Some days, even a third cup of coffee won’t do. Despite the intrinsic joys of being a member of a team providing life-altering medical care, medicine is hard. It can leave you tired and stuck in a pattern where days run together and routines become bland. Perhaps coupled with a few too few hours of sleep, not even the glorified stimulant caffeine can do much to add an extra pep in your step.
When I began my core clerkship rotations last year, I found myself in this mind numbing pattern after a few weeks of 5:00 am pre-rounding. I truly was loving being involved in patient care and learning ever-growing amounts of information daily, but something was missing. A newness, a joie de vivre, seemed to have been replaced by the early rounds and the frenetic scramble to pre-op between rounds, a quick breakfast, and the first surgical case of the day.
Stuck spinning my tires yet moving nowhere in this monotony, I realized it was time for change.
Enter scrunchies. On a rare day-off trip to Target with my mom, a pack of bright scrunchies stole my attention. The allure drew me in, despite having arrived at Target with intentions to purchase only a few household items (who hasn’t had this happen at Target, though…), and my money was spent before I even had a chance to consider it.
Early the next morning, pre-pre-rounding, I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and looked over my pack of bright, beaming, joyful, exciting, new scrunchies. I chose a hot pink one, looped it twice around my hair and sensed myself grow a few inches taller. I felt just like my scrunchie looked: bright, beaming, joyful, exciting, and new. No longer was today another day of the ordinary; it was hot pink scrunchie day.
Days of the clerkship continued to roll by, each punctuated by a scrunchie. Some days, perhaps days that I was on call and knew would last for many hours or days with feedback from attendings, called for even bolder scrunchies. A friend had sent me cheetah- and zebra-print scrunchies, perfect for when I needed to believe in my own ferocity. A bridesmaid gift from my cousin featured a yellow scrunchie that could be tied into a bow, perfect for when I needed a little more self-confidence. A black scrunchie helped me feel chic and ready to tackle a day in clinic.
Now having completed my core clinical clerkships, I am reflecting back on how my scrunchies have been with me through some of my greatest triumphs, most important lessons, and hardest days of medical school. They’ve been part of relationships with patients and friendships with peers. They’ve added a pep in my step that even a third cup of coffee couldn’t (although perhaps there is some synergy between that third cup and a scrunchie). They’ve helped me re-find my joie de vivre and learn that early morning rounds will never be able to take it away again.
As I approach my upcoming ICU rotation, I look forward to introducing a new pack of scrunchies into the rotation – these ones multicolored and composed of a variety of fabrics, as well as a purple one with a bow – to help mark each new day, accompany me as I learn and grow, support me through the challenging times, and add just a hint more pep with my coffee.
One of the most frequent questions I’ve received is: medical school and competitive running, how do you do them both? Along those same lines, many people have asked me if I plan on continuing to run at a high level as a medical student or if I even will continue to keep up the sport at all.
I had deferred from answering these questions on this blog given that when they began pouring in, I had spent mere days enrolled as a student. Honestly, I feared answering how I did both before I was confident that I could do both. After years of hearing people say that medical students could not pursue anything outside of their studies, I certainly harbored a few doubts.
I am now five weeks, three quizzes, and well over three thousand slides into medical school, and I am excited to report: running and medical school, I am doing them both.
Not only am I doing them both, but I am actually getting the most consistent and solid training I have had in years. A cursory look back in my log shows that I have run more weeks in a row since I started training in April than I have in over three years. I am investing money in the bank each week with two workouts, a long run, and two lifts, the same framework that led me to success in earlier parts of my career. In other words, my training is as good as or better than it has ever been.
Logistically, I believe I am able to find this balance for a few reasons:
Running on teams in high school and college was one of the most formative and important parts of my life. It taught me countless lessons about life and the sport, and I am beyond thankful for it and the relationships I made as a member of those teams. However, as Ecclesiastes 3 mentions, there is a time and place for everything, a season for everything under the sun. Right now, I am in a season of life where time is a little bit more in demand than during high school or as an undergraduate, so official membership on a team with daily meetings adds a time-consuming element that I cannot afford. Rather, as a post-collegiate, I am able to pick and choose when I am able to invest time in running and working out with others, but also run or work out between classes and adapt to my schedule on the busier days.
UMMS’ exam system is called “flextime quizzing,” where exams open on Friday afternoons and close on Sunday evenings. We are able to take the exam whenever is most convenient for us during this timeframe. This makes it possible for students to have different study habits during the week because we aren’t all forced to take an exam on Friday evenings. Some students grind to the nth degree (you go, Glen Coco) during the week, take their quizzes at 3:00pm on Fridays, and are free until Monday at 8:00am. I take a little more relaxed approach, mixing studying and training during the week and quizzing on Saturday afternoon or evening. This flexibility in exams dispels the idea that medical students can’t pursue anything outside of their studies, and it shows that Michigan believes that its students are at their best when they have the opportunity to continue to pursue what made them special in the first place.
I am a pre-clinical student, which means that for the most part, I am not yet on the wards. A majority of our learning right now occurs in a classroom or small group setting; we are even able to stream most lectures. This means that I have a fair bit of control over my time and learning style. Next year, when I become a clinical student on rotations, I am going to have to change my approach to running again. I hope that I have another one of these posts to explain how I am doing it!
Anatomy lab showers. Gotta make do with what you’ve got.
Furthermore, for me personally, I think there are actually benefits to pursuing medical school and running simultaneously! Medical school is actually making me a better runner right now, and here’s why:
First of all, running in medical school has given me vastly more flexibility in my training schedule, allowing me to more closely match my body’s needs. Instead of having a strict schedule to adhere to based on the availability of my teammates, I am able to assess where my own body is at any given time on any given day, and then work relative to that level of physical and mental readiness. This means that for the first time potentially ever, I think I am truly running easy runs easily, choosing four miles instead of six when needed, and ripping off some faster splits when my body is primed and ready.
Since running is not my only high-level pursuit, it means that I stress far less over it. This leads to a much more stable, measured day-to-day effort, and hence the ability to rack up training long-term. This long-term training is key to building up an aerobic base for performance later in the season, and it’s also something I have not been able to do well in years.
The challenges of medical school have helped me, to use a cliche, see the forest for the trees. I now more than ever see running as a gift and a break, something to look forward to after a long day of studying. Workouts, rather than a big red X in the calendar to be feared, are again a highlight of my week. Performance in these workouts means little compared to the freedom and joy that time outside and pushing my body give me, so there is no need to panic over a slower interval. Furthermore, after spending so much time studying and achieving intangible things, it is comforting to log miles and write them in my running log, markers of accomplishing little somethings in a long day of lots of work, but with not much to show for it.
Thus far, school is unimaginably unmanageable. There is just too much information to know it all, and to know it all perfectly. Recognizing this is helping me to shed my perfectionist tendencies and focus on the process of learning and being a human being. I think being an adherent to “the process” (-Mike McGuire) instead of living or dying by the outcome is only going to help my running, too.
In whatever career field you’re in, I believe that it’s essential to continue to do the things that make you you. It keeps you grateful for life and your career, and it makes you resilient when your career (or life) gets hard. Running and faith are two important things that keep me grounded and grateful, so it’s essential that I keep pursuing them in addition to my studies.
For those of you interested in my upcoming running-related goals… (1) qualify during a spring race for the US Olympic Trials 10,000m in June 2020, and (2) get fit and race a bit along the way!
This post originally featured on Erin’s personal blog, which you can follow here.