I am a special education teacher. I work with underdogs. The students on my caseload have physical, emotional and/or intellectual disabilities. It is my job to “level the playing field”. I am to step in and make accommodations or modifications to their education, so they can compete with everyone else. It just doesn’t always work that way.
The problem is, my job description does not take intrinsic motivation into account. It does not cultivate the power of struggling…of failing. There is much to learn from both. If a kid wants to go big, no matter what plan I put in place, it’s on him.
I see parallels with ultra-running. There is no level playing field. When you are running for an extended time: you will struggle, you will fail. Crossing the finish line is a matter of being able to overcome and to keep moving forward.
The most successful students I work with know that they face a challenge that others around them may find easy. They have learned to push. They have learned to find a way around a roadblock that others easily navigate. I get frustrated with students who have a highly developed sense of learned helplessness. The ones who simply want someone to do it for him or her. They dream big, but have no compensatory skills to make those dreams a reality.
Time and time again, I see the same behaviors with ultra runners. Starting lines drive me crazy. Many runners use the time to chest beat and talk about how fast they are going to race. The moment someone comes up to me and asks, “Is this your first ultra?” is the moment I start texting Rog.
With runners (and students for that matter), it starts with “this sucks”. You start to hear general complaints. This can be overcome. Sometimes the frustration needs to come out and motivation needs to go in. Then comes the power walk: head down, shoulders slumped. You can just tell that they are giving themselves a pretty good mental beating. Timing is everything when this happens. Something has to break the cycle: finding someone to talk to; cranking the tunes; receiving a text that just lets you know someone is thinking about you; consciously deciding to get back in the game. The stare is the point of no return. If runners get this stare, it’s game over. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know it when I see it. They are a body with vacant eyes. If they talk, it is just to ask, “How. Far”. They will quit. I’ve been all of these.
I have a race director friend; he trains volunteers to make runners as comfortable as possible at aid stations. He feeds them, offers them conversation, and gives them a comfortable chair. His goal is to get runners to quit, and come back again next year. He makes it seem like its okay; it’s an evil and effective plan. He takes away the struggle.
With my students, I can’t let them get too comfortable. I have to let them struggle. This is a type of learning that cannot be duplicated by any lesson. I can watch their faces when I pass back a test. Some have that stare. They are defeated. Some say, “This sucks”. That’s okay, but it is their choice from there that gives me insight into their character. They may blame others and make excuses, or they own it and seek ways to improve. The latter are the ones who are learning so much more than biology.
I used to have a skating coach. She would applaud when I would fall practicing my program. She would congratulate me and say, “that might be the only chance you get to practice getting up again at that very spot”, and then make me start over again. She is the reason I will never name anything Claire.
At the Phunt 50k this past weekend, they offered a unique way to race. Remember this is a January trail race. They bank on the weather being bad, and the trail being challenging. Yesterday, the weather was beautiful, and although there was copious mud, the course was navigable.
Runners were given the choice after 25k to stop and collect a medal or go on to do the full 50k. The medals are exactly the same. It’s all on you. The field was crowded on the first lap. I spent much time in conga lines on single track. Towards the end of the loop, I started hearing the excuses…the reasons people were not going to do a second loop. They were talking each other into quitting. When I finished my first loop, even the finish line people were ready for me to stop. “Are you sure?” “We have warm food in the building… “ “Do you want to sit for a few minutes?” Yes. No, thank you. No.
My second loop was quite empty. I think I only saw about a dozen runners. I loved it. I could open my stride and take the course at my own pace. I went too fast, and Superman nose-dived a couple times, but that’s all part of the challenge---falling, getting up, starting over.
I am not the most talented runner out there. I am an underdog. I struggle. I fail. But, what both teaching and ultra-running have taught me, is that sometimes I have to attack problems in a different way. I have to embrace the struggle, and have confidence that I can find a way around it. And, if I want to go bigger, it’s all on me.