What I think about when I think about running: a homage to Haruki Murakami

"What I talk about when I talk about running" is Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's memoir of sorts. It is an account of the doubts and insecurities that plagued him when he started out as a novelist and a runner. He attributes his success as a writer to the influence of his passion for running; and connects the disciplines of running and writing beautifully. In my own far less beautiful way, I try to extend his metaphor to consider the connections (somewhat tenuously) between running and the everyday work that I do with education systems.
Set a long-term vision, but the micro-milestones matter too.
Runners often set long-term goals. Signing up for races is a great way to stay focused. But the micro-milestones matter too. I geekily set myself mini challenges mid-run: can I reach that tree before the next car passes me, before this song ends? This is my (occasionally obsessive) play on fartlek - speed games. The idea is to stretch and motivate yourself in an unstructured way. The same mentality applies to complex projects: set the long-term goals, celebrate the mini milestones; use them to analyse performance; find ways to stretch and to improve.

A step-change when you least expect it.
About five years ago I applied what I pretentiously called disruptive innovation to my running - I started using barefoot shoes. Like many so-called disruptive innovations I totally overhyped it. But, years later, I conclude that they are great. My barefoot shoes have had decent impact: faster pace; lighter feet; much easier to pack in a suitcase.

Murakami said "running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself". When I am running regularly I often get frustrated because I feel like I am not improving fast enough. Then, unexpectedly, something clicks and I see an improvement. So, in a world that celebrates disruptors, don't underestimate incremental innovation: chipping away, slowly but surely, can result in a step change when you least expect it.

Changing course is hard
Most runners will mentally map out a run before they start. And, with the tools of our time, many of us use apps to pre-calculate distance, projected time and elevation. To counteract my instinct, I occasionally force myself off-course during a run. And I consistently find it incredibly hard. When I don't know where I am, I immediately feel more tired. Dealing with the unexpected needs to be at the centre of the work we do in education systems work: course correcting when things do not work out; embracing new opportunities and adapting to change.

The competitive edge
My personal best times have almost all been achieved in races. Other runners force me to up my game. Spectators motivate me. Knowing that my name and a time will be on the race website spurs me on. Competition works. Perhaps innovation challenge competitions, that are increasingly abundant in the global education sector, do play a role. They could be a good way to raise the bar and to generate new ideas. Has anyone ever done a retrospective look at those innovation competitions to see what the winner are doing now?

Failure sucks. Don't fetishise it
I have lost track of the number of times I have felt like a failure as a runner. The races where the conditions are perfect yet I fail to do well. The times when I have left my flat and my legs just don't want to run (not to mention those times I failed to even leave my flat). As a runner I accept that, on some days I exceed my expectations; on many many more I feel pretty average; and on others I disappoint myself. The same applies at work. Celebrate and drink prosecco on the great days. Learn from the less great ones. But don't pretend failure is fun or cool; it's mostly a mantra for the privileged.

No substitute for hard work
Mo Farah put his brilliant Olympic double gold medal in London 2012 down to "hard work and grafting". And funnily enough the more I practice the faster I run. So, no matter how great an idea is, developing and delivering that great idea will need tenacity, endurance and hard work.

A freefall of non-ideas
I am too British to have much tolerance for mindfulness (the British generally express thoughts and emotions through conversations about the weather). Running is the closest I get to a state of mind that is free of time; free of problems; free to let thoughts and ideas flow freely. As Murakami himself said "I'm often asked what I think about as I run. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue."

Murakami suggests that running provides the physical and mental stamina necessary to sustain life as a writer. He uses running as both a metaphor for the focus and endurance needed by a writer and a means by which they can be achieved: "most of what I know about writing fiction I learned by running every day". As a less-than-mediocre runner I cannot say the same. But I like the metaphor.

"Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life" (Haruki Murakami)