded once we reached the top. By then, our water would surely be gone with no resupply. This was little reward for the effort we were about to make. Still, better to be stranded at the rim than in the canyon.
Unless, we could make it back by sunset! After all, the trail was called Grand View. If we hustled, we might catch some sunset-gazing tourists at the trailhead. Whether that lead to a ride home, or bumming some water, it was our only hope.
Already past 5:00 P.M., the low sun revealed that we had about 3 hours of light left. It took us 2 hours to get down to the mesa by taking our time and having gravity as our ally. There would be no such help on the way back. The race had begun!
Keep Your Head Down, and Focus On One Step at a Time.
We had been lumbering through the ascent for about an hour. A nervous, greenhorn hiker, I continuously asked my brother how much longer he thought we had left. Eventually, he told me to cut it out. As we trudged along in silence, I kept glancing up at the cliffs above to gauge our progress.
Bad idea. No matter how many times I looked, or how many switchbacks we took, the rock still seemed just as far away. This is one of the iconic features of the American West. The mountains are so large, and canyons so deep that you could travel for days and feel like you’re in the same spot.
I quickly learned not to look too far up the canyon wall. Inevitably, I would arrive at my destination. There was only one way to get there! Fixating every agonizing second on the end point was wasting willpower, and I needed every ounce I could get.
So, I narrowed my focus: get through one switchback at a time. That was a goal I could set, measure, and confidently complete before taking a brief moment to acknowledge the success. Then, rinse and repeat.
In our world of 1-minute ab workouts, fast food, and unlimited streaming, we have forgotten what it means to be patient. As I craned my neck at the towering canyon wall, I was committing the same mistake many of us do with our fitness goals.
All too often, we crave the results before respecting the process. When you’re looking too far ahead, every step along the way feels like a drop in the bucket. The task you try to complete feels more daunting, and you fail to appreciate the little victories.
Let’s set a goal to exercise 30 minutes per day, 3 days per week, for 6 weeks. This is usually the amount of time it takes to actually see and feel a significant change in your body. However, 6 weeks is also a huge commitment!
Once the big goal is set, do not look at it, think about it, or fret over it. Forget it! Realize that the more you fixate on the final goal, the more likely you are to lose hope. Instead, break your goal into bite-sized pieces, and plan over a short duration. Rather than ruminating over 6 weeks of commitment, your new focus should be to exercise 3 times for ONE week. Then, focus even narrower: on Sunday, plan to complete one exercise session before Wednesday. Success? Great! Check it off your list and take a moment to appreciate that you accomplished your goal.
Next, get one more session in before Friday. Check your schedule, write it down, and make it happen. Finally, plan for one more 30-minute session between Friday and Sunday. In the end, you are still probably going to exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. However, you are breaking the task down into manageable, adaptable, and confident chunks, thus giving yourself the perceived flexibility that boosts confidence and reduces anxiety concerning the greater goal.
Make these goals as small as they need to be. For many people, building up the courage to get out the door and into the gym is the hardest part of any fitness goal. Going to exercise for an hour? Yikes. Going to exercise for 5 minutes? That might be just easy enough to coax yourself into going for it. As I mentioned in Part 1, many of my clients set a goal to complete only one exercise per day. This is so quick to complete, and so easy to congratulate yourself over, that you may just feel like doing a second exercise. You are proving to yourself that you can make goals and conjure the discipline to accomplish them.
How can you stuff the greatest number of bite-sized, victorious moments into your goal? Victory is motivating. Success is empowering. Discipline is a skill. Longing for the far-off destination gets you nowhere. Every rep, exercise, day, week, and month is progress towards becoming the individual you were destined to be.
With this mentality I inched up the canyon wall. The chances of this whole trek ending well were slim. Would we even make it in time? Would we crest the rim, only to find a desolate and person-less trailhead? I looked up and saw the raven had joined us again, dancing with the falling sun. Was he circling the dead, or urging us to victory? Find out in Part III.