How running a 100-mile ultramarathon made me a better medical student

The sun rises in the distance. The finish line beckons. A wave of adrenaline propels me forward. Finally, after almost 24 hours of running, 100 miles were in my rearview mirror. Years of training prepared me for this moment, and I was particularly proud I accomplished this despite being in medical school. While the preparation was time-consuming and the miles were physically draining, running 100 miles unequivocally made me a better medical student.

Persistence

The most common question I get is, “How do you even run 100 miles?” When I think about this, I reflect on how my journey in running mirrors the journey we all take in medicine. As students, we have all had that moment when we find ourselves in awe of the perfect attending. Their level of knowledge, impeccable clinical reasoning, and compassion for patients makes me ask myself, “how will I ever become like that?”

In a similar way, running 100 miles for me was unthinkable a few years ago. When I first committed to running as a hobby after college, I could barely muster 1 mile without my lungs crying out for air. This continued for weeks, and doubt crept in. But slowly, I improved: running 2 miles, 3 miles, 10 miles, and because I’m the type of person who enjoys challenges, I signed up for my first 50 km ultramarathon after ten months of training. Next was a 50-mile race, a 100 km race, and eventually, I had the confidence to embark on 100 miles. If I was literally able to go from a 0 to a 100, it gives me hope that with patience and persistence, one day, I will become an excellent attending.

Wellness

Another challenge we face as students is that we let academics and clinical work consume our lives. I have made countless elaborate study schedules for how many questions to do, how many Anki flashcards to review, and how many lectures to watch, but when it came to wellness, I told myself, “I’ll get to it if I have time for it.” However, more often than not, the day would fly by, and the most I will have moved is from my desk to the kitchen and back.

What running has taught me is that I must be intentional about scheduling in wellness. When I have an exciting race to look forward to (especially one as daunting as 100 miles), I dedicate the time to train and step away from medicine. There has never been a single run I regretted doing. I always feel better afterwards not only physically but also refreshed to learn more and take on the challenges of the day. For me, the joy and rewards of running are a daily reminder that life has the most meaning when we chase after our personal dreams, and we are better caretakers for our patients when we take care of ourselves.

Inspiration

Flashing back to my race: it’s 3 a.m., and everything is pitch black except for the narrow path illuminated by my headlamp. I had already been running for 20 hours. My bones felt like they were going to snap, my muscles cramped up with every step, and the cartilage in my knees seemingly evaporated. Not to mention the visual hallucinations, which did not help one bit. This was my lowest point.

It’s often said that your worst day as a doctor is better than your best day as a patient. Running 100 miles has reinforced this truth for me. I don’t pretend to know what it feels like being unable to breathe with COPD or being unable to walk with debilitating osteoarthritis. But from what I have been through, I cannot help but feel inspired by my patients. I know that no matter how hard I run, I will get relief by stopping. Our patients don’t have that choice when their illness is all-consuming and may continue indefinitely; yet they find the stamina to go on. They find the motivation to strive for a happy and healthy quality of life, no matter how difficult it is. I want nothing more in the world than for them to feel better. Their inspiration drives me to do the best I can for them every day.

When I started running, I had no long-term plan. I enjoyed the process, achieved my goals, and made friends doing it. When I started medical school, I stuck with running because it was such an integral part of my life at that point. Every student brings their own unique story, talents, and interests to medical school, and it is vital that they don’t let that part of themselves go. I encourage all medical students to continue running their own “100 miles.” It’ll help you in more ways than you’ll know.

Jonathan Pan is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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