“The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout. The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet.” – Lao Tzu

“If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.” –  Emily Dickinson

Legend has it that in 490 BC after fighting in the Battle of Marathon, Greek soldier Pheidippides ran non-stop to Athens with news of victory. Upon delivering his message to the Greek senate he collapsed on the floor and died, exhausted from the 26.2 mile trek. Today, organized races of the same distance are held all over the world. These “marathons” are named in honor of Pheidippides’ fabled feat of human achievement, and are completed by more than half a million people each year.

I didn’t fully experience the excitement and energy surrounding a marathon until my first year living in Chicago. The sights and sounds of a large stadium crowd mixed with the familiarity of local streets to create an electric atmosphere. Runners of all ages, shapes, and sizes streamed past in a seemingly endless supply. When registration time arrived the following year I impulsively signed up, without giving any consideration as to how I would finish. Almost as soon as I submitted the entry fee I realized how vastly under-prepared I was, a realization which was strengthened that night when I went out for a run. My body was screaming at me so loudly after five miles that I became acutely aware how long a marathon actually is, and why less than 0.5% of the US population has finished one.

Over the next few training runs, with every step I took all I could think about was how many more it would take to go the full distance. The enormity of it loomed over me. Even though the race was over three months away, I had a feeling that at the rate I was currently progressing I would be nowhere near ready. If I was going to finish, something had to change, and fast. I needed a real plan.

I talked to people who had previously run, read a few books, and did research online. I learned that from a physical standpoint there were several important factors to consider:

  • Mileage should be increased slowly and in cycles, with training volume reduced every so often to allow for resting and rebuilding.
  • Distance shouldn’t increase on every run, but one long run a week was necessary for getting the body used to being on it’s feet for long periods of time and able to absorb the repeated impact of the ground.
  • As a rule of thumb, neither overall mileage nor the length of the long run should increase by more than 10% each week.
  • Training in other activities would allow me to run safer and longer. Exercises such as yoga or weightlifting would build strength and stability in ways running could not.

Using this newly acquired knowledge, I opened up Google calendar and laid out a training schedule that would get me over the finish line. I scheduled specific workouts on specific days at specific times. I knew when I would run and how far, when I would be doing a different workout, and when I would be resting. This single act completely changed my mentality. Although life interfered at times and I wasn’t able to follow the plan completely, just having it shifted my focus away from the end goal of finishing the marathon and to the present action of completing what was scheduled for that day. Sometimes it meant running 15 miles, sometimes it meant running 3, and sometimes it meant grabbing a beer and relaxing on the couch. In all cases, I could trust that I was doing what needed to be done to get me where I wanted to go.

It’s easy for big tasks to seem insurmountable in our minds, but when they are broken into smaller pieces they become real and achievable. Over the course of the summer I learned you don’t have to worry about running the whole race every time. “Train for the marathon” was difficult for me to comprehend but “run 8 miles” I could handle. This way of thinking could be applied on a smaller scale as well. When finishing a long run felt unbearable, I focused on getting to the next landmark, the next street, or the next drinking fountain. When even that became too much I learned to focus on each step, each moment.

A marathon is nothing but a series of smaller distances, just as a single run is nothing more than a series of single steps. Taking a single step doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but if all you focus on is taking the next step, then the next, then the next, pretty soon you can look back and you’ve gone really far. It’s not easy to do, it takes discipline. But it’s much easier to have the discipline for small actions then large, and small victories add up quickly.

When the summer started 26.2 miles was no more than a dream, but on the morning of 10-10-10 I crossed the finish line of the Chicago marathon 3 hours and 49 minutes after starting. No single event changed my perspective of what was possible as much as that race. I’ve since used the lessons I learned to write a book (one page at a time), play the guitar (5 minutes a day), acquire new knowledge (one lesson at at time), and develop healthy habits (one day at a time). Last year, my wife used the same principles to go from never running a mile to finishing her first half-marathon, and now running is one of our favorite activities to do together. Just this past summer I did another physical challenge, and completed an international distance triathlon in 2 hours and 32 minutes.

The process is simple:

  1. Set a goal. What do you want to achieve?
  2. Break it down. What steps are necessary to accomplish that goal? What specific actions can be taken to get from where you are to where you want to be?
  3. Take one step. Focus on each individual action as it comes, doing it to the best of your ability. If you misstep, learn from it, then focus on the next one. One step at a time.
  4. Repeat #3.

It’s amazing what can be accomplished with this powerful practice!