Culture

Lessons from Middle School Cross Country

4 Life lessons all of us should be reminded of emerge when seventh-graders tackle a new running challenge.

We were at the first stop on the Tour de Playgrounds, when Max, chafing at this childish format, asked if he could run around the golf course instead. He was not sure where the golf course was, nor how to get there from here, nor how far that would be. But he is in 7th grade, thus, an elder statesman.

This was to be a long run day for the middle school harriers, 20 game people with a talent for not overthinking. Mostly 6th-graders, a few in 7th. While four or five of the group, including Max, claimed experience with distances up to 7 miles, for the majority, anything over a mile-and-a-half was uncharted territory. I’d mapped out a 4-mile route defined by four playgrounds that served as destinations, rest stops, and distractions. Certainly, it lacked challenge and was an affront to the maturity of some, so I jumped at Max’s request.

I opened up what I estimated to be a 5-mile golf course option to all comers. As everyone was busy considering their immediate future, my description of the route went unheard, but the commandment to stay together must have resonated. Seven takers split off in the direction of the golf course, while the rest of us jogged to the next playground.

In the space of 75 minutes, the middle schoolers ran farther than they ever had before, and at the same time, discovered some of the great overarching truths of running, and life. It was a busy 75 minutes. Here’s some of what we learned. It might be a good refresher if your middle school years are tiny in the rear view mirror.

1. Independence and agency over one’s life is a key to happiness.

This cuts across all ages, but it’s at the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for 11 and 12-year-olds who have spent nearly every living moment under adult supervision. And running can deliver that precious freedom. Whenever possible, I let my people decide how many intervals, how far, or where they run.

I’ve been reluctant to let them run long on their own though because ours is not a neighborhood school; most students are unfamiliar with the area. Max taking the initiative to suggest a different workout and accepting the cloak of responsibility — that needed to be honored. The golf course group self-selected, they did route-finding, kept pace, stayed together, and urged (“Dude, quit walking”) the stragglers. From the looks of it on their return, there was struggle, on a personal and interpersonal level. They couldn’t have been happier. Knackered, yes, but they owned this huge achievement completely. My contribution was to get out of the way and allow it to happen.

We, post-middle schoolers, are sometimes afraid of having control over our lives because that comes with a lot of responsibility. Unless you’re a pro, running is one slice of your life in which you have almost total control, with little consequence if you fail. You don’t have to do a 7-mile tempo, you get to do a 7-mile tempo. Or not. Run whatever you want, gosh.

2. Be open to an adventure.

Sometimes it’s better if you don’t have all the information up front. Now, there’s a great big caveat here as I think of people airlifted out of the Grand Canyon because they didn’t have sufficient information — how far, how hot, how steep. My hasty risk assessment showed ours was not a Grand Canyon situation.

I did arm them with the information that looping the golf course would be about 5 miles. Meaningless, even if they were listening. If you have never run 5 miles, you don’t know what that means, in terms of its effect on vital organs and shocked muscle cells. The saying ignorance is bliss springs to mind. What was relevant, and ultimately irresistible, was that some of the stronger runners shuffled over to join Max. This, in turn, attracted some innocents who, I knew, were out of their depth. Their friends were going, the coach was not. They’d be out in the world, real athletes, conquering vast distances and parts unknown. The seven jogged away laughing and chattering, unencumbered by knowledge. They came back wiser. And sweatier. Between gasps, they managed to relay all the details — how they got lost, how far, how epic it was.

Grownups know how to get to the golf course and how far that is. In fact, thanks to smart watches, we’re almost completely insulated from unknowns, and adventure. I’m not suggesting heading into the Grand Canyon in flip-flops, but maybe a 5-mile route you haven’t done before, without the watch. Or a new trail where you may miss a turn, get lost, go an extra mile — or 6 — and come back with a story.

middle school cross country
Photo: 101 Degrees West

3. Some people, especially girl people, under-estimate themselves.

…And some people, especially boy people, over-estimate themselves.

You know those many studies about how girls — who are frequently warned to be careful — hang back in the face of risk, and boys — whose risk taking is considered natural — go forward? That played out to a T. It was eye-opening. In the two seconds they had to decide whether to go for the riskier 5-mile run or stay with the coach on a safer 4-mile route, boys with less ability opted in, and girls with more ability, hung back.

Later, I spoke with those girls. They agreed, they probably could have handled the golf course run. Peers played a big role here. Boys took the risk partly because their friends did, and on the flip side, the girls didn’t go because their friends didn’t go. Next time, the girls said, they’d be more adventurous.

While there are a lot of years and miles between the playground and the boardroom, the dynamic is much the same. The status quo needs a nudge. People who consistently take the safe, less challenging way need a nudge.

4. Big things are easier when broken down into small things.

That was the strategy ultrarunning legend Lizzy Hawker told me she used to get through the brutal 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. An unknown who’d never tackled anything remotely as difficult, Hawker’s initial goal was to make it to the first aid station. When she got there, she set her sights on the next one.

Focusing on small achievable goals is scalable for medical school, or parenting, or covering 4 miles when that’s 3 miles further than you’ve ever run. We weren’t slogging 4 long miles; we were running ¾ of a mile to the first playground, and a mile to the next, and the next, with four minutes at each destination to explore, climb, swing, bounce. We were all, coach and middle schoolers alike, astounded to have notched the longest run ever with little to no knuckle dragging.

That’s just some of the big ones. But here I am, chewing ideas to death. Rest assured, the middle school gladiators left all weighty truisms behind at the school, along with their jackets and water bottles.

Which is, itself, another truth: Epic run, done. Chipotle, not yet done. Move on.