Go Big to Get Small – The Art of Improbable Goals (Long Edition)

My son Kyle turned me on to Tim Ferris, the podcast king, a few years back.  What I love about Tim and the stories he tells is he always strives to do something new, something impossible.  Just to name two of the incredible things he has done is teach himself to swim in one week.  Going from being afraid of dunking your head underwater to swimming out in the open water for one mile all in one week is quite amazing.  Equally remarkable is teaching yourself an obscure form of Jujitsu and then becoming World Champ in a few months!  Tim has done both and much more.  You can listen to more of Tim here!

Another one of my favorite podcasters (as anyone of my readers can attest) is Father Mike Schmitz.  Recently he did a series on the definition and examples of courage.  According to Father Mike, “Fear is not taken away, courage is given!”  To paraphrase, you cannot be truly courageous without fear.  Courage is striking out even when you have that dry pit in your stomach.   Indeed, being fearless is a bit of a misnomer.  You must drive through your fears to become a better person, a better you.

To be like Mike and to take on Tim, I started the practice a few years back to declare improbable goals and then set out a plan to accomplish them.  I used these goals and the efforts to reach them to overcome fear, gain confidence, and lose weight.  The best example of this is finishing a Kennedy Walk – 50 miles in 20 hours or less.

When I started my weight loss journey in 2015, walking 50 yards was hard enough.  I was 358 lbs. with a distinct fear of throwing out my back even walking around the block.   I had several debilitating bouts where doing simple tasks – even walking thru me into traction.  One of the worst was just before I had to go to a very important work meeting.  A few steps too fast and boom I was at the Chiropractor.  I am not sure he was happy to see me (I always gave him a workout moving my bulk around).  He could get me to walk upright just barely and I had to wear a back brace throughout the discussions.  I tell you all this to understand just how impossible this goal seemed at the time.   To me, it was just short of climbing Mt. Everest.

To take on any large task or goal, you must take the first tentative steps to prepare.   You also need to break it up into sub goals to enable the conditions of achievement.  In this case, my sub goal was not something grandiose.  It was simply to look half way decent at my 30th West Point reunion.  So, I started Weight Watchers and exercise routines that would enable walking distances over time.  Those were water aerobics, yoga, and elliptical trainer – all low impact exercises that enabled better alignment and brought about a base level of fitness.  By the time I reached the reunion I was down about 90 lbs. and could walk a mile or two that was needed for the old grad march without throwing out my back.

Now I was ready for something bigger, something with my back history was just a bit scary.  I wanted to walk a long distance.  I started to research on the internet what was equivalent to a marathon but for walkers.  And I found it –  the Kennedy Walk.

The Kennedy walk was established by John F. Kennedy to demonstrate the fitness of the Armed Forces.  It must be completed in 20 hours.  Bobby Kennedy famously completed the walk one winter’s day in his loafers walking along the Potomac and dragging some of his reluctant staffers along.  Bobby, the epitome of grit, made it (not sure of his staffers).  In honor of Bobby’s rendition, a Kennedy walk is held along the Potomac every few years.  Unfortunately, there was not one in the timeline wanted.  So, I set out to find one or make one.

One key element for establishing a large goal was done, I now had the target.  But I needed a second element – a reason.  The reason in this case was more important than the goal.  I wanted to honor a former colleague in the Army who was lost while serving this country in Afghanistan – Richard McEvoy and to raise money for returning vets.  Dick was KIA in Afghanistan on August 22nd, 2015 while training the Afghani police. He was a contractor after serving 28 years in the service. Col McEvoy (then Captain) and I served together in the 3-60 Infantry Battalion. He was the epitome of the USMA motto: Duty, Honor, and Country. In honor of Dick, the walk served as a fund raiser for the Merivis Foundation, a non-profit that trains returning veterans in Austin for the IT industry and the Young Marines, a service group in Austin.

With a worthy cause and a goal firmly established, I set out to complete a 50 mile walk in 20 hours or less.  But I could not do it all at once.  So, I broke it out in sizeable chunks.  I also picked a venue – the Lady Bird Lake trail in Austin – that could be walked 5 times to equal 50 miles.  It also had shorter paths to start off.  So, in the spring of 2016, I started to train for the first Annual McEvoy Memorial Kennedy Walk.

Every Saturday, I took an increasingly longer walk.   Lady Bird Lake trail was the perfect venue.  It is shaded much of the way, had adequate rest rooms and water and the city was immediately reachable.   I started breaking up some of my longer walks by stopping at a restaurant or store to eat some healthy food/snacks (and ok a beer).  Slowly, I went from 3 to 5 to 10 to 30 miles!  I was ready.

I finished the 50 miles, McEvoy Memorial, Kennedy Walk on Nov. 5, 1986.  I started out at 6 AM and finished at approximately 10:15 PM.   I made it in approximately 16 and a half hours.  The drive to finish the walk gave me the impetus to reach the Lifetime distinction at Weight Watchers (meeting your suggested body weight) and lose another 85 lbs.  As I walked along the path, I thought about how striving for big goals helped me to become smaller in weight and more confident in my health.  I came up with these three major elements that commend the art of setting improbable goals.

  1. Compelling Purpose to Move Forward – Setting a major goal that seems improbable gives you added motivation to stick with the day to day difficulty of staying on track.  Once I set the goal, I could not let myself, the Veterans, and the memory of my colleague down.  Life is indeed 90% perspiration, but you need the 10% of inspiration to compel you forward to a better you.
  2. Decomposable into Smaller Chunks – You cannot achieve monumental goals in a day or a week (unless you are Tim Ferris who makes a living out of it).  For ordinary people such as myself, the only way to achieve something big is to plan to break it down into smaller chunks.  In this case, the selection of the Lady Bird Lake loop was the perfect venue.
  3. A Cause Worthy of the Effort – When you are selecting an improbable goal, it is important to back it with a worthy cause. In this case, the cause was worthier that the effort.  Our Veterans, both the fallen and the living, protect us and sacrifice for a greater purpose themselves – the freedom and liberty of the United States.  50 miles is not nearly enough to walk for sacrifices they have given.

On Memorial Day, I will do a five-part sequel to this blog with the words that I spoke at each 10-mile mark in 2016.  Never forget our soldiers and service people this Memorial Day.

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