I am a runner.
I'm proud to be able to say that, but it hasn't always been true. The meaning of those words have evolved over the course of time. And the word "runner" continues to redefine itself for me, as time goes on.
Twelve years ago, I started running. Back then, I wore a pair of old broken-in sneakers that I also wore for pickup basketball games, hanging out on weekends, and mowing the lawn. I'd don a t-shirt, a pair of shorts, and my New York Yankees cap. And I got out there and hit the ground, running. And like a weekend warrior, I ran.
I started running in response to the persistent invite of two good friends. I've looked up to each of these guys for a long time, as professional colleagues and dear lifelong friends. These are two friends who I still think sometimes know me better than I know myself. Even back in my teaching days, they've always seen qualities in me that I struggled to see. And they saw me as a runner.
But I rarely saw myself the way they did. They saw me as someone who could run, and should run. They knew the physical benefits to running. The mental clarity it brought each of them. They knew the emotional stability and stress relief that came as a result of a surging release of edorphins, the result of taking a long run. They also knew the camaraderie, that accompanied running great distances, with good friends by your side. And, they knew the sense of fulfillment of running against others, running in all kinds of weather, and running against yourself, in pursuit of a personal best.
So for years, I ran. I entered races, so I'd have a reason to stay in shape and on a training schedule. I ditched my yard work footwear for a bona fide pair of running sneakers, and replaced them on a schedule that kept my injuries minimal. I wore clothing that was functional for the kind of running I had gotten into. I wrote down what I ate and the number of miles I had logged, in a notebook. And I ran. And I ran. And I ran.
In 2016, I am proud to say I am still a runner.
The 2016 version of me as a runner is a slower, more methodical, deliberate version of who I was back in my 20's. The 2016 version of me is 15 pounds heavier, has a lower back that aggravates easily and a right foot that aches.
And the 2016 version of me as a runner knows, understands, appreciates, and values something that, for a long time, I overlooked: the importance of stretching.
I think back to those days, and before I got serious about running.
I never ate right. I didn't hydrate properly. I stayed up late and I got up early. I ran too fast and I powered through injuries. I worked. And I worked. And I worked. And I hardly, if ever stretched.
So one day, following the lead of my running partners, I started stretching. At first, I hated every minute of it. It added time to my pre- and post-workout regiment. It made me focus on muscles and muscle groups that required special attention, and in some cases, TLC. It cast a spotlight on areas of weakness. And it presented vulnerabilities that weren't always consistent or predictable.
But now...now that I truly know and accept myself as a runner...I can push myself in ways like never before. And I know when I need to devote more time and attention towards stretching.
I recall my days of long training runs, trekking in the extreme summer heat, brutal winter cold, rain, snow, and wind. Running from my school over the Ponquogue Bridge [photo, right] and back. While those days do occur in less frequent bursts than they once did on a regular schedule, they are also not quite entirely behind me.
But I do still wear the old Yankees hat.
I wear it because it reminds me of a time when I didn't see in myself what others saw in me. And it reminds me of a time before I ran, without stretching and then later, after I learned the importance of stretching. And it reminds me that I am responsible to stretch myself now for - for someone else who needs to start stretching, but may not know it yet.
So what does this have to do with leadership? With learning? With setting goals and with deciding on one word to define my purpose in 2016?
It is hard to do. Easy to resist. And convenient to skip over entirely.
It's uncomfortable. It points out your shortcomings. And it reminds you that you are no longer who you once were.
It's something that we all need to do. With greater frequency and with greater attention. It reminds us...we have work to do.
Because when we stretch, we decide to get better. We commit ourselves to making progress.
When we stretch, we resist the urge to go out and do what we do, without forethought or preparation. And without clarity for the outcomes we desire.
When we stretch, we challenge ourselves to invest time in getting to know ourselves better. And we model for others what it means to stretch ourselves past the point of comfort.
Schools need more stretching. Teachers need more reassurance that stretching is supported and encouraged. And our students (and their parents) need to see that members of school communities value stretching. We welcome helping others stretch as much as we do supporting those who decide to do it on their own volition.
2016 will be a year in which I will stretch. I will stretch myself, but will ask others to help me stretch, where they see I need it. I will reach out and ask people from different circles and vantage points to identify for me where I can stretch to help support their work. I will put myself in situations where I can't necessarily see or predict the outcome on my own. And I will seek out trust in others to be able to honestly and with good intentions, offer opportunities for us to stretch...together. And I will serve others by creating safe and supportive conditions where stretching is not a necessarily evil as much as it is an invitation.
Like the invitations I for so long resisted, over a decade ago, to become a runner.