So, here’s something I never thought I’d say: I’m going to grad school.
Turning what was once a daydream into reality only took me… oh, about a decade. When I was a reporter I’d often have an hour or two after I’d filed my stories until I actually got edited. Sometimes, I’d kill time perusing the Harvard Kennedy School website and fantasize about studying there. I had no intention of leaving journalism just yet, but I had an inkling that I might need to figure out a Plan B, and HKS appealed to me. I even started filling out an application one year, though I balked when I saw that I’d have to take a standardized test and write essays. I wasn’t that committed to the idea. Yet.
Fast forward a few years, and the time began to feel right. A lot had changed since those afternoons in the newsroom. I’d moved to Massachusetts, gotten out of journalism, and taken up running. I’m not sure how much the first two had to do with my ultimate success, but I know without a doubt that were it not for running, I never would have gotten into grad school. What? Yeah, running.
Sure, plenty of non-runners get into grad school. But for me, running made something that once seemed daunting, even impossible, a reality.
For starters, running taught me the value of a training plan. Runners have to take the long view. You don’t go from the couch to crushing miles overnight. You don’t get into grad school overnight either. The process takes months, even years. I approached my application the way I’d learned to prepare for races: I came up with a goal, set a training plan, and stuck to it as best as I could. I hadn’t taken math since Bill Clinton was president, so I signed up for a class to brush up on geometry and algebra. I took the GRE one Friday in July, and did respectably. I attended prospective student days, met with professors, and talked to colleagues who has completed similar programs. Just hours before the application was due, I hit send.
It showed me how to deal with setbacks. Things don’t always go as planned. Race day comes and maybe there’s a 30 mph headwind, maybe there are three feet of snow on the ground, maybe you simply don’t feel well. That’s how it went for me. I took tests, wrote essays, and submitted my application. After months of waiting, the email came with a decision and guess what? I didn’t get in.
Three years ago, that would have been the end of the discussion, I didn’t get in, and so I wasn’t going. But over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of getting to know some pretty great athletes who have set ambitious goals and serious training plans in motion only to fall short of the mark. A couple friends trained for months and then missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by just a few seconds. Another watched her Ironman dream fade away after she developed a stress fracture in her hip. Did these folks say forget it and walk away from their goals? No. They savored the taste of disappointment, regrouped, and set out after it again. And so that’s what I did. I spent the next six months analyzing my training plan for weak spots and working to remedy them.
I knew the value of sharing my goals with others. One of my mistakes the first time around was that I told almost no one what I was doing. I figured that if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t have to share my disappointment with others. But silently applying for grad school was like going out on a deserted road and hoping to run my best time. I always run faster when I’m surrounded by people who are cheering me on. Why wasn’t I doing the same here?
I learned to ask for help. Yes, running is a solo sport. But there’s a lot to be gleaned by asking others for help. What shoes do you like? How do you stretch that muscle? Do you have a good track workout? Will you pace me in my race? Good runners are constantly seeking and offering assistance. But when it came to grad school, I felt almost bad about soliciting others for help. There’s a woman I work with that I really respect. I knew she’d likely have some good advice for me, and that she’d likely write me a great recommendation. But she’s a really busy person and I didn’t want to impose. When I didn’t get into school, I wondered whether this person’s advice and endorsement might have made a difference. So I reached out and asked if she’d meet with me for 30 minutes. She was delighted, offered some great pointers, and was enthusiastic about writing a recommendation for me. As a result, I felt much better about my application the second time around.
The next two years will be a challenge. I plan to continue to work full-time while taking classes. It won’t be easy, but I feel pretty good about it. After all, running also instilled in me the value of endurance training, and taught me that just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t also fun.
And while I may have less time and less money over the next two years, you can bet I’ll keep on running.