It all started when as an 8 year old 3rd grader, Marshall said, “I want us to run a marathon together before I finish high school.” I hate running. Before Marshall said these words, the farthest I had ever run was 5 miles (that was under the mandate of a baseball coach I believed to be cruel). But I love hearing my boys dream big goals. So there was no way I was saying, “No.”

At that point we had only run one 5k on a whim. Marshall loved the atmosphere of a race (bib with a microchip to track his time, starting line, fog horn, crowd, finish line, and “free” food at the end) and the sense of accomplishment. Over the next 2 years we did another 5k and then a 10k that accidentally became an 11k (“going the extra mile” was not just a cute name for the race).

By the time he was 10 years old he wanted to tackle the 13.1 miles of a half marathon. We scouted potential races (mainly looking for something flat) and had to get special approval for him to enter because of his age. We trained and set the “not disappointed goal” of finishing in 3 hours and the “really happy goal” of 2:45.

Marshall is faster than I am and has more endurance, so we set a strategy for how long he stays with me before he darts out to get his best time. We decided he would stay with me until the 11 mile mark this time, which was just after the big bridge. At that point we were on a 2:55 mile pace. When he took off I picked up my pace a bit (finishing in 2:53), never walked, and he still finished the last 2.1 miles 9:30 faster than I did (at 2:43). I love the boy’s grit and determination.

As we prepared for the race and talked about it on the way home, here are the lessons we learned.

  1. Run your race. In previous races, we got caught up in the crowd of faster runners and started too fast. We got tired early. That hurt our time and ability to enjoy the race. We committed to running our race, which was a 12:30 mile pace until the strong finish. It meant we got passed by several grandpas but it made for a better race experience. It was great to see Marshall be content with his best even when others were faster. That is a big character growth point for an uber-competitive 10 year old boy.
  2. Have the courage to go on your own when you need to. The first time I had to tell Marshall, “Go get your time,” he was very timid to leave me behind. It was a big deal to launch out on his own at a big race. He not only had to face the physical challenge of running a long distance, but also the emotional challenge of embracing his maturity through independence. Now it is a point of healthy pride that he is stronger-faster than “his old man” (at least in distance running). While humbling for me, it was a chance to model genuine enthusiasm for others who are better than you and affirm him in his areas of strength.
  3. You don’t run a race on your best day; you run the race on race day. In training you have good days when you feel strong and bad days when every mile feels like two. You don’t know which kind of day you’ll have on race day. Actually, Marshall slept really badly the night before the race (partly excitement; partly a really cheap hotel room). This made his perseverance at the end of the race even more impressive.
  4. Listen to your body and push your mind. Marshall learned the difference between being hurt and being injured; as well as growing in mental toughness. There were training days when he had joint pain from a growth spurt and we needed to run less. Days when he got blisters and needed to stop. You listen to your body. There were also days when he was just bored or not excited about running. On those days he had to push through. It was great to see him begin to be able to discern the difference for himself.
  5. Learn to speak up about what you need. Marshall is not a verbal kid. One of the skills we’ve been working on is being a leader. It was great to hear him say, “Slow down, Papa,” when he felt me start to quick in the race, or say, “No, we can do this,” when I wanted to walk on a training run. Growing in both awareness of the moment and willingness to speak up about what needs was a great life skill to see develop.
  6. You get to the glory of the race through the monotony of training. The most awkward training moment was when we were doing our final training run at a park and he started to cry because he was bored (not because he was tired). I awkwardly told him he had to stop because the adults would think I was forcing him to run as punishment. He blushed, because he understood, and stopped. Training was hard and boring (at times). But when we got to the top of the bridge that overlooked the ocean at mile 10 and when they called his name over the PA system at the finish line, he had a great sense of accomplishment.
  7. Have the courage to set goals you’re not sure you can reach. We talked several times on the way home about how we both had doubts we would be able to prepare for the race. It was the first time Marshall set a personal goal he wasn’t sure he would be able to reach. I think that is what he was most satisfied with; the fact that he did something he had serious doubts he would be able to do.

These are the kinds of life lessons embedded in memorable experiences that I love to engage with my boys. I’m not saying that every parent needs to make their kid run long races. If they don’t enjoy running, that would be a miserable disaster. But do look for the things your kids enjoy, the challenges they’re willing to embrace, join them, and use it as an opportunity to cultivate the kind of character that will allow them to embrace with courage whatever calling God has for their life.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Parenting” post which address other facets of this subject.