Like a marathon, grassroots campaign activism is a simple matter of taking the next step, again and again. But if it were that easy, everyone would run marathons. Instead runners, and activists, need training. (More)

Hitting the Wall, Part II: The Activist Exercise Plan

This week Morning Feature discusses the stress of election campaigning and how activists can better manage “hitting the wall.” Yesterday we saw the importance of your news diet, before and during the race. Today we look at training, exercise, and ensuring you keep the “active” in “activist.” Tomorrow we’ll conclude with teamwork and the energy benefits of group activism.

It’s Easy, and Not So Easy

If running a marathon were simply taking the next step, again and again, everyone would run Paul Ryan-style, sub-three-hour marathons. Instead very few do … and Ryan was not among them.

Indeed simply finishing a marathon is quite an accomplishment, and it requires a lot of training. When I was young – don’t you love stories that start like this? – I decided to train for a marathon. I was a Marine at the time, and I’d been a runner since high school. I wasn’t a great runner and I never set any records, but I did enjoy it and I worked out a training schedule based on a book and talking with other runners: 5 miles on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 10 on Tuesdays, 15 on Thursdays, 20 on Saturdays, and Sundays off to recover.

Although it was daunting at first, having a regular running schedule helped a lot, as did having a training partner. (More on her tomorrow.) I didn’t log my daily running times, as all I really cared about was being able to finish the marathon. Instead I wrote my daily distance goals on my desk calendar at work, and checked them off with a green, yellow, or red marker, based on whether I felt I’d run well, run okay, or been unable to finish. There were more green marks on the easy days, and for the first few weeks the Saturdays were mostly red marks. But as the weeks went by, there were more green marks during the weekdays and mostly yellow marks on Saturdays. By race day both my training partner and I felt ready.

The last six miles felt like forever, as neither of us had ever run farther than 20 miles. But there were plenty of water stations along the route, most of which also had fruit or sports drinks. We plodded on through a wonderfully cool rain to finish in the middle of the pack, together, in around four hours.

The Campaign Marathon

Grassroots campaign activism feels much a marathon. My local Democratic Party’s preparation began last year when several of us attended a Democracy for America Campaign Academy. We began putting those skills to work immediately, recruiting new party members and seeking out candidates for state and local races. By January of this year we had almost doubled our membership and were busy gathering candidate petitions. Our Vote By Mail enrollment campaign began in the spring and continued through the summer. Along the way came our county Democratic caucuses, and our district caucuses at the state convention. We continued to push our Vote By Mail enrollment through September. By then our campaign office had opened and we were recruiting more volunteers for phone banking and other activities.

This month we launched our GOTV campaign, targeting every registered Democrat aged 18-45 in our county, with each of our party members taking a packet of 1000 names. I’m almost finished with my packet, and by now I bet I could recite our call script in my sleep. Many of my fellow party members probably could too.

There are still eleven days until the election, and they feel almost like the last six miles of that marathon. They’re not quite terra incognita, as this isn’t my first campaign, but experienced marathon runners told me (later, dammit) that the last six miles of a marathon always feel like forever. I suspect most experienced grassroots activists would agree that the last two weeks of a campaign feel much the same.

Trust Your Training

I made it through the last six miles of that marathon by trusting my training. I’d “hit the wall” before on training runs, and I’d found little mental tricks like focusing on the top of the next hill or some other landmark, then choosing another when I reached that checkpoint. I didn’t think about the finish line. Maybe I’d get there or maybe I wouldn’t. But I could make it to that next checkpoint, a quarter mile or so away. “Once I get there,” I’d tell myself, “maybe I’ll stop. But not until I get there.”

I also found it helped me to have a mental image like those thermometer-styled displays I’d seen on telethons. After 2.6 miles my mental thermometer was at 10%. After 13 miles it was halfway full. At 20 miles, when my body said the rest of the course was forever, I told myself my mental thermometer was already over three-quarters full. And there was a water station a quarter mile or so ahead. I knew I could keep going that far, and I’d get a packet of apple juice. I’d keep going while I sipped my juice, and by the time I finished the packet I’d be 80% of the way up my mental thermometer. And the juice would give me more energy and taste good … so don’t think about the finish line. Just make it to that water station.

You’ve probably used those same mental tricks, in some form or another, at some point in your life, to keep going when you felt like stopping. Now it’s time to trust that training.

Pick a daily activism target each day. Don’t tell yourself you have to use the same target tomorrow, and don’t think about doing that same amount every day until November 6th. Just pick today’s target … and keep plugging away until you get there.

Then visualize that mental thermometer – your campaign office may even have one on the wall – and see how far you’ve already come. Having filled that activism thermometer all this way, you may as well pick another target and plug away again tomorrow. After that, we’ll see. But you can make today’s target, and having done that you’ll want to make it to tomorrow’s target too.

That’s how runners finish marathons, and how activists finish campaigns. My marathon partner was always ready to pick another checkpoint when I wanted to stop, and I was always ready to pick another checkpoint when she wanted to stop. We made it to the finish line, by not wanting to disappoint each other … and tomorrow we’ll talk more about how teamwork helps you get past “hitting the wall.”

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Happy Friday!