Lessons From A Marathon Runner

By Rev. Troy Jackson

Last week, I ran my third marathon in three years- which, in my opinion, is enough races to give myself the title of “marathoner.” To train to run is one thing, but to actually hear the crowd cheering, to feel the adrenaline rush coupled with sweat, blisters, and muscle tension, and to finally cross that line in order to receive my medal and Mylar blanket are quite another.

You might wonder, “Is it worth it to push yourself so hard, to keep showing up every day in the rain, the cold, and the wind? Is it worth it to ask your family and friends for support when you’re not even sure you’ll be able to make it?” Not only is it worth it, but the change you feel both in and out, mentally, physically, and spiritually, is not unlike community organizing.

During the training process for this endeavor, I learned a few things about not only myself, but about how the strategies of training for a marathon can be directly applied to organizing. Here are my seven takeaways:

I am a driven person. This is probably no surprise to those who know me well. I am competitive, I like to be challenged, and I like clarity on what my next big personal challenge is. In the absence of challenges or big goals, I get bored and drift. Perhaps that is why peaks are so key for how I think of organizing—I need peaks to motivate myself and to focus my work. Certainly putting a date on the calendar four months out that involves running 26.2 miles is a pretty major peak! Great organizers must be driven people.

I can persevere. Difficulties, challenges, and pain do not knock me down. When I ran my first marathon I started to hurt—really hurt, at around mile 15. I was on a 10 minute per mile pace for the first 15 miles, and I ended with an 11 minute, 10 second pace (for those doing math at home that means I was well running at about 12 minute 30 second pace the last 11 miles). Why? My legs were cramped and aching the entire last 11 miles. Near the end my Achilles started locking up. I had a major sore on the top of my foot that left me with a very bloody sock—and I didn’t even feel the sore on my foot after mile 10 or so. And I kept going. I didn’t stop except for 10 seconds to try to adjust my sock when my Achilles started hurting. I am able to keep going and to persevere. And organizing is very hard. When it gets hard and challenging, we cannot give up. We must keep going. Great organizers must persevere.

I paid for shortcuts in my training plan. When preparing for my first race, I missed a few too many runs along the way. While going from 4 runs a week to 3 may not seem like a big deal, those missed runs (and miles) made me less prepared for the marathon. Likewise, I took advantage of no walking signs when running around Cincinnati to catch my breath—these little respites, while fine when I’m running to stay in shape and get exercise, are not conducive to real training. I’ve also used the side bars on treadmills far too often, which did not prepare me well for the challenge of a marathon. We pay for shortcuts in organizing sooner or later.

There is a difference between exercise activity and training. The self-discipline demanded when in training is at another level. The goals are different, and there is real accountability and testing when training. The time and ability to complete a future task is paramount when training. I wonder how much of our struggle with this thing called organizing is because we do organizing activity without the rigor and discipline of training with clarity around what we are training for. A buzz of activity is not organizing.

Peaks demand meticulous planning and rigor. During training, I took time to map out which days I would run and how many miles I planned to run that particular day. I mapped four months out in advance. And I probably completed 85% of the runs I mapped out, and I did all the long runs. In organizing, I and we need to map out the key steps to peaks and deliverables with as much intentionality as I mapped out my weekly running plans. Great organizing has a weekly path toward a peak.

After a peak, rest and recuperation are vital. I am not going to run until Thursday at the earliest, and perhaps not until next weekend. And I’m not going to run hard for at least a few weeks. Everything I read says that trying to do too much too soon after a marathon is a sure-fire way to get hurt. Yet in organizing, we do this all the time. We stack marathons on top of each other. Our peaks are less meaningful, we have peaks that nobody is truly owning, and we fry. I will probably try to run another marathon, but not in 2019! Yet we try this all the time in organizing. Great organizing demands protecting time after peaks for reflection and leader development, not to immediately ramp up for the next peak.

I enjoyed the marathon journey! I had a lot of fun preparing for the marathon, running portions of the marathon (the early portions), and finishing was a very emotional moment. I wept as I finished, in part because the pain became even greater when I stopped running, but mostly because of what I had accomplished. I was proud of what I had done, and so grateful that I made it through without a major injury or setback.

I can remember my dad, who was a great runner in high school and ran a 4:30 mile at Ball State, saying to my uncle when I was a teenager that he wanted to run a marathon. He was not in shape to do it, and my uncle immediately said, “you can’t run a marathon.” I think the hope in my dad ended at that point. I felt like yesterday I fulfilled a dream my father had for decades. It was great calling and talking to him yesterday afternoon, and sharing this accomplishment with him.

It was excruciatingly difficult, and if it isn’t fun and rewarding, it is simply not worth doing. Great organizing is fun, meaningful, and rewarding.