8 laps to the mile; the 200-meter dirt loop with small red cones marking the interior curb of the track seemed large and daunting. Outfitted in the latest No Fear shirt that dominated the 1990’s playgrounds, I was ready to take on history. I was 11-years old, about to run the mile as part of the yearly presidential fitness test. I’d given up hope on ever achieving the coveted Presidential Fitness award, as the dreaded V-sit and reach proved insurmountable to my naturally inflexible body. Instead, I turned to the event that I knew I could win, the mile.
The record board hung over the cafeteria as a reminder of who was not only the fastest in the school but the fastest person who ever graced Haude Elementary. 6:01 was the time to beat. With an individual positioned to call out splits which, at the time made no sense to me, I set out on my quest to break the record. I ran in the traditional way an 11-year old with no experience racing does. I went out hard, held on for dear life in the middle, and then gave it everything I had in the end. As I crossed the finish line, I collapsed to the dirt track. I’d used every ounce of energy to run as fast as my untrained body would allow me to. But it wasn’t enough, 6 minutes and 10-seconds was all that my body could muster. While most of my other class walked away from the dreaded mile, I laid there, exhausted. As it would years later, minutes passed before my faculties returned and I was able to walk in to transition from P.E. to classroom work.
I’d learned one thing that day: running was hard.
A few days later, my P.E. teacher, Ms. Passmore, asked if I wanted another shot. She knew I was going for the record and felt bad that I’d gotten close. That afternoon, I told my dad that I had another shot if I wanted to. Encouraged by the possibility, I set out to train that evening. Taking to the field behind my house, I set off to run lap after lap until I had gotten in 7-minutes of running, or what I had figured was about a mile. My initial enthusiasm soon wore off and I wondered why in the world I was running in circles, causing myself such agony. “Was the record worth it?” was the thought that popped into my head about halfway through my first training run. When I finished, I distinctly remember thinking “Training is really hard! If I ran one mile every day for a few years, I could probably drop two to three minutes off my mile time in a couple ofyears. Then I’d have the world record.” Yes, as I walked into my house tired and hungry, I was convinced that if only I could just train one mile a day I would not only get me the Haude Elementary school record, but soon the world record.
As I returned to school the next day, I pulled Mrs. Passmore aside and told her, “I don’t want to run another mile.” I didn’t need a record, it didn’t mean that much to me. The training wasn’t worth it, even if it meant setting a world record.
It seems strange to look back and knowing where I ended up that I chose to say "running isn't worth it." Sure, I was only 10 years old, but just a few short years later my entire world revolved around the sport that I decided wasn't worth my focus and attention. There's a lesson in here that ties both David Epstein's new book Range and our book The Passion Paradox together. That even if we are talented at an activity, it doesn't mean that we need to be forced into pursuing it at the first sign of precocity. Sometimes we need time and space to explore and dabble in other interests, perhaps coming back to something we tried years earlier.
At 10, I wasn't ready to commit to an activity that matched up with my talent. At 14, I was. But I'd wager that if I was pushed and prodded to devote myself at 10, that I wouldn't have had the gusto and enthusiasm that carried me through running an absurd amount of miles during my teenage years. I needed time and space to explore. It's a nice reminder that even for someone like myself who was about as obsessive as a child could be, that it ultimately has to be our choice to pursue it. Even if we might be great at it. It's got to come from the individual.
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