Making the unfathomable, fathomable: Harold Eyster's journey to athletic and academic achievement

For Harold Eyster, completing his PhD in resources, environment and sustainability at UBC wasn’t enough; he also ran every street in Vancouver during his studies.

For most UBC students, graduating with a doctoral degree is an incredible achievement in and of itself. But for Eyster, competing his PhD at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability in July 2021 was just the first of two major accomplishments.

Eyster’s hobby did not always involve such ambitious goals. Though he enjoyed running as a child, it was not until his undergraduate studies in Boston that he began running longer distances, exploring the city alongside running clubs.

Upon moving to Vancouver in 2016, Eyster grew bored of “running in squares or rectangles” on Vancouver’s predictable, grid-like streets. Inspired by one of his running club friends, Philip Kreycik, who ran every street in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, Eyster decided in the summer of 2019 to work towards running every street in Vancouver.

Map of Harold Eyster's run around Vancouver

Employing the spatial mapping skills he developed through his doctoral research, Eyster mapped Vancouver’s streets and city boundaries and began working towards his goal.

His spatial mapping skills weren’t the only overlap between Eyster’s PhD studies and his athletic pursuits. His PhD combined interdisciplinary methods to examine the relationship between people and nature and gain a better understanding of “how to create a sustainable world.”

Running the city’s streets and observing landscape diversity revealed the “ways in which people and nature ... interact within Vancouver.”

This also contributed to Eyster’s current postdoctoral research at the University of Vermont, which focuses on the location of birds in Vancouver and how these locations have changed over time. He also examines the types of trees and landscapes that support different bird species, to understand “what that means for microclimate, or heatwaves, for bird conservation and for people’s wellbeing within the city.”

In addition to shaping his hypotheses, running helped him maintain balance and mental focus during his doctoral studies.

First, running offered a much-needed break from his research, so he found different ways of approaching his work and to “come back with a fresh slate,” said Eyster. Running also contributed to Eyster’s self-efficacy, or his belief in his ability to “put in the work and to get an outcome that was satisfactory through that process.”

Finally, on top of boosting motivation, Eyster’s running odyssey gave him an intuitive understanding of the city and opened his eyes to places that he may not have explored otherwise, proving that “Vancouver is more than just the cherry trees.”

Eyster elaborated that “seeing things [he] didn’t even know existed was really wonderful and really rewarding.”

Though his original goal didn’t have a prescribed end date, achieving both goals gradually became more feasible. According to Eyster, it “seemed like it was a good combination, and a nice way of celebrating both.”

And so, mere hours after defending his dissertation, Eyster and his roommate Krishanu Sankar set out to run Minto Crescent, completing Eyster’s tandem goals.

“It really elevated their importance to me and made me feel like I had done something more holistic than just an academic exercise or a recreation activity,” said Eyster as he finished both accomplishments at once.

Unexpected tragedy struck toward the end of Eyster’s running mission, however. Shortly before Eyster finished his journey, Kreycik passed away while on a run during the summer heatwave. Sadly, due to Kreycik’s passing, Eyster “wasn’t able to tell him how inspiring he was,” particularly given that Eyster wouldn’t “have had the idea of doing it and had all the motivation if [Eyster] hadn’t seen [Kreycik’s] example.”

Accomplishments like Eyster’s may seem daunting, even impossible, and Eyster agrees, admitting that his goal “was unfathomable to me as well, and it still is a bit.”

Eyster’s advice for students working towards their own goals? Telling others about your goals and “bringing other people along with you” can help you create a community and motivate you to continue working towards your dreams.

If you have a goal in mind, no matter how out of reach it may seem, go for it — as Eyster said, "what seems unfathomable might actually be fathomable if you try it."