Winded: A Legal Career Is Not a Sprint

By Aislynn Thomas-McDonald, Esq.
“When you run, your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic.” —Tim Noakes
Sometimes, lawyers can be somewhat clueless about what, in the long run, is best for our bodies. We may, for instance, resist sleep when our body signals that we need rest or skip exercising by convincing ourselves that we are too busy. Not surprisingly, sleep deprivation or enslaving ourselves to billable hours doesn’t usually produce positive results. Similarly, we can be tempted to spin a little cocoon around ourselves whenever we become stressed, anxious, or burned out from needy clients. Though it’s good to examine the issues that are troubling us, we can’t allow them to suck us into a spin cycle of self-concern.
That’s why I started running. It began as an escape from a world of arguments (otherwise known some days as the practice of law) in order to participate in a sport where my spirit could breathe. Initially, there was pain. So I looked at the sport like a tough case, and persisted. Over time, the pain eased. The more I ran, the more my body produced endorphins as it became accustomed to the exertion. At this time, I started to enjoy it, and I became a runner. Now, as a concession to the brevity of life, I run more for others than I do for myself.
As is the case with many “Type–A” personalities, what started as a “metime” release had, over the past decade, morphed into a goal-driven passion. Achievements such as faster times, longer races and qualifying for the Boston Marathon caused my zeal to overtake me.
Thankfully, many of my colleagues could relate. In the boutique firm where I’ve been privileged to practice for the past five years, there are seven attorneys, three of whom are runners. Well, unless you count our firm’s patriarch, Jay, who claims that he runs every morning — straight to the bathroom and straight back to bed. Not a bad track record for a man, who has been practicing law longer than I have been alive, and he’s still going strong in his fifth decade of practice. If we count him, (we) runners would have the majority in-house. Consider Jim: He just qualified for the 2018 Boston Marathon. Last year, he did his third or fourth Ironman Triathlon. I lost count. He’s a guy who arrives at 6:30am to start his workday and doesn’t stop until 10 hours later when he’s out the door to train. I often wonder if he has human DNA. Brittany, my comrade in arms, is another working mom who runs to stay sane. She’s been known to slip out and speed run on her lunch break to ensure she does her daily jog. How blessed am I to practice law with colleagues who similarly appreciate a work/life balance that often includes a healthy dose of running?
Last year, I had the good fortune of taking off work (with the proverbial blessing of my bosses) to run in the London Marathon. What was supposed to be a fun getaway and race to mark off my “to-do” list, turned out to be a game-changer. The race was held on April 23, 2016 (or, as they write in the Queen’s English, “23 April, 2016”). When I crossed the starting line, I looked around and saw the full streets of London cheering on some of my fellow 40,000 runners, and I was breathless. Not because I was fatigued, and certainly not at the sight of the outlandish costumes along the race (clowns, superheroes, cartoon characters, even a barefoot Jesus pulling a cross). Rather, I was overwhelmed by the number of participants who were wearing shirts to show their support for many worthwhile and unique causes. Groups were combating everything from dirty water to irritable bowels. Everywhere were shirts supporting some form of not-for-profit organizations. Swaths of cheerleaders were present, supporting their runners from the sidelines. The day of the London Marathon is said to be the single largest fundraising day in the world, and apparently, every year the exposure and the event grows larger. The momentum was palpable and excitement contagious. Even though I was a runner, I felt more like a spectator than a participant because I wasn’t championing a cause.
People were so happy to be moving — even those who were racing without legs. Motion was all around me. By sheer number, we were a force. A force for good: to ourselves, others, the earth, and animals. It made sense because we all need help, sometimes, in life. The same desire to help is what initially drew me (like many of us) to the legal profession. Who hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird and wanted to champion a case like Atticus Finch? Being a lawyer means being a part of something bigger than ourselves. It is something that is kinetic, constantly evolving, and something that we each help to shape. Somewhere along the way, however, the detritus of the profession can overtake the altruism. Between the recording of every billable minute of your workday, to all-nighters to finish a brief, to losing your first trial (that should have gone your way), it is easy to lose sight of what matters. I decided in the first mile that I wanted to come back again next year. I wanted to champion a cause.
Then, around mile 22, my legs gave out. I felt like I was dragging fifty pounds of lead. In my eight preceding marathons, this had never happened. I‘d heard the infamous stories of “hitting a wall” during a run. This, however, felt more like pulling chains. I was running, but pictures later showed it was more akin to a “vertical crawl.” How could I give up when runners on prosthesis legs beside me were pushing on? While we all experience pain, suffering is a choice in a first world country. When I shuffled over the finish line, I broke into a smile of pure relief. It was over. In that moment, I immediately knew the cause that I would champion next year, if I could muster up the strength to race again.
Smile Train is an international children’s charity that provides free surgery to the poorest of the poor children suffering from cleft lips and cleft palates in undeveloped countries. It is a unique medical organization insofar as it promotes a sustainable method. U.S. surgeons travel to teach local doctors how to perform the procedure. While many of the children born with a cleft cannot eat or speak properly, the affliction is extremely harsh on those in remote places as some areas prevent sufferers from attending school or holding a job. They face suffering in the form of extremely difficult lives full of shame and isolation. Often, the poverty in which they live forces their clefts to remain untreated, whereas, to those of us in the developed world, the solution is relatively inexpensive — the surgery is a simple operation that takes as little as 45 minutes and costs as little as $250.00. My husband has been a pediatric reconstructive surgeon for over 20 years. He has dedicated much of his professional time teaching others to do this surgery so that more children can smile. It sickens me to think of my smile while crossing the finish line when some children are abandoned or killed solely as a result of the way they look from a misshaped mouth. It made me think I could help, too, by raising money and awareness for this nonprofit in the 2017 London Marathon.
When I got back stateside, I went to see my orthopedist. An MRI was ordered for my knees. The results were not good. Acute arthritis riddled my knees. Bone on bone, no cartilage remained. I was told that my days of running were numbered. I was heartbroken as I had already committed to helping our next generation smile by pledging to raise $5000 for Smile Train and running the 2017 London Marathon.
His instructions were that if I wished to continue rigorous exercise but didn’t want my knees to be replaced before I reached 50 years old, I should take up swimming. “But, I just committed to run another marathon in a year-for a good cause,” I quipped. “How do I train for a marathon in the pool?” I asked him. “Run in the water,” he said. That is exactly what I did.
Determined to focus on this final goal, rather than wallow in the sorrow that I felt at giving up a sport I had come to love, I looked outward. I thought of all the people that I knew who had helped me get to where I was in my legal career. From Judge Maria Korvick, who swore me in and persuaded my young (and somewhat unruly) children to stand quietly beside me when I took my oath, to Tom Karr, who always answered my calls when I started practicing and was so unsure of my judgment. There is also Bruce Stone, who referred to me my first “originated” case, and I’ll never forget when my law professor, Eloise Rodriguez, served me “probate on a proverbial dish” at the conclusion of her Estate Planning course. I’d met her for coffee when she told me, “Think of probate as the asparagus of law: looks sort of strange – so it’s often overlooked, but it tastes good and you should try it.”
Those gestures of kindness and guidance helped shape me and now it was my turn, outside the courtroom, to help in a way that matters. I proudly finished the 2017 London Marathon in April. It was, in all likelihood, my last. The money raised from the effort will bring twenty kids a life-changing surgery. Something good happens when we are able to get our eyes off our own pain and reach out to other people who are hurting around us. It requires strength and grace. Doing so releases the power of help and healing, which is a power that can bring peace even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. It is as true in our personal lives as it is in our cases and with our clients.
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