There’s been much written about the fact that running can teach you about life. One of the things I’ve come to love about the sport over the years is that if you pay close enough attention to your running, it can help you find happiness by finding yourself.
Throughout my running career, the 5K was the only event that had dogged me mentally. Something made me always want to break 16 minutes, but could never put the right training and/or race together. I’ve sat on a PR of 16.15 since I was 20 years old, trying different training approaches to knock 16 seconds off that time. I was never able to do it. What’s worse is that looking back on it, there were certainly times in which I hurt myself trying to make it happen.
Last summer I did some new reading and research and tweaked the elements of my nutrition, recovery, and training yet again to make one more run at breaking the 16 minute mark. I had done a lot of reading about things that other runners in their mid-30’s had done to extend their competitive running careers, and believed setting a PR at 36 years old was certainly doable. Let’s just say that things didn’t work out the way I had hoped. After a couple road race attempts and bringing that 5K time back down, I couldn’t manage to get under 17 minutes, and the whole “season” ended with me walking off the course at a Thanksgiving day 5K sick, sore, and frustrated.
In December of 2013 I completed a graduate degree in educational leadership and administration, earning my principal papers. As a teacher, I always figured that the next step in my career had to be a transition from classroom teacher to administrator. It’s just the thing that most male elementary/intermediate teachers do. Over the course of the following four years, I applied for many assistant principal jobs, including four within my own district, and came up short every time. (This aside will make sense. Hang with me.)
The month immediately following my Thanksgiving 5K DNF saw a break from serious, structured running to really focus on family, as it typically does through the winter holidays. It also saw a break from the track and a return to running on my local trails. I’ve always just kind of been naturally drawn there, and have been regularly running the trails in my area for the last 25 years. When I’m out in the woods on single track trail, there’s no worry of pace or splits. There’s no noise, no outside distraction, just a feeling of freedom and peace.
It was also during this period in time that I was talked into registering for two different winter racing series by some running buddies. One was a road series, one was a trail series, and my only intention for both was to use them to get in some decent workouts and have a little fun networking with other runners. I had no intention of being seriously competitive. But a funny thing happened between January and March with those races. During a six race stretch that included two on the road and four on the trails, I ended up with two 3rd place finishes and four (FOUR!) outright wins. I hadn’t had a stretch of race finishes like that in over a decade. It was a ton of fun and got me really reflecting on what I truly enjoy, and what’s most important to me, about running…
Three weeks ago I found myself in a committee meeting at work concerning a new technology system that my school district is set to be implementing in the coming years. One of the perks to being a part of such a committee is that I get to end the work day about half an hour earlier than if I were in the classroom, which means half an hour of more running than is usually possible! The weather that day was perfect for a run, about 55 degrees and mostly sunny, and I was itching to wrap up work and hit the trails for a run. My running gear bag was packed and waiting in the car, ready to roll. When our meeting concluded and we left the building, I was directly followed by a colleague that had received his principal certification around the same time as me, and had recently been promoted from classroom teacher to assistant principal. As I opened the door thinking about the running gear in my car, sunshine hit my face, I turned and said to him, “Man, it’s nice outside.” He sadly replied, “And I’m headed back to school to go through discipline referrals.” We each got into our cars and drove off in very, very different directions, and it got me really reflecting on what I truly enjoy, and what’s important to me, about life.
Why? Why did I ever want to run a 5K under 16 minutes? I hate the distance, and I hate the training involved.
Why? Why did I ever want to become a principal? I hate wearing ties, let alone suits. I hate having my schedule dictated by others. I’d much rather work with kids (funny, resilient, and full of dreams) than adults (we can really suck to deal with).
Walking out of that meeting, having that moment with my coworker, got the wheels spinning. During my run that afternoon I came to realize that the reason I had chased that 5K goal and becoming a principal were one in the same. I was doing what I thought the rest of the world would be impressed with. My running peers, coworkers, family members, you name it.
Essentially, the worst reason to chase anything.
It’s no wonder I never accomplished those either of those goals. Deep down, they never really were. I know that may sound like a sorry excuse, but it’s true. I’ll admit, maybe I never had the God-given ability to run five kilometers in less than 16 minutes. But at the core of my running being, I never really gave a damn. I never attacked that goal with the same fervor that I do for running the trails.
The reason that I never landed an administrative position was that I never truly put in the work to make it happen. At my core, I never really gave a damn about that either. Sure, I earned a piece of paper saying was capable of doing the job. But that’s about as far as I was willing to take it, and there were plenty of moments where I was sleepwalking through that degree. I was never driven to get out of bed well before the sun and do the things to advance toward that goal the way I do for my teaching, running, coaching, and being a dad.
It may have taken 36 years, but thanks to a recent return to running the trails, I’m starting to become much more in tune with what I really want, what drives me and makes me happy, regardless of what the rest of the world might define as success. It’s a tremendously liberating feeling, and I wake up every day excited to help others with their own running because of the meaning and lessons to be found within it.