Sustainability, Resilience, and Running Marathons

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February 22, 2024



By David Liberatore

Sustainability is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life.

Resilience is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to change or misfortune.

Marathon is a long-lasting or difficult task or operation of a specified kind — a test of endurance.

Having participated in athletics for most of my life, I had played many sports and run in various ways as part of my training.  After undergraduate college, I began running road races for fun and with some level of competitiveness.  However, each time I tried to up my mileage and train for a marathon, I would get hurt and give up on the training.  Clearly, distance running was not just a matter of strapping on my running shoes and heading for the streets.  Nor did living in Boston bring automatic success just because of the rich history of the Boston Marathon.

Some years later, in 2004, I made the good fortune of saying to a new acquaintance that “I had always wanted to run a marathon.” “Why don’t you join our running group?” he said. “We train together on Saturdays, and there are all levels of experience in the group.” With that interaction began six years of my life where I trained for and successfully ran multiple long-distance races and six marathons, including the 2005 Boston Marathon.

Running marathons taught me many things personally, but it also informed my ability to develop more sustainable, resilient learning facilities.  To run a marathon successfully, an individual must have developed a solid foundation of training.  The training must be thorough and consistent with the conditions of the target race.  Similarly, the truly sustainable building must consider the inherent features of the site where it will be located and designed according to basic principles that root the building in this site.  The structure must enhance its locale, not destroy it.  When designed and constructed in this foundational manner, the likelihood of the structure surviving the test of time is significantly increased, thereby making it a more sustainable, resilient facility.

Training for and running a marathon is also an act of vigilant maintenance.  What a runner eats in training, how much the runner sleeps, what the runner consumes during the race, and how the runner mentally prepares for the race all significantly affect the race day performance.  In the same way, the proper operation of building mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; the periodic inspection of roofing and external building skins; and the regular replacement of temporary building components result in a facility that functions with a high level of efficiency.  The more efficiently the facility is operated, the less degradation to the structure, making it a longer-lasting, more sustainable building.

A third lesson learned from logging thousands of strides on the marathon trail is that adjustment is the key to success.  Over the course of 26.2 miles, the body and mind are subject to a great deal of repetition, but just as important are the nuances that both need to respond to complete the race successfully.  There are temperature changes, changes in terrain, differences in the running surface, variations in spectator participation, different levels of wind, and many other changes in the environment surrounding the runner.  Despite each of these varying conditions, the runner must hold true to their basic form but make appropriate adaptations to optimize performance.

In a similar way, the resilient facility needs to have a basic form with a well-defined infrastructure system but the ability to be adapted over time.  Just as the marathon is a test of endurance, the life of the resilient building is measured by the facility’s ability to be adapted to changing needs over time.  At the University of Texas at Austin, a historic gymnasium recently withstood this test.  Originally designed and built as the Women’s Athletic Facility in 1930, the structure has recently been redesigned to house the Anna Hiss Robotics Institute.  Like the runner in a marathon, the building was able to adapt to changing needs to continue along a successful path.

If the marathon runner creates a strong training foundation, vigilantly maintains their regiment, and fosters adaptations to changing conditions, the likelihood of success on race day increases.  Similarly, developing a foundational design that enhances a facility’s site, vigilantly maintaining the building, and creating a structure that allows adaptation are keys to developing a sustainable and resilient facility.