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Monday, February 06, 2023

How to sprint through a marathon

Lessons from laps around The Alligator track

When you’re crouched at the starting line and the signal to run sounds off, I imagine you only have two options — freeze or fly.

I’ve never run in a competitive race, but I worked at The Alligator. That’s close enough.

Life’s starting lines are more than white tape on a track. I’ve stood at enough of them to know the feeling. Every single one asks the same thing: Do you really want to do this?

My answer on an October 2020 Zoom call was an absolute, ecstatic yes. An open spot at the Avenue desk halfway through my sophomore Fall meant a second chance after initial rejection. I didn’t have much time to think before I found myself nodding along with all the expectations, incoming paperwork and, of course, a story to be turned in sooner rather than later.

Information exchanged and deadline set, I logged off the call and started to sprint.  

A year writing arts and culture stories at the Avenue — my forever home — evolved into a desk editor stint, and after a quick semester reprieve, I flung myself into the managing editor seat for one terrifying, perfect summer. The return of the legendary enterprise desk and a last-minute application led me to elections reporting, where I could finally put my political science degree to good use and go out with a bang.

And the whole time, for six incredible semesters, I ran.

Literally, I ran. I booked it to my car to beat traffic ahead of scheduled interviews and events, jogged down the stairs to make it to staff meetings on time, even chased after exiting sources to grab them for a few questions. My first assignment this semester saw me run (yes, run) to a gubernatorial candidate’s bus tour, and I’ve been sprinting after politicians to keep up with their unpredictable schedules and catch them for a quick comment for the better part of 16 weeks.

That’s the name of the game here. We’re all racing against the news — an opponent that never stops — and to sprint is to survive.

The news is cyclical. It’s a four-time New York City Marathon winner that takes 20 miles a day like a champ. It runs round and round the track, and it’s always ahead of you. The best bet is to lace your Nikes and try to keep up.  

The Alligator is cyclical, too. Staff switches out every semester, and the revolving door of reporters and editors never stops spinning. The Alligator is a mechanism that moves on its own, and you have to move with it to stay on your feet.

That means you operate on Alligator time, where there’s rarely an idle moment to revel or reminisce before the next breaking story is already passing you by. When you run on Alligator time, you learn not to sweat the small stuff (or even the big stuff).

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Beloved headlines and ledes get cut. Sources ghost. Editors grovel. Friends become footnotes. The people you looked up to in your first days fade into a collection of bylines in the archives, just like you will. But you have to let all of that go. You’re on Alligator time, and you’ve got to motor.

Alligator time is tricky. The sands of it slip by the grain until suddenly it’s water, rushing out to run the tap dry. The clock moves too slowly on a print night until it doesn’t. Deadline is days away until it isn’t. The weeks bleed together endlessly until they don’t, and the champagne and the speeches and the pictures mean it’s the end of yet another semester. It’s time to apply again, and again, and again until your time is up.

That’s the blessing and the curse of this paper. It lets you in on its little secrets, shows you all the possibilities that journalism offers in a town like Gainesville, introduces you to some of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet. It gives you something special, then takes it all away. And it doesn’t let you stay angry about that — not when you’re running too fast to hold onto any grudges.

Of all the invaluable lessons I learned at The Alligator, that might be the most important one: When you’re full speed ahead, there’s not much time to mourn what you left behind.

I’ve got a cap to toss, a job to land, another race to run. The Alligator cycle will churn on without me as a new crop of reporters makes its mark, and I’ll be nothing more than a name in stories of past semesters. But as The Alligator moves, I’ll move with it. We chase the elusive news together, and I know that never far behind me is the staff that inspired me every day and the musty old basement that taught me to sprint. 

At The Alligator, I ran for my life. Now, it’s time to run toward the rest of it.

Heather Bushman was the Fall 2022 enterprise elections reporter at The Independent Florida Alligator.

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Heather Bushman

Heather Bushman is a fourth-year journalism and political science student and the enterprise elections reporter. She previously wrote and edited for the Avenue desk and reported for WUFT News. You can usually find her writing, listening to music or writing about listening to music. Ask her about synesthesia or her album tier list sometime.


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