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Set a Goal and Make It!

In the summer of 1989, I decided to set a goal to run the Marine Corps Marathon.  Now I had never tried anything like that before – I was more of a weight room workout person than a long-distance runner.  I ran track and cross country in high school, mainly to stay in shape, but our training runs were generally less than ten miles in length. Typically a 5K or a 10K was considered long for me.  Nevertheless, I made a marathon my goal, mainly because for some reason I thought it would be a fun thing to do.

The Idea

Marine Corps Marathon Logo 26.2 Stylized depiction of raising of US flag over Iwo Jima.

The Marine Corps Marathon was scheduled for the 5th of November, and as it was July, I had just over three months to prepare and increase the distance on my workouts.  My roommate that summer was a runner – he was part of the Naval Academy’s cross-country team.  As we worked together to run the summer program for the incoming freshmen class, we joked that I would lead the push-ups with the Plebes while he would take them for a run, thus maximizing the pain for the new recruits while we led the activity in which we excelled.

Will was happy when I announced that I had set a goal, so happy that he promised to help me with preparation and to run the race with me!  Our summer commitment was over, and I stuck to my workout routine, steadily increasing the mileage according to the plan we had made.  We each had most of August for personal leave, and I went home.  After a week at home, Will reported to training camp. The Naval Academy’s track team had scheduled a two-week period of intense preparation for the runners before the school year began.


It was during that time that tragedy struck.  Four members of the track team:  Will, Andy, Don, and Rob, had a car accident.  They were travelling too fast on a rural Pennsylvania road, did not negotiate the turn, left the prepared surface, and hit a tree.  All four perished in the flames that engulfed the car.  I heard later that witnesses to the accident (who came out of their house to see what had happened) heard the screams from my friends trapped inside the car and tried without success to extinguish the fire with a garden hose.

When the school year started a week later at the Naval Academy, the memorial service was somber.  We had lost our roommates, friends, and fellow midshipmen.  Death is never easy, especially when there is senseless tragedy and there doesn’t seem to be any logic behind what had happened and why.  I remembered earlier that summer spending time with Will, laughing about pushups and running, attending chapel services together, and working closely as we trained the incoming freshmen class.   I remembered our goal to run the Marine Corps Marathon together.  Instantly that thought, just an idea at first, and an agreement between friends, became my desire and a driving force.  I knew then that I must achieve it.  It became what all dreams must be if they are ever to come true:  defined, declared, and desired.

Idea Becomes a Goal

First, defined.  It was obvious what I wanted to do.  I wanted to run the Marine Corp marathon, complete it in under 4 hours, and dedicate the day to the memory of my friend.  I had earlier established a training plan with Will’s help, and I could log my progress toward the goal as I trained.

Second, declared.  Unless the goal is released outside of your mind, it will stay there forever trapped and unfulfilled.  There is something powerful in declaring a goal – going “public” with it.  Now you are on record, now you are accountable, and now your performance can be measured.  There is an expectation from others of which you do not want to fall short.  For the marathon, the plan goes public when you sign up, pay your entry fee, and receive your pre-race package.  Since I had declared my plan to Will and we had an agreement that had never been rescinded, I committed myself to living up to that plan.  Soon others who knew me well saw me training and knew that I was on a mission.

Third, accomplishing my goal of running the Marine Corps Marathon was desired.  New passion drove me in training. I knew there was a day of physical pain coming as the race neared, but I also was working through the pain of the loss of my friends and considered race day as a day of closure and a day of release from the emotional sorrow.  The desire to run drove me through the training.   It was a good thing, too! Only three weeks before the race, I stepped awkwardly off the curb while running and rolled my right ankle.  I couldn’t run on it at all for the three weeks before the race!  By the Sunday morning of the marathon, the swelling had gone down, but the tenderness was still there, and I had lost precious training time.  Doubt kicked in as I wasn’t sure of myself and my preparation.

Race Day

But the race day came despite my inability to prepare, and I remember the chill in the air as I crossed the starting line.  The crowds of people were a definite encouragement as I ran – the camaraderie and joyful spirit of participants and observers was incredible.  A friend of mine came to watch – and she brought her bicycle – it was great because she was clapping and shouting encouragement over and over throughout the morning as she rode ahead to meet me at various locations along the route.  She handed me a water bottle and half of a banana at one point during the race.

The hardest point of the day was just after mile 20.  Although the course was flat, it ran out along Haynes Point on the Potomac River where the wind picked up, hitting us square in the face no matter what direction we ran.  Very difficult to continue at that point – the fatigue and pain starting to build and the feet feeling heavier and heavier.

Eventually I drew near the end and I could see the Iwo Jima Memorial finish line.  So close to the end of my defined, declared, and desired goal!  The tears started to run down my face during the last 100 yards.  The roar of the crowd was deafening, and I am sure that some were curious as to why I was crying.  I made it to the end.  Someone draped a space blanket around me so that I could stay warm against the chill. Even though my body was tired and spent, I remember walking as I cooled down, tears wet against my cheeks, chest heaving, but continuing to move.  I was worn out physically and emotionally.  I had made my goal, run the Marine Corps Marathon in 3 hours and 50 minutes. More importantly, I had honored my commitment to Will.

Lesson Learned

Perhaps in your life you will not experience what I did. I hope you do not encounter the tragedy of losing a friend in such a horrific way, but consider my experience as a guide for when you set a goal in your life.  Make sure to define your goals, so that they can be described in a few short sentences and are measurable.  Then declare your goals publicly, whether to your spouse, to your friends, or perhaps even to the whole world.  And finally, your goal needs to be something that you desire. It must be something you will find pleasure in achieving, enjoyment from accomplishing, and fulfillment in reaching.

Set a Goal and Make It! – today’s ActionLink.  Be sure to look for more Leadership Principles from P H Tyson & Associates.


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