Sometimes the biggest value of taking on a significant challenge is not what you accomplish but what you learn about yourself. The Tow Path Marathon was such a challenge for me and it offers important life lessons for us all. Enjoy the race regardless of the outcome; don’t set yourself up with unrealistic expectations; go with the flow even when the flow isn’t going with you.
Long-time readers of these Provisions will know that from time to time I interrupt a series to reflect on and draw the life lessons from my latest race. After a couple triathlons during the summer, pure fun with no expectations, I began training for two fall marathons. The first one, the Tow Path Marathon in Cleveland, Ohio, I decided to run competitively while the second one, the SunTrust Marathon in Richmond, Virginia, I decided to run with my long-time buddy, Jim, to help him through his first marathon experience.
The Tow Path Marathon was this morning. A month ago I ran a personal best time in a half-marathon at 1:37:20. That performance emboldened me to think that I could get back to my personal best marathon time of 3:18:46. Two weeks ago I suffered a chink in the armor when I pooped out at about mile 12 in a 30K (18.6 mile) race. That indignity could be blamed on the distraction and worry of having to replace the hard drive in my computer. So I still hoped for the best at the Tow Path Marathon.
Unfortunately, my computer problems continued as I took to revising the LifeTrek Web site to coincide with some new advertising I’m doing for ministry coaching. Although the Web site revision was a minor problem in comparison to a crippled hard drive, it was enough to distract my focus from the Tow Path Marathon up to the day before the race. In the absence of a settled mind, I lost more than focus • I also lost sleep. Along the way I lost the confidence to run another great marathon. I didn’t want to admit that to myself, but it came out in my professions of anxiety about the race.
The morning started out well enough: drizzly 55-degree Fahrenheit weather was near perfect as far as marathons go. A tad warm, but the drizzle was offsetting. The course was flat, with no significant hill challenges. The race was well organized with well-attended water stops and generous perks both before and after the race. Indeed, I’ve never seen a race with three hot-tubs setup just for runners. Talk about an incentive for finishing!
My performance during the first half gave me a clue that all was not well for the long run. I could not sustain my pace. I’d run a mile or two at pace, and then slip back for a mile or two. Then I’d pick it back up, only to fall back again. By the time I got to the halfway point I was almost 3 minutes behind where I wanted to be and 5 minutes behind the split in my personal best marathon. Things slowly unraveled from there, to the point where I ran several 10:20 miles at the end of the race. I followed a 1:42 first half with a 2:05 second half to end the race in 3:47:45 • exactly one minute slower than Boston, on a much easier course.
So what’s the lesson? First, don’t go for a personal best when you’ve been unable to focus on the run. We’ve been talking about the power of focus, one of the major themes in Tim Gallwey’s bookThe Inner Game of Work, and it proved to be true again. Without preparatory focus in advance of a major contest, one is unlikely to find performance focus in the heat of a major contest. Multitasking doesn’t work well with computers, despite the claims, and it’s even harder on humans. To be your best, to get into the zone, one needs to engage with the contest as though it was a fish on the line. Turn away for a moment, let go of the line, and you’re likely to lose the fish.
But the first lesson is not as important as the second. Don’t go for a personal best every time you run. Running guru Jeff Galloway suggests that one should not strive for a personal marathon best more often than every 12 to 24 months. In between he urges alternatives like pacing friends, supporting causes, or running just for the fun of it. Jeff tells the story of going from a 2:38 marathon to a 5:10 marathon in one year. To celebrate his 45th birthday, Jeff trained for and ran a sub-2:40 marathon. Later that same year he paced a friend to his first marathon finish in 5:10.
Surprisingly, Jeff enjoyed the 5:10 marathon as much as he did the 2:38 and he experienced none of the recovery challenges that go with competitive running. Whereas it took many weeks to get back to smooth and fluid running after his 2:38 marathon, it took only three days after his 5:10 marathon — providing Jeff with a different kind of pride, the pride of marathon endurance.
Jeff writes: “Before committing to a time goal program, be sure to evaluate the risk-reward ratio. To finish a marathon requires very little interruption in your lifestyle. The extra time required for a time goal, however, can take its toll on family, career, and other areas of life. Training ‘to finish’ takes about one-third to one-half the time required by most time goal marathoners. The extra mileage and speed training will also produce more aches, pains, doubts, negative messages, and, possibly, injuries.”
“There is a high burnout rate among time goal marathoners. They often become so focused on the goal that they miss the joy of the body responding to an early morning run or the glow of a trail at sunset. If the satisfaction is derived solely on the clock at the finish, most of the joys of running slip by, under appreciated.”
That would certainly have been true today. The Tow Path Marathon is run along the tow path trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. It is one of the most scenic trails you can find, with marshes, boardwalks, flowing rivers, and abundant wildlife. The leaves were at their fall foliage peak, making the wonders of the trail all that much more spectacular. By mile ten, when I knew it was not my day, I let go of the finish time and started to embrace the present time. It was a necessary and beautiful shift to make.
For one thing, it salvaged the rest of the race for me. Had I been focused only on the finish time, I would have dropped out at mile 18 in order to try again later at another marathon. But then I would have missed the beaver that dashed across the trail in front of me at mile 20, or the peppermints laid out carefully by someone on a table at mile 24. I would also have missed the overall sights and sounds of a great fall run, let alone those hot tubs and pierogies at the finish. I would have also have missed the joy of finishing at all, which is an achievement in it’s own right each and every time.
There are at least two ways to go through life. One is competitively, with the drive to conquer. The other is cooperatively, with the wisdom to enjoy. Competition is not all bad. Both Gallwey and Galloway recognize that competition has its time and place. Human beings have ambition, and that ambition is not to be denied.
But one cannot be competitive all the time without suffering the consequences of burnout, frustration, injury, and disappointment. There’s just too much that’s outside of our control, not to mention the dynamics of aging. We cannot run personal bests every time we run • or go after any project • every time we try. Sooner or later we all slow down.
Better to strike a balance between competition and cooperation. And I like Galloway’s balance: competition every 12 to 24 months. The rest of the time relax, go with the flow, and enjoy the simple things in life like beavers and peppermints.
Sometimes the biggest value of taking on a significant challenge is not what you accomplish but what you learn about yourself. Today was such a day for me. I learned that you can’t short-change speed work or be distracted from the task at hand and expect to do your best at the end of a marathon. I learned that it’s not only unrealistic but also unhealthy to press for a personal best every time you run or go after any goal in life. I learned that it’s OK to finish, in any time, as long as you enjoy the experience along the way.
So I end this reflection as I did after my Boston Marathon with the quote from the late Dr. George Sheehan, sage of running and being: “No matter how old I get, the race remains one of life’s most rewarding experiences. My times become slower and slower, but the experience of the race is unchanged: each race a drama, each race a challenge, each race stretching me in one way or another, and each race telling me more about myself and others.”
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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