036. Marathons

tldr: just hit heartbreak hill

Last Saturday, a package from my mom arrived, containing a 500 pc puzzle, two sleeves of Girl Scout Thin Mints, a t-shirt from Ampersand (a local ice cream shop from my hometown), my first transgender pride pin, a puzzle box (filled with those little metal 3D puzzles), a bottle of Peppermint essential oil, and a black and white swimsuit.

Yes, I know I look hot.

I loved swimming. A few years ago, my doctor said that the water is good for my joints and disability, and that swimming would be a good way to get exercise. But even before that, I always liked the water.

So, I made a reservation at the Z-Center (the gym) to go swimming that Sunday at 3pm. Then, at 1pm that day, I found out that Alan was walking the Boston Marathon route. Even better, I found out I could join him. I cancelled my reservation, put on my red converse (because, it would be *smart* to wear actual walking shoes), and went on my way. What follows, is my inner monologue.

I started from McCormick, and made my way to Coolidge Corner (2.2 miles). I was not walking the entire marathon route with Alan– he got started that morning at 8am, and I woke up at 12. Instead, I was walking the route backwards, until I met him. The Charles river is so beautiful. And it’s so long?? It’s nearly 80 miles. I got tired after walking 2.2.

It would’ve been a lot faster had I gotten a blue bike, but honestly riding a bike through Cambridge and Boston feels terrifying. Not that the roads are any busier than they were in Fresno, but at least in Fresno I could call my mom to pick me and my bike up should something go wrong (because Ubers are goddamn expensive). And I always have this fear that I am going to rent out a bike, and not be able to find a station, and then I start to get massive fees for renting it out too long. So, I am walking.

My podmate Annie joined me for a while. Honestly, we just sort of ran into each other. We talked about math for about 30 minutes. It is so cool being able to just, explain the concepts behind classes. In math, it feels like there’s this mountain of vocabulary and abstraction that you have to climb before you start to see the bigger picture of the valley below. While I haven’t quite reached the summit (and likely never will), it was nice to just, talk about math. The differences between 18.100B and 18.100A. Why real analysis in hindsight is cool. I don’t know, maybe I am biased, I think I might actually like analysis. And a semester ago I thought I would be really into algebra. Then, Annie left, I turned on an energetic playlist, and I was alone again. 1 more mile to Coolidge.

Except when I got to Coolidge, Alan was still a ways out. Which to be fair, I kinda expected. So I kept going along the Boston Marathon route backwards, and started walking to Chestnut Hill. 1.6 more miles.

On the CP* discord (basically a way for the new 2025’s to talk to and hang out with current students at MIT), Alan had set up a channel to talk to people on his walk, with a voice call going all day. Students were asking questions trying to figure out if they should choose to go to MIT. The reason that kept coming up was that MIT is quirky. Which is the perfect word to use– it was the word I used a year ago when explaining to my friend at Stanford that I chose to go to MIT instead of staying in California.

Maybe it’s that they accept students on pi day, or that the Dean of Admissions made a Star Wars parody to tell us admissions were being released, but I knew really early on that MIT was where I wanted to go to school. Plus, gotta love the snow. My hosts in New York said I was immune to the cold. At least it isn’t 100 degrees every single day for weeks (@ Fresno). About halfway to Chestnut Hill, Alan hit Heartbreak Hill– known for breaking the spirits of those running the marathon. After a total of 3 miles, my spirit started to break, and I wasn’t even at Heartbreak hill. 1 more mile to Chestnut.

Spoon. Yes CJ, I know it’s permanent.

I will never do a marathon. I am sure a lot of people say this when really they mean “I could if I practiced but won’t”, but what I mean is that I can’t. My body is going to hate me after this walk as it is. I have accepted this about myself– I understand my physical capabilities much more than any other aspect of myself.

That is why I have a spoon tattoo. The spoon theory was described 15 years ago in a blog, explaining what chronic illness is life in terms of a tangible objects: spoons. tldr: picture your energy was represented by a number of spoons, and everything you did throughout the day required some number of spoons. People with chronic illnesses always need to be mindful of how many spoons they have. We always have to keep an extra spoon behind a pane of glass that says “Break in case of Emergency”. After 3.8 miles, my feet felt like I was dragging along cinder blocks, and I kept counting how many spoons I had left. But Alan was still a bit further, so I kept going.

A wild Alan spotted in nature.

I ultimately met Alan a mile later at the Evergreen Cemetery. I hadn’t met Alan in person before. Is that weird? (Alan is that weird?) I mean to be frank, there are a lot of people at MIT that I know but have never met in person. And apparently, there are a lot of people who know me. One of my roommates from last semester lightly makes fun of me for how many people know me, and how often I don’t know how they know me. 4.6 more miles to the finish line.

I asked Jeremy (Admissions officer) and Chelsea (Office of the First Year Assistant Dean) about this and apparently I just talk a lot. Well, that and I had my camera on for nearly every zoom call for CP* and OFY events. This came from being a tutor 19 hrs a week over quarantine, and only having a student for maybe 1/2 out of those 19 hours (oftentimes without their camera on). It gets lonely. Quarantine is lonely. Zoom University is lonely. So, I turn my camera on. And I talk. A. Lot. Halfway back to Coolidge Corner, Jeremy joined on the walk with an iced coffee, and a bottle of smart water for Alan. I should’ve brought a water bottle.

I also talk a lot on the CP* discord with the 2025s, and am not afraid to speak up. Dear ’25s (and many other current students at MIT and around the world): People don’t find the classes you find easy easy. I get that every one is from a different background and their schools have different expectations– but don’t tell people that a (commonly seen as difficult) class is easy. Making others feel bad about their abilities or lack thereof in classes is never okay, and even if students aren’t telling you they feel that way, they exist. Imposter syndrome is real, whether or not you feel it. This is true about every single class at MIT, and yet in every single class there seems to be one student that will openly tell every student that “This PSET” or “This Quiz” is easy. When in fact, it isn’t– at least not for everyone. This walk is not easy for me. 2.3 miles later, we are back at Coolidge corner. 2 more miles to the finish line.

There is something nice about getting to tag on for the last bit of someone’s journey. Surely not the same level of accomplishment that Alan would feel completing the marathon, but still up there. It feels so difficult to actually accomplish something outside of school this semester. It feels hard to do anything outside of school this semester. This was honestly half the reason why I decided not to go to the Z-Center– I needed, and wanted, an excuse to do something else and explore Boston. I don’t want to go to college just for classes. I want to fall in love with the community, and make good memories, and enjoy my time, which for me means spending numerous hours on a Sunday afternoon walking the last quarter of a marathon with someone I have never met, and then walking back to my dorm room. On the way towards the finish line, Petey (another admissions officer) and two other MIT students joined us on the walk.

You could feel the energy ramping up. The Eye of the Tiger plays softly in the wind. Past Cafe 472, under the Charlesgate, past the shitty basement Trader Joes with the long line, and towards the finish line: Copley Square. Even though there was no actual marathon this year, you could tell we were approaching the end, as Boston Marathon memorials began to pop up, and the street was painted. Petey took a picture of Alan in the street, and just like that, it was over. Petey and Alan already had their own plans, and so the rest of us walked to campus.

Then, I felt the cinder block feet return just as quickly as they had left. I asked to sit down for a bit, and we did. The Commonwealth Avenue Mall is beautiful. Just 4 days prior it was snowing and terrible, and today it felt like a scene from a Hallmark movie. After 15 minutes of sitting and chatting with Jeremy, we got up and went on our way over the Harvard bridge. 364.4 smoots +/- one ear (or in other words, a mile), and the other two students left, and then it was just Jeremy and I. We walked to Starbucks, and he left, and then it was just me, walking back to McCormick.

McCormick-Coolidge Corner-Chestnut Hill-Evergreen Cemetery-Coolidge Corner-Kenmore Square-Copley-Starbucks-McCormick.

This was not at all how I thought my Sunday would go. My feet are going to kill me.

I know that I will never walk a marathon. But this feels different somehow. On the one hand, I ultimately walked 13 miles instead of, y’know, 26.2. But it also wasn’t for me? It was something fun, and spontaneous, and supportive to do on the four day weekend. And I got to meet Alan, Jeremy, and Petey in person. I thought I would’ve got to meet them a year ago, but instead COVID hit, and that never happened.

In the final two miles of the journey, the same questions just kept ringing in the back of my head:

How can I know my physical limitations so well, and yet not know my academic limitations well at all? I can never walk a marathon– I know this about myself. But after finally burning out from school work, why can’t I stop walking this academic marathon? I need to keep better track of my school-spoons. If I don’t take time for myself every now and then, I am never going to make it. My mental health is going to kill me.

I just hit my academic heartbreak hill, and I still have another month to go.


Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

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