Finding balance through racing

OHSU StudentSpeak is pleased to present this guest post from Cymon Kersch, an M.D./Ph.D. student in the OHSU School of Medicine and recent qualifier for the 2017 triathlon world championships.

This is a little story of how I got hooked on triathlons last summer. After racing locally, I competed at the USAT age-group national championships for the Olympic distance triathlon and qualified for the 2017-triathlon world championships. People have asked if I ever thought I would be doing anything like this and the answer is a resounding no, particularly in the middle of an MD/PhD program. But, life is full of surprises, and it’s nice to find that while we are overwhelmed by school, we really can strike a balance between learning to care for others and caring for ourselves.

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! My alarm clock screams through the dark. That feeling of waking up in a hotel room and being slightly disoriented and confused is instantly replaced by nervous excitement. Game time! Wait… what have I gotten myself into [insert feeling of severe imposter syndrome, usually experienced at school and scientific conferences]. Thirty minutes later, I sit in the breakfast room trying to stomach a packet of oatmeal and a few sips of coffee. I get down what I can, grab my duffle bag and bike helmet, and head outside into the early morning darkness. My boyfriend Trey drives while I sit in the passenger seat, my stomach in knots. These are some next level pre-race jitters. I try to calm my nerves, reminding myself there are zero expectations for today: have fun and race hard. Whatever happens, happens. Still, I am feeling a bit queasy.

IMG_1733Hours later I stand on the dock looking out onto Omaha’s Carter Lake, anxiously eyeing the fluorescent yellow buoys that mark the turns on the swim course. The announcer yells for us to enter the water and goggle-clad women from all over the US splash into the 90-degree lake. The water is so murky I can barely see my hand just inches in front of my face. We are told to start with one hand touching the dock. Over the loudspeaker we hear, “Your fate is now in the hands of the starter!” Interesting choice of words, I think fleetingly, before the crack of a loud gun sounds. I push myself off the dock as hard as I can. The race has begun and my anxiety is quickly replaced with pure excitement and adrenaline that alternates with extreme fatigue over the next 2 hours.

Our 1-mile swim is followed by a 24.8-mile bike ride, which is followed by a 6.2-mile run to the finish, all standard parts of an Olympic distance triathlon. Historically, my strength has been swimming. I’ve been swimming since I was a kid and swam competitively at the University of Puget Sound. After graduating in 2009, I was still figuring out my path in science/medicine, and I entered a Master’s of Science program in entomology to explore laboratory research. Growing up a student athlete, I was accustomed to having some sort of sporty outlet during my academic life and soon found a love for running. Running was simply Cymon-time: time to listen to music and clear my head, time to brainstorm about bizarre lab results, time to contemplate any and everything going on in my life. Over the next several years (bridging over into the MD/PhD program here at OHSU), I ran several half and full marathons. The final of these races was the Boston marathon last spring, which was easily one the worst races of my life. By mile 13, my back and shoulder were spasming so bad it hurt to move. I jogged (hobbled) my way to a very disappointing and frustrating finish line. It was at this point that I decided I needed a change. Around this same time, Trey (an avid cyclist himself) was prepping for his upcoming bike race season. I decided that if I could learn to ride a bike well enough to (semi) keep up with Trey on his easy rides, I could effectively spend quality time with him and also exercise. As any medical and/or graduate student knows, the idea of work/life balance and a precious personal life is almost laughable at times during school, and can require some serious planning. Because I still loved running and had the previous swimming experience, I figured I should see if I enjoy triathlons. I had briefly toyed with the idea of triathlons years before, testing out a sprint triathlon, but decided to focus on pure running at that time.

I completed my first real Olympic distance triathlon last July at Hagg Lake in Oregon. Finishing 1st place out of the women, I qualified for the age-group national championships that were to take place the following month in Omaha, Nebraska. After seriously debating how realistic my participation in nationals was given the demands of school around that time, I decided I’d give it a tri (haha)… bringing us back to the race.

IMG_1617Running down the final stretch of the race, the noise of the crowd cheering picks up. Cow bells are clanging, music is blasting, and excited faces decorate the final yards leading up to a large arching ‘Finish’ sign overhead. In a semi-delirious state, my swimsuit, and soaking wet tennis shoes I give one final push to the finish. As I cross the line a hand towel soaked in ice water sporting the ‘USA triathlon’ logo is thrown over my shoulders and I am handed a water bottle. I take one quick swig in my mouth before pouring the rest over my head, trying to cool myself down. Big surprise: Omaha is blisteringly hot in August. I wander aimlessly for a few minutes before finding Trey with a giant smile across his face. “Did you hear the announcer?!” he asks. “You came in 6th!” In each category, the top 18 finishers qualify for the amateur Team USA, to compete at the next year’s triathlon world championship. On our 20-hour drive back to Oregon, Trey responds with, “Okay, Team USA” to every comment I make.

Since nationals, I’ve been training with Shawn Bostad (Steelhead coaching) and the Portland Triathlon Club to prepare for the triathlon world championships that will be held in Rotterdam, Netherlands this September. My average week consists of about 10 workouts (various times and intensities) in the three sports and some strength training. Some days, I practice early in the morning before lab, and then again late at night after I leave OHSU. Some days I am exhausted, but others I am energized by the combination of athletics and research. Areas where these seemingly separate parts of my life merge together are also beginning to take shape: functional heart and lung testing, looking at my own spirometry curves, re-learning what VO2 max means. Training during school has been a big time commitment and every so often I wonder if it is worth it or not. But the answer is always a resounding “Yes”.

As students going into medical sciences and practices, we dedicate our lives to the health of others, and it’s easy to become completely immersed in our academic training to prepare ourselves for our careers. This immersion often comes at the cost of our personal wellbeing and life experiences outside the walls of the library, the laboratory, the classroom or the clinical office. But we can and should make time to take care of ourselves, our health, and to enjoy life. My own is one little story about a student finding a little more balance through racing, but stories like mine are shared by current MD and PhD students at OHSU. Ask around and you will find absolutely brilliant future physicians and scientists running 50k trail races, climbing mountains, going on epic backpacking adventures, and being secret champion windsurfers. I am constantly humbled and inspired by these classmates, and am reminded that we do not have to limit ourselves; we can be dedicated students, brilliant future clinicians and researchers, and cherish our lives outside of academics.


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