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Hitting The Wall

Andrew C. Thomas

Marathon runners are masters of endurance. They subject themselves to immense physical pressure for a prolonged period of time, and the reward for completing the grueling task is often entirely personal. In similar fashion, MIT students undergo equally grueling tests of endurance twice a year for four month intervals. The pressure applied by parents, peers, and professors is paled, in most cases, by a personal need to succeed. True, an MIT degree is more financially lucrative than a body in excellent form (depending on who you ask), but the rewards that can be achieved in no way disguise the weight that must be overcome.

One major problem associated with the marathon is a phenomenon known as “hitting the wall,” a major drain in energy associated with a changeover from the metabolism of carbohydrates to that of fats. The shift requires some energy to function and is a major impairment in being able to maintain efficient operation of the muscles. This typically happens at about the 20-mile mark of a 26.2-mile marathon. In order to overcome this, the ideal solution is to not run low on carbohydrates in the first place, by stocking up on starches and sugars a short time before the race.

In our own marathon, the wall in the semester has hit for most students. If the regular flow of work hadn’t slowed people down, the last week’s supply of tests, followed by the crucial decision-making process of whether it’s warranted to drop one or more classes, is certain to drain whatever energy is left. Spring fever hits and no one wants to stay inside. Bad weather hits immediately afterward and no one wants to get out of bed. The anticipation of summer ahead takes away from the here and now. And the list goes on with more factors that remove any enthusiasm about schoolwork in general.

The marathon we run has one significant difference, in that its architects gave us the (slight) advantage of an extra break, like a three- or four-day weekend every so often. However, instead of using the time to regroup, students often use the time to catch up on more work, or get ahead of it. The advantage of this is that pressure may be relieved later on down the road, but still there is no true break, no opportunity for renewal. If they take the short break, the workload afterward still remains high. Our main reserves continue to be tapped. Do we have an alternative fuel source? People seem to find energy in mysterious places, even if it comes at the expense of their sanity (or that of their roommates).

Like marathons, though, the idea of pacing is still important. I admit that I often overload on what I’m obligated to do, and the obsession to finish everything, and quickly, is sometimes quite strong. (I also admit that I’m extremely surprised when this behavior, not procrastination, dominates my thinking.) But rest stops should be scheduled in if at all possible. Sleep is the best rest stop of all -- it’s the one that’s hard-wired into each of us -- and if at all possible, it shouldn’t be short-changed. True, it goes against MIT dogma -- nowhere else do energy drinks like Red Bull and AMP make so much profit -- but by mortgaging sleep for efficiency, we’re probably taking years off our lives.

I cannot truthfully pin down whether this is actually an issue of the place itself, the attitudes of the faculty towards work, the people we are before or after we get here, or some other factor. But each of us is in the middle of running our own marathon, and the majority of us aren’t professionals at it. Keep an eye on your fuel gauges, and make sure you don’t hit that wall head-on. Find moments of renewal and make the most of them. Just remember that with only a seemingly short month to go until the end of the semester, the finish line is just barely in sight. But try not to let that enter your mind. Remember that there is some joy in running, not just in reaching the goal.