Blood, Sweat, and Sisterhood: Thoughts on Character

As I scramble up yet another steep incline, my buddy asks what happened to my leg. I look down and see blood streaming down my calf. Not feeling a thing, I laugh and say that a little blood is the least of my worries. She has warned us about the route, texting us that “Lol, the big climbs are at the beginning when we are full of energy and there are some really pretty views.” By mile two (of eight), sweat is already pouring down my back, and I can feel my face reddening in the heat. I guzzle water knowing that the temperature is nearing 85. I don’t wear a watch today because I don’t want to know how many miles remain. I keep plodding along hoping I won’t bonk and providing myself with the necessary “self-talk” to keep going. As my grandmother would have said, “I am no teenage athlete” anymore, but I am getting the job done as I forge my way through our weekly train run in the Fells. If this run doesn’t kill me, I certainly hope it will make me stronger!

Today’s challenge is heat and elevation, but in recent weeks it has been rain, snow, and frigid temperatures. We joke about how virtuous we are, but we come back week after week, excited to be together and challenging ourselves anew. We like the way the runs make us feel, we appreciate the camaraderie of running together, and we savor the idea that we are getting a little stronger and faster every week. These group runs are grounding; they keep us attuned to the value of simple pleasures, the beauty of nature, and the value of good health and friendship.

My time in the woods gives me lots of time to think, and my thoughts often go to issues of importance to me. I was widowed at a young age (31, with a toddler in tow) and have certainly faced my share of challenging situations over the years. As a lifetime athlete, I essentially had to take a decade-long sabbatical from exercise because as a full-time working single parent, I didn’t have time for this luxury. I think it’s fair to say that my journey has led me to place a particularly high premium on health and wellness, and as I run through the woods every week, I am grateful to be out there, even though at times, I may count the minutes until our runs end!

At McMillan Education, we encounter so many brave parents and young people, and we ask a lot of them. Families seek us out because their children are struggling, and they have run out of options. Parents put their trust in us as we talk to them about alternative paths forward. Today I think about these courageous families as I trek through the woods, struggling more on this day than usual. I am inspired by their courage and come to the realization that I am unwittingly practicing what I preach – i.e leaning into challenge because it makes me feel good and because I am committed to learning new things and developing in different ways. I realize that one is never too old to continue this journey.

This very day, I have a bright, spirited girl heading to Utah to a wilderness program. She is going to be taken out of her comfort zone, asked to do things she doesn’t want to do, and challenged in ways that will make her uncomfortable. She will not have access to any electronic devices, will be sleeping outside in all conditions, and will confront both physical and emotional challenges. As she masters these challenges, she will inevitably grow emotionally, develop resilience, and begin to gain an abiding belief in herself and her capabilities. Her parents are courageously trusting the process – us, her future therapist, the woods – and leaning into their own discomfort as they take a bold stance to seek health and wellness for her. We all hope that this young woman will learn to face and weather difficult emotions in a healthier way than she has in the past. I believe deeply in the transformational possibilities of therapeutic work done in the woods, and I am optimistic for this girl.

I have certainly learned that by taking on challenge and pushing myself to try new things, incredible growth is possible and that such change leads to a happier, bolder, stronger self. I never started running to build character, but when I think about all that it encompasses – learning to appreciate the simple pleasures, celebrating one’s health, enjoying the great outdoors, forging special bonds with others, showing up on a regular basis, pushing one’s limits, and working hard – I guess it’s a pretty good synopsis of what character means to me.

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