Climb Every Mountain; Running Schools Can Easily Be Compared to Running Marathons: You Experience the Gamut of Emotions, Intellectual Challenges and Physical Tests

By Brown, Jim | Leadership, March-April 2002 | Go to article overview

Climb Every Mountain; Running Schools Can Easily Be Compared to Running Marathons: You Experience the Gamut of Emotions, Intellectual Challenges and Physical Tests


Brown, Jim, Leadership


Few, if any, of us in high school thought that some day we might be a superintendent of schools. As a senior, I didn't have a clue what a superintendent was or did. But today I can look back to one fateful afternoon in the early spring of 1960 that set me on the path to becoming a superintendent. After a long recovery period from rheumatic fever, I was finally cleared to participate in sports. It was too late to make the varsity basketball or football team. At our high school, that left track. Off I went to the tryouts, where everyone interested in running events was ordered to one end of the football field. The gun went off, and we raced to the other end. The coach took one look at all of us, then assigned the first group of finishers to the sprints. He told the next group that they would be running the 440 and 880. "That leaves you, Brown," he said, "and you're gonna be a distance runner." So it goes. Since then, distance running and my life have been inextricably intertwined.

Nowhere is that better illustrated than in my experiences with the Catalina Marathon. At dawn on the third Saturday of March each year, some 500 runners board the boat in Avalon on Catalina Island and head north to Two Harbors, located at the Isthmus. They disembark, lineup for the restrooms, check sweats at the baggage truck, and wait for the starting gun. Hours later, the runners are back in Avalon, in one sense considerably worse for wear, but in another, content with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

I have run a lot of marathons over the years, but this is my favorite. Second isn't close. The course is tough -- mostly trails -- and flat stretches are rare. The climbs are daunting, including several that stretch four to five miles. But once you're at the top, the views of the California coastline, the ocean, the buffalo herds and the offshore islands are spectacular.

One year, the course was so muddy I stopped at the only phone booth on the course to call my wife and tell her I was going to be slipping in mud puddles all day. After she responded, "I share your pain. Remember this is a self-inflicted wound," I mumbled, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," and said goodbye. (Not unlike our conversations after long board meetings.)

There were times along the way when I felt absolutely exhausted. At other times, the water and energy food would kick in and off I'd go. Fortunately, there was someone else to chat with -- or maybe the better word is "commiserate." One year, Chris Gray, our city's fire chief, and I stopped along the way to take some pictures. Trust me, you don't want to see pictures of us after the climb up Pumphouse Hill at mile 17.

So, what does all this have to do with being a superintendent of schools? The short version is "plenty." Running the Catalina Marathon and serving as superintendent for more than 23 years have quite a bit in common. Let's skip the "pain" part and focus instead on six parallels:

1. Staying the course/focused on mission.

2. Experiencing a variety of challenges.

3. Adjusting one's pace/perspectives.

4. Communicating with others about what matters.

5. Taking care of you.

6. Finding and listening to mentors.

Staying the course/focused on mission

An obvious parallel is the fact that success in the superintendency is not achieved by short bursts of speed, but by staying the course over time and remaining focused on the mission. In the Catalina Marathon, that means finishing a tough course. For a superintendent, that means sticking to the critical work of preparing our students to become productive, contributing citizens.

Like running, walking or crawling up and down trails for 26.2 miles, the superintendency requires steadiness, perseverance and focus. It isn't about sprinting; it's about endurance. Not endurance in the sense of survival, but endurance in the sense of a willingness to stay the course through good times and difficult times because achievement of the end goal is what's really important. …

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