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Dr. J. on Running

Rhodes Scholars

Aerobic Prowess Equals Success

Published August 14, 2000 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

The Dean motioned me into his office and proceeded to sift through his paper-recycling bin. He pulled a thick booklet and handed it over to me commenting that the majority were runners.

The 40-page booklet was the sixth annual issue of The American Rhodes Scholar, introducing the 32 scholars of the class of 2000. Established in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Scholarships aim to improve "the lot of mankind through the diffusion of leaders motivated to serve their contemporaries, trained in the contemplative life of the mind."

Rhodes intended that his plan to bring students from throughout the English-speaking world to study at Oxford University would promote international understanding and peace. The students should esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim.

As I flipped through the publication, the oxymoron "enjoys running" appeared page after page. Some even went further in describing our mutual interest. Kristin Jarvas, a Harvard statistician, looked forward to "carrying on her love of running" while at Oxford. Ilyana Kuziemko, a Harvard economist, enjoys long-distance running and has completed two marathons. Benjamin Cannon, a Washington University historian, enjoys specifically wilderness backpacking and road running.

Paul Larsen, a physicist from William and Mary, is nationally ranked in the triathlon. Craig Mullaney, a historian from the United States Military Academy, has "recently developed a passion for marathons." Robert Yablon, a political scientist from Wisconsin, described himself as an avid runner.

Julian Harris, a Duke University graduate in medical ethics, prided himself on running a 15-kilometer race in Tanzania and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Elisha Peterson, a mathematician from Harvey Mudd College, competed in both cross country and track. He was named twice cross country first team All-Conference, and helped his team to four consecutive conference championships each in track and in cross country.

Proud of the positive correlation between running and intellect, I pondered the obvious question. Is it a coincidental correlation, or can I find an underlying causality? The corollary question asks if running enhances academic performance, or whether smart people dissipate their nervous energy by running? Or could it be the same genetic structure controlling discipline that affects endurance sports and advanced education?

Studies on children and on mice suggest that regular aerobic activity nourishes the cells in the brain, expanding its analytical and artistic abilities. In large and small schools alike, running and swimming are linked directly to academic success, as more runners and swimmers achieve all-state academic teams than non-aerobic sports. At the college level, aerobic athletes achieve a higher grade point average than their ball-kicking peers.

Laboratory research showed that mice that ran three times a week on a rodent treadmill were twice as likely to find their way out of a maze than their sedentary cohorts. On a quantitative scale, the running mice were found to have larger brains than the sedentary mice.

Without belaboring the point or forcing a causality where there is none, it suffices to recognize the impact of fitness on self-esteem, and the consequent social success. We run because we enjoy running. We run because we feel good about ourselves. We run to unwind and dissipate stress. We run to think and meditate.

I turned to the back page of the American Rhodes Scholar, and read the four criteria for selection: 1) literary and scholastic attainments; 2) fondness for and success in sports; 3) truth, courage, devotion to duty, and fellowship; and 4) moral force of character and instincts to lead. Evidently, a century ago, Cecil Rhodes recognized athletic prowess as a predictor of political leadership.

As I wish our ambassadors to Oxford Godspeed, I cherish the thought of a dozen Yankees running in the early morning mist on the Iffley Road track, the home of Sir Roger Bannister's first sub-four minute mile. Meanwhile, at home, two distance runners battle for the highest public office in the land, adding one more statistic to the correlation between running and leadership.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created TrackMeets.com, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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