by Joseph Gualtieri
Although I find the comparison somewhat facile, there is no shortage of websites, articles, and well-intentioned strangers who will assure you that persuing a PhD “is like running a marathon”. There are a few problems with this claim. First, I know of approximately zero PhD holders who have actually completed a marathon. Also, while running can be reduced to putting one step before the other over and over again, scholarly progress is hardly a matter of repetition. And perhaps most dispiritingly, academia suffers from a paucity of strangers who will stand on the sidewalk for hours just to cheer you on your way.
So I don’t quite buy the idea that, despite both being long and grueling enterprises, doing a PhD is anything like running. Yet, I don’t think I could do one without the other, and it would be hard to say which one is more meaningful to me now. Academic work provides the pleasures of acquisition and construction: you labor for years and years, acquiring knowledge and support and then finally you construct your argument, all with an eye toward publication, graduation, and, if you’re terribly lucky, tenure. Running, alone among sports, offers a corrective to this future-oriented need to construct and acquire.
There’s always a way to talk yourself out of actually doing any other sport. Football? You need a team and equipment and all that. Tennis? Yikes! I’ll never be able to book the court now. Cycling? Too many hills and anyway I probably have a flat tire or something. Swimming? It’s winter and I don’t think my frail constitution could survive the ice floes. Or, it’s summer and oh boy, that pool is way too crowded. Nope, looks like I genuinely have no choice but to reach for the Cheetos and settle in for another round of The Price is Right on DVD.
Ah, but running has no patience for such ninny-nannying. Do you maintain control over your legs and possess rubber-soled footwear? Then go! This monkish activity is where athleticism meets asceticism. It is physical activity stripped down its essentials: movement and endurance. Whereas both academics and other sports require skill to succeed, being a good runner simply means running and then running some more until you’ve reached your goal. Tips and tricks exist, but there are (literally) no shortcuts: it’s a matter of putting in the time and enduring the aches and wheezes until you realize that you can’t get enough of it.
This is despite the reality that, at its most basic level, running is a thoroughly miserable experience. You sweat and strain your muscles while trying to convince yourself that you’re not suffocating. If you allow yourself to think, your brain will begin negotiations for an early end. Even if you meet your goals, you never quite reach a point where running becomes ‘easy’: as your endurance builds and your muscles strengthen, each run becomes longer or faster or both, and success remains forever beyond your grasp.
However provisional, running offers the rare opportunity to sideline anxieties about the future and delve into the distant past, when our species’ survival was more dependent on physical endurance than intellectual capacity. Distance running allows you to enter a field where time is not measured by the passage of hours but by the intake of breath. Concerns about status, happiness, and rent disappear and I become less a person than a loose assemblage of sweat, strides, and sheer velocity.
Lately I’ve taken to running along the track circumscribing the Happy Valley Racecourse. Along the way I look up past the lights of the skyscrapers and into the stars. Before long my knees begin to sting and the protests from my lungs grow impossible to ignore. I wonder about the distance between me and those stars, my place among them and my place in this city, how far I have traveled to get where I am and how much more work remains ahead of me. I’m tempted to take these thoughts into all sorts of wistful directions, but within this sacred envelope of exhaustion, there’s no time for rumination.
I take another step forward.