Ellen Kuhl, chair of mechanical engineering, finds balance in long-distance sports

Come Oct. 12, when ELLEN KUHL, professor and chair of mechanical engineering, is doing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile marathon, she may wonder whatever possessed her to join the roughly 2,400 contestants at the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii.

Ellen Kuhl, who has been invited to compete in the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii, says disengaging from research through exercise often helps her solve problems. (Image credit: Justin Luau)

Fortunately, the answer is simple.

“For me, long-distance sports are a lot like science,” says Kuhl, who has spent years developing computational models of the mechanics behind the human heart and brain. “Success is not a short shot. It takes endurance and perseverance.”

But Kuhl says not everyone needs to train for a physical marathon. As a teacher and mentor, she’s seen graduate students find other ways to accomplish what exercise does for her – allow her mind to relax.

“The secret is to find a hobby orthogonal to your research that also requires some persistence and discipline,” Kuhl said, citing one PhD student who decided mid-dissertation to begin learning Mandarin and another who joined the Stanford Orchestra.

Similar examples abound on campus. Stanford Provost PERSIS DRELL, a physicist by training, talked about her cello hobby during her tenure as dean of engineering, when she spoke about the music scholarship program started by one of her predecessors, dean emeritus and former jazz musician JIM GIBBONS.

“There’s a peace of mind that comes from bringing another perspective to bear on what you’re trying to achieve,” said Kuhl, who insists she wasn’t an athlete before coming to Stanford 14 years ago and falling in with a fast crowd that included avid bicyclists JOHN MITCHELL, chair of computer science, and bioengineer RUSS ALTMAN, co-founding chair of that department. As she settled into the rhythm of long rides and submerged herself in the moment, she found that it was easy to come up with ideas for lectures, work through problems that had stymied her or compose scientific abstracts that she could later write down more or less intact.

It was Altman who urged her to do her first triathlon, which is a much shorter version of the grueling ordeal ahead of her in Hawaii. As Kuhl participated in these abbreviated competitions, she found that she liked the varied tempo of the event: the brisk swim, the distance-devouring ride and the pounding discipline of the run. Over time, as she adapted to these shorter triathlons, she took it in her mind to push herself a bit, and over the last year she worked up toward doing the full Ironman distance demanded of contestants in Hawaii. In June, she entered her first full-distance Ironman, the IRONMAN Asia-Pacific Championship in Cairns, a seaside resort near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

“The joke among triathletes is that you sign up for competitions somewhere beautiful so that if you don’t finish, at least you’re in a nice place,” Kuhl said.

But finish she did, completing all three events in a little under 11½ hours, a performance that qualified her for an invitation to the world championship at Kailua-Kona on Oct. 12.

Kuhl said many contestants get personal trainers and set strict practice regimes. But aside from swimming and running a bit more than is usual – and taking a few long bike rides – she hasn’t altered her routine very much.

“Just being invited to compete is an honor, and finishing would be a great success,” Kuhl said, adding after a moment’s thought, “It’s all about finding balance.”