During my dedicated research time in residency, I started running. I had never run for fun before. I had played sports before—growing up I loved basketball, tennis, and lacrosse—but running was just the annoying and difficult thing you had to do in order to play, and I liked playing on a team. When I finally had some free time after three years of surgery residency, I wanted to exercise regularly. Running didn’t require an organized team or special equipment, so I just went. Initially, I just ran, not caring how far I went, and walking when I felt like it. But before long I was running 2, then 3, and 5 miles without stopping. I really started looking forward to my runs, not because I was fast (which I wasn’t) but because it became a source of stress-relief. I loved the opportunity to put on my headphones, block out all my other thoughts and fears, go outside, and focus on the run. Even when I didn’t want to go, my mood was always better after the run.
At the same time I began running, I was working in the lab. I was earning a degree, so being back in school and having homework was something of a transition. I had a very supportive mentor who helped guide me, but whenever I got stressed, I relied on running to help me. I worked hard, learned lots of new techniques, presented at conferences, and published. Everyone told me what a bright future I had in research.
A few months in, a friend suggested that if I could run 5 miles, I could run 13.1. I initially thought that was ridiculous, but after thinking about it, I decided to try it. I began training to run longer distances. I found a half marathon one state away and registered. I was nervous, but having a goal really helped me to focus. I didn’t have a goal time, my only goal was to cross the finish line. When race weekend came, I picked up my bib with my number and timing chip on it, as well as my swag, and went to my hotel to wait until the next morning. I was nervous and didn’t sleep much that night. Early the next morning, the race started with little ceremony, and we were off. I tried to keep up my slow but steady pace (which, it turns out, does not win the race), but I managed to cross the finish line. I got a medal and a free banana, and I felt incredible. No one was there to cheer for me, but it didn’t matter. I was proud of what I had accomplished. I signed up for more races.
I returned to the lab the following Monday and went right back to work. Over time, I realized that things I learned from running could be applied to my research, and vice versa. I became more focused and was better about setting myself a series of achievable goals in my research as I had in running. I dealt with injuries on the road and confusing data in the lab, but persistence helped me through both. Running and research became intertwined in my mind and in my life. When I completed my PhD and went back to my final years of residency, I kept it up as best as I could. As I continued to run races, I also learned that while some people take the sport very seriously, there is a welcoming community of regular but casual runners like me. I felt like I belonged in a way I have not in many places. Running became my regular outlet for dealing with stress, and even now when I can’t make time for it, I become noticeably more tense.
Five months after I started as an attending, the pandemic shut everything down. I was frustrated, and even after we started working again, I struggled to gain any momentum. I poured my efforts into writing grants and was rejected over and over. It felt like the scientists I encountered did not consider me a serious academic because I am also a clinician. Taking time for research made me feel like I was avoiding my clinical duties. I have received a lot of well-meaning advice, but none of it seemed to work for me. I have struggled to find any sense of belonging in any research community like that I found in running.
Since I began, I have completed 23 half marathons and one full marathon across 8 states. My times have gone up and down. I have dealt with injuries. It has been a bit of a rocky road, but I hope I can continue running for a long time. I like to say that I am not a good runner, I am just a persistent one. I am trying to apply the same approach to my research. However, in research, not everyone gets a medal and a banana just for crossing the finish line. I am not sure I will ultimately be considered a success at either, but I am going to keep trying. Maybe slow and steady will actually win this race.