Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hamster Wheels and Sustaining Excellence

Training is different from running. Before I became enamored with the world of organized distance races, I ran as long as I wanted at a pace I wanted and skipped it all on days when something else promised more enjoyment.

Some days I’m tempted to revert to that semi-lackadaisical approach. Specifically, on days when my training schedule says “Tempo Run, X miles.”

I hate tempo runs.

If you’re not up on your running terminology, a tempo run is a run in which the basic idea is to reach and sustain a quick pace. For example, last week I did a 7-mile run at a 6.8 mph pace. That’s quicker than my average long-run pace, but not so fast that I can’t sustain it for the required distance.

To increase my misery, I do most of my tempo runs on that contraption based on the hamster wheel concept—a treadmill. It’s easier to maintain a steady pace (the treadmill doesn’t slow down on its own) and it’s proving to be a cold winter, even in Alabama. But for some reason, I have to concentrate more when running like a hamster than I do when I run outdoors.

However, the treadmill does serve its purpose; it forces me to maintain a quick pace for the duration. So, while I view it as a loathsome taskmaster, its belt spins for my benefit.

Lately, I noticed improvement in how my long runs feel. Don’t get me wrong; they’re still L…O…N…G. But at some point in every recent outdoor run I’ve noticed that I’m running quicker, stronger, and with greater ease than I have in the past. My tempo runs equip me to sustain excellence for longer periods of time, even when endurance is my focus.

On yesterday’s lengthy run, I got thinking about this—about how enduring the long runs is easier than sustaining a quick pace. That led me to think about excellence and how sustaining excellence (keeping a good pace) is often more challenging than merely enduring to the end.

In both my experience as a student and my career in education, I’ve known teachers who were enduring (“Just have to do this for three more years and then I can retire!”) but not pursuing excellence. The treadmill’s belt outpaced them somewhere in the past and tempo runs gave way to sliding by and biding time. And, yes, I’ve occasionally been such a teacher (“Only 6 more days until Christmas break!”). When we succumb to merely enduring, our classrooms often deteriorate to boring routines and frequent viewing of videos with tenuous connections to anything we actually teach. We need the occasional “tempo run” to ignite our own growth and effectiveness.

As I counted down the final miles of yesterday’s run, I began to ponder what the “tempo runs” were in other areas of my life. What, for example, do I do to increase and sustain my effectiveness as a teacher? as a writer? as a husband?

What are the “tempo runs” in your major areas of life?

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