Back when I was applying to graduate schools and cautiously taking the next step to becoming a therapist, I attended a group interview for the program, in which I would ultimately enroll. During a small group, one of the professors reiterated the hardships of graduate. “You are going to have to make sacrifices throughout this program—with work, your friends, family. Think about it for a minute, what are you willing to give up to be in this program?”
I was already planning to give up my job with the decent salary and good benefits, but I am the type of person always wanting to give more. “I am willing to sacrifice my leisure time,” I said in hopes this will earn me good marks on the interview scoring sheet. “I will probably not see friends and family as much, and I will not spend as much time with my hobbies. Like, I might not run a marathon while in graduate school.”
At that point in time, running a marathon was a farse anyway. I was still recovering from hip surgery five months prior and running 20 minutes, let alone 20 miles, was strenuous. Yet, I assumed that if I could get healthy enough to run regularly, I would likely only be able to run here and there for fitness.
I was accepted into the program, and by the time I started, I could run three to five miles without pain.
At the beginning, graduate school was less work than I had anticipated, so without a fulltime job, I found myself with more time, specifically day hours as my classes were in the evening. Running was a good time filler. I could run mid-morning, before heading off to school for the day, and on the weekends. My endurance was elongating, and I was re-falling in love with running. My injury had kept me sidelined for more than a year, and it was incredibly painful at times to think I might not run again, but that seemed to not be in the case. Six weeks into graduate school, I celebrated one year since my surgery with an eight-mile run.
Things were going great—I really liked my classes, I had picked up a part-time job at an organic foods store, and I was running again. Then, in November, my husband lost his job, and our financial safety net was ripped away. I was angry and scared and unsure of how we would survive. The night after, I ran five miles to see a friend and cry. I could have driven or taken the train, but I needed to unleash the tornado of emotions inside of me, and running presented that opportunity.
In those months, running became less about fitness and staying in shape and more about survival. It was the one constant in my life. I could control running. I could turn to it when I needed to, and or skip it if staying in bed and crying was more useful. Running was an escape from everything else going on in my life.
With a solid base and higher weekly mileage, races began to tempt me. I probably should have started with a 5K or a half, but my sights went straight to the marathon. I had planned to run the Chicago Marathon in 2017 but was derailed with my hip injury and then the subsequent surgery. I wanted another go at 26.2 miles, plus I wanted to feel accomplished. My husband was struggling to find work, and while I liked school, I was starting to doubt my decision to quit my cushy, if not boring, job. Running a marathon may have seemed ridiculous and unnecessary, but I needed the distraction. So, I signed up for the Twin Cities Marathon, and then to make it fun along with the way, the Chicagoland Spring Half Marathon and the Shamrock Shuffle, which I ran with friends.
By the end of my first year in graduate school, I was running five days a week and fully engaged in running. I had hope to break two hours in the half marathon but started a bit too quick and bonked in miles 9 and 10. It was disappointing, even though I still PR’ed, I turned to the marathon. When friends asked me what I was doing that summer, I replied with, “running.” I took a new part-time job at a running store in attempts to center myself more into the running community in Chicago. I also found a neighborhood running group and began meeting with them for early-morning track workouts and Saturday long runs.
That summer, I did run and run. I did 800s on the track and hill repeats. I ran in the early morning to avoid the heat and spent my weekends consumed with preparing for the long run and then recovery from it. I also worked and went to class, but mostly I ran.
Going into my second year of the graduate program, I was worried about the first few weeks of school as these were my big build-up weeks. I needed to be going to class, working my job at school and my retail job, and putting in 55-mile weeks. To make it all work, I made an hour-by-hour schedule that included time for showering and taking the train.
The marathon ended up not being my day. I got in my head too much and ended up struggling more than I anticipated. I finished about 30 minutes slower than my C-Goal and an hour from my A-Goal. I was devastated for weeks as I had put so much work into the race, and I was afraid that I would give up running. I had trained so hard but ended up with two lackluster races, and I was nervous that I would be too disappointed to start again.
Four days later, I ran to celebrate my birthday. Within a week, I was running normally again.
Throughout the rest of graduate school, running was a mainstay. The November after the marathon, I started a streak and ending up going for 100 days. I raced another half this marathon a few months later, and this time, I broke two hours. Having a solid group of running friends from my neighborhood kept me motivated during the icy Chicago winter and the hellish humidity. As I got deeper into my program, leaning more about theories and counseling mechanics, and preparing for my clinical internship, running shifted to an accessory to this program. I no longer needed the distraction of racing but the companionship of running.
Halfway through my second semester, right after I ended my streak, the pandemic hit. I could no longer go to school, work, or run with my friends, but I still had running. With extra time back in my schedule, I was able to wade into the waters of “running just for running.” Running was the only time I got out of my house, and because my usual routes were either closed or congested with people, running allowed me to explore my city. I ran deep into the heart of downtown and out west to neighborhoods I rarely frequented. I zig-zagged up and down streets, examining houses and wondering what the people inside them were doing. Running, again, became a comfort when everything felt uncertain.
Going into my final year of graduate school, I knew that running really would need to be put on the back burner during my internship and preparing for my licensure exams. So, before the semester really took off, I ran 30 miles in a park with friends on Labor Day weekend. Our running group always hosts this holiday 5K, but some of us started early to see how many extra loops we could get in. It was slow with plenty of walk breaks but running with friends is always a good way to spend a Sunday.
Running slipped in my life with fewer runs per week. I still tried to do a longer run on the weekends and had contemplated running 36 miles on my 36th birthday but decided that I would rather run 13 and use the rest of the day to hang out with friends on a back porch. However, I was running enough to convince me that I could do a 50K with some friends in early January, during winter break. I was completely unprepared for the 50K, but again, with plenty of walk breaks and good friends, it wasn’t terrible. In fact, all the breaks allowed my legs to heal up just fine.
After that 50K, though, studying for my licensure exams became my focus. I swapped morning runs for study sessions, and instead of long runs on Saturdays, I was doing practice quizzes and making note cards. Running slipped to a minor role, if best, but it was there when I needed a break or a way to get to work.
On my graduation day, I got up a little earlier so I could go for a quick run. Nothing special, just three miles, but I wanted to run to mark that special day. Running had been a major part in my graduate school experience; I had run through it all. Preparing for tests or while in the midst of writing papers. It was my constant, a thing that always made sense when nothing else did. Running through my graduate program reminded me a lot of running through my Peace Corps service. The entire experience was more accentuated, more lived, because of running.
Could I have finished my program without running so much? Of course, but I am not sure that I would have wanted to. Running two back-to-back years of more than 1,500 miles was the self-care I needed, not just to endure graduate school, but for the process of changing into a new version of myself. It also showed me that, when I am going through big things, running is there. When I need running the most, I will find a way to run more than ever.