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39.3 Powerful Teaching Tips Inspired by Running a Marathon (and a Half) with a Broken Foot

Hi folks! John here. And I should probably start today’s post with a disclaimer:

What follows here is neither intended to serve as medical advice nor is it presented as anything close to resembling what one might call “a smart idea.” So if you’re a teacher or a runner who is stumbling onto this blog thanks to a handy Google search (hi, by the way!) — please take this entry in the spirit in which it is intended. The stories shared below are merely a lens into one educator’s personal account of a number of bite sized successes on the heels of one pretty major failure. And as a working classroom teacher, I am a firm believer that inspiration really can come from just about anywhere — so I think there is a ton that most anyone can learn from both.

Ok — on with the show!

Paying it Forward

Every January, my family makes an annual trek down to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Truth be told, I guess you could say we are one of those “Disney families,” but the real reason we make the trip is in honor of my Aunt Judi, the founder of an educational software company who’s spent the better part of the last four decades helping struggling students learn how to read. She is a warrior, a philanthropist, and truly a phenomenal human being in her own right, who has dedicated her life to the service and support of students with learning disabilities (including kids with dyslexia like me!). But in 2010, my Aunt Judi was diagnosed with breast cancer, and our family was devastated.

How do you pay tribute to someone who’s done so much for so many? (Because let’s be honest, when you’re trying to find the perfect way to honor the CEO of a software company, cards and flowers kind of fall short.)

Answer: You convince your entire family to run a marathon.

A little over a decade later, my family has made the Disney Marathon Weekend a permanent annual fixture in our January itinerary. Each year, members of my extended family (moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and cousins) make the trip down to Orlando to take part in the events surrounding the annual Walt Disney World Marathon—the largest weekend running festival in the country, with proceeds benefiting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I‘ve personally competed in a dozen marathon races. And some of my youngest second cousins, and older aunts and uncles have joined in the fun — with many starting out by running the “Mickey Mile” or the Family 5K. The more “goofy” among us twenty- and thirty-somethings typically run some combination of the 10K, the half marathon, the full marathon, a two-day combo race, or the full slate of events for just under fifty miles in four days and the right to call yourself a proud owner of the coveted “Dopey Challenge” medal. 

And most importantly of all: my Aunt Judi’s cancer is in complete remission.

As Walt Disney himself once said: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

In a funny case of life imitating art, this story became the inspiration for a collection of other imaginatively Disney-inspired teaching tips that were compiled within the pages of EDrenaline Rush, my first book.

If you’ve enjoyed that book (thank you, by the way!), it might help to think of this blog post is the sequel.

It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt

This past June, I decided to sign up for a church softball team to keep myself busy as we made our way out of the school year and into the summer. And while I’ve never been particularly great at team sports, I’m a sucker for just about any form of social event that gives me the chance to join in the fun of playing all sorts of games (which is very on brand for EMC² Learning). Like I said in the introduction to this entry — inspiration really can come from anywhere! And there is incredible value in learning from sports, games, and events that challenge players to perform at their mental and physical best — both individually and when working in teams. If nothing else, at least being a part of the softball team would keep me up and about through the season, right?

Wrong.

In the first game of the summer, I was playing second base when a batted ground ball came skidding directly my way for what should have been a pretty easy out with a short throw to first base. But when I squatted down to scoop the ball up, I felt my right foot explode with what I can only describe as the single worst pain of my entire life. Turns out I’d planted my sneaker in the grass in *justthewrongway* and my right foot stayed put while the rest of my body went sideways. CRASH! I’ll spare you the gory details, but I broke my foot so badly that they needed to schedule surgery to fuse my fifth metatarsal back together by inserting a permanent steel plate with four screws.

For a runner like myself, losing even a day or two can be a real blow to your ego (and mental health!). But my injury was so severe that I spent the next month on crutches followed by another four weeks in a walking boot. Practically unable to move for the entire month of July, I averaged fewer than 1,000 steps per day and packed on 20 pounds. And once I got the go-ahead to resume anything resembling even the lightest of exercise by getting back on the exercise bike in August, it was a full four months of physical therapy learning how to walk without a limp.

As it turns out, that was only the start of the ordeal.

The absolute worst news arrived on September 13 when my third doctor (of five) told me in no uncertain terms: “marathons are a very bad idea. You should never run again.”

If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It

With less than four months to go before the 2023 Disney Marathon, I received a pretty devastating bit of news and was left with one of two options.

1. Accept the prognosis that I would never run again and hang up my running shoes for good.

2. Get a second opinion. Buy a few new pairs of running shoes to serve as my “Dumbo Feather” of inspiration. And start training — even if it meant doing so at a dramatically slowed pace — for the January races.

Want to guess which option I went for?

The Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend is held annually on the first weekend after New Year’s. The event is one of the largest annual weekend running festivals on the planet. Each year, the race weekend welcomes tens of thousands of runners to compete in a series of events that range from the casual “walk in the park” to the full-blown 26.2 mile trek around the World. And while the Disney Marathon weekend doesn’t quite boast the single-day race capacity of the New York City Marathon (53,000) or the elite qualifying times required for the famed Boston Marathon, it is every bit as full of excitement at every turn.

A half marathon is 13.1 miles. Disney’s Half Marathon is always on the Saturday of the event weekend. 

A full marathon is 26.2 miles. Disney’s Marathon is always on the Sunday of the event weekend.

But if you’re willing to fork over the cost of registration for BOTH events and are able to finish these back-to-back races within the required time frame (all racers must be able to maintain a 16 minute pace per mile), you’ll have successfully logged a total of 39.3 miles in two days. For your troubles, the good people at Disney will happily welcome you into the elite ranks of those athletes bold and dedicated enough have conquered the elusive “Goofy Challenge.”

And since spaces are limited and the races are so popular (somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 runners turn out to compete in one of these two events) registration tends to book up notoriously quickly many months in advance of the actual event. So if you’re planning to run in January, you’ll usually need to be willing to commit (and start training!) by April.

This year, I knew that there was no way I would be able to compete at the same level where I had previously achieved a personal record (as a frame of reference, my marathon PR is a 4:15 — which is just about 9:30 per mile). The injury was just too recent, and the protracted rehab period had completely thrown my entire training plan into a tailspin. Merely attempting a half marathon so soon after the surgery would be challenging enough, but even thinking about stepping up to the starting line for a full marathon the very next morning? That’s beyond Goofy. In November, I’d given myself an unofficial “stress test” with a local Turkey Trot 5K and could barely maintain a pace of 16:05.

Things did not look promising.

39.3 Powerful Teaching Tips I Learned from This Experience

But if my experience with my Aunt Judi’s cancer fight and my family’s shared celebration through the Disney races has taught me anything, it’s that almost all our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them. Yes, the results would be slower than my personal best. But a second (and a third, and a…) opinion and follow-up x-ray from multiple doctors assured me that the hardware in my foot was firmly secure. Without question, I’d have to move a lot slower — but my doctors assured me that the biggest hurdles to prevent me from running were mental, not physical. So the actual risk of causing any permanent damage was, for all intents and purposes, no worse than that of completing the same run before my injury.

Dumbo’s magic feather wasn’t ever really magic to begin with. It merely offered the encouragement he needed to dig down deep and believe that he had the power to fly. And so laced up my shiny new running shoes and spent the next six weeks working my way back up to something resembling race shape. First walking. Then riding the Peloton. Then some light jogging. And eventually, even a few very short runs mixed in there as pain allowed. Finally, I pulled together a quick running costume inspired by one of my favorite Disney characters (Mr. Smee) and headed to Orlando. 

Then it’s off to work we go.

Two days, two races, 39.3 miles, and a combined 9 hours and 45 minutes later, and I’d completed the Goofy Challenge — averaging a pace of right around 14:40 per mile for every single mile along the course. Never once clocking a single mile north of 16 minutes. And even managing to record my single fastest mile time in either race as the very last one of the two-day, 39.3 mile total.

I’ll admit, it sounds ridiculous. But I’m often reminded of one of the most simple and profound motivational messages that I first saw on the back of a fellow racer’s t-shirt when running my first Disney Marathon all those years ago. We’ll call it item “.3” in our list of 39.3 Powerful Teaching Tips I Learned from Running A Marathon (and a Half) With a Broken Foot. I happily share it and the rest of these items below with you in no particular order in hopes that you might be able to find similar inspiration for pushing through whatever obstacles you might run up against in your teaching practice. Whether that’s a Dopey old curriculum that’s in serious need of an overhaul, a Goofy stretch of administrative red tape that is actually getting in the way of letting our students experience the authentic joy of learning, or a Grumpy colleague who can’t quite understand why project based learning makes so much more sense than a traditional seated exam — there really is all sorts of magic waiting around every turn… “if we have the courage to pursue it.”

You’ve got this — now go and get this! And enjoy your run.

.3 “DLF > DNF > DNS.”
In layman’s terms? A “dead last finish” is infinitely greater than “did not finish.” And a “did not finish” is greater than “did not start.” From the outset, I knew I wouldn’t be setting any course records. But the simple act of showing up for myself really did make all of the rest of the magic possible. 

What is one small step you can take to show up for yourself and your students to bring a new bit of instructional magic into your classroom? Even something as small as committing to trying ONE new thing in a given week can set a domino effect in motion that will literally change everything. Not for next semester or next year. Change is funny like that.

The best time to start was yesterday. The second best time is today.

1. It’s Kind of Fun to Do the Impossible

2. When You Remember Your “WHY,” It’s Much Easier to Make Your Way

3. Technology is Magic (I Texted These Ideas to Myself with my Apple Watch While On the Run!)

3. Rough Drafts Are Perfectly Acceptable

4. People Run A Whole Lot Faster When Folks Are Cheering Them On

5. Don’t Be a Hero. It’s OK to Ask For Help

6. If You’re Running With a Friend, It Is Perfectly Acceptable To Ask Them to Slow Down

7. Measuring Progress in Tenths of a Mile Is Much Harder Than Measuring Progress in Hundredths

8. “19 Miles Left to Go” Feels a Heck of a Lot Shorter Than 20 Miles Left to Go

9. The Human Brain is Hard-Wired for Stories

10. Walk Up Hills So You Can Run Down Them

11. Clock Eyes Will Kill You

12. Everybody Needs a Stretch Break Every Now and Then

13. Silly Costumes Can Be a Great Distraction

14. It’s Much Easier to Get Through It if You Focus Only on What’s In Front Of You

15. Listen to Your Body

16. A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down (No Seriously. Sport Beans are AMAZING!)

17. Work Smarter, Not Harder (Asphalt is So Much Softer Than Concrete!)

18. Racking Up “Quick Wins” — No Matter How Small — Can Help You Build Incredible Momentum

19. It Feels Great When Someone Cheers for You By Name

20. Spectators Elevate Performance. Without Them, You’re Just a Nut Running Down The Road

21. Don’t Run The Marathon. Run This Mile.

22. Divide Your Race Into Three Parts: Run them with Your Head, Your Personality, and Your Heart

23. When a Person is Captivated, They Don’t Need to Be Held Captive

24. Stay Grateful. Remember That Your Floor Is Someone Else’s Ceiling.

25. Ask Yourself If You Have More To Give Without Hurting Yourself. The Answer is Usually Yes.

26. Plan Your Race, Then Race Your Plan

27. Remember That It’s Called a Race (or Lesson) PLAN — Not a Race (or Lesson) Script

28. Enjoy Every Step of the Journey. Nobody Is Forcing You To Do This.

29. Dedicating a Mile (or a Lesson Plan) to Someone Special To You Can Change Everything

30. Color Coding Can Be a Huge Time Saver (Water Cups in White, Powerade in Blue!)

31. Clear and Regular Signage Really Helps Reduce Cognitive Demand

32. Consistency is Everything. It’s Ok to Miss Once. Just Don’t Miss Two in a Row.

33. An Unexpected Surprise Can Go a Long Way

34. Resist The Urge to Zone Out. Stay Present!

35. There’s Magic in Every Mile.

36. Don’t Compare Against Other People. Compete Against Yourself.

37. Most of the Biggest Obstacles in Life are Mental, Not Physical

38. Remember The Pain is Temporary, and Happiness is Almost Always a Choice

39. Save Enough Gas in the Tank to Finish Strong and Smiling

EMC² Learning is home to more than 500 fully editable resources for any course or content area. Engagement Engineers and members of the Creative Corps enjoy a full year of access to each of these resources on demand. We hope you’ll consider joining us to unlock a full year of site access. For complete details including our exclusive limited time offer for annual site membership, click here.

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