For the last six months, I’ve been training for the London Marathon. I am not what you might call a “natural runner”; running, for me, basically consists of trudging round London at a pace slightly quicker than walking. I might not be that speedy, but I do seem to be able to keep going somehow, and I managed to get around the course on 23rd April in 5:41:21.
What I have loved/hated about training for the marathon is the mental resilience it takes. What is primarily difficult about running 26.2 miles is not so much the physical element – although don’t get me wrong, I am writing this the day after the race and fear getting up from the sofa knowing my joints appear to have gone on strike. Instead, it is a question of what to think about for all that time, and what to tell myself when I want to stop but need to push on a bit further. That being said, there is such a deep satisfaction that comes from finishing a long run, knowing that I persevered and managed to meet my goal; crossing the finish line yesterday was such a phenomenal moment.
It’s also been a useful form of escapism from my research. I love that my work affords me the flexibility to take a break mid-morning to go out for a jog, and that when I come back, I inevitably have a renewed motivation for my reading, or a new idea about how to approach something. While doing laps of Greenwich Park, my mind has clearly been working away at problems subconsciously.
The training has also taught me how to stretch out of my comfort zone. I never thought I’d be able to run this far, and yet each week I manage to go a little bit further.
My friends still bring up the time that I first went for a run, in my first year as an undergraduate, and drank so much water beforehand for fear of becoming dehydrated that after about a minute’s worth of running I was ceremonially sick into the Thames, on the embankment opposite Big Ben. I suppose if you’re going to be sick in public, you might as well do it in style.
I think the same holds true for my research: running is teaching me how to push my own boundaries. In the past, I have shied away from pursuing particular ideas, worried that they will invite criticism, and I loathe having to present my work in front of others because it feels like such an intensely vulnerable thing to do. Yet, I know I can increase the parameters of what feels ‘comfortable’ in one area of my life, which makes me realise I can do the same in others.
Finally, running has taught me that there are different definitions of success. For many people, a time over 5 hours is somewhat “embarrassing”, and for months I was obsessed with getting under the 5-hour threshold. However, I’ve slowly realised that there is so much more to running than speed; sure, it’s a great feeling to get a PB time (non-runners, that stands for ‘personal best’), but some of my favourite runs have been when I’ve had meaningful conversations with friends running beside me, or just run past some great scenery (the Angel of the North was a particular highlight). During the race itself, I was neck-and-neck with a ‘camel’ for about 20 miles until I was able to push ahead, and my favourite spectator sign said, ‘Wave if this was a worse idea than Brexit’ – both of which made the whole thing a lot less serious and much more fun. I think the same is true of a PhD: there will be times when our work amasses academic accolades, and that’s going to feel amazing, but there will also be times when a conference abstract gets rejected, the feedback received from a supervisor wasn’t what we hoped for, or we’re just feeling a bit isolated from working on our own so much. That’s where I think there can still be success. Whether it’s going to the conference regardless to foster new connections, being encouraged to explore things from a different point of view, or going for coffee with someone in the library to break the day up a bit: these are all manifestations of success that the ups-and-downs of PhD life can bring.
Grace Emmett is a first-year PhD student funded by LAHP in the Theology & Religious Studies department at King’s College London. Her thesis is titled ‘Maleness’ and ‘Femaleness’ in Pauline Literature: A Study in Gender Identity. In running the London Marathon, she endeavoured to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society, as her Grandma was diagnosed with the disease eight years ago. Grace has been inspired by the practical support they offer both sufferers and carers, and their commitment to finding a cure. If you would like to sponsor her, you can do so at www.justgiving.com/grace-emmett.