Back to Fitness: Managing Expectations and Finding the Can’t

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John Andersen

Maybe once a year, I attempt a “Jarmans PR”.  For those who haven’t explored it, “Jarmans” is the gravel portion of Jarmans Gap Road here in Crozet that starts right near Chiles Peach Orchard and climbs relentlessly up the gap between Bucks Elbow Mountain and Calf Mountain, 1600 feet of elevation gain over 2.9 grueling miles.  

This was once the original route of the historic Three Notch’d Road over the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley. While it’s amazing to think of the history this section of road must contain, history is typically not on your mind when you’re running/hiking it to the top. Running Jarmans is simply too hard for higher thinking. In fact, most people never run the whole thing. It’s simply too steep, for too long. Even easy efforts are punished by the relentless climbing on the long gravel road.  

And so that’s why, maybe once a year, I will attempt a Jarmans personal record—how fast can I make it from the bottom to the top?  Giving an all-out effort for all of Jarmans is a soul-crushing experience. It is a 30- to 60-minute experience of riding the line of what you can and cannot do. It is the type of workout that you lose sleep over the night before because you know how hard it’s going to be. It’s the type of workout that when you’re finished with it, you’re so incredibly happy that you don’t need to do it again for a long, long time. Like, maybe a year. Or longer.

So, it begs the question, why in the heck do this type of thing? It sounds hard and hardly sounds “healthy.” In fact, it brings up a very similar question: why do people sign up for races? Now we are paying for self-inflicted physical suffering!  

As I have just recently done both—my yearly Jarmans PR attempt, followed a few weeks later by a race, I’ve thought a lot about the “why” and my own answer came down to two things—managing expectations, and finding “the can’t.”

Managing Expectations

I’m sorry to say, but if you are starting or following some type of diet, fitness, or training plan, you’re going to have to manage some expectations. There are both internal expectations (your own of yourself) and external expectations (what you think other people think of you).

Internal Expectations

These are goals we set for ourselves. It is crucial that we have self-imposed goals and some expectation that we should work hard to accomplish them. “I want to lose 30 pounds.” “I want to start exercising 5 days a week.” “I want to run a half marathon.” “I want to stay active until I’m 80.” “I want to break 40 minutes up Jarmans.”  We need these goals to keep us motivated. Saying “I want to lose 30 pounds” means nothing if we don’t come up with a plan to achieve it, and then expect from ourselves the commitment to follow the plan to the result.  

These internal expectations are the single most important factor that drives us to stay healthy and fit, and they are definitely the most important thing that drives higher-level athletes to keep pushing and improving. But they are also a tricky balance. What if we try hard, yet fail?  Do we give up? Do we find a new way? Do we think less of ourselves?  

I have, on many occasions, set some lofty goals and worked extremely hard to achieve them, only to fall short. When the goals and expectations are big, and you only had one shot, it leads to a lot of introspection. Ultimately, however, I’ve found that I never regret setting a big goal and expecting that I’ll get there. Although I may not achieve the mark, I always learned a lot about myself in the training and preparation and I have realized that is where true growth happens. Also, the way we approach these goals and expectations in our health and fitness is the same way we will tend to approach goals and expectations in our family, personal, and work lives as well.

External Expectations

I would love to say that I don’t care what anyone else thinks of what I’m doing, but I’ll be honest, I can’t.  In my many attempts and failures at large goals, I have definitely felt that I’ve let people down, even feeling shame or embarrassment for thinking that I could achieve a goal and then being stupid enough to share that goal with someone (or thousands of people)! Ugh! But here again, there are positives and negatives. Of course, ultimately you shouldn’t care what other people think about what you are doing with your fitness. It is your life, not theirs. However, sharing your goals with friends and family is a very important step in achieving them, in my opinion. It’s okay to make yourself vulnerable; you are probably inspiring someone else as you open up. And if/when you fail, don’t worry, your friends are still your friends.

Finding The Can’t

During my recent Jarmans PR attempt, my mindset was on what I could do. But about half way up the mountain, I was reminded that races, challenges, and Jarmans PRs are really more about finding out what you can’t do. Pondering what you can do is a romantic way of thinking, “if I just stay positive and really try hard, I can do greater things.” But as I was working through the steep section of Jarmans, as my lungs and legs were taking turns failing, I realized that I was at a point that I simply couldn’t do any better. It was actually quite a relief. I was right at that line and nothing I could do made me go faster. Sure, I could ponder later what things I can change, but right then and there, I found my can’t. That was important because I know that if I want to grow, I need to find a way to push the point at which I can’t a little further away. I’ll never know where that line is if I don’t step right up to it and experience it vividly.

In my recent Jarmans and race events, I reached my goal in one, but failed in the other. I’m happy to say that I reached my can’t in both. It was enough to meet my expectations in one, but not quite enough in the other, and now it’s time to regroup, make new goals, and find constructive ways to move forward. I have grown in both fitness and in mind in the process, and in the end, that is why we continue to sign up for races and run up Jarmans. 

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