NOT In It To Win It

My favorite running partner ready to hit the road. Photo Credit: J. Westrich

I run, but I’m not competitive and I don’t always enjoy it. I started running pretty late in life, as a new mom who wanted to return to her pre-baby pants size and not be out of breath climbing the stairs to grab a diaper. Running worked for me because I could squeeze in 2 miles between kids’ activities or, if pressed, toss a child in the jog stroller and take them along. Eventually I realized I wanted to see what I could do in a race scenario, and I signed up for my first 5K. So why would I race when I know I won’t win?  It is all about the challenge and the journey.

Stopping to get support from my cheering squad during the Marine Corps Marathon. Photo Credit: J. Westrich

The NYS Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework encourages “high expectations and rigorous instruction.”  This means students are challenged in the academic sphere to set goals that require effort and determination to achieve success. Ideally students see their success not as a grade or a “win.”  Success is growing – academically, socially, and emotionally. When I race I know I’ll never win, but meeting my personal goal is an A-plus for me. There are many mushers who set out on the first Saturday in March to run the Iditarod knowing they won’t win.  They do it anyway with the expectation that they will successfully meet the challenge of dog sledding across Alaska.

Kristy and Anna Berington at the finish of the 2018 Iditarod. Photo Credit: Iditarod

I reached out to race veterans Anna and Kristy Berington to get their take on the Iditarod. Anna has raced every year since 2012, and Kristy every year since 2010.  While neither has cracked the top 10 they keep coming back. The question, of course, is why? After a decade of racing, what is the incentive to keep trying if winning isn’t the goal?  According to Anna, “It is the ultimate test of human and canine relationships…spanning 1,000 miles across some of the meanest and most beautiful stretches of land that has been created.”  The benefit isn’t in the winning, but in the doing.  Forging relationships with the dogs is key to the success of the race but also key to the enjoyment of racing. When students set out to tackle a difficult task, isn’t what they can learn along the way just as important as finishing?  Consider the skills they develop and the relationships they form that aren’t measurable in the final product but are just as important and meaningful to their learning journey?  

Pristine Beauty of Finger Lake. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Anna mentioned the landscape, and musher KattiJo Deeter concurs, “The beauty and magnitude of this event is something that isn’t easily replicated in any other way.”  Deeter raced for the first time in 2022, but was stopped by the weather outside White Mountain. She’ll be back again in 2023, making another run at the finish line in Nome.  The natural beauty of the land inspires mushers to return to the race year after year, even when it seems they’ve been beaten by the rigors of the trail. For Deeter it’s a philosophy, a commitment to the “sled dog life.”  She states, “many of us have had serious accidents or been in life-threatening situations, yet we continue to come back to the dogs and this lifestyle every day.”  In the classroom we hope to avoid injuries, but we can use Deeter’s advice to remind our students to come to school each and every day committed to learning, even if they feel like they “failed” the day before. The Iditarod is a long race, and learning is a long trail: there will be success and failure along the way. Deeter hasn’t changed her goal of finishing the Iditarod, she still has high expectations for her run to Nome this year.  

KattiJo Deeter on the trail. Photo Credit: Iditarod

Iditarod is physically challenging, so there is obviously training that goes into the preparation.  Both Anna and Kristy Berington have found a variety of non-dogsledding ways to stay in shape.  I was curious about their perspective on non-Iditarod events, considering dogsledding is their priority sport.  Their answers surprised me, but not in the way I had expected.  Kristy felt the Backyard Ultra, a race where each runner does a 4.16 mile loop per hour and the last man standing wins, was her most challenging.  Anna said the Half Ironman Triathlon – a grueling 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run – was the toughest. Both events sound exhausting and I can see why they stand out. The surprise however was that both sisters said that it was their FIRST time doing each of these events that was the toughest. Regardless of training, or preparation, going into the unknown is going to be difficult. Kristy had terrible weather for her first Backyard Ultra and Anna was on an unfamiliar bike in her first Half Ironman – unexpected conditions can make a goal seem unreachable. 

Kristy and Anna Berington know it takes peak physical fitness to race Iditarod. Photo Credit: Terrie Hanke

This is a great lesson for students – the first time they try a difficult task it might not go perfectly, but it doesn’t mean they should give up. KattiJo Deeter didn’t have a perfect first Iditarod. But she knows it is all about perspective.  “I remind myself that something that seems upsetting, or like a setback in the moment may turn out to be a good thing down the trail, days later.”  It is hard to have our students see the trajectory of their education; they live in the moment. Yet studies show that setbacks may actually help students in the long run. According to research our brains actually grow when learning is a struggle. “Getting correct answers does not create the same type of brain growth and activity as when we make errors.” (Seda, pg 37*). Students need to know it is ok, to be given permission, to be encouraged to make mistakes as they journey through their education.

KattiJo Deeter off and running on Willow Lake, ready to take on the challenges of the Trail. Photo Credit: Dave Poyzer

Iditarod has a lot to teach us about the rewards that come with the doing, not with the winning. In the race we see competitors who are working to improve and crack the top 10, and we have mushers that just want to finish. Each musher sets their own goal. Each musher has high expectations for themselves and their team. It is how they view the challenge that will define their race. How our students view learning, how they tackle a challenge, and the pride they feel when those high expectations are met will be the guide through the academic and non-academic struggles in their lives. Iditarod isn’t about taking the easy way, what fun would that be? What wonders would be missed?  I’ll never win a running race, but I’ve challenged myself because, in pursuit of my goals, I’ve jogged along the beach in Southern California, trotted along a corn field in Kansas, slogged up and down country roads in Vermont, and traversed the National Mall in Washington, DC.  My desire to achieve has led me to wonderful places, allowed me to be part of a community, and built my confidence. Iditarod does that for mushers; wouldn’t it be amazing if learning could do that for our students?

The Berington Twins on the Yukon cherishing the beauty of the journey. Photo Credit: Dave Poyzer

Library Learnings: Alone Across the Arctic chronicles author Pam Flowers journey to cover 2,500 miles of frozen wilderness by dogsled.  It is a fantastic story that exemplifies what it takes to set a goal and then set out to achieve it, just to prove that it can be done.  Her travels didn’t involve a “win” or accolades, but it did provide her with challenge, growth, and a need to dig deep in her well of determination to succeed.  

*Seda, Pamela and Kyndall Brown. Choosing to See: A Framework for Equity in the Math Classroom. Burgess Consulting. 2021

Math Educators: Choosing to See has some great insight into reframing “mistakes” as misunderstandings and the science behind how we can use math to actually make our brains grow!  Also check out the work of Stanford Professor Jo Boaler and her Mathematical Mindsets to learn ways to celebrate mistakes in the classroom!