Finding a cheerleader

I am very lucky to have Shirley as my nextdoor neighbour. She is in her eighties and lives alone. She’s more mentally and physically capable than some forty year olds I know. She takes loving care of her garden in the front and back every day. She takes an interest in my kids and always chats with them and asks them questions about their lives. She is generous of her space with our cat who assumes Shirley’s garden is an extension of our own and actually likes it better than ours.

One of my favourite things about Shirley is that she always has a kind, positive thing to say. We don’t know each other extremely well. We exchange pleasantries and small talk and can rely on each other for neighbourly things. She is there to help my daughter unlock the front door when she’s struggling with the key. I have run errands for her during the height of the pandemic when it was riskier for her to be out. But what I really love about my relationship with Shirley is that unbeknownst to her, she has become my personal cheerleader for my running.

One time a few summers ago I was struggling mightily on a long run. It was one of those hot humid days where I felt off from the start. I forced it for longer than I should have and it turned into one of those walk/slogs where you’re not sure if you’re actually going to make it back. I finally turned down my street and as I made it towards my house, there was Shirley working in her garden. I had been mentally beating myself up for the good part of an hour and feeling quite sorry for myself and dejected. “Well Hello!” said Shirley. “I’ve just had a very bad long run,” I complained. She asked how far I went (I think just to be polite – I’m not sure she has a strong reference point for long runs) and then said “Well. I think it’s amazing that you went! Good for you!” I don’t know if it’s her genuine delivery with an expression of real feeling and a smile, but her words really made me feel better.

Another time I had procrastinated and wasn’t getting out for my “morning” run until mid-afternoon. Again, I saw Shirley in her garden as I was heading out. “I can’t believe I’ve left it so late. Now I don’t have much time for a longer run,” I confessed. “But look at you! You’re doing it! Good for you!” – again, the same positive, genuine, encouraging delivery. Suddenly I felt better about myself.

I won’t lie – I’ve now become a little addicted to my running affirmations from Shirley. I look for her whenever I head out or come back so that I can report something and she can make me feel better. Of course I complement her garden in return. Something generic like “your flowers look so beautiful – thank-you for brightening the street!” I probably know less about gardening than she does about distance running. But it doesn’t matter. We cheer each other on in our own pursuits and I hope we both feel better for the small boosting interactions. I know I always do.

Chop Wood, Carry Water

I was recently reminded of a great Buddhist proverb. A monk worked his whole life to achieve enlightenment. When he finally attained it he was asked how he did it. He replied, “Chop wood, carry water”. Then he was asked what he would do now that he had attained enlightenment. He replied, “Chop wood, carry water”.

Obviously I brought this back to running 😉 Let’s pretend what we’re seeking, instead of enlightenment, is a goal race or time. That’s fine – sometimes we have one and sometimes we don’t. But the point is, don’t expect anything to fundamentally change in you or what you do once you reach your goal. We’re not striving now so we can rest later. We’re doing what we love to do and if we get a great race time in the process, fantastic. It won’t change what we’re doing though. Now is a perfect time to find out how you love to run, without an external race goal influencing you.

I’m reminded of the summer of 1996 when I was 21 and living in a tent and working in a bookstore in Dawson City, Yukon. I ran pretty much every day and loved it so much. I could run at 10 or 11pm along remote northern highways and have as much sunlight as if I was running at 10 or 11am. I basically had two route options: one along the Top of the World Highway towards Alaska, and another 7km straight up a hill called The Midnight Dome. I’d alternate between these two routes and never got bored. I remember really falling in love with running there – there were no gps watches or strava or cell phones or even the internet – running was a very solitary and personal endeavour. On my runs up the Dome I had to stop often to rest my legs and catch my breath. I made it a personal goal to run all the way to the top without stopping by the end of the summer. I remember the joy and sense of achievement I felt when I first did it. I was so happy. There was not a soul to tell but it didn’t matter. I stopped at the top, took it all in, and jogged the 7km back to my tent.

View of Dawson City from the top of the Midnight Dome

Well, as fate would have it, I discovered that a few weeks after my first ascent they were holding the annual Midnight Dome Race. Runners came in from all around (well, mostly Whitehorse) to see who could make it to the top first. I quietly realized that I had been inadvertently “training” for this race for a couple of months. So I paid my $15 and entered the race. Imagine my surprise when about 2/3 of the way up a car with a CBC reporter from Whitehorse leaned out with a microphone to tell me I had a huge lead and how did it feel to be the likely women’s winner. I don’t think I said much since I was gasping for air, but I did make it to the top first. I won a meal in a restaurant, a night in a hotel and tickets to Diamond Tooth Gerty’s cabaret – all expensive tourist things which were huge luxuries for the “dirty hippies across the river”. I remember my main takeaway being that the race was a funny lark and a totally random coincidence. My hippie tent friends who saw me running all the time (and rarely showering) laughed about it with me. It was like we’d pulled one over on “the man” – winning the prizes for a race I didn’t really care about. That hadn’t been why I was trying to run up the Dome. And I don’t remember the experiences of the prizes as much as the feeling of when I first made it up without stopping. I also continued to run up the Dome (on tougher days still stopping the odd time) – and still relished the challenge and accomplishment every time.

I think I sometimes forget that feeling. Of being the outsider, and doing what I do because that’s just what I like to do. If you want to train hard, train hard. If you want to run up a hill, do that. If you want to run on trails, that’s what you should do. If a race pops up, sure, jump in. Maybe it’ll be what you were training for. Maybe not. But after it you’re going to go back to chopping wood and carrying water, because that’s the whole point.

Are we having fun yet?

“This is fun for us”. We’re in the ski lodge having lunch and I’m showing my 7 year-old nephew a photo of his mother cross-country skiing up a hill. He’s just come off a morning of downhill ski lessons and is getting ready to go back out to ski with his cousins. He looks at the photo and then at me and silently absorbs this information before returning to his sandwich. I can imagine his silent monologue: “If being an adult means skiing uphills instead of downhills is fun, I’m NEVER becoming an adult!”

Wheeeeee!!!

But it’s true. I have way more fun propelling myself along silent winding snowy tree-lined paths while sweating and breathing hard than gliding down a hill with zero effort in about 60 seconds and then freezing my butt off while waiting in line to be lifted up to do it again. There was a time when the reverse was true though. What happened? Am I becoming actually no fun? Am I … old and crotchety? Or can I still have fun but in a different way? I need to examine this and whether or not I still have fun.

I used to think Beer Miles were fun. Now I think they’re my definition of Hell. (And no, this is not because I’m no longer the reigning champ). It’s because they actually hurt in every way possible and …. I don’t know … they’re just not fun for me. Why did I ever think they were? Will my kids and nieces and nephews one day find this kind of thing fun??? God help me.

I run a lot, but do I run for fun? I wouldn’t say so. Most of the average runs I go on are not necessarily fun. Races can be fun – in fact when I think back on most of my race experiences I would classify them as fun. This is usually because I go with people who I enjoy sharing experiences with, and that is a big part of fun for me. If you stopped me ¾ of a way through any race and asked me if I was having fun in that moment, I’m sure I would punch you in the face. But ask me after and I will say it was fun and I will probably want to share a beer with you – especially if you just raced it too. This is a new sense of fun. In my 20’s and earlier I don’t think I ever thought races were fun. They were stressful, and opportunities to be judged and graded. I don’t see them that way anymore as I don’t attach any personal worth to my results, so they have become fun.

Fun for me now is new experiences, but usually with a component that challenges me. I would classify almost any outdoor adventure as fun (as long as I’m not cold). And pretty much anything done with friends is fun. If you asked me if I enjoy shopping, going out to dive bars and getting stuck in airports I’d probably say no, but I just got back from doing all of that with friends and had the time of my life.

So maybe having fun is just a mindset. I’ll try to remind myself of that fact as I set out on my first cross-country ski race in over 20 years. As I use every muscle in my body to coordinate with poles and skis to force myself to the top of a hill as fast as I can in the middle of a 27km course, I’ll tell myself “This is FUN dammit!” Hope I convince myself.

Post Script: It worked: the cross-country race was SUPER FUN!!!

Giving Love

I never know who will take me up on going for a walk – if anyone. Usually there is one person who walks with me and my volunteer partner. Sometimes there are two, sometimes none. We walk with men who are staying at a shelter in my neighbourhood. My idealistic idea was to start a running group. I can’t do everything, but I can put my expertise and knowledge in physical fitness to use in a caring and loving way. I know the powerful link it has with mental and emotional health. However it didn’t take me long to learn that poverty and physical health are closely related. Many of those who are mobile have injuries or long-term conditions which keep them from running. Some of them can walk though, so we do that. We walk and talk and sometimes sit for a coffee.

Jake* is big and gentle. I wasn’t sure if he could even walk the first few times I went because he was always sitting down with a foot which had been terribly burnt in a fire. He also wasn’t super motivated until I mentioned that a Starbucks coffee might be in the cards. He’ll walk for that I discovered. So we walk slowly to a Starbucks about half a mile away. As we walk we chat. We talk about Jake’s youth, where he grew up, where he went to school, his sisters, his parents, his daughter. Jake has kind eyes and a quick laugh. He is also addicted to crack, panhandles for money, and I can smell alcohol on him at 9:30 in the morning. It doesn’t bother me. I have no expectations of him – he owes me nothing. I enjoy walking and talking with him and hearing about his story, and he tells me he likes walking and talking with me too – I think because I listen and ask him questions and remember what he’s told me. Also I don’t judge him. I wonder about his sisters and daughter (his parents have passed). They must be wishing and hoping for the best for him, but I understand that they have to stay away as well. I’ve been in that position.

There were often other people around my mum. She was surrounded by social workers, nurses, old friends and acquaintances who’d resurfaced. She was a physical and mental wreck due to decades of alcoholism. I had maintained a physical and emotional distance for as long as I could. I did feel the duties of a daughter though, so would provide care and company as if by script. I did not want to be there though. I wanted my mum to be loved but for some reason I could not often call up that emotion. I watched in awe as these total strangers were able to treat her in a way that I could not. They chatted, listened and laughed with her as she was in that state with no judgements or expectations. They had no feelings of disgust or disappointment or anger. They just saw a human being who needed love. I was very grateful to all of them that they could give her what I couldn’t. If you can outsource love, I think that’s what we were trying to do by the end.

On another day in the week I lead an exercise program for patients from a forensic outpatient group at a mental health hospital. These are people who have been deemed not criminally responsible for illegal acts they’ve committed. I don’t know what they’ve done – nor do I want to. I treat them all with the respect and compassion I would treat anyone. I work with them with genuine effort and interest because I want the best for them. I care about them. We move and sweat and lift beside each other and laugh and fill our blood with endorphins. Many of these clients live with their parents or siblings. I wonder about their immediate support teams too. The people who know about the crimes they’ve committed. Who are burdened by supporting them. Are they able to show them love and respect, or are they relying on people like me? I don’t mind filling that role. It is much easier from a certain vantage point. I feel like I’m paying back the people who were able to give it to my mum when I couldn’t. Let me share my love this way.

Sometimes I send my son out into the world after a difficult morning. We’ve gotten in a fight, said not nice things to each other and we both feel badly. I can’t always back down – I’m the parent. I have a role to play in raising and teaching. But I plead that he will encounter someone who will show him love in this day. I want (need) him to experience kindness, love and respect, but it doesn’t always flow seamlessly beside the more difficult teachings of life lessons and discipline. When I am feeling angry and tapped out I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the teacher or friend or family member who extends a branch to him. I think I physically feel the weight of it all coming off me. There are other people in the world who will love my child – it doesn’t all have to weigh on me.

I find myself thinking about Jake’s mother. He tells me how she would buy his new school uniform and iron it to make him look sharp for school, and the pain in my chest nearly brings me to my knees. He was once a loved little boy. I am sure his mother was relying on the world to love her son when she wouldn’t be able to anymore. I do my small bit where I can. I hope others fill in other gaps too so there is enough for him. And I pray to god that there will continue to be people who love out there for my kids when they need it.

 

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

The Run Commute

I leave the group of parents I chat with in the mornings at the school after dropping our kids off and start heading west. I’m in my immediate neighbourhood for the first couple of blocks, so often see familiar faces and friends and we wave and say hi. Once I cross the bridge over the Don River though, I’m no longer in what I would consider my neighbourhood. If it was cold out and I was trying to get home from here, I might even hop on the streetcar instead of walk. But today I’m running. I run to my volunteer job 7km away every Tuesday morning. I run from the east side of the city to the west side along what must be the busiest street in the country – Queen Street.

I’m neither in a rush, nor do I dawdle. I’m just running as a simple way to get where I need to go. It takes me about 35-40 minutes depending on the lights I either race to catch or slow down to meet the red and get a break. I pass people walking, riding bikes, lying on grates, sleeping in doorways, driving in cars, riding in streetcars, but I’m the only one running. I’m moving at a different pace than everyone else, and this places me in my own world of observation. Pedestrians don’t interact with me, car, bike and transit traffic don’t interact with me, even the people living on the streets who are either still up or already up don’t give me a second glance.

I always run on the south side of the street. I pass all my familiar sights. I look for the man who sleeps on the lawn of St. Paul’s Basilica. I like to make sure he’s there because I would worry if he wasn’t. He’s usually still asleep when I pass by at 9 am and nowhere to be seen when I come back a few hours later. I wonder where he goes. As I move a little further away from my neighbourhood the scene and people change quickly. This is what would be considered a rough part of town. I think my neighbourhood was very similar about 15 years ago, but gentrification has pushed those who can’t keep up over here. A woman walks by wearing nothing on her bottom. I am wearing full length running tights and she isn’t even wearing underwear. I feel I should do something but I have no idea what. I quickly pass her and after a few glances back to make sure of what I’m not sure, I run on. I pass the All Saints Church-Community Centre. There is always a handful of people hanging out outside, smoking or chatting or starting their day. In the winter they never look like they’re wearing enough. I sometimes try to make eye contact or smile, but I am invisible to them. I am running by. Too quickly for anyone to react or to reach out in any significant way.

The next few blocks are usually pretty open for me to run on the sidewalks. There’s not a lot of pedestrian activity. The cars, streetcars and bikes pass me though. Although sometimes because of traffic I’m passing them. We are all headed towards the central hub of activity: downtown Toronto. By the time I reach St. Michael’s Hospital, just before Yonge St, I am dodging people all along the sidewalk. Now I have to tune in and pay attention because everyone is walking somewhere busily, most people are staring down at their phones, and no one expects a runner to be passing by. Everyone walking around here is dressed sharply. When I stop at a light and stand in the throng, I am a marked contrast in my running gear. This district has been awake and buzzing for a couple of hours already. Some of these people are probably out for their mid-morning coffee break while others are still hustling in.

The grates in this area are in high demand for homeless sleepers. They are warm and probably present a better chance at receiving a handout than a beating. I always observe who is sleeping where. They are usually still sound asleep at 9 a.m. One time I passed the man sleeping on the grate near Bay St. and his jeans were ripped right down the middle and everything was exposed. I should have stopped and found a blanket to place over him. It’s such an amazing contrast to see these two worlds occupying the same space, completely seemingly oblivious to one another. I feel like an outsider to both so I just observe and run on.

As I move away from the downtown core I am now swimming upstream against the pedestrian traffic all trying to go to the same place. I often have to stop to let people by, or on and off the streetcars. This shakes out quickly though. By the time I pass University Avenue the fast walking business types have mostly cleared the sidewalks. I run west towards Spadina and find my eyes drawn to the store displays in the shop windows. Many of these stores rely on street traffic for business, and so like birds during mating season, have to make themselves more beautiful and attractive than their rivals. My neighbourhood does not have row upon row of this retail eye candy. I have not built up any defences and I ogle them all. But luckily I am running, so I can’t stop and go in “just to try one thing on”. The people I pass along this stretch often have either a dog or a stroller. They are also dressed just a little more edgily than in my neighbourhood. I like to think they’re artists or musicians. Quite a few of the entryways to the shops which aren’t open yet have one or two people finishing off their nights’ sleep covered in blankets and sleeping bags and usually a dog or two. There is not one stretch along this street where peoples’ struggles haven’t been apparent. Maybe when you’re walking you have to avert your eyes because you don’t want to get involved. And when you’re on the road, you literally don’t see them. But running, I can look, absorb, and move on. I have passed by before anyone who’s not looking for me has noticed me.

I’m now getting closer to my destination. The store fronts are now independently owned funky stores, not big brand names. Coffee shops have dogs parked outside. I can tune out and run in a straight line – there is no dodging people here. There are fewer pedestrians and the ones who are out are more relaxed. No one is wearing a suit. The drivers are still angry though. I hear many horns and tire screeches. Sometimes I look back, just to see if the altercation intensifies and turns into something bad. Thankfully, most of the time it doesn’t. My attention floats back to my world on the sidewalk.

As I reach the hospital where I volunteer, I slow to a walk. Now I re-enter the same space inhabited by others. We’re moving at the same pace. We make eye contact, we acknowledge each others’ presence. We exchange words or smiles. I’m visible again. Until my commute home.

Finally owning my true identity

I self identify as a jock. It’s taken me until my forties to become comfortable owning the term. I mean, it must have been obvious to others long ago. As a kid, when given my choice of camps to sign up for, I would always choose Sports Camp. I never asked which sports they were referring to. I just knew that if there were sports, I would love it. And I always did.

In elementary school I went to a very academically focused school. In that environment my jock-ness was even more pronounced. I was often picked ahead of all of the girls and most of the boys when it came time to pick teams for dodge-ball or basketball (two sports I am not very good at at all, so that fact speaks a bit more to my classmates’ lack of athletic enthusiasm than to my own skill.) Along with my sister and two other girls, we played on the all boys hockey team and just accepted the fact that we had to get changed in broom closets. My favourite day of the year was Sports Day where I would compete in all track and field events with equal enthusiasm. By the end of elementary school I was gravitating away from certain sports which I didn’t love as much as others (I never really took to the indoor ball sports like basketball and volleyball), but I would still sign up for absolutely anything that involved physical activity and movement if it took the place of math, art or music.

In high school I was thrilled to discover I could sign up for pretty much any team I wanted to. Among the teams I competed on for my high school were: field hockey, soccer, ice hockey, badminton, swim team, x-country running, track, x-country skiing, downhill skiing. Outside of school I took part in even more sports. Don’t think I’m bragging; I was actually so bad in some of them (swim team and downhill ski racing for a start) that my friends don’t even remember me being there. I was in the slow lane, or toodling down the hill, but still there and loving it! I also at one point thought I was pretty good at badminton, but it turns out I just squeaked onto the team and was never played in the crucial matches. That never dampened my enthusiasm though. I never understood how people could not enjoy playing or competing if it was an option over attending school!

In university I decided to study Phys Ed, because, obviously. I learned about things that were interesting to me: anatomy, sports psychology, physiology and sociology of sports. But unfortunately I undervalued all of this. I thought that since I enjoyed it and found it interesting, it must not be serious. It wasn’t business, or engineering, or law. It was sports. I often tried to underplay my jock-ness. Being a jock doesn’t sound smart or feminine – two things I also wanted to see in myself. When people asked what I’d graduated in, I’d make fun of my degree, saying I took “Gym” in university. I tried to follow fashion trends, but just could never manage to get into putting on makeup, and always seemed to revert back to wearing running shoes. It didn’t help that I worked at a sporting goods company, so my entire wardrobe had three vertical stripes going down the arms and legs. And that was pretty much the uniform in the office, so I fit right in.

But being a jock is more than what I wear and what I studied. I think it’s how I see and understand the world. When I see a mountain, my first instinct is that I want to climb it. I don’t want to paint it, or write a song about it, or just admire it. I want to experience it. I feel like I’m not part of things unless I’m taking part in them. If I visit somewhere new and see people doing an activity (surfing, cycling, hiking) I want to do that to in order to feel connected. I am not a passive observer. Maybe that’s what defines a jock. I just have an urge to get in and be part of the action. I can’t always make sense of the world by just looking or hearing or thinking about it. I have to physically be a part of it. I have to live it.

So I am now owning the fact that I’m a jock. I did mention this to my husband once as we looked around our house and realized neither one of us had any aptitude nor the desire to learn about how to redecorate and make it look fancy. I said, “Sorry. You married a jock.” (I think he knew that going in ;)) My wiring is such that I won’t walk into a room and notice the fine details of décor. I won’t look at magazines and learn how to be the most fashionably dressed. I won’t spend money on makeup or heels which make me feel like I don’t fit my skin. But when my husband points to a mountain and says “wanna bike up it?” or to a 50K cross-country ski race and says “wanna do it?” I will almost all of the time say “of course!” Because those things, to me, are having fun and living genuinely.

Feelin’ alive.

All Done!

I have a very vivid memory from early motherhood etched in my brain. My son Hugo was under two-years old and we were flying from Halifax to Toronto together (my husband was driving). I remember Hugo’s age specifically because if your child was under two you didn’t have to purchase a separate seat as they were still considered to be small enough to fit on your lap. I was also about 7 months pregnant with my daughter, so there were essentially three of us sharing one small airplane seat. And when you’re almost two, you wear hard-soled running shoes and you don’t like to sit in one spot, so it was a physically uncomfortable and demanding situation for all of us.

But what I remember so vividly is a moment just before we’d taken off. Hugo had been excited about the airplane experience and loved the big jets and wings and the fact that he was inside of one of these machines. However that excitement quickly faded after about 5 minutes of being forced to sit on my lap in a boring seat. I had used up all of my snacks, games, books, colouring and toys within the first 10 minutes – again, before we had even taken off. As we were still taxiing on the runway, lining up for our turn to take-off, Hugo stood on my lap, pressed his face against the window of the plane and declared: “All done! Hugo all done airplane!”

I love how very young kids can assess a situation and declare the facts so clearly. He wasn’t asking or pleading or bargaining – he didn’t know how to do any of those things yet. He was just making a firm statement about his situation. He was over it. And of course the sad part was we then both had to deal with another two and a half hours in the airplane which he was thoroughly done with.

April, 2009. Almost 2 and pretty sure he knows what he wants but no idea how to go about getting it.

And this is exactly how I feel about winter right now. At first I got into it and even loved it. We celebrated the first snowfall, we’ve enjoyed lots of skiing, skating and tobogganing, appreciated cozy evenings around a fire, and I’ve even had many beautiful, enjoyable runs in the snow and cold. But now, by the end of February, the list of negatives has tipped the scales. I’ve joined many of my running buddies in the “winter wipe-out club”. I’m experiencing the lower leg niggles that you get from too much mileage on slushy, slippery surfaces. I’ve relegated yet another tempo run to the treadmill so I can hit paces.  All of my running shoes are stiff and salt-encrusted with laces which refuse to bend. My outdoor runs contain countless full-stops to either get around other people navigating the same single track of sidewalk, avoid giant ice puddles or hurdle snowbanks.

At this point I can officially say, “All done! Seanna all done Winter!”

But unfortunately, much like the airplane situation, I don’t think winter is done with me yet.

Current view of the sidewalk outside my door. Sigh…

Touch of Grey

I know it’s cliché to have a New Year’s resolution, and most of them tend to be forgotten within a month or two. But I do like the idea of taking a moment to reflect on my life and whether I am making decisions which reflect my values. That’s what I’ve been doing lately and I’ve decided that my resolution this year is to operate under the influence of a new guiding value.

It’s easy for me to get caught up automatic pilot and habits which are driven by tangible, visible rewards and achievements. I have a “to-do” list every day and I want to accomplish it and check things off. I want to run more miles, add more cycling and strength training to my routine, get better at x-country skiing, make some big changes and advances in my business, write more (even start a book), participate in leadership volunteer roles within my community, make sure my kids are well rounded in their after school activities and make it to all of their programs, coach my personal group of runners with thought and care, create healthy, nourishing meals every day for my family, sleep more, read more, … I’m sure this list looks familiar to many people. In fact I see a lot of my friends and acquaintances actually doing it all! But I’ve decided to add one guiding value to it: do it all with grace.

Grace – from the Collins online dictionary:

  1. If someone behaves with grace, they behave in a pleasant, polite, and dignified way, even when they are upset or being treated unfairly.
  2. If someone moves with grace, they move in a smooth, controlled, and attractive way.

I want to do both of these things. For me maintaining grace means remaining composed and mindful and thinking of those around me instead of pursuing my own single-minded goals whatever the cost. I would also like to visualize myself moving a little more like a dancer than a headless chicken if at all possible.

How I would like to visualize myself going about my daily tasks

 

What I unfortunately sometimes more likely resemble

 

This has come to my mind often over the last little while as I see myself and those around me hurrying around wildly, showing up to pick up or drop off kids in a disheveled frenzy, getting irritated by everyone and everything because we’ve left ourselves no margin of error in our schedules. No time for a pause or a spontaneous conversation with an acquaintance, no compassion for someone’s car accident which is making us late, no time or desire to humour or our kids’ whims to dawdle or stop and investigate an interesting new path. Sure, we can get it all done. We’ve shown we can keep up and achieve in this competitive environment. But can we do it with grace? I don’t want to cram more in, I want to do it all more elegantly. And that will likely mean letting some things go.

So maybe this year we’ll have a few less well thought-out nutritionally balanced dinners, I won’t get all of my planned weights workouts in, we won’t all get to bed right on time, some long runs might suffer, and I won’t finish my book by the summer. But what I do accomplish I hope to manage it with a smile, calm confidence, kindness and compassion, and hopefully a few spontaneous, interesting side conversations along the way 🙂

 

“The ABC’s we all must face. Try to keep a little grace.” – The Grateful Dead

Is coaching in danger of becoming obsolete?

I’ve just finished reading a very interesting book evaluating some potential trajectories of where our species could be headed: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. There were many eye opening insights for me in this book. One of them was how quickly artificial intelligence is advancing and how it is very likely that in the not-too-distant future very very many jobs will be performed by robots and algorithms. The author made the point that human beings are a dominant species because of superior data processing skills but we will soon be surpassed in all areas on this feat by computers. Being able to take in all the variables and come up with the best solution, whether it’s buying/selling stocks, investing a company’s marketing dollars, making an informed legal decision, deciding what medical treatment someone needs, will be way more efficiently done by an algorithm. That means that all the soft skill jobs which surround these positions (managers, assistants, directors) will also become obsolete.

This got me thinking a lot about coaching (specifically for athletic pursuits.) It seems obvious that this could be one of the first roles to become obsolete – and for some it already has. We have watches which track our heart rate, power output, sleep, nutrition and our related performances. We have websites which can provide us with advanced technical training schedules and advice. As these devices become more sophisticated and personalized it is not unreasonable to see a future where all performance athletes are “coached” by an algorithm specific to their physical and genetic make-up as it relates to their goals. Based on my current resting heart rate, hormone levels, performance history and the time of day, I should do hill repeats today if I want to race my fastest 10K in three weeks. But you should do weights to maximize your training value. And our other training buddy should do an easy run with some pick-ups.

Kudos from my watch.

It sounds like the perfect system. But there is something missing there. I am a running coach and I have been coached by various different people over the years. I’ve also been a competitive runner for long enough to pretty much know what I need to do in order to reach my goals (close to 30 years if you must know.) The biggest value that my coaches have offered me is not my precise technical training plan, but their human-ness. By this I mean, I’ve benefitted by just having someone – a person – in my corner. When I’m in the middle of a race, I would much rather look up and see my coach than look down and read my watch. It motivates me differently. It’s the same thing after a race: I want to tell my coach how I did because he or she was invested in me and that matters. They care. My watch buzzing “you reached you goal!” feels a bit hollow.

The problem, as I’ve discovered with my own coaching, is that providing this level of service has a numbers cap. Really caring about someone takes a fair amount of time and energy. It is immensely rewarding, but it is not simple. It can’t be replaced by an algorithm which is “applicable to all.” Finding a good coach who cares about you might get you similar results to a plan off the internet, but it is worth so so much more. When you share a problem, worry or defeat with another human, it literally takes the weight off you. When you share a success or joy with someone who cares, it amplifies it. I don’t know if the smartest brains in Silicone Valley can come up with an algorithm that can replicate that.

Maybe this will be our future. As our jobs are all replaced by robots and artificial intelligence we’ll all start investing our time in personal growth, development and athletic goals.  And the workforce will be made up of the human coaches who help us get there.

Coaching some people I care about.

Why you should start a running group at work

Most of us accept that nowadays there is very little gap between our work and personal lives. We are connected to our work through devices at all times, and many of us feel that we’re ‘on call’ or representing our workplaces regardless of our physical location or the time of day. For this reason, many professionals seek out work that is meaningful to them.  Just as people are expected to “become their jobs” their workplaces also have the onus of developing them as people. It is no longer “show up and get a paycheck”. It is “invest in us and we’ll invest in you”. The more progressive workplaces are now seen as places where we can continue to develop, learn and grow as individuals while we contribute our talents and energy.

I’ve been thinking about this as I watch my kids and their schoolmates who are developing, learning and growing in elementary school. I coach their cross-country team and I love watching all of them learn a little more about themselves each season. I encourage as many kids as possible to come out and run, as sports is one of the best ways that they learn and grow: they develop confidence, learn how to deal with failure, start to develop resilience and appreciate the benefits of teamwork and cheering each other on. Many of the kids who come out to our running club don’t participate in other sports, but they do this one because we’ve made it the cultural norm. They get t-shirts, they are celebrated, and most of their friends do it (that’s why my own kids take part!) The barrier to entry is very low, and the learning experience is very high.

Kids learning and growing together

So back to the workplace: if we want individuals to continue to develop and learn and grow to their full potential, physical education in the workplace should not be ignored. I am very grateful to have worked at a company which valued this during my early years in the workforce. I was employed by the sportswear company adidas, and as you might expect, the culture was stereotypically one which valued sport and the participation in sport. Everyone was encouraged to play, train, run, sweat. No one ever had to make an excuse to leave work to get to the ice to play hockey or “sneak out” at lunch for a run. It was encouraged and expected, from the top down. The in-house gym was never a lonely place. Typically at lunch I would run with my boss, my boss’ boss and often the president of the company. When I started in a marketing role I soon learned that my boss, my boss’ boss, and my boss’ boss’ boss (yes, I was fairly low down the totem pole) had all done the Ironman, and it was somewhat expected that I would as well. Some of these people were natural endurance athletes and others were average joe’s who took up the challenge. But it was a culture of getting out there and doing it which was contagious to everyone around. So I signed up, trained for and completed the Ironman, knowing I had the full support and endorsement of my employer. Looking back I realize how rare and special this was. I learned a lot about myself and grew tremendously as an individual because of the athletic opportunities I took with the help of my employer.

If we really want to invest in the education and personal development of people, whether it’s kids at school or employees in an office, we cannot leave out the physical aspect. Some school educators get this better than others, and some workplaces do as well. We don’t all have to do an Ironman, but why not endorse participation a local 5K or 10K? It’s as simple as creating a culture where it’s the norm. Speaking from experience, when your boss’ boss’ boss is going for a run, you do too. And you will very likely learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Adults learning and growing together