The ultramarathoners -- those athletes who compete in events longer than marathons, Ironman triathlons, or bike centuries -- have a phrase called relentless forward motion. This means that no matter what is going on, how bad you feel, how thoroughly you're falling apart, you continue to creep forward however slowly you can manage. And the stuff that happens when you race nonstop for days at a time can be pretty severe -- you stagger, collapse, hallucinate, vomit. Sometimes you end up, literally, crawling in order to keep going. But the principle they cling to is that as long as you're making relentless forward motion -- as long as you don't absolutely stop -- you'll eventually make it to the finish line.
Which, of course, you will.
When I started racing again a few years ago, I had a bad habit of going out as fast as I wished I could run the race, instead of as fast as I actually could run the race. This made for the most painful 5Ks in existence. At the Heart Mini Marathon 5K in 2010, I ran the first mile up a giant hill on Columbia Parkway far too fast in 7:15. By the third mile I was coming back up the hill on the other side gasp-barking, my legs and shoulders rubbery and burning. The gloves I'd worn because of the March chill turned into hand-saunas, and I ripped them off and carried them. I knew I had slowed tremendously. I couldn't imagine how badly I would do, how humiliating my time would be, or why I shouldn't bail on the race and call it a bad day. But as I struggled, I made a bargain with myself: Just keep running, no matter how slowly I felt I was going. Relentless forward motion.
It was true that I had slowed nearly to an 8:00 pace. My pacing strategy was a disaster. But miraculously, I found I had placed second in my age group out of 75 women! If I had stopped, this result would not have happened. What I hadn't counted on, in part, was that the hilly course was challenging for everyone.
Not every relentless forward motion story has ended as successfully. Once at a low-budget triathlon, I found myself unprepared for the long, hilly bike course, slowing from 19 mph to 14 mph a third of the way through, and then getting so far off the poorly-marked course that I didn't see anyone else still out there with me. I pedaled in second-last out of 72 competitors, behind an elderly man and just in front of his elderly wife. But I went ahead and did the run, even though they were already breaking down the finish line before I got there. I was proud of my finish that day in a whole different way.
Finishing the disastrous triathlon at dusk. Everyone else has packed up and gone!
When I see people set New Years resolutions, I wish they knew about relentless forward motion. Personally, I don't even like the word "resolution." It sounds like a rule you can never break. And that's how people treat them, striving for perfection for a few days or weeks, and then falling off again at the first, inevitable occurrence of imperfection. One day of missed exercise, one cookie, one cigarette, and the whole enterprise is called off until the next year.
Relentless forward motion means that when your New Years resolution says to run fast and you can't, then you run slow. And when you can't run slow, you walk. And when you can't walk, you crawl. And when you vomit and pass out in a ditch for a few minutes and can't remember where you are, you get back on your hands and knees and crawl again. And eat an energy gel. Energy gels usually help in that situation.
Relentless forward motion is how you get to the finish line. Tiny baby steps. Not always running a perfect race. Not making a rule for yourself that you'll never slip up on. The only kind of rule you'll never slip up on is one that's too easy for you -- one that's no challenge. If you exercised two days and missed one, you exercised two days! Believe me, your body noticed, and it isn't following a plan in your head. Sometimes it takes experimentation to get it right. This summer, a new 6-week strength program took me 7 weeks to finish because I was so sore at first. If I had the New Years Resolution mentality, I would have stopped after the first week because I hadn't done enough of the workouts; I hadn't done it "right."
Don't stop! Don't stop because you're doing it "wrong"! Don't wait to start over on another, "better" day! The better day is imaginary, and today is the real thing. Finish the race you're on, however imperfectly. Just keep going. The rewards will be greater than you can imagine from that ditch you're crawling in right now.