Friday, December 30, 2011

Running Past Phoenix: Three Insights from My (1st) Marathon Year

“The pain of training is nothing compared to the pain
of not reaching your potential.”
~Josh Cox

"When did you run the marathon in Phoenix?"


"Wow, look what you've accomplished in a year!"


"No, seriously. Think about it."

This conversation took place as Julia and I crossed a parking lot to our favorite Chinese restaurant. Since it is the time of year when we tend to reflect on the last twelve months, I’ve been following orders and thinking about it—not so much what I’ve accomplished, but what I’ve learned. In January, I was a guy who ran a few times a week and thought completing a marathon would be cool. (And because I ran that first 26.2 in Phoenix, I can say, “Oh yeah, I’ve run with Josh Cox!”) Now, I’m a runner, pursuing my hobby with as much passion as I do my profession. I’m aware of this shift, this result of at least three insights collected on the journey.
  • Running is an exercise in self-discipline. Sure, this includes getting up and getting out there, but it reaches beyond donning technical fabric and task-specific shoes.Honestly, just about anyone can muster that much self-discipline. Stretching to achieve goals, however, requires sustained attention. Training gives every run a purpose, and how I run needs to match the run’s intent. I’m learning that I need to attend to more than distance. Pace matters. Form matters. Nutrition matters. Even what I do on my non-running days matters. Thankfully, running also strengthens my self-discipline. Research suggests this is more than an insight. Fitness contributes several cognitive benefits, including greater self-regulation ability. When I’m forced to miss runs due to injury or a travel schedule, I can tell. My emotions lie closer to the border of irritation than contentment, and my concentration abilities suffer. I runas much for my mental health as my physical health (which really is a false dichotomy since we have embodied brains).
  • No substitutes exist for a good “fan” and a good guide. A card that sits on my desk reads, “Your art and my art go hand in hand.” Behind the words lie a series of photographs. Close-ups, from various angles, of my running shoes. My “fan,” is a photographer, one whose support makes the occasional craziness of running possible. When I need three hours (or more) on a Saturday morning for a long run, my wife encourages me and asks, “How was your run?” when I return home. When I suggest running a race that requires travel, Julia investigates potential, photo-worthy subjects in the area. And she’s always there, at the finish line, camera in hand, chronicling and cheering my efforts. A good fan can be the infrastructure of goal achievement.A good guide takes you places you weren’t sure you could go, never doubting your potential to get there. I know many runners who find the go-it-alone approach works for them, but I’ve experienced the benefit of having an expert focus on my goals and training. Though I began working with a coach out of frustration, I now find this collaboration contributes to the joy of running. Many think the main benefit is accountability. Sure, it’s good to have someone watching over your shoulder, but this is a rather negative perspective of a positive partnership. A good coach invests in a runner—invests time, energy, expertise, and ongoing strategizing. Training is more about continual adjustment and refinement than rigid plans, and an effective coach helps a runner make the necessary tweeks. I know, without an iota of doubt, that I am a better, stronger, and more passionate runner because of the investment my coach has made.

    One of the most re-tweeted posts I’ve contributed to the Twitterverse reads, “There may be nothing more powerful that you can give another than your belief in his potential.” A “fan” and a guide—believers you need on your side.
  • Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the feeling of achieving a goal. I wrote previously about my ping-ponging emotions as I crossed the finish line of my second 26.2, the ING Hartford Marathon. Crossing the finish line is not the sole source of these emotions. It’s more the recognition and appreciation of the work it took to get to that finish line, the work that took place before race day. I’ll never forget my wife finding me in the finish area and asking, “Was it worth it, all those early mornings?” No hesitation. “Yes!” Working for something and seeing it happen changes you. Even though my major running achievement puts me squarely in the average bracket of marathon runners (3:55), it still required a price, and it still paid rewards. One reason I’m still running and chasing goals is to experience it all again. I frequently say, “I’m fine if such-and-such running goal is beyond my reach, but I don’t want the regret of having not tried.” I’m still learning, still growing, still striving to discover my potential. And this process is exhilarating.
Yesterday, UPS delivered a new pair of running shoes. My usual shoes lay beneath the orange lid. Nothing new. Same brand, same model, same size. I ordered the same color I had a pair ago, so I already knew exactly what the shoes looked like. Still, I opened the box, thinking, “We’re a long way from Phoenix. Hope you’re ready for what’s next.” I’m not sure it was the shoes that I was talking to.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hartford: The Race, the Results, and the Reflections

It’s been almost two weeks, and I’m still struggling to articulate what happened in Hartford. Perhaps I have more difficulty articulating positive emotions (which surely says something about me!), because what happened in Hartford was truly unforgettable.

Let me start with a summary. I registered for the ING Hartford Marathon because I wanted to run a fall race, my previous trips to the Hartford area left me intrigued, and the race rightfully enjoys a good reputation among runners. Frustrated with my own limits, both in performance and understanding, I began working with a certified running coach. Based on my past races and my response to early workouts, he established a time goal for my marathon finish. I never verbalized it—at least I don’t think I did—but I doubted my ability to achieve the goal. Why? Who knows. Perhaps it’s related to my ability to better articulate the negative than the positive. You can see the questioning in my face while I stand at the start line.

The race itself was glorious, and I mean that without any exaggeration. The weather was as close to perfect as possible; the course took advantage of Hartford’s natural, architectural, and rural beauty; and the city did an exemplary job of hosting the event. I can’t say enough about the outstanding organization of this marathon. I feel like I have been spoiled for other races, as most will likely pale in comparison to how Hartford ran its race.

I ran unevenly at first, trying to control my pace but often slowing down or speeding up in the last quarter of each mile to hit the target. Somewhere after the fifth mile, I heard one runner say to another, “You can’t be running more than a 9-minute-pace at this point! Stick with me.” He wasn’t talking to me, but I followed orders anyway. Somewhere near a 9-minute pace was my target, too. And if he could keep it consistently, I’d benefit by “drafting” him and the runner he was pacing.

After about two miles of my staying just off his shoulder, he turned and spoke to me. Turns out, he is a running coach, and the runner he was pacing was one of his proteges. She was attempting a goal similar to mine, which was a sub-4-hour finish. If there is one thing I know about my own coach, it’s that he has “cruise control”; the man can find a pace and hold it steady for miles. I assumed this coach, dressed in a NY Giants jersey (who runs in that in New England?!?), had a similar ability. He did. Every significant mile marker my coach had suggested I attend to revealed that I was on pace to achieve the goal.

To keep it short, I’ll mention that the 24.77 mile mark on my watch was the first time I looked to see how much farther it was rather than how I was doing on time. An inclined ramp onto a bridge enters the course about the point, and the headwinds had picked up throughout the morning. But crossing the bridge and seeing crowds of people gathered around the old State House in central Hartford fueled my desire to finish strong. A couple of turns, and the inspiring finish area came into view. This race has one of the most spectacular finishes anywhere, as runners run under a memorial arch in the city’s largest park. When I crossed, I was flooded with emotion. I was laughing and then nearly crying in short, 5-10-second bursts. I could not believe I had done it. I was so happy. Pleased for me, and pleased for my coach.

Unfortunately, I lost the Giants’ jersey and his runner just before the finish. I think they probably finished 30 seconds (or so) ahead of me. However, the runner found me in the finish area. She congratulated me, and I her, and I begged her to thank her coach. They were a major part of making the day a success. (One reason I love running is because on the race course, the sense of community is incredible!)

So, what’s going on in my head now? Yesterday I ran with my coach for the first time since the race. It was good to get back to something that felt normal, and yet, it was not the same, either. I’m different. Not because I achieved the goal, which realistically puts me solidly in the “average” category of runners. It’s more about yearning for what is next. I know now that in running, I can work for and achieve a goal. It won’t happen with every attempt, but it’s possible.

I’m sure some would call this “confidence.” I don’t feel that. What I feel is more a positive perspective of what the future can hold. I still have work to do, effort to put forth, improvement to make. And I recognize that I may never achieve all of my running goals. For some reason, that all matters less than it did before because I have experienced the possible.

At the finish area, while I guzzled water from an orange, ING-colored water bottle and held the sheet of foil around my shoulders, my wonderful wife asked, “Was it worth it, all those early mornings?”

No hesitation on my part. “Yes, yes. It was so worth it.” I didn’t add “because I am different,” but I think she sensed it.

I usually make some connection to teaching and learning in these posts, and there is plenty here to consider, but I think I’ll let you, the reader, find the implications that are meaningful for you. In conclusion, it dawns on me that major achievements are rarely a solo endeavor. My coach deserves major recognition. As he says, I did the running. But, it was his head, his expertise, that got me to the start line and made the accomplishment possible. The coach and runner I drafted were an unexpected gift, and my thoughts of Hartford will always include “chasing” a NY Giants’ jersey. And, of course, my wife, who not only supports these crazy pursuits in every way, but even documents them with her excellent eye and camera.

This is my best attempt at processing the experience. And as I told my coach yesterday, the whole thing still makes me smile.

Let’s chase whatever is next!

Monday, September 26, 2011


I’m having difficulty concentrating this week. My head keeps drifting 75 miles south to the land of civil rights history, state government, and my “gateway drug” to distance running. In short, I am in a state of anticipation—that combination of knowing you have to wait and feeling like you can’t.

Three years ago, my favorite city in Alabama (No, I don’t know why) held its first half-marathon. Because I needed something to motivate me to run more than three miles at a time, and because the event was in my favorite Alabama city, I signed up. For this inaugural event, the route ended on Commerce Street, and I remember running past the city’s beautiful fountain (water died pink for the occasion!) and seeing the finish line. They called my name, someone put a medal around my neck, and the combination formed the lure that fostered my current love of running.

My head keeps driving down I-65 because that event, the Montgomery Half-marathon is this Saturday. This Saturday! And I cannot wait. It will be the city’s third half, and my third time to run it.

Since that October morning three years ago, I’ve run other events. I even completed my first full marathon in January, and will run my second full two weeks after Montgomery. Yet, every time Montgomery comes around, I still anticipate the day, imagine the starting line, and tell everyone, “I get to run into the Biscuits’ stadium at the end!” (My friends up north just smile and wonder why a Hardee’s menu item would have a stadium.) This is my favorite race. Maybe because it was my first. Maybe because it launched my current obsession. Maybe because it is an interesting course. Maybe because college bands are often course distractions. (Last year, ABBA tunes with a xylophone playing the lead. What’s not to like?!?) Maybe it’s the combination of a favored place with a favored activity. Or maybe it is just because the event is well organized and run. It’s probably a combination of all that.

What’s the point? Anticipation is powerful. When we have something to look forward to, it serves as a magnet, pulling on the steel of our interest, our effort, and our determination. Why do I run enough to make sure I’m in half-marathon shape come October? Because I anticipate, I am excited by, I prize the possibility of participating in this race.

What do you anticipate? What pulls you forward, making you want to put forth the work required to be a part of something? What puts you in that I-know-it’s-not-tomorrow-but-I-wish-it-were state?

If, like me, you are an educator, what do you give your students to anticipate? I’m not talking about connected-by-a-very-thin-and-questionable thread activities, like DVD Fridays. I’m talking about learning-related anticipation. Do your students know what they will be able to do by mastering the material you are teaching today? Research suggests that helping students see their own progress actually fosters intrinsic motivation for learning. To know progress, it’s helpful to anticipate something bigger at the end of it. What is pulling your students forward? What will encourage them in today’s efforts?

Elite runner Josh Cox recently wrote a post about the importance of passion. Perhaps that is my point—that we, as learning entities, need a passion and we need to pursue it. If so, Josh said it far better than I have. But the point remains, anticipation is a powerful pull.

If you’re in Montgomery, I’ll see you Saturday. I’ll be the one so excited that he can’t stand still. Never mind—that is pretty much every runner at the start. Instead, look for the guy whose face displays a mixture of joy at what’s ahead and gratefulness for what has come before.

Monday, August 1, 2011

10 (+ 3) Ways to Know You Married a Runner

I know this idea is not new. On this morning's run, I talked about how supportive my wife is of my running. That sent my mind wondering what life might be like from her perspective. So, with great gratitude to my source of unwavering support, here's my take on the classic list of ten:
  1. Water bottles!

  2. Your laundry room smells like it was invaded by an army of wet dogs wearing sweaty socks.

  3. Vacation destinations double as race locations.

  4. You know who Ryan, Paula, Meb, Kara, Haile, Deena, Josh (and a few others) are.

  5. You hear the word fartlek without flinching.

  6. You have witnessed the debilitating effects of chaffing.

  7. A $20 pair of shorts or $100 pair of sneakers seem like bargains.

  8. You enjoy (or endure) the free time that your spouse’s long runs provide.

  9. Though you’d never put your cell phone number on a billboard, you make sure it is prominently displayed on your spouse’s Road ID. (And you know what a Road ID is.)

  10. You say “Have fun!” without any hint of sarcasm to someone about to run twenty miles.

  11. You know which running stores offers a “trade-in” discount when you donate used running shoes to charity.

  12. You know how unappealing your spouse can look even when he/she is wearing as little as is legally allowed. (Even Adonis and Angelina would look frightening after a 10-miler in the summer heat!)

  13. You hug him or her anyway!

Got more to add? Please leave ideas in the comments!

Image: 'Florida Wedding'

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why Run 26.2 Miles?

Believe it or not, this is only the second most popular question I get asked. The most popular? “What do you think about when running that far?” That question is a modern inquiry, I think. Our world offers us so little sustained reflection time that we no longer know how valuable such time can be or what we would do with it. Runners cherish the time and know how beneficial it can be for dealing more effectively with every other area of life. Our forefathers who were runners probably only had to deal with the question at hand: why run a marathon?

My first marathon was all about finishing. So many times I had begun training for the distance, and so many times I had quit before paying a race registration fee. I believed I wanted to meet the challenge, but my desire for ease overcame my discipline. Was I so mentally weak that I could not dig deep enough to find the discipline to finish what I started? Oh, I had excuses, and I offered them anytime anyone asked how my training was going. Work. Travel. Alabama weather. The justifications sounded valid, as if my only course of action was to quit. In January, when I finally stood at the starting line in Phoenix with thousands of others, I realized I had already finished the hardest part: the preparation.

When I finally crossed the actual finish line, my wife was elated. “You did it!” she said excitedly, camera in hand ready to catch a victory smile. I shook my head. “I know I can do that faster,” I grumbled. I thought the camera was about to become an assault weapon. “What? Are you kidding me? You just ran 26 miles!” I relaxed. She was right. Finishing that day was my only goal, and I had done it.

So, why, after reaching goal, do I want to run the ING Hartford Marathon? Because it is no longer about finishing. I have proven that to myself. Now it is about potential. I want to achieve the possible and know that I have pushed myself to the point of being my best.

Returning from Phoenix, I thought this would be easy. I knew how to train for the distance. How hard would it be to just run it quicker? My optimism dissipated as my running fluctuated wildly within the range of mediocrity. This brought me face-to-face with a humbling reality. I needed someone to help me. I could not, on my own, figure out how to reach my potential.

Again, my wife spoke wisdom before my ears were ready to hear her words. “Why don’t you get a coach?” Am I that pathetic—that I need someone with a clipboard and whistle to scream verbal abuse while I run mind-numbing laps around a track? (You could accurately describe my views of coaches as archaic!) But then my mind replayed snippets from my first marathon. There were coaches along the course—coaches who stepped out and ran a few paces with their runners, offering encouragement and advice. I liked what they did so much that I wanted to be one! But at this point, I needed one.

A bit of searching brought me to information on a local running coach. I contacted him, and he responded with an application. That’s right, an application—like what you might fill out for a potential employer. Wait a minute, I thought. This seems backwards. I completed the paperwork and sent it back to him. I was so frustrated that I expected bad news. I believed he would look at my responses and say something like, “I’m not the right coach for you.” (In ending relationships, this line is “It’s me, not you.”)

His reply could not have been more different. “I’d love to work with you,” he said. “Let’s meet after this race next Saturday. You are running it, right?” Well, I was now. Meeting my coach apparently required a 15k run. “Great! Your finishing time will give me some more data to work with.” I groaned, imagining him standing at the finish, looking at his watch, and wondering, “Where is he?”

We met. He had finished the race several minutes before I had, but he was gracious. “That’s a respectable time for this course,” he said. “Now, let’s talk about your running and where you want to go with it.”

Working with a coach has been good for more than my running. Yes, I am improving and even getting faster. He thinks my potential is greater than I do, which is both encouraging and challenging. He gets on my case for getting down on myself and provides a more nuanced and balanced long view. In short, he helps me focus on the finish and not the potholes in the road. He educates, strategizes, and keeps me moving forward.

So, back to the original question: why am I excited about running in Hartford?

Yes, I am running for me. I do not want to regret never achieving what I could in this area of growing interest. And, in some small part, I am running for my coach. I want to perform as he believes I can—not to gain his approval, but to validate his excellent work. And I am running for my wife. She always supports my pursuits, and if I finish even a minute faster this time around, she will be initiating reason.

So bring on the New England fall colors and let’s run! Let’s discover what we CAN do because we’re told too often what we can’t. And as we run, may thoughts of gratitude for those who helped us get to the starting line bring on that beautiful tension of looking back while pressing ahead that can only running allows.

See you at the start line!

Monday, March 28, 2011

What's My Problem?

Something isn't right, and the most frustrating thing is that I do not know what.

Until two weeks ago, I was training for my second marathon. I'd been on a great path with solid long runs and several workouts designed to increase my pace. I was feeling great and seeing real progress. My wife even suggested that the training was helping me lose a pound or two. That's never a bad thing!

Enter a sinus infection. Since we moved to Alabama many years ago, sinus infections have become a regular nuisance. I take allergy meds daily, which decreased their frequency from six or more a year to two-three a year. When I do get them now, they're almost like having the flu in terms of what they do to me physically. And they seem to wait until the end of the week to strike so they get a couple days jump on phoning or seeing a doctor to get the usual treatment started.

Anyway, this last one carried out the usual butt-kicking for about five days. Although frustrating, I didn't expect to lose that much of my recent running gains. I've missed that many days before and bounced back with minimal loss. But this time, something is different.

Although I feel fine otherwise, when I set out to run, I'm getting fatigued far too soon. I've tinkered with my diet, both timing and food, with no change. It is a miserable time for allergies here, but the infection cleared, and I've been able to train through the spring in years past.

I don't think it's mental. I'm going into my workouts with my usual determination and do not sense my mind abandoning me. If anything, I want to run more than I seem able to do right now.

I'm smart about water and sodium levels, and have tinkered with both with no difference in results.

I'm at the end of what I know to try to overcome this funk. Today I looked realistically at the state of training and decided to abandon the planned second marathon. It will have to wait until early summer or fall. In the meantime, I'll continue trying to determine why my progress has suddenly been stopped in its tracks.

Ever faced such frustration with a student? I know I have. Sometimes it seems like no matter what you do as a teacher, you cannot enlighten a certain student's mind. I've noticed that when I face such a challenge, my other students are often my greatest help. I can't tell you how many times another student has turned to a struggling classmate and explained something in such a way that the classmate's face lights up with the dawn of understanding. Sometimes it's what the helpful student said. Sometimes it's how the helpful student said it. Sometimes it's just a matter of timing. Nonetheless, I've seen many a student step in and accomplish what the guy with the education degrees could not.

So, my fellow runners, I'm struggling. Any insights, suggestions, armchair diagnoses, or wisdom will be appreciated!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Purple and Pink: Marathon Reflections

I can check it off my list. Yesterday I ran my first full marathon, the Rock & Roll Marathon in Phoenix, AZ. It didn’t unfold exactly as I had imagined it, but it was still an incredible experience. The last sign I saw before the finish line read, “You are no longer just a runner. You are now a marathoner!” I’m not sure I feel like a marathoner, but it’s a cool thought.

Two some-what related incidents from the marathon made a lasting impression on me.

The first involved a number of participants running the race in purple tops. These runners participate in the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Team in Training” program and use their training and marathon run to help raise money for continued research on these devastating diseases. That alone is impressive—the physical training they endure for a cause that benefits others.

But it was the coaches in this program who really made an impression. They were an almost constant sight along the route, and they’d eagerly abandon the role of spectator each time one of their runners appeared. They’d run alongside their runners, inquiring about everything—how the runner was feeling, what the runner was thinking—and then offer an appropriate encouragement and word of advice for that point in the run. They were easily as excited by their runners’ accomplishments as the runners themselves. They worked to equip and empower individuals who ran to equip and empower others in much more significant struggles. These runners and coaches formed a community within the morning’s larger community of runners.

The second incident was both personal and fleeting. Somewhere around the 22-mile mark I hit a low point. I ran a strong first fifteen, and then I started to feel the presence of the proverbial wall—that point where a runner feels like he’s running the that day’s last steps. At seventeen, a pace group passed me. This was a bit defeating, but when a second pace group passed me at the 22-mile mark, I was really feeling defeated. (I know—it was my first marathon and finishing should have been my focus and source of contentment. It is, honestly!) I slowed to a walk and hung my head in frustration. About ten seconds into my self-pity party, a woman ran by me, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “You can do this.” I thanked her as she ran by. I never saw her face. I only know she wore pink and spoke to me on her way by. (If angels run marathons, this on

e had her halo concealed.) I wanted her to be right, and that helped me find the motivation and strength to finish.

Distance running is largely an individual sport that generates an often-gracious running

community. I find the dichotomy intriguing. The goodwill and genuine hope for someone else’s success is unlike any sport-related experience I’ve had. It enables me to converse with people 180° different from myself and to feel immediately like I know something about my fellow runner—more of an understanding than I sense when I meet someone from my profession or organizational affiliations. I’ll leave it to the social scientists to assess the validity of this sense, but evidence of its existence was on full display at yesterday’s marathon.

And I, thankfully, benefitted from it.

Lady runner in pink, whoever and where ever you are, thank you! The power of a pat on the back and an encouraging word should never be underestimated. I think the runners in purple would agree.