First, the obvious stuff: Having goals in life -- beyond the obvious in-the-moment basics like "I must obtain food today" and "I'd like to get out of this terrible rainstorm now" -- is great. I would even say setting and pursuing challenging goals is necessary for happiness in life, with the nature of these depending on your intellectual constitution. If you are born into a family without much money, aren't especially gifted academically, and don't grow up in a situation lending itself to opportunities for professional advancement, then having kids, earning a steady income, and creating a safe place for them to grow up and thrive is often a challenging, unrelenting and noble goal. Things like "I'd like to finish a marathon" or "I'd really like to see Europe someday" are simply not on the radar screens of a good many Americans.
Running goals are almost invariably selfish goals. This isn't central to the point I intend to make within the next 4,000 words, but it's always worth noting. Sure, it's possible to yoke your running aspirations to worthy causes, but chasing a personal best in a road or track race is the epitome of luxury time, and falling short and getting worked up about it is the epitome of a first-world problem.
Psychosocial considerations aside, though, running goals are great because they typically involve a concrete, objective time, place, or distance, making them very easy to evaluate in terms attainment ("Did I finish?" "Did I break three hours?"). In most cases it's also easy to tell whether your goal makes any sense. If you're 15 and just started running a couple of months ago and notch a 1600 on the track in 5:38, saying "I'd like to break 4:30 before I finish high school" is realistic. Even "Maybe I have a shot at a sub-4:00 mile someday" shouldn't be off the table. On the other hand, if you are 40, have been running five miles a day for ten years or so, and have yet to break 20:00 for 5K, deciding that you suddenly want to run 17:00 before you get too old is probably not realistic.
Nevertheless, everyone reading this knows or has known runners who have extremely unrealistic goals. In most cases, this is because these goals are clearly beyond the physical capacity of the people setting them. Saying you want to run a 2:15 marathon when you have done about ten of them and never broken 3:15 is not merely unrealistic, but probably sign of a formal mental disorder. Such people are not likely to have meaningful, attainable goals elsewhere in life either unless they have sane guidance.
This brings me in a less than linear way to my main points. Unrealistic goals are often characterized by more than their brazen lack of grounding in an achievable endpoint. In many cases the very motivating factors behind them are suspect, and they are founded on evidence that is itself highly suspect or flat-out erroneous.
To the first component of this, a lot of people believe that an attitude of "I'll show those bastards" is handy substrate for succeeding in reaching a challenging goal. If you believe that, ask yourself how many tough, positive things you or any people you've known have accomplished in life while operating chiefly from a platform of resentment and revenge fantasies. This virtually never happens. This is distinct from retroactively saying "I showed those fuckers" (think Seb Coe at the 1984 Olympics in L.A., if you;re old enough) and also doesn't mean that the notion of sweet revenge -- even if there's no rational basis for this and your real enemies are your own chattering inner demons -- isn't handy for getting out the door for a few more miles or heading to an extra job interview or whatever.
Importantly, it also doesn't mean that adversity can't be at all useful in reaching a positive goal. I worked with someone a few years ago who was going through a difficult personal situation drawn out over a period of months, Most of this sucked, but if nothing else it allowed her to resume a mostly dormant running career and reach a number of all-time personal bests in her late thirties. Although she could have been motivated by sheer distaste for certain people around her, it was ultimately her love of running, racing and being around good people that allowed her to shine. Yeah, she was tough as nails too, but she was also trusting in the right ways, thoughtful, and committed, and she partitioned the negative aspects of her day to day life away from her work, domestic, and athletic aims. Not everyone has the psychological constitution to do this; some, instead, are too narcissistic and plain loopy to even try.
To the second component, and returning to the idea of my 2:15 marathoner, it's one thing to say "I want to improve by an hour at this late stage of my running career." This is unrealistic but perhaps not insane, because it shows that the aspirant at least recognizes his starting point, even if he's out to lunch in terms of the path that might get him to his endpoint.
But it is another issue entirely when people fail to even understand, or at least admit to, their actual starting points. Consider instead someone who has not broken 3:15, but is instead reporting doing workouts such as 3 times two miles in 9:55 with 2:00 rest, something only someone capable of maybe a 2:30 marathon at worst (assuming proper overall mileage etc,, etc,) could achieve. And consider that this person is not merely lying, although he could be. Imagine that he actually believes it, and indeed, reports PRs thagt are easily verified in this age of Athlinks and more as arrant bullshit.
I haven't golfed in a long time, and if I did, it would be no less of a horror show than it ever was. On my best day, as a teenager who played semi-consistently only because I lived close to a municipal course and only had to pay $5 to play, I could shoot in the high 40s for nine holes. OK, it was a 47. With no mulligans. OK, only two mulligans. Whatever -- I wasn't good. I could usually reach the greens in something resembling regulation and then three- or four-putt as a prelude to helicoptering my three-wood in the general direction of the Atlantic Ocean while my friends tried to hide their snickering and mortification.
But let's say I wanted to become a scratch golfer -- that's par for 18 holes, usually about 72. This would represent significant gains in both ability and actual attainment, and even if I did nothing but golf and take lessons for the next year or more I doubt I would become that good. I have visual limitations as well as the wrong general psychological make-up.
Say, however, that I didn't go into this endeavor as a guy who managed an 11-over-par score for nine holes on his best day 30 years ago, and instead believed that I had already broken 80 a few times. Maybe I could only truly believe this if I had one of those formal mental disorders I referenced earlier, or maybe if I were enough of a garden-variety insecure bullshitter I could convince myself to some extent that I really had knocked out a 78 or a 79 at Beaver Meadow in Concord, N.H. back in the day. I could cement this achievement -- again, of course, only in my own mind -- if I wrote about it and posted about it online. This would be a source of grim entertainment and schadenfreude to people who knew better, but would, at least in the short term and before reality inevitably found its violent way into my tortured head, be very motivating to me.
Now add to this hypothetical scenario the fact that some folks I know and dislike for phantom crimes against me really are decent golfers and generally happy people, and you can see how badly off the rails the whole enterprise would be to anyone with the capacity to independently scrutinize it.
These two less-than-helpful traits -- trying to fuel yourself on premium-grade hate and insisting your own palette of accomplishments includes things it does not -- are, unfortunately for those afflicted, often found in concert with each other. Delusional people often have delusions not only of grandeur but also of persecution, and this beautifully (or not) sets the table for an individual without the basic tools to do what he wants to do to bludgeon his way in that general direction, never enjoying a moment of it thanks to a miasma of paranoia, fear and rage as well as a result of not attaining intermediate goals either because these are also wildly unrealistic.
So, with this having grown beyond what I expected, I will just ask you to consider these questions, so that if nothing else you won't wind up disappointed in a way you're not equipped to process with equanimity:
Why are you running? What will it do for you to actually achieve your goal?
And what have you done to even deserve your own goal(s)? If you're lying, to yourself as well as others, why?