The race. The lesson.

The Twin Cities Marathon takes place annually typically in October and has been described as “America’s most beautiful urban marathon.”


My wife and I have been privileged to participate for many years in this meticulously organized communitywide celebration. Every detail has been rehearsed and nothing is left to chance. As our lives unfold, many of us regardless of our profession try to learn from these experiences. We humans are hard-wired to improve.


This year’s magnificent fall weekend was especially significant because there was a general feeling that COVID is over, but that assumption obviously is open to debate. Nevertheless, the number of participants and the crowd support was universal and for at least just one weekend, there was the hope that none of us would get infected.


But let me set the stage for an incredible lesson.


The race begins in downtown Minneapolis and finishes at the state capital in Saint Paul. Many runners stay in downtown hotels in Saint Paul or nearby communities, and then an armada of buses brings the runners to the start in Minneapolis. It is an incredibly efficient procedure, which has been well worked out over many years.


Many of us would walk several blocks in the cold predawn darkness to get onto the buses. During this process there is a festive, Mardi Gras–like environment. Most of the participants are totally wired with ear buds, cell phones, and other electronic gimmicks and gadgets. This was a reunion with lots of hugs, high-fives, and the customary nervous chatter before an event.


But not for everyone.


As we walked to the buses, I noted another group of participants. These were the elite world-class distance runners primarily from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. Kenya has produced some of the greatest world record holders of the marathon on the planet.

There is no real estate at this elevation of about 6,000 feet in the world that has produced such a cadre of distance runners. These runners train at altitude and have been extensively studied. They are overwhelming dominant in distance events, which clearly reflects biological, cultural, physiological, and emotional factors. It is simply not a question of having the right genes. There are multiple factors converging for their greatness.


The elite athletes walked silently in groups of three or four on their way to their buses—no one spoke, no high-fives, no ear buds—in an almost monastic austerity as they silently marched through the chilling wind along the Mississippi River. This trancelike existential “space” insulated them from the carnival-type atmosphere surrounding the other competitors.


For the elites, this was not simply a “race,” but an opportunity to transform their lives and the lives of their family and community. The winner of these races especially those from East Africa receive prize money as well as endorsements and visibility in their communities to transform them into major social and economic engines in their country.


As these runners approached the buses, they were clearly in the zone, totally absorbed in the moment with no distractions that would dilute their focus and their energy.


Bottom line for us mere mortals. When the stakes are high, when there is a recital, an interview, a deposition, a performance, an examination where failure is not an option, and where there is no do-over or second chance, we can take a page from the playbook of these incredible distance runners. Be present, stay in the moment, be totally absorbed in the event.


Throughout our lives, these opportunities present themselves. We either win or go home.


[Peggy and I ran the timed 10-mile leg during this marathon, and she placed 18 out of 65 women in her age group; I placed 4 out of 11 runners in my age group. The rest are getting hip replacements.]



Image from Unsplash.


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