Marathons and Medical School

by christine

A writer and medical student at an Ivy League school discusses learning in medicine—perseverance and engagement instead of burnout, gaining the tools for longitudinal learning and kindness to self.

I ran my first marathon last summer. While I had participated in shorter races before, this was my first time attempting the 26.2 miles. I remember what it was like at the end of the race, running the last few miles to the finish line—actually, it hardly felt like running at that point, mostly just moving my legs unwillingly, as they no longer seemed to want to respond to the commands of my brain. I was sweaty and covered with dust that I had kicked up along the trail, 20-something miles or so along the California coast, on a summer day that was cool in the shade of the trees and hot when exposed on the dusty roads.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” the saying goes. Grad students and med students are often told this, meaning: it’s a long road. Medicine certainly is, so the idea is to develop the skills to run a demanding race over a long period of time, to do so while avoiding burnout.

I wrote previously about burnout, and in thinking about the “marathon” quote, it struck me that long-distance running is actually quite similar to studying medicine (or pursuing any other profession, or just life in general). I have enjoyed long-distance running for a while now, starting with half marathons and completing my first marathon recently. I’m not by any means a very fast or accomplished runner, but this is a fun hobby for me. (To which some people say: “Running? Fun?”).

I’ll share some of the lessons that I learned from running, which consciously or not, I’ve also applied to some extent to life and medicine. Here’s one of the first lessons: honestly, I think pretty much anyone can do it. I never thought that I was particularly athletic, but I did like running, so I decided one day that I wanted to run long distances. While I might not have had any special running talent, I was able to do it after the time put into training.

Maybe you’re interested in long-distance running—I personally think it’s a great way to get exercise and stay fit, challenge yourself, and also make time to de-stress and listen to music or podcasts. Or maybe you don’t care so much about running, but you’re interested in how to run a marathon—both the 26.2 miles and the marathon of medicine.

It’s Only a Competition with Yourself

One of the strongest connections I’ve seen between running and medicine is the element of competition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many people in my class are runners; I think both medicine and running attract lots of tenacious, competitive individuals.

But at the same time, I believe that one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to running is that I’d rather compete with myself than other people, and long-distance running is a sport where your progress is often measured against your own standards rather than others’.

In general, I don’t really like to compare myself to other people, especially because I think that comparisons are usually biased or flawed and can alienate ourselves from each other. But I do tend to set high standards for myself. I enjoy challenging myself and trying to reach new goals. As a runner, I’m running to beat my own time.

Sometimes during a race, I’ll find myself running next to someone and trying to surpass them. Maybe we’ll keep passing each other several times during the race. We might start a conversation. And after the race, we talk and congratulate each other. I’ve always felt that runners share a special sort of camaraderie during races.

Getting into med school and doing well in med school and getting matched into a good residency, and so on, that process does seem kind of like a competition with other people. It might feel that way whenever you’re sitting in the waiting room for an interview with the other candidates. I’ve still held fast in my belief, though, that better outcomes result when you draw motivation and inspiration from others, but challenge yourself by your own standards. That is the mindset that has encouraged me to continue running races.

Training Takes Time

I trained for my first half marathon around the time that I took the MCAT. Actually, preparing for both involved quite similar processes. (See my post on the MCAT, which discusses this.) For both, I had to log a certain number of hours to prepare adequately. I made a schedule over several months, and tried my best to stick to the schedule while making adjustments if I was getting tired.  

Like studying for the MCAT—or learning anything in medicine—training is not something that can be crammed. You can’t sit on the couch for several months, then suddenly run 100 miles the day before your race and say that you’re prepared. It’s imperative to make a plan for your training. I referred to a website that my friend showed me, called the Hal Higdon training plan. This training plan, which is fairly typical of most that you can find, involves gradually increasing the distance you run over weeks. You run most days, but also get rest days and cross-training days where you do other activities.

The takeaway: the preparation that you do, the work that you put into anything, is not effective when applied in bursts. It’s more a matter of endurance, putting in consistent work over a long period of time, seeing the rewards of the strength that you gain as you stick with your plan.

Don’t Lose Strength

During both the training and the actual marathon, it’s important to keep your strength. As I trained, I had to be careful not to injure myself or become exhausted. I increased my mileage by small amounts over time to help my muscles adapt; then around a week or two before the marathon, I ran 20 miles but no more than that.

The day of the race arrived, and I was pumped and ready to go. The first few miles of the race felt effortless; I had run many half-marathons before, and this was familiar territory. But as it happens, the difficulty of running began to increase exponentially after I passed around 15 miles or so. With each additional mile after that, it felt like my legs were becoming more and more unresponsive. By the last 6 miles—the hardest part of the race—I was barely aware of what was going on anymore; all I could think about was continuing to lift my legs against gravity.

I’ve been told that the training that goes into medicine is not easy, and in fact becomes harder and harder as more responsibilities are added on at each stage of training. I know that the demands placed on residents are often great, and often lead to physical exhaustion and little time to take care of oneself.

I wouldn’t say that studying medicine has to always be as intensely grueling as the last leg of a marathon. But what I’m aware of is that there are difficult moments, when many demands are placed on us and many responsibilities seem to lie in our hands, which we face with limited time and abilities. What do we do in those moments?

I think what helped me during the race was knowing where my finish line was, and knowing that I had trained and prepared for this so that my muscles were ready, and I was going to do this. At the end, it simultaneously felt like I had been running forever, could run forever, and really wanted to just flop onto the ground. But anyway, I can definitely tell you that it felt awesome to cross the finish line and gulp down some water, and then lie down in the cool grass and celebrate.  

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