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Marathon Metaphors
What can we learn from all this marathon stuff about ourselves?

Marathon Metaphors

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By Chris Russell
Posted Thursday, 6 April, 2006

With the 109th running of the Boston Marathon coming up it’s interesting to look into the new face of distance running. There has been a big demographic shift in the sport. There’s a whole new crop of people running. It’s no longer a fringe sport. It’s become democratized and mass marketed.

Some of us old-timers might have the knee jerk reaction that this somehow cheapens the sport, but I think it’s wonderful that so many new people are getting outside their physical boundaries and learning the secrets that running and training have to offer. Maybe it helps to think of it as a type of outreach. Maybe we can be missionaries for running?

I started running in the 70’s and then came back to it in the 90’s. I guess that gives me a good perspective for casual commentary. The 2006 runner looks much different than the 1970’s runner. They are better equipped, they are slower, they are older and they are more then half female.

Why is the participation growing? Could it be that everyone else is discovering what I have known since I started running cross country (back when Jimmy Carter was President)? Maybe these masses of people have discovered that running is a democratic and efficient way to gain and maintain great physical and mental health? Or that distance running, even for us mid-packers, teaches us things about ourselves that we would otherwise not have the privilege to know?

According to USA Running this year there will be close to 500,000 marathon finishers. This number is meaningless until you realize that there were only 25,000 marathon finishers in 1977 at the height of the ‘running boom’ and 120,000 in 1980.

You don’t have to be that old to remember a time before New York, Chicago and any Rock & Roll marathons. A time when you said “marathon” and everyone knew you were referring to Boston because that was the only one. Compare that to today where it is estimated that there will be over 375 marathons in the US this year alone.

Good news for the sporting goods purveyors who track this stuff is that there are estimated to be over 37 million (yes million) runners in the US. That’s a bunch of shoes and socks! Pat yourself on the back because you are supporting a multi-billion dollar industry.

I know why I ran my first marathon and what I learned from it. As I stare down another Boston adventure this year I think it would be timely and useful to share with you these metaphors I discovered. This will give you something to think about, or if you’re lucky to have company, talk about on your next long training run.

Here’s the topic: “The marathon as a metaphor for life.”

For me it wasn’t my first marathon that changed me or inspired me. Or maybe it was. Because that first 26.2 that I ran on a whim kicked my butt so thoroughly that it altered me. It must be true that our greatest learning comes from our greatest failures. I didn’t learn much about what I was capable of that day, but I did learn the respect that comes from a good ass whipping.

Many people would have been happy to finish, but I was horrified by my amateurish performance. I crashed. I let myself get hypothermic, dehydrated and beaten. I shuffled. I walked. I bled. It did not fit my self image as an experienced runner. I knew I could do better. I thought I could qualify. I wasn’t concerned about failing but I was really angry at myself for not trying.

Isn’t that what we tell our kids? If you’re going to do something, give it your all. Give it your best shot. That’s the true failure. Not living up to what you’re capable of.

That is the first marathon metaphor. How do you know hat you’re capable of? What is holding people back? It’s a mental trap. They don’t think they can do it! Most lay people I talk to about marathons are quick to say, “I could never do that!” Of course they’re wrong, anybody can do it. The biggest road block is that first step; committing to try. Making a decision to think, “Yeah, I can do that.” Once you’re past that stumbling block the rest is relatively easy.

The first marathon metaphor is deciding to try. I guess the old saying is accurate – “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who think they can and those who think they can’t…And they are both right!” If you fail to try, you have already failed. Isn’t this a great metaphor for life?

The second metaphor for life is that you have to have a goal, a plan and you have to break it up into small achievable steps. I was so angry after that first marathon that once I could walk again I decided to qualify in 4 months. I started training. I wrote the qualifying time on the white board in my office and laid out a 14 week daily plan to get there.

Without a plan you won’t know where you are going and when you won’t know when you get there either. If you could apply the same detailed daily planning to your job, career or relationship and execute on it everyday for 14 weeks, what do you think would happen? Think about it. Maybe it’s time to stop letting life push you along and set yourself some goals, eh?

Which leads us to the third marathon metaphor. It’s only partly about achieving your goal. The real learning will come from the journey towards the goal. I nailed my qualifying time in that second race within a minute of my carefully calculated race plan but by that point it didn’t really matter. I was a changed person. If I had ended up in a ditch the lessons of that training program would still be with me.
Knowledge comes from the journey – the striving. Life is not a destination, it is a long trip and the process of that trip is what you learn the most from.

The fourth marathon metaphor has to do with stretching yourself and making yourself uncomfortable. If my training that summer had only consisted of long slow runs I would not have been able to shave 40 minutes off of my race time. I had to spend some time in my discomfort zone. I had to commit to hitting the track and doing some really painful speed work. By purposely operating beyond my comfort zone a couple times a week I was able to improve rapidly.

In your life are you spending any time outside your comfort zone? Are you pushing yourself? Or are you just going with the flow? Think about what you can do to stress yourself just a little bit today. Apply this metaphor to your life. What is your life analog for speed work? If you don’t push yourself, you can’t grow.

The fifth metaphor is to focus on small achievable things and not to get overwhelmed.
One of the most valuable things that marathons have taught me is not to focus on the finish line or the entire 42k. You need to chunk the race up into small pieces that your brain can handle. Sometimes this means concentrating on the next telephone pole.

I see so many people in my work life that are so stressed out and overwhelmed that they can no longer move. They just sit and stare with an overload catatonic trance or they flit from one critical task to the next never finishing anything or adding any real value. Letting yourself get overwhelmed is a choice.

How many times have I had to give myself a mental slap towards the end of a long race when those whiny depressed voices start with their fatalistic chants? Then I make a mental choice to say ‘no’ and focus on the next mile mark or the next telephone pole. Take it one step at a time and keep knocking off the feet, yards and meters. Before you know it you will be turning the corner and see the finish line.

Keep it simple. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Set up your own triage process for those overwhelming tasks so you can get the important stuff done and don’t sweat the rest.

The sixth marathon metaphor I have for you has to do getting stuck in a rut. After a few years maybe that constant training starts to wear on you? Maybe you’re getting older and you have to push more and sacrifice more just to stay close? Maybe you start to hate your training runs and feel oppressed by the responsibility of it all? Maybe you are stuck in a rut?

How many times in life do you look around and think that the same old routine is just getting boring? You want to try something new? What’s stopping you? Go for it. Don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut. Why not throw some cross training into your relationship or job today and see if it makes you feel better? What would be the cross training equivalent in your life?

I’m lucky in that every time I get bored with training my body manufactures an injury to knock some sense into me. You can’t always run faster or longer. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Try something new. I started triathlons last year and love the cross training. I’m thinking about taking up yoga for flexibility or pilates. Whatever it is I’ll keep it fresh. I put the community education circular in front of my wife last week and said “Pick something, we’ll do it together.” Basket weaving? Flower arranging? I’m game!

When I crossed the finish line of that second marathon, strong and qualified, I had an epiphany. If chubby old non-athletic me can do this tremendously difficult thing, what else can I do? What other assumptions about myself and about my life are preventing me from being fulfilled? Could it be that the only thing holding me back is myself?

Therefore my friends as Boston rolls around again this Patriot’s Day take this marathon metaphor challenge. How can you take what we have learned from our adventures on the road and parley that into a more productive and fulfilling existence? What else is there that you don’t think you can do? Maybe it is only waiting for you to make the decision to try.

See you out there,



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