Cross Country, the Teacher: Pain Tolerance as a Valuable Life Skill

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Last weekend I was at the PAC-12 tennis championships in Ojai, CA with my daughter and father where we saw the UCLA men’s team defeat USC. As we watched these incredible student athletes compete, my father asked me the following: “Do you regret the decision to stop playing tennis, Richard? You could perhaps have been one of these college kids competing here if you had stayed with it. Of all sports you had the most talent for tennis.” His comments set me to thinking.

I do not regret that decision. By the age of 12 or so, I had had enough of tennis. For years I had hit tennis ball after tennis ball and was “burnt out.” There is something monotonous about tennis — the back and forth endlessly of forehands and backhands. It tends to reward those with laser focus and the desire to drone on and on doing it again and again. Hitting tennis balls against a wall for hours. I had done plenty of that. Too much, in fact. So I walked away from tennis and did not take it up again for thirty two years.

I am thankful that my father allowed me the “agency” to start and stop a sport as my interest dictated when I was growing up. I left tennis to play football, basketball, baseball, track, cross country, and martial arts. I loved all these activities and learned much from each and every one of them. But I was a jack of all trades, master of none. I never competed in a competitive college sport, or anything close.

But that does not matter, in the long run. Sports are a vehicle to gain habits of mind and body towards success in more important non-athletic endeavors such as career, marriage, parenthood, friendships, etc. Sports by themselves are not terribly important, in my opinion. It is character and the skills sports teach — discipline, perseverance, grace under pressure, focus and commitment — that are important. Learning how to win with humility and lose with grace. To fight and not give up.

In high school the sport I chose was cross country. I look back at this decision as a bit foolish, as I was too big to ever really enjoy much success in it. My career as a competitive runner was watching slighter, smaller, and faster individuals run ahead of me — many of these runners I considered a “life support system for lungs,” very slender young men who did not carry much extra weight as they efficiently ran ahead and away from me. I trained enormously hard to gain modest success in a grueling sport. I was too big for the sport. Why was I not playing basketball? Or tennis?

I chose to go out for the cross country team at Corona del Mar High School because they had a reputation for intensity and training hard. I saw them working out in the mornings before school, as well as in the afternoons after school. My parents talked about how impressive their work ethic was. So, despite having no history running long distances, I joined the team. This decision was perhaps not different from the young man who drifts semi-aimlessley after high school and then joins the Marines Corps to find direction and purpose.

Even with middling race results after extensive and demanding training, I do not regret choosing cross country. I enjoyed being part of a successful team and working for the greater good in dual meets and invitationals. I made good friendships which endure to this day. The habits of discipline and focus directly bled into my school work. It helped to forge my adult character.

What I most appreciate about my time in cross country was what I learned about pain tolerance. My whole adult life has been helped in my ability to see a painful process to the end without wavering or failing. My ability to tolerate pain is high, and I partially credit this to cross country. I ran the Los Angeles marathon twice in college (once hungover), and I passed through the crucible around mile nineteen or so. I had moments of weakness where pain and exhaustion clouded my thinking. But I kept on putting one foot in front of the other and worked through it. I kept my focus on the finish line miles ahead and soon enough my body was crossing it.

It has not been all that different as a classroom teacher. In February and March (the infamous “Farch” part of the school year) I would find myself exhausted, as students and teacher find their patience stretched thin. But I would pace myself, focus on my curriculum, and get through the day. I knew the world would be easier on the other side of Spring Break, and then May and graduation would be soon at hand. I would not waver. Thus it has been for 24 years of classroom teaching. In August I start the race of the academic year with boundless energy and optimism, but that does not last and finally in June I crash-land into the last day of school in complete exhaustion, just like in a marathon.

The same in my marriage. Rough patches could be waited out, and then things would get better. I would show up and try my best, with whatever I had on that day; this takes one a long way towards success, in my opinion. Showing up. Not quitting. Pain tolerance. Endurance. Seeing the race through to the end. The same in parenting. Being present to the exigencies of the moment, and dealing with what life might bring on any certain day. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

And now I am almost 51 years of age. I was 17 the last time I ran a high school cross country race. That was a long time ago. But I never forgot the lessons I learned there.

When I reflect about endurance and pain tolerance, I am not sure this says good things about the way I have chosen to live my life. “You learned how to suffer and endure pain in high school cross country so you could suffer more and endure later in adult life? This is success, Richard?” I ask myself.

Yes!, I am forced to conclude. Or it has been an important part of success. Career and family and marriage have all involved commitment and patience and suffering and endurance, in my experience. To show up everyday. To run from mile one through mile twenty-six, even when parts of the race were no fun at all.

Thank you, cross country.

You have been at times a harsh teacher. Pain, as well as pleasure, have been your special tools. The use of the human mind to plot a course, travel that course, and see it to the end.

Thank you.


One Comment

  • Darren

    Richard- you have just shown me that despite many years of separation between us, differing life paths etc. we share a common bond that was born during those formative years at high school. Eerily familiar situations and realisations in my life since cdm xc you have written about. I’m sure we share many parallels in the way we look at things because of our shared experience. Most people wouldn’t consciously reflect upon the early learns of life and how they can prepare you for “more important” phases like career and marriage. I had a long post-school exploration of pain and suffering that only endurance sports can bring, anecdotes of which I will save for another time. What I’d like to share with you is that I got my first break into corporate employment because an English rugby player (my hiring boss) picked me over another candidate based on my sporting experience. He realised as have you, that if I am disciplined enough to excel at sport then I would be a strong choice to employ based on the potential of great work ethic and ability to be a team player.
    Excellent reflective essay professor and a nice walk down memory lane.
    Cheers mate- Woody