If you ask most students what they like best about Wharton, they’ll likely speak of all the incredible opportunities to try out new things. Students can climb the Cotopaxi volcano, fight in a boxing match, trek to Lebanon,…or walk down Walnut Street wearing only a diaper.
But one passion that many Wharton students develop is the most simple – the humble art of running. Every year, dozens take it up for the first time while many more rediscover a hobby they once enjoyed at college but had to give up during five years in front of an Excel spreadsheet. To their framed diplomas, deal tombstones and flip-cup trophies, they now add medals for finishing the 10-mile Broad Street Run (May), Rock‘n’Roll Half Marathon (September), or Philly Marathon / Half Marathon (November).
What’s the attraction of running? For an outsider, it appears more boring than a FNCE 621 lecture – the same motion repeated thousands of times, with no satisfaction of scoring a goal, ripping a backhand winner, or mauling an opponent in a scrum. And it’s also painful – pushing your body beyond its limits at 6am seems appealing in a Cancun nightclub, less so on a frosty running path.
But I’d like to try to persuade you that it’s a pastime worth exploring at Wharton. First, it’s intrinsically fun. You’re out in the fresh air, not in a sweat-filled gym having to listen to primeval grunts. Philly has the added bonus of having a river trail right on your doorstep. It’s also rare time to yourself – much-needed respite from the craziness of group projects, cohort socials, and EISs. Runner’s high isn’t a myth, but a scientifically proven effect of endorphin production.
Second, everyone can do it. You don’t need to learn a new technique, buy expensive equipment or be of a certain height. Mental strength can easily compensate for physique. Of course, people run at different speeds and distances, but that doesn’t matter. You’re not competing with anyone – only trying to do the best you can. Every year, students who couldn’t run more than a couple of miles before Wharton end up finishing the above races. It may be challenging at the start, but that’s true with everything. When starting an instrument, you have to learn scales before the point comes that you start enjoying it. And that point comes surprisingly soon with running.
Third, it’s fair. You get out what you put in. Everyone can improve just by logging a few miles each week. And you can see the improvement much more tangibly – your performance (either in pace or distance run) is down to you, rather than other sports where it hinges on refereeing decisions, your opponents or your team-mates.
Finally, there are the races. The Broad Street Run is on May 6, with sign-ups opening (and likely selling out) on February 15. It’s 10 miles – a feasible target for any Wharton student with three months to go. A race is an incredible experience; it’s not so much a competition, but a festival. In no other sport will you stand side-by-side with 30,000 other athletes – but you’re not really competing with them, instead pursuing your own personal target. That leads to a tremendous sense of camaraderie, with runners giving encouragement or sometimes even stopping to help a complete stranger they see struggling. As an amateur, you can be running in the same competition as the best in the world – Mathew Kisorio and Kim Smith set new U.S. records in the Rock‘n’Roll Half Marathon last September. You’ll also get energy from the crowd – you’ll have thousands of spectators cheering your every step, compared to the two we get for a Wildmen hockey game if we’re lucky. And when you cross the finish line, you’ll feel a huge sense of pride at pushing yourself to the limit, both mentally and physically – similar to completing a Wharton leadership venture.
I actually gave up running for six years until a student in Cohort K (for which I was Faculty Liaison) emailed her cohort persuading them to do the 2010 Broad Street Run with her. The energy and camaraderie I experienced that day got me hooked again – I realized that I don’t get those feelings in any of the other sports that I play.
If you do plan to run a race during your time at Wharton, consider running for a charity. Most obviously, you raise money for a good cause and get guaranteed free entry, but there are two other major benefits also. All the friends that sponsor you – and you’ll definitely be able to raise a large amount of money, given the supportiveness of the Wharton community – will be inspired by you. Some may take up running themselves.
Separately, it takes your experience to a whole new level. I ran the Philly Marathon last November for the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program (http://determination.acsevents.org/), although there are dozens of other worthy causes. Running’s typically seen as an individual sport, but running with the ACS made me feel like part of a team and part of a mission. I had a running coach (who used to run professionally) who mentored me through the several months of hard training – either through leading me on a run, or answering email queries. Two nights before the race, we had a pre-race dinner where we met other fundraisers and shared personal stories for why we were running for a cancer charity.
Before the run, I was badly injured with a bone spur and tendinitis in the same place; even three days before the marathon I couldn’t run half a mile. But the day of the run, I fed off the energy of my teammates and sponsors. On race morning, sharing laughs with the other athletes helped take away any pre-race nerves as we walked up to the start line together, behind the American Cancer Society banner. At the start line, other runners had a sheet of paper with their race plan; I had a sheet of paper with a list of all my sponsors and their good luck messages, which gave me additional inspiration. During the race, supporters who’d come to cheer another ACS runner, cheered for me too (due to my DetermiNation shirt), helping me to take my mind off the pain. At 21 miles I had a cramp in my left hamstring. But since the course backs on itself, there were runners going up in the other direction on Kelly Drive. I moved to the center of the road so that I could high-five the other American Cancer Society runners who were going in the opposite direction. It’s pretty special that complete strangers support each other, despite themselves facing such a huge personal challenge. At 25 miles I had a cramp in my right hamstring as well, but the ACS coach was there to jump in with me for that last mile and somehow helped me keep going. He eventually left me with the Art Museum in sight so that I could finish the run on my own. I crossed the line after the most challenging, but also most satisfying, 195 minutes of my life and immediately had friends I could share my success with as I returned to the ACS tent.
I’ll stick to half marathons this year, but I am now a volunteer coach for the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program here in Philadelphia. If you’re interested in running, for yourself or for more than 11 million cancer survivors in this country, please email me (aedmans@).
Alex Edmans is an Assistant Professor of Finance at The Wharton School.