Over the Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday, I talked with a group of friends about the New York Marathon. My host intimated that he had participated in it many times. It was almost a ritual for many years, until his knees became weaker, and could no longer run a long distance. Ever since he switched to cycling, which was less taxing to his aging body. It was his enthusiasm that charmed me. I decided at the dinner table that I would give it a try. Maybe one day I could also participate in the New York Marathon. Other two guests, who lived in Philadelphia suggested that I should first aim for a half marathon at the Philly Marathon because it would be easier than the New York one. Each had their own opinion about how to train for a marathon, and whether it was a solitary endeavor, or a social event. My host suggested that it would be mostly a one-woman show with some group activities in between until the race. By the end of the dinner, I was convinced that I should give it a try. Besides, I also received an old Fitbit as a gift to track my training. The following day, instead of rushing to a store for Black Friday sales, I rushed to the Central Park for my first training section.
At 8AM the following day, I put on some running gears, headed southward to Central Park. As soon as I stepped outside of the apartment building, the cold hit my internal organs. First, I was under-dressed. The temperature was a lot lower than expected. My lung took in so much cold wind that at some point I felt as if it would have been chilled to below 40 degree had I stayed outside for too long. Even after 15 minutes of jogging, my legs didn’t warm up. They were surrounded by freezing winds without any appropriate protection. My ears also felt numb. After only 20 minutes, I decided to go home because my body could not really bear the outside temperature with less than appropriate clothing. I jogged home. My mileage was pathetically low: 1.8 miles.
The second day went a bit smoother, I put on the warmest coat that I could find in my closet. My head and ears were protected by a light wool bean hat. The problem then became overdressing! Yet I was protected. Headed to the Central Park at 8 o’clock in the morning, I joined many other New Yorkers running with me. Contrary to what my friend said, I was actually running with people, lots of people: old people, young people, teenagers, athletes, even dogs. Suddenly from a solitary activity I found solidarity with lots of co-runners. I didn’t need to know them in person, but I feel a connection immediately because I was doing something similar to what they were doing. The affinity reminded me of the concept “social infrastructure” coined by sociologist Eric Klinnenberg. As intuitive as the term suggests, any infrastructure that brings people together is social infrastructure. In his new book, Places for People, he suggests that it is glue that binds people and communities together. Furthermore, a commitment to build these places is essential to have a cohesive and civil society. In my case, Central Park was the essential social infrastructure where my lone endeavor of training for a half marathon inadvertently became a social event which I started looking forward to every day. The social aspect of running inevitably drew me into this training and commitment even further.
While enjoying the atmosphere of Central Park on a beautiful Saturday, I ran so far off track, and found myself on the east side, near all the big museums. A sign of the Cooper Hewitt Museum suggested that I should turn back before it was too late. I headed home and completed my first 5-mile run. What a triumph!
Feeling a part of a bigger movement was not exclusive to Central Park alone. When I got home, I skyped with a friend who is currently living in Singapore. I told him that I just went out for a run and completed 5 miles that morning. While my PhD life has been boring lately because I am preparing for orals (a second exam in my PhD), which means there is a lot of lone reading time, his life in Singapore was also not at all exciting. Yet when we started changing the topic to my trying to run for a half marathon, the conversation suddenly became lively, and full of energy. Unbeknown to me he is also a runner and would participate in a half marathon run in a week or two. He started sending me information about dieting, how to avoid injuries while running, and how to let my body rest sufficiently each week. We were encouraging each other to run more often. I asked him on how to fund-raise for some of the causes that were dear to me. This topic bonded us. Half way across the world did not feel like a long distance. I felt as if he was still my friend whom I met while in college: still full of excitement, and wanting to try new things every day. I felt better informed after talking to him about my goal, training plan, and diet regime, etc.
Since then I have been jogging 3 miles every other day, with a rest day in between. I now sleep like baby and feel so much happier with my body. Sometimes as an academic I just forget what my body can do to me. I often overwork my brain without giving sufficient attention to other parts, and the body as a whole. The positive energy I feel after a run reminds me of the Interaction Ritual Chains thesis, where sociologist Randall Collins proposes that “successful rituals create symbols of group membership and pump up individuals with emotional energy, while failed rituals drain emotional energy.” This predicts that individuals would engage in interactions where they gain the most emotional payoffs. Any activity that could be done socially would have some emotional return. To me, I am now engaging in running, and I can relate to other runners regardless of their level. Running makes me happy. Any interaction with a runner promises some level of satisfaction.
After the talk with my friend in Singapore, I became convinced that I could take part in a 10K run in less than a month. My goal is not to be the fastest runner. It is simply to finish the race, and prove that with persistence 10K is achievable. My PhD journey is oftentimes likened to a marathon. One can run, but it doesn’t mean that one can run for 26.2 miles over the course of 5+ hours. It is a strenuous process which requires one to zoom in on a singular goal which is to cross the finishing line. I am enjoying my PhD life. But since I have crossed the half point of my journey already, I am actually looking forward to increase the speed, and finish the run in a timely manner.