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Learning all the “wrong” lessons — in running and in life.


Most of us have enjoyed enough fickle oscillations of athletic karma to know that training, racing, and athletic competition don’t always happen quite the way they ought to.

To review: sometimes, you train intelligently, taper diligently, eat correctly, get enough sleep, get to the race on time, and then proceed to conduct yourself through your absolute worst performance in recent memory.  (Lesson learned: “I just wasted months and months being a goody-two-shoes with all of this training and none of it works. Forget this.”)

Other times, you bumble through a fragmented cycle of training, nourish yourself on a steady diet of Nutella and cookies, stay up until 2am the night before your event drinking mystery juice, wake up the next morning with a raging case of Spanish influenza, arrive to the race site seconds before the gun goes off, and PR by 47 seconds.  (Lessons learned: “I don’t need to train nearly as much as I think I do!” and “Cookies have the carbohydrate-protein-fat ratio to put me on the podium!” and “A bit of partying the night before a race might dull the pain!”)

And honestly? That’s a common theme in non-athlete life too, isn’t it?

You’re supposed to learn one thing, but what you actually take away from the experience is entirely something else.

Let’s look to a few of my experiences as a naive schoolchild for some more examples.


Example #1.

3rd Grade: I was supposed to learn that nature is riveting and wonderful.

In third grade, our teacher decided we would have a class plant, which would supposedly give us an appreciation for the small miracles of life on earth.

Oh… my god.

ALL we did in third grade was  monitor that awful plant. We had to measure how tall it was every day, and then sit around and talk about it all the darn time. The plant grew approximately 0.003 millimeters per day.  All my 8-year-old mind learned from this insufferable plant monitoring project was that plants were boring as hell.

Example #2.

4th Grade: I was supposed to learn that obedience, courtesy, and ritual are important.

You know those clickers that people use to train their dogs with? Yeah. One of my fourth grade teachers was notorious for using it on her students. We were a regimented army of fourth graders; when she clicked, we stood up. When she clicked again, we pushed in our chairs. When she clicked again, we lined our butts up at the door, and so on, every day of our tormented fourth grade lives. This was presumably to teach us the importance of ritual and obedience, but all we learned was that some adults are simply crazy.

Example #3.

5th Grade: I was supposed to learn that you’re rewarded for good behavior.

In fifth grade, you received “star dollars” as a reward for being a good kid. Grounds for receiving a star dollar might be helping a friend clean up after she spills the contents of her trapper keeper all over the floor, or finding your mortal enemy’s Tamagotchi in the bathroom and returning it to the main office instead of spitefully flushing it down the toilet.

On the other hand, when you were mean, rude, or disrespectful, teachers could take star dollars away from you.

Well, one day one of our fifth grade teachers was blathering on about math or something. No one seemed to be listening. I made some sassy comment under my breath, and the teacher was offended. She thought that the girl next to me had been the one to sass her, and so demanded a star dollar in retribution.

“But, but, Cathleen said it, not me!” the other girl sputtered.

The teacher looked at me, and I quickly arranged my face to reflect bewildered, innocent surprise.

“Don’t blame it on somebody else!” the teacher yelled, and snatched a star dollar off of the other girl’s desk.

I breathed a sigh of relief and beamed.

Now I look back on that incident and cringe at my brattiness.

Example #4.

8th Grade: I was supposed to learn that gambling is bad.

Welcome to Life Skills class, a mandatory course for 8th graders that acted as a catchall for random critical skills like folding napkins, sewing tie-dyed pencil cases, and not getting pregnant.

The topic of the day was gambling and how bad it is. We suffered through a 45 minute anti-gambling video filled with boring anecdotes about things we didn’t understand.  After the video ended, our teacher hit STOP and fiddled around with the VCR to retrieve the tape. As she wrestled with the VCR (perhaps technology should be included in next year’s Life Skills curriculum?), a commercial came on the television.

A commercial we all knew by heart.

A commercial for FOXWOODS! (FOX. WOODS!), one of New England’s dearly beloved local casinos.

As the dulcet strains of the Foxwoods jingle filled our ears, and we all stood up to sing along:

“Take a chance! Make it happen! Pop the cork, fingers snappin’ ! Spin the wheel, round and round we goooooo!”

The teacher looked up at us, horrified —

“Life is good, life is sweet, grab yourself a front row seat–“

“No!” She yelled.

“LET’S MEET, AND HAVE A BALLLLL!” We screamed in unison, “YEAH LET’S LIVE -“

“Please, stop-”


Ruddy-cheeked and out of breath, imaginary balloons and confetti littering the floor, we all high-fived and congratulated one another for pulling off such an outstanding impromptu musical number, complete with one of the boys spraying his water bottle all over the room to mimic the champagne on the commercial.

Our teacher was entirely crestfallen. Her 45-minutes of anti-gambling bilge had been erased by spectacular advertising. We learned that day that the effectively-engineered musical jingle is a powerful thing.

Okay, so none of those examples really have anything to do with the beginning part of the post. Oh well.

Can you remember any hilarious “education fails” from school in which you learned something entirely different from what the teacher intended? 

Are there any running lessons you’ve learned that go against the grain of popular racing and training advice?

As a child, were you a sneaky, conniving little brat like I was?

28 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/30/2010 03:02

    You’re asking me to remember that far back? I remember being told by a teacher that if I master the slide rule I’ll make it to university and eventually wind up in a high-paying career. “How much is high-paying?” I ask. “As much as $10,000 a year!” she replies.

    Over the years I’ve heard it said that to run fast you need to practise fast running. You need to run intervals. Quality running is better than junk miles. I’ve learned that for anyone who wants to race 1500m or longer, you can’t beat a strong foundation of aerobic running. Intervals and such are the icing on the cake. I’ve also learned that as we age we need to stay close to our “speed” and “strength” — so there’s a conundrum for you.

  2. 11/30/2010 05:26

    Tenth grade sex ed. Teacher is explaining STDs, and how you can get them from sex with any orifice. Jeremy Schwartz raises hand, asks: “Can you have ear sex?” Class, for all intents and purposes, is over.

    I’m sure there were others. I distinctly remember intentionally trying to bomb a trial standardized test that they were thinking of introducing in NJ schools. And, yes, I was a bratty little student. Who got very good at my mom’s signature.

    • 12/06/2010 09:37

      Sex ed. Oh goodness. Lots of opportunities to learn the wrong lessons there. Actually, both of your points just reminded me that in elementary school, whenever we had standardized tests and had to bubble in our names and ages and stuff, there was a section where we had to bubble in our “sex.” As in, gender. But the teacher had to say each section out loud. “Name.” “Date of birth.” And then… we waited quietly…. “Sex.” GIGGLE GIGGLE GIGGLE GIGGLE!

  3. 11/30/2010 05:51

    I was a pretty good kid, no crazy escapades for me. It sounds like you were a handful!

    Running lessons? I’m still in the process of learning this one, but more isn’t always more. I still haven’t figured out the optimal number of miles on the less to more continuum for me, but I think that I should ideally be running about 75% of the miles that I could reasonably squeeze into a week and supplement with cross training for the remainder. Somewhere between sloth and injury waiting to happen.

    • 12/06/2010 09:40

      Nah, I was actually a good kid too. With a few brat moments. 🙂 Good point — I’ve learned that I need a cross training day or two as well. Otherwise I dance far to close to the edge of injury…

  4. 11/30/2010 06:45

    Well, once upon a time I was a preschool kid, and my class took a field trip to my parent’s dairy farm – a whole 5 miles from school. Apparently once we arrived at the farm, I was walking around wherever I wanted, not paying attention to the teacher and generally exploiting my connection to this field trip location. When the teacher pointed this out to me, I suppose I was expected to learn that I had to listen to my teacher whether or not we were in the classroom. Instead, I just remember feeling traumatized that I got called out for this because I didn’t understand what the problem was. It was my home we were visiting, right?!?

    Running lessons – I guess I have a stomach of iron, because greasy burgers, fries and other bar food seem to make good fuel the night before long runs. Actually, it doesn’t seem to matter what I eat the night before long runs. But, I also know that bacon and eggs do NOT sit well in my stomach if consumed directly before a run. 😦

    • 12/06/2010 09:41

      It’s crazy what fuels a good run! The best runs/races I’ve ever had came the morning after I ate way too much pizza and/or cookies. Now, pizza and cookies is my go-to pre-race dinner. If it ain’t broke…

  5. 11/30/2010 07:21

    OMG OMG OMG OMG AHAHAHA HA HA HA. I love this post so much I want to marry it.

    And god, so many stories I can add. But I’m just going to add this one:

    Given my Charlie Brown post, clearly at I least thought of myself as a sneaky little brat and often was. Though unfortunately for me…I’m also a good part Meg Griffin (a post in and of itself) and often ended up getting blamed for shit I didn’t do. My second grade teacher HATED me. Like, really hated me. I’d get thrown in detention daily. My father got so annoyed with it I’d get presents for being good (and I’d often lie about what I did during the day because I couldn’t deal with the failure, so…let’s talk about ethics there). So between getting bribed to behave and starting to predict her behavior, it started to happen less as the year went on. For awhile. Then the teacher changed the rules of the class so if you say…said two things that annoyed her during the day, you’d get thrown in detention. And I flat out asked her why and she said “because PEOPLE (while glaring at me specifically) can’t behave!”…then sent me to detention. So I was pretty screwed. Not only would it be harder for me to get the rewards my father was bribing me with, but she was out to get me. And it got ridiculous. Like, I tried to annoy a kid playing chess by yelling CHECKMATE at him and he told the teacher I swore. So she puts my name on the board (step one towards going to detention). I told her what I said and she says “Well that’s a swear word.” And put the check by my name to send me to detention. I told my father the story later in the day and swore up and down that this was really what happened and that she was out to get me and that I was trying to be better but she wouldn’t give me the opportunity blah blah blah and he was like “You know what? I give up. Have a piece of candy.”

    Lesson learned: The fix is in. Some people just don’t like you. Some people will never like you. So make it clear to those around you and at the very least, you can get some of the heat off you.

    And also, the real kicker? I *liked* detention. It meant I got to eat lunch alone with a book. Um…sitting alone in a quiet room reading a book vs. talking with a bunch of annoying people? BOOK PLEASE. So again, not sure what I was supposed to learn…

    • 12/06/2010 09:44

      Seriously, some teachers just have it in for certain kids! That actually seems like a really good lesson to learn early in life — you probably wasted a lot less time trying to gain the approval of others who weren’t worth the effort.

      Also, this comment reminded me about “lunch detentions.” I don’t remember ever having a REAL detention afterschool, but I did have a few lunch detentions for like, not getting something signed or because the entire class got put it lunch detention together. I was always so embarrassed.

  6. 11/30/2010 07:35

    hehe, I love your education fails. I never learned anything about world history because my 11th grade class watched Austin Powers and CNN all year instead of cracking open our books. Apparently our teacher was in need of a sabbatical.

  7. 11/30/2010 08:27

    I was SUCH a bad kid. I got into pretty much everything imaginable and I always got caught in some totally unrelated to whatever it was I was getting into.

    All lessons pretty much had the opposite of their intended effect on me. Ethics? Lie better. DARE program? Oh drugs sound neat, I think I’ll try them.

    But, I got all that shit out of the way early, and when I went to college and everyone around me was getting knocked up, drinking themselves into comas and doing coke in nightclub bathrooms, I was like, “meh, been there done that.”

  8. 11/30/2010 08:44

    i love this. like all your posts. i feel like a broken record. education fail: if you’re under 21 and drink, you DIE. okay so that wasn’t by a teacher but by my RA freshman year. i’m still alive….

    i am a firm believer that running post-night of drinking = gold. it’s totally going to be part of my training plans from now on as after every night of (heavy) drinking i have a stellar run. every. freaking. time.

  9. 11/30/2010 09:36

    Hahaha, this was great. I remember in fifth grade we had spelling tests twice a week. Monday was the assessment test, and Friday was the real test. They were the same words, but my teacher had a rule that if you got 100% on Monday, you had to pick out 10 new words to make up your own test on Friday.

    This happened to me constantly. I spent hours paging through the dictionary looking for harder words for my own tests. (My greatest achievement on that end was “paraphernalia.”) Well, eventually I learned that I could save myself some work (and more importantly, save myself the humiliation of being a nerd) by taking the test, then going back and introducing whatever seemed like the most convincing mistake.

    So yes… I learned to strategically underachieve.

    • 12/06/2010 10:47

      “Strategic underachieving” – so sneaky! Really though, it’s hard NOT to learn that in some cases. I remember getting back from summer training in college after having worked hard while a few teammates had slacked, and then everyone was all happy and pumped for them when they made dramatic improvements after a couple months of training together during the year… meanwhile those of us who had dutifully put in our workouts over the summer only saw marginal gains. It was kinda like… huh. Maybe I’ll spent next summer laying around instead.

  10. 11/30/2010 10:11

    You have good memory, and have clearly always been a good student. Trapper Keepers!! Lisa Frank! Not so sure about making that other girl lose her sticker though.

    • 12/06/2010 10:50

      Lisa Frank!!! I almost added in something about that, but didn’t.

      The other girl made fun of my glasses and tormented me on a regular basis. For her to lose a Star Dollar due to my own lack of backbone was sweet karma from the universe, to my 10 year old brain. Kids are vicious!

  11. 11/30/2010 11:47

    Oh man. I forged my mom’s signature so many times that when I really was sick and she wrote me a note, I had to re-do a forged version of THAT too, so they’d match what was on file.

    I wasn’t a particularly heinous kid, but I was really good at what kristin calls “strategic underachievement.” My junior and senior years of high school, I applied to a program that let me take community college classes for high school credit. And they don’t take attendance at community college. Which meant that I basically just didn’t go to class for two years, except to show up at the end of the quarter and take the test. That was pretty awesome. I had a lot of free time those two years. 🙂

    Oh, and throughout middle school and high school I was a huge journodork (editor of the school paper and such) and basically used my “press pass” as an excuse to (1) not go to class and (2) pull my friends out of class so we could go sit at Pizza Hut and eat breadsticks.

    I guess the takeaway from all of this is that I was a pretty decent kid but really had better things to do than go to class. This is a lifestyle choice that I follow to this day, so….yeah. 🙂

    • 12/06/2010 10:55

      I love this. I was a pretty dutiful, straight-laced kid all through school (with a few of those aforementioned moments of brattiness here and there). Don’t know if I’d have had the guts to spring my friends out of class for Pizza Hut with the press pass as justification — that makes me smile. A huge journodork, huh? This makes sense to me, given your writing chops. 🙂

  12. 11/30/2010 17:16

    Hilarious. “Cookies have the carbohydrate-protein-fat ratio to put me on the podium!” That just made me laugh like a maniac.

  13. dubay319 permalink
    12/01/2010 09:40

    Well I had a Diffrent learning experiences , my Mother could be Lulled into a non-schooling stupor if we just slipped in the VHS Titantic , once that music started we were golden four hours of no School

    Oh yes i was a sneaky Brat , hell i am still a sneaky brat ahahahahah . One time my mother was teaching us about Helen Keller and my little brother was wearing a mask because that would teach him about how hard it was to be blind. No me being an ass found this a very opurtun moment to strike . I grabbed every ball we had in our house and starting playing catch ” with helen “. I kept yelling Catch Helen , Catch as every single ball that i threw hit my brother square in the face . My mother was double overed laughing , one of my favorite school moments.

  14. 12/01/2010 10:23

    Oh man this was so funny! I hate plants too, by the way. I watered one too much and it died, so I didn’t water the other one at all and left it in the sun and it also died. So high maintenance.

    I was such a big goody two-shoes in school….just like with running…

    • 12/06/2010 10:58

      The funny thing is, I think plants are pretty fascinating now. Not as interesting as animals, but still.

      In terms of taking care of plants? I prefer cacti. About as low maintenance as ya get!

  15. 12/03/2010 02:33

    Loved this post! For some reason I’m in charge of the plants at work. They’re not quite dead, but they look like they want to be.

    • 12/06/2010 10:59

      “they look like they want to be” – OMG, that made we laugh out loud. Angsty plants!

  16. Jim permalink
    12/03/2010 16:23

    In grade 5 I was the best speeler (stupid keyboard) in my class. A student from grade 8 knocked on the classroom door. I was asked by the teacher to accompany him back to his class. In front of the eighth graders I was asked to spell a few big words. “See, a fifth grader can spell, why can’t you lot”. I walked back to my class feeling smug. After school 4 or 5 of the eighth graders were waiting for me. They beat the crap out of me. That is why I took up running.

    • 12/06/2010 11:13

      Did that really happen?! What a bunch of jerks. 13-year-olds beating up some little ol’ 10-year-old? Sounds as good a reason to begin running as any.

  17. 12/07/2010 17:59

    I absolutely love when your posts go totally off the reservation! 🙂 Some of your finest writing is when you rant – heh heh. Loves it.

    I was not the sneaky kid, I was the avenging kid. I was either the underdog fighting the bullies or the kid with an overactive sense of justice defending other underdogs from bullies.

    Short story: Of all of my scars, only the ones on my feet (surgery) are not the handiwork of my older sister, who, upon my birth, made it her mission to eradicate me. Seriously. She was badddddd. So around age 6, my uncle, who was in college and a boxer at the time, got fed up with his bruised and battered niece being so much roadkill for his older, unbattered and possibly mentally imbalanced niece. He decided to teach me a few things about defense.

    Later, after a spectacular episode that began with me involuntarily tumbling down basement steps (scar: right shoulder) and ended with the sister’s nose going kablooie (Mom’s carpet would never be the same), I realized that with my newly-perfected right jab that I had a new and particularly effective weapon against the spineless schoolyard bullies.

    I am both chagrined and somewhat proud that I only caused one more nose to go kablooie for the rest of my childhood. His name was Freddy. He called poor, horribly shy, and very overweight Barbara a “fat, sweaty rhino”. I said, “Take it back and apologize”. He said, “Make me”.

    So I did.

    Nobody picked on me (or Barbara) again for the rest of my school career.

    • 12/08/2010 12:23

      This excellent. Best of all, young Freddy now knows never to use the term “Sweaty Rhino” in a derogatory fashion… I’M a sweaty rhino a few hours out of each day. So I’m personally annoyed by that jab on Barbara’s behalf! Suck it, Freddy!

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