Ihave been writing for twenty years, teaching for four years and running for one year. Two and a half weeks ago I ran my first marathon. It’s no accident, I think, that the marathon is regarded with a special esteem in our culture. People who despise running might still be heard to say something like, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” or “I’m watching a CSI marathon” or “I feel like I just ran a marathon.”
Marathon running is a highly useful metaphor. Every able-bodied person has run long and short and fast enough to know the thrill and the pain of running. Though these days elite runners regularly race 100 miles or more, sometimes in extreme climates like Death Valley (over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade) and Antarctica (average wind chill: -20 degrees Celsius), and some crazy folk go so far as to run across the Sahara Desert or even around the world… still, the marathon is what captures the collective imagination. It is rich with history, it is certainly long enough to provide anyone with a challenge, and yet hundreds of thousands of people run marathons every year. Even Oprah, octogenarians, and Biggest Loser contestants do it.
Now that I have done it, I can say with confidence that life is like a marathon. And so is teaching. And so is writing.
To succeed in writing requires many years of persistence. It’s an endurance sport. You must never give up. You must diligently study and refine and be willing to start over again and again. You must not lose hope.
In teaching it is the same. You are never where you want to be. You can always improve. Losing your edge, your desire, your commitment in teaching means failure for you and your students.
In marathoning, you must first put in hundreds of hours of running. Your heart, your lungs, your bones and your ligaments must all be made road-ready, mile by mile. This requires heart, patience, endurance and unflagging commitment. Anything less will lead to injury and/or a DNF (did not finish).
In life, you must struggle and overcome. Rinse and repeat. Just when you think you’ve made it, a new trial befalls you. It’s maddening at times. Eventually, with perspective, so long as you don’t break down and give up you come to see that the suffering taught you many a lesson, made you stronger, made you humbler, lit a fire beneath you, made you a better human being.
Preparation is a matter of what needs to be done before the circumstances are right for the successful completion of: a book, a day’s lesson, a marathon or a productive day-in-the-life.
In writing this means: brainstorming, note taking, outlining, buying and learning how best to take advantage of writing software, learning the business of writing (agent querying, publishing avenues), and establishing a platform. Without these you are hamstrung.
In teaching: lesson planning, prepping the materials you will need, managing classroom routines, preparing documents, handling correspondence, collecting data, studying it, applying it for grouping, for differentiation and for curriculum planning, keeping abreast of research, of trends and of school initiatives. All of this can easily be overwhelming. I’d even say it’s nearly impossible for most teachers to do it all well and keep sane. But you have to do your best, prioritizing and improving. If you don’t prepare well, either the system or, more probably, the students will eat you alive.
In marathoning: stretching, buying an array of running clothes that won’t chafe and that will wick away sweat and that will be suitable for cold and heat and rain and snow, researching and buying good shoes well-suited to your gait, resting, hydration (during and between runs; which drinks, how often), healthy eating (during and between runs; balancing carbs, proteins and fats; finding which, if any, bars and gu’s and such meet your digestive needs), deciding whether you run best with or without partners, timing and pacing devices, and music. All of this must be perfected before race day.
In life: getting a good night’s sleep, eating enough but not too much, developing habits of basic hygiene, forming goals and routines and activities that provide challenge and a sense of accomplishment, forging a path that provides a sense of meaning and contribution to the community, spending time with family and friends, engaging in physical activity, engaging the mind, and making sure to laugh and play and recharge through healthy recreation. Neglecting any of these areas for long will throw you off balance and could ruin any day or week or month…
3. Out of the Gate
Beginnings are exciting. Revel in them. But don’t let their heady promise lull you into a subsequent dejection and torpor once the shine has worn off. In writing, it’s tempting to want to linger in the revisions of your story’s beginning pages, a point at which you don’t yet have to fully commit and at which the ramifications of your story choices haven’t yet made everything complicated. Avoid this!
In teaching, the beginning of the school year is special. The room is perfect. The students are as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they are likely ever to be. They’re probably on their best behavior and giving you the benefit of the doubt. Hope is in the air. The whole year can’t be like this, though. So enjoy it while it lasts, but know too that it’s only natural for the glow to fade. Don’t be depressed by that. Take it as part of the natural flow of the school year.
In marathoning, you are full of energy, the big day is here at last, the sound guy has blasted “Born to Run,” “Chariot’s of Fire,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and “Gonna Fly Now,” the Rocky theme song. Everybody cheers, and we’re off. Soak it all in. But keep the whole of the race in mind, ups and downs both.
In life, childhood, provided you were fortunate to have had a good one, is like the thrilling beginning to a race. It’s all promise and energy. Reality and responsibility encroaches. The key is to recognize this and then see that it is the cyclical natural order. Get used to it! And it gets better again!
4. Pacing Yourself
Try not to write too much at the beginning. Set a reasonable daily goal and stick to it. Too much too soon can lead to burnout.
Avoid burnout at school, too. You have a lot of energy at first, but you’ll need reserves later in the year. Don’t forget to come up for air even in those early weeks of September.
Going out too fast in a race, especially a long one such as a marathon, is a sure way to agony later. Make pace your buddy during training. Pay attention to your pace early in the marathon. Your legs will thank you, and you’ll enjoy the experience much more.
Don’t try to do too much, too soon, in any endeavor. That doesn’t mean be lazy. Don’t shirk your work! What it does mean is: don’t forget that you have many needs, physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Monitor and maintain balance.
5. Hitting the Wall
About halfway (maybe two thirds) through the book, the school year, the race, your life: the relentless monotony may begin to feel like a slog. Expect it beforehand, and keep moving. The midpoint of the story is a bear to solve, the winter dark and cold are depressing, the race squeezes you with tunnel vision, your life appears to be half over, cup half full. When your thoughts sink to this level, that is the time to focus on the big picture. Yes, such times are hard. Very hard. Hitting the wall is no fun. But celebrate reaching the halfway point, as much as possible. Not everyone makes it this far.
6. Finishing Strong
When you approach the end in all of the above, if to this point you have given it your all you should now feel exhausted, relieved, joyous and a touch sad at the finality of finishing. That is a potent blend. Appreciate the concoction. You are almost there. All that remains is to finish strong. Breaking the tape with a last big push is more rewarding than plodding home, and it stirs up more endorphins, upping the adrenaline that comes with the triumph of completion. And be sure to celebrate your achievement. As my friend Tom Kelly (the Michael Jordan of the what if) reminded me after I neglected to remember: “We always forget to do that!”
Take time off. Mix up your routines. Get away from it all. Sleep a lot. Eat what your body needs. Learn something new. Recharge for the next go around. That’s how it is in writing, teaching and marathoning. (Life is the exception here, I believe. But I also believe that if we run well the race of life, the post-race banquet is heavenly. And that’s another story.)
(Photos by: Jason Coleman, andrechinn, Todd Hryck, Jonathon Hoke,macwagen, Jim Flanagan, Darron Fick, Jan Donath)
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.