Running a PhD Marathon

Zhe Zhang, University of Saskatchewan

This is my first post and it is about running (of course) – some of my personal thoughts about running experience during my PhD journey, that I cherish this memory so much.

Finishing the Saskatchewan Marathon (half) 2022

Set a goal and run to get it

I arrived in Saskatoon, Canada on a dark, winter night in January 2017 to embark on my PhD on climate change and hydrology research. It was -19 ℃ and swirling snow enveloped the taxi as it left the airport. I had been warned that doing a PhD was like running a marathon—involving discipline, setbacks, and multiple pots of coffee during sleepless nights. But what would it be like in a city where frigid winters can last seven months of the year? I could not have imagined that marathon running would get me through my PhD.

In the long run, every step counts

As I began to write my PhD proposal in my first year, I was feeling sorry for myself. How could I, as a non-English speaker, possibly produce a first-class proposal? Perhaps tired of hearing my complaints, my friend Shenyi suggested I train for a marathon. The idea seemed preposterous. Wasn’t I already facing an enormous challenge in my PhD? Although I liked running, I had never run a marathon of 42.2 km or 26 miles. “Mission impossible,” I told Shenyi, “I’ll never do it.” “Then why don’t you just start training?” she asked. “Get your first foot up and then the next. It’s like writing the proposal—you have to start with one sentence. “Besides,” she added, “You don’t have much to do after school in this cold weather anyway” (I really need to thank Saskatoon for its impossibly cold weather).

That’s how I started marathon training with my friend at our university gym’s indoor running track. We started with 3-km sessions after 5 pm twice a week. At the same time, my proposal writing was improving, word by word. As spring arrived in early May, I finally finished the proposal, and spring temperatures and snowmelt allowed us to run on trails along the Saskatchewan River. I found I could run non-stop for 16-km, crossing multiple bridges over the rivers. There are six bridges, and it was fun to plan routes from 6 to 20 km by crossing different ones. Each run was new and different, which was so much better than being on an indoor track.

In late May of my first year, I went to Boulder, Colorado for a research collaboration at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). When I found out I would be going to Boulder, I thought, “That’s great! I can do high-altitude trainings in this “runner’s paradise”.

My time kept improving. By the time I got back from Boulder after the summer, I found that, miraculously, I could run a 40 km training session. I was close to being able to run a real marathon! In the real race in Toronto in October, my time was 4:04:32—not bad for a first-timer.

I keep on running and guess what, I have finished three marathons between 2017 and 2019 – missions I couldn’t believe that I could have accomplished.

Running my first full marathon in the Toronto, 2017

Maintaining a balance? Or switching focus?

As a PhD student, I often hear my colleagues saying “life-work balance”. To be honest, I don’t like the idea of “maintaining a balance” as when both sides are equally heavy and important, the scale may actually break before a balance can be achieved. Separating our time into two dimensions—only life and work—may be an oversimplification as there are aspects of both that can’t be categorized.  I prefer the phrase “switching focus” because it reminds us that we can multi-task rather than balancing or mixing up life and work.

Running helps me to switch my focus away from research when I am tired. Getting away from climate modeling research and going out for a run lets my brain rest. This strategy worked well during my PhD. I usually ran after work at 5-6 pm for an hour outdoors weather permitting (above -10 is bearable in Saskatoon winters). When I paced myself well, I reflected on what had happened that day and in courses, meetings, and email exchanges. Reflecting while running was a good way to conclude a day’s work and showed me what I had done well and how I could have done better. These insights raised my energy for other life tasks – grocery shopping, cooking, and driving home—which could be exhausting after the after day-to-day routine.

To run 100 miles, 90 is the first half

This old Chinese saying describes the challenges and difficulties one faces while getting close to the finish line— both physical exhaustion and mindful unrest. These same challenges occur in running a marathon when one “hits a wall” around 35-km into the journey. The runner’s blood sugar is depleted, and the muscles and brain say stop.  Extra strength and stability are required to carry on running towards the final finish line.

I hit a wall last year, not while running, but while working on my PhD. Covid-19 restrictions were in place: the university was locked down and people were advised to stay home after 5 p.m. I was preparing for my comprehensive exam, which took two months of reading and writing papers to address fundamental and innovative questions in my research.

My research relies heavily on computer models to simulate temperature, rains, and river conditions, so as long as I have a good internet connection, working from home does not disrupt my research process.  I was grateful to be able to take my comprehensive exam even amid the pandemic lock down time.

Although I could read, write, and work on computer models while locked down at home, I found it hard to deal with the repetition, boredom, and anxiety. During the lock down, I changed my running schedule, so I ran at 12 noon. Running outdoors exposed me to sunshine in the spring and refreshed me for my afternoon’s work. As I ran, I summarized what I had read in the literature or learned in the morning’s meeting. After a simple lunch, I was able to start answering comprehensive questions in the afternoon. This routine – one step after another – got me through my comprehensive exam and kept me from hitting the wall during the pandemic lockdown.

Keep on running

Running has become an important part of my life. The more I run, the more I learn. Running challenges me, clarifies my thinking, and assures a work-life balance. After crossing the PhD finish line, I took some “recovery time” to think about where my career will take me. This recovery time will help me rebound and keep me running in future years – as both a researcher and a marathon runner. 

After reaching the PhD finish line, just as after completing a marathon, I took some recovery time to think where my career will take me. This recovery time can help me rebound and keep me running for the future years – as both a researcher and a marathon runner. 

Sponsored (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

Leave a Reply