How Teaching Compares to Ultrarunning
My first day as a substitute teacher and my first ultra of the year
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On Thursday, I worked for the first time as a substitute teacher.
On Saturday, I ran my first ultra of the year.
Surprisingly, the experiences had several things in common, yet challenged me in different ways.
Which was harder—substitute teaching or ultrarunning? Let’s compare and contrast.
Why do it?
I had a clear understanding why I signed up to be a substitute teacher—or rather, a “guest educator,” which is the new nomenclature for subs, presumably to bring more respect and a fresh image to the undervalued but essential role. It was not for the money. Subs earn $120 per day, or $16 per hour for 7.5 hours, which is the same as my son earns at his part-time retail job.
It’s because I want to serve our community in a more meaningful way. There has been a chronic, dire need for substitutes in our school district, exacerbated by our region’s shortage of affordable housing. Each school day, sub jobs are posted and go unfilled. It’s the same story across the state, especially in rural districts. The pandemic made the situation worse, prompting burned-out educators nationwide to leave the profession.
The adventure and challenge of trying something new also appeals to me. I generally like working with kids and enjoyed volunteering in my kids’ classrooms when they were young. I appreciate the flexibility of choosing which days during the week I’d work and which assignment I’d take.
I also had a clear understanding why I signed up to run the Behind the Rocks 50K in Moab last weekend. It was a training run for the Miwok 100K in early May. I wanted to improve my time and enjoy it more than last year, when for various reasons I felt lousy the whole time. I’m stoked for another year structured around training for ultras, as detailed in this post on “the why” of ultrarunning.
I took on both challenges—the teaching, and the run—with a sense of purpose and motivation.
Low barrier to entry
To earn a three-year license as a sub from the Colorado Department of Education, I needed three things: a clean criminal background, a college degree (although even a high school diploma will qualify for a one-year license), and a pulse. Seriously, that is all. To get substitute assignments at our school district, I also had to fill out an employment application, but I don’t know if it was reviewed. Nobody interviewed me about my qualifications. The only question I got was, “When can you start?”
My training consisted of a 2.5 hour “bootcamp” Zoom session for subs (which was optional and came with a $300 stipend; I could have skipped even this minimal training) and an email with links to helpful resources.
Clearly, I’d have to learn by doing. It’s like ultrarunning in this respect. It’s simple to start—anyone can give it a try—but it takes years of practice and endurance to become good at it.
On Saturday, from about mile 12 to 16 of the 50K, I ran with a 47-year-old man trying his first-ever ultra. He was a latecomer to ultrarunning, like I am to teaching. He appeared confident and enthusiastic, like, “I got this!” Later, around mile 20, he started vomiting and ended up hiking the final 10 miles, finishing more than 1.5 hours behind me. As a coach, I could have advised him early on about how to manage his pace and fueling. But some things you have to figure out mostly on your own and learn by experience.
I have a feeling that substitute teaching sometimes will be like that guy’s first ultra—enthusiastic in the morning, wanting to puke and drop out around lunchtime.
The stress of getting to the start
Getting to school, like getting to the start line, can be the most stressful part of the day. Will I get there on time? Will there be parking? How much time will it take to check in and use the bathroom?
Having worked from home independently for so long, I’m out of practice with getting dressed to look professional and being somewhere on time early in the morning. I woke up extra early to get out the door for my first sub assignment. Telluride has a traffic jam every school-day morning as families clog the single road leading to town, and I wanted to get ahead of that backup. I got to the school 15 minutes early and sat in my car shivering, trying to stay warm, just like at an ultra.
To get to Saturday’s race, we left extra time, thank goodness. We couldn’t spot the turnoff from the highway and drove past it twice, making U turns to try again. Then we had to navigate the truck over a rough dirt road.
It’s like getting to the airport—always leave extra time and plan to arrive early.
Adaptability and flexibility
Every day is different as a substitute teacher, and you don’t know what to expect. The trait I’ve honed as an ultrarunner of getting through whatever comes my way, and adjusting on the fly, would serve me well.
For my first day, I took a position as a paraprofessional, also known as an instructional aide or teacher assistant. I figured it would be a good way to get my feet wet as a sub, allowing me to observe the regular teacher, rather than diving into leading a classroom all on my own. Paraprofessionals work one-on-one with high-needs students who have behavioral issues, learning differences, or may be on the autism spectrum. Without them present, the high-needs kids would distract and monopolize the teacher’s attention.
(I subbed a second time yesterday, filling in for a teacher in the preschool, and this Friday, I’ll have my first substitute experience at the Middle/High School. My intention is to gain some experience between now and the end of the school year and then sub on a more frequent basis in the new school year.)
At 8:05 a.m., as dozens of 6- and 7-year-olds burst through the hallways on their way to 1st and 2nd grade, the front-office person told me I’d spend the first two hours with a high-needs boy in a 1st grade classroom, then I’d switch to a different classroom to help another substitute teacher there.
I felt nerves in my stomach and dryness in my mouth as I made my way to the classroom, but I didn’t have a water bottle handy to drink, and I didn’t want to drink because who knew when I’d get a bathroom break?
Saturday in Moab, by contrast, felt much easier at the start. I knew what to expect, having run the race the prior year. Having trained in winter conditions, in freezing temperatures, it was a shock to my system to run in desert sand and heat that hit the mid 80s. But I knew how to go with the flow. I’ve been running ultras for so many years, I no longer get nervous.
What makes something feel challenging and intimidating has less to do with the actual difficulty of the task than the unfamiliarity and lack of experience. Trying new things is always hard. Substitute teaching is especially hard because you have to take care of others. You’re in charge of young people who expect you to know what you’re doing. Being on the trail, worrying only about myself and getting from point A to B, seemed blissfully simple and self-indulgent by comparison.
As an ultrarunner, I practice patience on every long run. If I start looking at my watch frequently, preoccupied with the desire to get through the miles more quickly and be done with it, then I know I am creating stress and sabotaging my long run. I try instead to adapt an attitude learned from a friend a decade ago, Ken Michael, known for his slogan “All Day.” I tell myself: I can do this all day (and night, in the case of 100-milers). I have nowhere else I need or want to be. I’m going to settle into running this route and take whatever time it takes.
Mantras help. In the early miles of an ultra, when I’m inclined to be impatient, I repeat the words “relax, no stress” with the syllables in rhythm with my foot strike.
As I approached the 1st-grade classroom to meet the boy assigned to me, I thought up a new mantra: “calm and confident.” I’d stay calm. I’d pretend to be confident. And I’d be patient, no matter what.
The boy I spent the first two hours with, whom I’ll call Chris, appeared to have red blotchy marks on his face and toes pointing outward since his snow boots were on backwards. As he looked at me, he aggressively pounded his fist against his forehead and tugged at his nose, causing the redness.
“I’m stupid,” he blurted by way of introduction. I calmly said, “Actually, your name is Chris, and I’m Ms. Sarah. Nice to meet you.”
I knelt down to him and held up my hand for a high five. He looked momentarily surprised and high-fived me. Then he jumped out of his seat as if electrocuted, grabbed the edge of the table, and lifted it up to make it tilt and scatter everything on it. I did not react. I looked at the quiet girl sharing the table who had the misfortune to be seated next to him. “I see Michaela is working on her number sheet. Can you teach me what we’re supposed to be doing?”
He explained a color-by-numbers assignment, filling in shapes based on a number. For example, 8 was blue, and 8 could be expressed as an equation such as 5 + 3 or with dots or hash marks. He scribbled erratically. I resisted the urge to tell him to color in the lines and praised every time he found an 8 and marked it blue.
The class then gathered at the front to sit by the teacher’s feet as she explained a lesson. Each student was supposed to use a little number board with counting beads strung across, and Chris tossed his counting board in the air while flipping around the floor. I led him away from the group to a table, so he wouldn’t disrupt the lesson, and sat at his level to make eye contact. “Please show me how this works. I’ve never used one before,” I told him, handing him the number board. This seemed to spark his interest, and he focused on using the board for about a minute to show me how it works, but then he leapt from his chair again.
I kept thinking, what if I weren’t here? How would the teacher manage him—and how much would the other 14 kids’ learning suffer because of one out-of-control student?
I breathed deeply. I had no idea what I was doing, I simply used my instincts and drew on my experience as a parent. “Do what works,” I told myself, my favorite advice both for parenting and ultrarunning.
When I walked onto the school grounds, every adult greeted me and expressed gratitude upon learning I was a new sub. I sensed their teamwork and appreciated how truly nice everyone was to me and to the kids demanding their attention. Observing the teachers’ quick, efficient movements, their smiles, and their levelheadedness in the face of the ever-present potential for chaos, I felt awe and respect. They made me want to be a part of their team.
Camaraderie among runners and volunteers is one of the aspects of ultrarunning I appreciate the most, too. It felt good last Saturday to race with others and recognize a few familiar faces.
I think I’ve been working solo from home for too long. It feels good to connect with the community, be it in town or in the sport.
By early afternoon at the elementary school, my brain felt fried. I was sitting on the floor with a small group of first-graders leading an activity that involved a multistep game with dice. A laminated sheet explained the instructions, but I didn’t have the time or multitasking skill to read the instructions and simultaneously pay attention to the kids who were wiggling around and throwing dice in all directions. I felt mild panic as I struggled to understand the game’s steps, thinking, I’ve successfully done Wordle 48 days in a row, so why can’t I figure out this activity?
I took a deep breath, scanned the instructions, and realized what we needed to do, but by then the time was up and the four kids needed to rotate to the next activity station. I had failed to teach those four. Oh, well, I’d refocus on another four students coming my way and do my best to engage them.
During the 50K, fatigue presented itself differently. Mental fatigue came from negotiating technical terrain, and physical fatigue came from pushing my effort for 32+ miles (the 50K route was slightly long) in hot temperatures, running every portion that I could instead of hiking more.
But, I could handle the ultramarathon’s fatigue and stress because I know what I’m doing and never doubted my ability. After mile 20, I excelled and passed at least 20 runners while others wilted. No one passed me. I told myself to be “a closer,” finishing strong on the final stretch of relentless sandy tracks in direct desert sun. I was running so much better, with more fluidity and efficiency, than I had the prior year that mentally I developed a positive feedback loop that made each mile feel more successful. I was in my element, and it felt good to feel that way again.
I finished the race in 6:40, 12 minutes faster than 2021 in spite of the hotter temps. I was the first over-50 woman and 18th woman out of 76, and solidly in the top half of the overall field. Not bad given all the younger speedsters out there.
Both the day of subbing and the 50K wore me out—I felt exhausted after each experience—but filled with satisfaction. And during each, I appreciated being offline and entirely absorbed by the job in front of me. For those six to seven hours, I did not look at my phone and check email or Instagram or news headlines. I did not get distracted or waste time. I stayed focused on moving forward and handling whatever needed to be done.
I’d conclude that being a first-time substitute teacher was harder than racing an ultra, mainly because I’m an old hand at the sport. Substitute teaching will get easier with experience, but I expect it always will be challenging given the unpredictability of the assignment and its selfless nature. It’s no wonder it’s a tough job to fill. I’m glad my background as a runner toughened me up for it.
For more info on becoming a teacher, check out Teach Colorado and this page on the Colorado Department of Education site.
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A fun way to bridge the two things :) Thanks for sharing
Love your article, Sarah. I'm an educator, too, and appreciate the parallels you make with ultrarunning and teaching. You put so much of yourself (emotionally and physically) out there in the classroom and on the trail. Best of luck to you in your new endeavor!