Hailey Middlebrook: Candy corn and other stress-busters

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 - 5:41pm

Last Sunday, I woke up at 4:45 a.m. to run a half-marathon. It was pitch black outside when my friend Jill, my sister and I loaded the car, packing running shoes and homework for after the race. We shivered awake in the cold wind, clamping our hands around coffee cups. We tried not to think about our lack of sleep, accumulated over a week of exams and deadlines.

Three hours later, the pale sun just peeking over Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, Mich., Jill and I stood on the starting line of the Devil’s Dive Half Marathon. The race was an out-and-back course: six and a half miles out on a rolling (i.e. very hilly) peninsula, past vineyards and famous Traverse City cherry trees, then back to finish. We straightened our race bibs on our matching singlets, hers yellow and mine pink — planned ahead of time, of course, during our early-morning runs in Ann Arbor — and tightened our laces, popped rigid hip flexors.

The race staff shuffled around in Halloween costumes, googly-eyed Minions and washed-out angels, arranging platters of caramel apples and cider for the post-race party. Yet there was still a nervous energy in the air. Jill and I had agreed not to stress about our finishing time — a hard promise, since we were both raised on cross country and track — but the glowing red clock at the starting line challenged us. It held expectations. The race director finally emerged, dressed in a full devil’s costume, to shoot the starting gun like an athletic exam proctor.

We readied our timers, turned the page and began.

At mile nine, we saw her: the candy corn-muncher. I’d spotted her earlier, during the National Anthem, dressed in a floor-length hot dog costume, shoving bags of candy corn and Hershey’s kisses in her sports bra. I had burst out laughing, figuring she was part of the staff rather than a runner. But here she came, a human hot dog with a fistful of candy corn in each hand, nearly half-way through a half marathon.     

“Way to go, girls!” the candy corn-muncher shouted, pumping the air with her candy fist.

That’s when I realized that I might take things too seriously. For every competitive runner, there was a candy corn-muncher. We would both accomplish the same feat, whether we ran consistently at a pace of six minutes, 45 seconds per mile or stopped at mile five to snack on chocolate. Was one way really better than the other? As we slugged up the final, mountainous hill, aptly named “Eternal Punishment” on the race posters, I wondered: Were we doing it wrong?  

Challenging ourselves is a good thing. We knew this as kids, when we took on the 100 Book Challenge in elementary school (what were we thinking?) and as University students, when we ambitiously registered for 18 credits and joined the Triathlon Club. There’s glory in hard work and testing our limits, in holding the title of “Leaders and Best” that the University preaches.

The upside of challenging ourselves is recognition: placing in the top three of the race, scoring an internship with Apple. The downside? Unhealthy — and often unnecessary — levels of stress.

It’s hard to escape pressure to succeed as a college student, when midterms coincide with last week’s Fall Career Fair and essays are due the day after your half-marathon (or dance recital, fundraising event, family wedding, etc.). Multi-tasking becomes a whole new monster as you recite your elevator pitch to yourself while running up the Arb hill and “tailgate” on your way to the law library on football Saturdays. And here’s the worst part: you feel better about pushing yourself instead of taking a break, even if you really need one. We look down at tailgaters and candy corn-munchers because success doesn’t come from having fun. Right?

Thankfully, no. The University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) endorses the “Importance of Play” for students, writing on their website: “We get stuck in our heads thinking about all of the things that we have to do. Balance is achieved when we engage in things we WANT to do, not just things that we HAVE to do.” The reward of challenging ourselves — academically, athletically, socially, professionally — is counteracted if we don’t let ourselves breathe. What’s the point of climbing the mountain if you can’t appreciate the view at the top?

In our early 20s, we are the fittest that we’ll ever be. Our brains and bodies have endless muscle memory, enabling us to rebound from marathon study sessions and workouts stronger and more knowledgeable than before. But our fitness doesn’t excuse us from abusing our minds and bodies by putting them under constant, unnecessary stress.

To manage stress, you first have to accept that you can’t be the leader and best in everything you do. Frankly, it’s impossible. Instead, pick one or two things that are most important, like acing a biology midterm or beating a half-marathon time, then focus on reaching those goals. That way, you’ll leave room for your mind to breathe and have time to play — the true marks of a healthy, successful life.

And while you’re at it, eat some candy corn. I’ve heard it makes great racing fuel.