Student Voice

Keeping the Finish Line in Sight

“Dental school is a marathon, not a sprint.”

These were the words Associate Dean Carole Hanes used during orientation in advising us to pace ourselves. Over the past 18 months of dental school, I’ve heard them over and over.

Why does everyone tell us this? Is it because four more years of school just seems like forever? Or because of the number of hours we spend at school each day? Or even just the amount of work that needs to be constantly completed?

I never really understood why everyone said dental school was a marathon. I feel like I have been in a dead sprint since I started it. But now, I can finally say that I now completely understand.

I don’t know what in my right mind made me think that training for a half marathon during dental school would be a good idea. However, somehow my mom and I got talked into signing up for the Divas Half Marathon, billed on its website as “the most fun and glam women’s half-marathon series in the nation.” Maybe it was the pink tutus, tiaras and boas we were given for the run that convinced me. Or maybe the champagne and shirtless firemen at the finish line. Either way, I signed up and received an email confirming that “Diva Kiersten” was registered for the Half Marathon.

I have always stayed in pretty decent shape, so starting a training plan was no big deal. The problem was adding this training plan to the school work that seemed to be piling up faster than I could complete it. But I’d missed only a few workouts by the time September rolled around. I was pretty proud of myself!

I like to compare this part of my training to my preparation for dental school. For the half-marathon, I worked hard to optimize my performance in the race. For dental school, I worked hard in high school and undergrad so I could get into dental school and perform well.

Finally, race day arrived. I’d set a goal of completing the race in under two hours, which would be a first for me. Going into the race, I put so much pressure on myself to reach this goal, just as I’d put so much pressure on myself to perform well in dental school. But if I have learned anything in my 23 years of living, it is that I do not work well under pressure.

The first few miles of the race went swimmingly. My mom and I ran together, and we were holding a great pace. Completing the race in under two hours seemed totally doable. Likewise, the first few days of dental school went great as well. I’d started to make friends, go to social events and get the hang of my classes. I thought I could easily handle dental school, just like I thought I could easily handle the race. (I laugh at myself in retrospect on both counts.)

Kiersten Mossburg, Class of 2018
Kiersten Mossburg, Class of 2018

Around mile six, I noticed it was getting harder to breathe. My pace had slowed, so I tried to pick it back up. This only made everything worse. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe at all. I was gulping in air, but it didn’t seem to be reaching my lungs. My mom made me stop.

That’s  when I had a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, and I felt tears streaming down my face. After about two minutes, I finally calmed down and started walking again until I built back up to a run. That’s when my mom asked me, “Why do you need to finish in under two hours? Let’s just have fun and enjoy the run together!”

The rest of the race was much more enjoyable. I was no longer worried about my pace. When I saw the shirtless firemen and the champagne at the finish line, you bet I was happy!

Right around mile six was when I finally grasped the marathon analogy of dental school. Eighteen months in, I’ve experienced times when my goals seemed well within my reach. But other times have been characterized by the panic attacks that set in when I fear I won’t make it. Those were the times when I realized how important it is to have friends who are going through the same thing and who can calm you down even at your lowest point.

Even through all these hard times when I place too much pressure on myself, I know the end reward is so much greater than any struggle I may face during the “race” to graduation. There may not be shirtless firemen at commencement (although champagne would be nice afterward), but there will be something even greater: a degree.

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