Wednesday 5 June 2019

The Lessons of Lyndsay Tessier

As serious Canadian running fans will have noticed-- and possibly marveled at-- 41 year old primary school teacher Lyndsay Tessier was named to the Canadian team (in the marathon) for the upcoming (October)IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, becoming, to my knowledge, one of two Canadians of "master"-age* (40+) to earn this distinction (race walker Tim Berrett, did it in 2007.)

And while Lyndsay's accomplishment (which she earned by running a time of 2:30:47 in the 2018 Berlin Marathon, breaking the Canadian women's 40+ record by a staggering 3 minutes) was understandably thrilling and surprising for her, the rest of us-- and particularly me, her coach through it all-- should probably have expected it. For those of us in closest proximity to her, Lyndsay has been offering clear lessons about what it takes to be great at running, and at the marathon in particular, since the beginning of her sojourn from mid-30s fitness runner to one of the best Canadian women marathoners of all time. The finality of her official selection to a major national team has given me occasion to review those lessons.

They are as follows:

1. First and above all, run for your own well being. But, even as you do, be open to anything.

Lyndsay, having only ever run in primary school, started running as an adult for the same reason millions of people do each year-- to get in shape and to feel better about herself. The difference between Lyndsay and many of us who start new things at mature ages, however, was that she remained open to the possibility of doing and achieving more with each small increment of mastery, and regardless of her relatively advanced age. At one point, for instance, she must have decided to stop taking the famous, beginner's 60 second walk break every 10 minutes! But then, having completed a marathon in a very respectable (and Boston Qualifying) time of 3 hours 7 minutes, this busy thirtysomething school teacher must have decided that it would be fun and interesting to reach for more. And still more. Even after sustaining several big-bone fractures and having to sit out the required 10-12 weeks each time, yet still having managed to reduce her best time to 2:46, she decided to approach a complete stranger (me), living in another city, for help in getting the next level. Who, at age 38, would do this?

2. Embrace competition, but also your competitors and, thereby, the sport itself.

You can't make a World Championship Athletics team without a fierce competitive drive and a will of iron. But you can't actually enjoy accomplishing anything if these are the traits that exhaustively define you. If all you can see, and all you care about, are your accomplishments, they will never be big or plentiful enough to satisfy you. And while this dissatisfaction may propel you to achieve more still, each new accomplishment will deliver less real satisfaction if you fail to derive anything from the experience of overcoming than the primitive thrill of domination. It takes real wisdom to distill meaning from the essentially meaningless pursuit of (inevitably fleeting) athletic accomplishments. Lyndsay Tessier, when you get to meet and know her, can show you exactly what this wisdom looks and sounds like. She is hard on herself when necessary, as every elite athlete must be, but she is unfailingly generous to her competitors at every level, and does her best not to compare herself and her path to success with others and theirs. Instead, she sticks to her own routine of early am, pre-work, mostly solo training; she travels to interesting training locales (e.g. Iten, Kenya) during her holiday time; and, she races when she feels ready, never for money. She also, unlike many late-starters, refuses to consider what her running life may have been like had she taken up the sport when most of the best do, as as teenager-- unless it's to affirm the rightness of her own path to success, for her. Finally, she allows herself to experience real joy and wonder in her successes and real sadness in her setbacks, without ever letting either alone define her or her life in running.

3. Learn from your mistakes.

This is one of the worst of sport's clichès; but, like most sports clichès, it secrets a kernel of truth. In this case, the kernel is that you have to actually learn from your mistakes, not just repeat the phrase. And we demonstrate that we have indeed learned from our mistakes when we no longer repeat them! The mistakes we make most often are the result of doing things we like, and therefore would prefer to continue doing, even though we know on some level that they will end in mistakes and frustration; they come, in other words, from being at odds with ourselves on some sub-conscious level. To learn from a mistake is thus to endure the pain and discomfort of breaking a pleasurable and, on some level, constructive habit. Lyndsay's constructive but ultimately bad habit-- common to veteran and beginning runners a alike-- was to run as fast as she felt like going on a given day, medium term consequences be damned. To reach the level she must have intuited she was capable of-- which meant finding a way to run without breaking her bones-- she had to follow a yearly training plan and to allow herself to gain some of the crucial body-knowledge typically earned through years of immersion in the sport. It also meant occasionally zigging where in the past she might have zagged-- meaning, in her case, switching to cross-training at moments when, in the past, she might have hammered on, hoping for the best. Today, Lyndsay is a proud hypochondriac when it comes to her running aches and pains. And so far (sound of knuckles on wood), her paranoia has kept her in fine fettle.

4. Stay within yourself when competing.

The marathon famously requires a lot of time alone, in the mental cockpit, carefully monitoring signals from the larger system as it hums (or maybe twangs, jiggles, and squishes) along beneath us. The minds of the best marathoners are calmer and less prone to random, panicky impulses than the rest of us at times when the dials seem to go a little haywire, or flirt with the red zone. Some of this equanimity is inborn, but the majority of it is learned-- learned while actually running. Not having known Lyndsay before she started running, or even as a beginning runner, I do not know what portion of her exemplary mental game is the gift of fate and what portion has been learned. What I DO know, however, is that her ability to remain focused in training and racing is like nothing I have ever seen up close. Imagine for a moment the mind of a person who can run 160+ kilometer training weeks, including very high-level workouts (e.g. 40 minutes of aerobic threshold running, with 3 miles of warm-up/down), at 6am, before work and (often)in the dark, or who can run an entire marathon at a pace faster than she has ever managed before without taking a single split between 21k and 37k. This is difficult for me to comprehend, and I have run 200,000kms in my life, the vast majority of them completely alone. I feel certain-- and have said as much-- that if Lyndsay Tessier had the physical capacity to break the world record in the marathon, absolutely nothing in her psychological make-up would prevent her from doing so. All of the best runners I have ever met or read about sound like Lyndsay when they talk about their mental approach to the sport-- i.e about remaining calmly centred on the process; keenly focused, yet oddly detached; caring intensely, yet not worrying. The stunning difference is that Lyndsay Tessier is 42 and only started running 8 years ago.

The theme common to all of these lessons is, of course, maturity and wisdom. And you may be tempted to think that Lyndsay has these things simply because she is older than the typical elite athlete. This is not true. Lyndsay, and all others like her, in all walks of life, is wise and mature because she has allowed her athletic life-- and her life-experience in general, one suspects-- to teach her how to be these things. This is the difference between being wise and mature versus silly and self-absorbed whatever one's age.

If you have read this far you will already know that how Lyndsay actually performs at the World Championships won't really change anything for her. As always, she will train diligently, and she will relish every minute of her preparation (especially because she will be on summer holidays for most of it!). She will be open to, once again, making history, but she will accept her result whatever it may be. And she will be ready for her next step, whether it be preparing to represent Canada at an Olympic Games, or taking another shot at qualification in the spring. In other words, this teacher will continue to instruct-- for those of us willing to pay attention!

*Master's athletics officially begins at age 30, but no reasonable person who is not simply interested in driving membership in master's athletics association, or increasing participation numbers in master's track meets and road races, thinks it should-- at least not if age-related loss of performance capability is considered the pertinent datum.