Sunday, October 16, 2016

Operation Endgame

            In the final season of Gilmore Girls (no major spoilers here), Rory and Paris are preparing to graduate from Yale. Paris Geller, an overachieving, ambitious, neurotic, yet still lovable perfectionist, ambushes her roommate Rory just moments after returning from the holiday break. She presents Rory with a hyper detailed chart, named Operation Finish line – their plan to make it through their final semester of Yale and graduate with an array of opportunities at their feet. They both ultimately succeed -- all of their hard work (and neuroses) paid off.

            I am standing at the cusp of my own Operation Finish line, but renamed Operation Endgame. At the beginning of the semester, when, after having submitted my third chapter, my advisor said that we ought to meet in the coming weeks to discuss my “endgame,” – the final stages of my dissertation. That meeting was this past week.

We would discuss my most recent chapter (which I wrote over the summer), and plans for the next six months or so. While this semester I have been saying that I planned to graduate in the spring, I always said so with a hint of trepidation and apprehension. In my paranoid state (which is really all-too familiar for graduate students), I even dared to fear that secretly my committee viewed my work as interesting, but a project that would never fully come to fruition. 

With that in mind, my nerves were frayed on Wednesday. I had had a nightmare the night before about our meeting, a catastrophic result of my subconscious, and my pounding heart when I woke up just brought me back to reality. My pre-meeting run (you can bet I will go for a run on the morning of my defense!) had only temporarily alleviated my nerves.
But as we talked about my most recent chapter (recognized to be in decent shape), it was clear that my advisor was on board, and like me, had eyes on a spring defense. Our conversation was intense, but that was more of the rigorous discussion of method, structure, and shape required of my dissertation. As we wrapped up, my advisor said, "by hook or by crook, we will get there," and "there is a light at the end of the tunnel." Although those are just sayings, she did truly offer the validation I was looking for: that I both could and would finish.
The following day, I received an email from her with a firm deadline of when to submit my first complete draft of the dissertation: December 20th. Although just over two months away, that is coming up quickly, and i wrote back that it would be a tight race to get there, but manageable. She replied, "Let's do this!" Again, that enthusiasm and feeling that this was a team effort was amazing.

It felt like things just kept picking up from there. I had received permission to send my first two chapters ahead to another committee member, who read and commented on them with such speed and depth, I was stunned. Although revisions need to be made, they were deemed to be "very good chapters." Another professional atta-girl!

It was the week where it felt like things were finally coming together, and that my committee truly did have the confidence in me that I so desperately needed. As I told the news to my mom, my biggest cheerleader and the one (along with my dad and other loved ones) who never doubted  me, I said with some relief that for the first time, I truly believed I was going to do it, to finish and defend this dissertation.

There is so much to do, particularly in the next two months, but with Operation Endgame fully in place, I'm tackling it with eager anticipation, not dread.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

S.M.A.R.T. Training - How I broke a 5 year old half marathon PR

For the past couple of days, as I’ve attempted to process the race and contextualize it with my larger arc of years of running, I’ve reached a couple of conclusions. If I had to categorize my training this summer, leading up to this half marathon PR, what facilitated it?

This was what worked well in 2011, when I reached my old PR while following a very regimented training schedule:
High mileage – I was regularly running at least 50 miles per week
Track workouts – I ran one intense track workout per week
Tempo runs – 1 road workout once per week
Consistent cross training – At least 1-2 days of elliptical/swimming, along with 2-3 times per week weight training

Almost all of that went out the window this time. I simply could not devote that much attention and time to training – with the end of my graduate program in sight (!!!), this had to be a secondary hobby. My mileage was not as high, nor as consistent – I hit 40+ miles probably at least 5 times throughout the summer, but also had a couple weeks below 20 miles per week. I only did 3 track workouts, I didn’t really do tempo runs. My cross-training decreased (but I did add on a weekly barre class, and now walking my dog gives me probably at least 10 extra miles per week of walking around). So, how did it work? It was S.M.A.R.T. training.

Sensible. I learned how to be flexible. If it was 90 degrees, I wasn’t always going to get a long run in – that wasn’t safe. If I was close to getting a chapter done, that needed the priority – not my running.
Manageable. I was not going to overdo my training. This was going to be a reasonable training cycle, both to take in the pressures of writing and the heat of the summer.
Accumulative – These legs have at least 10,000 miles in them, and I was able to draw from the strength and consistency from years of regular running.
Regular. Consistency is both key and king. I've tended to always aim for a double digit run once on the weekend, and to run at least 4 days a week, sometimes 5. This consistent running over the years has built up strength in my legs.
Tactical. If I was feeling good on a particular long run, I would try to make it an effective workout and press the pace. I was getting really good at starting my long runs slow (sometimes at 9:00 pace for the first mile) and progressively increasing my speed throughout the run (cracking into 7:50s) without blowing up.

Really, those five words are virtually synonymous, but I truly believe that this approach and attitude brought me this PR. For the past couple of years, when people asked about my running, I always couched it with “Yes, I’m still running a lot, but not really training. I’m just trying to focus on finishing my dissertation.” What I should have said, and what I will say in the future is, “I’m running consistently and do have some long-term goals. While my running schedule isn’t as regimented as it was a few years ago, I’ve learned how to manage my training and make my running time as effective as it can be.” Less can be more! Now, this wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t accrued years of training – you need to build a base that comes with years of regular running and taking the steps necessary to prevent injury. Yes, there are some great workouts that can really help make a runner stronger, but I do believe that this broader, more holistic approach made a different and will continue to do so for years to come.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rise - Racing the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon

Sunday was the Navy-Air Force Half, and I came into it thinking that it would be great to be within shouting distance of my PR (1:32:35), and maybe, maybe if everything came together, a PR was a possibility. As I was doing my shakeout run yesterday (3 miles), I did a couple of sprints at 7:00 pace, and it felt fast. I was hesitant whether this would happen or not, but sometimes you just have to take the risk and go for broke. 

I got a good night's sleep, and got to the start with plenty of time to spare. My warm-up loosened me up, and I got to the start line in plenty of time. I had to laugh as the gun went off, because the song they played at the start was "September" by Earth, Wind, and Fire (that was the song we walked into at our wedding reception - not to be confused with our first song). With a smile on my face, I took off, hoping to hit around 7:00 pace (knowing that 7:02-7:03 pace would net me a PR). The first few miles I hit 7:00, or even a few seconds faster pretty consistently. So brings up the eternal question, "is this a reasonable pace or will it eventually blow up in my face?" I hoped for the former, and pressed on. 

When Katy Perry's Olympic song Rise came out, I liked it, but it didn't quite stick with me like roar and firework did. However, last week I was looking to get some new music for my runs, and opted to get it. On one of my runs, I think I listened to it 3 or 4 times in a row. I think part of it that stuck with me was
Oh, ye of so little faith
Don't doubt it, don't doubt it
Victory is in my veins
I know it, I know it
And I will not negotiate
I'll fight it, I'll fight it

I will transform 
I would say that what gets in the way of my success the most is doubt. The fear of failure can be so gripping and so hard to shake. This applies to both my running and my writing - doubt in myself. We are our own worst enemies, right? I am. So, the song really resonated with me. Throughout a lot of the race, when spots of the course were quiet with few spectators, I drew on the song and played it in my head on repeat.

Things had spread out within a couple of miles, so it was nice to have a lot of room and not feel crowded. There were still enough people around to work on picking off other runners throughout the course. Every time I hit the mile marker up through mile 10 was 7:00 pace or better. Those first few miles were clicking off so easily, that I was worried that my excitement over this would lead me to blow up. By mile 7 or 8, however, it started to feel like a lot more effort to hit this pace, and the exertion was definitely taking its toll. I was wondering if I should try to slow down to recover, but feared that if I did, I wouldn't be able to get back my momentum. So, I pressed on with the fast pace, with fingers crossed.

I have to hand it to the volunteers at the water stations. First of all, it is such a selfless way to spend a Sunday morning, and such a helpful and friendly group of people to have along the way. I must give a shoutout to the folks at the mile 7 and 11 (same station - part of the out and back route), who were whooping and cheering like it was the end of the Boston Marathon. It was such a thrill, and their enthusiastic cheers really offered a shot of adrenaline when I really needed it.

I was running through Rock Creek Park (where I do a lot of my running), and at mile 8 or 9 (when I was really starting to hurt and feel like my pace goal would go out the window), a man sidled up next to me. He said, "You ladies are all so fast! There are like 4 of you in front of me - I don't know how you do it." I just smiled (I didn't really have the extra oxygen to explain that yes, some of us can run with the big dogs), and he moved forward. I ended up passing him for good a mile later at mile 10, which I hit at 1:10:05.

I knew that my husband would be waiting for me at mile 11, and that gave me such a push to slog through what would be the final 5k. I was getting so tired (pace slowed down a few seconds per mile), and some of the race pictures really highlight that. But at mile 11, there was Pat, cheering, yelling, and putting a smile on my face. I could handle 2.1 more miles - it would all be over in less than 15 minutes. There was one turn around a cone around mile 12, which I did ungracefully, but was able to catch a glimpse of a running buddy of mine. People kept yelling, "last mile! So close!" but the final mile of a long race feels so much longer than the first one. The finish was at the Washington Monument, which felt like it loomed ahead, both within my grasp and just out of reach. But as I hit the final turn and could finally see the clock, I knew a PR wasn't a far-off dream, but a reality. I pumped my first and had a huge smile on my face as I crossed the finish line.

1:32:17 (7:02 pace)
35/2,849 (women)
10/474 (30-34 age group)

I couldn't stop smiling, because this really felt like a big victory. Ultimately, it was one of the most evenly paced runs I've done, particularly in the longer distance. I slowed down a few seconds per mile towards the end, but it was not a total crash and burn. My husband was impressed with how closely I managed to predict my time, but I guess at this point, with so many races under my built, and so much experience with longer runs, it's become a lot easier to be consistent. It didn't occur to me until afterwards, that I hadn't PRed in almost 3 years (October 2013 at the Army 10 Miler). I didn't realize it hadn't been that long. Nor did I think that I had said goodbye to PRs - it's just that those extra hours of running have shifted into writing time, as they should. So it made this victory all the more sweet - that I managed to gut it out, run both hard and smart, follow through on my training, and achieve a quietly-set goal with a flourish.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Roosevelt 5k and 17 miles - which is better?

As I'm writing this, I have less than 2 weeks to go until the Navy-Air Force Half marathon (9/18). I've put together some really good weeks, with at least four or five weeks of at least 40 miles, and over the summer, put in some consistent long runs between 11-15 miles. While my training hasn't been as solid as it was 5 years ago, it has been much more consistent than it was 2 years ago. I've been making up my own schedules, becoming much more flexible than I used to be (mentally - beyond touching my toes, I'm not that flexible). I don't quite have a firm idea of how the half will go. My PR is almost 5 years old: 1:32:35 from the 2011 Philadelphia Half Marathon. A few months later (March 2012), I ran 1:34:03 as a workout in the Rock and Roll DC Half, and that was the last time I ran a half marathon. Based on how my training has been going, I think these are my following goals:
A Goal - break my PR of 1:32:35 (7:03 pace)
B Goal - somewhere under 1:34:00 (7:10 pace)
C Goal - under 1:35 (7:14 pace)
When I was racing ten milers and averaging below 6:35, I always felt that the half PR was in reach, and I do wish I had tried to go for it back then. But I think this upcoming half will be a good benchmark, and if I don't quite nab the PR this time, it means with a few more months of consistent training, I'll be able to get it in the spring. But I digress.

I did another midweek race on Thursday night - the Roosevelt 5k in Arlington, which ran along the Mt. Vernon Trail in Virginia. This was another chance to get in some speedwork. Having run 20:15 in the NOVA 5k the week before, I was hoping to get within shouting distance of 20 minutes. I chatted with another woman named Jessie who looked fast, and we both said that we were hoping for similar time goals, and I was hoping to just draft off her.
Before the rain and the race!
It didn't quite work like that in reality. While the middle 2 miles of the race took place on smooth Mt. Vernon trail, the first and last .5 mile went down a corkscrew ramp that then spilled onto a wooden path. My warmup showed that I wasn't going to be able to run down this recklessly. I must add, about 2 minutes before the race started, it began to rain fairly hard. While it was refreshing, I was really worried about the wooden section of the course, and ended up holding back on the first mile, trying not to fall, and to make sure I had enough at the end that the corkscrew ascent that would be waiting for me would be manageable. I totally let Jessie, the other woman, go ahead, hoping to make up the distance between us later on. I never caught her. I did manage to blow by two guys, but I didn't quite have the fresh legs I needed to make that happen. I had run 15 miles on Sunday (race was on Thursday), and while I got through the first mile in 6:30, that would be the fastest mile I would run. I managed to pass a couple of guys, but Jessie was about 30 seconds ahead, and was never quite in my reach. Motoring up that last hill was hard, and I was just happy to get to the finish line. I ended up finishing 2nd woman in 20:53 - the slowest 5k I had run in almost 2 years. In running my cooldown with Jessie, I learned she was an 800m specialist who had tried to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the 800, but just missed the mark. With this in mind, knowing that she has the kind of speed that I just don't, it certainly softened the reality of my race. It was a race that I ran fine, and that's it - it was a B race, and just part of the building block leading up to my half marathon.

3 days later, I did my last long run - the longest run, in fact, that I had done all year. 17 miles on the Capital Crescent Trail at 8:40 pace. I saw this as a big improvement from the previous week's 15 miler (run at 9:10 pace - although it was about 10 degrees warmer then). While the last couple of miles felt more like a shuffle, it was actually a big confidence builder, particularly when compared to the 5k. Knowing I could put a few extra miles in my legs felt good, and next week I won't need to go as far in my last long run.

I think ultimately both the 5k and the long run are working together to help prepare me for the half. However, it is clear that I favor, enjoy, and succeed in the long run more than the short race. Looking forward to doing a few more solid workouts leading up to the 18th!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Mary, Undoer of Knots, Pray for Me

 My dissertation "The Voice of Mary" examines medieval textual representations of the Virgin Mary speaking. For a woman who only spoke four times in the Bible (Luke 1:26-38 Annunciation, 1:46-56 Visitation, 2:41-52 Finding Jesus in the Temple, and John 2:1-11 Wedding at Cana), writers of many different genres: dramatic, contemplative, narrative, manipulated these 191 words and expanded them, assigning a stronger, more powerful voice for the Blessed Virgin Mary. It's meant that for the last four years, I've been reading many stories about Mary - some famous, and some less familiar. 

Although the writing process is often tedious, I also have really enjoyed my topic. Mary is not a monolithic figure, and means different things to different people. This litany highlights just some of the many titles assigned to Mary, an aspect that I'm trying to investigate. How and why did different medieval authors construct various kinds of voices for Mary to appeal to different audiences and serve varying functions?

As I wrote in a previous post, I'm in the third lap of my dissertation, and in the early stages of drafting my last chapter. This chapter, which will examine Mary in Annunciation and Passion narratives, will actually appear as the first chapter of the dissertation, and will serve to highlight the contrasting dynamic of voices created for Mary. Although this is the first time I'm making a good effort on this chapter, I've had a Word document with some ideas for this chapter going for about a year. I have over 35 pages of material on it already. Which to some sounds like a lot, and it is close to chapter-length, but a lot of it is very messy. So, the past week or so, I've been sifting through it, cutting out the junk writing, organizing it, and trying to make it cleaner. I made a lot of progress this week, and some sections are starting to come together.

As my husband would come home at the end of the day, I would tell him how I untangled a bit more of the chapter, seeing some improvements along the way. Thursday night, it brought back a memory of one of the many titles of Mary - one that became popular centuries after the Middle Ages. This is a painting of "Mary, the undoer of knots," an early eighteenth-century German painting by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner. If you look closely, she's holding a rope with a series of knots, and she is untying each of them (a task many mothers are faced with!). The first chapel to be named "Mary, Untier of Knots," was built in Austria in 1989. Pope Francis really likes this imagery, noting that “All the knots of our heart, every knot of our conscience, can be undone.” As a Catholic, and as someone whose faith largely includes devotion to Mary, it would be nearly impossible to not think of Mary as a spiritual guide as I work on my dissertation. And as I run my third lap of my dissertation, trying to make it to the final lap and full draft, it is a comforting thought to pray to Mary to help untangle my mental knots. I'll close out with one of the prayers associated with Mary, Undoer of Knots.

Dearest Holy Mother, Most Holy Mary, You undo the knots that suffocate your children, extend Your merciful hands to me. I entrust to You today this knot and all the negative consequences that it provokes in my life. I give You this knot that torments me and makes me unhappy and so impedes me from uniting myself to You and Your Son Jesus, my Savior.
I run to You, Mary, Undoer of Knots because I trust You and I know that You never despise a sinning child who comes to ask you for help. I believe that You can undo this knot because Jesus grants You everything. I believe that You want to undo this knot because you are my Mother. I believe that You will do this because you love me with eternal love.
Thank you, Dear Mother.
Mary, Undoer of Knots, pray for me. Amen.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Weeknight 5k: Nova 5k

So, I had gotten back on the speedwagon with track workouts. I had 3 consecutive weeks of good track workouts, and then I fell off the speedwagon. Well, not so much as fell off, but decided that finishing my third chapter required more focus. Opted to run for sanity, not for speed. 5 years ago, I wouldn't have been comfortable making a decision like that - I tended to cling to running schedules with no sense of flexibility. While I still can't cast off change with the greatest of ease, I've come a long way. But I digress. The point is - speed workouts hadn't been happening. But I still have a half marathon coming up 9/18 that I'd like to do well in. So, I found a low-key 5k to do in Vienna this Tuesday, which I thought would be a great substitute for a track workout. All the better that it was on one of my favorite running trails in this area - the Washington & Old Dominion trail.

There was a merciful dip in the temperature, meaning that it was only 84 degrees at 6:30, instead of 94 - thank goodness! I usually do a 2.5 mile run, but decided why not just preview the whole course - so what I planned to do was a 5k warmup. This ended up being close to 4 miles because I got lost trying to find a bathroom...oops. Some things don't change! I ended up getting to the start with about 2 minutes to spare - needless to say, the adrenaline was pumping, and I had definitely booked it getting there.

It was a relatively small race -- only 58 people in the race. So even though we were all crammed along the 12 foot path for the start, things spread out pretty quickly. I was figured I'd run somewhere between 20:00 and 20:30, and so was pleased when I hit the first mile in 6:31. It felt fast, but once things spread out, and I had a couple of people to focus on picking off, it also felt like a doable pace. I had two women nearby that I was determined to pass, and did so just before the turnaround mark, which put me in second place. I came through the second mile in 13:02, running more evenly than I usually can. I was then set on chasing a couple of guys, who on the surface seemed to be within reach - probably about 50 meters ahead. Having just watched the men's Olympic marathon a few days before, it puts some perspective into how close together two people are when they run. It often looks on TV that someone can easily pass someone, that they're "right behind them," and that's not true. Once someone is at least 10 seconds in front of you, you need to put a lot of energy into making up that gap, and it didn't seem like I would do that.
However, I did manage to finish in 20:15 (6:31 pace) - the most even 5k I've ever run (and probably will). I was 2nd woman, earning a $20 gift card (which was the cost of the race) to a local Irish pub that hosted the after party. Give the fact that I hadn't done speedwork in a few weeks, and my pre-race spontaneous speedwork/race to get to the start line, I chalked it up to be a great race. $20 for a beautiful course on a Tuesday night - it was great. I'll actually be doing another weeknight 5k tomorrow night - hoping to get a little closer to breaking 20 again!

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Third Lap

In racing the mile, the third lap is universally acknowledged to be the most difficult. 
The third lap is the most taxing on the body as the adrenaline from the first two laps is gone and the body's own lactic acid builds up in the muscles, decreasing usable oxygen. As the body begins to suffer, the mental training of the runner must step up to continue to propel the runner forward. If a runner gives up on the third lap, it rarely matters how fast he can run the final lap. Too much ground has been lost to finish well. Whether running against opponents or simply against the clock, the third lap can make or break a runner's one-mile success. Marc Hays
I am in the third lap of my dissertation. I have one chapter left to write, along with the introduction, conclusion, and revising the entire dissertation once it's a complete document that can be read cover-to-cover. This week I submitted my third chapter, which was both the most enjoyable and quickest to write. I think part of that has to do with the fact that I've finally started to figure out the best ways to organize my thoughts, to structure my argument, and to write efficiently. I finally figured out how to aim for quality over quantity, and as that happened, better words appeared on the page. When I focused on making a point over hitting a page count, I started to find a flow. It was exciting and like the cumulative years of training as I accumulated thousands of miles, I started to accumulate chapters.
While my family and friends have said that I'm in on the home stretch, and I'm sure in the big perspective, I am rounding the bend, but I think I'm in the middle of my third lap of the dissertation.
Jenny Simpson made our country proud Tuesday night becoming the first American woman to medal in the 1500m. But that third lap never looks that enjoyable
It is only at the end, when crossing the finish line in victory, that the joy is evident. You can also see the relief etched into her face, knowing that all of the hard work and sacrifices paid off. 
There is still new writing to be done, and it is my goal at the end of the fall semester to have a full draft. I anticipate having less than 100 pages of new writing to do. My final lap will be in the spring semester, when I revise and defend my dissertation.
I think I learned how to step things up this summer in terms of focusing single-mindedly and really throw everything I can at this chapter. I will continue to use that approach this fall, and looking forward to reaching the bell lap when I ring in the New Year of 2017.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Finding the light inside: Girls on the Run

According to the Dove campaign on women and self-esteem, 7 in 10 girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members. How terrible is that? And girls with low self-esteem are at higher risk for a litany of issues, including depression, negative activities (like cutting, disordered eating), and so much more. And with facts like that, coupled with media barraging young girls with unreasonable standards of what it means to be beautiful, what hope is there? I have a young cousin who is going to be dealing with this (she's 10), my best friend has 2 baby girls...what are they up against?
What if every girl knew that she had a powerful light in her? And the belief that she can achieve anything?
I am very excited to be joining Girls on the Run (GOTR) this fall as a coach for one of the local teams. The above question comes from GOTR's training program, which I've just begun. I am so looking forward to working with a group of young girls this fall, culminating with a 5k in December. I've wanted to get into some sort of coaching for a while, and this seems like the perfect opportunity. Running has given me so much. So much. Running has given me confidence and peace of mind. The gift of running has given me the clarity and focus to accomplish what I've done so far as an adult. And while I did do some running in middle school and in 9th grade, there was never a coaching environment that really encouraged us in ways that stretched beyond the cross-country season. 

When I worked for the Center for Talented Youth, I served as a quasi-chaperone for one of our talented students - she wasn't just smart, but a gifted runner. We would go out a few times a week early in the morning, and there was something about those shared moments that really resonated with me. And my work with CTY as a whole, working with gifted children, made me more passionate about serving to better the development of children, promoting both academic and social experiences.

I served as a "run buddy" for the GOTR 5k a few years ago and found it to be a really enjoyable experience. I told myself that once my life felt more in order, I would return to the program as a coach. This semester, my only objective is to write. But that's not all anyone can do - you need something going on to balance that out. I think going from the interior nature of writing solo, to a group of excited young girls who are eager to accomplish something - that is going to be some kind of magic.