2007: Senior oration: Sikes

Enjoying the Process

By Michelle Sikes (’07), Lakewood, Ohio
2007 Rhodes Scholar
Major: Mathematical business

Michelle SikesI tense my right leg as I lean over it, carefully inspecting the centimeters of track that protect my toes from advancing over the starting line too early. Glancing at the official Starter, at the gun — now suspended above his head — which will signal the start of the race, I inhale deeply one last time and search for calmness. I hear the familiar “On your mark” and fight a flood of adrenaline-powered, half-formed thoughts … the excitement of racing in the ACC Track and Field Championships, the champion from last year standing just to the right, the prospect of launching a sequence of five-minute miles, the obligation to get out, tuck in, take the lead, follow … Two words slice through this mental noise. “Get set.” I crouch down further and then remain absolutely still. BAM. Gun off, the line surges forward, I’m running.

This sequence of events is repeated every weekend in track stadiums around the country. However, as any scientist knows, it is not enough to merely recognize the existence of a pattern. Knowledge can only be gained through questioning it. Why are college athletics, and track in particular, relevant? The world has a litany of pressing concerns — global warming threatens, an epidemic of AIDS roars through Africa, turmoil spirals through the ranks of the Bush Administration … with these sorts of issues saturating the news, how insignificant must the accomplishment of a well-thrown shot put seem? Furthermore, how could the completion of a continuous sequence of left turns around the oval of a track consistently rank above even everyday affairs? Surely the importance of studying for the MCATs or of opting to allow a fun Saturday night to linger into the early hours of Sunday morning must take precedence over the demands of practice and sleep. For God’s sake, why running? It necessarily requires a surrender of all other activities in favor of repeating the same motion, sunny day after rainy afternoon after frigid morning.

When I first came to Wake Forest, with four years of high school running experience, I truly had no better insight into the answer to these questions than any other member of this class of 2007. Now as a senior, I can stand here, in front of you all, and explain my answer. I run because I enjoy the process. Three words, which when strung together sound so simple, also represent a singularly complex achievement when considered with respect to running, to college and to life.

In terms of running, every step I take in training I regard as its own small victory. It is a step that serves to propel me inches closer to that next race, which is linked to a future next race, which has preceded a past race; all connected together in a limitless series. It is easy to become entwined in the need to cover the same, set distance in an ever-decreasing amount of time. The lure of running solely for this achievement is insidiously strong, found in competitors of races ranging from the local Turkey Trot 5K to the Olympic Trials. However, as soon as one level is attained, there is always another, greater challenge to attempt. Similarly, each rung in the ladder of success in our lives can present a comparable allure. From rigorous prep school to Wake Forest to a competitive firm to a prestigious business school to that managerial position, there is always another milestone to achieve.

However, this neat sequence completely misses the heart of the effort. The race is merely a small piece of a much greater whole. While it is an important focal point, it can only arrive as the culmination of a process involving a thousand tiny choices. Analogously, admittance into that top business school is a special moment in a series of individual actions. Above all, in both cases, it is the distinct, daily choices which must be cherished for the accomplishment to have true meaning.

I enjoy running because it is the best way I have found to express what is inside of me. Some can create beautiful pieces of art; others can transform the black and white scribbles of musical notes into heart-wrenching songs; still others can penetrate the labyrinth of a math textbook and unerringly guide friends around treacherous pitfalls and the potential confusions that lie therein. I can run. But most importantly, I enjoy the process of doing so. I hope, as we all venture into the wider world — beyond the Mag Quad and the gates of Wake Forest — that no matter the particular form of the endeavor, whether it be pursuing that medical degree, building churches in Africa, or racing around a 400m oval, that each of us will remember to enjoy the process.