The Metaphor of the Marathon


‘For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.’
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The metaphor of the marathon provides a useful diagnostic framework through which to better understand and generate strategies suited to science research careers (Lackoff & Johnson, 2003). Like science research the marathon is an uncommon experience (Murakami). Science research is the domain of a privileged, well educated and, in relative terms, small but growing population. Census data indicates that the population of people with postgraduate qualifications in either biology or chemistry in Australia is growing significantly and is predominantly qualified at the doctoral level. In 2011 this postgraduate population was 22,315 compared to 17,599 people in 2006 – an increase of 27 per cent. 48 per cent of this postgraduate population (or 10,622 people) were female. 67 per cent (or 14,987 people) held a PhD qualification (compared to only 19% in the general population of postgraduates). Of this sub-group of those qualified at the doctoral level women comprised 43 per cent, compared to 37 per cent in 2006. The high proportion of doctoral graduates as compared to masters graduates sets the chemistry and biology population apart from graduates in other fields and undoubtedly impacts upon patterns of employment.

There are also many other aspects of the marathon [see Marathon graphics] that are useful to draw on: it is critical to understand the course/context; setting expectations and pacemaking is a key to success; most marathon runners are seeking to achieve their personal best, or simply finish the course; only the ‘elite’ are competing against others; no matter how well prepared ‘hitting the wall’ is likely; confidence is critical, as is ‘managing the pain part’ to realise goals. Like science the marathon and training for a marathon, can also be a creative experience – a zone of intense concentration.

Women in the Science Research Workforce: Identifying and Sustaining the Diversity Advantage, was funded as an ARC Linkage project 2011-2014 (LP110200480).
Project Cis were Professor Sharon Bell and Professor Lyn Yates. The project was hosted by the University of Melbourne.