When I first saw the proposed route of my trek from the northern tip of New Jersey (the High Point Monument in Sussex County ) to the southern point (the Cape May Lighthouse), I quickly noticed that I was familiar with many of the roads.
During my 24 years at New Jersey School Boards Association, I have visited every one of New Jersey’s 21 counties more times than I can count. But this time I would be covering the terrain not in my car, but on foot – over the course of a weekend, from about noon on Friday, April 8 through the early hours of Monday, April 11.
I knew that I would be pushing my body and my mind to its limits. I knew that failure was a strong possibility. I knew that it was almost a certainty that something would go wrong. I knew that it was going to be very difficult, maybe the hardest challenge I have ever attempted. But I also know that great achievements are never easy, so sometimes the hardest path is the best path.
I also knew one other thing that would happen on this run — that I would learn a few more lessons about life. If running has taught me one thing, it is that you can discover a lot about yourself on a race. This is especially true on ultra-marathons, which includes any race longer than a marathon. On this run, which ended up covering 196 miles over the course of a weekend in April, I took away some life lessons, which I will share.
Great Individual Achievements are Team Efforts While it was my legs that carried me through this trek and I am proud of my athletic accomplishment (I never thought my greatest athletic achievement would come at age 62!), I am fully aware I could not have done it without substantial help.
My crew, which included Ian Hockley and Robb Armstrong from Dylan’s Wings of Change — the organization I was fundraising for — would drive ahead and create a rest stop, so that we could rest and replenish ourselves with food and water. They also monitored our condition and sometimes knew what we needed before we did. Anthony Certa, a fellow long-distance runner who is also a New Jersey special education teacher, ran the entire distance with me, which helped me stay positive in the wee hours of the night or in the rain.
The same is true in our school districts and maybe more so. Superintendents cannot do it all by themselves, nor can board of education presidents. They need the support of the whole school board. They need the administrative team and the teachers working hard. If there is no team effort in a district, then the district is not reaching its full potential.
A Great Team Effort Requires Great Individual Efforts As I ran with my partner, Anthony, we had to give it our best effort, but the crew and pacers had to as well. Our crew was amazing. They monitored our progress virtually and a couple of times warned us when we were off track or there was an issue with the route. They just didn’t sit and wait for us, but were engaged the whole time. Once, when we got caught unexpectedly in a rainstorm without our rain gear, we came into the rest stop drenched and one of the crew members took our wet clothes and found a laundromat to dry them so we had enough clothing for the rest of the journey. Everyone was a problem solver.
The same is true at the board level. Everyone should be a problem solver. All board members should do their homework. Read their packets, ask good questions and be fully engaged in the effort. The same is true for administrators. They should be anticipating questions and gathering as much information as possible, so the board can make an informed decision. When someone is not giving a good individual effort, it is known and felt by all.
Planning and Preparation are Essential We have all heard the Lao Tzu quote “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” My journey of almost 200 miles did not begin with a single step. It began with a dream and goal in mind, then a plan to make it happen. That plan included creating the route, looking at the logistics needed, forming a team, and of course, training. It was this intense training and planning that made the trek a success before that first step was ever taken.
In school districts, it is the same way. If everyone agrees on the goal, you need to create a plan on how to achieve that goal. Who is going to do what? What are the obstacles you might encounter? Just winging it will not work. That is why strategic planning is so valuable – it lays out everyone’s role and helps people focus.
The Goal Can Build the Team As I was running the length of New Jersey with Anthony, we were often asked by others how long have we been running together? They were always shocked when we said that we only met in person once before setting out on this challenging journey together. He was not the only one with whom I did not have a longtime relationship. Most of the team only met each other for the first time the night before the run. The team was formed quickly, and everyone was focused on one goal – getting us to the end. It was no time for personality clashes – the focus was on finishing.
In school districts, the members of the school board and the administrative team often change. It is hard to build a team when the faces change often. When districts do strategic planning and set goals, they can do the same thing. Goals focus everyone’s effort on the process and less on personality clashes. While I am not naïve enough to believe people’s egos will not get in the way, I do believe if we focus more on the issues and goals, we can minimize conflict.
Help and Assistance Can Come from Unexpected Sources It was about 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning and we were running on Route 206 in Burlington County – and even on a highway like Rt. 206, at that time of night there are almost no cars. Suddenly, a car pulled off on the opposite side of the road and a man jumped out with a headlamp and began calling my name. I couldn’t see who it was, and I started searching my mind to figure out who I knew in Burlington County who would want to run at 3:30 a.m.? As the man got closer, I heard him say “Ray, it’s me Dave.” I realized this was someone I met last fall at a 24-hour run and was friends with on Facebook. I was shocked. I had only met him once and he lived two hours from Burlington County, so he had been driving in the middle of the night. I told him where our crew was parked, and Dave joined us as we continued south. Dave originally was going to run with us for about 13 miles, but he soon decided to join us for the rest of the journey and was a great addition to the team. It was an unexpected addition but one that was needed.
In school districts we look at the titles and certifications of people involved in our strategic plans to accomplish our goals. Yet there might be members of the community or staff members with experiences or connections that we are unaware of who could really improve the educational experience of our students. Perhaps they know a war veteran who would be a great speaker for the students. The key is to create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable enough to speak up.
Small Acts of Kindness and Support Can Make a Huge ImpactAs I was finishing up our Sussex County leg of the run, we were in the parking lot of a Shop-Rite in Byram. I looked over at a woman who was putting her groceries in her car, but also staring at me. I was changing my gear at the van for my nighttime run. She slowly started toward us, so I walked toward her as well, thinking maybe it was someone I knew. She smiled and said, “I read about your run and am so impressed. You will make it. I feel that God is watching over you.” I was stunned by the support of this total stranger. Bridget was her name. She lifted my spirits so much.
Over a hundred miles later, as I was coming to the end of our Atlantic County leg, I saw people pulled over on the side of a country road standing by their car. As we got closer, I saw that one of them was Eileen Miller, a school board member from Salem County, who had driven more than an hour to see us for all of five minutes and cheer us on. I was so touched. This, however, happened to us often over the course of the weekend. Every time, we were so touched by these gestures. I still get emotional thinking about it. Their kindness and support gave us additional strength to push ahead. We were now doing this not just for ourselves but for others as well.
Sometimes serving on a board of education or in school administration can feel lonely and thankless, especially if a board is divided. Then you spend more time criticizing each other than praising. Sadly, it is very unlikely that local citizens will drive to a board meeting to praise the administration and the board. Yet the board can create a cordial environment that can at least prevent meetings from being places in which everyone is armed for battle. They can also practice being supportive of each other. Those small acts of kindness are huge.
Obstacles and Dead-Ends Always Appear – Don’t Give UpAt one point on Sunday about noon, we came to a dead end on a dirt road in the middle of a bog. Google Maps said that a road was just a short distance away, but we would have to bushwhack through the swampy forest. We were desperate, and this looked like our best option. Yet two school board members I knew from my work at NJSBA were following us on our live trackers, and realized we were off course, and there was no road ahead.
They called Ian, who alerted us seconds before we were about to make a fateful decision to head into the forest.
No matter how well you plan and prepare, things will sometimes not go according to plan. You will hit an unexpected obstacle or something that seems like a dream killer. This happened to us several times and most times, we had to pause and relook at our options before moving forward. You need to be flexible to adapt to changes. If COVID-19 taught us anything, it was to be flexible.
Social Media can be a Great Asset Since my run was also a fundraiser for Dylan’s Wings of Change, we needed to market it. Almost all of our messaging was with social media, both before and during the weekend. We used Facebook to publicize the run and were able to get some newspapers to cover the event.
Even before the run, I noticed a change after we started publicizing it. On my early morning training runs in my neighborhood, people that I did not know wished me good luck and asked me about my training.
Early on in the run, in Sussex County, a total stranger pulled up while were taking a break for food and drink and jumped out of the car her husband was driving and pointed at me. She said, “I have been looking for you. Can I get my picture with you?” Before long, Anthony and I had friends and strangers popping up along the way. We continued posting and had a live-tracker feed so people could check in. The result is that we raised over $8,000, which was more than double what I expected. We had a positive and uplifting story that really engaged people. They were craving something positive.
All our school districts have positive and uplifting stories, and we should be promoting them. Many of us who work with local boards of education spend many training hours discussing the perils of social media (with good cause), which makes us hesitant about using it. While social media may not be the best place to have school board policy discussions, it does have a place in our schools. It is where we can promote the positive things happening in our schools. People want to be proud of their community and schools – we just need to give them reasons.
Stop, Slow Down and Take in the Journey As I mentioned earlier, I was familiar with much of our running route because I had driven it. Yet the views are totally different on foot. You take in so much more as you run. All of your senses are engaged in the endeavor as you take in the sounds and smells of the landscape. You notice the slightest change in the inclines both up and down, something you would not in a car. Anthony and I took in the forests and farmlands of Sussex County as we ran it on a sunny day. We noticed the rushing streams almost overflowing their banks from the torrential rains the night before. As we moved south, the landscape featured gently rolling hills. Eventually, those gentle rolling hills gave way to a flat terrain. More flowers were also definitely in bloom. Since it was a walking route, it often took us off the highways and into pockets of developments. We were seeing a New Jersey that very few do. This gave us a greater appreciation of the beauty of New Jersey.
Nowadays, our lives are extremely fast paced. Our phones are constantly updating us on the news and reminding us of meetings. It seems that we are moving from one crisis to the next without taking a breath. Recently we have been focusing our students on “mindfulness” and self-care, which is extremely important. It is just as important for the adults as well. Board members and administrators need to not only find ways to include it in our classrooms but to practice it themselves.
Just before daybreak on Monday morning, the welcome sight of the Cape May Lighthouse came into sight — and with the it culmination of our journey.
My wife was waiting with the team with customized medals for Anthony and me and commemorative gifts for the rest of the team. We made it!
The journey was over yet the lessons will live on. I have a great sense of accomplishment from taking on this challenge and achieving my goal, but equally satisfying is the fact that we brought people together and were able to benefit an incredibly noble cause – Dylan’s Wings of Change (see box, page 30).
Board of education members are also on journeys—ones that benefit the lives of the children in their communities and throughout the state. It is my hope that you have teams that support each other, plans to help guide you, goals you can all focus on, assistance from unexpected sources, persistence and a sense of joy from the great things you are achieving.