Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Research and Running

Image result for running

Running? If you've been in academia for any length of time, you may have noticed that a considerable number of faculty are runners (or triathletes, etc.). I doubt that academia has THE highest concentration of runners in any field, but I suspect that we'd be high up on the list.* And not casual weekend warriors; serious 5 or 10K runners, half-marathoners, and marathoners. Maybe even an ultrarunner or two. 

Although training and racing are becoming more and more popular, the general public still seems to think that voluntarily forcing your body to move quickly along a stretch of road, track, trail, or treadmill belt would be torture. Some even go as far as to claim that running is "dangerous" - a claim that has not held up well under scrutiny. Though it's true that running is tough on your body and there's risk for injury; if you want to be healthy, why not do something less effortful, like biking? Especially given that academics work long and hard hours outside the classroom? WHY? As a runner, I find this noticeable overlap compelling.

My "running in academia" story. Like many health-conscious undergrads, I went to the gym, and sometimes even jogged outside. (I use the now-pejorative term "jogged," because I had no idea what I was doing then. I just made my way from University City to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, over the Spring Garden Bridge, and back.) I did very little exercise during the transition to graduate school. Like many students, I loved my work but found the daily grind somewhat lacking. I wanted something to focus on, for me, that had nothing to do with work accomplishments or relationships.

Image result for hal higdon marathonI started running for real in 2008, during my third year in graduate school. Two factors contributed to the change: (1) I happened across an inexpensive copy of Hal Higdon's Marathonthe Bible of first-time training advice, and (2) a good friend (and experienced runner) was training for a marathon. I picked up the book thinking that it would be handy for "someday." And as my friend enjoyed company on her training runs, I benefited from observing her motivation and discipline. 

So it started. I ran two miles without stopping to walk. I ran a 5K race. I had something for me, that I could look forward to. No expensive equipment, no special facility needed. I had a crazy idea that turned into a commitment: I signed up for the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon. I spent long hours training between classes, research, clinical work, and a part-time job. My family and friends came to watch the event. I finished the race, and I was hooked.

Six marathons and an ultramarathon in, I transitioned to a faculty position. Because of the upheaval, I decided not to run a marathon during that season. I missed it terribly. I ran a half marathon and somehow injured my hip, which hasn't been the same since. I run on my treadmill most days, but I'm nervous about getting back out on the road, where the injury tends to flare up. Have my research or teaching suffered? Probably not, but my stress level and general well-being have. Something is missing without running.

So, what's the connection? I don't suggest that academics who run do so for the same reasons I do, but perhaps there is some overlap. We tend to be overachievers who are used to (and like?) pushing ourselves to excel. We test our limits. We like time to think - and there's actually precious little of that in a regular day. We're disciplined, and many of us like practicing our discipline in various ways. Running is a great way to say healthy and sane amidst all of the deadlines and meetings. And there's the obvious, and true, "grad school/pre-tenure is a marathon, not a sprint" comparison. I suspect there are many more reasons why academia and running mesh well. Share your ideas in the comments!

*A quick Google search reveals no such list, but perhaps Runner's World can take up the charge!

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