Two Lessons we can Learn from the Top Two Women at the Boston Marathon

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This year’s Boston Marathon is something everyone should pay attention to. Even if you don’t care about the sport itself, there are two huge lessons we can all take away from the top two women finishers at the 2018 Boston Marathon.

While usually dominated by elites, the extreme weather conditions two weeks ago set up for some of the most peculiar – and inspiring – results in the history of American distance running. In case you haven’t heard, the weather for the race this year was about as miserable as any participant imagine: temperatures in the mid-30’s, a steady downpour that lasted from the time runners started to the time they finished, and a stiff headwind with gusts up to 40 mph. (For the record, the Boston marathon follows a perfectly straight line until mile 24.) Shalane Flannagan, debatably the most dominant US female runner of the past 2 decades, tweeted after her disappointing 7th place finish: “Those were the most brutal conditions I have ever run in.”

However, while the American elite field didn’t preform nearly up to par – with 23 men and women combined dropping out, and most others finishing far behind where they expected – the crazy conditions bred an unlikely female champion and an even more unlikely runner-up. The reasons hold valuable inspiration for everyone pursuing a goal, regardless of age, level, or training conditions:

Lesson #1: Keep Showing Up.

Des Linden had never won a Boston Marathon. Although a sponsored elite, she wasn’t anybody’s top pick to win this year’s either. She had aimed to win it a handful of times in the past decade, but somebody had always been better on the day. Nevertheless, she kept showing up – to the start line, to her hard workouts, to her recovery days. Within the first few miles of Boston, she had all but made the decision to drop out – later telling NPR, “Early on, I was freezing and my muscles were tight, and I was like ‘This isn’t – this is not my day.’”

But in her head during the race, she replayed how she had attacked her rather troubled block of training for Boston: by thinking about each day as part of a process, not itself a success or failure, and by  showing up to see what the day would grant her when she gave it her best. Because she had lived out this mantra every day in preparation, she was able to carry it with her those long 26.2 miles during the race. She told NPR that over and over she told herself, “Just show up for one more mile. Show up for one more minute.”

While everyone was doubting her, she took the lead at mile 22, and broke the tape to break the streak of no wins by an American woman since 1985.

An elite athlete admitting to such weakness, mental defeat, and ultimate victory carries inspiration for us all: the conditions don’t need to be perfect, and we don’t have to feel our best – we just have to keep showing up and giving it the best we have on the day. Because like Des, one day the best you have might be all it takes.

Lesson #2: Use your Limitations as your Leverage, not your Excuse.

While Des’s win was unexpected, Sarah Seller’s second place finish was an even bigger shock – and her lesson is even more relatable.  Sarah Seller is a 26 year-old Nurse anesthetist who has only run one other marathon. She works full-time shifts at the hospital, doesn’t have a sponsor, and, before Boston, was completely unknown to the running community. She is as far away from ‘elite’ as you and I. But she crossed the finish line of one of the world’s most famous marathon in 2nd place, 5 minutes behind Des, and walked away with $75,000. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was questioning, HOW did this happen?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “it’s what you do when no one is watching that defines who you are?” well, while no one was watching, Sarah was developing herself into a competitor worthy of racing (and beating) the best in the world. Because of her work schedule, she was up at 4 a.m. most mornings to get her runs in. She worked full days, came home, went to bed, and repeated the process. Every. Day.

But still, how did an Average Joe get second at the Boston marathon? She didn’t run her fastest time, and for most of the race, she wasn’t with the elites. She was just consistent, staying in it while everyone else was dropping out or dropping back. Similarly, my friend Tate, who owns a donut shop at Purdue and gets in 2-6 runs per week, placed 17th at this year’s Boston. While most elites run over 100 miles per week, Tate – as a new business owner – sometimes works 100 hours per week, and averages 40 miles and about 5 donuts per week. He worked with what he could, and trusted it would work out for him. (It did.) Aubrey, a girl I trained for Boston, had a goal to run 3:17. While most people adjusted their goal based on the weather, she put her head down and ran the mile she was in, crossing the line in 3:09.

I can promise you it’s not magic, and it definitely wasn’t something in the air – so why did so many normal people have such success on this day?

My theory is that those who train in sub-ideal conditions have the upper hand when the game-day conditions are sub-ideal (which is usually the case). Elites, who train in controlled environments, with top-of-the-line equipment and few other stressors, don’t know what to do when things don’t go as planned. Or maybe they know what to do – but they can’t execute it because they have never had to practice. It’s the people who answer to the 4 a.m. alarm, take the first step into the downpour, or drag their butts to the gym after an 8-hour workday that have already discarded all the excuses. Nothing surprises them, and they know already that they don’t have to be dealt the perfect cards to accomplish their goals. They play the cards they’re dealt, and they play them well.

Instead of letting your circumstances control you, keep showing up and laying your best on the line – whether it’s hot or freezing, whether you’re feeling your best or your worst, whether the first step you take or the first weight you lift feels just as you think it should or not.

“Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better.” Take these words from unexpected 2018 Boston Marathon champion Des Linden, put them in your pocket, and keep showing up on the daily to play the cards you’re dealt.

In Health,

Coach Emily

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