Goal Setting and Warning Signs

Participating in my first Ironman 70.3 (Half Ironman) was a challenging and rewarding experience for me. The reason I chose to participate in this event was because I wanted to see how far I could push myself--both mentally and physically while still have fun doing it. Cancun, Mexico, provided the perfect balance of a challenging terrain and plenty of recreational activities (compared to somewhere else in the continental US). I knew I would have fun on the beach and that the local scenery would provide an additional element of retreat.

I have never swum, biked, and ran a total of 70.3 miles altogether. Thus, I did not set any specific, firm goals for finishing within a certain time. However, since there are 70.3 miles to travel on both land and sea, finishing under seven hours is a reasonable and respectable goal to reach (In DC, I am barely able to travel the five miles between home and work in under an hour).
With any major sporting event or life in general, it is necessary to set some goals. Setting measurable goals helps us to know how well we're doing. That way we can adjust our speed and RPMs and monitor our heart rate to avoid overworking ourselves while we maintain a good pace.
The Destructive Pursuit of Idealized Goals
When setting goals for the race, I decided to apply the warning signs that are described in D.C. Kayes' research on the dangers of “idealized goals.”[1] Dr. Kayes believes that most leaders (including athletes) can become too easily seduced by the promise of goal setting. Most are unaware of the many limitations and pitfalls to setting goals. Recognizing the warning signs is an important first step in avoiding the destructive pursuit of idealized goals.
The Six Warning Signs
First, I do not want my goal to be too narrowly defined. I met many people in the race who strived very hard to achieve their goal of qualifying for the World Championship Ironman in November.
Cancun Ironman would only issue 75 World Championship entries to the top finishers in each age group. Instead of setting my eyes on one very narrow and ambitious goal, I have broadened my aim to include the following objectives:
1) Enjoy the event -- I would enjoy the swim in the crystal clear water and admire the idyllic scenery during the bike and the run.
2) Learn from the event -- Learn tips from my mistakes and from others so that I can avoid making the same errors in the future.
3) Enjoy Cancun -- Take time before and after the race to see some of the sights of Cancun and to relax on the beach by the hotel.
4) Have a good personal race -- Feel satisfied and content about my performance, meet my personal objectives and accomplishments during the race.
5) Finish the race --This goal is important because the trip to Cancun was a large investment in time and expense. However, finishing the race is not as important as learning and enjoying the experience, especially if I want to continue racing in the future.
So, I was not consumed with finishing within a specific time. Time is relative and my wellbeing is more important; I want to avoid pushing myself so hard and be able to heed any physical warning signs for me to slow down.
The second warning sign is setting an Idealized Future.One of my goals is to finish and to finish with a respectable time. It would be a tremendous honor to qualify for the World Championship in November 2009 and something I would be greatly proud of. After all, I have never won any sporting event in my life, much less an international event filled with the world's top contenders.
However, placing in my age group would not be the ideal outcome for me. I have already expended a lot of time training for this event, and I will not have the time to train for another Ironman 70.3 in two months..
I also have tremendous responsibilities at home, work and school. So if I were to miraculously win one of the 75 slots for the World Championship (one which I would not turn down), it would be a burden rather than a blessing. Taking on a World Championship at this point in my life could negatively affect my other personal and professional goals.
Also since this is my first competition, I need to sit back and evaluate how I should approach the next event -- a process that will take time to study and time to incorporate lessons learned to my next training regimen.
The third warning sign is to associate the Goal of completing the Ironman withDestiny.
I cannot dedicate the majority of my time and energy to this competition since I have a life to maintain and responsibilities to keep. If that means less training equating to lesser performance, then at least I have maintained balance in my work and life.
Additionally, if during the race I am in severe pain, have injured myself, or the weather is unbearably hot, I will likely drop out rather than to push myself to a dangerous extreme.
My destiny is what I'm able to make of the event not how I perform in the event.
The Fourth Warning Sign is Public Expectation. Since I am blogging about my first Ironman 70.3 and have informed many people--including my professor-- that I will be missing class, if for some reason I fail to complete the event or perhaps get injured, this could be perceived by many people and my Executive MBA class as shameful failure to achieve a goal.
However, I will not let this public expectation affect my performance or my outlook on this event. I have decided to blog about my first Ironman 70.3 and to tell my story honestly whether I finish the race or not.
The fifth warning sign is Goal Driven Justification. Completing the Ironman 70.3 is not that important to me if doing so would result in any injury during the race. If I fall off my bike, if I run into mechanical difficulties, or if I hurt myself, I will elect to drop out of the event as opposed to making the situation worse. I will do everything I can to keep from seriously injuring myself. I have to run the Marine Corps Marathon in October and running with injuries may result in greater harm in the long run.
Finally, the sixth warning sign Face Saving Behavior. If I have a bad experience with the Ironman in Cancun, I have no problem accepting my fate that this type of a competition is not for me. This is contrary to some leaders who may stubbornly continue to pursue their goals despite meeting resistance or failure. I am realistic about my status as a "weekend athlete." Completing a Ironman 70.3 or a full Ironman is not the "be all and end all" in my life.
Lessons Learned:
It is imperative that I share my thoughts and reflection during the race. I learned that the best way to stay motivated and strong was to focus on the sacrifices of other people especially those that were close to me.
During the bike ride, I drew strength from two of my fellow Sailors who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first is Cmdr Phil Murphy-Sweet who in 2007 was killed as a result of enemy fire near Baghdad. Phil was 42, precisely the same age I am today. I knew Phil since he was 18 – we went to school together in San Diego. The second war hero and close shipmate is Lt Florence Choe. I worked with Flo at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Just this March she and a fellow Sailor was running along a well-worn path on the outskirts of Forward Operating Base Shaheen in Afghanistan when an Afghan soldier turned insurgent shot her. Flo left behind a husband in the Navy and a 3-year old daughter.
These sacrifices kept me going. These sacrifices kept me strong.
I have decided to apply Dr. Kayes’ six warning signs to the Ironman 70.3 competition in Cancun. In doing so, I believe I experienced a more satisfying, fulfilling and successful event.
And if there is a future for me to participate in more Ironman events, then approaching the race with these pitfalls in mind will ensure better lessons-learned and takeaways that I can incorporate in my future training regimen. Focusing on these lessons as well as the sacrifices of my friends who gave their lives for our country sustained me during my race, something I want to continue to hone.

[1] Kayes, D.C., (2005). The Destructive Pursuit of Idealized Goals. Organizational Dynamics, 34, pp. 391-401


  1. Congratulations! That is a HUGE accomplishment and you have a great outlook. Have enjoyed reading your story, Cindy.

  2. Thanks Cindy. It's always wonderful to hear from you.
    How are the girls? I love your new waterfalls pic and the Portland Marathon story.

    Cheers, Chito