What Will A Man Do For Love? He’ll Run!

In the animal kingdom you awake and run. You run to catch food or run to escape becoming another’s meal. The metaphor is unfortunately apt for the business world where one eats or is eaten and so running to, from, and around others is a daily challenge.

But why run when one’s food or rung on the corporate ladder are not at stake? Why change into stupidly expensive shoes to take to roadways and trails to pant and sweat and endure pain and risk injury? Why embark on long treks that always bring you right back to the start?

cartoon runner (Photo: galleryhip.com)

John Stanton has made a successful business from those questions. He founded The Running Room that now has storefronts across Canada. He wrote Running Room’s Book on Running that has enjoyed several editions. Its opening sentence states, “The book is for all those people who want to strengthen their bodies, calm and stimulate their minds and soothe their souls. Running improves us mentally, physically and spiritually.” Well, it certainly continues to improve Mr. Stanton financially. Good on him, I say. But, for me, he’s only partly right.

I began running while in university when a friend spoke of its relieving stress and improving fitness. She was right. I began with short distances and after a week or so I did indeed begin to feel better. I soon began to lose some of the weight my discovery of beer had afforded me and became a big fan of endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters secreted by the pituitary gland and parts of the brain that reduce pain and cause stimulation similar to morphine. They lead to a feeling of euphoria called “runner’s high”. I confess that it’s quite wonderful. But less stress, fewer pounds and a free high are not why I run.

As my distances increased I developed the desire to run a marathon. It’s a silly notion really. After all one can argue that it is natural to run as our forebears ran from wild beasts but no predator will chase you for 26.2 miles. That distance is silly too. It’s based on the ancient Greek tale of Philippides who ran 24 miles from Marathon to Athens to report a military victory. He delivered the news, said, “Joy to you” and then, by the way, dropped stone dead. The final 2.2 miles was added for the 1908 London Olympics so that the race could begin at Windsor Castle and end directly before the Royal Family’s White City stadium viewing box.

I ran the Ottawa Capital Marathon with my youngest brother. We had not trained properly and had the wrong shoes and really had no good reason to finish – but we did. I crossed the line and nearly fell into the arms of my dear wife who supports all of my wacky endeavors with the patience of Job squared. I made her pledge that she would never let me run another marathon.

ottawa marathonOttawa Marathon (www.time-to-run.com)

A couple of years later I was preparing to do it again. For the first while I jogged. It’s a nice loping affair punctuated by frequent walks. I then began running, which involves a quicker pace and fewer breaks. I then began training. I created a schedule based on Mr. Stanton’s book, timed myself, recorded my runs, ran hills, ran fartleks (google it), ran in the cold and rain, and tended to frown a lot. Training, after all, is serious business.

I ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon a lot quicker than I had done the Ottawa. I leapt over the finish line and felt proud of my accomplishment. This time, I could not wait to do another. I completed two more. I ran the last one with a slight hamstring pull so my speed was off and the enjoyment gone.

After a long while off I was pain free but found it difficult to muster the will to move from jogging to running to training. My goal shifted from speed and endurance to the avoidance of injury. In the parlance of the vertical ice cube trays where too many well-dressed, high-stressed people work each day, I guess I’d moved from trying to say smart things in meetings to avoiding saying anything stupid. When that line is crossed, it’s over.

Except, it was not over – not by a long shot. I finally figured out why I run. It is not for the endorphins. It is not to train for another marathon and whatever ego-driven competitiveness those things involve. I discovered it nearly seven years ago. This morning I was reminded.

This morning I was cradling someone who is precious to me in a way that only another grandparent can truly understand. She is only six weeks old. Our eyes met. We held our gaze for a long while until a tear found my eye. I want to see her grow. I want to cheer her games, play with her on the climbers, slide down snow mountains, share her jokes, console her heartaches, and, later, explain why boys are indeed crazy but her Mom is really not. And for all that I need to stay healthy and for that I need to remain fit.

So tomorrow, I will plug in my ear pods, tune into to a favorite playlist or CBC podcast, and lope my way down the trail. I might run. But I will probably just jog. As I ignore creaky knees, await endorphins, and wallow in the beauty of the river on one side and farmland and forest on the other, I will know exactly why I’m there.

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Five Lessons from the First Day on the Job

The first day on the job is always hard. It offers equal scoops of excitement and fear. Two first day experiences helped shape the five lessons that I learned and now humbly share.

first day on the job

I was hired to teach History at what was then called a vocational school. It was designed for teenagers who had learning disabilities, had recently arrived in Canada from schools that left them woefully unprepared, and others who were waiting to go to jail or just out, and more who were too bored, angry, or damaged to fit in elsewhere.

On the day before classes began, I was told that I would not be teaching History but Grades 10 and 12 Mathematics. I protested that I had not studied Math in university and was awful at it in high school. I was told I’d be fine. My classroom contained two big stacks of text books; one blue, one yellow. The yellow one had stuff that looked harder so I made it the grade 12 book. I noticed that all my class lists had around 30 kids each but the room only had 26 desks. I was told not to worry, they would never all show up.

On my first day I was told to fuck off twice. The second time was in a marvelous Jamaican accent so it was actually, fuck off, mon. No matter what I did or said in one class, they just ignored me. Bob Hope and Jimmy Carter, I swear, were in another class. I had them sit together, it only seemed right. After lunch another teacher and I broke up a hallway fight. The boy I pulled off another spun and tried to kick me between the pockets – I jumped, he ran.

That evening I told my wife that I had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job and moving us to this city where we knew not a soul. We discussed options. But the next morning, I affixed another of my brand new ties, and went back into the lion’s den.

Several years and three schools later I walked into my first day at one of Canada’s premier independent boarding schools. It’s a school for kids of the upper middle class and rich who can buy their children’s peers and an education and environment that all schools, if properly funded, led, and staffed, could and should provide.

We gathered for the first morning chapel, held in the theatre because the chapel was under reconstruction. I was stopped by the athletic director and told I was the senior soccer coach. I confessed that I had never coached soccer. In fact, I had never played soccer. “Don’t worry”, I heard him say, as if it was a sixteen-year old echo, “You’ll be fine.” The first practice was that afternoon.

The school’s new academic building was also under construction and so I was among several teachers in rented, old and smelly portables. Wex and Alasdair were the first students to arrive for the first period class. They both shook my hand and welcomed me. Wow, I thought, they’re adults. Because each boy weighed well over 200 pounds, they laughed at the tiny desks. They wedged, wiggled and stuffed themselves between the chair and the tiny affixed table. As if on cue, they hopped – all four desk legs left the floor. Wow, I thought, they’re children.

The rest of the students arrived, saw the two hopping about and, of course, joined in. I soon had us lined up for a race. That did it. We were one. The chemistry was among the best of the hundreds of classes I have taught in my career.

That afternoon I was given a mesh bag of soccer balls and met my team. We began practice with a run. I stretched it out as long possible while deciding what I could possibly do next to kill the hour. I put them through a number of hockey drills until it was mercifully over. That evening I took notes as my daughter taught me how many players are on the field, the names of the positions, and the basics of the game. The next practices were marginally better. There were six teams in our league and that season we came second – second in every game we played.

Top Five First Day Lessons I Learned:

  1. It Gets Better: The most underpaid worker is the one struggling through their first day, or week, or month. Things will never get easy but they get easier. I learned to note the good moments and accept the bad as rude instruction.
  2. Character Matters: A good boss hires not a resume but a person. That person’s most important asset is character. I learned to have faith. You will pick up what you need to know soon enough but until then your character is your guide.
  3. Laughter Matters: It is important to always take the job seriously but never yourself. I learned that even the most titanic of stressful, embarrassing situations quickly shrivel to funny little stories.
  4. Client Service: Concentrate on the clients; in my case the students. Overwhelm them with your dedication to their needs. I learned that it is only by impressing clients that anyone ever impresses the boss.
  5. Don’t Water the Rocks: Every workplace has folks eager to sink a sabre into a colleague’s back for some perceived advantage. Ignore them. They trade their souls for ephemeral victories and realize too late that real grown-ups left school yard intrigues long ago and that, in the end, there’s no one keeping score. I learned to waste no time on sycophants or saboteurs.

It all sounds easy. The toughest things always do. I wish I understood the lessons on my first day back at the vocational school. It was my toughest day. I’m glad I had learned them by my first day at the independent school. It was among my best days. While I still dedicate myself and whatever talents I possess to doing the best I can, I have never let my job, title, or employer define me. Work is not life. Work is what I do to have a life. That alone makes any first day, or any day after that for that matter, what it should be, just another day at work.

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