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Learning How to Run the Race

Posted Jun 28 2010 12:00am
A few years ago I started a life list. It's just a random compilation of things I'd like to do before it's too late. It ranges from "visit the Great Wall of China" to "learn to laugh at yourself." It's a running list of things I want to see and do. And as you may have guessed, "become a doctor" is at the very top. While I work on that one, I thought I might tackle another item closer to the top - run a marathon.

In some of my earlier posts I've mentioned my friend K. She's literally the first person I met at medical school, and she has become a core of my med school experience. Towards the end of the semester, K and I got into a discussion about running. K is an experienced runner with many races under her belt. I have always wanted to get into running, but shin splints and knee aches seemed to get in the way. She mentioned an upcoming summer race near her home and it seemed like the best opportunity to kill two birds with one stone - spend some non-school time with K and her family AND run a real race. Did I mention that this race was a half marathon?
If you've been reading this blog (and I thank you for that!), then you've probably picked up on a few of my personality traits. Well, here's another one. I tend to get myself into hilariously ridiculous situations. Think Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. I set these crazy goals for myself, and as I'm working towards it I often think to myself, "What the hell were you thinking?!?"

I intended to start training for the half marathon while school was in session. I set my alarm clock to 5:00am with the idea that I would leap out of bed with exuberant energy and head to the gym before classes started. When the alarm clock shocked me out of my bear-like slumber at 5:00 am, the thought of peeling myself off of the comfy mattress completely revolted me. It was worth a shot, right?

I didn't start training until the first official week of summer, which left about a month before the race. Magazines, books, experienced runners, and sane people will tell you a month is not enough time for a novice to train for such a feat. So I re-set my goal for the half marathon: finish the race without any medical assistance. I knew I would walk during portions of it, and that was fine. I just wanted to finish. I wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment. And I really love the feeling of crossing things off of lists, and this would the ultimate list.

I hit the gym almost everyday. It was slow-going at first, a mile here, a mile and a half there. I had a few injury setbacks, and I'd remind myself that every sore spot was payback for the potato chips, candybars, and soda I had consumed during my stress-eating. But I kept at it, and I soon fell in love with running.

There's a technique to running. You have to focus solely on running and how the body is moving in order to tap into that proper technique. Running gives you the opportunity to just settle into the stride and go with the rhythm. All you hear is the soft thud as your foot hits the pavement. And coming from a medical standpoint, I could imagine each muscle contracting in concert with the bones and ligaments and tendons. I'm still amazed at what the human body can do...
I was excited and slightly nervous the day of the race. I was surrounded by many experienced runners who were in top physical condition. If I had ever wanted a surface anatomy model, I could just turn to my left or right and there was a person who's slim body revealed a well-formed vastus lateralis or gastrocnemius. The first part of the race was tough because of the strong sun and humidity. I wasn't sure if I was going to make it if the weather stayed liked that. Fortunately, the clouds rolled in and the haze cooled things off a bit. I kept up with K for the most part, I was usually a few paces behind her at a light jog. The first half of the race included many up-hill paths and I hadn't trained for up-hill, so I walked and enjoyed the scenic route. I kept to a pattern of light running and walking, and I was amazed when three miles turned into seven and then turned into ten. The energy of the race was incredible, and it was a huge motivating factor. Local neighbors stood at the edge of their driveways with hoses to spray down runners, children were cheering through bullhorns, and the more accomplished racers were telling me I could do it as they ran past me. I was surrounded by complete strangers, but oddly enough I felt like I belonged with them.

I told myself that I had to run the last mile. I committed to it and I ended up running the last mile and a half. My legs felt like lead, but I dug deep and pushed through the pain. The cheering got louder and stronger towards the last few hundred yards. I could see the big clock in the distance, and this unexpected surge of mixed of emotions bubbled up when I crossed the finish line. I wanted to cry for joy, I wanted to hug everyone around me, I wanted to sit down on a chair and never move again! It was an extraordinary moment that I will never forget.

13.1 miles in 3 hours and 10 minutes

I think the half marathon/medical school analogy is pretty apparent, and I've referred to it in earlier posts, so I won't overdo that cliche. But here's what I've learned from the experience. In the beginning I set out a goal for just myself. I was never concerned about time or setting records, I just wanted to finish in good form. The idea of completing a half marathon was a challenge in itself since it's something that seemed so impossible considering my squishy, out-of-shape, post-finals self. The entire time I spent training for the race, I focused on just myself. I didn't look to see how my neighbor on the treadmill next to me was doing, I just looked straight ahead and ran (of course it helped that the t.v. was in front of me). I felt the exhilaration of running for three miles straight for the first time, and I was frustrated when I couldn't push my body as far and as fast as I wanted. It was those disappointing times that reminded me of medical school. The times when I spent hours studying but I didn't get an exam score that reflected the hard work. But what made those times even more difficult was that I was concerned about my progress in comparison to everyone else in my class. It made me feel like I was the only one who wasn't understanding the material, why couldn't I do as well as everyone else? But with running it's been a completely self-involved attitude, and that's what has made this half marathon journey so rewarding. I completed a goal that helped me become a better version of myself. I'm not the fastest runner and I'm not the smartest person in my class. That's ok. I'm realistic about my limits, but that doesn't mean I have to let them box me in. I may struggle along the way, but I'm going to keep pushing myself to find out what I'm capable of. And whether it's crossing the finish line of a race or telling someone I'm a second year medical student, that triumphant feeling of "Wow, I actually did it" is the same. And that is what I need to hold onto as I continue in medicine.

Put one foot in front of the other.

Settle into the stride and go.

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