It’s a tad alarming just how similar Peace Corps service is to running a marathon. At times, I am absurdly grateful that long-distance running was a hobby of mine before I left for service here in Botswana, because psychological challenges and strategies for success in both are almost the same.
It begins with a goal. Not just any goal, like managing to complete a grocery shopping trip without forgetting something (which my tomato-less pasta sauce proves I am apparently incapable of), but a major challenge, something that on some level, even you aren’t sure you can do (actually, in that respect, perhaps my grocery-shopping goal isn’t entirely off the mark): I want to run a marathon. I want to join the Peace Corps. Then you research—what marathon do I want to run, when and where, how do I train; what exactly does Peace Corps service entail, how do I apply, all the while feeling sudden pangs of anxiety that you may be in over your head—maybe I’m not the kind of person who can run a marathon or join the Peace Corps…maybe that’s something only special people can do. But, you resist those fears, and begin training and the application process. Slowly pushing yourself, practicing, over-running, under-running, getting training injuries, planning your days and weeks around training time. Filling out papers after papers, interviews after interviews, and trying to live life with a constant feeling of uncertainty. You live in a constant struggle, endlessly evaluating your own strength. Sometimes it feels crazy to put yourself through so much stress for a goal like this—even just getting to the race/getting into the Peace Corps is so painstaking, how could it possibly be worth it? But something in you keeps you going.
Race day/Peace Corps service. Suddenly, you find yourself actually here, actually able to possibly fulfill this goal. Initially, you’re swept away by the adrenaline—all of the runners together, jittery with excitement, itching to get out on the trail. The gun fires off, and the collective energy is so strong, the rhythmic sound of feet hitting the pavement carries you along for the first mile or so, for which you are so well-prepared. Just as PST begins—it’s almost not even really the Peace Corps, because the excitement of it all, and the company of others are what get you through. But then, as that energy dies down, people begin to settle in to their own pace. Some rush ahead, some fall back, but the groups dissipates, and suddenly, you’re all alone. And then it hits you that you’ve got a long, long, long way to go, and even though there may be a few more bursts of adrenaline here and there—some cheerleaders along the way, some breathtaking views—really, from here on out, your own success is entirely up to you. It’s the same sort of feeling as when you suddenly find yourself alone at site, and the significance of your commitment smacks in your face.
So you begin setting small goals for yourself, to distract from the gravity of what lies ahead. “I’ll just keep running until I hit the ten mile marker,” you tell yourself “then, if I’m really feeling bad, I can stop--no guilt; ten miles is a lot, and many people can’t even do that.” Or “I’ll just make it to IST—then, if I still want to leave, I’ll leave. Not many people can last for 6 months away from home—even that is an accomplishment.” Of course, on some level you know you’re only tricking yourself. Once you hit that goal, the first thing that hits you is that getting there wasn’t actually that bad. And, hey, if you’ve made it that far, why not try for a little more—it still doesn’t mean you have to finish, but, you know…if you can get to the half-marathon mark, that would be pretty cool, right? Of course, the euphoria of self-confidence over reaching the first small goal wears off quite quickly, and you realize you’ve just pushed yourself farther in—and that the farther you get, the more you feel you have to finish, so that everything else you did won’t be for naught.
Some parts of the path are harder than others. Sometimes it’s difficult because of what you’re presented with—a large hill, slippery footing; difficulties at work, the challenges of life in a developing country—and sometimes they come from within—pushing through a sore knee and blistered feet; feeling so homesick you can hardly get out of bed. The truth is, a part of you wants to stop every step of the way. Even as someone who loves running, there are times when I feel like the earth has centered its entire gravitational pull below my feet alone, and going on seems impossible. There always seem to be plenty of reasons not to go on—you’re tired, you’re thirsty, it’s hot, you could be sitting at home watching a movie, or doing something, anything else, instead. And the same is true with the Peace Corps. Almost every volunteer I have spoken to said that not a day of their service went by when they did not consider ET-ing (early terminating—aka leaving) at least once; and that has certainly proven true thus far for me.
Of course there are good times, too, moments where the gravity of what you are doing hits you in a good sort of way; moments when you feel overwhelming gratitude to even have the opportunity to face this challenge, after all, there are people who can’t walk, and you’re running a marathon; there are people who are sitting in a tiny cubicle hating their life (no offense/sorry guys!!!), and you’re in Africa watching monkeys play in the trees as the sun sets—how could you possibly even think of complaining? But regardless of whether times seem good or bad, it’s always the same little spark that somehow keeps you going. (I have to quote: Are you ready to quit? Are you ready to learn? Are you ready to find the spark inside and let it burn? - Breaktown, Hanson).
That’s the thing about both marathons and Peace Corps service. Even though both have some benefits that can be put into words (staying healthy, endorphins; saving the world [while maintaining full modesty, of course ;oP], travel, career benefits), the reality is that it’s impossible to explain the real motivation for either. When you tell someone you want to run a marathon or join the Peace Corps, the reactions you get all immediately slide off into two categories: “Wow, I would LOVE to do that someday / I wish I had done something like that when I had the chance / I already did it myself” or “Good for you” with the not-so-hidden subtext “Why on earth would you want to do that?” And honestly, I can’t really answer. But there’s something about those little successes, and that big success, when you’re done that are like nothing else in the world. That feeling when you pass through the finish line—body aching all over, covered in salty sweat, looking like a wreck, and almost ready to fall apart—somehow makes it all worth it. Well, it did when I finished my first marathon, that is…I’m putting all my faith in the possibility that the little voice inside pushing me through my service will hold the same sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when I COS. At times I think it will and at times I think it won’t, but that voice is here, for better or worse, and apparently, so am I.
I’m almost to my second Peace Corps mini-goal—my first was making it through training, and in a couple of weeks I will be at In-Service-Training; where all of the Bots 9 volunteers return to Gaborone for two more weeks of training and instruction on how to proceed with our service here in Botswana. I know I’ll need to set a new goal after that, but for now, I’ve got my eye on that one (and on finishing my Community Assessment; the large assignment that we are required to complete during our first two months of service—eek!!).
Incidentally, I’m also trying to train for a marathon while here…it’s in April…well there are a couple then, depending on where my travel budget is (one’s in Cape Town—how cool would that be?!). The sand is killing my knees and I know the heat will make it pretty tough, so I may decide to settle for the half (but really, that’s cool—running an official Half in Africa is pretty rad). I know it probably sounds selfish to do something like that while I’m here, but I’ve found that running is very frequently literally the only thread keeping my sanity in-tact; it’s just something I need to do. And also, obviously, Peace Corps service is very, very different from a marathon, in that the ultimate goal of PC service is to try to help others, whereas a marathon is just for yourself. But the reality is that they both entail a great, great deal of personal struggles, and it’s ultimately up to you to make it work…well, you and the encouragement of crazyawesome friends and family who make enormous sacrifices to support you…y’all know who you are…I couldn’t do/have done any this without you (and, yes, that includes the marathon; for those of you who don’t know, my incredibly amazing and constantly inspiring friend Katherine coached me through my training, and ran with me at my painfully slow [for her] pace, the whole way…and of course there are too many of you guys supporting me now to begin name-dropping…you are all so, so, so incredible, words can’t begin to thank you).