The Craziest Thing I’ve Done during Grad School

My whole lab agreed to run... across New Hampshire
Charlotte
L.
Aeronautics and Astronautics

Last year, I started to get really into running, in part due to the fact that it’s a great way of relieving some of the stresses of grad school. I’ve written before about all the different ways my labmates tackle stress and how frequently I can be found trying to talk others into going for a run with me. My labmates make a lot of jokes about how I spend my weekends, so I tell them stories about the races I run.

The race format that they were most intrigued by was a 200-mile relay, run by a team of twelve people (or six, if you like to make especially questionable decisions). You can think of it as a van leapfrogging a runner: one person is dropped off to start running, the van drives ahead to the next designated exchange point around 3-9 miles away, and when the runner arrives, they tag in the next person. Each person runs three times, and one person is always running for the entire duration of the event, which usually lasts about a day and a half.

After I had done two of these and recounted tales of the excessive snacking, napping in parking lots, and camaraderie inspired by being trapped in a van together for a weekend, my labmate Hailee said “You know, I think we should do one of these as a lab.” I laughed at the idea. A few students in our lab do like to run, but there was no way we were going to get twelve people to agree to such a crazy idea. Right? At best, I thought maybe three people would sign up, and then we would quietly give up. However, Hailee had other plans. We had a lab brunch one day, and by the end of it, she had signed up nine people. In May, we registered our team ‘Students Successful at Laziness’ (to match our lab initials), signing up to run across a large swath of New Hampshire in September.

During the summer, everyone was dispersed across the country at different internships, attempting to motivate ourselves to keep running and train for the relay even without the companionship of the lab. One student was even further afield at an intensive language course in Russia, reporting that it was hard to run there because it was considered highly suspicious — and American — to run for no reason (apparently the KGB used to spot Americans by the fact that they would go out jogging). We got back to campus for the fall semester with very different levels of preparedness, but everyone was determined to make it through the race.

One fine Thursday afternoon, we collected our rental vans and made sure we had all the snacks and first aid supplies we could conceivably need. I passed on a valuable lesson from previous relays: pack your entire outfit for each run in a giant ziplock bag. Firstly so you don’t have to desperately rummage for socks at 1am in a dark van, and secondly because then you can seal your whole sweaty outfit back into the ziplock bag after each run, leading to crucial aromatic improvements for everyone else trapped inside the van with you!

We set off from Cambridge at 6am on Friday in order to reach the start line at Bretton Woods for our check-in time of 8:45am. I had spent the lead-up to the race trying to explain the sheer scale of having 500 teams run through relatively quiet small towns, but it didn’t sink in until we pulled into a car park filled with hundreds of other passenger vans decorated with team names, slogans and in-jokes. We had just enough time to fulfill the grad student stereotype of trying out all the free samples in the start area, and then it was time to begin.


Our second van, looking incredibly cheerful because they hadn’t done any running yet.

The next 30+ hours passed in a haze of running, eating everything we could find, and developing bizarre sleep-deprived running jokes as we drove between exchange points. Two of us decided the most comfortable sleeping option was to empty out the trunk of the van while we were parked and stretch out in it. Many local community groups set up small food stands at the exchanges in aid of scout groups or schools or other worthy causes, which we really appreciated while we bought up all their breakfast sandwiches and terrible urn coffee. We brought along paint markers and kept a tally on the van windows of how many other runners we managed to overtake, motivating our most competitive members. Although some of the group were tired and sore and struggled with the final miles, they refused to give up or let anyone else take over for them because they were so determined to finish what they’d started.


Our first van, 200 miles later and slightly more tired…

Over the course of the weekend, the twelve of us ran a total of 200.6 miles, gaining almost 12,000 feet in elevation and losing over 13,000 feet as we travelled from the mountains to the coast. A couple of team members got injured along the way, but we worked together to cover their final sections and make sure we could collectively complete the relay, with each person running between 10 and 25 miles in total. We made up almost 100 minutes compared to our pre-race pace estimate, reaching the finish line at Hampton Beach at 4:25pm on Saturday, and averaging 9:10 minutes/mile. Our team finished 197th out of 424 teams that completed the race, with a final time of 30 hours and 37 minutes.


We’re convinced the official photographer did some touching up to hide how tired we were at the finish line, because everyone looks AMAZING.

The whole event was an amazing experience, and we had a great time training together and then spending these two days working towards a shared goal. Grad school can be incredibly intense, and this relay was definitely a different type of intense experience to share. My favorite comment from one of the other students was when she told us, “I realised after a while that it wasn’t really about the parts where I was running. That was such a small part of the weekend. It was about everything else that happened!”

Other labs in AeroAstro have been expressing their admiration for our achievement, and some students have already asked if we can make this an annual event. Our proud lab director requested a race report during our weekly seminar, and asked how she can support this kind of event in the future. We especially appreciated the support of the GSC Athletic and Performance Grant, which allocated funding to help us with the costs of the race. Doing this race together was an incredible team-building experience, and we shared something special as a lab through a really tiring, inspiring weekend that brought all of us closer together by creating a new favourite MIT memory. If there’s one thing I’m taking away from the relay, it’s a perfect metaphor for grad school: we teamed up and achieved something that none of us could have finished alone.