Two Types of Marathons, or "Learning to Love the Wall"

by Sara Swenson

photo features a close up of the program panel of a treadmill lit with the message 'SYS OVRLD ERROR' signifying a 'System Overload Error'

photo features a close up of the program panel of a treadmill lit with the message 'SYS OVRLD ERROR' signifying a 'System Overload Error'

April 3, 2018

The temperature had reached 90 degrees by 7 a.m. Sweat ran down my back before I even entered the gym. After two minutes of jogging, the expanse of white wall in front of my treadmill was winning our staring contest. A few nights earlier, while writing fieldnotes for the day, I was struck by a whim to register for the Da Nang marathon this August. I love running, I reasoned. Exercise is great. So why put my second marathon on hold just because I moved to Vietnam? I booked my spot, settled into bed, and then realized: I would have to do 800 miles of training through the streets of a bustling megacity.

On my first, and only, attempted run outside, I could barely sustain a speed walk while skirting traffic and leaping over the occasional gutter of burning trash. This was going to be a marathon, not a Parkour tournament. I decided I would have to train on a treadmill.

I would have to learn to love that wall.

I am, by nature, not the most logical candidate for either fieldwork or distance running. I am not a patient person. Until grad school, I prided myself on pulling all-nighters, overloading my schedule, and still getting everything done mostly on-time in brilliant feats of exertion. I still prefer to write in 10-hour blocks rather than doing a little bit every day. I like to cut to the chase. I don’t like to take lunch breaks. I should be a sprinter. Marathon training, and fieldwork, however, are all about learning how to “pace yourself.”

I am fortunate to work with an advisor, Gareth Fisher, who has always encouraged me to remember that fieldwork is about showing up. The best ethnographies, he says, are the ones where you can tell the writer was present as something significant was unfolding. For instance, maybe a researcher takes a lunch break under a tree every single day for an hour. This goes on for months. Other people are also sitting around, quietly eating lunch. The researcher wonders if maybe they should be more proactive – choose a more exciting tree.

Then one day, an accident happens in the street across from the tree. Everyone springs into action. If the researcher hadn’t been there, under that tree, at that time, they wouldn’t have been able to participate in the rescue. They wouldn’t have seen how the rescue took place. They wouldn’t have been able to talk with the other rescuers about why they reacted the way they did after that moment. Maybe years later people in the neighborhood still talk about this rescue. It draws the community together. The story of the rescue becomes grander and more elaborate with each retelling. Even people who napped through the original event say they were involved. Because the researcher was present the first time, they can understand how the story changes and see what significance it has gained for the community. After months of taking a lunch break under that same tree, the researcher just happened to be at the right place at the right time. The researcher kept showing up.

Long runs and lunch breaks have something in common. They feel a lot like down time. Showing up to routine tasks, having daily conversations about the weather, liking a billion Facebook posts, or plodding out endlessly slow miles in front of a wall, is where the real work takes place. There is no cutting to the chase of a marathon or an ethnographic dissertation. Both of these tasks rely on processes, committing to real relationships, and slowly building intangible connections – between people, ideas, and nerve fibers.

When I feel anxious that I am showing up to the wrong events, not asking the right questions, and generally advancing my project too slowly, I know it is time to go for a run. For the first few weeks, I couldn’t stand the sight of the wall. As I stared at the blank expanse, with nothing to distract me from the sweltering heat or my aching legs, I found myself feeling strangely angry with the whole situation and just wanting to go home. My spot for the marathon, however, was already booked. I could do nothing but become intimately acquainted with this pervasive feeling of discomfort. I learned to greet it like an old friend.

Then I noticed the same feeling arising when I had to cope with gaps in my language skills, unreliable transportation, or unpredictable changes in a field schedule. My research includes a few charity organizations who serve populations with chronic or terminal illnesses. Some days, it is discouraging to know how little I can offer compared to what is needed. It can be tempting to slink away, to not show up, to feel strangely angry and just want to go home. Then I remember: I know this feeling already. I know this feeling well. It is my wall.

Fieldwork is full of incredible highs and lows. I have made many embarrassing language mishaps, cultural faux pas, and even some downright dangerous judgment errors, but am also gaining some of the deepest friendships of my life. I love what I do. As I strive to write through my project, my project is also rewriting me. I am learning to find joy in daily routine. I am learning to find meaning in just showing up. I am learning to take lunch breaks. I am learning how to maintain my pace through harder and easier days; sore feet and runner’s highs.

I am even learning to love the wall.

Contact Information

Sara Swenson