You learn a lot about yourself in graduate school. The same is true while running a marathon. Signing up for either is a great way to realize your masochistic tendencies. Jokes aside, continually working towards two immense challenges has taught me several valuable lessons that I share here.
Lesson 2: Focus
Whether it be training for a marathon or completing your PhD, it's essential to maintain focus on the goal, despite challenges. Marathon courses tend to pass through the main roads of whichever city is hosting the race. To not get lost (or disqualified), runners should not stray from the course -- no matter how intriguing side streets or trails along the way may seem! While many runners race without issue, others find themselves lost by accident. Those in the latter category will undoubtedly take longer to finish -- unless they pick up the pace once back on track! How stressful! Now, replace the concept of "marathon course" with "PhD timeline." You get the idea.
Lesson 3: Pace yourself
In each marathon I've run, there was always some person shouting reminders, "it's a marathon, not a sprint!" In my first two marathons, I failed to heed the warning. I tried to keep pace with more advanced runners early on. As a consequence, I would tire before I was even remotely close to the finish. I have since learned to avoid this miserable fate. In my last marathon, my mile splits were negative, meaning that I started at a slower pace and progressively ran faster as the race went on. As a result, I enjoyed the race more, performed much better, and I was happier overall.
Progressing toward a PhD requires a steady pace as well. Before my qualifying exam, I frequently had 10+ hour days in the lab, usually running at least three experiments at once. I churned out data fast. On one occasion, I was mistaken for a more senior graduate student during a data talk because I had done so much. It felt good, but the compliments were unintentionally toxic; I craved more appraisal.
Long story short: I became burnt-out. After passing my qual in September 2019, I entered a lull period for a few months. Sprinting the start of my PhD has surely helped me look productive on paper, but I became worried that I would head to the finish fatigued.
Lesson 4: Recovery is important
Before training for marathons, I didn't realize how many physiological systems are taxed and need recovery following a race. After a hard run, your muscles, central nervous system, and psyche need time to recover. Moreover, each has a different recovery timeline. The muscles may recover in a day or two, while the CNS needs more time, and who really knows about the psyche, TBH.
The CNS needs to recover after working hard during research too. A typical week for a graduate student can involve planning, problem-solving, project management, writing, and executing experiments. These are strenuous activities, especially when done altogether. I've learned that a whole-body recovery from both physical and mental fatigue is essential for long term success.
Lesson 5: It's better with a buddy
I used to prefer solo running, convinced that it was easier to be self-sufficient. However, it's tougher to run alone, without much-added benefit. I realized having a running-buddy is way better. In particular, running with friends makes it easier to stay motivated, especially in the early mornings, through bad weather, and during the last mile of a race. I learned the value of a buddy translates to the lab for the same reasons. My labmate is a great friend, and his presence alone helps me feel motivated and keep going when the going gets tough.
Lesson 6: Fuel up
Consuming sufficient nutrients before, during, and after a marathon is essential. In my first marathon, I neglected to fuel myself. So, during my second marathon, I grabbed fuel (i.e., sports drink, orange slices, gels) at every mile marker where it was available, and I was less fatigued because of it.
The academic equivalent of sports fuel is probably free food at seminars. In addition to nutrients, food can also provide a mental break. I'm borrowing Michael Pollan's idea of table fellowship here: the exchanges we have with our friends around a table can be equally as filling as the meal itself. Sitting down to share a meal is mentally rejuvenating and helps prepare me mentally for the next day in the lab or a morning race.