What This Vet Learned From the Military That He Applies to Ultra Racing
(Editor's Note: The author, Brian Chontosh, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, put the below framework for setting goals to the test at the 24 Hours of Isolation ultra-run in Lake Tahoe, running as far as possible in the sensory-deprived world of a dark shipping container. Check out what happened here. Follow Tosh on on his Instagram feed here.)
“Sight alignment, sight picture, aye aye, sir!”
“Sight alignment, sight picture is when the clear tip of the front sight post rests centered left ‘n right, up ‘n down in the rear sight aperture against a blurry target background, SIR!”
Somehow writing it out has much less phonetic emphasis than it did when we would repeatedly “sound off” this little ditty while marching around Parris Island during recruit training. But, to this day, 26 years later, it still echoes in my head, brings excitement to my soul, and pauses me to wonder.
What does this have to do with goal setting? Everything. When it comes to goal setting and chasing success, it seems that the saveur du jour always comes back to a few clichéd catchphrases: keep your eye on the prize, visualize your arrival, be the ball, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, dream big, etc. Much of the time, these clichés get coupled in some fashion with: do the work, hustle, it’s all about the grind, perseverance, do your time, and on and on: whatever has novel grip and off-the-cuff repeatability, much like a Drake lyric. (Speaking of Drake, you’ve all seen the meme of Drake’s Hidden Hills house saying that he had it as his desktop image for years before buying it.)
I’m not writing to mock these motivational phrases. They make for some good introductory conversation, and if they’re working for you, keep on after it. But it seems the reality of these in application begin to fall short more often than not. My sense is that after delivery the motivational phrase loses impact as the finer, instigating elements become lost. I consistently ask myself: if this is all there is, then why haven’t I arrived yet? If it’s this easy, then why do so many people struggle or fall short?
Visualizing your dreams, keeping the finish line in sight, and doing hard work are all akin to focusing on the target and mashing on the trigger. Period.
Basic marksmanship starts with sight alignment and sight picture. It’s about focusing on your front sight tip (the forward end of your weapon) while holding it steady and centered in the rear sight aperture (the end nearest your eye); the target is identified, but not clearly in focus. If you aren’t doing this, it doesn’t matter how clear anything else is; you aren’t in alignment with your weapon (tools). The probability of you hitting any sweet spot is remote—chance luck at best.
In my worldview, the front sight post is an amalgam of my interests, motivation, purpose, requirements, circumstance, current situation, and other aspects of my very near reality. The rear sight aperture is me. It’s the set of my strengths, skills, abilities, and my constraints. The target then becomes relevant instead of all-important.
The Moab 240 is a 238-mile continuous ultramarathon through the Utah desert. Enthusiasm, focus, drive, and ultimately your purpose and goals eventually get distorted or even, at times, lost. Aches and pains, monotony, sleep deprivation and fatigue, hunger, dehydration—you name it—all compound in infinite arrays to tempt you off your course. Starting the race, it was crystal clear that I would be trotting half-heartedly and totally spent across the finish line around the 100-hour mark to receive my hug from race director, Candice Burt—no other award desired or required. I never spent a moment imagining this would not happen, and I even played it out over and over in my head during the weeks leading up to the race. But as I settled into the event, this target became just a blurry backdrop image that guided me forward. I would not allow it to be an absolute cognitive driving force. It was simply a steering point.
My attention narrowed from the ultimate ambition to a procedural, checkpoint-to-checkpoint sequence of tasks. As always, I still considered the one or two steps ahead (futures) as important, but each present checkpoint was the immediate chore. If you don’t succeed at the present, the anticipated future never arrives. Even then, each checkpoint chore, although more perspicuous than the finish line, was still a blurry target picture as contrasted to the clarity of any tasks at hand. My immediate focus was, “what am I doing right now; what should I be doing; why am I not doing it; or what is preventing me from doing it.” This is keeping my front sight tip centered left and right and up and down. It needs to stay harnessed and when it inevitably drifts, it needs reigning in. It requires intention.
This is what the process is like for me: a recurring scanning and assessment of my body, my mind, my mind’s mind, the course, environmentals, and the relationships and responses of it all. I narrow it down into a simple loop of questions: What’s going on for me right now? How does this play out in 15 minutes? What can I influence for that? How does this play out in five hours? What can I influence for that? I am absolutely focused on what do I need to do to arrive at the finish line? And only very rarely, when I screw up owning my front sight post, do I allow myself to focus on making it to the next aid station That’s when is becomes trying to just hold on; it can quickly become desperation—survival. I prefer thrival.
It is a difference of thinking and perspective like that of an active captain versus that of a passenger.
With your ultimate ambition as a backdrop image only, you retain the luxury of clarity in making the essential in-the-moment decisions. In the end, this means you can appropriately take credit for accomplishment and not be allowed to repurpose any excuse for failure. What we get is an intimately parallel conversation to Ownership. It’s a play on staying in tune with the moment: short-term forecasting based on repeated assessments of the current situation, with an ambition on the horizon. I want to be ever vigilant, in a state of acute involvement and process-oriented versus end-state fixated.
The further out a goal or target is, the more imperative it is to have a crisp front sight post; not the common contrary. Truly savvy individuals establish supporting goals where their vision is clear but never truly focused. I deliberately keep from nesting short-term goals within my long-term goal; classifying them appropriately as supporting goals helps keep the ultimate ambition relative. I have fallen prey to becoming satisfied with a short-term goal being good enough and coming up short. Supporting goals are just that: support, and short-term goals are short-term goals. In fact, those “right in front of your face” short-term goals should be called tasks, and they don’t require a front sight picture at all. It’s called a “front sight flash” or “front sight press,” and you keep the target in perfect focus, both eyes open, and trigger squeeze away.
I look back upon my military career every now and then. I also look back on that of others I served with as well. The ones overly focused on their career status were rarely held in any genuine regard. Along the journey, they missed the mark too often at the expense of checking a box. And many of those who “made it” found that when they “arrived,” the reward was not what they had envisioned 20 years earlier. A sort of going to the grave with lots of money, nobody caring to be at your funeral, and having never tasted the joys in life. They neglected to develop certain special relationships. They often didn’t hold their ground firmly enough on touchstone values and beliefs. And during combat, at best they weren’t leading from the front or by example; at worst, they were cowards.
I proofed a few of my abbreviated thoughts through a highly respected friend to make sure I wasn’t all confused. Without hesitation he offered a poem by C. P. Cavafy: “Ithaka.” Check it out.
I tackled my duty assignments one at a time. Of course I had dreams of being successful, but they were drowned out by the desire to be challenged, impactful, and purposeful. Along the way I made some mistakes and squandered a few opportunities, even losing my way a few times. It seems this happened when I was largely over-focused on my rear sight or the target, not keeping things crisp where they should have been. Fortunately, I always had an attentive and passionate cadre of mentors (guardian angels maybe) to reorient my target picture by reminding me to stay crisp, then on center.
I remember the Road to Baghdad. Even before we stepped off, there was such great emphasis on the capital city as the ultimate objective. Even though there were so many other considerations, objectives, and targets still present and considered, on the ground we put Baghdad as the marker of significance. An awful lot of things happened along what was becoming the Race instead of the Road. The day-to-day became our checkpoints and fuel, water, and enemy contact became the front sight picture. We did well. We took our bumps and bruises and worse, but we made it. And then we realized Baghdad was only less than half of what we would ultimately be called upon to do. Morale ebbed, combat fatigue creeped in, and a certain carelessness and recklessness manifested. Still, we did exceptionally well, but with much greater effort than had we managed ourselves better along the way. Again, have targets, but don’t become target fixated.
Over the years it has become increasingly natural; habituated, to rely on the front sight and be ever attentive to the requirements of the process. If you pin anyone down and really grill them about their long-term success, it comes down to being attentive and responsive. There is an essential deliberate consistency and persistence that are involved. These are largely procedural. If you disagree, then you must have a high-dollar scope and a ballistic computer. The rest of us average Joes are sporting iron sights and a wet finger to determine the wind. Happy hunting.