sanc·tu·ar·y

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“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” 

That quote hangs on my wall in my childhood bedroom.

I first started running with my mother as “punishment.” I don’t know if I thought, at the time, it was a form of punishment but looking back I think that is the most accurate classification. I truly only have one distinct memory of running with her although I know it happened multiple times (I guess like other heinous acts, I have blocked those other times out). I was attending one of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) conferences with my mother in which, like most research scientists and physicians, she used these annual 4-day conferences as a family vacation. We were in Orlando, FL and my mother and I left the hotel setting out to glide under the hot blue sky. If you’ve ever been to Florida, you know how long and incessant those black roads are lining the roadways in this never-ending fashion with the sun of the sunshine state glaring down. A few minutes into the run I was tired, frustrated and annoyed by the pace she had set troubling my short-legs and untrained lungs. I remember a school bus driving by and I thought, “They’re going to think I’m slow behind her.” As a result of my despair, she quickly became irritated with me as I was disturbing her peace. She always used to articulate how running was her escape from the perils of life—it was her sanctuary. I didn’t understand that then.

Not until one night when I walked out the doors of the Emory Athletic facility—The WoodPEC—onto the track. A cool spring Atlanta evening greeted me after a long day of medical training. Before I even stepped onto the track to begin warming up for my workout, I went into the bleachers and just sat there. My eyes circled around the red track, from curve to straight to curve to straight away. I can’t remember what I thought about but I know I was calmed. From that moment on I always viewed the track as a safe haven, a place where, even if everything was wrong in my world, the track was always right.

A few minutes from my present home, there’s a track here in Portland at the Under Armor Satellite Headquarters. I always drive by it on my way home from the hospital. It is not the most direct route, but it soothes me after a long intern day. The track represents so many memories—joy, sadness, humor, accomplishment, and defeat. Whether it was my mother pinning my racing bib on my 14 year old self at my first official race as my on-looking teammates teased me from afar, or watching the University of Michigan relay team run 16:04 with a 3:52 anchor leg for the 4xMile or running third leg on the 4x400m relay team that led us to a comeback conference win for our Emory’s Men team or being named captain of the Emory University team or being a part of the coaching staff for the first Ohio State Men’s Track and Field Big Ten Championship since 1993. The memories flow as I do when I am on the track.

One of the greatest races of my career came at a Junior AAU meet in Florida. The night before, I had run a 1500m time, slower than some of our 11-12-year-old girls, that resulted in me finishing second to last. I didn’t know how to “hurt yet,” or maybe I didn’t want to experience the pain and agony that is necessary to race the middle-distance events well. The next morning, I woke up ready to respond. As I began my warm-up today felt a little different. I spoke with Mikias Gelagle, one of my teammates at the time, who went on to be one of the best high school runners out of the state of Maryland in the 2004-2006 era. He gave me a game plan of which mostly I do not remember but I remember him distinctly telling me if I started out way in the back that’s where I was going to end up. He urged me to “go out near the front and to believe in the training I had under my belt.” This was a 3000-meter race I was lining up for, and most of my teammates were still back in their hotel rooms. As the gun sounded, I shot to the 5thor 6thposition and found my cadence. Lap after lap I was in it and as the race began to thin out I found myself running alongside a runner from another DC track club—The Pioneers. In his all-purple uniform, his crowd, situated opposite my contingency, would cheer him on as we ran past, giving him the motivation to pull a step ahead of me. As we rounded the track, I would do the same as my DC Redwings’ coaches implored me to “do what I knew I could.” Three laps later, this dance routine continued, but the only difference was that most of my teammates had now arrived from the hotel. Probably to their astonishment I was in the race, and to my delight they began cheering for me as we closed in with two laps left. Our cadences had become one at this point, synchronous like the Olympic swimmers, but I knew only one of us could cross the finish line first. As we approached 200 meters to go I started quickening my stride and using my arms to drive my tired legs forward. Down the straightaway we came, and I barely crossed the white line before him. I think I finished fifth in the race. The glory was all internal, but externally, the congratulations from my teammates and coaches, was the prize I needed. I finally felt like I belonged—one of the sacred feelings in life. It’s the emotions, the coaches’ turned fathers and the teammates turned brothers and sisters that make me proud to call myself a runner.

“Once a runner, always a runner.” For me, that motto transcends time. Whether you’re an Olympian or a has-been/never-was, if you’ve spent time lying on the ground in exhaustion, eyes closed, swallowing your saliva because there was no water in sight, then you’re a runner.

Sent From My iPhone

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“We have reviewed your application once again for admission to our school of medicine and we regret to inform you that you have not been granted an interview at this time.” I scrolled down & it was signed by the Director of Admissions—a name with M.B.A behind it. And then I scrolled down further and read the signature…

“Sent from my iPhone.”

A tear streamed down my right cheek. I felt like a volcano that had erupted—full of frustration, anger & sadness. I was devastated. The words, “Life is hard for those who dream” kept scrolling through my head. I was in the downstairs bedroom of my parent’s home. At that moment, it was very likely that my mother was upstairs above me, just a few feet away. I don’t know for a fact, but I felt like there was a mirror image of myself upstairs at the dining room table in the form of my mother. Of all people in the world, she was the one I did not want to disappoint desiring so badly to carry on the legacy she has scuplted.  The first African-American woman in the country to receive a Ph.D. in Epidemiology. Despite her many accolades, at that point in time I think the only care in the world she had was for her son to be accepted into medical school. When I had graduated from Emory and was enthusiastically off-track, if you will, she spoke with one of her colleagues; a medical school advisor she knew well asking that he bestow upon me guidance and direction. And was it too simple to think the University that she works so hard for so many hours of the day, leading their mission of improving health disparities would at least offer an interview to her son? By title, She is the Associate Dean! If having one’s parents as alumni can help secure legacy status, what was going on here? Was that not customary? I rolled back onto my bed in the fetal position. What’s next? What could be next? This is the institution where I envisioned my white coat ceremony, match day ceremony and graduation occurring. But all I can remember is the thoughtlessly blasé “Sent from my iPhone.”

I was like many other pre-medical students at the time. I felt that since I had gone to a stellar, well-known undergraduate institution, the same would occur for my medical school education. But one thing I had to recognize was that your undergraduate institution doesn’t automatically lead to the medical school you enter—nothing is guaranteed. I have learned many things as I approach thirty years old, but nothing as sincere as the notion that entitlement is precarious, perhaps even dangerous. We fall into these easy expectations and if they do not come to fruition, we fall apart & don’t know how to pick ourselves up again. The moment you feel like you deserve something is the moment it slips through your grasp. In that very moment when you look up wishing & praying a leaf falls that was meant for you to catch, it may or may not but let me tell you about my leaves. I interviewed at Ohio State on January 22nd. Heading to the airport, I looked back at the large OSU Wexner Signage feeling as though I was actually leaving my home rather than my interview. A few weeks later, I signed into my newly-created Ohio State portal only to find a “wait-listed” next to my name. Many months later as I was tutoring a high school student, my phone began buzzing on the desk. I quickly uncovered it and saw a number with a 614-area code. There it was, the call I had been waiting so impatiently for. The director of admissions at Ohio State College of Medicine asked me, “Jason, are you still interested in Ohio State?” “Yes,” I exhaled. I felt like I had been holding my breath for 5 months and finally I could breathe again.

I drove home one breath at a time.