Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tuning Out, Tuning In

There is a movement sweeping road races these days that forces participants to part with an old friend -- one without which many runners think they can't function: their headphones.  More and more race officials are stamping their event with this logo, insisting that any runner caught with headphones will immediately be disqualified.
logo from www.coolrunning.com
To many, this seems harsh.  Even downright cruel.  Message boards abound with comments, such as, "But I ALWAYS run with my iPod!,"  "Um, I'll hit the wall without Bon Jovi," or "This simply isn't fair."

This mindset is understandable.  Music is a huge motivator for many as they face physical and mental challenges.  It is for me.  Little gets me through time on a treadmill better than an adrenaline-fueled playlist.  However, out on the race course, in the real world, it is an entirely different game.

There is something profound that happens during races, at least to those who will let it.  Powerful connections can be made.  Newbies can benefit from veterans, and vice versa.  Moments of struggle can be overcome by a few choice words from a supporter.  Friendships can be made.  And motivation can be permanently enhanced.

Runners who venture out onto a race course with headphones isolate themselves.  As the ear buds go in, so does the focus.  And aside from the safety risk, the chance to connect with everything and everyone around you is greatly diminished.  Old habits of remaining isolated and insular may feel comfortable simply due to familiarity and routine, but there is a huge opportunity cost.  The connections one can make with fellow participants, organizers, volunteers, and spectators are not to be underestimated.

As a runner and a teacher, I can't help but see the parallels in education.  With the start of a new school year on the horizon, we focus.  We warm up, we get pumped, we breathe deeply, we visualize success, we admit that we're simultaneously nervous and excited, and we brace ourselves for the sound of the starting bell.  In this moment of anticipation, the best thing we can do for ourselves and one another is remove any and all barriers that shift our focus entirely inward.  One powerful racing moment illustrates this truth to me like no other.

While running my seventh marathon, I found myself making conversation with a first-timer.  Initially, he called out to me by my bib number.  "Hey... 2002... uh, this may sound weird, but you've been a great 'rabbit.'  I've been pacing you for the last ten miles, and this being my first full, it's been hugely helpful."  I had no idea I was helping anyone in any way with my own running, but inevitably I was pleased.  And I was excited for him.  I knew firsthand that he was in the midst of a life-changing experience.

Around mile 25, my new friend, Ryan, admitted he was struggling.  I saw doubt in his eyes, and I could empathize.  I gave him a warm smile and shifted his focus from his pain.  Having run the course before, I pointed out a landmark ahead of us.  "You see that arch?  We go left there, and as soon we do, the finish line will be in sight.  You'll hear the crowds.  The sound is deafening, and the energy is tangible.  I hope you're ready to feel like a rock star, 'cause you're going to be."  He smiled, but his doubt didn't fully dissipate.  "I just... my legs... they're spent," he said.  "Ryan, I am not going to let you crash.  One foot in front of the other, that's all you have to do.  Step lightly, breathe deeply.  The end is in sight, and I will drag your ass across that finish line if that's what it takes."  Apparently the mental image of my petite frame lugging him down the finisher's chute was enough levity to give him a needed boost.  So, we turned the corner, and that gorgeous red finish line came into view.  Ryan and I shifted into fifth gear and finished strong.  I turned to him to shake his hand and say congratulations, but I barely got two syllables out.  Ryan gave me one of the biggest bear hugs I had ever received.  Those "spent" legs of his managed to lift me off the ground.  I hung there suspended for a few seconds and beamed.  I'll never forget it.  Nor will I forget the image of the watery eyes that he tried unsuccessfully to mask.  Or that expression of doubt that was eliminated from his face.  We, two perfect strangers, reached a goal that was enhanced by the simple fact that we connected.

Had my headphones been on, I'm quite sure that connection and shared accomplishment simply wouldn't have happened.

So many participants in the journey of learning are used to an insular experience; they fear, doubt, or simply lack awareness of the potential of connecting with others.  Anyone who has grasped the benefits of a Personal Learning Network (PLN), though, will attest to the exhilaration and reward of tuning out in order to tune it.  Whether you're aware of it or not, your actions may serve as inspiration to others.  A needed boost or dose of wisdom and perspective may be right there for the taking.  It's our choice whether we leverage this or not.

Newbies and veterans alike: it's time to take the headphones off.  Speak out, share, inquire, inspire, challenge, support, and cheer.  The journey will be so much better for all of us because of it.


  1. I am convinced....train with, race without....go it!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Clint! Hope your racing is going well, and best of luck with the start of the school year. :)

  3. Well written Sarah. You've articulated some profound thoughts on the power of connections with those around us. Connections lead to relationships and relationships are the basis of trust and respect. This has tremendous implications for the classroom - thank you!

  4. Interesting how this reminds me of a battle where I work. I teach at a gr. 7,8,9 Middle School, and we have a tradition of climbing the mountain that is the namesake of of school. It's 19km, and while most kids walk it, there are always a dozen or so who run it, with and eye to beating the school record (of just over an hour). Every year, the "no iPods in school" rule gets challenged on the mountain run. Those in favour of banning music say what you have iterated here-- the kids are supposed to be building community, and they can't do that if they are plugged in.

  5. what a great story. thank you for sharing.

  6. Great post Sarah! You point out how important it is for us never to close ourselves off from potential conversations. If we don't allow ourselves the opportunity to hear something, we'll never engage in conversation. I think this lesson can be applied to so many situations in education. Listening to students, colleagues and parents only helps to connect us and broaden our perspectives. Listening and sharing with a PLN..simply put, it's a shame more people don't do it! Thanks for sharing your story!

  7. Thank you for sharing this great story!