The Pursuit of an Unknown Ending

by Martin J. Trout

Process Oriented vs. Goal Oriented

I can train and plan and do all that I can to try and achieve my goals, but at the end of the day I really don’t know what will happen. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try. Because regardless of what happens, there will be a journey, a journey that will likely be filled with grand adventures and lessons learned. So, come race day my story will have an ending. What that ending will be I don’t know. But even now I can tell you that the story already has value, for the pursuit of the unknown ending has already taken me on an adventure worth living.”  Zach Miller.

Wow, this quote by the 29 year old American mountain runner, made famous by his ‘go for all’ – ‘lead from the front’ approach to the 2016 UTMB (he finished in 6th position) and then later that same year, with the epic battle between himself and Hayden Hawks at the TNF 50 in the USA, is so surprising considering his young age and the small amount of time he has been in this crazy sport.

Wise, Far Beyond His Years!

Ever since we were small children we have been told by our parents, by our teachers and later in our careers that in order to have a good life we need to have a “goal”, an important objective towards which we can strive and, once we reach this objective we can consider ourselves successful. On the face of it this would seem not only logical but also something worthy of our efforts and truly inspirational in our endeavour to achieve the perfect day on the trails.

But there are problems associated with this approach and these problems can be shown in all aspects of life.

Goal Oriented Athletes

In Races

In the present case however, we’re concerned with sports and training for trail running, so let’s look at this more closely. “Goal” oriented athletes see their race results as the final and indisputable verdict on their training program. If they don’t win, or set a PB, or perform exceptionally all the time, there is a risk of seeing themselves as a failure. So they have to win, or set a personal best, or set a record, or all of those.

In Training

The same thing happens in training, if they aren’t beating their previous bests every time they train, they feel like a total failure. This leaves the athlete prone to enormous disappointments because it ends up defining the athlete’s self-worth.

Win and the athlete is a winner, lose and he/she is a loser. And nobody, not even Killian, can win all the time…..

Process Oriented Athletes

In Races

We can contrast the Goal oriented approach to that of “process oriented” athletes who, as the name suggests, focus on the process.

The process of training, the process of competition. Each singular race can be analysed for strengths and weaknesses (pros and cons) so that the process of training can then be modified to fix it in the future. The same goes for individual training sessions, which are simply part of a larger process of becoming a better athlete.

In Training

If the correct protocols are followed in training, the process will be met and the results will come.

The process oriented athlete is still concerned with the outcome of training and competition, simply that the outcome is not the yardstick by which success is judged or not. A workout that went poorly might still be judged a success if something related to technique was improved, or, if something about how the body responds to training is learnt that can lead to adjusting future training.

In the process approach the athlete focuses on becoming a better athlete and mastering his/her sport without the results of the competition per se defining his or her self worth.

It’s almost always possible to improve some aspect of your sport, a little more strength, a bit more endurance, slightly better technique. So there’s always something positive to take out of any negative outcome.

MILLER VS. HAWKS | TNF Endurance Challenge 50 Miler 2016 – ff to 5.50 for the chase

Which is Best?

The process oriented approach isn’t necessarily better than the goal oriented approach. Different moments in an athletes career can require different approaches and sometimes it is absolutely indispensable to have an objective.

Ultimately – Process Oriented vs. Goal Oriented

The goal oriented approach can often work very well in the short term but it can also have a very high burn out rate. Successive failures can make it even harder to find success and it can become a vicious circle.

With a process oriented approach the outcome is less controllable and may be affected by factors beyond the control of the athlete. It requires a great deal of trust on the part of the athlete that the process will get them satisfactory or even excellent results.

So young Zach is probably right, the journey, or in less prosaic terms the process, is what will get you to the start line in the best possible mental and physical state.

And, most probably, will also get you to the finish line in the most enjoyable manner, again and again and again.


Martin John Trout
Martin Trout is an all round Adventurer, an accomplished ultra runner, mountaineer, ski mountaineering instructor and trail running coach at Endurance Training in Progress. He’s been living in Italy since the 1990’s.