Ultramarathon Running and Meta-Cognitive Skills

AJWs TaproomAs educators at all levels continue to grapple with the best course of action for the future of education, several diverging themes have emerged. The most compelling theme, from my perspective as a progressive educator, is the increasing focus on meta-cognitive skills. These are a set of skills that universities and employers have told us they seek in their students and workers and yet, thus far, secondary-school education has yet to embrace these skills in any meaningful, measurable way.

This trend started to change in the last two years with the introduction, from the National Association of Independent Schools, of the “Schools of the Future” movement. This movement focuses on 21st-century schooling from the ground up. And, in particular, this movement seeks to address exactly what are the skills needed to be a constructive, functioning member of 21st-century society. In this context, NAIS distilled down from hundreds of skills the five key skills that schools of the future must address, measure, assess, and evaluate:

The Five Essential Skills for the “School of the Future”:

  • Persistence
  • Resilience
  • Patience
  • Courage
  • Grit

Looking at these five skills and reflecting on them both as an educator and as a runner, I couldn’t help but notice the connection. Indeed, it is quite obvious to me that these five skills are essential to success in ultramarathon running and, in my experience, are skills that are not easily measured and evaluated. But, let’s face it, you know them when you see them!

So, it is in this context that I am initiating a five-part series on each of these five skills. And, while I will certainly provide my own reflections and ruminations on these five skills and their relative value to my life as an ultrarunner, I would also like to hear from you, the readers of iRunFar, in considering and reflecting upon these five skills. Therefore, I would like to invite any and all of you to send me an email to ajwstaproom@irunfar.com.

Please tell me a story, an anecdote, or a reflection on how your running has helped you develop these skills and what, if anything, you’ve learned from these experiences. I will start with “Persistence” next week and continue through the early part of the holiday season with five articles on the five skills listed in the order above, finishing with “Grit” on December 20th. Please feel free to write me at any time about any of the five skills so that I can incorporate your thoughts and stories into the articles. And, if you’d prefer to offer your story in the comment section of this article, that would work, too.

In the end, it is my hope to gather information, knowledge, and wisdom from you, the loyal readers of AJWs Taproom, to provide a series of essays that capture the essence of the skills not only necessary for success in running and in school but also, perhaps most importantly, in life.

Bottoms up!

I am pleased to announce a new feature at AJWs Taproom, Brew’s Brew of the Month. Brew Davis is a teacher, dad, and beer lover who also happens to be a talented writer and the spouse of record-setting Appalachian Trail hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis. Brew has accepted the position as AJWs Taproom Field Correspondent and has promised to deliver monthly beer reviews that inspire the senses and excite the taste buds. So here, without further ado, is Brew’s November Brew of the Month!

Brew’s November Brew of the Month
In 2011, my wife, Jennifer Pharr Davis, set the endurance record on the Appalachian Trail (46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes). This past June, Jen’s new book, Called Again: Love and Triumph on the Appalachian Trail, was released. So I did what any normal person would do: I quit my stable (albeit low-paying) job as a high-school history teacher, ran my first 100 miler (Mohican in Ohio), and began a book tour with Jen and our one-year-old daughter, Charley.

So far, we’ve visited 32 states and almost as many breweries. And my decision to quit teaching has already paid off because AJW’s agreed to let me be his “Field Correspondent”. So now, instead of being viewed as a bad husband/borderline parent, I have an excuse to drag Jen and Charley to more breweries. And I may even manage to finagle some free beer out of bartenders when I tell them I work for a beer blog. :)

Flat Branch BrewingIt’s tough to choose my favorite beer from our first collection of breweries. We’ve visited so many good ones: Bell’s and Founders in Michigan; Long Trail in Vermont; Snake River and Wind River in Wyoming; O’Dell, New Belgium, and Mountain Sun in Colorado. But this first month, I’m going toward the flatlands by recommending the Green Chili Beer at Flat Branch Pub and Brewing in Columbia, Missouri. It’s heated with Anaheim and Serrano peppers. The menu suggests adding a shot of tomato juice to make it a “liquid enchilada” and, when served that way, the beer is much milder and more drinkable than other chili beers I’ve had. Before visiting the brewery, you can earn your carbs by hitting the flat, shaded MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) Trail that runs through town.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)
AJW asked for it! Comment below or send him an email at ajwstaproom@irunfar.com sharing your experiences with persistence, resilience, patience, courage, and grit in trail and ultrarunning. He wants to know stories of how our sport has helped you acquire these skills and what you’ve learned from those acquisition experiences.

There are 17 comments

  1. ClownRunner

    This is a confusing time to be an ultrarunner. One day Joe Uhan tells us to back off the racing and training, and then a few days later AJW tells us to be persistent, resilient and courageous. I don't know whether to go out for a 30-miler or stay in bed. :)

    I would say in terms of education, it is all about scaffolding. You can't get to meta-cognition until you've got the cognition part down. Just like you need to run a few 5k's before attempting your first Hundo. My kids are 8 and 5, and they show very few signs of either meta-cognitive skills or ultra-running desire. And I find it very refreshing. What they lack in those areas they make up for in a big-time ability to kick back and have fun. But I also look forward to them developing the skills you mention in the coming years.

    I think back to my 30's, when I was running alot of races, including ultras, and doing a lot of "thinking about thinking". My mind was an unholy place, wrestling with every issue. And I thought if I missed one 30-mile training run, I wouldn't be ready for my next ultra. Now, as a Dad, and casual runner (and inept irunfar humorist), I see way too much meta-cognition and persistence in the world. Must be early Alzheimers…time to go grab a liquid enchilada!

  2. @SnowyScott

    Unfortunately none of those "Schools of the future" are "Parenting Schools". The reason being, most likely, is that we humans, and parents are the kings of it, are very quick to false-remember our own greatness. How many parents have ever admitted, "my kid is screwed up because I neglected, abused, didn't care, didn't want, didn't have the time, had other things to do, wanted to party,etc" It's probably a number statistically insignificant. Parents will , however, rampantly blame the schools, or the kids friends, or money, or the government, or the media, or violent video games,etc.

  3. @SnowyScott

    Parents these days have no idea how to create a calm nurturing environment that will promote healthy brain development. They stress out over everything, bubble wrap their kids, censor everything, etc and then wonder why the kid can't handle new situations.

    Before I continue ranting let's just end here.. The problem is with the environment outside of schools just as much as it is with the learning environment inside the school. But parents are voters, and parents are in denial.


  4. twsobey

    This discussion ties in well (I think) with an article over at Wired recently. The basic premise is that people learn best when they are in control of what they learn and when they learn it. This isn't a revolutionary idea on its own, but does not align with the current schooling method and those same five essentials would be required.

  5. robsargeant

    I lost my youngest son to suicide in June, 2010. He was just 15 years old. It was one of the most traumatic times of my life. I wrestled with questions daily afterwards. Why did this happen? I wanted to blame someone. If it wasn't for the strong spiritual foundation in my life at that time, I think I would've fallen into a deep depression.

    Near the end of 2011, I began training to take part in my first ultra of 64 kms. On race day I twisted my knee running down a hill around 20 kms in, and did not finish. Once I healed, I continued training for another year using a schedule I found online, and came back to run the same 64 km ultra. Suffering big time, I finished, and was one of the top 15 runners.

    I was learning, through training, and running ultras, that you have to learn to embrace the suffering you're going through. And when you come to steep hills on the path, you have to face them head on, through persistence, resilience, and patience to overcome them. I was learning to do the same thing in my emotional life, to embrace the suffering I was going through with the loss of my son. Somehow, by embracing it, the suffering has made me stronger.

  6. Greg11Rosenberg

    The opening page on Mike Morton's blog has this little gem: "Break things down in their basic elements rather than getting emotional and letting the total sum of everything, that’s not going good, get you. Break things down into simplest form and deal with it that way."

    Running is arguably just a small metaphor for life. No run ever truly goes perfectly, and it is upon the runner to problem solve on the run (no pun intended). Running allows us to routinely practice problem solving. When a runner's stomach goes south, his quads are shot, and he's cold and tired, he must figure out how to continue running. He can get overwhelmed by it all or he can remain collected and work on one of those problems at a time. And when his mortgage is due, his kids are sick, and his car just broke down, he'll have practice with not getting overwhelmed and will be able to handle the adversity a little bit better.

  7. DrummerCTK

    Hey! Brew, you came into the bottle shop I work at in Keene, NH while on tour with your wife this past summer. Funny how simply wearing a pair of Cascadias at work can lead to conversation about ultra running… though not the first time its happened at the beer store!

  8. @outsideinmi

    I've now read your column at least 5 times AJW. Are you a teacher? What is your classroom experience? Tell us more? It seems everyone these days has an opinion about how we should teach our kids. Everyone has an opinion about how to do it better. What is this "meta-cognition" buzzword you're espousing?

    You say you are a "progressive" educator. Examples??

    You say that "set of skills that universities and employers have told us they seek in their students and workers and yet, thus far, secondary-school education has yet to embrace these skills in any meaningful, measurable way." How do you know this? Have you gathered some educational research data that says secondary schools have NOT embraced meta-cognition?? Cite your resources my man!!

    Next you mention that " this movement seeks to address exactly what are the skills needed to be a constructive, functioning member of 21st-century society." Isn't that what education, both public and private, has been in the business of doing the last 250 years in the USA?

    Let me tell you about my background. I am a public school teacher (not $$ private school where you get the best of the best students from $$ backgrounds and are fully motivated to learn) of 25 years. I coach high school XC running and track (state champs in 2007 and 20+ all state athletes). I've taught everything from reading to basic math (add those fractions, baby!), to 7th grade science, to algebra, to algebra 2, to chemistry, to biology, to Limnology, to AP Chemistry. I've seen the best of the best students (who have gone on to be doctors, nuclear engineers, and aced the ACT with a 36) to the lowest of the low who can't even read by age 17. I strive EVERY SINGLE DAY TO META-COGNATE WITH MY STUDENTS AT THE SECONDARY LEVEL. Why do you NOT think that public school, secondary teachers don't meta-cognate? Its easy to throw out that word to the running world and have people nod and agree with you because they don't know what they're agreeing with, but its a different story when you say it to another teacher.

    Secondary teachers have not embraced it in any measurable, meaningful way? I have data set after data set of information which says differently. My students write lab reports, using statistical analysis on colorimetric data on solution concentration. They then peer review this data, performing calculations of root mean square statistics, they DISCUSS and interpret their data as a group. …. metacognition in action. Have you been in a secondary school setting watching teachers teach? Have you seen a calculus teacher take 50 LOW INCOME students and make them pass the AP Calc test? It happens in our school every year. About 50% of our students at my school are low income. They dont come from fancy "prep" quaker schools and we don't have a "dean" of students. We do work the old fashioned way with low income students year in and year out. we think about thinking and demand the best of our students daily. Why don't you think there are hundreds, probably thousands, of other schools like mine around the US?

    You are an amazing runner, great teacher (I'm sure, listening to how passionate you are), and have excellent taste in beer (Try Shorts Brewery sometime, here in Michigan, one of my former runners and students) but please dont jump on the bandwagon of bashing public secondary education. Before you do, do some research, visit me here in Michigan, and walk a few steps in my shoes.

    As a sidelight, my XC team had an "ok" season this year, but I'm very proud to say that three of my seniors rank #1, #2 and #3 in their graduation class of 250 students. XC runners ARE some of the smartest of the smart and, as usual, we should stick together and HELP each other, not point fingers about who you "think" isn't doing a good job.

    You want a story of how these skills help us succeed? How about a story of my top runner this year on my XC team. He was a mediocre freshman, worked hard, stuck with it, improved as a sophomore, made varsity as junior, got faster, tough kid. This year he was 5th in our regional, embracing a summer of training and working hard, peaking properly, eating right, cross training and doing all that an endurance athletes can do. At our reigonal meet he finished 5th (improving from 28th last year) and qualified for our state finals XC meet. At the finals he ran well, ending with a season best 16:40 in a sloppy, muddy course. Best of all though was his 9th place Academic All-state award. I am his coach, teacher, and friend and proud to say so. We've talked, personally, about Persistence, Resilience, Patience, Courage, andGrit more than you could imagine. In fact, during our DAILY XC meetings we talk about these characteristics all the time.

    Sincerely, a secondary education teacher embracing meta-cognition



  9. ajoneswilkins

    JKal, thanks for your note. I have been in education since 1989 and many of those years have been spent in "fancy" "Quaker" "prep" schools. By the sound of your comment you have strong opinions about such schools so I think it would be better to defer that conversation to another place.

    That said, there is ample research to suggest that a shift in focus could significantly improve American mainstream education in both the public and private sector. However, it is my belief that a long list of educational research studies would not be the kind of thing irunfar readers would have all that much interest in. But, I could be wrong. Either way, that is why I simply mentioned the studies rather than cited them.

    And yes, as a school administrator I have spent time in classrooms observing teachers (and, believe it or not) teaching myself.

    Feel free to email me privately at ajwstaproom@irunfar.com to have a more deep discussion.


  10. @outsideinmi

    I do have strong opinions about private, fancy schools. These schools draw on the richest, brightest, best behaved, driven, high achieving students, parented by millionaires, doctors, lawyers, and CEO's. They are, i'm sure, great schools. There is no way you can compare what goes on in these schools to what goes on in a public school like mine with a 52% poverty level population.

    Your post says that public secondary schools DON'T use meta-cognition in our methodologies. Well, you're wrong, we do.

    1. ajoneswilkins


      With all due respect, nowhere in my article did I write that "public secondary schools DON'T use meta-cognition in our methodologies." Rather, I wrote, "secondary school education has yet to embrace these skills (meta-cognitive skills) in any meaningful, measureable way." It just so happens that I harbor that opinion for all secondary schools.


  11. Alessandrots

    I think of running as a "mirror" of real life: you go through pain, sacrifice and commitment and finally you achieve a result…It's just that in life you can take a shortcut here and there, in running you can't…there's a kind of honesty in sports, not always the same in the "real world".__Thank you__Sandro

  12. @outsideinmi

    oh so you're saying that ALL schools don't embrace these methodologies!! Got it!! Even private schools. Well, you're wrong again. Sounds like you need to get out of the office and into classrooms more. Here's a personal invite to come visit me anytime, any day.

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