The year after I completed my PhD, I was invited to present my dissertation research at the American College of Sports Medicine Annual Conference. It’s an intimidating conference to go to as a graduate student, or even as a newly minted PhD, because in attendance are the top scientists in the world in the interdisciplinary field of exercise science—physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, physical therapy, motor learning, sport psychology, anatomy, biochemistry, and medicine. Being around these researchers, I was more than a bit nervous. I’ll let you in on a little secret—I have always been a little worried that, in the right environment with people who are smarter than me, they will see right through me. This may be my twin brother’s fault. After all these years, he still thinks he’s the smarter twin, and he may be right. I’ve always had to work hard to get good grades. For my brother, school came easy. So I was nervous about presenting my research at this conference, where there would be many people who could embarrass me if they wanted to.
Many of the research presentations at this conference are given in themed sessions so attendees can choose which theme they want to see. My dissertation, which was on the coordination of breathing and stride rate in runners, was placed in the theme of respiratory physiology. While writing my dissertation, I became intimately familiar with the research of the top respiratory exercise physiologists, so I knew who might show up.
I sat in the room with the other conference attendees, waiting for my turn to speak. For one of the presentations, a scientist presented his research that contradicted the findings of Dr. Jerry Dempsey of the University of Wisconsin, whose research on respiratory physiology and exercise is known all over the world. After this scientist finished his presentation, someone from the back of the room spoke. I turned my head, and it was Jerry Dempsey. Let’s just say the next few minutes were a bit heated. Like a territorial tiger defending her cub, Dr. Dempsey called the other scientist out, blatantly told him that his research was garbage and his findings were wrong, and defended his own work. It wasn’t pretty to watch. In fact, it got so heated that I could see it was making others in the room feel uncomfortable. Including me. Guess who was the next presenter?
After about five minutes of this back-and-forth diatribe of the other’s research, it was my turn to give my presentation. At first, I thought, “I have to follow that?” A lot of things go through your head during a moment like this. It was easy to get distracted by the argument. Do I let my nerves get the best of me? I was already nervous about people like Jerry Dempsey in the room. I had read his research. He had a lot more experience in this subject area than I had.
The moderator of the session said, “The next presentation is Lungs and Legs: Entrainment of Breathing to Locomotion in Highly Trained Distance Runners by Jason Karp.” That was all I needed to hear. I got up out of my seat, went to the front of the room, stood at the pulpit ready to show my first PowerPoint slide, and I did what any other confident runner would do—I cracked a joke about what just had happened. It got a laugh from the audience and then I started my presentation. After I had finished, I was asked only a few soft questions about my research and Jerry Dempsey didn’t say a word. I walked out of the room and breathed a sigh of relief.
When I’m in a situation like this, I always fall back to running. I see myself as a runner first. Running, and especially racing, teaches you composure.
[tweetthis]Running, and especially racing, teaches you composure.[/tweetthis]
There are lots of things that can happen during a race that can take you out of your game plan. Some of those things may have nothing to do with the race itself. It may be raining. You may have eaten too much pasta the night before. A relative may have recently died. Some of the distracting things may be directly related to the race. Runners may be better than you, or they may start the race at too fast of a pace, or they may box you in when you race on the track, or you may get stuck behind a large crowd in a road race, with little room to run your pace. Your training may not have gone the way you liked leading up to the race. You may have a cold. You may even feel in the middle of a race like you have to take the biggest dump you’ve ever had to take. It happens. But whatever happens, you have to maintain your composure and focus on the task in front of you to earn the outcome you want. You have to focus on the reason you woke up early that morning and went to the starting line. That’s part of being an athlete. That’s part of being the better person you’re aiming, through running, to be. Running provides the optimal forum in which to practice composure so that when you are away from the track or the road and in a convention center about to give a presentation in front of a room full of scientists with big egos, you can crack a joke, put everyone at ease, and nail your presentation.