Sophy Mo is a medical student at McGill University.
If you had told my high school self that I would one day go running of my own volition, I would have laughed in your face. There was nothing more painful than the days we had graded races in physical education class. “You have to run for the entire 24 minutes. If you walk, you fail.” I still remember the way my gym teacher said these words: with a stony expression devoid of any pity. On the mornings of these dreaded runs, I was as agitated as if I had consumed one too many espressos. I would spend my morning anticipating the agony soon to be inflicted on my muscles and the demoralization of being passed again and again by faster students.
One evening at the start of medical school, I was surprised to be overtaken by an urge to go on a run after a day spent inside studying public health. After so much stillness, my body was in dire need of movement. It was a cool summer evening. The sun had set already, but I took the dusty running shoes out of my closet, grabbed a pair of headphones and went for my first run since high school. There was hardly anyone outside – just a few people walking their dogs. On occasion, I would run past other runners. Some were seasoned athletes who, despite their speed, seemed to barely break a sweat; others were huffing and puffing. While I was running, I did not think of anything. I focused on feeling the wind on my skin, my steps on the pavement, and the details of my neighborhood that previously went unnoticed. Although I would not say I was having fun, I surprised myself by not despising the feeling of running.
I have continued to run throughout the rest of medical school. I usually aim to run at least 20 minutes. However, I often end up trying to run as long as I can and beating my previous times. I soon realized that my greatest competitor had always been myself. There is nobody else worth comparing myself to.
I attribute a big part of my accomplishments to being very hard-working. I am focused on what I need to do and keep marching forward. In medical school, I have found myself frequently distracted by my colleague’s accomplishments, leaving me both in awe and in a paralyzing anxiety that I am not enough. I can spend evenings searching for ways I could get more involved in a particular area. I have to remind myself that I am wired in a way that I can only give myself fully to projects where my drive stems from an inner force, the same intangible force that moved me to run. Mechanically, my school races and my serene jog that evening bear no difference. Yet, the latter was infinitely more pleasant as I had chosen to do it instead of being forced to by a stern gym teacher. Each time I am filled with self-doubt from comparing myself to my peers, I think of racehorses and the blinders they wear to focus on their own race. I remind myself to keep taking steps towards my own goals and to be grateful that my amazing peers will one day be my colleagues.
I always run when it is already dark outside. At night, nobody pays attention to you and a cherry-red face barely shows in the darkness. The air is pleasantly cool. The stillness of the night provides no distractions and lets me completely take in my surroundings. When the days at the hospital fly by, I always look forward to taking this time to be completely in the present moment: my aching muscles rarely allow me to forget the now.
Medical school is good at creating worries for me. Have I studied enough? Am I performing well compared to my peers? Will I be accepted into a particular residency? Yet, when I run, my mind’s incessant clamoring quiets down. I am completely in tune with the physical sensations of my body and momentarily forget about everything else that is going on in my life. Physically, it is as taxing as I remember from high school, but I have come to realize that it is also when I feel the most alive.
Thank you for this wonderful piece. It really resonated with me. After many false starts over the years, I finally took up running this year and am loving it. You’ve described the experience so well.