Lance Armstrong has made a career of setting goals and achieving them. Actually, Lance Armstrong has made a life out of this process. When doctors told Armstrong that cancer was invading his organs, he designated a very simple target — recovery — and achieved it.
So it comes as no surprise that on Sunday in New York, the ironman met his goal of running the world’s most famous marathon in under three hours. Given his history of shattering expectations (note his record seven Tour de France victories), it’s almost surprising how close he came to failing to reach his goal: He jolted over the finish line just 24 seconds before his little run through New York’s five boroughs reached the three-hour mark.
His performance is a testament to the motivational power of effective goal setting.
I’ll be honest. I was a Lance Armstrong bandwagon jumper-on-er. In Lance’s glory years, I really came to enjoy the monotony of watching men on bikes suffer. In fact, I still sport a yellow Livestrong bracelet.
I used to wake up on mornings in late July to watch the Texan ride his way to victory. My father and I would sit in wonder as the man just never seemed to quit. There was something noticeable in his eyes, as there is with so many other great athletes — a certain calm confidence that everything will work out.
I most enjoyed Lance’s performances in the Tour’s penultimate stage, which is always a time trial. Whatever “team” aspect of cycling there is becomes totally irrelevant in time trials, where every cyclist starts sequentially one minute after the rider in front of him. It is an event where the men separate themselves from the boys.
I can recall the Outdoor Life Network announcers praising Armstrong for his steadiness “in the saddle,” as he climbed towering hills without ever showing the fatigue that was tearing at his legs and lungs. His head did not sway back and forth, but instead remained perfectly still as he stoically pedaled up the treacherous slope. This was most obvious from the television angle showing Lance from behind, his bulging calves and quads disproportionate to his slim torso and shoulders.
What made him different from many of his competitors was an obvious disparity in strength and stamina. This difference was only exaggerated by the fact that rather than putting his bike in a high gear and turning the pedals over at a high rate of revolution, Armstrong opted for a low gear requiring him to exert far more effort but also creating greater torque.
Moreover, Armstrong displayed a mental fortitude superior to that of his competitors. Since in a time trial he could not rely on the adrenaline of directly competing with a rival cyclist, he had to rely on setting goals for himself and conquering them.
At the end of each of these stages, appearing fatigued but never exhausted or completely drained, Lance would cross the finish line. He would steer his way through the crowds to his trailer where he collected himself before the post-stage ceremonies and press conferences.
Yet when Livestrong Lance crossed the finish line on Sunday, he looked completely worn out. He walked the last steps of his 26-mile-385-yard journey. Upon finishing, he hunched over and rested his arms on trembling knees. A pack of roughly ten other runners finished at about the same time. They did not crumble into balls; they ran through the tape. One of the greatest endurance athletes of all time looked out-endured by some no-names who finished the New York City Marathon in about 850th place.
It was a sight that struck me. It suggested that maybe Lance Armstrong is human after all (or maybe, as the French would suggest, just no longer doped up on EPO and other blood oxygen level enhancers).
Armstrong admitted before the race that the training had taken its tolls on his 35-year-old body. He was suffering from shin splints before even starting the marathon. So then how did he do it?
He did it by setting a goal and achieving it. It cannot be coincidental that he came in just under his forecasted time. He had to have been marking his progress around the entire course, calculating in his mind just how much faster he would have to run to succeed.
That’s the lesson we can take from an athlete like Lance Armstrong: We are blind without goals. To aimlessly wander our way through life is not really to live.
Some say, “Success is a journey, not a destination.” I would refine that cliché by saying that success is a continual process of setting goals and achieving them. The trick then is setting goals that are realistic but challenging, so that with the process comes due reward.