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When Should You Give Up Chasing Your Dreams?

I've been a runner since my twenties. When I was sixty, I trained for and ran my first marathon in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It took me five and a half hours (women’s average time worldwide is four and three quarters hours), and I almost quit at around the seventeen mile marker. I felt like I had spent every molecule of energy I had, and couldn’t imagine finding the strength to keep going.

But there was a guy standing on the sidelines who noticed my uncertainty, and said to me, “You can’t quit now - you're two thirds of the way there!” That new perspective (something I hadn’t considered, I was just thinking NINE MORE MILES) was all I needed to decide to go for it. I probably mostly walked the last two or three miles, but I did cross the finish line, and have the medal to show for it.

Watching the Netflix biopic “Nyad” last night, I was struck by the dogged determination Ms. Nyad (played wonderfully by Annette Bening) brought to her dream of swimming from Cuba to Key West, Florida. She had attempted this many times in her life, at much younger ages, and there were plenty of terrors (think jellyfish and sharks for starters) to give one pause. But she dove into the challenge, driven by the feeling that it was now or never, and emerged triumphant after several attempts. When she arrived in Key West in 2013, having been in the water for fifty-three hours, she made a speech to the throngs awaiting her, specifying that she wanted to make three points:

  • One: We should never give up,

  • Two: We’re never too old to chase our dreams,

  • Three: It looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team (she had forty people, mostly volunteers, helping out in various ways).

First of all, how does one even speak after an ordeal like that? And second of all, how does one make sense when speaking, after an ordeal like that? I am in awe, and confess that I was an absolute Bi-ahtch after I completed my marathon run, complaining about being cold and hungry, and yelling at my husband because he parked another half mile away. (This was after he followed me to different checkpoints in the car throughout the race, taking photos at every one of them and cheering me on.)

When I look back on that race, I realize that it reframed my life in a multitude of ways, and those ways were all positive. For one thing, I stopped thinking of myself so much in terms of age. Nyad was right, we’re never too old to do stuff that’s important to us. And I also learned that my body is pretty resilient, and can heal relatively quickly from the punishing things I was asking it to do.

For another, my achievement has only been accomplished by an elite less-than-one-percent of the U.S. population, so that puts me in a relatively small class of individuals who have pursued a marathon dream to that dream’s reality. That realization tends to make you feel differently about yourself, that you’ve accomplished something admirable.

Training for a marathon is (literally) no walk in the park - it’s a four month regimen, and optimally you have to stick with it rain or shine. There were days when I didn’t want to train, days when the summer temperatures were in the nineties and the humidity was ridiculous, so to get in a ten mile training run, I’d need to get up at four or five a.m. But I knew that’s what it would take, and I wasn’t willing to take the chance that undertraining would quash my chances of finishing.

But here’s the interesting thing about the way our brains have evolved over time: our brains are not set up to tell us that we may regret never achieving our dreams. Our brains have one goal, and that’s to get us safely through life. Thousands, perhaps millions of years of evolution have made our creative brains live in fear of anything that may suggest risk. Exposing ourselves to any kind of failure and/or danger is not something our brain tolerates well.

That’s why, when reaching the end of our lives, so many of us suddenly realize how many things we really wanted to accomplish, yet didn’t. The book we always thought we’d write, the trips we always planned on taking, the experiences that would give us new perspectives, all put on hold to the point of never getting to them. That’s when regret kicks in for not experiencing the actual fun and meaningful stuff we could have been doing, all because we listened and paid attention to our sensible brain.

Our brains are great at saying, “Well, if you quit this job, you won’t get another paycheck, and think how much you’ll regret that,” because it is set up to protect us and get us through life with resources like food and shelter. It is not set up to encourage us to embark on some journey that may get us into a whole lot of doo doo.

That’s why I think it’s generally a good idea to occasionally ask myself, if I knew I had only a year to live, what would I try to cram into that year? Bucket lists are a good way to keep our joy in the forefront and our fears at bay. We’re still here, loving our lives.

The guy at my race, who encouraged me to finish, realized that I would regret not accomplishing something I had worked so hard for, so he somehow knew he had to find a way to override my brain telling me things like my body wasn’t equipped to finish, or that I would regret finishing when I woke up tomorrow with complaining joints and muscles. So he went for the emotional link, the link of hope that I could triumph in this challenge, and it worked.

On her website, Nyad confesses, “I do my best to hit the pillow every night, assured that there was nothing more I could have brought to that day.” No regret. Not a bad mantra to adopt, particularly when it comes to our dreams and creativity.

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