This past weekend, I did something to remind myself that I am no longer a teenager. Or even in my twenties or thirties. I took advantage of some long-overdue spring weather and instead of hopping in the car to go to the gym, I hit the road for a nice run instead.
It started out well enough. Thanks to a regular workout routine this past year, my heart and lungs and even leg muscles are in decent shape, and the sensation of moving briskly down roads I drive on every day, breathing in the fresh air, was exhilarating. But then about fifteen minutes in, my right knee started to ache, and I remembered why I’ve grown to tolerate the tedium of the impact-free elliptical machine at the gym. By the end of the run, half an hour later, my knee was throbbing, and was stiff for the next few days.
Still, it was totally worth it. If only to remind myself what the experience of road running feels like before I sat down to wrap up this two-parter about my time on the cross country team in high school. The process of actually doing something you used to do is often the most effective way to call up those memories and bring them back to life vividly in your mind, as if they just happened yesterday.
In the first article, I reminisced about my first year on the team: being grudgingly recruited by the coach, running a mile for the first time, getting to the point where I could race for three miles without throwing up, and making the junior varsity squad.
By the start of year two, I was far better prepared for what was ahead of me. While I won’t go so far to as to claim that I spent the entire summer running, I did get an earlier start on it, and pushed myself much harder than I had the year before. One day in August, I ran 3.5 miles to the next town down the road, just to see if I could. As it turned out, the answer was yes … and then I realized I had to run all the way back as well. After that, I made a point of planning out my courses in advance.
The extra effort paid off when practices started in September and I made the varsity squad. At the bottom of the totem pole, of course, but at least I was on the totem pole. And me even caring about this at the time goes to show how much being on the team had already changed me. After all, I was a comics reading, computer programming, D&D playing bookworm of the highest order. What did I care about being on the varsity squad? Quite a bit, apparently.
During my time as a varsity runner, I would eventually climb all the way up to … third on the team. I would never be the fastest runner. That spot would be held by a boy two years younger than me who I suspect, but can’t prove it, was genetically engineered for long-distance running. I would never be the second fastest either. That was my friend who later went on to join the Marines, and so really, what chance did I have?
No, I was what Coach Demyon generously called “The Anchor.” It’s a term used to describe the third leg in a relay race. And while this wasn’t that, he explained to me once that no matter how well our two strongest runners did in any given race, if I didn’t place well, then the odds of us scoring low enough to win (it’s like golf) were slim.
So I accepted and embraced my third-ness on the team in the same way that I embraced graduating third in my class. In the same way, I assume, that an Olympic athlete accepts and celebrates a bronze medal. Gladly, and with a smile.
Of course, the only reason there was even room for me on the varsity squad in that second year is because the seniors who had hazed us the season before had graduated and moved on. The result, to borrow a phrase from the elder George Bush from the 80s, was a “kinder, gentler” cross country team. One that focused on supporting and mentoring new runners rather than terrorizing and teasing them. One that followed the coach’s example of seeing potential in a newbie and nurturing it.
Leadership through kindness ultimately paid off for us. My first year on the team, we were one of the most losing-est teams in the district. Which wasn’t surprising, considering that we were also the smallest school by far. Yet in my senior year, we actually won as many races as we lost. Which is to say, we broke even.
Now, that probably sounds like a ridiculous thing to boast about, but for us it was a huge accomplishment. It validated everything we had done to foster teamwork and morale over the past few years. Whether that meant looping back during long practices on back roads to scoop up the slowest runners … or waiting at the finish line of a race to cheer on every single member of the team no matter how long it took them to get there. In short, we had embraced and acted on the philosophy that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link. And had reaped the rewards of our actions and intentions.
Another reward of being part of the cross country team started during my third year (I think), when Coach Demyon successfully petitioned the administration to let us run the school store, so we could earn money to buy new uniforms.
When I say “store,” it’s important to understand that I’m referring to what was really kind of a big closet. You could only fit a few people in there before things got too tight to move. So we made a schedule, and team members would work the store during their study halls, selling things students always needed more of, like pencils, pens, erasers, white-out, index cards, notebook paper, and folders. We were also the only game in town when it came to buying official school t-shirts and sweatshirts. Over time, we expanded our offerings to coffee, tea, and even candy bars.
All in all, the enterprise grew to be rather lucrative, by high school standards, and reminded me of the old days of making money with The Club. To his credit, the coach held us accountable for everything, from keeping the store clean to managing the inventory to counting the money at the start and end of every shift. But it was a lot of fun too, and I fondly remember the hours spent working in that big closet, listening to Men at Work, joking with my friends, and getting absolutely no studying done at all.
It proved to be one more in a string of gifts that Coach Demyon had given me, starting with that day in eighth grade when he’d slapped a hand on my shoulder and told me I’d be joining his team. Not surprisingly, for years after we graduated high school, many of us would continue to visit him not only at the high school, but also at his home. We would drop by with chips and desserts bought at the local Wawa to regale him with our latest adventures, play board games, or talk politics. And as far as we could tell, he and his wife were always happy to see us.
As with my first year on the high school cross country team, the last three taught me several more lessons about life and business that I’ve continued to carry with me in the decades since. The first is one that I wouldn’t have remembered at all if I hadn’t ventured out on my run this past weekend, and a crucial one …
Every single step is a decision.
When you’re on an elliptical machine, or even a treadmill, it’s easy to lose track of how important each individual step is. But when you go out running on a road or through some woods, you remember. It’s not just a matter of how fast your pace is or how long your stride is, but also where each footfall is going to land.
Unlike the gym, the real world is chock full of stones and cracks and potholes and curbs and cars and bicycles and uneven surfaces and tree roots and phone poles in the middles of sidewalks and people walking their dogs and a hundred other unpredictable things that, if not accounted for, could result in a twisted or sprained ankle. For a runner, keeping track of the conditions of the trail ahead and making smart choices is critical.
And so it also goes for business. Every step matters. Every step along the way is a decision to be made, no matter how seemingly small. What wording do I use for my LinkedIn headline and profile? Which social media platforms should I be posting to? How many times a week should I post? What should I post? How many hours should I spend doing outreach? What should I charge for my services? Should I spend the money to start a podcast?
It all adds up, and sometimes it’s hard to shake the feeling that one misstep could result in a nasty crunch that means your ankle has betrayed you.
Not being #1 is okay.
The character on the original Star Trek show that I most associate with is Scotty. Not Kirk, who’s the leader, and not Spock, who’s the brains of the operation, but Scotty, the engineer, who also happens to be third in the chain of command on the Enterprise. Scotty is the anchor — the one who keeps the ship running and makes the magic happen after Spock offers his analysis and Kirk gives an order.
I was okay with not being the top runner on our team, and I’m generally okay with not being the top of anything. I won’t rule out being the CEO or president of a company someday, but if that never happens, I’m okay with it, so long as I feel as if I’m being useful and adding value to whatever it is I’m involved with, the way Scotty did.
I don’t even need my solo business to be the top business. I only need it to be the best business I can run, and to be the best one for my clients. My success isn’t defined by whether I’m on top — only by whether my clients are happy with and seeing results from the service I’m offering them. Let somebody else use up all of their energy trying to take the top of the hill and remain king of it. That’s not me.
Leadership through kindness pays off.
Inspired by the example of Coach Demyon — and not at all by the example of the seniors from year one — I learned during my time in cross country how to guide and mentor others through support and kindness. Just because, as stated in the first article, we are all competing with ourselves, it’s no reason not to help each other through that struggle if we can.
In cross country, that help often came in the form of something as simple as running alongside somebody when it was clear that their brain was trying to talk them out of taking another step. Or being there at the finish line to cheer them on, hand them a cup of water, pat them on the back, and make sure they knew how much progress they’d made.
In business, it can mean something as simple as “running alongside” a coworker or even another entrepreneur to offer support when they’re trying to talk themselves out of taking another step. Or being there at the finish line to cheer them on whenever they reach new milestones, achieve their goals, or land new clients. Making sure they know how much progress they’ve made.
The end result is a stronger you, a stronger them, and a stronger chain.
For the record, despite the complaints of my knee this weekend, I don’t intend to let it stop me from running. One of my goals for the year ahead is to compete in a 5K race, which is something I haven’t done in almost a decade. If I don’t try to overdo it as much as I did the other day, strengthen my knee a bit, and work myself up, I can pull it off.
I may no longer be a teenager, but I can still take some inspiration from the closing lines of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” which is one of my favorites …
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.