Monday, October 5, 2009

An Educator Races (but not to the top)

The single shot from the starter pistol stirred me out of my pre-race stupor. Here we go, I thought. This is what those early morning runs prepared you for—hopefully. As I started moving toward the starting line of the Montgomery Half-Marathon (it took 27 seconds to get to the starting line!), Paul’s admonishment to run the race set before you infiltrated my thoughts. The race set before you. Reflecting on that concept brought to mind the advice friends had offered. Start out slower than you want to ultimately run. Use your head, especially for the first five miles. Be aware of other runners and avoid impeding their running. Take advantage of every water station. I shook them from consciousness and tried to focus on running my race.

That sounds easy, but doing it becomes much more difficult when you are surrounded by hundreds of other runners. How do you run your race when you are one drop in a moving wave? To be honest, I never figured it out, and for the first three miles I allowed myself to just be part of the wave. At the third mile marker, the wave became more like separated ripples, and I noticed that I was ahead of my target pace. Good news, right? Maybe. My concern then became having the stamina to finish the distance of 13.1 miles.

I kept trying to slow myself down. I even found a runner with a watch who was trying to run my target pace. I stayed behind him for a couple minutes, but couldn’t stand it and ended up passing him. At this point it became clear to me that running my race would depend mostly on listening to my body and heeding its suggestions.

I must pause to tell you about the funniest part of this experience. I’m an avid reader of Runner’s World magazine, and 99% of the advice I recalled from its pages proved true during the race. However, the RW writers made drinking from a tiny paper cup while continuing to run sound as easy as walking and chewing gum. As I entered the first water station I knew not to stop. That creates a major hazard for other runners (imagine a car stopping suddenly in
front of you while driving). I knew to hone in on one volunteer, make eye contact, and grab and go. Shouting thanks was optional, but I managed it nonetheless. Now, just get the liquid into your mouth. Easy, right?

I pinched the cup, as I remember Runner’s World explaining, and tried “funneling” the water into my mouth. If the water in the cup had remained calm, all would have been fine. But my running served as a submerged earthquake, creating a tidal wave in my tiny paper cup. As I attempted to pour the water into my mouth, the tsunami continued its upward trajectory, soaking my entire face and adding to the muck on the inside of my glasses. Determined to do it right, I got brave at the second water station and grabbed a cup of sports drink. The same thing happened. My head was now drenched and dripping watery Gatorade. I stuck out my tongue to catch a few drops, laughed at myself, and kept running. It took me five water stations to get the motion right!
Apparently, though my running pace was ahead of schedule, my learning pace was behind.

Somewhere around the five mile mark, I overheard the following conversation:

Runner A: Hey, Bob, I didn’t know you were a runner!
Runner B: I’m not! I just started in March. This is my first race. When I started I could only run 90 seconds before resting. Now look at what I’m doing! It’s crazy!
Runner A: No, not crazy. Awesome!

Like me, Bob was running his race. In six months, he’d gone from being a non-runner to running a half-marathon. What an inspiration!

I must pause to make an observation about people. Specifically, non-runners. Every once in a while, someone would be sitting out on their lawn and occasionally yelling to the runners. (Some might have yelled at us, but I often was too distracted to hear clearly!) I think at least six different people told me, “This is the last hill! It’s all downhill from here!” They were liars, every single one. Others would yell, “Keep going! You’re almost there!” Thanks, but at the four-mile mark of a 13.1 mile race, you’re not even close to being almost there.

However, many people really did provide a lift of spirits. On the campus of Alabama State University, the percussion section of the school’s marching band rhythm-ed us across the campus. In the Colonial Heights neighborhood, a group of neighbors stood at the corner shouting greetings and welcoming us to their home turf. At another point, a family had their car doors open and its radio blasting; the beat of Motown carried us on its waves. A gentleman on a bike showed up at several mile markers to cheer the runners forward. Each of these made me glad to be there. (I had quite the opposite reaction to whomever in “historic Cloverdale” thought it would be funny to cook bacon with all the windows open, but I’ll let that go!) Another activity that upped the friendly factor was the many runners who thanked the police officers and volunteers who made the event safe and smooth from beginning to end. I hope all of them knew the sincerity behind those yelps of gratitude.

Somewhere after the 10th mile marker, I lost track of how far I had gone. Was the next mile marker 11 or 12? I convinced myself it would be 12. Obviously, it wasn’t. I surprised myself by not being defeated or even set back too badly from this miscalculation. Somehow I was able to push ahead, glad to finally know for sure what the next mile marker would be.

And oh, the joy of hitting mile marker 12 and then 13 and noting that I was still ahead of my target pace. It was possible that in addition to finishing I might actually finish in under two hours! (Cue the Chariots of Fire theme!). “Hear those bells?” called a spectator. “They’re waiting for you at the end!” Again, technically the bells were not at the end, but they did pull me forward. In fact, as I rounded the last corner I found a burst of energy and actually sped toward the finish. Recalling Runner’s World’s recommendations again, I tried to ignore the clock and run through the finish so the photos of me would be magazine cover material. Let’s just say that between the Gatorade baths and the fact that I looked like I had just run 13 miles, I won’t be appearing at your newsstand anytime soon. Nonetheless, my wife did capture the moment, providing evidence of the accomplishment.

A few moments of chaos—a man with what looked like a pin-pong paddle stepped forward to scan my timing chip, a volunteer threw a finisher’s medal around my neck, and a couple volunteers offered water and bananas to the weary—and it was over. It was over way too soon. I was just beginning to have fun! There is little that generates more motivation than success.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with education. After all, that is the focus of this blog. To make some connections, let me share some questions that I’ve asked myself:

  • Do I recognize that my students must each run his/her own race to learning—that learning is always an individual act? How am I creating the conditions that allow each learner to find their way to new understandings and abilities?
  • How do I lift the spirits of learners who find the going difficult? Do I toss easy lines at them? or do I encourage them with honesty while running along side them to help them progress?
  • Do I allow and help my students to laugh at themselves? Failure combined with self-anger is a sure road to defeat. Do I model resilience? Do I help my students develop resilience?
  • Do I recognize that what I think will be easy may be a challenge for students? Do I plan sufficient practice and feedback to support students as they move toward mastery?
  • Do I celebrate students’ success? Do I create conditions that give students a feeling of accomplishment? or am I so preoccupied with the next thing that celebrations get left out? How motivating do I allow accomplishment—true accomplishment—to be?
These aren’t new ideas or the roadmap for major educational reform, but their potential power and influence are more significant to me than ever before. I may not have raced to the top (I finished 203rd), but running my own race proved to be an effective dose of professional development.


Cathy said...

What a great post! As a runner, I can certainly appreciate the test that a half-marathon provides. And, as an educator and a runner, I can understand even more the difference between pretty words and constructive, honest encouragement. I might add to your list of annoyances the people who mow their lawns or smoke while you run by--as if it's not difficult enough to breathe! Congratulations on a great race! Make sure you celebrate the accomplishment!

Unknown said...


Awesome blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It really captured the sights and sounds of a race. It is quite the event as you know. Hard to capture that type of community anywhere else.

I haven't braved the water cups yet. I use a water bottle that I run with strapped around my hand. I just dump cups in there every 5 to 10 miles. But I think this next race I will go without the bottle, but I may need to practice using the cups.

Thanks for posting this.


Tyler said...

Loved the connection between running this race and the questions you posed. Well written. Thanks.

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