Gary explains the importance of taking action even when you may think that no-one is being positively influenced by what you are doing. The catalyst for this episode was born in the middle of a marathon in which Gary was participating. While struggling with discomfort, Gary found inspiration from a person who was taking action; nothing more and nothing less.
I'd woken feeling bloated and not quite myself. "This isn't good" I thought to myself as I ate my pancakes and banana for breakfast and sipped my bottle of water. Tiptoeing quietly around my house so as to not wake my family I showered and dressed in my running gear. My plan was to take our people mover into the carpark at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (known as 'The G') and my wife, four children and mother would come in by train to see me finish the race. Another good friend was to meet me at the 30km mark to provide me with some 'supplies' for the final leg of the 42.195kms. Outside was very cool and a perfect morning for running was predicted. I was prepared for a cool start to the Melbourne Marathon and had applied lavish amounts of anti-inflammatory cream to my right knee that hadn't yet fully recovered from my last marathon in Alice Springs less than two months earlier. As this was my 8th marathon I was no longer fearful of not completing the course, just fearful of how I would tackle my mind this time around. Every marathon that I have run has included a mental barrier or two and each time I have been able to overcome them and reach the finish line.
However I'd never woken in the morning feeling quite the way I did this time. My meal the night before which included pasta and pancakes was a fairly normal dinner prior to a marathon; I was well hydrated and looking forward to finishing the run on the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Driving in to The G my mind was occupied by how I felt in my stomach. There was no denying it, I felt bloated and this wasn't normal. As I parked my car my nerves began to rise. I had arrived 75 minutes before the start of the race, so I laid back in the seat in my car, covered my legs with a towel and rested a little more before walking over to the start position which was just over one kilometre away from where I was parked. I had hoped that the extra rest would settle my stomach. It didn't. I was then hopeful that the walk over to the start of the race would "do the job". It didn't either. Once at the start line I had about 20 minutes to wait before the first steps of the run would commence. People were huddled in groups, chatting with each other. It was now light and the race announcers were doing their best to 'pump' everyone up. It seemed to work for me as I momentarily forgot about how I was feeling. Kerryn McCann's sister, Jenny Gillard was being interviewed. Jenny was running in memory of her sister who had lost her fight against cancer after having won the gold medal for the marathon at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006. Kerryn's son Benton was introduced as he was going to be the official starter. The crowd had suddenly grown and everyone was both excited and sombre and had spontaneously started clapping in Kerryn McCann's memory. Within moments the National Anthem was sung, the countdown had begun and we were off!
As I ran through the starting line I waved at the TV cameras - you never know maybe I could get my head on the TV which would make my children happy! Within the first 200 metres my consciousness of my discomfort returned. "This is going to be interesting" I thought. It is amazing how one's mind can become so pre-occupied with something that everything else around you literally disappears. While I knew that I was running with 4,200 people, I felt as if I was running on my own. I then became conscious of my consciousness, if that makes any sense! I thought, "C'mon! Snap out of it. Enjoy the run, the discomfort will pass, your rhythm will come. Think about how you'll feel at the end of the run. Think about running in front of Mish and the kids around the G and how it will contribute just a little bit toward their own thinking about health and fitness." And then, "I think that this will be a PW today - a Personal Worst!", and then, "C'mon, focus on the moment. Left foot, right foot! Each step is one step closer. Just focus on doing what has to be done now!". Sounds crazy, doesn't it! But that little war of words is what was going on in my head. All the while, however, the discomfort continued.
We had travelled about five kilometres when I noticed a man limping ahead of me. Then I noticed his left leg. It was permanently bent in toward his right leg so that when he swung his leg through it actually clipped the inside of his right knee. His left heel appeared to be permanently raised so he wasn't able to perform a heel strike with his left foot. Rather, he was running on his toes with that leg. He wore a green and white singlet that advertised cerebral palsy, and checkered shorts. We continued to run and leap frog each other for next 16 kms until his paced started to slow and I slowly moved ahead of him. I do not know if the man had suffered from cerebral palsy, but I suspect that he had. My focus on how I was feeling had been brutally challenged. As we ran I found myself thinking about the various challenges that this man may have encountered in his life.
The one thing that I didn't have to speculate about was whether he had taken on the challenge of a marathon. There he was, running beside me. Suddenly my bloated stomach seemed a little irrelevant. The experience also thrust my mind back to my first marathon in New York in 2006. The advertisement for that race said, "37,000 Stories", which was true. The same was also true for this day. The only difference being that there were 4,200 stories and not 37,000. The way I was feeling was just another story and everyone around me suddenly took on another level of importance. As I was struggling with my story, possibly they were all facing their own stories and struggles. In this way the very thing that kept us different (i.e. our stories) also kept us united. So I accepted that today I felt uncomfortable and that was that. This would simply be my story for this race. However, I also knew that how I felt was not going to stop me from performing. I had come here to complete the race (ideally under four hours) and that was exactly what I would do.
Joseph Jaworski defines synchronicity as, "...a meaningful coincidence where something other than the probability of chance is involved." I don't know if it was anything other than luck that resulted in me and this gentleman crossing paths, but it certainly had meaning for me. Who knows, maybe he was looking at me and the way I looked inspired him to overcome whatever demons he was facing at the time! You never know!
The second half of a marathon is usually where the real race begins. It is both a mental and physical challenge. Yet somehow the mental challenge for me had eased and my body finally felt 'normal' over the last 8 kms where I ran the most freely and comfortably I had done for the whole race. Upon completion of the race (in 3 hours and 56 minutes) I stayed around the finish line for a while until I was ushered off the ground to make way for the athletes who were still coming in. I had hoped to cheer the gentleman who had inspired me when he completed his race but I was consumed by the mass of people heading into the bowels of The G.
On reflection this gentleman probably had little awareness of my existence. Yet he had served me in a most profound way by inspiring me to recognise how lucky I was to be able to do what I was doing no matter how uncomfortable I felt. His example displays the power of taking action. This man could run. His running style may be different to yours and mine but he could run. For reasons known to himself through his own story, there he was running the Melbourne Marathon. Did he get up that morning and think to himself that he would inspire and help me through the race. I don't think so. However, through participating and taking action he created the possibility that he could inspire someone. And that someone was me. That is how synchronicity works.
When you are at work and you think that you are only one person and that what you do doesn't matter so it doesn't really matter if you do the right thing or not, maybe it does matter. Just because no-one walks up to you and explicitly points out that your actions have inspired them to take action doesn't mean that your actions aren't inspiring anyone. So it might start with the courage to create Ground Rules for your team, or to use a story or article to stimulate a Conversation That Matters, or maybe you take a stand that supports both your personal and organisational values. Leadership isn't all about titles and power. Leadership is often about the influence that your actions have on other people and just like my friend out on the marathon course leadership is often subtle, yet no less inspiring. So take action; you never know how the synchronicity of your actions could inspire other people to do likewise.