Starting things are difficult. Whether it is living in a new city, starting a new job, going to a new school, or standing at the beginning of anything for which you do not have a good routine, the start is rough. When I run, the first three miles are always painful. When I start a new service in the hospital the first few days are always disorienting and confusing. I often get lost several times a day, am generally of very little help to anyone, and am not too certain of what my actual job or responsibilities in this new team are. Whenever I have moved to a new city the first month is always difficult. Where to get cheap gas, find good food, and connect with new friends is difficult and leaves one wishing for “the good ‘ole days”. During these periods of transition I will often give myself a date or time in the future when I can quit if I so choose. When I run that’s at the 3 mile mark since I know that by that time I will have found a rhythm and adjusted to the exercise. When I start a new service it is generally a week since I know that by that time I will have made some friends, figured out what I am supposed to be doing, and have established a general map of where things are in the hospital. When I move to a new city it has generally been after I have accomplished something such as the end of the first quarter of college or the completion of one cycle of medical school. At that point I have found a routine and can ride a sense of accomplishment into productivity and a happier frame of mind.
When starting something new try to avoid thinking about how you feel and whether you are enjoying your time until after the first day. Because invariably the answer is that you are uncomfortable, slightly tired, and generally wish you were back in bed. But keep going and often you will find a new rhythm, a new pattern, and a new satisfaction. If nothing else you will have developed a strong sense of grit and a new set of experiences that will be informative in the future. Whatever you do, never quit on the first day.
long distances there is a sense of panic and urgency that can sneak up at unexpected times. It is an insidious breathlessness that creeps up when you are not paying attention. Beginning with a slight feeling of discomfort and a desire to get to the finish line faster your pace picks up a small amount. You extend yourself just a little bit too far with each stride. This discomfort increases the desire for the end and the pace picks up a little bit faster and the strides become just a little bit longer. Twenty minutes of this slow acceleration with deteriorating form leads to a feeling of frantic breathlessness accompanied by a confusion as to how things went downhill so fast. The key at this point is to drop the pace, to focus on your breathing, even to walk at an aid station if needed. To recenter, recalibrate, refocus. Resetting the stride at this point, reaching a rhythm in your breathing, and recognizing how much farther you still have to go is essential to finishing, and finishing well.
The same can be said of many other aspects of life. Slow increases in stress or hours at work push us at a pace that we cannot maintain. We begin to lose the enthusiasm, the why, that is crucial. Weeks to months down the road, we end up burned out, gasping for breath, unsure if we want to continue or even if we can. The journey is no longer fun, and our pace keeps increasing at a frantic rate to try to get somewhere, anywhere a little bit faster so maybe all of this can stop.
In running you can use technology and intentional self-awareness to avoid the breathless panic. Watching for spikes in heart rate and paying attention to the rhythm of your breathing are essential. But it is not enough just to pay attention, you must also adjust. Slow your pace, enjoy the view, take in some fluids and nutrition. The same is true in life. You can track markers like work hours and do gut checks from time to time, but you also must be willing to change. To leave early and take a weekend off. To drop everything for a day or two. To take advantage of the slow times to regain your breath. To settle in for the long haul and make accommodations so that the long haul becomes a journey of joy instead of a painful slog.
After all the tortoise versus the hare is best understood not as advice for a day-long run but a lifelong pursuit.