“… not because [it’s] easy, but because [it’s] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills … (President John F. Kennedy, 1962, Rice University)
As a physical therapist and Feldenkrais® movement teacher, I am in the business of asking people to go through a process of significant and sometimes difficult change. Even when people want badly to improve, because they have gotten used to feeling and moving in certain ways, they often unconsciously hold onto their habits and thus impede their own progress. So as a matter of fairness, I supposed that engaging in my own journey through difficult change would make me more empathetic to what my clients were experiencing.
And there was something else: striving for quality could also serve as a powerful organizing principle. It seems to me that anything worth doing is worth doing well. There were certainly easier marathons I could enroll in. The Marine Corps Marathon would demand from me a certain level of performance.
Gaining competence — let alone mastery — with any athletic skill represents a large project in and of itself. Learning doesn’t necessarily have to involve suffering, but it can be fraught with obstacles and challenges. The matter of what or how much you overcome is intertwined with how you go about it. (Many patients joke that “PT” actually stands for “pain and torture”, not “physical therapy”. I’m convinced that better, quicker progress is made in the context of safety and joy rather than confrontation and pain.)
One of the major ironies of my life is that I am actually in my particular line of work at all. I was born a blue baby in 1954, and one year later I received a life-saving heart surgery, which sustained me through early adolescence.1
During my first fourteen years, I could not even ascend a flight of stairs without getting winded, much less participate in athletic activities. In 1968, I had a full cardiac repair.2 Nevertheless, my doctors discouraged me from overly strenuous events. As recently as 2008, my cardiologist suggested that attempting a marathon could precipitate sudden cardiac death.3
So, I grew up and lived without sports. Early on, I learned how to not push myself or feel particularly competitive about anything. That all changed in 2009, when a new breed of physicians4 told me there was no data to support the old warnings; I could do any physical activity I wanted without restriction. So at 55 years old, I trained for six months with a local track club and walked my first marathon. Merely achieving the mileage felt enormous to me. I had two goals, both of which I met: (1) finish in about 7 hours; (2) don’t come in dead last.
This year’s goal would be, achieving excellence. Not the sort of excellence that people actually enjoy watching, because racewalking looks weird! But my sustaining at least the requisite minimum pace would mean that I had done something really right. More important than a medal and bragging rights, what was truly in it for me was a sport I could do well for the first time in my life, and continue to improve at as I grew older. At age 60, that’s HUGE!
Just one major hurdle: I was on my own. Neither of my prior instructors was available. I’d have to be my own teacher. What that really meant was that I’d have to become the poster boy for my own work. As a Feldenkrais teacher, I’d have to exemplify being a Feldenkrais learner, finding my own inner expertise, and efficiently approaching movement problem-solving the same way I once learned how to ride a bike, minus the scraped knees and bruises.
Oh yeah, this was gonna be hard!
- Two excellent accounts of early surgical treatment for tetralogy of fallot can be found in the PBS ary, “Partners of the Heart”, and Hollywood’s accurate historical fiction, “Something the Lord Made”.
- Nearly fifty years later, my doctors still marvel at the handiwork of pioneering heart surgeon, C. Walton Lillehei.
- The desire to run a marathon didn’t emerge from a vacuum. My work with a particularly nice stroke patient inspired me to do something charitable. At the time, the American Stroke Association was copying the Team in Training fundraising model. Due to my cardiologist’s warning, I walked a very leisurely half-marathon.
- Adult Congenital Heart Center, Emory Clinic