A Comprehensive Guide* by Joanna Thompson
*Editor’s note: this guide is partly satirical and not meant to be taken as an actual how-to. Use at own risk.
1. Don’t Focus on Running Now. I know what you’re thinking: Why the hell would I not focus on the thing I’m trying to do for money? Hear me out. Picture yourself as a middle school student. You are energetic, eager to please, a bit of an overachiever with a variety of interests. Maybe you’re a bookworm, or a member of student government, or a budding scientist (maybe you’re all three). You participate in a number of clubs and volunteer organizations. And (of course) you play all sorts of sports: two years of horseback riding lessons, three years of ice skating, five of basketball, nine of karate, various and sundry attempts at soccer, tennis, and gymnastics…cross country seems like a natural progression. So you start running for fun. And, in doing so, you establish running in your mind as a source of joy. You don’t realize it, but this will serve you well later. But don’t focus on running…yet.
2. Fail to Become a Professional Basketball Player Early in your high school career, discover your one true sports passion: You fall headfirst in love. All summer, you pour over playbooks and weight routines, hoping to gain an edge on the competition. Spend hours every afternoon in front of your crappy driveway basket, squinting into the sun and trying to sink fifty consecutive free throws. Worship at the church of Pat Head Summit. Then you get cut in the last round of tryouts. You are, understandably, devastated. That’s ok. You deal with it by going for a run – six miles, the farthest you’ve ever gone. And you discover that it is strangely cathartic. The realization dawns on you that maybe (just maybe) the things you liked best about basketball were running related. Two months later, you win your first race.
3. Major in Two Completely Unrelated Fields By the time you graduate high school, you know you will be running in college. The question remains: where? Choose a college for more than just its athletic department. Let’s say that (hypothetically) since age five you have wanted to become a zoologist. You might consider North Carolina State University, a fine institution that in addition to a stellar track and field team boasts one of the best zoology programs in the country. You know, for example. But you are an overachiever. Why settle for one degree when you could earn two? You may decide to add a second major, like creative writing, because you have always harbored a dream to write for National Geographic. This way, when you inevitably become overwhelmed with the stress of eighteen-hour course loads, running will continue to be a pressure-release valve. You channel your extra anxiety into racing, and it becomes manageable.
4. Have a Minor Existential Crisis With graduation fast approaching, you may start to experience a peculiar restlessness. On one hand, you have worked hard the past nine semesters to earn two degrees, and you have plans to continue to graduate school. Maybe you have already picked out a program, received a scholarship, and tentatively budgeted for an apartment. On the other hand, you aren’t finished with running. So much of your life has revolved around races, and you are in better shape than ever. You think you can juggle graduate school and training on your own, but the prospect is more than a little daunting. Talk to your college coach; she will advise you to look for a training group. Possibly, she will recommend a program in the mountains of North Carolina that seems tailored to your introverted personality. What have you got to lose? You decide to check it out. Stepping onto the campus, you feel immediately at ease. The facility is beautiful, the people down-to-earth and like-minded. It reminds you of choosing a college, and how the end decision felt inevitable. You start to think in terms of “when” instead of “if”. You start to subconsciously rewrite your future plans. It terrifies you. What should you do? Call your mom. Cry. Talk to as many people as possible. Lose sleep. Make up your mind, change it, make it up again, change it. Wallow for a while in indecision. Then make a very important phone call.
5. Follow Your Bliss Take a page from the immortal Joseph Campbell. “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Ultimately, it comes down to this: in four to six years, graduate school will still be there. The chance to run professionally, to push your boundaries and discover new limits, might not be. You love running. True, you also have a passion for zoology and writing that rival this love. But something about running cuts to the heart of you. It isn’t who you are; it’s the way you experience the world. No matter where you go or what you do, you will continue to run. Now is your chance to find out where it will take you. You can’t wait.