Going for a Run, and Finding a Mentor

This is a guest blog post by Glenn Cooper.

Glen Cooper is a professional Structural Engineer who lives and works Hertfordshire, UK.

He runs his own engineering business providing a service to residential property owners, local builders and architects. Along side his day job, Glen also writes for a Structural Engineering blog site – Starting up an Engine[er]; which reports upon recent engineering news, the softer side of engineering, and starting up on your own. Glen quite often finds himself talking about mentoring and motivation in his posts. Today he has a story for us…

When I was about 10 I discovered running. It wasn’t obviously the first time I had ran, and I am willing to concede that the discovery wasn’t quite as important in history as say the formulaic discovery that Pythagoras made, or the writing of Euclid’s Elements, or even building of the Pantheon in Paris 1789.  BUT this single act brought about a series of events, which gave me my first and most influential MENTOR.

It was a sunny day and I was bored. My parents told us kids to get outside and enjoy the great weather. My siblings were busy using twigs to remove bituminous tar from the joints of the estates roads or something, but that day; I stuck on some comfy trainers and began to trot around our estates central residential island. Each circuit took a few minutes and was perhaps 300 meters in circumference. I had no agenda; I was just bored.

As I edged towards finishing my tenth circuit I had become tired. But I pushed on against the odds to see if I could manage yet another full circle.

I did, and it made me feel good! I bet myself that I could do 10 more. I did them too. It was by then I found it difficult to stop, even though my legs were tired. I slowed to a pace which allowed me go on for a little longer and continued to sweep by other kids walking to and from the recreational ground. As I ran past a girl on a pink bike with stabilizers, it was then I was afforded a little bit of respect from the other children. I decided to take advantage of this pseudo celebrity status and enlisted the help of a passing kid. “Please go and get my brothers!? I need some water!“.

Without water I may have just become so thirsty that I would have to stop. About 10 minutes later my older brother arrived and passed me a plastic cup – but not before spilling half of it whilst running and laughing beside me, in an obvious attempt to put me off. Brothers are great like that.

Soon he began to jog beside me. “What’s with the running?“, I had no proper answer so I made one up, in case I needed more water later. “I’m training. Training for a sponsored walk, in a week I think”. So my brother joined me for a while, got bored and then wandered off. I continued.

Another kid joined me but he was on a bike. He stopped following me when he complained of feeling dizzy. Later that same kid was seen setting up a wooden ramp and jumped over the path and through his neighbor’s fence. He thought he was the tumbling stuntman Colt Seaver from The Fall Guy. I think he must have had an inner ear problem…

I found it easier to concentrate on what was going on around me rather than the pain in my feet and legs. I made little stories up in my head, and replayed back the journey that was going on in my imagination. Just so I could block out the pain. The pain disappeared.

More and more kids lined up to see what all the fuss was about. Why was this kid endlessly running? A number of them went home and returned with their shorts and tee’s on to join me. Kids from all over the estate began running at different points on the circuit. I began counting the ones I passed as well as the laps I was completing. I was up to 35 laps and 5 overtakes. The more kids I passed the more it became a race. The past challenge had been simply not to stop, but now it was not to be overtaken.

Our numbers grew to over 15 kids of varied ages all doing the same thing. Then a few of them got bored and stopped. Others reversed their direction – running against the flow of traffic. Confusion, laughter and lots of crashing ensued. But this was no laughing matter for me.

Gradually the field of runners depleted and pretty soon, by 50 laps I was alone again. Running.

I ran all afternoon, missed my lunch and had blisters on my toes. When I finally stopped, the sun was dipping well below the middle branches of a giant oak tree. The sun’s final shards of light filtered through its green chunky leaves, and did their best to crystallize the last bits of sweat on my face. I dragged my beaten body towards home. I entered our garden and slammed the wooden gate closed behind me in frustration.

A familiar voice startled me. A broad Norfolk accent, which for once, was not heavily laden with colloquially acceptable levels of swearing.

What’s wrong with you boi?” It was my dad, and he was standing at our front door watching me head down the garden path towards him.

Tired! I want to keep on running, and tomorrow I will have to start my laps all over again. Also, this time I have school to fit in as well“.

HA! That’s life boi. Work trumps play. So how many laps did you do?“. This startled me again. Had my dad been watching me? Normally the weekends were taken up with him fixing stuff, fishing or clearing out the shed. He worked nights, so he didn’t get any life what so ever during the week. His days were literally all rolled into one until the weekend came around.

55, I think, and I passed 20 others whilst running!

My dad grinned that proud grin that dads do. “There’s a sponsored fun run next weekend. You want to enter with me?

How about that! I lied to my brother about training and it was all coming to life… I didn’t need time to think, if running around the estate made me feel this happy then my answer was clear. “Sure! Lets do it!

During the final push towards the finish line on our fun run, my dad grabbed my hand so we could finish together, and over the next 8 years I ran with my dad [14 years on and off]. He listened to me talk about how I wanted to be a professional skateboarder. He posed questions which distracted me from the pain in my feet, and the feeling of pointlessly trudging along our path by fixating on the next available landmark as we ran. Goal setting.

A lot of things happened to me when I ran around my estate that sunny afternoon.

  • First and foremost I found a hidden talent. It wasn’t running, it was the summoning of my will power and being uncompromising in the face of adversity, right when I most needed it.
  • Secondly, I learned that doing your own thing can lead into other interesting encounters. Being different [and not just for the sake of being different] – can reward you in ways that might surprise you.
  • Thirdly, I concluded that the race we all run is the one in our heads. We can escape the pain and the boredom of life temporarily through our imaginations – but what you do with those creative byproducts [stories] is what makes you unique as a person or indeed a good designer and problem solver.
  • Fourthly, I found that I was able to incite a fitness fad which then led onto other kids running in the opposite direction just to upset a short lived status quo. What did this help me realize? When we were kids those days, we were not inhibited by mass conformity. We were allowed to be self-expressive and to create chaos where there was none. But what comes out of this chaos? Strength of purpose and an identity.
  • Finally, and most importantly I found a mentor in my own father. I was destined to learn from our relationship anyway, but now I had someone who was newly motivated to help me realize my dreams not just because he was my dad; but because he could also see a definite path to success for me – AND where he fitted in on this journey. By simply listening to me during our runs and giving me a push when I needed; was just enough.

So Mentors, go find your mentees and strive to be part of their success story. You have a duty to assess whether or not your relationships will be fruitful for both parties, and therefore educate them on what you are able to deliver by way of knowledge, skill, advice and motivation.

Mentees, take care not to model yourselves after your mentors, parents or heroes, and be wise enough not to assimilate goals or milestones which only lead to the foot of someone else’s mountain of accomplishment. Trust in, and always be yourself. As an engineer you will very quickly learn that doing addition is not even the half of it. Design, form and function are paramount, and are driven by how we view the needs of our clients, consumers and industry. Yes, this is a personal reflection.

You will all need help in achieving these outcomes, but don’t expect to be handed them. You must create your own new ‘situations’, and try your hardest to learn. Perhaps go for a run?

Tell me, when you read this story, do you visualize a man running away from his problems or a man running towards his goals?

  • João Pedro Matos

    Great post!

    Reading your text give me more energy to run for another day, with my own obstacles and my finish line.. Everyday is a different day.

    For me the best mentor, besides the older generation of engineers pre-computer FEM analysis is my family.