Goals, Set-backs and the Psychology of Giving Up.

I went running today and completed a 5km Finsbury Park @ParkRun.

Here’s what the email says:

Your time was 00:28:53.  Congratulations on completing your 11th parkrun and your 10th at Finsbury parkrun today. You finished in 321st place and were the 246th male out of a field of 504 parkrunners and you came 20th in your age category VM50-54. Your PB at Finsbury parkrun remains 00:27:43. Your best time this year remains 00:27:43. 

Despite still falling short of my PB, and some unimpressive and potentially demoralising race stats, I’m thrilled on many levels :

  1. I finished the race.
  2. My time is better than last week.
  3. It feels like I’ve bounced back from some set-backs at long last.

11 races in 7 months isn’t great – and, truth is, it’s been very up and down – much like the course itself.  I started off making great progress; seven PBs in the first seven races. I was buzzing.  So very pleased with myself!  But then it wrong.  I had a lot of work on Saturdays, missed some races; then I had a couple of very heavy colds so I couldn’t run and, most recently, just as I was making a comeback, I had to have my appendix out and had to miss about six more weeks of potential running and racing.  Set-backs!! It’s amazing how hard-earned fitness can dissipate in a just a few weeks of moping about.

In reality, I find running a 5k incredibly hard every single time.  All of the 11 races I’ve finished have felt like an enormous struggle.  It’s 28-30 minutes of trying to talk myself out of giving up.

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To begin with there’s a longish downhill stretch.  It feels great to be amongst the throng of 500 runners.  I’m thrilled to be in there alongside all those lean , fit athletes with all their proper gear.  But then we turn the first corner into a long incline – and the rush-past begins.  I start going backwards as my body begins to protest; that rather doddery-looking 70-year-old bloke in his 100-race t-shirt is cruising past effortlessly; the big chunky guy with his three-wheeler buggy and massive back-pack is lumbering on by; the  8-year old and his running club mum are chatting merrily as they leave me in their wake.

Previously, I’ve walked away.  Three times at least, I’ve found myself walking off in a huff.  Given up.  Dejected.  Full of excuses and recriminations.  But not yesterday – or the week before.  The Keep Going versus Give Up battle that raged in my head the whole way round ended in a triumph for the Finish Line.  Hurrah.

I’m starting to work out that I need two levels of mental strategies.  Basically it’s a combination of having larger overarching goals and very short-term achievable goals.

You need the bigger goals to have any sense of purpose; something to kick against when you’re in the depths of feeling sick and wanting to  chuck it in.  In this case, my motivation is a genuine desire to feel fit.  It’s not the race times: I’m already over the whole thing of finishing in the bottom half and being overtaken by people far older than me – the comparison with others is a total non-issue.  But I do want to keep improving – so personal data is a mild incentive.   However, a bigger driver is trying to avoid the horrible feeling of having failed by giving up.  I really hate it every time this happens.

My inner voice is not saying ‘don’t give up, you know how important fitness is for a long happy life’.

It is saying ‘don’t give up, you know how shit you feel every time that happens‘.

There is also the shorter-term goal of basking in the warm glow of self-satisfaction when you reach the finish line funnel and hand your race ID to the marshal for scanning and timing – like a pro!

But these longer-term goals are not enough in themselves.  I have found that when the running gets hard – nearly always on any kind of incline,  it’s important to switch off the bigger picture stuff and zoom right in on the ground beneath your feet or the trees just ahead; I need to remove the pressure of finishing and focus on the immediate issue of this bloody ridiculous steep bit right here.

My inner voice is saying.. just a few steps, just a few steps, just to that tree, just to that corner… breathe deeply… small strides, small strides, keep going, a few more metres…. and then the terrain flattens out, the cardiovascular pain subsides and you’re onto the next bit.  In essence, the 5k run is a series of much shorter runs – the easy downhill start, the way-too-long energy-sapping uphill back straight, the nice long gentle curve down hill, the brutal  steep uphill killer section that makes or breaks you, easing back round to the start – and then around the whole thing again for the second lap.  I find I need to map out my progress all the time – where am I now compared to what’s coming next.. and take each section one by one until the finish is in sight.

It’s a combination of short goals and strategy in the detail the running, linked to bigger goals about the bigger purpose of it all and the emotions associated with success or failure.  When the going gets tough – a failure in either department leads to giving up.  Sometimes ‘what’s the point’ wins out.  This happens a lot when I’m running in a non-race situation.  Nearly every time in fact.  If I’m hitting a barrier of fitness, what really IS the point of pushing through…  I find myself walking for a bit!  Sometimes the short-term strategy stuff fails.. I’m just massively underprepared for that hill, my body is in uproar and I can’t see myself getting through it.   I find myself walking off away from the rest of the field to console myself, effing and blinding about my physical state, vowing to drink less, eat less, avoid snacks, do more practice etc etc.

All in all, giving up is just way easier than keeping going.  Running is new to me – but I’ve tried and given up in many other endeavours before:

  • Learning the piano, the bassoon, the cello. ( just never good enough for the next grade exam to feel worth it)
  • Learning Russian at evening classes in my 20s, and Chinese in the school lunch-hour along with some students (couldn’t remember any words from one week to the next)
  • Preparing for Oxbridge Entrance Exams in 1982 (early attempts proved too bloody hard so I never entered)
  • Studying for a Masters in Education (dissertation never finished)
  • Trying to read countless classic novels. (long list, kept falling asleep )
  • A course in boolean logic at university – (could NOT get my head around it, never felt so stupid in my life, so packed it in asap.)
  • Trying to play FIFA on Xbox – or any other computer game. (My son’s exasperation with my lack of skill become unbearable)

The main thing I find I’ve generally done to soften the pain of giving up is to rubbish the whole enterprise: instrumental grade exams are pointless; never wanted to go to Oxford anyway and Manchester was way more cool;  who needs to speak Russian – and the teacher was crap so I had no chance;  I didn’t need an MEd, I had a real job to do; Xbox is just for kids.

If you can’t win the game –  mentally it’s often better and easier to say the whole game was stupid and stop playing it, rather than absorb the self-doubt. So that’s the final bit – the game has to matter.  It has to have purpose or else the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra just sounds like ‘ALL PAIN for No GAIN’.

There are obvious lessons in here for teaching.  Motivation; strategy; assessment; goal-setting; mindset…  the internal struggles of all those teenagers walking the give-up/don’t give up tightrope.

See also: Engineering Success. A positive alternative to generic mindset messaging

And also: Studying successfully: motivation + strategy + habit

The ‘habit’ thing is important… and for sure, if I ever get fit enough to feel that running is a habit, it will be a whole lot better.










  1. By the way my good friend. If you do want to become a good runner, and enjoy it, you really must (as in, have to) walk those hills. Walk before you run my man. It really should not be as hard as it sounds like you’re making it!

    (Remember, my career was in the fitness industry before I even came near teaching!)

    There just might be a lesson in that too.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for your honesty, Tom. Life is not easy & teaching is also a tough job. I hope you have an enjoyable summer & keep being yourself. It’s the best gift you can give to anyone, especially those teenagers we work with.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this post with growing disbelief. You have written my story – almost precisely! Except for the running, Oxbridge entrance and FIFA on Xbox (what is that, even?). Including the mindset. But … you’re successful, and I’m just a pretend head with massive imposter syndrome. How can someone as productive and successful as you struggle with such defeatist thoughts?

    Thank you so much for having the courage to share such a personal account. You give me hope. (Maybe I’ll even try running – or first walking – some of those hills in the local park…)

    Liked by 1 person

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