Friday, September 25, 2015

The Day the Pope Came to School: The Papal Visit of Francis at The Catholic University of America

          When I decided to go to The Catholic University of America in 2008 to begin my master’s degree in medieval history, I had selected the university for its sterling reputation as a center for those interested in the Middle Ages, rife with eminent professors who wanted to cultivate students’ interest in a historical period full of conflict, faith, invention, imagination, and change. As a cradle Catholic myself who flourished in a Jesuit undergraduate school (The College of the Holy Cross), it was icing on the cake to study at the university founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See. But as I finished my master’s, and then elected to stay at CUA for my doctorate, the fact that my graduate education was housed at THE Catholic University of America became increasingly important.
            I was on campus the day Pope Francis was elected and watched him emerge to the throngs at St. Peter’s Square.
March 13, 2013 - Jorge Mario Bergoglio's first moments as Pope Francis
As the golden banners came down around campus as we celebrated our new Holy Father, it was clear from the earliest moments of his papacy that he would enliven the church and the world. It was impossible to ignore his beautiful words, his pleas for social justice, and exhortations to love all people, creatures, and our beautiful planet.
            It was thrilling when it was announced that as part of his visit to Washington D.C., he would give Mass on the lawn of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is adjacent to our campus at CUA. I’ve spent so many Sundays at the shrine, attending Mass, but also quiet moments during the week, between classes, praying at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This was my church, my school, and our pope, the people’s pope, would be there.
            I spent this summer on campus writing my dissertation. My doctoral dissertation is called “The Voice of Mary: Later Medieval Representations of Marian Communication.” So for the past few years, I’ve been writing in the shadow of the basilica, thinking about the words of the Virgin Mary and her extensive power in medieval devotion. People actively sought to communicate with her and they viewed her as an effective intercessor. As I got deeper into the writing, it was easy to envision the parallels. Mary, who demonstrated quiet obedience when accepting the angel Gabriel’s message at the Annunciation, also spoke to people in the Middle Ages and stirred powerful outpourings of religious piety. Pope Francis, humble while functioning as the most powerful Catholic in the world, electrified the world and challenged an increasingly narcissistic society to change.
            In the quiet moments of the summer, amidst editing footnotes and constructing an effective argument, I would occasionally watch the Basilica, and in the dead of summer, the campus was quiet. How would 25,000 people fit here, and what would it look like? I tried to imagine this church, majestic and awe-inspiring place, one of the largest Catholic Churches, full to brimming with eager pilgrims, priests, students, families, all clamoring for a glimpse at il Papa. In the days leading up to His Holiness’s arrival, the excitement built on campus as pope fever swept through Brookland, DC’s “Little Italy.”
            I signed up to volunteer at the Mass, checking tickets for those who were seated on the lawn. I arrived at campus as the sun was coming up, excitement spread over the 1,000 volunteers who were eager to play a small role in this historic day.
In front of the Basilica, excited to volunteer for Mass
The sun’s golden rays framed the basilica, like a halo over this exalted shrine. After moving through security and making our way to the Basilica Lawn, a clear blue sky enveloped the campus, the light blues mixing beautifully with the blues and gold of the National Basilica. An artistic mosaic was met with the rich mosaic of people who were streaming across the lawn. I greeted families who flew in from California, nuns who bussed in from New York, even friends of mine from college – a Catholic reunion. As the hours passed, the lawn teemed with joy – everyone was brimming with excitement over meeting the Holy Father. Alongside me were metropolitan police and secret service. Snipers lined the buildings of our campus, protecting the Holy Father, the dignitaries, and the 25,000 others who just wanted to spend a few hours in communion with the pope.
            As word got out that the pope was to arrive soon, the barricades were closed, and security tightened up, preparing the route for the Popemobile. The gorgeous music accompanied the beautiful weather and landscape; God was the painter, conductor, of this day. The cheers grew louder and louder, crescendoing as he arrived on campus. Our campus, where students just the day before rushed to classes, rushed to the front of the barricades to greet the pope. I was at the corner, and I saw the secret service car preceding the Popemobile, as the cheers grew louder, as the white Jeep appeared before me.
I was this close to Pope Francis

            He was greeted like a rock star (this video by CUA shows the live version. The parade downtown wasn’t for a sports team, or a throng of millennials screaming for the latest boy band, but for a pious man who preached about caring for the poor, loving all without judgment, and doing unto others. And this humble man, dressed in white, waved and blessed the crowds, smiling modestly. Pope Francis’s presence was invigorating. I waved and waved as he rode by, grinning and a bit teary-eyed. Joy radiated throughout the campus. And then he did a victory lap, coming back our way and the palpable joy and wonder spread. I waved feverishly, so moved by the presence of this man, so filled with joy and hope, as faith welled up within me. Calling it magical sounds trite and understated. It was phenomenal. I was fifteen feet away with the Vicar of Christ, the heir to the keys of St. Peter’s. But those terms, majestic and accurate, would not be Pope Francis’s first choice of titles. He has carried himself with humility, embracing the role of servus servorum dei (Servant of the Servants of God), the people’s pope.
After the Popemobile tour, Francis entered the Basilica to process down the aisle. I had seen so many priests walk down that aisle, and it was remarkable to know that he was doing the same. And as he came out behind the red velvet cloth, it was reminiscent of when he first stepped onto St. Peter’s, overlooking the flock of excited Catholics. We witnessed the canonization of St. Junipero Serra, an eighteenth-century Spanish Franciscan missionary. It was a historic moment as it was the first canonization to ever take place in the United States. As a medieval religious historian, I had long studied the history of canonization procedures and the impact of saints in medieval society and I was able to witness was a twenty-first century edition of a medieval practice.
Pope Francis swinging the incense (Courtesy of
Mass in progress (Courtesy of
The canonization transitioned into the Mass, which mirrored Pope Francis’s message of welcoming and loving all. Different parts of the mass were read in different languages, a variety of genres of music sung by the angelic choir: a colorful tapestry of all of the different kinds of people who professed the faith. I was thrilled beyond words that I was able to receive communion, as they provided gluten-free communion for those of us who could not consume the wheat due to Celiac Disease. To fully partake in this most special mass and receive the Holy Eucharist was just one of many blessings of the day. There was time to pause and pray silently, and I offered up prayers for my family and friends, loved ones who had passed on, and for the world in crisis, that such crises and expressions of hate would be challenged through the love and strength of those who saw the good in people. In the concluding remarks, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of the Diocese of Washington, thanked and welcomed the pope on behalf of the diocese, country, and The Catholic University of America. We CUA students clapped and cheered, and the welcoming words brought the entire crowd to its feet again. It was our city, our campus, our church, our pope, and we could not be more thrilled to have him in our backyard.
I was up past these trees, but this gives some semblance of the crowds

As the pope went into the basilica one more time, and people started to go, the music continued to play, fading more into the background. The sun set, drenching the religious landscape with new hues, closing out on a magnificent day. We began to pack up, and bid farewell to old friends and new ones, wishing everyone the best as we went our separate ways. Some were complete strangers, but we were united in this shared experience.
"Love is Our Mission: Welcome Pope Francis" (Banner on the Basilica) (Courtesy of
The closing moments of Mass
As I made my way home, I reflected on the day with my husband, parents, and grandparents, all who watched it online but wanted to hear my version. Beyond my wedding day and a select few memories, this day was like no other. I walked home with a feeling of hope, a sense of renewed faith – that if one man could rally a crowd like this, could we take that feeling and bring positive change to our nation’s capital. In discussing this palpable energy on campus with Msgr. Paul McPartlan, professor of theology here at CUA, he beautifully articulated that we need to remember that while Pope Francis provided palpable energy and inspiration, we need to remember that it is the Holy Spirit that is within us, always, and gives us the power and strength to effect positive change and make a dedicated effort to improve conditions, in the wake of His Holiness’s visit. Just because Pope Francis has departed our nation’s capital, does not mean that his message should fade into the background.
Because of an efficient and dedicated staff, the campus will go back to normal quickly, and in a few days, there will be little physical evidence that he was here. But I am hoping that the Holy Spirit will continue to flow through the city and make us think less of selfies, and strive to be selfless. I’m less than a year away from finishing my dissertation on the voice of Mary, and its resonance at the end of the Middle Ages. I’ve been making progress, but the days of writing and editing are not always glamorous and rewarding. But after a day like that, when the Spirit is alive and ever-present, it is a reminder to be proud to be studying at The Catholic University of America, writing about the Virgin Mary.

The pope came to my school, and it is my hope for all who witnessed his presence, whether in person or through the media coverage, we heed his lessons and live his mission to the fullest.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bastille Day 4 Miler - Back in the Racing Saddle!

It's been a while since I've blogged - it's been even longer since I've raced. The last race I did was a 10k in October and that was relatively subpar. My pursuit for PRs and podium finishes was put on hold for an uptick in writing. And that was the right decision: I need to be focused on the task at hand (the Ph.D.) and just use running to maintain sanity.
And the running kept happening, with some semblance of a regular routine. The length and frequency was somewhat consistent, but not bound to a particular schedule. And that was helping - I submitted my first dissertation chapter in June and received positive and helpful feedback from my advisor. Happy with the success and momentum of the first, I am well in the middle of my second chapter - something I'm hoping to finish sometime in August.
But, racing is one of my favorite things to do. I find it to be so exhilarating, and also so fun. But, I've become competitive I don't like the idea of showing up not fully prepared. With that in mind, I avoided races. I still had the DC race calendar in my head, knowing full well which events passed me by. I remember in April thinking to myself, "I haven't done a race I've been proud of in a year." And that was hard to swallow, and I went back to my writing.
But I still was checking the race calendar - maybe I could find something low-key to test the wheels.
And then: ta-da!
Bastille Day 4 Miler
Cost: $5
I'm in! There wasn't much to lose - it was a short race on a Tuesday night along the C&O Trail at Fletcher's Cove. I didn't do any speed training to prepare, I just figured I'd hop in and see how things turned out. I hadn't been timing any of my runs, and I figured anything under 8:00 pace (maybe even 7:30 pace) would be a good benchmark.
It wasn't a sunny day, but at 7PM, it was still pretty hot (high 80s). I ran there from home (about 3.7 miles) and was drenched by the time I got there. But talk about a view!
Fletcher's Cove - just a few miles from downtown DC
Between the 8 and 8.5 mark on the Capital Crescent Trail

For DC, it was a pretty low-key, small (160 people) race, and it was just fun milling around chatting with people before the start. Originally, I thought we would be on the paved Capital Crescent Trail, but we were on the gravel Chesapeake and Ohio Trail. Stay tuned for why that matters.
I was a little nervous at the start - this wasn't sandbagging - I had no idea how it would go. How much speed was left in the legs? Sure, I could run a steady 10 mile run at an easy pace, but would I blow up trying to go fast in a shorter race? But we were off.
They call it muscle memory for a reason. While it was clearly evident that I couldn't go out and lead the race, I wasn't falling apart either. I didn't wear a watch, as I just wanted to go out by feel. The old instincts were coming back, and I was clicking along. I definitely wanted to run a negative split, and figured the turn-around point would be a good marking point to pick things up. As we headed into the turnaround, someone yelled out that I was third woman. Sounds good to me! At the turnaround, I could see that there was a pretty decent gap between me and second, and me and fourth, so the goal was to just try to pick up the pace and pass some guys. It was so hot out, and I was grateful for the large water cups distributed and the spray station (two kids gleefully spraying us). I kept duking it out with a few guys, which really, the back and forth was good for all of us - no one was slowing down. It was so peaceful and quiet out there - hard to believe we were in this little oasis in the middle of our nation's capital. But bliss aside, the competitive juices were ramping up in the home stretch, and I was taking no prisoners. Stoked to cross the finish line as the time flashed:
27:28 (6:52 pace)
3/67 women
30/166 overall
Talk about muscle memory. Yes, in my best fitness, I could run 10 miles 20 seconds per mile faster, but this was great! Not all was lost, and it was a reminder that I love racing and even if I can't devote as much time to training, this should still be a regular part of my life.
Also, this was a race on a gravel trail, and the Georgetown track coach calculated that gravelly trails tend to add 10-15 seconds to your time, so I'm thinking it was closer to 6:45 pace.
Overall, I had a blast - it was just so much fun racing again. I broke even - it was $5 to enter, and I won a $5 Starbucks card. And they gave out these shirts too. Too hot to wear it running for a while, but love a DC-centric shirt.
I'll be testing my racing flats out again tomorrow at the Friends of the W&OD Trail 10k in Vienna - my old stomping ground! It was great to race again, and run (around) this town with a bib on!

post race selfie

Monday, May 25, 2015

Hard Choices

Admittedly stealing my title from Hilary Clinton's book, which I've only read the new epilogue that she linked to in a recent editorial. And it may sound a bit facetious to write about hard choices, when I know all-too-well that daily people make much more difficult choices than what I do.
That being said, I'm taking life by the reins, and making some changes:

From 2006-2014, I worked for Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth Summer Program. It has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life, and has brought me to some wonderful places, including Santa Cruz, CA, and given me some wonderful friendships as well. It has allowed me to work on my leadership skills and grow as someone interested in education and mentoring others. I've had the privilege of working with thousands of students, and hundreds of staff members. For seven weeks each summer, I get to go to camp, and day in and day out, and give students (and staff) a great summer experience. It is awesome.

I am making progress on my dissertation, and entering into what I hope is the final academic year of my graduate career. I moved to DC to get a Ph.D., and I'm not leaving until I get it! Also, I married a government employee - odds are I'll be in the district for quite some time. However, it is eyes on the prize now. Beyond wanting to settle down and keep up with my wonderful family and friends, there is nothing I want more than this. And barring anything that would put my health and sanity at risk, I'm stopping at nothing to walk across the stage in full regalia.

That summer job is really more than seven weeks, when you count prep, planning meetings, and wrapping everything up (and recovery!), it takes up the majority of my summer. By the time everything has come to an end, it is time for another school year to start, which for the last three fall semesters has included teaching. One job quickly slips into another, and the years keep slipping by. You can call me Mrs. now, but not yet Dr.

With a heavy, yet detached heart, I decided not to return to my summer program for this year. Writing that letter to my supervisors was not fun. Telling those who I've had the pleasure to work with that I won't be back was no picnic either. I'm not saying goodbye forever, but I know that as long as I have worked for that program, it has been something I've needed to focus on single-mindedly, and the dissertation goes on the back burner. And the dissertation is what needs to my single-minded attention.

I'm not teaching this fall either. I'm fortunate that I received funding to ensure that I do not need to do that. I love teaching - I've had wonderful students who make class so much fun to teach. But again, the prepping and grading, when done thoroughly, takes up a lot of time. I'm so grateful to have gained so much experience since I started teaching in 2012, and taking a new role in the classroom has given me so much joy. But again, the dissertation needs most of my attention.

I'm not racing either. I haven't done a race I've been proud of since April 2014. That being said, the past five weeks, I've averaged 40-45 miles per week. I've done long runs ranging from 15 to 17 miles and they've been awesome. I now live in Dupont Circle, and have access to some of the best trails in DC. So I'm running for fun, for health, for sanity, but I'm not competitive. I hope to be again some day, but I can't commit to a racing season, intense training week in, week out, when that dissertation needs my focus. There is only so much intensity I can put into life, and I can't burn the candle at both ends and expect great results.

So, I'm identifying my priorities. I have my health, a family, a dog, some wonderful friends, and a dissertation. There are things I've had to say no to, and those are the hard choices. But if I can finish sooner and then move onto the next stage in life, the hard choices will be worth it.
Me with my husband and my parents

Celebrating our first anniversary!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"There will be a time in my life when I don't have to prove myself anymore!'

I've read Kathrine Switzer's Marathon Woman at least a dozen times since I first got it as a gift in 2009 from my parents. When I first met Kathrine, later that year at the Marine Corps Marathon expo, I asked her to sign the book and told her I had already read it a couple of times. She told me that the book takes on different meanings when read at different points in life, and it's true. I've read it for running inspiration, but am seeing now the inspiration she provides for my writing. 

A lot of the vignettes of her life are so richly described, with such vivid detail, that one can't help but remember the different training runs and races Kathrine completed (and then later organized) all over the country, as well as internationally. It's not just her signature story of the 1967 Boston Marathon that resonate, but of her victory in the 1971 NYC Marathon, and earning her amazing 2:51 PR in Boston in 1975. They instill excitement in their own unique ways, as well as both the snowy and sweaty training runs she did to achieve those goals.

Probably because we've had some snow ourselves the past week in DC (here, only an annual event, compared to my hometown in upstate NY), but this story came to mind this week. It's on page 242, describing a training run in preparation for the 1974 Boston Marathon...

"One snowy Sunday in February I jogged up to Central Park to do my long run...I was the only person in the park...I looked up at the expensive apartments along Fifth Avenue, imagining the people having coffee or Bloody Marys, reading their thick Sunday editions of the New York Times,or looking out the window and watching this solitary figure running through the snow. I wondered if they admired me or if they thought I was a nutcase....I usually laughed it off and thought how envious they must be of my youth and vigor, and that all their money wouldn't buy the health and accomplishment I had....The fact was I wanted just for once to curl up on a Sunday with coffee and the Times. That's when I knew I was tired. So I stopped for a moment and shouted up to the buildings, 'There will be a time in my life when I don't have to prove myself anymore!'"

If there was ever a line that resonated with me in the book, it was that one. The dissertation, I'm learning more and more, is about proving myself: to my advisor, my committee, my department, my family and friends who have watched and supported me patiently as I've plodded through this process. It's the late nights and early mornings starting at the blinking cursor on my laptop, trying to knock out a few more pages that have been getting to me. Or just answering patiently, with a forced smile, some canned response to the always-frustrating, "So, when do you think you'll be done?" I too would love to just curl up with coffee and my iPad, reading a book without the guilt drifting in of "You could be writing now...tick tick tick."

 I know that when the dissertation is finally approved, signed off by all of the faculty, those feelings will disappear. I know it won't be permanent - the finish line just keeps moving back.

My time will come, and I know when I'm there, I'll be raising my arms in victory. But right now, I can only shout to the heavens, 'There will be a time in my life when I don't have to prove myself anymore!'

Monday, January 26, 2015

"A step forward, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction."

"Don't try to rush progress. Remember - a step forward, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction." Kara Goucher
This was the Runner's World quote of the day e-mail I received a few days ago, citing a time-Olympian and one of the fastest American distance runners. I've been thinking about it a lot, and keeping that mentality in mind as I soldier on in my dissertation.
The last time I posted, I had just arrived to Dayton to begin my two-week research stint there. It was freezing! All of my western NY upbringing has melted away in the six years I've been in DC. There were days when the high was 2 degrees - and I was just shivering. But in the end, there were a lot of positives:

  • It was my first extended research trip
  • I made a lot of extremely valuable professional connections, including some faculty who write in my larger field
  • With the new year freshly-ushered in, it gave me time to re-focus and hunker down to realistically plan out my goals and plan of attack
I had nothing else to do but dissertation work. No laundry, no chores, no cooking (can you now imagine why my husband missed me so much?!) Taking away all of those little responsibilities and expectations just enabled me to clear my head. Leading up to Christmas break, after a semester of teaching and writing, I was feeling pretty burnt out, and unproductive as well. Instead of running in circles, I was writing in circles, and hardly at all. The new year, and new location wiped away the slate and presented a new one, clean and full of possibilities.
I've had people say over the years, "Oh you're so motivated, you run marathons, surely this is a piece of cake." Or, "I know you are so regimented with your running." Or my all-time favorite (said for the upteenth time last week by one of my readers), "A marathon must be harder, right?" No! Looking back, I feel like I practically danced through my marathons. That's not true - I put a lot of hard work into training for them. But even the moments of agony in the marathon have not compared to the agony of the Ph.D. I'm not saying that to be overly-dramatic, but this has given me a lot more heartache, tears, and worry than the marathon ever did. But I digress. The point is, I've always been so regimented with my running and training, and while I had a clear-cut routine in coursework and during my exams, it's been more difficult to have a stable researching and writing routine in ABD-land (all but dissertation). I loved coursework: there was a clear-cut schedule (and a clear end in sight!), and I thrived in that environment (I'm sure that kind of scheduling is why training works well for me). But now it's time to bring in the big guns:
That's my mom, my two aunts (her younger sisters), and me on my wedding day. My aunts have been involved in my life since I was born, and my mom was my first teacher (and is still teaching me a lot...these days, it's how to cook!). They are all go-getters in their own way: my mom successfully raised two children and got us into our dream colleges, Aunt #1 is a successful corporate lawyer in NYC, and Aunt #2 was a powerful executive before she had her children. 
They are my "professional naggers" (I got the term from an actual company -- yes, you can actually pay  someone to call you up to make sure you're doing what you're supposed to do).And I say that knowing they will probably laugh at that title. But they are all so motivated and driven - and know how to keep each other accountable! But in all seriousness, I am keeping them informed on my daily goals, and ultimately, how close did I come to meeting them (and if not, why not). I need that accountability so I can finally cross this finish line!
That's where I am at tonight. Did I exercise today? No. But did I write 4 pages? Yes. So, maybe there weren't as many endorphins released (although I did play outside with my dog in the snow), but the satisfaction of a good writing day is pretty close to a runner's high.
Step by step, page by page, this thing is going to be written.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Sunday Night evening on the eve of hope and productivity

I received a grant to research at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. They have some incredible late medieval and early modern sources about the Virgin Mary, and are relevant to my dissertation. I am placing a lot of hope and expectation in this trip. After my colloquium (an intensive workshop) in November, and facing suggestions for serious revision and restructuring in my dissertation, it just was hard to summon the motivation, and courage (yes, there is often the feeling of needing to be brave to write) to write and tackle the dissertation. The feelings of defeat, and discouragement, resonated a lot louder than my goals for completion and motivation. I’m trying to quiet those enough and find the New Year and new semester as motivation to get past this hump and mental block.

I am trying so hard to envision the finish line, even though it is over a year away. When it comes down to it, I’ve always had big goals, ones that require long-term planning and execution, but this is the longest. I’m going to be counting on more people for help, support, and encouragement, than I’ve ever demanded. Otherwise, if I just let it all fester in my head, accountable only to myself, my head will explode and I’ll burn out way too soon.
I want to finish I want to finish I want to finish I want to finish. I have to keep saying that to remember that this is actually the goal – my goal.
For the next two weeks, I’ll either be in the library or in my hotel room, with my laptop as my only roommate. I need to write and be productive, to go balls to the wall and crank out some decent material.
I hope I can look back at this trip with fondness and nostalgia. I’ll be able to link this trip with memories of solid writing and innovative thinking. When future grad students ask for advice, I want to cite this trip as inspiration, recalling with a smile, “Those were the golden days – I was able to accomplish so much and it changed my mentality for the dissertation in the final stretch.”
I recall two different New Year’s and new semesters, coincidentally, both odd years, like this one, where I took on a gung-ho attitude, and ultimately, had a profound impact on my life:
January 2011. January 10, 2011 was my first day of classes of the semester, and also, the first day of going gluten-free after my December 2010 diagnosis of celiac disease. I looked at everything as shiny and new, filled with possibilities. On that Monday, I was at the swimming pool by 7AM for my double-days of workouts (this was also my first day of training for my best marathon ever – Boston). I then cleaned up, dressed in professional drab of grey and black (I still have the top and remember the memories of wearing it on that day) for a directed readings course with one of my beloved professors. It was a grueling one-on-one one-hour session, every Monday morning at 9AM – what a way to start the week. But as the weeks progressed, our conversations progressed and the dialogue became all the more compelling. I became stronger mentally, I gained physical strength in my training, and my insides began to heal as I adjusted to my new diet. I ran a personal best of 3:27 later that spring, and found I had experienced a large mental shift in my thinking and training as a budding historian.
January 2013. I sat down and made a list of goals, with my then-boyfriend, now husband, by my side, agreeing to support me and push me. The big professional goal was to get my dissertation proposal passed. Over MLK weekend (now fast approaching once again), I sat in the desk he made for me, occasionally gazed out the window, and wrote the first draft of the proposal that eventually passed later that spring.

With both of these memories in mind, I am at the eve of another odd-year January semester full of hope and anticipation. I still need to write out some concrete goals, but the dream is out there. Now it’s time to make it count.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Not always all about the race: October running

It's been nearly a month since my last blog post, so these are just the greatest hits of October - can't believe it's over!
In continuation of my random fall season of signing up for races on a whim, I signed up for the Rock and Stroll 10k in Alexandria over Columbus Weekend. It poured and was windy - not the most ideal conditions. I was hoping to be fairly competitive (new race and the winner got $100), but I faded after 1 6:30 mile and ran 43:29 (for 7:00 pace). Again, given that I'm not doing any formal training, it was a fine race. I also think we accumulate a certain number of bad weather races - and I was overdue for crappy weather. I will say, the hot shower and post-race nap were some of the biggest perks of the race!
I do love to race, but I am also grateful that racing is not the only reason I love to run. The weekend after that race, I decided to go for a really long run. I had finally gotten back to covering 13 miles, and I thought I may as well add a few more. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I traversed through Virginia on the Washington and Old Dominion trail, the miles just added up. I had a 2+ hour long running podcast (Marathon Talk) that served to keep me company, as funny British marathoners Martin Yelling and Tom Williams bantered on and on. As I went further down the path into Reston, the people who were just out for a light stroll dissipated, and it was so quiet and peaceful. Not isolated enough that there was no one in sight (don't worry, Mom!), but just peaceful and no need to hear cyclists cry out "on your left" or just glide by like they were on the Tour de France. My legs felt loose and free, and I felt like i could just go on forever. In the end, it ended up turning into a 16 mile run, and while I stumbled into the house tired, it was the good kind of tired. It had been over six months since I had gone that far, and it put me up to 51 miles for the highest mileage I had ran in again, about six months. Feeling strong and happy.
Heaven on earth
I had the honor of pacing one of my dearest friends, Jenny, in the Marine Corps Marathon. She had decided that this was going to be her last marathon. I ran with her for her first marathon four years ago (Marine Corps 2010), I paced her to a BQ at Marine Corps 2011, and she then went to Boston to participate in one of the great races of the world, only to be met with a terrorist attack shortly after she finished. That was not the end to her story, so she came back to DC for her last hurrah, her victory lap. She ran 4:16, and while there were moments of pain as she crossed the bridge from DC to Virginia at the 20 mile mark, we crossed the finish line together hand in hand. It was a run of friendship and a great way to celebrate four years of her hard work.
Me and my friend Jenny after she finished the Marine Corps Marathon
While 50,000 people were lining up on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge this morning for the NYC Marathon, trying to block the 40mph gusts of wind, I went out for my own jaunt around Virginia. I had in my head to run 16, and it was only going to take some heart to make that happen.  It was cold, my legs were tired, and it seemed like a pipe dream. Was I doing this for the right reasons? Was I just trying to show that I still have game? Or was this also a test of endurance? It wasn't until at least 8 miles in that I felt confident in my ability to get through the run, and it felt like the wind was blowing in my face no matter which direction I went. I kept thinking about New York, and those people were in it for the long run, literally, they were going to spend all morning, and into the afternoon, trying to capture this American dream. Surely I had it in me too. It wasn't glamorous, my victory strides back into my apartment complex, and I stumbled in, relieved for it to be over. It brought me up to another 51 mile week, and gave me more confidence that yes, I can enjoy running just for running's sake, and yes, I can still go far (although not as fast as I used to). It's just not always all about the race('bout the race, 'bout the race, no treble!)
I will find my racing mojo again, but in the meantime, I still have a running mojo. This fall is cold, but just too damn beautiful to let these short days just slip away, faster than the leaves can change and litter the ground.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Rolling hills

Rolling hills provide some of the best terrain for training. Runners gain strength as their legs work to climb up, only to trash their quads on the descent back down. One can really get into a nice groove with the undulating hills. While flat is always equated with fast, the hills prevent muscles from stiffening up, from repeating the same action time and time again. One of my favorite DC races, the Pike's Peek 10k has these rolling hills, and that's where my 10k PR came from. Even if you are running on the same road, the rolling hills change things up, and provides an interesting view along the way.
Running, writing, and the dissertation all overlap in so many ways. So often, many people have made running analogies when talking about the dissertation, including the over-used "It's a marathon, not a sprint." I know what they are getting at: the arduous work, the moments of doubt, the joy at the end. However, I have finished six marathons: all under four hours. I started regularly running September 2008 and completed my first marathon six months later. This Ph.D. is taking a whole lot longer. I even got an e-mail the other day with the following headline: The two do share a lot in common.
Both running and writing take a similar emotional toll: a veritable roller coaster ride of emotions.The excitement and anticipation in the beginning, the fear in the middle, the triumph in the end.
I'm rolling along in my dissertation, but with that comes the roller coaster of feelings. Last week, I was on a footnote scavenger hunt (a book referenced another book that I thought would be useful). As I read the author's analysis of one of the sources integral to my dissertation, some of the comments that author made started to sound too familiar - was part of my argument already made by someone? I kept reading, closely, waiting to see where her winding road of an argument went. Whoosh! It just just a slight turn, focusing on a different area, and I was saved! Phew! Plus, I could factor her points into my argument, and show how there was a clear distinction. Now that my stomach's knots could unravel, I went back and started reading the chapter from the beginning. I was hooked now, taking notes and the synapses and neurons were firing away. My muscles relaxed and I moved on.  
That up and down, all around emotion has now become a regular part of my dissertation life. The highs are great, the lows are what wake up my brain in the middle of the night. But the promise of the finish line is what keeps me moving. I have two friends who, all three of us could potentially finish and graduate at the same time. The thought of the three of us, in full academic regalia, standing in front of the National Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (that is where commencement is held for us), smiling and relieved from crossing this finish line, is often what gets me to return to the keyboard and the book again and again. 

Off to make another climb...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

When it really is a fun run: Our Lady of Good Counsel 5k 2014

This is just short and sweet, as all as my running late has been:
In continuing my fun fall, I've picked up where I last left off: about 5 days of running per week, 40 miles for the past 3 weeks. This week, I cut it down to 35 miles, figuring take 3 steps forward, 1 step back. That's what I've always done: 3 harder weeks, and then a cutdown week. 
I did cutdown this week, but I also signed up for my church's fun run. I figured I would treat it as a race, again, without doing any real speed work, but just building back consistent running and a base. My church is only 3 miles from where I live, so in keeping green, I ran over to the race on Saturday. It's funny: I've done so many road races of all shapes and sizes. Local races that gather a few hundred people, regional races of a couple thousand, and the international-size Boston Marathon. Each bring their own character, and that even changes year to year. This was as home-grown as you can get. No bibs, no chip-timers, no mile markers. There was also a fun 1 mile run/walk for the kids, and they were all so excited getting ready for it. As I was warming up, I could hear a few of them chattering. One of them said "My mom does marathons..." and then proceeded to explain to the others how far that was, and it was so cute hearing them so impressed. These were also kids who would later cheer for their teachers who ran in the race: looks like they had some good role models. Something to keep in mind for the future. I lined up next to some high school girls and their mom (who asked what cross-country team I was on...she was shocked to learn I was 28) in the front of the oh, say, 50-60 people who were there for the race. With this being a church-sponsored race, it began with a prayer - always a nice way to start the day. And with the ringing of the school bell, we were off.
I had a feeling going into this race that I would do very well, as this race wasn't really publicized beyond our church. And within about 100 meters of starting, I was the third person, not third woman, but third person. Guy #1 was way in the distance, but I spent the first mile or so chasing after guy #2, then passing him strongly with a 6:14 first mile. This turned into more of a solo run that happened to be accompanied by the occasional police officer blocking off traffic or signaling which way to turn. It was a beautiful fall morning: high 50s, sun was shining, and I was running on the streets and trails of my new home in Vienna. Again, I still feel like it's a lot of work, and the second mile (according to my watch) was 6:45, so clearly even pacing wasn't a factor. I finished as the second person in 19:05, but my watch said 2.9 not quite a full 5k. That's 6:34 pace, and the equivalent of a 20:23 5k. I got a $30 gift certificate to Chili's, and then ran home, stretching out the run to make the day's work add up to 9 miles for the day. 
It was what it was, a fun run. Good to remember to support all races: big and small.
And speaking of big: amazing to hear that there is a new world record in the marathon - 2:02:57! I was in Boston in 2011 when the world best was set (2:03:02) and I remember being so stunned by that. Similarly, I was shocked to wake up this morning and read about the first ever sub 2:03 marathon at Berlin - the human body can do amazing things!
I was sad to hear that Shalane Flanagan did not break the American Record at Berlin, despite setting a new PR and coming in 3rd. She put it all out there: telling the press that that was her primary goal, and running gutsy (like she always does) in her best effort. Her post-race remark provides good food for thought for all of us: “This will aid me in future marathons,” she said. “Progress is always good, and this year I’ve dropped four minutes off my marathon time. I’ll look at my training and maybe work on being a little bit tougher in those last few miles. I'll take another shot at some point. Sometimes, it takes a couple of swings.” 
Keep on swinging!