This week I did something I never thought I’d cross off my bucket list: I ran a marathon. Well, a half marathon. Nonetheless, 13.1 miles was more than I ever thought I’d ever run.
It wasn’t exactly what I expected; it was so much more.
Somewhere around mile six, when I realized I had at least another hour of running ahead of me, something dawned on me. The satisfaction you get from running a marathon has very little to do with the marathon itself.
Think about it. Marathons are a crazy concept. Thousands of people line up to simultaneously run in a circle around streets, and thousands more come out to cheer them on. Yet when we do it, we feel this incredible surge of excitement and energy. Why?
Because a marathon is more than just the exercise and the endorphins; it’s a metaphor for life and I believe deep down we know it.
Here are the six life lessons I learned between mile 6 and 9 of my run:
1. Being before doing.
Do you want to achieve “greatness” and be “somebody”? First, decide who that is—then figure out what you need to do. Sadly, we have it backwards. We take actions to be someone. We study to be a good student. We work to be rich. We act in order to achieve.
I’ve never met someone who first trained for a marathon and then signed up. Every marathon runner I met made the decision to run and then used the commitment to motivate them to make it happen.
I personally never ran more than two miles in my life but I wanted to run the marathon so I signed up. Once I clicked “register”, I had no choice but to figure out what to do to be a person capable of crossing the finish line.
Life works in a similar way. Greatness comes in the moments of clarity when you realize who you want to be, whether it’s a great spouse, parent, entrepreneur, or community leader. Once you’ve decided what shoes you want to fill, then you can figure out how to get there.
2. Real transformation takes time.
We live in a world of immediate results. Have you ever wanted to lose weight for a wedding so you crash dieted the week before? You may drop two or three pounds, but it never lasts. Usually you put the weight back on plus a few more. Real change takes time. Lasting change is a slow and steady process.
Preparing for a marathon is a slow, dedicated process of consistent training, dietary changes and mental preparation. No one even dares train the week before. That’s how you become somebody who can reach the finish line while still breathing.
Related: Here’s How People Without Self Discipline Can Achieve Big Goals
3. Habits help you soar.
Growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the result of having the right habits. Habits are developed by creating rituals, behaviors that you repeat regularly. Successful people understand this. Instead of fixating on a goal, they focus on the rituals they can perform daily to form the habits that will enable them to grow properly.
If you want to run a marathon, you can’t just wake up, feel inspired, go for a run and then not run again for weeks. Proper training requires rituals and habits. It’s the rituals you do and the habits you form that transform who you are.
4. Compete against yourself.
To be a professional athlete, you typically have to win a genetic lottery. If you don’t fit a certain physical mold or have exceptional natural ability, you can’t compete. Marathons are the exception. Join the crowd at any marathon and you’ll see people of varying shapes and sizes, ages and levels of physical fitness. Often, all are welcome.
Most runners aren’t competing for first place. They’re competing against themselves, either for a better personal time or simply to finish. Life is similar. While it may look like a race against others, the only real competition is yourself. Rather than looking over your shoulder to see how everybody else is doing, focus inward to see how you can evolve.
Related: 3 Ways to Set Goals You’ll Actually Achieve
5. Growth is inspiring.
At the marathon, I was struck by the number of people cheering us on, despite the cold weather. People came out in droves. They made signs and handed out cups of water and Gatorade. But the crowd wasn’t just made up of family and friends. People came out of comfortable coffee shops and restaurants to watch strangers run.
Why? Because growth is inspiring. A marathon is hundreds of people moving towards a goal. And that speaks to us. Deep down, we’re built with the desire to constantly move toward ambitious goals. It’s inspiring to see other people doing that.
6. Picture the destination, appreciate the journey.
When you’re training in the winter for the Miami Marathon and you live in the Northeast, you do most of your training indoors on a treadmill. When I needed inspiration during my runs, I pictured reaching the finish line surrounded by a cheering crowd.
But the strangest thing happened at the race. While I was running, I focused less on the finish line. I started appreciating the run itself.
Many of life’s regrets come when we look back and realize we were so focused on reaching a destination that we forgot to appreciate the journey. Have you ever wished you spent less time worrying about your grades in school and more time enjoying the learning? Have you ever regretted not enjoying the freedom of being single? Did you make time to enjoy your kids when they were little?
We’re so busy trying to get to the next stage or reach the next goal that we miss out on the journey.
Don’t get me wrong. At every stage in life, we should be growing and moving towards a goal. But unless you stop to appreciate where you are, you’ll wind up missing the whole experience.
At the marathon, the finish line was a total let-down. After weeks of training and hours of pushing myself, I turned the corner and it was over. After crossing the finish line I realized that the climax wasn’t the finish line, it was the journey itself.