Dec 11, 2011

The Buckeye Challenge

My students and I at the finish line of the 2011 Buckeye Classic.Sunday, November 13, 2011.  They may not have been among the first to finish, but in crossing the finish line they were winners of my Buckeye Challenge.

What I love about distance runs is that the experience of the slow and the speedy is the same.  In so many areas of endeavor it seems that it’s easy for the pros and a clumsy struggle for the novice.  But not so in distance running.  The top shelf runners may be unbelievably fast, but they work as hard as the first-time marathoner-- if not harder--to do what they do.  Just look at the faces of the runners far ahead of the pack—serious, determined, intense with tremendous effort and the will to keep going.   Running is remarkably democratic. Like many things in life, everyone can do it.  But every-one—Olympic athlete and couch potato convert alike--has to put in the work.
"The Win" wearing the this year's Buckeye Classic technical t-shirt.  The slogan on the back might as well have been our own motto.

  Keep going when it the going gets tough.  Put in the work in order to reap the reward.  Push yourself past what you think is possible.  These are the life lessons I hoped to impart when I gave a few of my students what I now call the Buckeye Challenge.

It all began with a lunchtime conversation I had with one of my students who I will call “The Win.”  This young man is always talking about how he’s going be a basketball player, and I was pushing him a bit on his choice of career.  He’s all right on the court, I suppose, but I didn’t think he understood the level of discipline, effort, and of course talent required to make it in the rarified world of professional sports. 

“Do you realize how hard you would have to work to even have a shot at the NBA?” I prodded him.

“I can work hard.”

“I don’t know, Win.  I’ve seen you at basketball practice.  You’re always one of the first guys walking during laps.”

“I can keep running if I want to,” he replied.

“Really?  Think you could run six miles?”  I challenged him.

“Yeah!” he retorted.

And just like that the Buckeye Challenge was born.  I invited “The Win” to run with me in the annual Buckeye Classic 10K Run, and he readily accepted.   I talked to his parents on the phone that night and they were supportive.  I began to put a training schedule together.

"EK" ( a nickname for this student used by his classmates) on the left   & "The Win" (so named for his desire to do achieve just that.  He's learning what it takes to get there) at the starting line.

“EK” was the next to express interest.  I’d been having the same types of conversations with him—about the value of that which is not easy.  Today we live in a culture of convenience.  We want things quick, easy, and entertaining.  My students have been impacted by the values of our society as much as anyone.  They bow down to the Altar of Easy without a second thought.  If it’s easy it’s good.  If it’s difficult it’s bad.  They love to shout out the right answer, to win the game, get the recognition, but easily become bored or discouraged at the effort and less than exciting process required to truly understand, to develop real skill, to apply themselves in order to earn the accolades.   They see sports heroes and media celebrities for whom everything seems to come easily.   I shared with “EK” this mashup of a Michael Jordan ad and Lebron James footage, Mike’s dialogue epitomizes the misperception so many of us have today about how success is achieved.

“EK” wanted in, and I was ready to take him on, but it took him a little longer to get his family on board.  In the meantime, a student I’ll call “B.SteaLth” became the second member of my little crew.  He doesn’t say much (to me any way—with his pals, it’s a different story!), so I was surprised when he approached me quietly and said he wanted to run too.
"B.SteaLth" at the starting line. He's earned his pseudonym because of his quiet manner around adults which belies a more mischevious side with peers, and also becaue of his stealthy development as a runner!

“SteaLth” and “Win” started running with me a couple of days a week at nearby Innis Park.  “EK” joined us a week or two after we’d begun training, after he finally got the go-ahead from his folks.  At the outset, it was tough—tougher than I’d imagined.   During the weekdays we only ran for thirty minutes, but at first we couldn’t even hit two miles in that time.  I knew the boys might be a little out of shape, but I wasn’t prepared for gasping pleas for a break after just a few minutes of running.  At first I thought we could run straight through, but when I realized that they weren’t up to it, I reduced the time to run 10 minutes, walk one minute.  Even that proved to be too much, and we cut it back to run five minutes and walk one—a (barely) manaegble task for our crew of new runners.

There was much to learn, and not just for the three boys.  I was quickly realizing that talking tough about hard work was a lot easier than actually doing the hard work.  The running at this pace was a breeze for me, but the coaching was proving to be much harder.  It turned out I too had fallen sway to the Hollywood promise of easy gains.  I imagined myself transforming these boys in one fell swoop, as they quickly picked up the lessons of discipline, effort, and focus with me providing Oscar-worthy inspirational coaching.  I realized I needed patience.  I needed to practice the discipline of encouragement and positive thinking even when it appeared we were making no progress at all.  I needed to push the boys, yes, but to achieve their best, not mine.  It was tough, and I realized that I would grow as much, if not more than the boys through this experience.

And it was a growing experience for all of us.  I felt I grew to know the boys better on our thirty minute  conditioning runs after school and on the longer distance runs on the weekend.   I watched the boys grow to learn the importance of pacing and saw their stamina grow as well.  Slowly but surely the boys were finding their groove, beginning to complain less and less about being tired.  They were starting to discover the reward in the run.  All three boys are in great physical shape—“The Win” in particular is quite fast in a sprint.  Kids this age can often do much more than adults can, so with these boys it was all about the head game for them.  They hadn’t been used to pushing themselves mentally, but they were learning and growing fast.  Every run they did better than they had before.   I’ll never forget the day that “Win” ran a full five minutes without once asking when we’d walk.  He and I were  so engrossed in a conversation about an incident at school that he didn’t even realize how long he’d been running.

The last two weekends before the actual race I picked up the boys and we went to run parts of the actual course at Highbanks Metro Park.   They complained about how “horrible” those runs were, but watching them I knew they’d be ready.

Race day dawned dry and chilly, but warmer than expected.  It was good running weather.  I picked up the three boys and we drove out to Highbanks—their families would be there later to cheer them at the finish line.  I was so excited for them to be a part of a real race, complete with bib numbers, timing chips, and complimentary technical t-shirts.  They were excited too.  As “cool” as these guys could be, they couldn’t hide their excitement.  They felt like they were a part of something big, and they were.
The boys ready to run on race day
Mrs. Arthurs, our school principal, got up early to see us off at the start line, a gesture of support and encouragement to me and the boys that meant a lot.

In no time at all, it was time for the race to begin.  With a blast of the air horn, we were off.   “B.SteaLth” and “EK” quickly wove through the masses and soon disappeared from sight.  I shook my head and chuckled to “The Win” “We’ll see them again soon enough.”  I was only partially right.  “The Win” kept a decent pace, and though he struggled at some points, he never quit.  He kept going.  To help motivate him, I picked another runner whose pace I thought he could match and perhaps even exceed, and told him to make it his goal to keep up with her and eventually pass her. He met the challenge, trading leads with her for much of the race before finally pulling into a permanent lead in the final miles.  I was so proud of him.   Eventually, we caught up with “EK” deep into the fourth mile, and the two ran together the rest of the way.
"The Win" getting it done.

A tough course

"EK" and "The Win" running the sixth and final mile of the race.  They're looking pretty good for two guys who claimed to feel horrible.

In the final quarter mile, the boys burst into a sprint for the finish, with “Win” pulling away to best “EK” and I by just a few seconds.    We had finished in an hour and twenty eight minutes, beating our goal time by just over a minute and running faster than they ever had in training.  As for “B.SteaLth”?  This brother outran us all.  He finished almost a full fifteen minutes and fifty runners ahead of us!  “SteaLth had had the most difficult start of all three runners, literally staggering through his first run.  I’d noticed that he’d begun to develop the smooth gait of a real runner during our last few training runs, but this performance exceeded my wildest expectations.

And yet, “SteaLth” had done no more or and no less than his peers.  All three had given their all, all had put in the work, and reaped the rewards.  I asked them all how the race was, and they all said it was “terrible.”  But they said it with a touch of pride.  Not the cocky trash-talk pride one often sees strutting about in the school yard, but the quiet pride of having done something really hard and finished it.

“I feel like I really accomplished something,” “EK” declared at the finish line, a finishers medal around his neck.  And indeed he had.  They all had, and I am so proud of them.
The boys and I at the finish line with Mrs. Lee, far left and Mrs Arthurs, center.  Thanks for your support!

After the race the boys and I along with their families, Babs and the Feller, Mrs. Arthurs and the boys’ language arts teacher, Mrs. Lee and her son “Supremo” (who is a classmate of the three runners) all gathered at Tim Hortons to celebrate the boys’ accomplishment. 

The boys are all eager to run again. Now that they’ve had the unparalleled experience of true triumph they want more!  Perhaps we’ll look for another race next spring, maybe even try for a half marathon.

And come next fall, I’ll issue the Buckeye Challenge again.  I know “The Win”, “EK”, and “B.SteaLth” will be there and I have no doubt there will be more that will answer the call to effort, discipline, and hard  work  and as result to experience the reward of race well-run.

"Let us run with endurance the race set out for us."
--Hebrews 12:2b


just jess said...

Sean, that is so awesome! Great job to the 3 new runners. I could barely run 10 minutes today, I miss running with you. Was thinking about doing a half marathon in February, this post just convinced me to do it.

Rose said...

What a teacher you have become, Sean! I'm so proud of you. It is guidance like this that can mold a a student into a future president of anything, including president of the United States! :-)

Keep up the good work. And congrats to your first three champion runners!

Anonymous said...

Congrats guys!! Sean, you are really changing lives. I'm so proud of you!

Your sister,

Mai said...

Wow, that's awesome!!! Great challenge and accomplishments!! it's so cool to see that you've inspired new runners!! You've also inspired me, once again! :)