Playing the Long Game: A Medical Student’s Appreciation of Endurance Athletics

uvmmedicine blogger Caleb Knight '20
uvmmedicine blogger Caleb Knight ’20

Hobbling across the finish line of the 2015 Lake Tahoe Ironman triathlon, I was content with the thought of never competing in another one. It was certainly a momentous occasion—my first official race of any kind, the product of months of training, a grueling eleven hours on one of the sport’s toughest courses, with my friends and family cheering for me throughout. However, the cost of the race—time and money—was difficult for me to justify without reference to the unique nature of this particular time in my life. A close friend and I had recently graduated from college, jobless with at least a year before I would (hopefully) begin medical school. The bulk of my training would fall primarily on the first summer of my gap year. During what other stage of life could I envision putting so much energy into an entirely selfish endeavor?

We trained diligently in Boulder, Colorado, living in the basement of my girlfriend’s parents’ house, and I was provided ample time (normally on the bike) to ponder my circumstantial privilege—how lucky I was to be able to spend so many hours outside exercising with a friend—as well as my self-centeredness. All this attention invested towards a goal—a personal accomplishment, a feat of physical fitness. Who else does this benefit? The answer was obvious. Convicted, I knew I must become a better player of the long game.

I must look further forward, properly appreciating the value of my limited time, and working in the present towards a goal that would benefit others. Students nationwide who shared my humanism and passions for health, science, and the human body were certainly playing the long game, immersing themselves in research and/or clinical work in order to ready themselves for medical school. And I was swimming. I was riding bikes, running trails, eating and sleeping. As a kinesiology major and an athlete, I value exercise—but to this degree, it seemed excessive. My guilt was only abated with my semi-regular work as an emergency department medical scribe, and with the aforementioned justification based on the time of life—I’d just try to think of it as a brief period of selfish indulgence, before the years of dutiful studying and preparation for the altruistic life of a physician.

Crossing the finish line at Tahoe, I suddenly became emotional. I had done it—I’d carried fatigue and discomfort mile by mile and lumbered across the line. I was now past it, embracing my closest friends and family, high-fiving cheering spectators, ducking into a medal, and sitting on a seat that wasn’t a bike saddle. I’d diligently completed a rigorous six-month training plan, and a 140.6 mile race. I considered it a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, and was proud in spite of my frailty. I beamed.

Were the many hours I spent exercising largely selfish? I still can’t deny it, but I also don’t regret it. There was an abundant currency of inspiration that day, exchanged by the thousands of athletes, spectators and volunteers. All profited. There was also a resiliency that my training demanded, a daily practice of will, practice in playing the long game. Riding my bike uphill and into the wind, lowering my head and cursing, I’d think of my race, still months away, and I’d resolve to stay on the bike. Waking up early and heading to the pool, or running long roads with small amounts of water and nutrition, I knew that today’s preparation—the strength I build today—will absolutely affect my performance later.

The following day, I discovered that I had finished second in my age group, earning one of two qualifying spots to the 2016 Ironman World Championships in Kona, HI. This would be an opportunity to race alongside some of the world’s greatest athletes, to celebrate health, fitness, and the human spirit with tens of thousands of people, on the beautiful Hawaiian coast. It was also clear that this race would be dramatically costly.

I won’t ever be a professional athlete. I may never again qualify for the World Championships, and it would have to be a very special situation for me to consider investing the time and money into another Ironman. However, 13 months after racing at Lake Tahoe, almost three months into medical school and two weeks after having crossed the finish line at Kona, I am proud of my accomplishment and guilt-free. It was a special day after a unique time in my life, and the product of 24 weeks of preparation, testing the extremes of my ability. I’ll be relieved to don the white coat of a medical student without accommodating three to four weekday hours of exercise, happily selling my fancy bike but continuing to build upon my expertise in playing the long game. I’ll approach school with the split perspective I practiced, motivated to make the most of each lesson and class while considering my career as a physician, and how I can serve my future patients today.

Read more about the Ironman Championships.

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