Embrace the uncomfortable: Nursing and running marathons

There are two main things that I’ve learned from nursing and running: It is important to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and both running and nursing can expand the horizons of what you believe is possible.

I took a travel nursing assignment in Knoxville, Tennessee, both to expand my professional horizons (I worked on the Trauma Surgical Unit of a Level 1 Trauma hospital) and to help my mom finish remodeling her house.

I ran two marathons in Tennessee in between working. I had inadvertently signed up to mandatory overtime, and was working every other weekend and four days one week and three the next, 3.5 shifts per week, over 42 hours. I didn’t know what the 3-2 shift meant but quickly became adapted to working three days straight.

I think I find so much personal satisfaction in nursing because you are helping the patient and their family by being there for them with a skill set that requires being ready and anticipating the unexpected.

Both running and nursing require having a plan and staying focused as the day unfolds, always with unexpected situations.

I have learned that both in running and nursing you should push yourself both physically and mentally. As human beings we can always do more, and I am advocating for embracing the uncomfortable and not being satisfied with achieving a level of competence in a job. Most people settle into a job they can do well for the rest of their lives, but that’s not enough for me.

The idea of pushing yourself is the same for running, where the most efficient pace is actually a little bit faster than you think it should be. When you run at a given pace, the effort is measured objectively using oxygen consumption, as oxygen is used to burn carbs to make energy and movement. What is crazy that runners are most efficient—burning the least amount of oxygen—at a pace perceived as a little too fast to be sustainable. But at a slower easier pace we are actually using more oxygen and effort. I have run a few marathons and I can speak from personal experience that faster marathons were easier than the slower ones.

The same principle applies to work and the self. We owe it to ourselves and our humanity to be the best we can be. This means living up to our potential. This means practicing our professions at the level of our experience, not taking it easy and punching a clock for an easy paycheck even if we could do the bosses’ jobs. By pushing into the zone of discomfort we are expanding what is possible.

The first marathon I ran in Tennessee was the Dirty South Marathon, held about a mile from where my mom lives. In my book, it would be wrong not to run it when it is that close. It was Feb. 12 but thanks to climate change it was 77 and sunny. I was not acclimated to the heat, and it felt like 100 to me. I underestimated how much water, nutrition, and salt tabs I needed. I started cramping and started to walk. Luckily the other runners were generous and gave me salt tabs and food. I regrouped, drank as much water as I could stand at the next aid station without puking and finished strong.

Running is the space that allows me to push and learn about my boundaries. I know now that running is a mental effort. You must push yourself out the door, push yourself as the miles wear on. You also use your rational thought to read how you feel and change strides or plans as needed.

Before a run of the marathon distance it is important to get in the right mindset. This is as important as prepping yourself for your career. You must study and know your weaknesses. In running you can improve your weaknesses with specific workouts. In your career, you improve your weaknesses with classes, training and taking on new and challenging assignments.

Working on a busy trauma floor teaches you that anything can happen to anyone and any given time. Both the rich and poor get in car accidents, and there are no givens or free passes in life. Every shift is different and there is always a wrench being thrown into the works. I enjoy nursing because I now know that I can overcome these moments of crazy. The best we can do is prepare ourselves mentally and physically for life’s challenges. By expanding our horizons we come to see the world not as unsurmountable abstract but as a challenge to overcome and change. Running marathons gives me the confidence to face the unknown, I know that I have overcome other obstacles and hardships in the past. Life is never as bad as we imagine it to be.

What I found astounding to me was that once I became used to my environs at the new work place, I could get into the zone and just do my job at almost the unconscious level. If I had ten tasks to be completed, I could realistically see, visualize, and prioritize the correct order to do them in without giving it a second thought. I felt great to get into that zone and know that I was helping people at their hour of need.

The second marathon was the Knoxville Covenant Marathon, April 2. It was much cooler than the other race. With this run, I just wanted to get into the moment of the race and enjoy running through different neighborhoods. I ran with a pace group and enjoyed pushing myself physically to unwind and de-stress from the previous work shifts. I finished a few minutes faster than my goal and happier than I had been in a long time.

For me running a marathon requires coming face to face with situations you do not encounter during training. At the extreme this is hitting the wall where self doubt of what to do slams you in the face.

In nursing you really cannot give yourself more than a few moments to overcome any setbacks or unexpected situations that arise. On any day, a unique situation will arise requiring quick thinking and quick action. Other times you may be doing everything that you can do a person but it is not enough. The mistake is to panic or get overwhelmed. It is important to know when to ask for help and to know that help is usually there.

Experience is getting through difficult periods—pushing yourself beyond what you thought possible, and keeping going even though you don’t want to—to learn that you can get through awful situations both in running and nursing.