In years past, setting aside time every week to train for a race was seamless. Running was just another part of my daily schedule. In taking organic chemistry this past fall, my focus shifted more fully to my dream of becoming a physician and conducting epidemiological research.
I did well in the marathon, half-marathon, and 5K races I finished that fall, but come winter I would make it out on the roads no more than twice a week. I yearned for spring and its promise of warm weather that wouldn’t require putting on three or four layers of clothing to run for 20 minutes.
But the weather wasn’t the problem. In New England, we enjoyed a very mild winter with several days in January and February eclipsing 60°. Even with the inrush of warmth and sunshine, I couldn’t bring myself to run. The rigor of my coursework was too exacting to devote several hours each week to yet more physical and mental exertion.
This new reality was most apparent at Mile 14 during last week’s marathon. I remember staring down at my feet, slogging over a rusted manhole, and thinking, “I can’t have it all.”
I can’t take seven credits a semester (the typical student at Wesleyan takes four), conduct research in two labs, have a thriving social life, and still expect to maintain my might as a marathoner. I’ve brought to mind the image below at several points during this semester.
The idea of sacrifice has been ever-present in the past few months. In pursuing my career (earning good grades) I either have to lessen my focus on physical fitness (forgoing sleep and frequent exercise) or risk losing meaningful friendships and connections.
Perhaps if I didn’t regularly Skype with the girl I’m seeing back home and didn’t have dinner with friends almost every night, I would’ve had more time to train for the D.C. marathon and performed much better.
But part of the thrill in finishing, albeit more slowly than desired, was sharing that achievement with my closest friends and family. Surely there were some intrinsic rewards to be gained, but that victory would lose almost all meaning in the absence of others to rejoice with.
Spurning friendships in pursuit of my own personal goals is the surest way to end up accomplished, yet alone.
What is particularly painful is that I feel the most alive when I am out running on roads and trails, past subways and streams. I feel in touch with my every physiological rhythm, as if I am carrying on some great legacy left for me by my ancestors.
And that is the very nature of sacrifice: placing a lesser importance on one’s own aims for the prospect of benefitting the common good. As an epidemiologist, I might save countless lives through my work and directly impact many more as a physician. Surely others might be inspired when they see I’ve run 26.2 miles, but that pursuit remains largely a self-centered goal.
At the core of sacrifice is moving from the selfish to the selfless. I touched on this idea in the Ascent, which is at the heart of the medical profession:
In devoting their existence to healing, curing, and comforting, medical doctors become servants of humanity. One’s own needs and desires seem to dissipate in the face of the enormous good that can be provided to other human beings.
Everything I accomplish in my life– earning good grades, finishing marathons, impressing women with my vocabulary– pales in comparison to the solace I might one day provide to a child in the throes of chemotherapy.
While I might stop running competitively, the drive that sustained me through months of training will transmute to my coursework and research, helping me towards acceptance to a top medical school and school of public health, and saving lives as an epidemiologist. That is the sacrifice I’m willing to make.