Comparing lessons learned during the pandemic with lessons learned from running,this outstanding blog post is also available as a podcast.
In the month since I was asked to write this article, the world has pretty much been turned upside down. Originally, the premise of this piece was going to be based around 13.1 ways that teaching is like running a half-marathon (with all the ideas taken from my book Chasing Greatness: 26.2 Ways Teaching is Like Running a Marathon). But as I began to write, the COVID-19 pandemic slowly started to shut down the world that we had become so accustomed to. Schools are closed, quarantines are in place, and the term “social distancing” has become a regular part of our vernacular. As a result, I decided to pivot a bit.
So in celebration of my fourth week of semi-isolation, here are 13.1 ways quarantine life is like running a half-marathon.
Mile 1 – You Need to be Ready for Anything
I have run races where I’ve started in the snowy dark and ended in shorts and sunglasses. I’ve encountered skunks, moose, and buffalo while running through the mountains. I’ve even been charged by a herd of cows during one of my adventure runs! Each of these examples taught me that in running, just like in life, you have to be ready for just about anything to come your way. And while I didn’t have a plan in place for any of the aforementioned examples, all of my previous running experiences had mentally and emotionally prepared me for these one-off situations. The most important thing to remember when things get crazy is to lean into your prior experiences as a way to overcome your current obstacles. Currently, not only are we dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic, but my hometown (Salt Lake City) decided to throw in an earthquake recently just to keep me on my toes! While neither of these situations is ideal, previous challenges in my life, such as when my grandma died or when I got divorced, have taught me that I have the ability to get through tough situations like the one we currently find ourselves facing. And while pandemics are luckily few and far between, I think that struggle is something that many of us dealt with at some point-and-time in our lives. Use what you learned from those moments as a way to make it through this moment. There is an old saying that says, “Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it”. From what I’ve seen, both in running and life, this is one aphorism that rings true.
Mile 2 – You Need to Stay Calm
I can’t tell you how many times I have started a race going WAY too fast! In my defense, my pace seemed manageable at the time, and everyone else around me looked comfortable running at that clip, too. The problem, as I have learned, is that everyone feels great at mile two of a half-marathon, and those other people running with me? Well, they usually either blow up later or are simply MUCH better runners than I am. The better approach, which took me several years to figure out, is to stay calm and run at a consistent, manageable pace. From my experience, enjoying a race and finishing a few minutes slower is a much better way to race in comparison to crushing myself in an attempt to set a new personal best. The same holds true in regard to life. In today’s world, it is becoming easier and easier to hit the panic button with each passing day. And television and social media only make it worse! Look, just because everyone else around you is grabbing cases of toilet paper and hand sanitizer doesn’t mean you need to as well! Simply put, regardless of what everyone else says, stay calm, run your own race, and don’t get swept up in the hysteria around you.
Mile 3 – Balance is Essential
If you have ever trained for a half-marathon, you are well aware of how out-of-whack your priorities can get. Cutting your sleep short, ignoring your family, and shutting out friends are often parts of the daily training plan. But as counter-intuitive as this sounds, I have found that rest, spending time with my family, and hanging out with friends are essential elements to my running success. Overdoing anything rarely turns out well, so it’s important to allow non-running elements into your life on a daily basis, even when ramping up to the big race. This is probably where the coaching tip that says, “It’s better to be 10% undertrained for a race than it is to be 1% overtrained” comes from. Not surprisingly, the same holds true for life. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the nightly reporting of COVID-19 cases, the falling stock market, and the implosion of our workforce. It’s as if you have to go out of your way so as to not be inundated with bad news! To offset this, I encourage you to find ways to balance these issues out on a daily basis. And rather than waiting until your tank is empty, try to top it off each day by finding some little things to do that will remove you from all the chaos that is currently surrounding us. The craziest part of all this is that all of those things that you sometimes ignore because of your running (sleep, family, friends) are a great starting point in helping you to maintain a well-balanced life.
Mile 4 – Sometimes You Do Crazy Stuff
I have done some crazy stuff throughout my life as a runner. Regardless of whether it was running a half-marathon a week for an entire summer, running a 100 mile ultra-marathon, or doing a 475 mile run from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas (in July!), running has provided me a full range of awesomely strange opportunities. Speaking of strange opportunities, I’m guessing that being quarantined in your own house is something that many of us had probably never really thought about until about a month ago. The idea of not going in to work, having schools closed, and seeing empty shelves at the grocery store was something that was seemingly reserved for dystopian movies. And yet here we are. While being quarantined does pose its own set of challenges, I encourage you all to try and look at it through a different lens. Rather than seeing it for what it isn’t, I encourage you to view it as what it could be. Have you ever wanted to learn a new language or how to play an instrument? This is your moment! Have you been hesitant about making your TikTok debut? Now is the time! Ever thought about running a marathon? Day one of your training starts tomorrow! We are living in very unique times…why not try something new and crazy?
Mile 5 – You Have to Push Your Boundaries
I know a lot of runners, and I can honestly say that none of them focus solely on one specific kind of race. People who run 5Ks tend to jump to 10Ks to see if they can do it. And from there, a half marathon is usually the next leap. Then comes marathons, and trail running, and ultra marathons, and… The point is, as runners, we often voluntarily seek out new ways to challenge ourselves both physically and mentally. There is just something within us that pushes us to discover what is next rather than resting on the laurels of our past. The same holds true in terms of quarantine life. But instead of seeking out how much we can do, the boundary that our current situation hits us with is seeing how much we can’t do. As simple as it sounds, doing nothing for hours on end is a lot more mentally challenging than it seems. This is especially true when typical outings that help to break up the day, things like shopping, going to the park, and haircuts, have been removed from the equation. I challenge everyone who reads this to push your boundaries by finding new ways to stay both physically and mentally engaged during your home quarantine time. Whether it involves reading a book, solving a puzzle, or creating an obstacle course in your backyard, I challenge you to find some way to push your boundaries (all while remaining within the confines of your home).
Mile 6 – You Shouldn’t Compare Yourself to Others
When I was younger, my primary concern after a race was my time. But it wasn’t so much that I was concerned with how I did personally, but rather how I did compared to everyone else. Running a PR but finishing lower in my age group took more of a mental toll on me than when I would run a terrible race but finish higher amongst my peers. It was as if I was basing the success of my run on how I did against everyone else rather than on how I did against myself. Luckily, I’ve added a few wrinkles since those early days of running, and one thing that I’ve learned is that there will almost always be someone better than you. And rather than comparing myself against the other runners, I now view the success or failure of a race based on my own personal effort. That said, in today’s environment, I’m embarrassed to admit that I have found myself worrying about whether or not I have enough Ramen and Mac-n-Cheese in the cupboard based on what everyone else is saying they have. And the craziest part is that I don’t even like Mac-n-Cheese! In today’s social-media obsessed world, it’s becoming harder and harder to not compare yourself to others on a daily basis. As hard as it sounds, you shouldn’t let others determine what is right for you. Like I tell my students, if you worry about yourself, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy!
Mile 7 – You Need to Focus on the Positive
As runners, we tend to focus on everything that is going wrong with our running. Our hamstrings are tight. We didn’t fuel properly. We missed our target time. The list goes on and on. What we rarely do, however, is appreciate how lucky we are simply to be able to run. Many people lack the luxury of both time and physical fitness that running requires, yet far too often, we find ourselves complaining about not getting the results we desire. The COVID-19 pandemic has modeled this behavior as well. Rather than mourning not being able to go to our favorite restaurant or movie theater, I encourage you to focus your energy on making the best of this unique situation. Take some time to learn a new activity, catch up on some of your favorite shows, and chat a bit more with your family and neighbors. I have also found that in this time of distress, running has become more valuable to me than ever before! While it is clearly true that there are a lot of things to complain about in our current world, at the same time, I argue there is even more to be grateful for…We just need to start paying attention to it.
Mile 8 – Greatness is All Around You
One of my favorite things about running in an official, organized race, is seeing how fast the top-tier runners are. Regardless of how small the race is, there are always some really fast runners out there! And oftentimes, these speedsters are just regular folk who live and work in your neighborhood. It’s as if you wouldn’t even know how great they were if you weren’t paying attention! The same holds true within our daily lives. With cities across the world shutting down, we are beginning to appreciate members of our communities in an entirely new light. Whether it’s teachers keeping the learning going via Zoom classrooms, doctors and nurses working eighteen hour shifts, or the checker at your local grocery store showing up every day so you can get your essentials, great things are happening all across the globe. And just like those fast runners, we as a society are finally starting to notice the greatness shown by so many of our friends and neighbors. So as you begin to fully understand what the saying “Not all heroes wear capes” means, please remember to take a moment to both appreciate and acknowledge these acts of greatness whenever you see them.
Mile 9 – Some Days Are Hard
Half-marathons are hard. The weird part, at least from my experience, is that the race itself is one of the easier parts of the equation. You’ve (hopefully) trained for this, and the race-day energy is generally enough to keep you psyched from start to finish. The training leading up to the race is another story. It’s challenging to train, and as much as I love to run, there are days where I would just rather sit at home and binge “Tiger King” on Netflix. But even on my least motivated days, I have never regretted going for a run. Like not even once! And as strange as it sounds, sometimes just getting through these long days can be a challenge unto itself. Being quarantined poses an entirely new set of obstacles that we’ve never faced before. Staying indoors for hours on end is challenging, and it gets even more difficult doing so within the same space as your family! But this is where you have to take the small wins when you can get them. I challenge you all to take a few minutes before you go to bed each night to acknowledge the positive moments that you experienced that day. I promise that no matter how bad the day was, there was a positive nugget or two buried in there somewhere. Maybe even start a gratitude journal as part of your nightly routine where you list any positive surprises that you encountered that day. In these troubling times, it is important to remember that even a small workout is better than nothing, and even the darkest days have bright moments.
Mile 10 – The Right Tools are Essential for Success
When I first started running fifteen years ago, I jumped out the door wearing the same shirt, shorts, and shoes that I wore during my weekly pickup basketball games. At the time, any shoe was a running shoe, the idea of a hydration pack was completely foreign to me, and I was yet to appreciate all the relief that a stick of “Body Glide” can provide. Thankfully, through experience, suggestions, and research, I was able to learn what kinds of tools I needed in order to run in a way that was both enjoyable and pain free. This concept connects to quarantine life in that while it is true that most of us could make it through pretty much any day using just the basics, it’s also nice to have a bit of “insider knowledge” about things. Simple tricks like knowing which restaurants deliver, when your local grocery store restocks on Clorox wipes, and which apps offer the best home workout plans are all simple-yet-meaningful tools to help you get through the quarantine. And the best part about gaining all this knowledge is that once you have it, you can pay it forward by sharing it with others!
Mile 11 – Pacing is Key
As many of you probably know, a well-paced race usually ends up being a successful race. And while I love a good negative-split (running the second half of the race more quickly than the first half), my best runs have been the ones where I establish, and maintain, a consistent pace throughout the entire race. The same holds true in terms of daily life. While many of us have had our daily routines disrupted by unemployment, working from home, and having our kids around all the time, this is still not an excuse to poorly pace the day. Having, and sticking to, a daily plan is important for both your mental and physical well-being. It’s easy to blow off a workout or to eat poorly in times like these, but I challenge you to remain disciplined with your health regime. While your work and your workouts may look a bit different than they did a couple of months ago, this is no excuse to drop them completely. While the circumstances of your life have changed, the way you approach it shouldn’t.
Mile 12 – With Experience Comes Wisdom
When I first started running, every run, no matter if it was a training run or race day, was run HARD! I’m talking all out, exhausted at the end hard. Not knowing any better, I thought that being a runner meant you gave everything you had each time you laced ‘em up. Unfortunately, it took me years, yes years, to realize that in order to be successful on race day, it required me to be both physically prepared and well-rested when I toed the line on race day (which I later learned is known as “tapering”). I had to experience years of failure before gaining the wisdom needed to succeed. I think many of us are having a similar experience in terms of our online teaching right now. From what I saw, there was more than a fair bit of trepidation when the idea of distance learning first started popping up. When we don’t understand something, we often turn to our assumptions, and for many of us, we assume the worst in terms of what online teaching and learning might look like. But I, along with many of my colleagues, are learning and improving how to teach from a distance with each passing day. Each online experience brings a bit more insight about how long lessons should be, what resources are available, and how to effectively combine synchronous and asynchronous learning. Have there been, and will there continue to be, challenges that arise? Absolutely! But each of these situations also provides us with an opportunity to learn and grow, and like I tell my students, you can’t teach experience!
Mile 13 – You Will Learn a Variety of Very Specific Skills
I can honestly say that I have become a better person as a result of my running. It helps me reflect on both who I am and who I want to become. At the same time, I can also honestly say that I have learned some skills that aren’t exactly the most universal traits to possess. Things like eating while running, blowing snot rockets, and peeing on-the-go aren’t exactly the kind of things that you brag about at parties. And similar to those running-specific talents, many of us have developed a range of quarantine-specific skills over the past month. My hand washing game is on point (don’t forget those thumbs!), I can go hours without touching my own face, and I now look at sidewalks as being the perfect size for one person. Are these the type of skills you’ll want to list on your resume? Probably not. But are these the type of skills that are needed given our circumstances? Absolutely!
Mile 13.1 – It Never Always Gets Worse
There is an old saying that when you’re running an ultra marathon, “It never always gets worse”. As confusing as this sounds, if you’ve ever bonked at mile 65 of a 100 mile race, you know this true. When you are running for hours on end, you will hit points both mentally and physically where you are certain that you can’t go on. But if you work your way through those moments, whether it be via slowing down, taking a break, or grabbing something to eat, those rough moments almost always pass. And when I think about our current situation, that old running adage seems to ring true in life as well. But the key thing to remember is that this too shall pass. Matthew McConaughey recently talked about how there are times in life where you just have to ride out the red light. The green light is coming, but it may take a bit longer to change than we were hoping. I completely agree with this. I also believe that in the worst of times, the best of people comes out. So as you sit you’re quarantined in your house for the next few weeks, take a moment to reflect on who you are and, more importantly, who you want to be in the future. Then, once we start getting back to normal, and we will get to that point, start unleashing the new-and-improved version of yourself onto the world.
Stay healthy everyone!
About the Author
Mike Roberts has taught middle school English for the past twenty-one years. In that time, he has received numerous awards for his outstanding teaching, including being named the 2014 Utah English Teacher of the Year.
Mike’s most recent book, Chasing Greatness: 26.2 Ways Teaching is Like Running a Marathon, breaks down the many similarities between the classroom and the road. In the process, he shares advice from some of the best teachers and runners from across the country as a way to help you reach your highest potential. He is also the author of Hacking Classroom Management – 10 Ideas to Help You Become the Type of Teacher They Make Movies About, which identifies a variety of strategies that empower students in the learning process. Finally, he is the co-author of The New Science Teacher’s Handbook: What You Didn’t Learn From Student Teaching, and was a featured columnist in English Journal.
Mike also teaches college classes focused on classroom management and literacy in the content areas. He has served on many educational committees, and has been a featured speaker at dozens of state, regional, and national conferences.
When he’s not teaching or presenting, Mike can usually be found running ultra-marathons in the mountains. And even after all these years, he’s still not sure which takes more energy…a week with 8th graders or a 100 mile race.
You can follow Mike on Twitter @BaldRoberts
You can contact Mike at thebaldenglishteacher.com
You can email Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org