Success by Association

Pip, pap, pip, pap, pip, pap, pip, pap, pip, pap, pip, pap, pip

There was less than two miles left when I first heard it; the metronome-like foot strikes of another runner ticking along somewhere behind me.

Despite some patchy drizzle and persistent cloud cover, I thought it was a subtly beautiful morning in the riverside town of New Bern, North Carolina. And I’d been running alone in it for most of the last hour and a half. I started the race too fast but was still feeling pretty good as I approached the home stretch. And barring any major catastrophe, I was confident that I’d set a new personal best for the half marathon distance.

As I passed the 12 mile marker, those pips and paps were just over my right shoulder and getting louder. “Am I slowing down?” A quick Garmin check showed the opposite. “Do I have enough left in the tank to finish at this pace?” I thought so. “Is now the time to find out?” Hmmmm?

A minute later, I drifted slightly left, and a woman with bright orange compression socks and waterlogged pigtail braids slowly made her way by. When she got 10 or 12 feet ahead of me, I finally decided that it was, in fact, time.

No minute like the last minute, right?

I’m a runner way more than a racer so I had no real intention of trying to pass her. Her pace was steadily increasing. And just keeping up would be more than enough to feel accomplished in my finish and get the PR I’d pretended not to care about.

For the next several minutes, I matched her step for step as she continued to gradually push the pace faster and faster. Approximately half a mile from the finish, we approached an intersection leading back into the center of town; an intersection being manned by the second most energetic volunteer of the whole race.

“Nice stride guys.” She yelled as she wildly waved her arms to direct us around the corner. “You’re almost there. You guys look great!”

“I’m just chasing her” I answered.

“I’m dying” my pigtailed friend shouted as we made the turn.

When the end finally appeared, those orange socks kicked into a full sprint, arms swinging, and braids bouncing. I tried to keep up but didn’t have it. As she crossed the finish line, she immediately doubled over resting her hands on her knees and gasping hard for air. I ran in a few seconds later, pulled up, put my hands on my hips, and started by own panting search for oxygen.

“Thank you” I wheezed towards her still bent form.

“No. Thank you.” She replied, lifting her left hand just long enough to give a shaky thumbs-up.

And with that, the terms of our unspoken agreement had been met. I went about my abbreviated post-race routine: water, stretch, banana, beer. And since I never saw her again, I have to assume she did the same.

“If you surround yourself with a bunch of people who are trying to achieve similar goals, you can support each other and help each other” – Joe Rogan

A lifetime ago (back in October), before my ankle turned against me, I used to be a runner. I was logging 30+ miles a week, training for my first marathon, and generally enjoying all of the benefits of actively progressing towards a goal. Two goals in fact: My immediate goal to prepare the very best that I could for my marathon, and my long term goal of running a race in every state in the country.

The Neuse River Bridge Half Marathon was my first travel race and it was no coincidence that I chose to start my “Race All 50” goal in my home state of North Carolina. In addition to being my first travel race, it was also my last rehearsal race before the Philadelphia Marathon a month later. It was my last shot at solidifying race day routines and to get more practice with simple things like pacing in a crowd and efficiently navigating aid stations. I’d only run nine races before that. And only three were longer than 10K. I needed the practice.

After 11 miles of running almost 20 seconds per mile faster than I’d planned, I was starting to wonder how long I could keep it up. I still felt good, but I could also tell that I’d been pushing harder than usual. And after seeing so many runners gassed out and walking, I was wondering if I might fall victim to the same fate.

That is until my friend in pigtails picked me up on the way by.

I’d never seen her before. And obviously neither of us had a clue what the other’s motivations were. But in a moment of spontaneous cohesion, we pushed each other to finish our individual races and accomplish our independent goals stronger than either of us might have if we’d not crossed paths at mile 12.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn

I’m continually reminded to be mindful of the people I make space for in my life, both in general and especially in relation to my goals. Everyone we encounter will influence us in one way or another, whether it’s family, friends, coworkers, or some stranger at the end of a race. We should probably pat attention to that.

I’ve expressed before how important I believe it is to limit everyday exposure to negativity and instead try to surround ourselves with more positive leaning people. If we surround ourselves with those determined to seek out and wallow in the darkness of every situation, we increase our chances of sinking into that bog of destructive thinking. If we populate our lives with people that prefer to see life’s challenges as part of an ongoing process of self-discovery, then we better our chances of seeing through our struggles to discover the lessons and opportunities for personal growth that often lie within them. That’s my theory anyway.

But beyond the simple reasoning that both positive and negative thinking are equally contagious, I’m starting to better appreciate the value in connecting with people who might also have something to teach us as we plod along our paths. Simply having positive souls in our lives is invaluable. But once new directions have been decided upon, it may become equally important to seek out people that not only understand the importance of those aspirations but who are also smarter than us, with personal insights and information specific to those objectives and how to achieve them…or at least know how and when to stay out of the way.

I’ve heard people express how frustrating it can be to try and make positive changes in their lives when their friends and/or family aren’t as committed as they are. Trying to make such adjustments on your own is incredibly difficult and requires an exponentially higher level of determination. Such a daunting situation makes it even more vital to find people of like minds and philosophies with the understanding to help when we get lost, discouraged, or just plain tired of having to push the load alone.

Hearing about such struggles makes me incredibly appreciative of the support I’ve received from friends and family. But it also reminds me of the value in staying actively aware of who I spend my time with, how my productivity is affected, where I find encouragement, and where I find distraction. As I continue this “me” experiment, I’m also realizing the eventual need to find mentors and teachers to help me continue along my path.

After all, if each person really is the average of the five people he/she spends the most time with, don’t I owe it to anyone silly enough to count me in their personal quintet to continue improving myself as much as I can? I think so.

Happy Saturday. Now, let’s work together, shall we…

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