Breakfast Of Champions Speech
Everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. I got at least 20.
As Warhol famously quipped, “everyone gets 15 minutes”. I had at least 20 minutes. All the breakfast TV shows, magazines, newspapers, late-night TV shows, corporate audiences, firing the pistol to start races … And why? Well, I ran 24 hours on a treadmill a few times and set a world record.
To me, it seemed just a natural thing to do, we raised enormous amounts of money for the local Children’s Hospital (of which I spent the first 7 days of my life in an incubator). But others got inspired by it. Others found it “out there” and so I got attention. Even at one point had my bags packed to go on the Letterman show.
I’m saying this by way of introducing a speech I gave at the time for the YMCA. It’s annual national Breakfast of Champions dinner. I was looking for something and found it on an old hard drive. I must have written it out after the speech — normally, I just write down notes and go with them when public speaking.
Someone out there might get some sustenance from it. It might make sense to someone and make a difference. So here it is in full.
Opening remarks, thanking all……
Seeing I have been asked this evening to speak to you about leadership and to describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in my life, let me begin with a little anecdote.
I grew up in Northern Ontario, on a farm. Hard times but blessed times. No electricity, no running water, wood stove, and kerosene lamps. . So cold you could see the frost pushing through the log walls. Once, a neighbor up the road told me a young boy, as he hooked up his dog sled — “Life, life is like dogsledding. Unless you are the lead dog, the view is always the same.”
That has always stayed with me. To me, it means that each person should find something in which they might excel, be number one. Even if it be as unusual as running 24 hours on a treadmill, being a human gerbil. We all have something within us which is number one. Find it, embrace it, live it. A famous quote from the bible says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one wins the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” Remember in truth, the victory is inside you — not out there.
The pinnacle or end of all leadership is to see others become their own leader, their own lead dog. There are several things I’ve learned along life’s road that helped me become a lead dog.
First lesson. Be a committer, not a quitter. As a young boy, my father worked me to death. He was a strict German and never had much praise. I was outside sawing logs, fixing fences, getting firewood, pulling nails out of old boards for hours on end. I learned to keep at it, don’t look to the end but what is directly in front of you. I had no choice but to get the job done, to see it to the end.
People ask me all the time, how could you run for 24 hours, non-stop? Never mind telling them I have run much longer — the simple answer is that I committed. I simply said, I was going to run 24 hours come hell or high water. No if, buts or maybes. With that attitude, with true commitment, the end is always realized.
In university I came across a quote attributed to the German poet Goethe, which I have taken as a mantra and which has driven me to be a committer. I’d like to read it in full, its power will be evident;
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative (and creation). There is one elemental truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it.”
Second lesson. DO! Or like a phrase, I saw on a friend’s desk. “Cut the crap, make it happen.” So many people think and think and think, dream and dream and dream, one day and one day and one day, wish and wish and wish — successful people just begin, they DO! A great Arctic explorer, Sir Randulph Fiennes was once asked how he was able to do his incredible feats, like pull a sled across the Antarctic continent. His reply was, “It wasn’t that I did what others couldn’t. It’s just that I did it.”
You can do a lot if you make it happen. Begin today for as Ecclesiastes said, “this day will never come again.” Don’t think too much.
I am reminded of the story of Earle the Pearle Monroe, a small guard who played basketball for the NY Knicks in the 60s. He would do magic on the floor, a kind of ballet. When asked once by a reporter if he thought up beforehand what he was going to do he replied, “Hell no! If I don’t know, they don’t know!”
When I run for many hours, I don’t think about it too much. I just go ahead and do it. I start and just keep doing. I allow my body to find its proper state of grace and to shut out all the babble and noise which is much thought.
Third lesson. Be self-competitive. Don’t compete against others. Test your own limits, see how far, how long, how well YOU can do. As a teacher, I am so angry at how we as a society have lost this ability to strive for self-excellence. I ask kids to run a lap and after 50 meters they are walking. I ask students to do a paper and they hand in a few sloppy paragraphs. So far below what they can do and the amazing thing is — they think this is the best they can do! When I talk to them, they are convinced! It is a shame; they will never get much out of life without reaching.
The other day I was out doing my speed work. I went to the local track and had to climb over the fence to get onto it (but that is another issue). As I was running around the track, a young boy started running outside, along the fence, trying to keep up with me. I could hear him speaking to himself and he was saying, “Come on, he’s catching you, he’s catching you…keep going, keep going.” We should all be as children and have that same attitude. That boy will go far, maybe one day, even run 24 hours on a treadmill.
Last lesson. The hardest part is not getting there but staying there. It’s true. Don’t value anyone who does something one-off — that’s easy. Value those who do it day in and day out, who are what George Sheehan, my favorite running philosopher says are — Maintainers.
I have been running for 27 years. Love it as much as the first day running around a track in last place with a belly full of hot dogs. “I run not to get better so much as to stay in place, to stay where I am.”, says Sheehan.
Life is a wonderful adventure. We are given the illusion that we move through it but really it moves past us, around us. We are all on our own treadmill and the art is staying in place, sticking to one thing, being the real you, the lead dog at what you do. Don’t get distracted. For me, running on a treadmill is a marvelous metaphor for life.
Let me end with a poem about this by my favorite Canadian, the poet Irving Layton. Love his energy and verve, a guy who really sucked on life and got the best from it. Now 100 years old or more and not well known. Hopefully, his death will be a good career move. He writes,
THERE WERE NO SIGNS
By walking I found out
Where I was going.
By intensely hating, how to love
By loving, whom and what to love.
By grieving how to laugh from the belly
Out of infirmity, I have built strength,
Out of untruth, truth.
From hypocrisy, I wove directness.
Almost now I know who I am.
Almost I have the boldness to be that man.
And I shall be where I started from.
Thank audience ………