The First Race
"There's no way you should look so calm doing that
during the first year of PA school a handful of my classmates had met at the
gym before our lectures. One of them looked over the numbers on the display of my
treadmill and shook his head.
"If I was
doing that right now, I would be in serious pain."
turned up the corner of my mouth in a smile. He couldn't tell but, with the
machine set at my race pace, my legs screamed with every stride. My lungs
burned. A little stab of pain jabbed my side once and then again. But none of
this showed on my face because of one key factor: experience.
I had been
there before, hundreds of times. Years of running and dozens of races meant I
know how to flirt with the edge of exhaustion. My body could shout at me, warn
me of the danger, but it wouldn't cause panic. I knew when to press my pace and
I knew how to rest in motion. I knew my abilities and, more importantly, I knew
often start too fast. They are excited and confident. They haven't failed
enough, haven't smacked into a wall down the stretch and watched the
competition speed past. And when they near that limit, they panic. They waste
the last of their energy and stop in their tracks.
New runners haven't mentally
overpowered that physical limit, so they don't know that they can. They don't
recognize the positive signals, sensations of "Yes, this works," because they
haven't crossed enough finish lines. They can't predict a mistake because they
haven't lost enough races.
this first year of my career like a new runner. I jumped at the blast of the
starting pistol, ignorant to what lay ahead. Far too soon, I encountered
obstacles that left me gasping for breath. Some were professional, the gaps in
knowledge and expertise. Some were interpersonal, the potholes of workplace
politics. Some were emotional, the search for satisfaction in daily tragedy.
several months I still doubted if I would make it as a critical care clinician.
The occasional awkward stomp of my foot resonated louder than the more frequent
precise ones. As my lungs burned from the steep learning incline of this first
year the temptation to stop moving, to flop to the ground and attempt some
easier path, nearly overpowered me.
Doubled over, hungry for air, I wondered
where the finish line stood or how far I had come. I watched more experienced
clinicians run past with ease. I thought I was in great shape, smart and
well-trained, but they had something I lacked: experience.
I had forgotten a painful lesson I learned as
a runner many years ago: the first race
is always the hardest.
though, a strange thing happened. I struggle a little less. Small tasks that
once baffled me became just a bit smoother and more natural. I stumbled less
and found a better pace. I started to recognize the patterns before me, steered
toward the successes I previously found and avoided some of my old mistakes.
This somewhat more graceful stride reminded me of another lesson that I had
taken for granted: you conserve more energy when you relax.
to become familiar with my route. Soon, the ominous twists and turns became
more friendly territory. The role of perpetual newcomer I had played as a student
in clinical rotations changed. Strangers knew my name. Some of them even asked
for my advice and, inexplicably, took it. The road, once crowded with
competitors, now seemed packed with teammates.
I know that
I am still a novice and the real race is far from over. I have miles and miles
to cover before I will feel comfortable with my role. But even the slightest
wisp of experience is a wonderful gift. Because if, like my first race, I cross
this first-year finish line with sore legs, burning lungs and bleeding knees, I
will have passed the hardest miles of my career.