Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Friday, January 25, 2019

Crossroads #5: How Much to Chase and The Happiness Equation

 I’m your classic Type A overachiever. Despite knowing this for some time, I only recently discovered that I am goal-oriented by nature. Previously, I’ve called this “planning.” A couple of my long-term (but not lifetime goals as I would actually like to wrap these up by age 50 or so) include climbing all the state high points and canoeing all of the designated water trails in Minnesota. 

The state high points Erik and I have done together so far in red.
This past summer I was trying to figure out where to do a day paddle. I was really set on checking off a box and canoeing part of a designated water trail, but that route didn’t make sense based on where we were staying and where we were trying to go. It made way more sense to canoe across a lake and down a creek even if these aren’t designated waterways. Slowly I’m learning that life is about more than checking off boxes; it’s about the journey. And once I check off these boxes I’m left with less to explore and less direction in my life.

And the waterways we've done so far in my favorite color.
By the way, if you’re wondering why I want to be done with these feats by age 50, it’s because I’ve recently established a goal of paddling 50 miles in each of the 50 states in my 50s. While it may seem ludicrous that I’ve already made this plan (I guess this proves I am goal-oriented) it also gives me some purpose for my life and gives me something to look forward to. I did somewhat steal this idea from my high school vice principal who peddled 50 miles in all 50 states in her 50s.

So how does this relate to racing? Well, I get to choose what races I do and what my goals are for races. In particular, I’m going to focus on a decision about trying to run a Boston Qualifying time for a marathon.*

For us normal blokes (for whom an Olympic Trials Qualifying Time will never happen in this lifetime), qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a common goal. Given this, I kind of want to try for a Boston Qualifying time. This means I have to run 8:11 per mile for an entire marathon. I’ve ran two marathons previously. My first was slow at 4:16 (9:47 per mile). My second was a dream with a big PR time of 3:44 (8:34 per mile). That’s still 10 minutes slower than a Boston Qualifier marathon. Last year I trained really well and was able to average 7:56 per mile for a 16.75 mile race. I was really really pushing my limits at that time and the marathon is almost 10 miles longer. So could the combination of improved fitness and slowing my pace by 15 seconds per mile be enough to run a Boston Qualifying marathon?

Do I want to try?

I know if I tried and got this goal I would be so incredibly satisfied. And if I tried and failed I would be so disappointed. My last marathon was almost so perfect (except for the hip pain and not being able to walk down stairs for two days afterwards) that I’m not sure I want to even run another.

Crossing the finish in my last almost so perfect marathon.

So I know I would be happy if in the end I reach the goal, but if I don’t, would I still be happy. It comes down to the lead up to the race and the training. Would this make me happy?

For my Type A personality to run a fast marathon I need to first prove to myself in practice that I can get close to the pacing I want. Lots of runners are like this (Miles to the Trials). Meanwhile Erik is a Type B personality. He follows the motto of my friend Anna Tibstra from high school: “I like to save something for the races.” This means he is OK with subpar training and can even believe in himself despite sub-par training. When he ran his Boston Qualifier race, his training did not support the effort he put forth.

Marathon training involves long runs, tempo runs, and intervals. With this greater mileage the injury potential increases. Last marathon training cycle it seemed like every other long run caused some weird pain. Meanwhile, last summer I trained to run a PR mile completely pain free! And during all this marathon training is the doubt, worrying, and fixating on whether or not I’ll make my goal for months prior to the race.

And it is the last part, the worrying and fixation, which would NOT make me happy. Maybe if I could find a way to not worry and fixate and spend so much time on this it would tip that happiness equation the other way but for now the answer is no, the preparation would not make me happy. Maybe if I could become Type B.

How we like to travel downstream- with a bike in the canoe for the shuttle! Here we are on the flooded Snake River Spring of 2019.

I’ve decided the potential happiness of achieving my goal is not worth the months of potential injury from training and mental anguish leading up to the race. Maybe someday I’ll be able to combat this but for now I’m focusing on shorter PR efforts- the mile, the 5 K, and maybe a 10 K, or half marathon. These distances require significantly less commitment than a full marathon. And training for them is making me happy.

The decision to race also occurs in skiing. Fortunately times aren’t such a thing in skiing owing to always changing conditions. And as much as I love the rigidity of locking into a running time, I also love that times are irrelevant in skiing. I suppose the closest thing we have in citizen skiing to a Boston Qualifying time is the Elite Wave at the Birkie. For the past few years I’ve felt comfortably inside the classic Elite Wave but this year I’m switching to the skate technique and we’ll see if I can also comfortably qualify.

So here’s my current rendition of the Happiness Equation:

Happiness = preparation for event + doing event + event outcome

When I decide what ski races to do I’ve been subconsciously using the above equation for years. The event outcome usually doesn’t factor in, unless I consider any special prizes, because times don’t matter and I can’t control who shows up to the race. Therefore everything boils down to preparation for the event and doing the event. I’m already doing the training (because I usually do some short races and a few marathons every year and as previously noted am locked into my February routine of City-Mora-Finlandia-Birkie so most of the preparation includes how much I’m willing to drive, be nervous, get up early, and wax my skis. If I like the event enough, I’m willing to do more preparation. Doing the event includes the course, technique offered, how if fits in with other plans, and extras like schwag.

I went through this equation when my Vakava teammate Kathleen invited me to do the City of Loppet Team Classic Sprint with her. The downsides in regard to the event preparation include waxing my skis, skiing in the evening rather than the daylight, and fighting rush hour traffic to get to the 6 PM race. On the flip side, I really like classic team sprints compared to skate team sprints and racing with a speedy teammate! The tipping point came when I looked up the race website which mentioned some potential prize money (it was a bit vague). Erik had been strongly encouraging me to do the Loppet Minne-Tour (which the thought of was NOT making me happy and so I bailed) as there aren’t many women who do the Minne-Tour so I decided doing the Team Classic Sprint was a bit of redemption.

Currently, I’m in debate about whether to do the Great Bear Chase this year. It aligns with a vacation I’m already planning so I would just need to take an extra half day off work, drive a couple extra hours, wax my skis, and put in a race effort for 3 hours. But this is a fun course, that is now offering cloth bibs, (I won’t lie, even though I have too many of these I still want more) AND THE BEST POST RACE FOOD!!! All these things combined tipped in the favor of happiness of doing the race. Then I had to decide which race to do. Doing the 50 km was a no-brainer and then I decided to do the classic because I'm not doing many classic races this year and maybe I can win. But mostly because it is the race which will make me the hungriest and therefore prepare me best for the post race food:)

I’m trying to not race as much and only do those races which make me truly happy. And this year I’m taking the “less is more” approach. I want to do things besides just work and ski.

This idea of happiness creeps into my life in my other pursuits. Above I mentioned this goal of climbing all the state high points. Some of these are really easy, but a few are quite difficult. I love being on top and looking down. I love challenges. But these challenges also make me nervous and fret. I can tell you which state high points are already making me anxious even if I don’t plan to climb them for a few years. When we go on vacation and do these high points I always like to get them “out of the way” early in the trip so I don’t have to worry about them.

Getting Mount Elbert (Colorado's highest peak) done early in our trip. Photo: some random stranger also on the summit

Adding to this is that Erik and I have successfully made EVERY summit we have ever attempted together. And we’ve climbed some substantial mountains. This is likely to end at some point but it’s a record I want to keep going. It reminds me of when I got an A- at the U of M Summer Honors College between junior and senior years of high school. I remember calling home my first semester of college at the U of M, completely distraught that my 4.0 was ruined.

“That professor did you a favor,” my mom calmly replied.

She was so right.

Wanting happiness is not unique to me and I think as we get older we start thinking about having more happiness in our lives and less unhappiness. When we were doing a backpacking trip in Montana last year that included the difficult state high point, our good friend Craig came up with a hiking game based on “happiness points.” 

One of my favorite all-time photos: me looking at our impossible-looking route up Granite (Montana's highest peak) from our tent the day before we climbed this thing in the exact place where Craig came up with his happiness points game. Photo: Erik

And my friend Emily always talks about making the choice that will maximize fun.

And is it coincidence that Jessie Diggins' last blog had "happy" in the title? And what about Chelsea Little who recently asked herself during a ski race "Is this fun? Why do I do this?"

I’m continuously balancing this Happiness Equation. The answers aren’t always self-evident but I’m enjoying the process of learning more about myself and what makes me happy.

*I first started this post when the qualifying time was sub 3:35 for women under age 35. Now that it has been lowered to 3:30 that is a bit more out of my reach. For the sake of my blog we’ll just say the time is sub 3:35.


  1. And remember, ski hard, ski fast, and have fun! When you no longer are having fun, it may be time to do something else.

  2. You are delivering the gospel regarding outdoor sports, longevity, and life.

    Redline that funmeter and maintain the focus and love of your sports.