Ironically enough, letting yourself be happy can be hard. There is so much pressure to do what you're "supposed to do", go to grad school, or take the first job you find out of college. Quitting your job to go do something you love can be terrifying. There's the fear and self-doubt: What if it doesn't work out? What if I fail? Running has always been there for us in those moments (especially mindful running).
But what if running was that one career/lifestyle thing that made you happy? That's exactly how speedy chemist Anna Weber felt, and here's how she found happiness by leaving her PhD program to pursue a career in running:
"Selfishly seek joy, because your joy is the greatest gift you can give to the world."
If I had known ten years ago that simply hearing this quote in a yoga class would change my life completely, I often wonder if the path I took to get to where I am now would have been different.
As a high schooler, I was a talented runner. Never a state champion, but always a contender, I wrapped up my high school career with four All-State honors in Indiana and two school records, with personal bests of 14:23 at the 4k cross country distance and 10:55 in the 3200 m run. I went on to run in college at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my career was wholly forgettable. I struggled throughout my five years through injuries and illnesses, feeling as though I was constantly pushing harder and harder, yet my body simply rebelled and broke. As a high schooler I had dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics; by the end of college, I had hoped to only one day be good enough again to win local road races. Upon graduation, I decided to hang up my spikes forever and focus on other endeavors, such as cycling and pursuing a PhD in analytical chemistry at Indiana University.
The first semester of graduate school was amazing. I drank, I partied, I stayed up all night, and I lived the life I didn’t allow myself to have as a Division I athlete. I suddenly felt as though I had wasted five years of college chasing a silly goal, when clearly running was a long gone part of my life; a gift I had seemingly grown out of. Sure, occasionally I had great races that hinted my former glory may be returning, but those instances were so few and far between that I almost came to dread their appearance, as they simply brought me pain.
Then, one day, after a late night that turned into an early morning, I felt an acute sense of nostalgia. I wanted my old life back. I was tired of being “that girl who used to run competitively.” I laced up and went for an 8 mile run and it hurt so good.
Throughout the next few years of grad school, I struggled to balance running and my studies, without realizing the damage I was doing to myself, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Hindsight is 20/20, and I now realize how depressed I had become while working towards a faculty position while trying to balance training at a high level. After a string of successful races, including a 1:18:09 at the Brooklyn Half and a 3:11:18 trail marathon in Kentucky, I had set my sights on qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. Although graduate school was originally a much-needed distraction from running, it suddenly had become my brick wall to pursuing my dreams.
As a runner with a Type-A personality, admitting defeat is extremely hard. My PhD project had just been funded by a generous grant, and I was the only person trained in the entire lab who could do the work I was performing. With the greatest amount of courage I think I have ever mustered, I approached my boss to tell him the news: I was going to take a leave of absence from graduate school to focus solely on my running.
I was going to selfishly seek joy.
Doing so was scary. Honestly, the first month of transitioning from grad student with a running hobby to full-time runner pretending she’s elite is a time in my life I would never want to relive. People questioned my decision; questioned whether I was talented enough to have made the move; and questioned why on Earth I would stop working on a PhD when I was only a year and a half from defending.
The truth? I was miserable. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I couldn’t focus on my work. I was having anxiety attacks and drowning under the growing pile of work and expectations that I was never meeting. It would have been different if I had loved what I was doing, but I didn’t.
My life has been a series of non-traditional moves. I changed my college major from psychology to chemistry mid-way through, when most people were changing from chemistry to psychology. I left a stable relationship to pursue a long distance one with a guy I barely knew during my 5th year of college when most of my peers were starting to settle down and seek stability. Why should I have ever imagined I wouldn’t do something crazy like leave grad school to pursue professional running at a time when most professionals were retiring from the roads to finish up school?
I never would have imagined the life I have now, just 9 months removed from starting this new chapter. Besides living the life I have dreamed about ever since I was a middle school runner, I feel like I have a greater purpose in the world. My blog has become a springboard for talking about important issues that women and athletes face; I have been given opportunities to engage with children and teens, especially young women, who are interested in running and living a healthy lifestyle; I have been able to help others in the running community in ways I never thought possible, and people have told me I have inspired them to find their own happiness and get out of situations that are causing despair. Ironically, I initially wanted to pursue chemistry because I thought I could change the world one day, but instead became jaded by the politics of academia.
In this way, I am using my joy as a way to give back to the world.
And I have never been happier.
Our guest contributor/run blogger Anna Weber is a 2:38 marathoner (!) and qualified for the Olympic Trails, runs with our friends over at Oiselle (only love for them here!), a Nuun and Zensah ambassador, a chemist and a believer in karma (like us!). Check out the other posts she's written for us on Life Hacks for Runners, Sustainable Running, The Periodic Table of the Elements for Runners, and more. Follow Anna and her running career online here: Twitter @Anna_Weber413, Instagram @anna_weber413 /, blog: AnnaWeberRuns