What Is Your Quest?

His personal trainer rendered him speechless by asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to do more?” I was reading To Be a Runner, by Martin Dugard, one of the best running books I’ve ever read. A longtime runner and coach, Dugard had reluctantly recruited a personal trainer to help him break out of a long, sedentary spell of sloth and weight gain. In the opening interview at the gym, The House of Pain, his trainer, Terry, asked, "What are your goals?”

Surprisingly, for a trained athlete, he didn’t have a goal. He wasn’t sure what he wanted from the workouts other than to be better.

But Dugard also had a philosophical problem with the word “goal.” He preferred “quests.” To him, goals sounded pedestrian, but quests were quixotic.

The distinction between goal and quest was not so obvious to me; however, I could see the difference between setting a goal to lose twenty pounds and being on a quest to hike the Appalachian Trail. Or the difference between setting a goal to read twenty books versus a quest to write twenty books.

Goals seem to be about what you do (or what you want to do), while quests seem to be about who you are (or hope to be).

Therefore, a quest should be bigger than life, something we cannot accomplish on our own. A quest should be an epic adventure.

(Of course, to be honest, I cannot use the word “quest” without hearing Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail in my head. That’s probably why I seldom use that specific word, even though I talk about the concept of epic adventures often.)

Martin Dugard told a story about running up a long set of steps to the top of an Italian mountain, near the shores of Lake Garda, to see the ruins of a fifth-century castle. The route got progressively steeper the further he ran, but he was not tempted to turn back. He didn’t know what he would find at the top, or whether it would be worth the struggle, but he had wasted too many weeks without running so he kept moving up.

Dugard’s life aphorism is, “Keep Pushing - Always.” He described  it as a reminder “not to settle but to dream, to live, to sing, to let go of the past and fulfill your destiny. Sometimes a single run can make your whole life come full circle - or maybe just make sense of the things you never understood. That run up an Italian mountain banished my fear of settling.”

His last phrase, “banished my fear of settling,” caught my attention because of my own tendency to settle. I’ve taught myself to seek adventure, movement, and journey, but my natural, organic, inclination is to seek equilibrium, to find a place to settle whenever possible. I’ve learned to schedule runs, hikes, and rides - hard ones and long ones - to keep this tendency at bay.

I’ve also fought my tendency to settle by becoming a goal setter. I don’t claim to be a great goal achiever, but I try to set a sufficient number of goals so if I only achieve a few of them I still make real changes and feel good about myself. And some of those goals have now become habits so deeply engrained I no longer have to think about accomplishing them - they’ve become part of my daily life.

And so, as a goal-setter, I hate to waste a January. If you’ve been in any of my classes, you’ve heard me preaching the value of New Year’s Resolutions (except that I would rather say “goals” than “resolutions” since resolutions are usually about stopping, while goals are about doing. I think most people would rather do than stop. (Maybe I should consider New Year’s Quests!))

Back to the book - my favorite part of Martin Dugard’s story comes at the end. After several rounds of give-and-take between Terry-the-personal-trainer asking about goals, Martin giving wimpy noncommittal answers, and Terry making fun of him, Dugard finally said, “I want to look better in my author picture.” He hoped this would end the questioning.

Terry asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to do more?”

What a great question for January 2013. Are you sure you don’t want to do more?

Not necessarily more things, or more goals, but taking a few goals deeper into the quest?

Do you have a goal to lose ten pounds? Why not do more, and commit to running your first 5K? Or half-marathon?

Maybe you have a goal to start cycling? Why not turn it into a quest to complete a long-distance group ride?

One goal I want to start is learning to draw. My quest is to be a better writer, and I think drawing will help me to see better.

How about you? What are your goals, or even better, what are your quests, to begin 2013?


“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32