I never dreamt that participating in any sport, much less failing at one, would have such a dramatic, holistic impact on my life, but it did. Failure at cross country changed my entire outlook. Running was something I wasn’t good at, so naturally, I chased after it. With a sorry mile time, I began the grueling practices and nerve-racking meets that accompany joining a cross country team. Every run was a challenge. Every run was painful. We didn’t train to eliminate pain; we trained to tolerate it. Through failures and doubts, when our bodies begged, pleaded, screamed at us to stop, we persevered.
Still, runs are constant battles with my psyche. There is the voice in your head telling you to stop, that the pain is unbearable, but it’s this same voice that allows you to prevail against the doubts.
Haruki Murakami writes in “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.” It’s all about how you view your experiences. Often our choices are made unconsciously in the small distance between our ears, without us having any knowledge that we’re making them, yet these subliminal choices determine how we live.
How does running relate to academia? For me, I have trouble focusing without it. I wake up in the morning with my eyes drooping but my heart racing, my feet itching to kiss the floor, my mind yearning to get lost, my ears eager for the abyss of silence or the hug of earbuds. In a bubble where one is confronted with being “on” at any given moment, running is time to focus solely and selfishly on yourself, to make peace with your own company — to hear, conquer, and own your innermost thoughts. “All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says,” Murakami writes.
What you get from your run isn’t important. It’s what you become from your run. Just like how the process of running, not your destination, matters most, years from now, you’ll remember the knowledge you gained at school, not your GPA. Otherwise we’re simply computerized beings churning out homework assignments and pleased parents.
Imagine working on a problem set and just not understanding the puzzles that lie before you. Marathon runners describe this as “the wall.” I strive for this wall because to ram into it means I gave my all.
Then suddenly, there is that sweet microsecond where everything finally clicks into place. An instant of pure joy and vitality where for a moment, everything is right. When finishing a run, I become overloaded with gratifying, refreshing exhaustion.
With beautiful moments of bliss, there are contrasting moments of woe. Christopher McDougall in “Born to Run” writes, “Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked.”
Stanford has made me well acquainted with failure. We go to arguably the number one school in the United States, so it’s not that you never fail, but that you never quit. I think that part of the joy of success derives from the resilience maintained when failure seems to be the only thing in sight.
Cross country wasn’t about first place, but rather improving one’s own individual performance. It’s hard work, and it’s not nearly as glamorous as the fast-paced, overarching-inspirational-music-playing scenes that you see in the movies. It’s messier. It’s about what you do when you don’t have to do it. And at the end of each race, I would turn to congratulate my competitors, for we both have a mutual connection through the pain endured.
There was a hill by my house that used to leave me breathless when I would simply walk up it, and I remember thinking that I was way too young to be feeling that old. So I decided to make a change.
Every day I would set out for a run, allowing the crisp morning air to fill my warm lungs while the neighborhood remained asleep. It was just me and that evil, towering hill. My feet pounded the pavement, gripped the textured road everyday, until suddenly that hill didn’t scare me anymore, and I was able to swiftly glide over it. I go home now, and it looks like nothing more than a steep incline to me.
It can be simple to forget the times of challenges and pain that you endured to get to Stanford or to achieve a stellar exam grade, but remember those times you prevailed. Remember the times when the you of the past would be in awe and disbelief of where you are now and what you have achieved.
That said, in cross country, looking back signals doubt. I learned to be unconcerned with what’s behind and focus on what’s ahead — where I want to be. With every step, you flee preset expectations and responsibilities. And with a roll of the shoulders, a shake of the arms and a flick of the wrists, those metaphorical chains break free. As though this habitual release somehow snaps off the stressors that cling tightly to our being.
We outrun anxiety, outrun ambiguities, fears and miseries. All the pain that remains hidden during the day becomes unveiled and you bare the grief proudly.
Cross country taught me how everything is mental. It requires the prioritizing of thoughts. It’s about having the endurance to focus, a physical task that has very little to do with the body but with the mind.
Cross country is a sport governed by time. It’s a sport where varsity spots aren’t guaranteed as every week changes, entirely dependent upon one’s last performance. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, but nothing stays the same. You accept the difficult realities of the present, yet you are overcome with wonder every time your body overcomes the next feat, whether it be sprinting the final 100 or completing that elusive problem set.
Through running and academia, you realize you don’t know everything. It’s a phenomenal, universal sensation — freeing yet impulsive, a blend of fear and pleasure. Because when you embark on a run, you don’t totally know where you are going, but why should that stop you? If you can survive every cell in your body being worked to the max, you can survive this next challenge.
“I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue,” Murakami implores.
It is easy to get caught up in busy Stanford life, but one day we’ll be thinking in bundles of years, having difficulty recalling these seemingly preoccupied, blasé seconds or the intricacy of chemistry problems or the youthful energy in legs. Nothing makes me hyperaware yet completely oblivious to time more than running does. Maybe it’s not running or not even academia that truly resonates with you, but find something that makes you lose track of time while savoring every moment.
Contact Cate Camara ccamara2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.