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My first 5K began with an unsolicited email. 

Said email came from a mysterious, friendly woman named Patti, through the listserv at the startup space that hosts my little office. Hey, it said. Does anyone want to create a team for this race in October? 

Flush with my recently learned lessons about running as a metaphor for life, and inspired by my supercool friend who had learned to surf at age 30, I decided that this was a test. Was I ready to embrace life? Take chances? Challenge myself? Yes? Okay, then. Time to take on a 5K with a bunch of potential strangers. Bonus points: the race, called The Color Run, combined mostly flat running surfaces (yay!) with getting doused in colored powder, creating multicolored rainbow-people in the process. It reminded me of my favorite Indian festival. It seemed meant to be.

Well, great. I replied enthusiastically to Patti, registered for the race . . . and promptly forgot about it for two months. Things got busy: I turned 30, got weirdly ill, spent a bunch of time in Central Asia for work, and returned just in time to note “Color Run!” on my calendar in a couple of weeks. Uh oh. 

I hadn’t prepared at all, mentally or physically. I knew that I could technically deal with five kilometers, but I still felt so new to this running-for-real game. What if my knee gives out? What if this Patti person is an undercover ultramarathoner who is going to get tired of me moving along at a reasonable-but-not-zippy pace? Wait, this thing starts at 8 AM, forty-ish minutes away, on a SATURDAY? But I’m soooo tired this week. And so on.  

There were a million reasons to back out. But a quick email exchange with Patti revealed that we were the only two people who hadn’t cancelled. So, if I flaked, she’d was running alone. Okay, fine. I wasn’t going to leave her hanging. On Friday night, I set out my super-fashionable (read: not that fashionable) running outfit, went to bed early, and prayed that my alarm wouldn’t randomly decide to stop functioning. 

Well, here’s how things went: my alarm worked, Patti was awesome (she was learning to surf in her 40’s, continuing what has apparently become a theme with the women around me), I set a goal of running the entire race (without worrying about pace) and did so, I got covered in bright colors, I sprinted to the finish line, I ate a KIND bar, and life was good. Plus, a lot of runners were wearing tutus for whatever reason, which added a lot of joy to my morning. 

And, as running is apparently wont to do, it taught me some things – this time, about motivation. Here’s what I learned from my first 5K, which I forgot about, almost cancelled, and then conquered: 

1. If you’re doing something new and intimidating, get yourself an accountability buddy. (Or “accountabilibuddy,” if you want to be extremely cool.) Make the commitment not just to yourselves, but to each other. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be way less likely to bail if it means letting someone else down.  

2. Put some skin in the game; it increases your attachment to your goal. Behavioral economics tells us that people value something more if they’ve paid something for it. I definitely felt more committed to the 5K after I considered the hard-won dollars that had gone toward my registration fee. Same deal with your bhangra dance class, the Skillshare illustration course you’ve been considering, or the intro month at that cool workout spot down the street. Even if it’s not a lot of cash, a small investment can still nudge you toward your goals in the face of reluctance, laziness, or fear. 

3. Start small. I didn’t jump into this envisioning a 2:20 marathon time. I simply wanted to run an entire 5K at whatever pace made sense. There’s something to be said for challenging yourself, but I’d argue that there’s something more important to be said for cutting yourself some slack when you’re beginning. 

4. If your goal is scary, work out the honest worst-case scenario in your mind. When I really thought about it, all of my “but what if?” moments about the 5K added up to a pretty neutral scenario. If my knee hurt, I’d just be walking around instead of running on a beautiful autumn morning. If Patti insisted on sprinting this thing, I’d have some contemplative time alone. If I was tired, I’d work through it by getting my blood flowing early. All of those things were positive at best, and definitively not terrible at worst. 

5. Embrace the unknown. As it turns out, not only did I rock the 5K – I also befriended Patti, a really awesome woman with a penchant for adventure and independence. I’m one of those people who is often very extroverted but still gets really shy sometimes, and it was a challenge to do something difficult with someone I’d never met. But, as it turns out, we ran side by side the whole way and had a blast sharing stories all morning. 

Next time, I’ll train thoughtfully before the race. Next time, I’ll have a better idea about what I’m getting myself into. Next time, I will definitely attempt to steal some extra KIND bars. The point is this: there will be a next time, which is only possible once you make it past the first time. 

Mailande Moran is a musician, writer, and media consultant based in Durham, NC. She is a 2013 graduate of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, where she served as a Fellow for the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship's Impact Investing Initiative and the Center on Leadership and Ethics. In the summer of 2012, she worked with Enterprise Community Loan Fund to analyze and communicate the impact of green affordable housing and transit-oriented development in Colorado. While pursuing her MBA, she consulted with the healthcare NGO Healing Fields in India, the microfinance start-up Seeds in Kenya, and the for-profit maternity hospital LifeSpring in India. Prior to Fuqua, she focused on social entrepreneurship and philanthropy in strategy roles at Echoing Green and the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. Mailande graduated from Duke University in 2006 with an A.B. in Art History. She is passionate about creating a safer, more equitable world. You can hear her music on Facebook (mailandemusic) and follow her other adventures on Twitter (@mailande). read more about
  • Giselle Jones

    Well said. Thanks for keeping things into perspective.