On Distance Running and Goal Setting: Making the Infinite Finite

[Featured image: my wife Emily and I during the Shadow of the Giants 50K]

There has been a “Ten Year Challenge” thing floating around Facebook of late. I decided to participate, which got me thinking in the larger sense about the concept of a challenge in and of itself. The “Ten Year Challenge” focuses on showing how you have changed over the course of ten years. In my case, I’ve change quite a lot in many ways. One of the primary reasons for that is that I love to challenge myself, both personally and professionally. There are many ways that these things are intertwined, and many similarities to how I approach both personal and professional challenges. Key to both is breaking up a seemingly infinitely difficult challenge into a series of finite and attainable tasks.


FROM MY FACEBOOK POST: Ten-year challenge. Why not? 

The pic from Yosemite is literally the only one I could find of me from 2009. I was 235 pounds (at some point that year… I think I was starting to run regularly at the time of this trip). It is amazing how that happens. I had always been active, working out, hiking, etc. But then I moved to California, quickly became a management-level consultant, spent most of my time at a desk, etc. I was at Upper Newport Bay one day that year (2009), saw a reflection of myself in the Jeep, and was shocked at what I saw. That was the year I entered my first 10K race as running motivation (which I barely finished), and left my job to go out and work on my own the first time.

The second pic is from the Mohican 100 this year. My weight fluctuates with my training level, but is usually somewhere in the 180s, sometimes in the 190s. If I start “feeling fat”, that usually motivates me to get back to training more often (though I usually don’t gain too much weight anymore because I am now in the field a lot), though my weight also increases a bit when I’m incorporating weight-lifting a lot, which I did for my races this year.


The Case of the 100 Mile Run

I gravitate toward the 50- and 100-mile running distances precisely because there is no certainty that I will finish (though I try to convince myself each time that the finish is certain!). While I have finished every 50 kilometer race I’ve started (except one I was doing with my wife where she got injured and couldn’t finish), I’m probably at a 75% finish rate for 50 mile races and a 50% finish rate for 100 mile races. Each time I decide to enter a 100 mile race, it’s precisely because it seems like an infinitely-difficult challenge.

I’ll preface this whole discussion with a note to any ultrarunning friends that might be reading this: I haven’t come up with anything new here and how I approach this stuff is likely familiar to most of you. Much of this is written for those that don’t partake in the beautiful lunacy that is the sport of ultrarunning.

The first part of the journey toward a race finish line for me is finding a race that excites me. I love beautiful places. I love challenging terrain. More climbing and descending is better than less. Bonus points if the idea of trying to do it seems a bit stupid and scary.

Once I’ve signed up, there’s the planning, which usually means setting up a long-build training schedule over a period of several months to gradually get to the weekly running mileage I need. Most of us in this sport – if we want to be doing it for awhile – don’t maintain the physical conditioning necessary to do one of these races year-round. While there are a handful of people who have apparent physical gifts that can do it, the majority of us would eventually break down. Indeed, there are countless examples of runners that have suddenly popped on the scene, competed in a few races, and disappeared to do something else because of a series of not-well-understood things that comprise “Over-Training Syndrome”. I know from experience that I can’t maintain high level training for a very long period, which is why I don’t race a lot, and I usually take quite a bit of time away from running after major races. The end result is often that my mileage “base” is pretty low (relatively speaking) when I start training for a race.

That training schedule is the first part of the goal setting. The first week starts at a total weekly mileage and weekend long run mileage that makes sense for where my fitness is at the time. Each week builds from there, going up roughly 10% in distance for three weeks, before dropping back again (a recovery week), then building again for another three weeks. Sometimes it’s a little different, but that’s usually the plan. If I hit my weekly mileage goals, I’m feeling pretty good. Sometimes I can’t, either because of some physical problem (potential budding injury) or – more often – because of my work schedule. If I can’t bounce back onto the existing training schedule, I’ll adjust the mileages to try to get my ultimate training goal by race day.

Race day is the second part of the goal setting. Like most ultrarunners, I don’t start a race really thinking that deeply about doing 100 miles. While there is a well-known runner who has the motto “100 miles is not that far”, I’d assert he’s wrong: it actually is really freaking far. Most of us don’t want to think about that task at-hand. We split the race up into smaller races, usually aid station to aid station. Having to go five to ten miles as a goal, instead of 100 miles, seems much more digestible, especially later in the race when you’re tired. In essence, you’re breaking the race into two main goals:

  1. Don’t stop moving.
  2. Get to the next aid station.

You just repeat that until you finish. Hopefully.

The most comfortable place on Earth for 15 minutes. Photo by Emily Molstad.

[Above: impromptu nap about 75 miles into the 2018 Javelina Jundred. The overnight miles were rough, but I went on to finish.]


The Case of the Giant Project

As in ultrarunning, I get excited in my work by the challenge of a giant project. I absolutely will not take on a project that is not feasible for me to complete and – hopefully – provide the best end product that the client has ever seen. Doing so would be a good way to ruin my career. I do, however, pride myself in being able to tackle very large projects where my bid competitors are often firms (not individuals). I’ll discuss two examples, one of which had a giant field component, and another a giant document component.

September 2017: USGS topo maps and planning for the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project Pygmy Rabbit Survey.

In July 2017 I won a contract with the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct transect surveys for Pygmy Rabbit along 57 miles of dirt roads and two-tracks on BLM land two hours north of Winnemucca, Nevada. Based on my review of the provided survey methodology, I determined the work could be done by three surveyors walking 114 miles of transects each. As the spotting of Pygmy Rabbit sign is easy to train someone for, I bid on the work assuming it could be done extremely quickly covering large swaths of land each day with two other ultrarunners as assistants.

The implementation costs on a project like this go up dramatically with each day in the field. It is likely my assumption of being able to tackle 10-14 miles of transects each day (at a minimum) that allowed me to win the work. The problem was that the series of soft commitments I had gotten from various runners to do the work with me never panned out. I ended up with the son of a running friend who was an avid hiker and a biologist I connected with on LinkedIn.

As the project got closer, I gradually adjusted my goals, how the budget was allotted, etc. to get things to work (it was a fixed price contract so how I allotted financial resources only mattered to me). I significantly changed the field approach, amount of time spent camping (vs. hotels), transportation strategy, etc. I also adjusted the number of field days by a few to make the daily mileage a little more digestible, but still a difficult challenge.

In the end, we finished the project only one day later than I had planned. I also finished under my budget. While a lot of that was because of my planning and productive changing of goals, it was also a testament to the two folks I brought on to work with me who pulled some very long days in often very difficult field conditions. I was pleased. The BLM was pleased. The final report, data, and GIS deliverables were all made on time. It also managed to work as part of training for two races, where I nearly made the podium for the first time at a 50K a week after I got back, then finished the Chimera 100 a month later.

On the giant document end of things I could provide numerous examples, including the Smith Rock State Park Wildlife Assessment or the much larger Harris Beach Management Unit Wildlife Assessment (which isn’t yet public), or even examples from large projects further back, but I will stick here with my most recent one: the Descanso Gardens Wildlife Management Plan, which I delivered to the client just this week.

I won the Descanso contract in December 2018. The field component of the work was from January to October, during which time I also gathered information through desktop research for the final report. After fieldwork ended in October, I was left with about 100 pages of notes in a rough order. The notes included items from meetings about organization goals, challenges in dealing with wildlife in a managed garden, etc. I also had over 340 documented wildlife species to address.

How do you turn all of this into an actual plan?

Like in distance running, it’s all about goals. Sometimes, also like in running, those goals will shift, but in the end it’s about breaking this giant task up into digestible pieces.

Every day that I worked on that document I had at least one document-specific task that I’d try to complete that day. A first goal was make a pass through the whole document and organize everything into a coherent structure. Another was to make document headings and subheadings, with the notes organized under those headings, to tell the “story” I wanted to tell (yes, even a technical report should have a “story”). Then, it was to organize all of the species lists into a presentable form. Then, start setting up the GIS workspace with all appropriate reference materials and draft map layouts. Then, finally, tasks each day to write a given section or subsection (say, Section 1.3 or Section 6.3.2). I had a task every few days to make yet another full document read-through, to try to make sure there is internal consistency in tone, message, etc.

While the end report (which was delivered as a 177 page PDF) seemed like an infinitely hard task at the outset, when you break it down into finite and do-able items you eventually have a giant document. Hopefully a good one. Hopefully one that tells the story you want to tell effectively.

You’re at the finish line.

Published by marcuscengland

I am a wildlife biologist, artist, photographer, writer, and sometimes trail ultrarunner based in southern California.

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