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Baylor Grad Students In It For the Long Run

March 18, 2013

The mild, Central Texas winter is coming to an end, and spring is upon us. For many Wacoans that means it is time to run. For the last few months the trails of Cameron Park have slowly filled with "couch-to-5k" beginners and seasoned trail runners, with water-wicking compression tops and jogging strollers.

Mike Whitenton

March also kicks off racing season. The Freshman Class Council at Baylor and the Baylor Triathlon Club started off the month with their "Gut Pack Run," benefiting Mission Waco and combining BBQ and racing as only Texas can.

Coming up at the end of the month Baylor's Student Foundation will host Bearathon, its 11th annual half-marathon and 5K run, an event that raised nearly $70,000 last year for scholarships. But, it is not always about the race.

As Christopher McDougall points out in his bestselling book Born to Run, distance running is what we do in times of crisis. When our lives become too stressful we tend to throw on our sneakers and run.

"In terms of stress relief and sensual pleasure," says McDougall, "the equipment and desire come factory installed; all you have to do is let 'er rip and hang on for the ride."

Certainly, some of that applied to Mike Whitenton, a doctoral candidate in Baylor's Religion department. His life was not in crisis, by any means, but the day-to-day of graduate life was beginning to have an effect.

"I had been sitting in the library so long," Whitenton says. "I was getting restless. I read that exercise makes you more productive. I was about forty pounds overweight, so I thought it was a win-win."

Whitenton began by signing up for a 5K training program. He set a goal for himself - to complete a 5K in less than thirty minutes in six weeks. The plan would guide him from a mixture of walking and running to a full run in just six weeks. Then, he would sign up for a race.

"But, I never actually signed up for one," Whitenton says. "I was going to, but I changed directions before the race."

The direction wasn't back to the couch. It was toward more time on the road.

"I went on vacation and read Born to Run," Whitenton says. "I was really intrigued by this whole scene where marathons were just warm-ups. There was something about it that was insane, but also strangely attractive."

Whitenton started training for ultra-marathons - races longer than 26.2 miles, many of them on trails. In order to train for these races, Whitenton began running 18 to 30 miles each week, often spending two or three hours on a workout. Now, he often tops a week off with a good four or five hour run on Saturday mornings on the trails of Cameron Park.

"I didn't start running that way. It just became a priority," he says. "The funny thing is that my work for school always gets done, but I always do my run first.

"I know it doesn't make a lot of sense, but I'm more productive. I think running in nature stimulates your creativity and clears away jumbled thoughts. So, when it's time to work I'm ready to work."

You might be tempted to believe that all those hours on the trail are put to good use, mulling over problems or working out complex theories. Whitenton says for him that is not the case.

"I don't do a lot of thinking on a run," he says. "I've tried to do that - plan out a paper, that sort of thing - but after five minutes my brain goes to wherever it goes when I run. Somewhere between one foot and the next."

Long runs have also provided some intense moments. On a trip to Colorado, Whitenton took a wrong turn and got lost. He ended up getting back to his cabin after sunset, which can be dangerous.

"Something was following me," Whitenton says. "I'm not sure what it was, but I do know that mountain lions will kill you for sport."

Whitenton has completed a number of long races. Last weekend, March 16, he participated in an ultra-event in Waco's Cameron Park, the Toughest-N-Texas 50K. This summer he will run in the Leadville Silver Rush 50 Miler - a mountain trail race held in one of the meccas of extreme distance running and one that starts at 10,200 feet and climbs to 12,000 feet on four separate occasions.

Ultimately, Whitenton sees a lot of connections between what he does with his feet and what he does with his mind. Earning a graduate degree is a marathon of its own, and Whitenton believes his experiences on the trails are helping him with his doctoral program.

"They are both really, really long hauls," he says. "If you go out too fast, you will blow up. If you blow up, that means a lot of walking. If you really blow up, that means you are stranded literally miles from anyone that can help. The same thing applies to grad school.

"People say it's not a sprint; it's a marathon," he says. "I'd say it's not a marathon. It's an ultra. You've really got to take your time, take care of yourself along the way, and save all that you can for a strong finish."

"After all," he says. "You are writing a book, not a five-page paper."