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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

MIT And/As Marathon by Chris Peterson SM '13

doing things that are hard

Tomorrow, I will roll out of bed, eat some oatmeal, and put on a pair of sweatpants I’ll wear exactly once. I’ll board a yellow schoolbus and try to snag the one solo seat, all the way in the back and to the left, just like I did in high school. That bus will bring me, and a few dozen strangers, to Hopkinton, Massachusetts, where we, and thousands more of us, brought by hundreds of yellow schoolbuses, will gather on a field near the starting line of the Boston Marathon.

The ground will be cold, and probably muddy, which is why I’ll be wearing the sweatpants — the ones I’ll only wear once — over my running shorts. I’ll sit and stretch for awhile, and maybe eat a banana, even though I hate the taste, and gauge the restroom lines to strategize how last-minute I can rush to pee before the last-minute rush to pee begins. Around 10:45AM, I will gather my things, take off my sweatpants, and give them to a smiling volunteer holding an enormous bag full of other sweatpants, many of which have also been worn only once. Behind the volunteer, there will be big piles of big bags of these clothes, and they will all look soft and warm and inviting in the same way the ground is not.

When you run the Boston Marathon, you are assigned to a wave and a corral. I’m wave 4, corral 4. It used to bother me that we were organized by a mixed metaphor — fluids move in waves, but cattle move in corrals — but now it makes sense. The wave describes the way that you and other runners leaving at your time will sort of swirl, in a consistent but chaotic fashion, down the road from Hopkinton High toward the starting line, where actual corrals, i.e. lines of metal bars, will split the wave lengthwise, guiding us as we plod stupidly toward the start. I will look around for my mom and dad, who always try to see me off; last year, my mom found a cowbell, somewhere, and would ring it from wherever she was, which really accentuated the whole herd-animal dynamic of it all. But it was very adorable.

Then, I will run, jog, walk, and/or hobble 26.2 miles, from Hopkinton on through Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and finally Boston; if I am fortunate enough to finish, I will eventually turn right on Hereford and left on Boylston, crossing the finish line outside the Boston Public Library sometime between four and five hours after I begin.

This is the third year I have run the Boston Marathon as a member of Team MR8, the charity team that runs on behalf of the Martin Richard Foundation. It is also the third year since Martin, who was my friend, was killed, on April 15, 2013, in the bombing of the Boston Marathon, and the third year since the Tsarnaev brothers, three days later, shot Sean Collier outside the Stata Center at the intersection of Vassar and Main, now memorialized as Collier Square. It is the third year since I graduated from MIT, in June of 2013. It is also the third time I have tried to write this blog post sharing what MIT taught me about the Marathon, and what the Marathon taught me about MIT.


Unlike many people who read the blogs, I did not grow up dreaming of attending MIT. I liked reading and writing more than math and science. As a student, I was intelligent but somewhat lazy; I did reasonably well in my classes without studying much, and when I did poorly on certain tests or subjects, I would shrug and figure I just wasn’t ‘naturally’ good at e.g. math. This attitude and ability and excess of self-confidence was sufficient to get me through secondary school and my undergraduate education. It was not enough to get me through MIT.

I enrolled as a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies in Fall 2012. When I arrived at orientation that August I was confident, enthusiastic, and happy. I had been at MIT as a staff member for a few years, knew my way around the Institute, and had audited a few CMS courses as an employee. I am a local guy and close, both emotionally and geographically, to my family, friends, and social support system. I had a background in the field I was studying, I had a thesis topic everyone (including me) thought was interesting, and I had been matched to a research group led by an intellectual hero of mine. I had everything going for me and I knew it.

That feeling—of personal and intellectual confidence, of my own unquestioned and unquestionable ability to thrive at MIT—lasted for maybe six weeks. Then, I hit the wall.

In endurance sports such as cycling and running, hitting the wall or the bonk describes a condition caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy. (Wikipedia)

It was October, and I had turned in my first paper to Jeff Ravel, a historian of media and social change. It was a short response to a reading about the (surprisingly) heterogeneous religious beliefs of a 14th century Italian miller. I had written what I thought was a pretty good, snappy essay, the sort of essay that routinely earned me As in my high school and college social studies classes. Jeff had filled the margins with constructive, brutal critique, the kind that leaves you feeling at once grateful for the insight and foolish for ever having thought your idea was any good at all. Across the bottom he wrote that maybe we should meet, because he was concerned about my ability to do well in the class if this was the kind of work I thought was acceptable to hand in for a grad school paper. And he gave me what I am pretty sure was the lowest grade in the class.

When I’d gotten bad grades before, it was either a) in a subject I felt I was bad at or b) on an assignment I felt I had sort of mailed in. But I had never, or almost never, earned a bad grade in an area of my strength on an assignment I’d thought I’d nailed, and I’d never had my ability to complete a course questioned by anyone, especially myself.

Here’s what made it worse: this kind of thing was happening in all of my courses, and all of my research, all at once. After a lifetime of being smart and good at school — the thing that had made me admissible to MIT — I started getting things wrong in the classroom and in the lab. The assumptions I had taken for granted were suddenly complex and problematic. I could no longer walk into a room with the swagger of someone accustomed to believing they were one of the smartest people in it. It felt like everything about my identity was collapsing at once. If my life before MIT had been walking down a smooth, pleasant forest path, it was if I had been unexpectedly confronted by a sheer, smooth rock wall with no discernible points of purchase and no way over except for up.

I did not know how to respond constructively to this kind of challenge. For a while, I flailed. I would come to class or to the lab, read, and try to contribute, but it was all done with a kind of self-consciousness that left me constantly distrusting and wrongfooting myself. Then I would go home to my apartment in Watertown and read, and read, and read, and try to make notes of my thoughts, and try to assemble those thoughts into a thesis, and keep thinking that if I read just one more thing it would all click and my thesis would be good, and so would the rest of my ideas.

Of course, it doesn’t work this way.

What did work was this: one day, in January, I started writing my thesis. I wrote a few paragraphs and I rewrote them. And I wrote some more. I took a break and wrote some other stuff. Then I came back and wrote some more of my thesis. I kept doing that, a few hours at a time, every day that I could manage. I started to feel like I was building a little machine made out of my ideas. When I finished a part, I would give it to my thesis committee, and they would give it back to me and point to all the places where the little idea machine was broken. And I would take it apart and move things around until it started working better. The idea machine slowly got bigger, and it got stronger, and by April it had become a medium-sized idea machine, and the intellectual wiring no longer electrocuted everyone who touched it.

Something else was happening too. I had always believed that I was ‘naturally’ good at some things, like reading and writing, and ‘naturally’ bad at others, like math and programming. I had always believed this because it had been my deeply-felt and lived experience: that I had immutable intellectual strengths and weaknesses. But now that MIT had shown me I was no longer ‘naturally’ good at anything, suddenly the things I had always been naturally ‘bad’ at didn’t seem categorically different. As my friend Kasia put it, I suddenly started identifying myself less by innate intelligence and more by resilience and perseverance. So when I decided I wanted to make a Twitter bot for my final project in CMS.951, the prospect of teaching myself enough Python to do so, despite having failed at every prior attempt at learning to code in my life, no longer seemed impossible; rather, it no longer seemed less possible than the other things I simply had to do.

On April 5th, 2013, I presented on my thesis. Ten days later, while I was working on it in the lab, the Marathon was bombed, and Martin was killed, and his sister lost a leg, and his brother lost a brother, and his parents lost a son, among countless other things, and I lost a friend. Three days after that, MIT lost Sean, and I lost sleep, 36 hours awake on lockdown in Watertown with helicopters pounding ceaselessly overhead.

In retrospect, I almost lost my mind.

My memories of the weeks between the bombing and my graduation are like shards of glass, prismatic and sharp. Working with Catherine and Rodrigo and Rahul and Nathan and Erhardt in Civic to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the Richards; Jim Paradis of CMS/W wordlessly watching us do so and then making the first, generous donation; Shannon Larkin of CMS/W and Blanche Staton of ODGE arranging a meeting to extend my thesis deadline and see what they could do to help support me; my research advisor, Ethan Zuckerman, gathering me into a huge, crushing hug; pulling another all-nighter the day before my thesis was due to finish formatting the citations and print it on the official MIT thesis paper. And then my graduation, heavily raining and unseasonably cold, having completed the task (i.e., graduating) but without feeling any sense of accomplishment. In fact, all I felt was sort of spent, and exhausted, and fragile, and hurt.

We went on a family trip that summer to celebrate my graduation. When my dad got the pictures back, he called me, and he said, “You know, the pictures are nice, but it’s weird: you’re not smiling in any of them.”

Sometimes, it just takes time to heal.

Unlike many people who run, I did not grow up dreaming of running Boston. In fact, I grew up hating running. I was bad at it, like my father before me, and like his father before him. It was the family business: we had broad shoulders and skinny legs and flat feet and bad cholesterol and basically all manner of biomechanical disadvantage in the locomotion department. When I had to run the mile in high school gym class, it took me 12 minutes, and then I barfed. The furthest I had ever run in my life was five begrudging miles at a road race organized by my extended family.

The last picture I have of Martin and me is from that race.


The first time I ran with purpose was Saturday, April 20th, of 2013. I remember, because Monday Martin was killed, and Thursday Sean was shot, and I didn’t sleep that night, and Friday was the manhunt, and then I slept for twelve hours, from nine to nine. I awoke Saturday and everything was quiet; it was the first time since Monday that I didn’t hear helicopters.

I walked down Church St, past the ATM the Tsarnaev brothers had used on Thursday, and down to Watertown Square, where you can cross the Charles on a footbridge. It’s here that the Charles River Trail begins, an 18-mile loop from Watertown Square down past Harvard and MIT to the Museum of Science and back again on the Boston side. The police were gone but the barricades were still there, stacked by the sidewalk. I tightened my sneakers, loosened my muscles, and went for a run. I only went a half-mile or so before I turned around and came back. It was all I could do, then, but I did it.

I ran all that summer and into the fall. First a mile, then a mile and a half, then two. I signed up for an autumn half-marathon to force myself to keep training. I was so scared of just signing up that I accidentally canceled the registration twice before submitting it. In October, I applied to run the 2014 Boston Marathon as a charity runner for Team MR8. In November, I turned 27, and was given a spot on the team. In December, I moved to Cambridge, and I started running the same route, just from the other end of the river.

That winter was one of the coldest in Boston history. I ran mostly along the river and sometimes, when it was too icy outside, ran endless laps of the MIT indoor track, mentally planning what I would do in the case of a zombie apocalypse. I listened to a lot of metal and ate a lot of Sour Patch Kids. Sometimes, during those long and lonely hours, I’d look at the Citgo sign, or at MIT, or think of Martin, or Jane, or Sean, and start crying, just sobbing and slogging and sweating and snotting, a pathetic mess of literal and metaphorical goo, plodding along the river. But somehow, over 18 weeks, my long runs gradually, impossibly progressed, from five to ten to fifteen to twenty miles. Not because I wanted to, but because, as I told Radio Boston the week before race, I felt I had to; that I never had a choice in the matter.



And then April came, and I went to Hopkinton, gave away my first pair of single-use sweatpants, and ran the Marathon.

It did not go particularly well. I hadn’t trained on hills, and the course is notably hilly; it had been a cold winter, but that spring day was north of 70F. Around mile 17, my quads cramped, and then my calves, and I started to limp for the remaining 9.2 miles. At Hereford St, I stopped to stretch, and my whole body seized up; I fell to the ground and lay there twitching for a bit, unable to move. I was exhausted, completely and utterly empty, so tired that I was basically subhuman, but something deep in my lizard brain reminded me that, no matter what, I could just put one foot in front of the other for as long as is necessary. I got up, and made it across the finish line, stopping at the two trees wreathed in flowers along Boylston, five hours and seventeen minutes after I began. My friends and family were overflowing with joy; I was an empty cup, as cold and tired as I had been on my graduation day, and as unfulfilled by my achievement.

I didn’t want my memory of the Marathon, or my memory of Team MR8, to end like that.

Last winter was the snowiest in Boston history. I ran through footpaths cut into snowbanks higher than my head. My facial hair froze. I ran down Mass Ave, across the river, and onto the route, training on the hills that had defeated me the year before. I slept more and ate better. Helicopters no longer made me flinch. When last April came, I wore the sweatpants for as long as I could before giving them away, because it was 40F and raining on race day. I cramped on the hills again, but less badly, and although there were fewer spectators, they cheered louder. I let their cheers sweep me down Beacon, up Hereford, and down Boylston. I finished in four hours and thirty-seven minutes, and even though it was slower than I had hoped, I still felt like I had won the whole thing.

This winter was mild and easy. I trained harder, and ate less, trying to gain speed and lose weight at the same time, doing too much with too little. On March 12th, while on a morning run, I felt a pain on the right side of my knee. I took a few days off, but then it came back. I practiced yoga, saw a physical therapist, got a massage. I tried to run my 20 miler and could barely cover the ground walking. I was diagnosed with an overuse injury in my right IT band. Last Wednesday, I got a cortisone shot in my knee from an orthopedist who is also running the marathon. He told me it will help with the pain on race day, but it won’t fix the problem. Despite all my effort (and perhaps because of it), this isn’t a problem I can outwork. The only thing that will fix this problem, he said, is rest.

Sometimes, it just takes time to heal.

I often tell prospective students that attending MIT was the most challenging and most rewarding thing I have ever done, and the most rewarding because it was the most challenging. This is true, but it is incomplete, because it is impossible for me to separate MIT from the Marathon. They fit together, like two pieces of the same puzzle, or maybe like two puzzles that solve each other.

MIT taught me that I could do things I didn’t think I could do, things that seemed impossible, by breaking big problems up into small ones. I couldn’t contemplate writing a thesis, but I could write a sentence, and then another one; I couldn’t contemplate running a marathon, but I could take a step, and then another one. I later learned that this insight is core to what is sometimes called computational thinking, at least as it is taught here at MIT, and it changed the way that I identify, approach, and begin to solve problems in many domains of my life. To quote EL Doctorow: “it’s like driving your car at night. You can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

MIT also taught me that you don’t become capable of doing hard things before doing them; you become capable of doing hard things by doing them. Emerson wrote: “do the thing, and you will be given the power.” The Stoics believed that what stands in the way becomes the way: it is only by moving to it, through it, and ultimately with it, that you get anywhere. I used to think I wasn’t capable of programming; now, I make Twitter bots for fun. This is what “learning by doing” means to me. A few years ago, I wasn’t capable of running a marathon. But I went out, and I ran, and the slopes of the hills mixed with the muscles in my legs, and now that strength is inside me.

I have done the thing, and I have been given the power.

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote that the key to staying sober as an addict in recovery is to:

“keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it…but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told, you keep coming and coming, nightly.”


I’ve come to believe that this is the only way to do anything that’s truly difficult but still worth doing.

MIT made it possible for me to run the Marathon. Looking back, though, the Marathon has made me understand things that I wish I had known while I had been a grad student at MIT.

Training for a marathon has taught me the importance of sleep and nutrition, because if I don’t get enough, my body will start to break down. When I was a grad student, I didn’t make time for sleep or exercise, or to eat right, and my brain suffered for it, because Descartes was wrong about dualism, and we must take care of our whole selves for any part of ourselves to improve. It is possible to overtrain your brain as much as you can overtrain your body. I’ve done both. Sometimes, knowing your limits is the only way you can expand them, like gently stretching a tight muscle rather than quickly snapping it.

Training for a marathon has also taught me about the importance of focusing on the journey, and not the destination. One nice thing about being a charity runner is this: by the time I begin, the people who are going to win the race have already finished, or nearly so. That means that I can focus on doing the best I can for myself under my own conditions. Setting a goal is important: if I had never set a goal to run the marathon, I would have never started training. If I hadn’t set a goal to graduate from MIT on time, I would have never made it through those last few weeks in 2013. But focus too much on the goal itself, and achieving it can be anticlimactic, as when professors get depressed immediately after earning tenure.

Over the last few years, I’ve tried to do what Joi Ito sometimes calls following compasses over maps: trying to move forward in a direction that I want to go, as opposed to trying to follow a particular set path toward a particular destination that I may not like when I arrive there. If you take this philosophy and combine it with the computational approach, it means trying to be a bit smarter, a bit kinder, a bit more thoughtful, a bit more steadfast, every day, and trusting/hoping/believing that doing those things are going to get me where I need to be, a place I like being. It’s trying to find the optimal balance between being comfortable, being complacent, and being challenged.

This is the third time I’ve tried to write this, and I wrote it for three reasons.

For the Class of 2020: I want you to understand what MIT will take from you, and what it will leave you with. It will likely change you, in ways that you do not expect and in ways that many (though not all) of you cannot now understand. For me, this change was worth it. I would do grad school at MIT ten times out of ten. I am a better, more thoughtful, more capable person for it. If I had known then what I know now about what it would be like, how to solve hard problems, and how to care for myself, I would have been able to do MIT better, and I want to share that with you now.

For current MIT students, particularly the 2016s who may soon be feeling like I did one June three years ago about their time at the Institute of Smashing: it gets better. I believe that most, hopefully all, of you will one day feel like I now do. If you don’t feel it now, remember: it will take my body some time to recover from training for and running a marathon; it took my person some time to recover from studying at and graduating from MIT. Sometimes, it just takes time to heal.

The last reason I wrote this was for me: for therapy, for processing, for trying to make sense of this place, for trying to make sense of this race, for trying to make sense of this world and all of its chaos. In that class I took with Jeff, the one that really shook my identity, I read a paper by the economist Robert Heilbroner, who wrote that social scientists are driven to discover/uncover patterns in human behavior because history as contingency is too much for the human spirit to bear. And yet anthropologists have taught us that what is common to humans is not any underlying pattern that we think we see, but rather the meta-pattern of seeing-patterns. The world doesn’t make sense; we all make sense of it. Over the last three years, I have used MIT and the Marathon to make sense of each other, and, with them both, the rest of the world around me.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow; my injury has introduced more uncertainty to an already unknown future. I don’t know if I’ll run my fastest marathon or my slowest. I don’t know if it will be best, my worst, or my last.

What I do know is that I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other for as long as it takes to get where I’m going, and that I’ll try to appreciate every step along the way.
edit 4/18: I finished.




(Thank you, Lydia, for reading many drafts of this).