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Left Right Center

Focus on breathing. Don’t think about how you’d rather be doing anything else on the planet right now. Focus on breathing. Quit reciting the pathophysiology of those diseases you got wrong on last week’s quiz. You’re thinking in circles, stop it. But if I tell myself not to think about something, doesn’t that mean I’m already thinking about it? Clearly my internal dialogue and I need some space from each other. Unfortunately, when you’re on a 20-mile run in the middle of the woods, that’s not really an option.

On any given day, you can find me training for some kind of half or full marathon, and my training schedule was no different upon starting medical school. As our class began our first systems block, I was knee-deep in a training program for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. Those first few weeks of school, I constantly questioned how wise it was to subject myself to marathon training having just begun medical school. Was burnout inevitable? If I sacrificed valuable study time for my long runs, would that mean failing my exams? What if I failed my exams AND didn’t finish the marathon? Stop it, Kaitlin, keep running.

Some days, my to-do list seemed to stretch as long as the miles I was scheduled to run. Oddly enough, those were the days that I leaned most heavily on my running: the very thing I believed was a distraction from my all-important studies. Ironically, it seemed moving my body after an intense study session yielded much better academic results than consistently studying through discomfort, and I couldn’t understand why.

At the start of medical school, the workload felt like shoving an entire college course’s worth of material into my head and praying that it all somehow stuck. I’d dig myself out of an endless trench of new content at the end of each week, just to jump right back to the bottom at the start of the next week. Our learning moves at a pace so blindingly quick that we rarely have time to dive deeper into the topics that truly fascinate us. Imagine you have just found the perfect pair of running shoes. Just as you break them in and feel yourself running your best, you are forced to begin wearing another new pair. You are thrown back into the stiffness and discomfort you just worked your way out of, and the cycle continues ad nauseam. What I would give for just a bit more time with those broken-in shoes.

This is where running comes in. When I run, I make the conscious decision to disconnect from my ever-expanding list of school-related tasks. For the duration of my workout, my body is at peace with my mind and not at war with it, which is how I sometimes feel after putting in long hours planted on my couch studying. On most runs, that body-mind harmony clicks with minimal effort, but some days prove to be more difficult than others.

Today, 48 hours before the biggest exam of the semester, my overwhelming anxiety requires an extra-forceful nudge to be contained. As I pace my long run, deeply grateful for the built-in study break, I still can’t seem to go 10 feet without quizzing myself on potential exam questions. No matter what I do to combat them, study topics race in circles around my brain, competing for attention with each strike of my heel to the dirt. Try as I might, I cannot ignore the feeling of frustration spreading through my body a physical manifestation of my study brain overtaking my run brain.

Amidst the many thoughts that are racing in tandem with my legs, a new consideration pushes its way to the forefront… What if you just try thinking about nothing?

I immediately push the notion away, as I am much more comfortable in the busy recesses of my mind: it’s what I know, my comfort zone. There are so many things on my to-do list, more problems to be solved, more errands to run. Why wouldn’t I use this time to let my mind chatter?

Five minutes later, the same thought intrudes, this time more persistently: slow down, quiet down. Don’t think about it. Look at the trees. Smell the dirt. Feel the rhythm of your feet hitting the ground. If a thought comes in, welcome it. If a thought leaves, let it. Exist separately from the things that have such a powerful influence over your life the other 90% of the time.

Just this once, I lean into the idea. What had been a brutal training run just moments ago, begins taking on a whole new meaning.

Image Credit: “Jogging” (CC BY 2.0) by ezhikoff

Kaitlin Toal Kaitlin Toal (2 Posts)

Writers-in-Training Intern and Contributing Writer

Geisinger College of Health Sciences

Kaitlin is a medical student at Geisinger College of Health Sciences, Class of 2027, interested in primary care and addiction medicine. She is from Malvern, PA and attended Northeastern University for undergrad. Outside of school, Kaitlin loves running, volunteering, cooking, reading/writing, and playing piano!