How to Do Hard Things: Lessons Learned on a 303 Mile Run

May I tell you a story?

Back when I was in the 6th grade, Mr. McKinney, my teacher at Marvista Elementary School in Des Moines Washington, paced off a running course on the elementary school grounds and announced that we'd have a contest to see who could run the farthest during recesses for 40 days. Like a lot of old Seattle schools that were based on the 1960s California model, Marvista was spread out with open air corridors between the four grade hubs. One rotation around the school equaled half a mile. After every recess, he updated a leaderboard. 

Dozens of kids signed up to compete and began the race with all-out abandon, but most burned out before completing even 10 rotations. Only a dozen made it to the 50-mile mark. The previous year, we had a freakish sixth grader, a Spartan warrior named Dan Murray, who ran 200 miles and set the course record.

I didn’t want to run at first. I begged my friends to stop and play foursquare or basketball--games that I could dominate with long arms and legs. What was the point of laboring around a school in a circle? How long could I keep that up?

But by the second week, I'd worked out a sustainable method. I’d run 100 yards, and then walk 20 yards. Repeat. The system made it easy for me to compete with the kids who burned themselves out racing non-stop with each other. With the system that I developed intuitively, there was never a time when the task became too hard, because I always knew that I could stop after a short amount of running and rest as I walked. Heck, I could do that all day. 

Marvista Elementary School, Des Moines, Washington (When It's Not Raining)

My Dad, who was my elementary school principal that year, asked for nightly race reports, and I was happy to supply all the details of my heroic 7.5-miles a day. After a couple weeks, I was the only competitor. After three weeks, my pants fit differently. 

There is this memory I have that occurred 3 weeks into the contest: I was running before school started—40 degrees, mist hovering over the grass, fog horns off the Puget Sound. I’d gotten a couple miles in and was warm with dopamine and serotonin. Then I saw my Dad walk out of the administration office from the other side of the school to watch me run.

He was in a suit and the pinnacle of everything I wanted to be. And without letting on that I’d spotted him, without even thinking about it, I slipped from a jog into a full speed sprint for a quarter mile.

It felt like flying.

That was the first flow moment I can remember, something no other kid in my small universe and not even my Dad could do--and it was easy because I had a sustainable system. At the end of those 40 days, I'd run 303 miles. Because of that event, I knew years later that I could do big things by breaking them into parts: a 30 year marriage, a scary-as-all hell PhD program, or even writing a book. Everything could be had if I just took another step and then another, and followed a plan.

The only hard part is committing to the goal and controlling the monkey mind that insists that we stop.

“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace?" asks Steve Pressfield in The War of Art. "In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don't do it...If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself, you hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you..."

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Twelve years later, I started graduate school...the scariest mountain I could climb, and now I'm writing this blog, one week at a time. And on Monday, I'm starting a new venture (to be described later)...all because those 303 miles taught me that when a path feels true and you follow your plan, all the forces of the universe make you feel their pleasure.

Meanwhile, I’ve got that sublime memory of a school ground where mist rises like applause and I feel grateful that all my best moments are owed to that one morning of grace.

To Go After a Big Goal...

1. Conscientiously build a system that is intuitive--based on your own abilities. 

2. Make the system just challenging enough to be both rewarding and sustainable.

3. Start slowly.

4. Build in milestones. Celebrate small victories along the way.

5. Mark your daily progress and tweak the system if needed.

6. Share your story with a pack that will support you. 

7. Have a mantra. When I jogged, my mantra was, "​I am strong and in control." When I went to the gym this morning to do an hour of barbell work, I repeated in my mind, "Superman chest, big guns, tight waist." Yes, I'm that vain. When I was submitting articles to journals in order to achieve tenure at my university in 2002, I received plenty of rejections until I printed out the words "Kill Shot" and taped the phrase behind my computer. In racquetball, a "kill shot" is placed within 6 inches from the floor. When hit effectively, the ball cannot be returned. That's what my goal was for my articles--that they would be effectively aimed at the target and not returned.

So that's my story. What's yours? 

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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