Choosing the Education
by Mike Tymn
Master the marathon or master the business world? I had to make a choice, one that could significantly impact the rest of my life.
It had become increasingly clear to me that I could not master the marathon and continue to pursue a Master of Business Administration degree at the same time. After family and full-time job responsibilities, there just wasn’t enough time in the day to do both.
To fully master the marathon, I felt I needed at least two hours a day, sometimes as much as three. In terms of planning and scheduling, the marathon demanded more than those 2-3 hours as I had to juggle and temper my other daily activities in order to optimize my training sessions.
Something had to give. I had to make a decision—either give up my pursuit of a MBA degree, already half completed, or forsake the marathon.
Now, 30 years later, I am reasonably certain I made the right decision when I chose to fully matriculate in the marathon. In fact, I believe the education derived from the marathon far exceeded what I might have obtained from even a Ph.D.
Whether I am financially poorer for having made that decision, I’ll never know. However, I’ve always considered making memories more important than making money, and in those terms I am now rich.
The marathon is much more than a competitive sporting event or a goal in a fitness regimen. It is both a teacher and a learning experience. The lessons are not so much in the realm of sport as they are in the broader spectrum of life. As I see it, the qualities that make for a good spouse, a good parent, a good friend, a good citizen—or a good employee—can be gleaned from distance running, especially the marathon.
The marathon curriculum begins with courses in anatomy, physiology and medicine. We learn about such things as cardiovascular endurance, anaerobic threshold, oxygen debt, target heart rate, maximal oxygen uptake, athletic heart syndrome, plantar fasciitis, chondromalacia, Achilles tendinitis, pronation, supination, to name just a few.
The curriculum continues with courses in physical education, as we are schooled in the principles of adaptation, overload, specificity of training, progression, recovery, and rest. We are exposed to interval training, fartlek, long-slow distance training, circuit training, cross-training, weight training, stretching, tapering, pacing, peaking and overtraining. We learn about diet and nutrition, finding out what to eat and what not to eat. We are introduced to carbohydrate loading, electrolyte replacement, and proper hydration.
The marathon curriculum includes lessons in psychology, as we must better understand how to deal with problems in goal setting, self-motivation, mood swings, errors of anticipation, regression under stress, and fear of failure. We learn about such things as mental rehearsal, visualization, and self-reward reinforcement.
There are important lessons in planning, time management, and conflict resolution, especially for the runner who is attempting to balance family and occupational responsibilities with the demands of training.
I see the marathon as a microcosmic lesson in life. We learn to commit ourselves to a goal, to discipline ourselves to the demands of that goal, to develop, adapt and evolve, to pace ourselves for both the short and the long haul, to cruise, to struggle, to overcome, to struggle again, to push on, to slowly “die,” (as oxygen is depleted), then to be “reborn” (as we cross the finish line).
There are so many lessons.
We learn that we can work a lot harder than we had ever realized possible, but we also learn that we can work too hard and set ourselves back.
We learn that we can start off too fast and never finish, and we can go out too slow and never catch up.
We learn that winning or achieving our goals can be fun and fulfilling, but we also learn that winning can bring unwanted pressures and harmful stresses.
We learn that being a good loser is better than being a poor winner.
We learn that our fiercest rivals can be our best friends.
We learn that success can instill pride, but it can also bring an abundance of humility.
We learn that we can get slower with age but faster with adaptation and experience.
We learn that there are a lot of contradictions in running, just as there are in life, and the key is a balance mixed with just the right amount of patience, persistence and perseverance.
More than anything, marathoning is a course in philosophy, an attempt to answer the essential questions of life. To what end? At what price? Many non-runners ask. They see the marathon as some kind of masochistic undertaking, one in which the body is abused and tortured for no good reason. They wonder why the marathoner is not home, relaxing in front of a TV set and munching on junk food like normal, sensible people. Why not make use of the time to pursue an MBA?
That which escapes those who have not experienced the marathon is the interplay between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. As the discomfort and stress mount during the 26.2-mile challenge, the runner is apt to begin a dialogue with his or her higher self. The lower self, governed by the physical, by matter, will begin to agree with his puzzled friends. “What is the point of this ridiculous pursuit?” the lower self asks. “Think of the relief that can be yours if you stop right now,” the lower self tempts.
The higher self, governed by the spirit, tries to convince the lower self that it is a worthwhile effort, that it should not yield, should not surrender. “Come on, what’s a little discomfort, it’ll all be over in a few miles,” the higher self may argue.
At some point during the dialogue, the mind takes on the role of mediator between the body and the spirit. It weighs the immediate and short-term physical gains associated with surrendering—rest, relief and comfort—against the long-term mental, emotional and spiritual gains—knowledge, achievement, self-confidence, self-esteem, truth, courage, liberation. Quitting, or even backing off to a much slower pace, means victory for the flesh and defeat for the spirit. But in the well-conditioned runner the spirit is king, the body or lower self is a mere servant.
It is this spirit that gives running and other sports their meaning and true character. “If I had to give one single reason for my love of sports it would be this: I love the tests of the human spirit,” writes philosopher Michael Novak in The Joy of Sports. “I love to see defeated teams refuse to die. I love to see impossible odds confronted. I love to see impossible dares accepted…I love to see the heart that refuses to give in, refuses to panic, seizes opportunity, slips through defenses, exerts itself beyond capacity, forges momentarily of its bodily habitat an instrument of perfect will.”
As any experienced distance runner knows, such a bodily habitat is not simply a product of genes and good fortune. True, some come into the world better designed than others; some grow up in an environment more appropriate for mental conditioning; some have more freedom and, concomitantly, more opportunity than others, but no person escapes the need to mold the body to the demands of the marathon challenge through long and arduous training. It usually takes 5 to 10 years of such training for the runner to fully adapt to the rigors of the sport.
In a world where athletes get rich, it is often difficult to tell which ones are driven by ego, false pride, and riches and which are driven by inner longings, by the desire to learn truths that are unavailable without some physical suffering, to achieve higher consciousness, for attunement of the soul.
No doubt there is a mix of outer and inner motivation among many champion athletes, including distance runners, but the sport of distance running is different than most popular sports in that it is not limited to the elite, to the champions. It is open to the masses. So many do not have the time or the ability to win cash prizes or even age-division awards. Many are initially motivated by the health and fitness benefits, or a charity cause, but sooner or later come to realize that there are inner rewards. Whether they realize it or not, they are searching for the latent spirit within themselves. They are looking for the qualities of the soul to continue to grow, to unfold, to develop.
The dedicated marathoner knows, at least subconsciously, that the soul comes into its own when it is confronted with a challenge, when there are difficulties, hardships, obstacles, frustrations, heartaches and pain that cannot be shared with the outside world. The marathoner may not like the adversity as it is being encountered, but he or she can look back and be thankful for the opportunity to experience and grow.
Yes, distance running, especially the marathon, requires much more than a well-conditioned body. It demands harmony of body, mind, emotion and spirit—a harmony that provides transcendence from the mundane, the ordinary, the material.
Striving for this harmony is what the sport is all about. They don’t hand out degrees for it, but it’s something that you don’t get in a master’s or Ph.D. curriculum.