In It For the Long Run

Erik McMillan’s Journey From the Air Force Academy to Northeastern

By Erik McMillan

When everyone goes to college for the first time, they have this vision in their head of how it’s going to be. Athletes envision the game winning shot; the perfect strikeout; or for us runners, breaking the tape first. But rarely does college line up to that vision, which I learned the hard way. I chose the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) over some big east and west coast schools after watching my parents serve for a combined 43+ years in the Air Force. Beyond the profound attraction to soaring among the clouds like my father, what drew me to serve was seeing how he led and inspired others, how those he served through command respected and followed him, and how the military gave my mom poise to act with confidence through even the toughest times – I wanted to achieve something like that, too. By the time I decided on USAFA, my sister had already been there for two years; whenever she came home, she seemed to have become even stronger and more respectable than before, which, considering who she inherently was, seemed impossible. The decision became simple.

But my first morning at the academy set a different tone for the rest of my freshman year – tumultuous, crazy, and a little depressing. I woke up to upperclassmen banging on the door, yelling to get dressed and fall out into the hallway. When we got out, we were told nothing we were doing was right, and everything we would do would be wrong; and so it went for six weeks of basic training, then nine months of the academic year. I felt stripped of my individuality, just another freshman with the same gold cap and green uniform. I wasn’t prepared to feel helpless, unable to prove to the upperclassmen that I wasn’t a slacker or a loser because everything I did said otherwise. But I always figured I would be able to escape it at track practice. I hadn’t been recruited, but I was still quite above average, so I thought I’d finagle my way onto the team by exaggerating my abilities – but that arrogance and pride made things worse.

With my tail between my legs after a dismal tryout, I joined USAFA’s marathon team, a group of some real genuine people. But even here I got my butt kicked and for nine more months, I ran poorly. My primary training partner, Mark, whom I tried to falsely convince myself I was “so much better than,” continuously outperformed me in every race.

Thus, until May of freshman year, I lived in this nightmarish reality where nothing went as I’d hoped. The classes were much harder than high school, people were constantly yelling at me to exceed militarily, and despite my best, most desperate efforts, I was running dreadfully. Additionally, I wasn’t able to see my sister often due to class distinction, and I felt my personal relationships slipping away from me. I missed my friends and felt like I had no one at the academy whom I could turn to. It seemed everything I’d sacrificed to go to such a prestigious institution had been for nothing. 

I keep a journal, and on April 12th of that year, I wrote this quote: 

“To remain indifferent to the challenges we face is indefensible. If the goal is noble, whether or not it is realized within our lifetime is largely irrelevant. What we must do, therefore, is to strive, persevere, and never give up.” – Dalai Lama, the 14th

Three weeks later I ran my first marathon and blew everyone’s expectations out of the water, including my own, by finishing first on the team. 

Running for me is about self-improvement – if I could show the world that someone who was as slow as me could improve, then I could improve in other aspects of life as well. When I hid behind that wall of depression and self-pity, I was making excuses and never changing anything, especially my outlook. Once I got over myself, everything else fell into place.

I ran the 2017 and 2018 Boston Marathons, and in 2018, even after coming back from a stress fracture, I placed 67th out of nearly 30,000. I was blessed to have a few teammates to train with, but many of my runs, workouts, and long sessions were solo. It was during solo training that I learned to fall in love with the sport all over again, dreaming about where it could take me if I invested myself wholeheartedly into it. 

Before senior year, I accompanied a family friend to track tryouts. I had no intention of trying to walk-on – I figured that ship had long since sailed – but that night, I received an email from the same coach who had rightfully rejected me before, inviting me to talk to him. The next day I was a D1 athlete. Despite my senior year at the academy having its own set of struggles, I finished it as a two-time varsity letter winning athlete on a national caliber running program.

The Air Force made graduate school my first assignment, and I quickly made up my mind. I received MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory Military Fellowship, but knew I wanted to continue to run, and after some research and talking with the coaching staff, I realized there was no better place to do so than Northeastern.

Finding motivation to run is effortless – I’m surrounded by good runners, so it naturally follows that I’m becoming one, too. Despite a disappointing cross country season with minor injuries, I bounced back during indoor, all thanks to my teammates’ love and support. The team’s culture is all about improving ourselves on and off the track; it’s helped me become a better runner and person. 

After I graduate, I will attend pilot training, in the hopes of realizing my dream of flying among the clouds – hopefully in something sharp and pointy (a fighter jet). But I’ve developed a second dream: to be the fastest runner I can be. My coach at the academy would say, “At the end of the day, it’s just running.” But once, a teammate finally responded, “You know, coach, I’ve got to believe that it’s so much more than just running. Why else would any of us have spent hours, years, doing all of this other stuff?” 

I think about that quote every day. Many people have asked me what my defining moment in running  was, and I couldn’t think of one, because there never was just one – it was every time I laced up my shoes and went for a run, reaffirming that I wanted to be better, that I was contributing to something bigger than myself… that what I was doing was more than just running.

Through all the hardships, I’m proud to say that not once did I give up on myself; I persevered, even when I didn’t want to, and that’s why I’m where I am today, and probably why I’ll be where I am tomorrow, too.