3:10:56

One day I will run 26.2 miles and the time across the clock will read that or faster. I know that day will be soon. Not because that time is close to my personal best, but because I know what I am capable of. I know it in my body.

Last weekend I started a race, and 13.1 miles later the clock read 3:10:56. Average pace 14:34. Fifth to last in my age group. A personal worst. Or at least that’s what the record shows.

The half marathon has always been difficult for me. Too fast and too far. I hit a plateau with the half a few months ago, but since then I have thrown down two 10-mile races averaging my goal pace for the half. I know it in my body what half marathon time I am capable of.

The gun went off. I ran past the first mile marker. But I wasn’t in control. The control I had learned on the track—the one place this season that has pushed me to run faster than ever—was nowhere to be found. A pace that I felt comfortable in, that I knew all too well, took my breath away. It took my stride away. By mile 6, I was running one minute per mile slower than my goal pace.

At mile 7, I walked off the course. I took off my bib and used a spectator’s phone to call my coach. My second DNF.

My first DNF was in the marathon two years ago, due to a physical injury. The symptoms that led me to walk off the course, however, were exactly the same. Shortness of breath, heavy feet, legs that felt like bricks, profuse sweating all within the first few miles. The injury itself happened two weeks before the race, but I started anyway hoping that it wasn’t true.

But you can’t cheat running. It’s too honest. It knows how to expose your weaknesses and leave you completely vulnerable.

This DNF was not a physical injury. It was a mental one. The injury itself happened a few weeks before the race, but I started anyway hoping that it wasn’t true. I have spent the last few weeks of training ignoring the signs that I am getting faster and instead dwelling on all the reasons why I shouldn’t be.

With my crumpled bib in my hand, I could barely even jog the six miles back toward the starting line. My mental injury was lingering. My mind and my heart were still throbbing. It is not at all surprising that I couldn’t even hold my recovery run pace over the last six miles. I was completely vulnerable.

When I got to my coach at mile 12, we went to just past mile 25 of the full marathon course to watch one of our teammates. I sat on the curb continuing to feel sorry for myself. As my teammate came through, he and another one of my teammates jumped in to run with her. I’m not sure why, but as I saw the three of them, my instincts kicked in. I knew I had to run to her. I jumped off the curb and joined them.

My coach and other teammate peeled off toward the finish line chute, but I knew I had to stay with her. I knew I had to run with her all the way to the finish. Not in my body, but in my mind. And then something ironic happened. For the first time that morning, my feet were light, and my breathing was normal. I was in control.

And with the crumpled bib still in my hand, I finally crossed the finish line for the half in 3:10:56.

After she finished, my teammate had to be taken to the medical tent. She thanked me for staying with her. And then she said something to me that many people this season who have been trying to help with my mental injury have already said: “I have never in my life known someone who can be standing still and then bust out at the speed like you do. It’s unbelievable. You need to trust yourself because you’re amazing.”

And this time I heard it. I was so proud of myself for the way I handled my first DNF. Because I didn’t let my body control my mind. The problem was that I tried to redeem myself with personal records. And with that declaration, my body once again started controlling my mind. If the run was slow, I was weak. If the run was fast, I was strong.

The problem with that line of thinking is that it puts the run in charge. Not me. The problem is that there are so many reasons I shouldn’t run fast. I don’t have the genetics, I didn’t grow up playing sports or being athletic, I have terrible form and mechanics, and I don’t exactly have the body composition that makes me look like a “runner.” I shouldn’t run fast, but I do. And when I asked my coach why, he said it was because of my mind.

This mental injury has also reared its ugly head in graduate school. I have been ignoring the signs that I am becoming a scholar and that my work is becoming something I can truly be proud of. Instead, I am dwelling on the things that I do not do and focusing only on the material aspects that dictate success. A few days before this half marathon, I taught a class for which I am the teaching assistant. I left the session feeling like it was a disaster.

Yet the next day, my professor sent me an e-mail telling me how impressed he was. Furthermore, even if I did look solely at the material aspects of my experience in graduate school, I could still claim success. But I don’t claim it. Instead, I let my mental injury control my perspective. I let the run control the parts of my mind outside of running.  There are many reasons I shouldn’t do well in graduate school. But I do.

I ran a 3:10 half marathon because I have been ignoring what I am capable of. In my mind. I stopped working out the only muscle that can make any pace feel comfortable.

But I love the full marathon distance. You can’t cheat running, and you definitely can’t cheat 26.2 miles. Focus, self-control, determination, perseverance, and training are the only things that can pace a marathon. Those things I can do. Because they have little to do with speed and everything to do with my mind. The speed is a small bonus.

That is why I love being in a doctoral program. Focus, self-control, determination, perseverance, and training are the only things that can finish a dissertation. Those things I can do. Because they have little to do with intelligence and everything to do with my mind.

This personal worst just gave me more ammunition for a full marathon. Something to fuel the last three miles when my legs are burning. Something to beat the crap out of whatever doubt tries to get in my mind on race day. Because it will. But this time I’m ready to battle it for 26.2 miles. And for less time than 3:10:56. I know what I’m capable of. I know it in my mind, and I know that is all I need.

0:00:00

In early spring 2014, my coach started training me again after triple stress fracture in my hip led me to walk off the Philadelphia Marathon course the previous November. I told my coach my spring goal was to run a PR (personal record) for every distance and to complete an Olympic distance triathlon. I left the marathon out of the equation. I still had demons to settle from November, and I didn’t want those demons to distract me.

I spent April, May, and June 2014 toeing the start line. The zeroes across the clock represented a new start, a new opportunity to remind myself that despite what happened the previous fall I was a strong runner and an even stronger person. I met my spring goal. Rather, I crushed it.

Just because I was setting PRs on the race course does not mean my running training was perfect. Far from it. But luckily the cross training from returning from injury and then shifting to triathlon training silenced my inner perfectionist. Silenced to the point that after a particularly tough 15-mile run in the beginning of May, in which I did not hit any of my prescribed paces, I decided I was ready to go back to Philadelphia in November 2014 and finished what I started. Because I had found the strength to pick myself up when I was down, or when I didn’t think I had succeeded.

The spring of PRs came to a close, and I embraced the inevitable tunnel vision that happens when you put all your eggs in one basket. As I read the 0:00:00 across the starting line at the Philadelphia Marathon, I thought of the downs and subsequent ups that I had taken place over the last year to allow me to be in that moment. And I told myself the only way to appreciate that moment was to make sure that the final clock I would see that day would read nothing short of the number I thought I deserved.

Just like the spring, I crushed my goal and ran a 21-minute PR in the marathon. The closure in my life I had so desperately been seeking came as I crossed the finish line.

But closure does not yield the feelings we think it keeps from us, nor does it represent anything other than an end. An end that in itself is simply another beginning.

What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t strength that made me a PR machine in 2014. It was that I had so much more room to grow since the previous fall—room that I had not even tapped into leading up to my DNF because I did not believe myself worthy of experiencing it. I had to hit rock bottom, in both my personal and running life, to fight for what somewhere deep down inside I knew I deserved—a better version of myself.

What I also didn’t realize was that I was quantifying my running, and subsequently quantifying myself. I was reducing myself to numbers, and not even the numbers that mattered. I was ignoring numbers in my workouts, the increase in weekly mileage, the fact that I could run a spring marathon without training for it and still run significantly faster than a Boston qualifier.

The only numbers that mattered were the ones that replaced the 0:00:00. Because those represented closure. I had forgotten, however, that it is harder to keep running after the clock has stopped. To remember that the end of the race is simply the beginning of something else.

I believe the faster I run, the better person I am. But I have been ignoring that fast is subjective and relative to many other things, including the race clock. And that the faster I run, the harder it is going to be to set a PR every time I see 0:00:00. Not because I don’t want it enough. But because the course might be harder. The weather might be bad. Or I might be in the middle of a hard training cycle and haven’t had a break in weeks or even months.

The performance does not indicate these things; however, it does not mean they do not exist. I ran the exact same time in the half marathon between October 2014 and March 2015. 1:31:32. 1:31:36. 1:31:30. The first a PR, the second a mental breakdown in a wind tunnel, the third I stopped twice to tie my shoe laces. The performance states all three are the same. I am the only one who knows that all three of those races are incredibly different and not at all indicative of what I should or could be running in the half marathon. I am the only one who knows what I run in the space outside the performances. And yet I still struggle with the fact that I haven’t yet performed in the way that I want. I still struggle with whether I belong on the starting line at all.

Deep down, I know I would much rather be a runner who signs up for a marathon after a humbling 15-mile run than one who sticks with the sport because she performs well all the time. For the former requires heart, humility, saying “I don’t know” every once in a while. Strength is embracing doubt. Strength is running on the days when you don’t feel like it. Strength is seeing your personal best in things other than the performance on the race clock.

The irony is that both my fall marathon time and these three half marathon times qualified me for the local competitive corral at this year’s New York City Marathon. Even after tightening the standards for 2015, I still made the cut-off by 30 seconds in both distances. While I was beating myself up over my half marathon performances, I had no clue that from another perspective I am fast enough to start closer to 0:00:00. Fast is subjective and relative to many other things.

My first year as a doctoral student was similarly laced with these ideas of performance and progress. Similar to my return to running, I was excited by my progress in the first few months back in school. It was easy to perform well because I had no base.

But then my performances started to stagnate. A. A-. A. Getting consistent grades on papers did not indicate my internal growth. I am the only one who knows what happens in the space outside the performances. That I was reshaping my entire course of study to reflect my passions, that I was becoming a better writer, and that I was establishing my identity as an academic could not be indicated in those papers. I strived to live in a space in between the performances. I wanted to experience joy reading a book without wondering how that book would improve my performance in school. But just like in the half marathon, I got caught up with the numbers on the race clock. I got caught up with the idea that my performances were not improving and that maybe I should drop out.

At the end of my first year, I received a very prestigious fellowship. The ultimate PR. I did not have to wonder any more if I belonged in graduate school. I did not have to wonder if I had stagnated. I wrote a paper that a committee deemed the highest scored, and suddenly I felt welcomed into the world of academia with open arms. A world that I had previously thought was shutting me out because my performances were remaining the same.

The ultimate closure. But closure does not yield the feelings we think it keeps from us, nor does it represent anything other than an end. An end that in itself is simply another beginning. I cannot look at this one PR as more than the end of writing one paper. I am not dismissing the accomplishment nor the confidence it gave me. I am acknowledging the fact that if I get too comfortable in this pace that I may never reach a faster one. That if I value the performance, then I will stop valuing the moments in graduate school that I truly love. The moments that require heart, humility, saying “I don’t know” every once in a while. The moments that require embracing the doubt, reading something you do not understand, taking over an hour to write two sentences. The moments of incredible discomfort that challenge everything you thought you knew.

The moments where I want to drop out but do not, just like the humbling 15-miler that inspired me to sign up for the marathon.

That is the space in which I want to run. That is the space that will make standing on the start line and reading 0:00:00 seem full of possibilities, few of which have to do with the performance, and many of which I have not even started dreaming I could do. The space of constantly being better and never being your best.

The space I will embrace as I race a brand new distance. The first time in a long time that I will read 0:00:00 with no prior experience to lean on that I will finish, but also no prior experience to dictate a PR. Since the PR is a given, I have to set goals that have nothing to do with the performance. Goals that require heart and humility.

That is the space in which I will swim, bike, and run 70.3 miles for the first time. My cognitive dissonance surrounding my recent running performances has prepared me to live and embrace that space of discomfort with confidence. Knowing that when I cross the finish line I will have set standards for strength that nothing to do with anyone but myself.

That is the space in which I promise to live.

Positive split.

There are three ways to run a long distance race. Positive splits, when you run the second half of a race slower than the first. Negative splits, when you run the second half of a race faster than the first. Or even splits, when you run the same pace for the entire race.

Although I have run the marathon all three ways, I prefer negative splits. I prefer it because I feel in control at the end when my legs are burning and are screaming at me to slow down, when someone is trying to pass me, when my stomach is turning inside out from simultaneous excitement and exhaustion.

A positive split inherently means you went out too fast, since you cannot maintain the pace you set in the first few miles. Going out too fast can happen for many reasons. Maybe you get carried away by the adrenaline on the starting line. Maybe the first half of the course is downhill, and the second is uphill. Maybe you have a fueling or dehydration issue that makes your opening pace too fast to maintain. Maybe you simply haven’t put in the training to run your goal. Maybe your brain tells your legs that they can’t and the legs actually start to listen.

Not all positive splits are created equally. Both my best and worst performances at the marathon have been positive splits. In my worst performance, I didn’t have the training to maintain the pace at which I started. That and a second half that took me over the Adirondacks resulted in a 33 minute difference between my first and second halves. I believe that was the race that made me respect the distance.

In my best performance, it was not that I went out too fast, but rather that I started picking up the pace too soon. As I got to mile 21, I started to feel my legs fade. But I was hungry. After not starting the Boston Marathon and not finishing the Philadelphia Marathon the year before, there was nothing that was going to keep me from not only finishing, but from getting that personal record. I got that 21-minute PR not just because I wanted it mentally, but because I also had the training physically. That 1 minute, 25 second difference between my first and second halves was both heart and body. My heart knew it wanted nothing less, and my legs knew what to do when they were tired. But I needed both to keep from crumbling.

Positive splits happen at all levels of pace and experience. Most elites run positive splits, as their pace is largely dictated by their competitors. And the longer the race, the more painful a positive split feels. Running positive splits in a 5K is hardly troubling. The difference between the first and second half is usually only a matter of seconds. But the marathon holds in it the capacity to positive split by many minutes, or even an hour.

I wish I could say this race against racial injustice and police brutality were shorter than a marathon. But the more families I see on national television grieving the deaths of their loved ones leaves me thinking otherwise. Is it possible to both not condone violence and also understand the anger running through the streets of Baltimore? The response from the dominant culture is that those reacting to the death of Freddie Gray are violent thugs who need to calm down. But I can’t help but ask—when you picture a thug, what color is his face? Is it the same color as the face of a criminal? I can’t help but ask—who decides what acts are violent? Because I am pretty sure if I died at the hands of the police, my white family would react with a rage that runs at a much faster pace than that rage in Baltimore. But family wouldn’t be criticized. Their privilege allows them to be angry. I can’t help but ask—what is the distinction between reacting peacefully and accepting the disease of prejudice from which our country suffers?

I am not sure there is a distinction. Nor am I sure that the dominant culture wants a distinction. In order to feign a distinction between peace and acceptance, we ask ourselves: Why can’t black people just come together and integrate themselves “properly” into society? Even though it is a society in which many rules are biased against them. Why can’t black people pick up the pace at the halfway point, run negative splits, and be in control of their fate?

Negative splits do not happen when you get carried away on the starting line. Negative splits do not happen when you do not know the course or when the second half is harder. Negative splits do not happen when you do not have the proper fueling. Negative splits do not happen when you haven’t put in the training. Negative splits do not happen when your brain reminds you of all the experiences in which you felt like you were not good enough to run faster.

Our society gives out false promises to minorities that make them run too fast in the beginning. Our society constantly changes course and does not give everyone the fuel, training, and tools to navigate it. Our society tells people of Color, implicitly and explicitly, that they are not good enough to run faster. So they don’t.

This race is a marathon. For whatever reason, our society is at the half marathon point and wants to keep running. This race is a marathon, and people of Color are being forced to run positive splits. But not all positive splits are created equally. They can lend themselves to a personal best or a personal worst; however, I fear we have not given everyone the training to fight for the race at the end.

This positive split will hurt more than any other thing our society makes people of Color endure. Because the race is just that long and painful.

But only one time matters at the finish line. As soon as it is crossed, splits become irrelevant. They are only used during the race to help regulate pace. After the finish, they are erased and all that remains is one number that tells you what you were made of that day. And even if it’s not much, when you cross the finish line you are a survivor and stronger than you were when the clock read zero.

Only one thing matters now. Violent criminals or not, too many people of Color are dying at the hands of the police. They are receiving the same consideration as the man who bombed the Boston Marathon finish line. I can’t help but ask: Is being Black in this country the same as destroying the one place that symbolizes survival, strength, and the triumph of the human spirit?

He For She.

This is another deviating post. I used this space to reflect on Emma Watson’s speech to the UN to launch her new campaign, He For She.

Three weeks ago Emma Watson addressed the United Nations in a speech to announce her new campaign for, what I will call, global feminism. The key messages of “He For She” state that “gender inequality is one of the most persistent human rights violations of our time” and is a call for men and boys to “break the silence,” as they suffer from gender inequality as well.

I struggled with Watson’s speech and this campaign. I didn’t feel she acknowledged enough of her privilege as a wealthy White woman. Her privilege extends beyond her class and race. She represents the quintessential female in Western society– young, heterosexual, and thin. Her demeanor is gentle at the podium. I can’t help but ask: What if she were older? What if she were fat? What if she were gay? What if she spoke more assertively?

What if she represented women whose ideas of femininity and gender are completely different from hers?

What if the first thing that came out of her mouth wasn’t addressing men? The first thing she says is, “Today we are launching a campaign called He For She. I am reaching out to you because we need your help.” Watson’s entire campaign reinforces the power binary between men and women. She talks about her own experiences with sexualization and discrimination and then compares what equality means in relation to men: the same pay as men, the same respect as men. When talking about Hillary Clinton’s women’s rights speech in Beijing, Watson is disappointed that “less than thirty percent” of the audience was male. She said we could not enact change without males and then extends all men a “formal invitation” to help women.

This leads to her discussion on how men suffer because they are not allowed to act in a feminine way and how this release of feminine behavior will help gender equality as a whole. “When they are free [of gender stereotypes] things will change for women as a natural consequence.” Again, the equality she seeks is dependent on men freeing themselves of this idea femininity as it is understood and experienced in our society, as the opposing and unequal part of this power binary.

He For She. For without he, she clearly cannot be equal.

Relay.

When I started running, it was all about me. I wanted to be in shape. I wanted to clear my head. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be confident. I wanted to run a half marathon. I wanted to run a full marathon. I wanted to qualify for Boston. I wanted to work hard. For me.

Then I joined a team. But I was still running for me. Even if I did wear the jersey. Even if I did offer encouragement and support to my teammates. Even if I wanted to outkick one of them at the track. Because at the end of the race, the time on the clock didn’t matter to anyone else. It belonged to me and no one else.

Last weekend I did my first relay race. 12 runners. 200 miles. Each runner was responsible for 3 legs of varying lengths and terrains. I signed up for me. I told myself it would be a nice challenge in the middle of marathon training and would help break up the monotony of a long run every weekend. I told myself I wouldn’t run at any sort of race pace because I didn’t want to push myself too hard on a weekend that didn’t really count. For me.

This relay was a reverse start, meaning the slowest teams started first. Based on our average 10K pace, our team started last. And by last I mean several hours after the first teams. The goal was to catch as many people as we could between the start and the finish; however, most of us spent the majority of our first runs not really catching anyone and just making up time.

I started my first run at 10 pm. 9.5 miles in the woods. My sole source of light my head lamp. I could only see a few feet in front of me. Just enough space to make sure my foot didn’t land in some questionable terrain that would make me fall. Just enough space to make it feel like I wasn’t really running anywhere. Like my watch would beep for 9.5 miles, and I would still be in the exact same place that I started.

After 3 miles, I noticed I was breathing a bit harder than usual. I blamed it on the silence. I figured I was used to running around a lot of people and traffic. Things that blocked that auditory connection to my running. Or maybe I was just scared to be running alone in the woods at night.

I looked at my watch. I was running faster than I ever had at the start of a run any farther than 5K. And as my watch beeped for 5 miles, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My fastest time ever for that distance. In the middle of the woods. In the middle of the night. In the middle of a longer run. No racecourse. Just me. For me.

Then that voice in my head entered. That voice that told me there was no way I could keep this pace. That voice that told me to play it safe and slow down. That voice that reminded me of all the reasons why I could never be faster or stronger. That voice that I have worked so hard to silence. The road turned to trail as my watch beeped for 6 miles. And as my path changed, my pace slowed. Not significantly, but enough that I could feel that voice in my head receiving some sort of satisfaction.

But something unexpected changed as the ground on which I was running did. I wasn’t comfortable with slowing down. I wasn’t comfortable with satisfying that voice. I wasn’t comfortable running alone in the middle of the woods at night by myself. So I fought for the last 3.5 miles and ran my fastest 9.5 miles in my life. For me.

As the sun came up for my second run, I knew there was no way I could run my fastest. The course was all trail, all uphill, and a mere 7.5 hours after my first run. As I stood in the exchange area I didn’t even feel like I was about to go for a run, and so I forgot to find a satellite signal on my watch. The only thing I could track was how many people I passed. The only thing I could track was something that benefited the team.

Which I thought would not matter. I thought I would keep an easy pace for all the reasons working against me. Until I saw someone ahead of me. My legs picked up. My vision focused. All I wanted to do was pass that person. And anyone else who was in my sight. It was an unconscious desire completely detached from that discouraging voice in my head and instead connected to a much stronger part of myself. The part that turns off the thinking and only listens to the doing. The doing that showed me that not only could I run that fast, but that I had to if I wanted to catch anyone else. Not for me. For my team.

The relay made me stronger. I ran faster because my runs mattered to someone else. To 11 other people to be exact. Not as a source of encouragement or competition. But my runs had the power to affect someone else’s race time. It turns out we all wanted to use our runs to better the team because we won the relay race that day. None of our actions alone could have accomplished first place in a 200 mile race. It was the result of our combined effort, humility, strength, and positivity that made us the best that day.

I left the classroom this year to pursue an advanced degree. I was always a good student. One may even argue exceptional when using the conventional, narrow, culturally biased criteria that dictates academia. School was always something I did alone. For me.

As I started this unfamiliar run, I heard that same voice. That voice that kept asking me what exactly I was doing by leaving the comfort zone of my solitary classroom. That voice that told me that when the watch stopped I wouldn’t have actually gone anywhere or accomplished anything.

That voice that hated collaboration in my former job. Collaboration usually left me feeling frustrated. The structures in the school made all teachers run all at once and in opposite directions, instead of having us run one at a time at race pace toward our best collective effort as a school community.

When I heard that in graduate school my main source of studying would be in a group setting, I immediately felt uncomfortable. I didn’t think there wasn’t enough time on the race clock for me to spend with other people in my program. I thought I would be fine on my own.

But I did not leave the classroom to be fine. I left it to be my best. In that first study session, I learned that being my best would be impossible without the help of my teammates. Not because they offered encouragement and support, but because each of us contributed to our collective understanding of the complex philosophical and educational issues we were discussing. An understanding that would be available to all of us as long as we each contributed continuously and genuinely.

Teachers cannot be expected to run the race of societal and educational inequality alone. The distance is simply too far. Somehow we need to restructure education so that it takes the form of a relay. So that each member of the school community can not only run faster, but also can use focus and determination to pass each obstacle on the uphill course. There are many forces in this country that put urban schools in the last corral behind the start line. But if we recognize this race as a relay, we will see that the fastest and strongest teams do in fact start last. And that just because we had to start last does not mean we cannot finish first.

The naked eye.

This post deviates from my usual theme of the relationship between running and teaching. Instead, I used this space as a reflection on the death of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

I am White. I call myself White because that is what everyone in this country sees when they look at me. They don’t see Jewish. They don’t see educator. They don’t see musician. They don’t see scholar. They don’t see runner. They don’t see the many ways I have tried to define myself. But unlike my Black and Hispanic brothers and sisters, this does not hurt me. It protects me. It is my shield against society.

I didn’t ask for this shield. I was born with it. I am aware of it every minute of every day. Every minute I spent teaching in an all Black school. Every minute I spent traveling in West Africa. Every minute I spent at a Black church.

Every minute I spend in my current, “non-white” neighborhood. Every minute someone is speaking Spanish around me in the grocery store, and I feel ignorant for not being as fluent as I would like. Every minute the one other White person on my block breathes a sigh of relief when I walk by.

Every minute I read a book by a Black or Hispanic author. Every minute I read a Black or Hispanic newspaper. Every minute I listen to Black or Hispanic music. Every minute I watch a Black or Hispanic movie or television show.

Every minute that my Black and Hispanic neighbors have no idea that I do these things with the awareness of the privilege that I have.

Every minute that I am fully aware that I can move 50 blocks south and pretend the last 5 years of my life never happened. That I can leave this world, embrace my privilege, and leave my Black and Hispanic brothers and sisters behind.

That’s the part of White privilege that no White person wants to recognize. The fact that just because you work or live in a Black or Hispanic neighborhood, or marry a Black or Hispanic partner, or embrace Black or Hispanic culture, doesn’t make you any more or less White to the naked eye.

It is the naked eye that decides if you get a job. It is the naked eye that decides if you go into college. It is the naked eye that decides if you are afforded a house. It is the naked eye that decides if the cab driver pulls over. It is the naked eye that decides if the security guard follows you in the department store. It is the naked eye that decides who will be represented in advertisements, entertainment, and government. It is the naked eye that decides if your voice is heard. It is the naked eye that decides who and what is taught in schools. It is the naked eye that decides who is allowed to feel complete, whole, and valued.

It is the naked eye that decides if the trigger gets pulled, and it is the naked eye that decides if justice is served.

We can’t ask our schools to fix the naked eyes that govern society.

But we can use them as the tool for which they were designed. As an honest reflection of the face of our nation. Hopefully one day the naked eye will be capable of seeing what is staring back at it. A country divided along racial lines. Where people of Color are forced to develop their racial identities at a young age and White people never have to think about the color of their own skin.

I am White. I am not afraid to call myself White. It is part of who I am. That makes me neither bad nor good. And while society has stunted my racial identity development by matching it with the dominant culture, I will stand with my Black and Hispanic brothers and sisters in the fight for equality.

Plateau

Running’s blessing and curse is that even after you cross the finish line you are not done. You are never done. Once you hit a new personal record the quest begins for another. And whether we like to admit it or not, we spend the recovery days thinking about how to make our last race better so we can PR at the next.

There is one distance in particular where it has been hard for me to PR. The half marathon. 13.1 miles. I have raced this distance more than any other. 14 times to be exact. But I still find it the most challenging. I think it is a mistake calling this distance half of a marathon. When I think of the marathon I think of a slow, gradual build toward discomfort. By the time you hit your limit, the adrenaline has completely taken over and your legs take over your mind. To call 13.1 miles a half marathon would imply something slow about the distance. But there is nothing gradual about it. The build toward discomfort is fast and furious, with no time to arrive at that runner’s high.

I ran my first 13.1 mile race in 2 hours, 18 minutes. Ten months later, I ran my second half marathon in 1 hour, 58 minutes. Another ten months later, after running my first full marathon, I took another 20 minutes off my time. I ran my fourth half marathon in 1:38:20.

In two years, I took 40 minutes off my first half marathon.

But then I hit a plateau. One that lasted for three years. In the year after I ran 1:38:20, I ran two more half marathons. 1:39:40 and 1:39:18. And instead of fighting back the following year, I gave up. 1:47:15, 1:49:41, 1:45:53. One month before I walked off the 2013 Philadelphia Marathon course I ran 1:38:40. 20 seconds away from my PR. Perhaps it was a sign that I wasn’t ready for the marathon last year. Not because of the time, but because I would like to think that after two and a half years I would fight for it more than I have fought for anything else.

Running’s blessing and curse is that you are never done. I spent the three months after the marathon that I wasn’t allowed to run thinking about how I would not stop fighting. Exactly six months later, I broke my plateau at the Brooklyn Half Marathon. 1:34:26. It was the best finish line of my life. Better than the day I qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Three weeks later I ran another half marathon. I had no taper. The weather was hot, and the course was hilly. 1:34:53. At first I thought I was getting myself stuck in another plateau. One that I feared would last another three years. But then one of my teammates said to me:

“This race taught you that Brooklyn did not happen by accident.”

She was right. I repeated almost the exact time in harder conditions. Just like the 1:39:40 and 1:39:18 I ran after my 1:38:20. That 1:34:53 was not a plateau. If anything, it showed that I had gotten in even better shape since Brooklyn. If I had just been looking at the race clock I never would have seen that. And if I had never seen that, perhaps I would put myself in another plateau.

Plateaus don’t just happen in racing. They happen in certain kinds of workouts. And even harder, they can happen in our attitudes. We can go through weeks and months where our motivation stays stagnant. And that stagnant motivation can affect our running if we are not careful.

But it is how we deal with the plateaus, not the personal records, that make us stronger. It is easy to stay motivated and to fight after putting up a great time on the race clock. It is harder to do that when you perceive yourself being stuck under a certain ceiling. I let 1:38:20 be a ceiling that governed the rest of my running life for three years. I will never do that again. Because one day I won’t be running personal records, and I will have to find my motivation in something other than the race clock.

Plateaus also happen in schools. A student may stay stuck at a certain reading level for months. Another student may stay stuck at how many hours he can last in a day without an emotional breakdown. A teacher may find her patience staying at a stagnant level, even though she wish she had more, given the important work that we do. An administrator may fail to support the same teacher day in and day out. And that stagnant motivation can affect our students if we are not careful.

It is important to realize that plateaus do not stem from a lack of passion. They stem from not knowing what to do with passion. They stem from not being able to focus that passion intentionally and precisely. In a 13.1 mile race that manifests in going out too fast in the first 5K and letting the race clock dictate how you feel after fighting through that. In an urban school that manifests is not being able to do everything you want to do in the 8-10 hours a day you are at school and letting the outside world affect your perception of your performance.

What you will find in urban schools is that the many people who work there are passionate about many different things. Some are passionate about job security. Some are passionate about management and leadership. Some are passionate about the structure. Some are passionate about how their work affects society. The problem occurs when all of these different passions are disproportionately displayed and not at all focused on the most important thing–the children.

Then that school gets stuck in a plateau. But it is how we deal with the plateaus, not the personal records, that make us stronger. Maybe one day we will deal with them in a way that does not involve rapid teacher and administrator turnover. Maybe one day we will deal with them in way that does not involve constant changes in educational policy. Or maybe that plateau is a sign that we need to step off the race course and re-evaluate our school and our students. So that when we come back we are ready to never stop fighting, to break that ceiling, and to give our students and ourselves the PR that we deserve.