Life at the Margins (Revealed on a Treadmill?)

Two weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a research study that involved running on a treadmill with a breathing tube in my mouth and multiple blood tests along the way. It was a bit of an odd feeling, but the strangest part (and where the most significant LIFE lessons occurred) was the format of the testing. The early part of the test was straight-forward. Start at 8 min/mile pace and speed up every 4 minutes. We got down to 5:36/mile pace after about 45 minutes and wrapped up that portion of the test. Nothing odd or enlightening yet.

It was what came next that brought on the life lessons…

After a 10 minute water break, it was back on the treadmill with the breathing tube. The goal of Part II was to run 3 miles as fast as possible (after fatiguing the legs with the previous section of the test). No problem – basically a solo 5K for time. Let’s do this! Then the details were revealed. It would be a 3 mile solo “race” but it would be completely blinded. I would not be allowed to see the treadmill screen or any sort of clock throughout this test. No pace readout… no distance revealed… no sense of overall time. The researcher would start the treadmill and I was to just GO until she stopped me. Very, very, very odd feeling.

Normally in a race, you have an idea of how far you’ve run – or at a minimum how long (in minutes) you’ve run. It’s part of the pacing strategy and the reason almost everyone is able to speed up at the end of an event (you know where the finish line sits). In this test, NONE of those were made available. It was a blind run, with no idea how many minutes or miles had passed and no feedback on the pace I was running (is this too fast? too slow?).

No big deal, right? Just run until she stops you. Ok – if I were just trying to “get by” (run any old pace) then it would have been a simple task. However, those weren’t the instructions. The goal was to optimize the run, to squeeze out every last bit of speed but in a manner that wouldn’t force me to stop early either – without receiving ANY feedback. Hmmm…

Pretty similar to real life, isn’t it? Our goal is to optimize the gifts we’ve been provided, right? However, we don’t know when it ends (distance) or how far along the road we are at the moment (time). We try to artificially create comparisons (pace) in a variety of different ways (education, income, title, etc) but none of them really mean anything because we don’t have any idea what we can achieve until we put ourselves out there! If we choose to coast, then it’s easy. Just “go with the flow,” right? Sorry – real living takes place at the margins – those places that are juuuust outside of our comfort zone. If we’re not willing to nudge up against those limits, then how will we ever know what’s possible?

In the end, my final pace/mile for the 3 mile blinded run was 5:48/mile. The 2nd part of the research study takes place a month later, where I’ll get the opportunity to race against the only competitor who should really matter to me: me. Yes, it would have been a lot easier (both at the time and to set up improvement in round II) to coast through the original test around 7:30/mile pace. But then I’d never have the chance to find out what’s really inside the unopened gift. It made me wonder if I’m approaching life in a similar way…

Life is a blinded run, my friends. Let’s get outside of our comfort zones and see what’s really inside.


By the way, as a postscript to the above, before I started the 3 mile test, the researcher asked me what pace I’d hoped to average. My response was “Somewhere between 5:45-5:50/mile.” The final outcome (5:48/mile – almost precisely in the middle of that range) sets up another interesting discussion about whether our goals are self-limiting (what if I’d said “5:35-5:40/mile” – would I have run faster?) or self-driving (what if I’d said “Around 6:00/mile” – would I have run slower?). Another topic for another day…

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