Stanford Health Policy marathoners practice what they preach by living healthy lifestyles


Stanford Health Policy faculty member Kate Bundorf, runs at the dish.
Photo credit: 
Kris Newby

It’s a clear day, the early morning fog shrinking away from the starting line. The sun just touches a deep blue ocean. Hundreds of runners stretch, jog in place or stand in hushed, huddled groups chatting. 

The excitement is almost tangible. It’s time to start. The gun goes off and 20,000 feet pound the pavement on the California coastal highway. They’re off, jogging in unison with a clear view of the Pacific Ocean.

This image inspired Kim Singer Babiarz, research associate at the Center for Health Policy/Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR), to run her first marathon. When a friend showed her the stretch of the CA-1 where the Big Sur International Marathon takes place, she was transfixed.

“This beautiful place, this amazing road, and there’s one time of the year when there’s no cars, it’s just runners out there,” she said to herself. “I’m going to do that someday.”

And she did.

Many people imagine marathons as 26.2 miles of pain and drudgery, but for some faculty and staff at Stanford Health Policy, running is a fun and rewarding way to de-stress, get some exercise and consort with peers.

“It’s a break from work, and you get to go do something outside,” said Laurence Baker, chair of Health Research and Policy (HRP). “The commitment helps my day have different activities and makes sure I don’t sit at the desk the whole day.”

These health researchers don’t just study how to improve health policy and live a healthy lifestyle. They practice what they preach by engaging in healthy activities every day.

At CHP/PCOR, balancing work with an active lifestyle started with the centers’ founding director, Alan Garber.

“I remember one of my first days here at PCOR,’ said Babiarz. “Somebody was telling me that they had a meeting — and this was probably with Alan — a meeting while running, and I was just like ‘What?! That’s amazing!’”

The large number of runners at Stanford Health Policy, several of whom run marathons, helps create “a culture of balanced life” according to Babiarz.

CHP/PCOR faculty and staff encourage each other to keep up their running regimens. Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, a CHP/PCOR core faculty member, associate professor of medicine and decision-science expert, began running marathons while counting on support from his colleagues: “Once I decided that I was going to do the thing, announcing it and then reporting on progress to a group of friends and peers was a very useful way to keep myself on track.”

For Eran Bendavid, also a core faculty member at CHP/PCOR and assistant professor of medicine who focuses on global health, “running is a social activity.” Running with friends and colleagues helps keep him motivated.

Listen to Eran Bendavid's morning run


Baker started running in seventh grade because it seemed “cool.” When he realized how much he enjoyed it, he kept going and hasn’t stopped, even when conferences and research upset his routine.

“I run whenever I travel, so I’ve run all over the world. I see different cities and see them in different ways.” He recommended the bay trail in Sydney that curves around the Opera House.

The benefits of running are innumerable and have significantly enhanced their daily lives. Stanford studies have shown that running regularly can slow the effects of aging and perhaps decrease the likelihood of physical disability, but our runners found that training for a marathon can have other positive effects on health.

“The running required a change in my diet that has been very good for me,” said Babiarz.  When training for a marathon, “you really cannot neglect your nutrition, so one of the side effects has been a much more focused approach to my food and nutrition outside of running.”

Bendavid agreed but took a more scrumptious approach: “Running allows me to eat the chocolate that I crave.”

For Goldhaber-Fiebert, running is about feeling his best: “My body feels better, and I feel more energetic.”

Not all benefits are physical. Baker mentioned Stanford studies that suggest that “the best way to stay mentally sharp is through aerobic exercise.” Said Baker, “I’m all for that."

Kim Babiarz crosses the finish line at the Big Sur International Marathon.

Stress reduction is another major benefit for runners. When Babiarz’s son started having health problems, “We were just so stressed out, and running was a wonderful way to not think about anything for a little bit, just to focus on my breathing, almost like meditation.”

Like any sport, running is not without its drawbacks.

“The hardest part was the logistics of it because running that distance requires you to run eight to 10 miles in the middle of the week, and when you have a job, children and a family, finding time to run 10 miles on a Wednesday is a challenge,” said Babiarz.

Yet even the impact on their families was not all negative. Said Goldhaber-Fiebert, “I like the way it makes my kids think about exercise.” Children who see their parents engaging in active lifestyles may be more likely to follow.

Babiarz was excited to realize that even after age 30, she had new frontiers of self-discovery to explore: “I had never run a mile in my life before 2011. It was captivating for me to learn that that was something I could do.”

Though marathoners experience the joy and benefits of running on a daily basis, it all comes down to the race. When the big day finally arrives, they are energized and ready to feel the results of months of training.

“I think the real sense of accomplishment for me is actually at the starting line,” said Bendavid. “I’ve worked so hard, and I managed to get here.”

Crowds cheering from the sidelines keep the endorphins pumping. Said Bendavid, “I’ve never had so many people telling me I look so great!”

For Babiarz, the marathon itself is about personal accomplishment.

“Crossing the finish line at half-marathons, I just felt jubilant like the strongest person on Earth. But crossing the marathon finish line was much more emotional —the feeling at the end when you just surprise yourself with how strong you can be is intoxicating.”