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When Karma Runs Over Dogma: Why Sweating the Details Matters on a Big Athletic Endeavor

Your karma is decided not by what you do, but by what you choose not to do.”

One friend of mine likes to say that when he finally learns a hard lesson, it’s “his karma running over his dogma.”

Apart from the obvious comparisons to dogs and cars, there’s actually wisdom there: sooner or later, the little things you insist on ignoring become big things.

Just a couple of days ago Leslie and I were awakened at 4 AM by the sound of our alarm panel announcing that the flood sensor in the attic had triggered. When the alarm company called, I told them I was going up into the attic to check on it, only to discover that the drip pan underneath the unit was as dry as a bone. I asked them to put the system in test mode until I could check it out in the morning.

Within minutes, the sensor again triggered an alarm multiple times.

Eventually, I had to delete the sensor from the alarm panel. It was tempting at that point to just forget about it, but I made a note to myself to check online for replacement sensors.

It’s not hard to imagine a day next June, when thousands of miles away in Key West attempting a swim around the island, that my mind is on other things as the A/C struggles to keep up with the Texas heat and starts dripping like crazy. Without a sensor or an alarm, there’s no call from the security company notifying us that the attic is flooding.

This is karma coming back to bite you on the butt for not ordering a replacement sensor.

Little problems become big ones

A while back, a friend of mine had to call his epic run quits when he was barely 25% of the way through it.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, perhaps when sitting down for one of his brief breaks, a sock didn’t come off, saline solution and neosporin weren’t applied, tape wasn’t changed, or something else wasn’t tended to.

I’m guessing that like many runners, he decided at some critical moment to “power through” the pain his body was using to communicate a small but immediate need for attention.

Ignoring stuff has a price.

Paying attention

Paying attention means focusing on what’s happening in the moment, contemplating the implications, and pondering what you can learn from it before it forces you to learn the hard way.

Every single time I got hurt during my run across the U.S., it was when I was not paying sufficient attention–for instance, when trying to avoid traffic on a bridge in Coolidge, AZ, I tripped and ripped the skin of my left palm on the rough back side of a guardrail I instinctively grabbed.

For the remaining 2000 miles, every time I approached a bridge, I slowed down, checked out the bridge for debris and trip hazards, and walked when I was able to. When I *had* to run across a bridge, I made sure no traffic was coming from either direction. Then I focused on what my feet were doing and how far I was from the end of the bridge.

Sweating the details

I can recall multiple other examples of transconners I’ve met online who just headed out the door with a trucker cap, a backpack of random food, and a couple bottled waters, hoping to magically turn into Forrest Gump. A number of them treated Google Maps as an infallible oracle of wayfinding and didn’t bother to preview their full route before starting across the country.

Not worrying is okay…if you have a plan.

If your plan is “Jesus take the wheel”, you’re delegating the important stuff to either luck, God, or an AI program that doesn’t care if it routes you through tribal lands, a military base, or a private road through desert.

You are relinquishing control over your own destiny, and you can choose to be that way if you want to.

But there are consequences.

Think about it. What teaches you more: listening, looking, and learning–or trying to convince yourself that avoiding uncomfortable truths will make them disappear?

What if sweating those details weren’t tedious? Can your state of mind affect your willingness to attend to small, important things? How about:

  • Thinking of the small, tedious, repetitive tasks as opportunities to keep your mind engaged in something from which you’ll benefit.
  • Focusing enough on the task that you learn how to do it faster, better, and more efficiently. This will guide you to appreciate the subtle lessons the “busy work” is teaching you.
  • Focusing on how the task will benefit you. Knowing exactly where you put your first aid kit in your crew van and what you packed in it before you started your run will keep you from having to dig for it when your feet feel like they’re on fire and you can’t walk another step, or worse, making an unplanned trip to the nearest Wal-Mart 20 miles away (again, ask me how I know).
  • Focusing on what your surroundings are telling you. During my USA run, I saw a lot of dogs. I got pretty good at telling whether a dog was going to be a problem. Despite her jowly watchdog appearance, the puppy in the picture mostly wanted belly scritches.


Again and again, I’ve been taught the same lessons: Little stuff matters. Pay attention. Sweat the details.

After the USA run, I did a 10K swim at Key West in preparation for a full-length swim around the island. I learned during lake training that my speed is highly dependent on weather and water conditions. I learned I needed to make a few trips to the Gulf Coast and Atlantic to practice swimming in tides and choppy, salty water. I learned that the ocean is MUCH saltier than the brackish water in Offats Bayou in Galveston or in LaPorte, TX. At Miami, I learned that the little breakers I had feared so much near the shore were not nearly as difficult to deal with as the non-breaking swells that picked you up and threw you down hard. I learned that you can get salt mouth even without swallowing ocean water, and that it can make your mouth feel really raw and nasty. I learned about the value of taking a trial size of mouthwash to keep in the car after an ocean swim. I learned about avoiding seaweed and corals.

And each time I came away better informed.

When I finally did the 10K swim, I had one of the best swims of my life.

Sweating the details is less tedious when you appreciate how it smooths the path toward your goal. Sometimes it changes the path you thought you’d take, and sometimes that road isn’t easy. But preparing and planning for negative scenarios is far easier in the long run than throwing everything to the wind and insisting things will be fine.

That’s dogma, and your karma can’t be very far behind.