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Monday, May 2, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Dig Down, Tunnel Deep

I ran the Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon yesterday morning. Yes, I finished, and I was pleased with my efforts, especially in the last 5 miles, which can be the hardest part of the experience. As I ran the course I thought about the important lessons I learned from the race that I wanted to share with you.

As in life, running a race is filled with high and low points, and not just due to varying terrain. There are times when I need to dig down and pull up more "stuff" to see me through the next hard section. The race course had some hills. I could have walked the hilly portions of the course as many participants do, but I have learned that if I walk alone, I will pay for it later in terms of major soreness. No, I need the balance that comes between experiencing hills and downhills. So instead I have learned to dig down and find that extra reservoir of energy and mental toughness that will see me through the next section of work.

It helps to remind myself of these things:

* These tough patches are temporal. They last a short while. They are not endless. I can suffer through anything for a short time, I tell myself. And so I do.

* I can do it, I have done it before several times, and this is familiar territory. "You can do it, you know you can" is a very useful affirmation in these demanding moments.

* Little steps add up to larger accomplishments. Running a few steps will eventually add up to a larger distance when repeated.

And so I "put my head down" and plow ahead from the starting line to the finish "swine" as the Cincinnati folks like to call the finish line.

Along with the above steps to help see me through the physical and mental effort, I find that I need to go to my special concentration place as well in order to maintain my effort over 13.1 miles. I work on my concentration all the time in my life, not just when I am in training for my running events. I recall in Stephen King's novel "Misery" that he described the writing process as working and writing to a "tunnel." I find that to be an apt description of the place of concentration -- a tunnel of focus. When I asked a seven year old what was her understanding of the meaning of the word "concentration," she told me it was being able to think of something without thinking of anything else at the same time." Brilliant definition.

Notice the child did not say that we think of nothing. No, we think of something to the exclusion of anything else. That is a skill to be developed. Here are some ways to do that. If I find my mind wandering, then as I do with my students, I stop the exercise. I give myself a little break and interrupt my state in some way. Here are some ways to strengthen your concentration:

* 100 Square Exercise: I draw up a square on my computer that has 10 columns and 10 rows. Then I randomly assign the numbers from 1 to 100 in the squares. I make up many of these squares so that the numbers are all different. There may be a computer macro that will do the randomizing for you. Then once a day I take a square and begin by crossing ofF the number 1, then 2, and so on until I have crossed off all the numbers up to 100.

* Look at Me Exercise: I look long and hard at a common object and really notice it. For example, I look at the bottom of my running shoes. I look at the tread, the wear pattern, the debris that might have lodged in the treads, the textures, the layers of material used in its construction, and so forth. When I am in symphony rehearsal, I might take an extended period of non-playing and look really closely at my violin or bow and note the grain, the purfling, the decoration, the wear. You can practice this exercise everywhere and with anything.

* Cross off the Letters Exercise: I read an article in the newspaper and cross off the letter "t" in every place I find it. As you get better at this, try crossing out the letter "f" or some other letters.

We need concentration and focus in many areas of our lives. I need to have a highly developed ability in this area when I practice, and as a teacher I work to develop and strengthen my students' skills in this area as well. Multi-tasking is much touted in the world today, but I believe it is a myth that we can devote our time and attention to more than one thing at a time and do more than an adequate job with either activity. Maybe we can do an "adequate" job, but we would do a much better job and more efficiently, I believe, if we were to devote our full time and attention to the task before us.

Have a happy week!

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