With legs like lead and my lungs burning I got to the end and collapsed in a heap on the front lawn.
Gazing up at the two eagle towers, I fought to catch my breath.
Stonyhurst College is an imposing building. It nestles at the foot of Longridge Fell in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire.
It boasts an even more impressive alumni of which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one. He used the school and fell as the setting for his classic tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
I’d arrived at the school aged 13 and had taken apart in my first cross-country training session. Over the coming weeks I got much fitter and went on to be a decent athlete.
As I look back, I realised I there’s a lot I learned about life.
It’s all about pacing
At some point in the first term my Mum was talking to my coach, Mr Paul Warrilow and asking how I was doing. “He’s doing great,” he said. “He needs to learn to find his own pace though and stop trying to compete with the older lads who are faster.”
In that line lies a lesson it’s taken me many years to learn. Stop trying to run at somebody else’s pace. As Baz Lurhman said in his classic 1999 song ‘Sunscreen’,
“The race is long and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”
One of the faults of the human condition is the need to compare ourselves to others. I call it ‘comparisonitis’. It’s a curse and will make you miserable if you do it.
I know, I’ve done that for the best part of my 48 years While, I am getting better at it I still have days when I slip. I berate myself for not being further ahead. When I say ahead, it’s usually in some metric like net worth, people on my email list, copies of my book sold or claps on my stories.
Not in the things that are important like relationships, kindness, generosity.
Social media can be a force for good. In reality it can be a great cause of misery.
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that assessed 5,208 subjects found that, regular use of Facebook had a negative impact on an individual’s well-being.
We compare our ‘success’ online through likes, comments etc. to others.
My friend and fellow mental toughness expert, Paul Lyons makes the point in his article ‘Why you are your best competition’.
He says, “The only person you should try to be better than; is the person you were yesterday.”
It seems I’m not alone with the pacing problem. Ken Perry is the former CEO of a £100million housing association with more then 1,000 employees.
I asked what he wished he knew when he was a middle manager. He shared this advice with me. “Pace yourself and don’t take yourself too seriously.
“I think sometimes, especially when you are young for senior positions you can lose perspective. I can remember in one of my first management positions putting in long hours. I put myself under so much pressure.”
The senior cross country course at Stonyhurst is called the First Set. Don’t ask me why.
It takes you up to the top of the fell via a golf course and fields, then along the tarmac ridge road. Then it’s back down through a wooden valley and down the long avenue to the front gates. Five miles of perverse enjoyment and pain. Like life.
When you come off the tarmac ridge road you make a left through ‘bog alley’. It’s a narrow piece of land between two dry-stone walls. Even in a drought it’s calf-deep, thick, gloopy mud. And it stinks.
Many a shoe is lost to that mud. You can’t escape it.
And that’s a metaphor for life. It doesn’t matter how fast, how talented you are, you will face a bog alley. You might be flying along a tarmac road right now. The field of runners behind you, wind in your hair and sun in your face.
Enjoy it while it lasts. Then you had better make sure you shoes are on tight. It doesn’t last forever, but without the right mindset it will slow you down.
Sundays could be a bit boring at school. Sometimes, I’d take myself off and run the first set for fun. No competition, no stopwatch keeping score. Just me.
Its amazing how much more you see when you look up. When you slow down even by ten percent. The Forest of Bowland is a beautiful part of the world. Yet during a race I didn’t appreciate it.
My mind is on my burning lungs, watching every foot placement. I’m present but so focused I don’t see much. As soon as one step is made, I’m focused on the next. And the next.
And then it’s the finish. Job done. Race run. Maybe I won. So what?
Don’t let that be your life. Look up, slow down and appreciate the beauty in the journey. Even bog alley.
The front gates signalled the end of the race. In life you don’t know when that race might end. Don’t waste it with your head down.
Beware the short cut
On the junior course about half way through, runners follow the tree lined avenue. Two hundred yards from the front gates, a set of white gates and white metal fence mark the entrance to the school.
Runners break cover from the trees and bear left up to the golf course. There is a gap in the trees, twenty yards before the fence.
I’d always taken that route even in training. Some older boys showed me. It became habit and no-one ever said anything. Until they did.
One race, a parent of a boy from another school saw me take the cut. They complained to our coach. Not unreasonably, I might add. It nearly cost me the race. What saved me in the end was enough people followed me that they would have had to eliminate half the field.
We all love a good hack. A shortcut to the success we crave. I’ve wasted too many years looking for the shortcut. Anything but putting the work in to get the result I wanted.
Running came easily to me. I easily won that race but that one shortcut almost cost me dearly. So don’t look for the shortcut.
Embrace the process. Embrace the suck as Navy Seals say.
The satisfaction from doing it right, from persevering will make victory sweeter. What I’ve learnt over the years, is that for every hack there’s a dead end that slows you down.
No-one ever achieved continued success by short-cutting their way to it.
Don’t waste your life trying.
I’ll leave you with more words of wisdom.
“No one succeeds without effort… Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.”
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