The Sanity of the Long-Distance Runner

Faculty member Polina Anikeeva prepares for her third Boston Marathon.

By Meg Murphy

Polina Anikeeva is ready for Patriots Day. Like the thousands of other runners who make their way from Hopkington, Massachusetts, all the way to that last turn onto Boylston Street in the heart of Beantown, she has her own reasons for running the Boston Marathon; among them: the desire for a balanced life within academe.

“Running keeps you sane,” says Anikeeva, an associate professor in materials science and engineering at MIT. She thrives on the solitude of a long run and uses the meditative time to declutter her brain. “There are no interruptions or strings of emails or deadlines,” she says. “If you have signed up for a marathon, you have to run a certain number of miles in a week,” she adds. “It forces you out of your office no matter what the weather. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re too busy.”

Anikeeva is unwavering. Even with a looming deadline, she’ll tell students: “I’m going to stop right now and run 12 miles.” Her commitment leaves an impression, and has inspired students who want, like Anikeeva, to mentally reset from frantic to focused. As one of her current students says, Anikeeva demonstrates that running can be “the secret to making life more fruitful.”

In her academic life, Anikeeva’s research lies within the field of bioelectronics, specifically the development of materials and devices that enable recording and manipulation of signaling processes within the nervous system. An associate director in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, she uses organic and nanostructured materials to develop devices for minimally invasive treatments for neurological and neuromuscular disorders.

All that running, she notes, may actually have some direct bearing on her research. During a run, Anikeeva says, “I organize my thoughts. I flesh out concepts that are half-baked. I think about how the idea would really come together. I can’t say that every single run I come up with a good idea,” she adds, “but sometimes I do!”

Anikeeva’s love of running traces back a decade. When she was a graduate student in the Laboratory of Organic Optics and Electronics at MIT, a classmate, seeking a running partner, took to showing up at the lab carrying running shoes. Anikeeva accepted the challenge. By the end of her PhD, she was running 25 to 30 miles a week.

In 2009, Anikeeva ran the Boston Marathon for the first time, and then she ran it again in 2014 — a year after the bombings. (“I have never before seen the amount of support and love that was poured onto every runner in that marathon,” she says.) Between those races, she also returned to her first love, rock climbing, which she says offers its own inner rewards. Climbing requires careful attention to the task at hand and a fluidity of movement on the wall. After a climb, she says, “your mind is cleared.”

That Anikeeva prioritizes time for exercise initially surprised graduate student Seongjun Park, a member of the Bioelectronics Group. Park admits that until she met Anikeeva, she had assumed “professors spend all their time to working, studying, and in meetings.” But then he noticed that after she finished her long runs, Anikeeva looked happy and refreshed. “Running makes Polina more enthusiastic about everything,” says Park, who notes there may be a connection between marathon training and scholarly pursuits: “Surviving in academia seems very similar to running a full marathon,” he says.

Former undergraduate student Colleen Loynachan, currently a Marshall Scholar at Imperial College London, credits Anikeeva with bringing running — and its rewards — into her life. At MIT, Loynachan started taking breaks from the lab to run along the Charles River. “I started generating innovative solutions to problems both in and out of the lab,” she recalls. “Today I continue to find waterside paths to run and think along wherever I go.” Running is “the perfect time to sort out ideas in my head and come up with new ones.”



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