Lessons I’ve Learned One Mile at a Time

Running

Yes, I have one of those static cling number stickers in my back car window.

Yes, I keep track of my total distance for the year. Yes, I’m one of those people.

I’m a runner.

Now before any of you not so inclined scoot off to a more interesting page, realize that seven years ago my previous self-identifying sentence would have been utterly preposterous for me to write. Because, quite frankly, I wasn’t a runner. At all. But strange things happen when you start, then stick, with something. You learn a little bit about yourself. And helping along the way are some unique lessons that two shoes, a bit of time, and some pavement have provided. Allow me to share a few things I’ve learned, that I’m pretty sure can apply to most of us, whether we run or not.

1. People are fascinating. – Run enough with people and you learn things about them that many friendships rarely provide. You learn about what excites them, what frustrates them (other than the crazy hill you happen to be on), what’s important to them, and, well, who they really are. Gone are the profiles, pretenses, and posturing. Sweating and huffing together levels the playing field and reveals those around you in fascinating detail. Shared effort yields mutual respect and admiration. And that’s very valuable.

2. I can do more than I think I can. – I started running for the first time a little over six years ago, on a treadmill, in my apartment complex, for a total of 1/10 of a mile. Today, I enjoy and have run in many long-distance races. Impossible is a word. It has a definition. But I’m convinced that we have a lot to do with how broadly the word influences our lives. Put out enough concerted effort and consistency, and things thought impossible lose their intimidation. They’re still hard and it doesn’t mean things come easy, but our ability goes much farther than we previously thought.

3. It’s better to cheer and be inspired, than compare and be discouraged. – Warning…direct statement coming next. Comparing ourselves to others is just plain lunacy. And so easy to do, isn’t it? Nothing can mess with my mind quicker when running than watching a man older than me pass me. Why? Because my male ego insists that something’s wrong with me. But I’ve found if instead of comparing myself with others and risking discouragement, I cheer my older (and younger) and faster (and slower) friends on thus helping them achieve and press on, it inspires me. Discouragement replaced by inspiration. That’s a pretty good trade.

4. Action leads, motivation and feelings follow. – Here’s a dirty little secret: I’ve never actually felt like running. Now, I love running, however my body tends to bark loudly for the first 10-15 minutes. But I’ve discovered that when it comes to doing most things of significant value, motivation and feelings have a tendency to hit the snooze button. They eventually get up and actually follow along quite well, but don’t  rely on them to get you moving. Will you question your sanity sometimes when you could be back in bed sleeping? Probably. But progress often occurs for people who plan well, are a little scared, but are in motion.

5. A wall is built one brick at a time. – We don’t leap to life change. We run a mile or take a step at a time, which when added up, produces a significant difference. Change is a cumulative by-product, not an instant reaction. Celebrate the small steps. Embrace the process.

6. Dream big. Aim high. – Everybody needs a crazy dream. If you state your goal, and the next phrase isn’t “Are you kidding me?”, you might need to go back and revise it higher. Crazy goals need only be crazy in the present tense. Going for it and getting after it, makes crazy a reality.

7. Bad days are inevitable. A bad attitude is a choice. – I’ve had bad races. I’ve had terrible runs. Can you relate? If not with running, with other things? Welcome to real life. It’s going to happen. But bad days are a page in life. Not a chapter. And certainly not a book. Make the choice to believe this.

8. Discomfort means you’re alive. – I ran a race recently (a long one) where my left knee began shouting at me, rather loudly, a little past the halfway mark. My first reaction? “Oh, great. Maybe just call it a day, Todd.” But then I was reminded that being uncomfortable has a way of setting the stage for big growth. I’ve never met anyone who’s learned life’s most valuable lessons while on the couch sipping iced tea. Difficulty is, well, difficult, but also the breeding ground for learning things that only come amidst struggle. Let’s stop looking for an easy out. We don’t have to like discomfort, just don’t discount its life-giving possibilities.

9. Doing hard things never gets easy. – The difference between those regularly doing difficult things and those watching difficult things getting done by others, is quite simply, action. The achievers get up and do something. Not because they’re super-human or it comes easy for them, but because they know progress and achievement live on a one-way street, just beyond difficulty.

10. The medal is nice but it’s not the most important thing. – Look under my bed. You’ll find a black shadow box with a bunch of hardware in it. Each medal is cool. But what makes each one valuable isn’t the metal but the memories attached to it. Mile 25 in Chicago. Mile 1-2 in New York City. Mile 22 in Pittsburgh. Mile 8 in Baltimore. The process to get to the end is as important as the end. Pursue destinations, but enjoy every spot along the way.

11. It’s never too late to start being active. – I ran on the cross-country team in middle school. Then took a 25-year water break. It is never, ever, ever too late to start. You don’t have to run races. You don’t even have to run. Just move. Do something. Being active is one of the great joys in life, and you can experience it. Start today.

12. Telling people your crazy goals is simultaneously scary and awesome. – When I began running I told a group of people, publicly, that I wanted to run a long-distance race before I was forty years old. By doing so I questioned my sanity, but simultaneously gained some encouragement, and a whole lot of pressure. It was later, after achieving that goal, that I realized just how valuable that pressure was. An increased audience size in life can be quite motivating.

13. Forward is a mindset. – A couple of years ago, during an early morning run in downtown Baltimore, I very gracefully bit it. Hard. Falling head first on E. Baltimore Street, I managed the perfect trifecta – a skinned up knee, a tear in my cold-weather pants, and a bruised ego. But two days later, it was time to go again. Regardless of what’s happened in the past, it’s time to move on. We have an infinite capacity to rationalize why the gutter is where we’re supposed to remain. It’s not. Move forward.

14. The easiest way to miss a goal is not set one. – A wise man said it well – “He who aims for nothing, hits it every time.” I have a running goal to achieve before I turn fifty years old. And gradually I’m getting there. It’s not glamorous, and it takes time to achieve, but it’s a real goal, with set, measurable parameters. Set a goal. Define it. Make it measurable. Tell someone else what it is. Then get after it.

15. Progress is a process. – Two words for those seeking a quick fix. “Stop it.” Anything valuable in life – your health, your faith, your relationships, etc. takes time to develop and prosper. If lasting progress was sold in a bottle, pill, or plan, it’d rob us of the joy of observed change. And it’s that change that can do more for us than a shortcut could ever begin to do. Mix your effort with time, and you might be surprised what happens.

16. The finish line isn’t the finish. – The finish line is a strange environment. It’s part celebration, relief, catharsis, recovery, and achievement. And embedded in it all are two words. “Now what?” But isn’t that what makes life exciting? Setting a goal, working hard to achieve that goal, celebrating your accomplishment, and then using it as a springboard to more achievement. Whether you’re a runner or not, don’t stop. Reach the finish line. Then keep going.

17. It’s never too late for a second chance. – Recently I ran alongside a man who this past year has become a chef. What makes his achievement all the more impressive is that his new career comes after his life bottoming out a year ago due to addiction. Thankfully he’s made some good choices, surrounded himself with encouragement and accountability, understands how much God loves him, and hasn’t allowed his past to paralyze his present or future. Try again. Not because you feel like it, have earned it, or deserve it. Do it because you need it.  It’s never too late.

18. Never, ever underestimate the power of a positive word. – To the lady at Mile 16 in Cleveland. To the guy at Mile 22 in Pittsburgh. To my numerous friends near the finish in Baltimore. Thank you. Your words took seconds to say but have lived for years. What we say to those around us can carry, embolden, sustain, encourage, and give hope when it’s desperately needed. Speak life and speak it often.

19. The most important step in life is the next step forward. – If you fall down a million times, get up a million and one times. Learn what caused the mistake. Seek forgiveness. Make necessary amends. Face the music. But then move forward. Direction in life is more important than the frequency of failure.

20. Starting the day early, matters. – There’s a focus that comes when good activity occurs before most are awake. Time to reflect, meditate, pray, and read…time to exercise…time to plan…all before the majority, is not only helpful for me, it’s a necessity. If you’re not a morning person (and I wasn’t), become one. If you don’t get up early, wake up 10 minutes earlier than normal, starting tomorrow. Fill the first hours with things that yield personal, spiritual, and physical progress. Discover the value of early.

21. The simplicity of conversation must be preserved. – I can always tell when I’ve spent a bit too much time on social media – I already know most things about what’s happening in someone’s life before I actually talk to them. Can I just say it? That’s weird. Staying connected is great, and social media does that well, but it’s a really poor substitute for actual relationship interaction and discovery. In our frenetic, fast-paced social ecosystem, marked by immediacy, let’s preserve the art of using our mouths, not our keyboards, to relate to one another. Speak, ask, listen, respond. It’s simple and beautiful.

22. Habits can change. – I have friends who used to be controlled by heroin. Now they run like crazy. Clean.I have friends who were addicted to pain-killers. Now they run with sore feet and tired legs. By choice. Habits can change. Usually not overnight. And usually not without some hiccups. But humility, accountability, positive reinforcement, reworked priorities, and the will to change, go a long way in establishing actions that build up instead of destroy.

23. Serenity is an internal state produced by an external reality. – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things that I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.” I think everyone wants what comes after that first word. But I’m convinced that that first word enables all that follows it. I can try to manufacture an inner world of well-being with me at the center, but that orbit is much too small. Faith expands what’s possible, far beyond my limitations.

24. Things that bring benefit may not be my first choice. – I dislike certain roads in Baltimore with a passion. Castle Street. Fairmount Avenue. Saratoga Street. If I ever climb Mount Everest, I’m sure I’ll see signs with these names on them. Their incline, their length, their pitch, everything about them, I dislike. Very much. And yet, running them helps me. My lung capacity increases. My mental toughness is tested. There are benefits that only come from successfully doing things that you’d really rather not do. A degree of laziness comes normal for most of us. Be abnormal. Then reap the dividend.

25. People do what they want to do. – I ran next to a guy in Washington D.C. who has one leg and one prosthetic leg. I ran next to a woman in Virginia who was a year past cancer. I’ve run with a friend who a little over a year ago tipped the scales 130 pounds heavier. At the end of the day, we all do what we choose to do. We decide. Excuses? They’ll always be available. The opportunity to reject excuses? Yep. That’s available too. It’s our choice.

26. We’re all pretty much the same. – Looks can be deceiving, can’t they? We tend to work hard at preserving our image of invincibility. But never forget, everyone sweats. Everyone experiences pain. Everyone enjoys accomplishment. Everyone likes to be encouraged. Everyone wants to know that their life is interesting. Everyone needs to know someone believes in them. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to win. Everyone needs hope. Let’s help. Everyone.

26.2 It’s just really fun to run in the rain. – Try it.

 

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