Incremental change is a powerful force in the universe, but we tend to underestimate it because it is difficult to see. Tiny changes occur and we immediately start adjusting to them, as if the world always existed in that state. We tend to crave stability, but change is inevitable. It defines life. We constantly use energy to create order where disorder naturally develops.
We notice things like forests burning down and tsunamis wiping out coastal cities, but we don’t notice the trees growing or the shoreline slowly changing due to the pattern of waves over many decades.
It is this cognitive flaw that many times keeps us from enacting long term change in our lives. It keeps us from developing the good habits that are a little painful to implement in the short term. It is a big reason why diets, budgeting, and New Year’s resolutions tend to fail. But if we keep this in mind we can bring this to the front of our consciousness and outsmart our tendencies.
I write about running from time to time because I have run quite a bit over my lifetime. I couldn’t play basketball or really any other coordination sport all that well, but while trying out for the teams I could usually outrun just about anyone given enough distance. Eventually I figured out maybe I should stop trying to be a great basketball player and just embrace the gift the universe gave me. Hello long distance running! But this story isn’t about me…
My wife was never a runner. I mean she could have run from an angry feral goat or a spider on the kitchen floor (I’ve seen her do this) but she was never going to put on running shoes and run on purpose. This is not to say she didn’t do anything active. She did various aerobic and strength classes occasionally at the gym and we would go on the occasional hike or bike ride.
About 8 or 9 years ago I had the first of many mid-life crisis type events. I went from being a pretty physically lazy guy who, in his mind, still thought he was in the kind of shape he was in high school to a borderline psychotic triathlete in the span of a year or two. I’ll tell that story another day, but the side effect was it spurred my wife into action. I was running and racing a lot and she decided she wanted to run her first 10k. I guess she didn’t want me getting all the glory.
She started out by jogging maybe about a mile a day. And by jogging I mean a really slow pace. She very gradually ramped up her speed and miles over the coming months. Come race day she set the ambitious goal of running it in under 1 hour. Although it was a very hot day and not the easiest course, she finished in just under 59 minutes. Mission accomplished.
Now, for those of you who are competitive runners you may not be all that impressed. A 9:30 per mile pace is not going to get you sponsored by Nike. She finished in the slowest third of runners, but she did it. A few months prior she could not have finished this distance at any speed. Remember – incremental change.
I was incredibly proud that she put her mind to this and finished so strong. One of the women she was training with was getting ready to do a half marathon in a few months and my wife started considering it. Coming off the high of finishing the 10k she decided to go for it. Even though a half marathon is only a little more than twice the distance as a 10k, it is way more than twice as hard. As the distances go up, the degree of fitness and training increase quite a bit. Injury risk is elevated. You have to take a half-marathon seriously. She ran another 10k just for good measure as a hard training run a month before the big day. She shaved 8 minutes off her original time and finished in around 51 minutes.
Finally the half marathon was here. After a restless night of sleep and about 47 trips to the porta potty she was off. She finished in about 1:50; incredibly, a pace faster than her first 10k just a few months before. It was a rough run, but it was unimaginable a few months ago. She went from barely running a mile to a pretty respectable half marathon by just getting a little better each day and putting in the work to get it done.
I am going to run a marathon.
At this point I knew I had created a monster. She had retired shortly before starting her new career as a runner and stay at home mom, and it seemed she was focusing all of her former career energy on these new endeavors. By this point she was accumulating running gear for year round training. She got training plan for beginning marathon runners and started following it pretty religiously. There were alarm clocks, packets of flavored sugar, and lots of miles of running. Six days a week she was hitting the pavement before I was awake. She did another half marathon during the training to get a feel for running a distance race again.
Race day arrived with the usual basket of anxiety that comes with a race like this. If you think the jump from 10k to half marathon is tough, it is nothing compared to moving up to the marathon. I did one ill-fated marathon and I have to say it was terrible. It felt about 6 times more awful than a half marathon. Your body just starts to break down unless you happen to be either insanely trained or a genetic freak. Honestly it felt like torture.
Sometimes you need mental support during these long runs. I ran the last 5 or 6 miles with her. She was not in a great mental place these last few miles, but she dug deep and finished strong. Around 3:51 she crossed the finish line. That’s nothing to sneeze at. I’m not sure I’ve seen my wife look more beat up than after that race, but there was a certain calm and happiness I detected through the fact that each post-race step was agony and she looked like she needed about 4 days of straight sleep and an army of physical therapists. She did not look healthy and I wandered deep down if marathons were actually safe for humans to do.
I’m running another one next year and am going to qualify for Boston.
Of course she was. Why stop at only half crazy after all. For those of you not familiar with marathon running, for some reason the Boston Marathon is THE marathon to run. For no rational reason I can understand, thousands of people work to qualify for this race and base their entire schedule around it. It is insanity. About 10% of marathon times qualify. In other words you have to be in about the top 10% in your age group to qualify. Two years after barely finishing a 10k in under an hour my wife was gunning for Boston as a semi-elite runner.
Another random half marathon training race: 1:41
Next year: Boston qualifier marathon: 3:40
Incidentally, for those keeping track here, her marathon pace was over 1 minute per mile faster than that initial 10k. Think about this for a moment. This is rather incredible, but it was all due to incremental change over the span of 2-3 years. The change was not noticeable day to day, but just like the burnt down forest, it takes time to grow. If you watch every day for the forest to grow back you will see nothing, but come back in a few years and it will be unrecognizable.
I could end the story here, but really the change continued in a rather impressive and unbelievable fashion. She kept getting faster and refined her training. She joined the local running group, battled through mild injuries, became stronger in areas she was weaker and kept at it. The change had become a way of life. The physical, social and mental benefits of running became the reason to keep going. The goal of racing became secondary. The journey became the destination. At some point it ceased to be training and just became life. It was automatic.
She set personal records with nearly every marathon after that. Her last one was around a 3:25 which still astounds me. Next year when she hits the next qualifying age bracket this 3:25 is the men’s qualifying time for Boston. In other words if she gets any faster in the next couple of years she will be in the top 10-15% of male marathon runners her age and would qualify for Boston as a dude.
And just in case you have not had your fill of bat shit crazy yet, after becoming a little bored with the marathons, this year she decided a 50k (31 mile) ultra-marathon trail run with a lot of hills was appropriate. Who knows, maybe Leadville is next.
The point is not to brag about how awesome my wife is; after all there are thousands of people who race like her and are equally as impressive. But this is the best and most personal example I know of showing how slight changes in habit and incremental changes make a huge difference over long periods of time. When we commit to habit change we will never see results immediately, but over the last few years my wife went from someone who could barely jog a couple miles to someone who has qualified for the Boston marathon. This is incremental change, and it is powerful. You won’t see it day to day, but when you get to your destination the incredible progress will be awesome. Whether you are trying to lose weight, get in shape, become a better writer or save for retirement the biggest gains will be unseen in real time. Only in retrospect will your accomplishments be apparent, and you will be amazed at the effect of little changes over time.
Take note that incremental change can work against you as well. No one wakes up one morning and is suddenly an alcoholic or 150 pounds overweight or unable to walk 50 feet without becoming short of breath. It is usually incremental change that are the seeds of our destruction and much of our chronic health problems. It is incremental change and neglect that destroy many marriages and relationships. The good news is once this is recognized we can then switch direction and steer towards what we truly want from life.