I was preparing for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) so that I could apply to graduate schools. This involved day after day of diligently taking practice tests, solving math problems, and memorizing endless lists of words.
My other endeavor was job-hunting, a rather frustrating experience. After a whole day of sending out resumes to places that would never reply, and poring over the tedious GRE test material, I would feel sapped by evening. What I needed was a magic potion that would refresh me physically and mentally—something that would lift me out of the bog of my everyday routine. A meaningful diversion, which would restore my joie de vivre, was indispensable in sustaining the momentum of the studying process. Running fitted the bill perfectly, though it took me a while to figure that out.
Running and GRE test-taking make for good bedfellows in that they both require a sort of tenacity, a stubborn perseverence, a will to succeed. The GRE is a standardized test that prizes quick thinking, speed, and accuracy. I was doing this kind of disciplined, intense study after years, and had my moments of despair. With a literary background and no particular inclination or aptitude for math (a subject that I had last encountered a decade ago), I was overwhelmed by having to work on calculations at lightning speed.
Moreover, I had to learn the art of maintaining my cool and not giving in to test pressure. No matter how wilting the process was, I could not slack off, take unscheduled breaks during the practice test, or skip the test some days. Test-taking was akin to taking a prescribed medicine daily, without missing a dose. To see the desired improvement in my test score, it was imperative that I take a practice test every day, religiously. After the test would come the dreaded score of the day. With a pounding heart, I would add up my answers and pronounce the verdict.
My refrain to myself at that time was Sir Winston Churchill’s famous slogan, “Keep buggering on,” or KBO as it is popularly referred to. I knew I had to surpass myself in some way—that would give me the motivation to surpass the GRE. Mentally, I linked running (which had until then seemed a daunting task) with acing the GRE, an equally uphill task. And so I began running. My first few days of trotting had me wondering about this evening torture that followed the daytime torture that was the GRE.
I started by running short distances. I would correlate being able to run a particular distance with getting a particular score on the GRE and would assign score levels to landmarks along my way. It worked. Slowly but steadily, I climbed my way from the 500s and the 600s to my dream score of 700 and more per test section. Gradually the distances became longer, my imaginary (though real to me) scores increased, and my speed improved as well. At the end of my run, I would feel pleasantly tired and good about myself. I surprised myself by no longer being the contented perambulator that I once was. I also noticed, to my great satisfaction, that I got back to the GRE preparation with improved concentration, vigor, and confidence. It gave me the killer instinct to ace the real test, which I finally finished off with a solid score.
Figuring out running was like unearthing a hidden treasure; and yet (here comes the twist in this tale) it seems to be one of life’s ironies that once my GRE was over, my running ended as well—or, at least, it has tapered off a great deal. These days I find myself relapsing into walking. I seem to have settled back into my old complacent mode. Maybe these are placid times for me, when life does not overwhelm. I have no big crisis to deal with; there is no sword of Damocles hanging above my head. I do not need to transcend myself.
Maybe, I ponder, life alternates between war and peace. I now wonder if my running is earmarked for wartime alone. Am I doomed to wait for my next big crisis in life before I set myself sublime goals once again? I wonder what it is about life’s extraordinary circumstances that launch us onto paths less traveled. Why don’t I get to glimpse the hidden dimensions of things on a challenge-free day of my life?
Nivedita Ramakrishnan is currently a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University.