Saturday, April 16, 2016

Meeting Meb - The Day I Met the King of American Marathoning

Because I live in DC and have my pulse on the major running events, I tend to have a good sense of what big races are happening each weekend, and last weekend was the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler. I’ve run it three times, and it is the premier “rite of spring” race in the city, doubling as the USATF (the official running organization), so top runners who often go on to become great marathoners, come to town, and the expo also tends to feature some of the greats, like Billy Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson.
So, I was beyond thrilled to hear that Meb Keflezghi, one of the greatest American marathoners, was coming to town and speaking. Because they were open to the public (and not just registrants), I seized the opportunity to go and hear him talk.
There are so many reasons to love Meb. He represents the immigrant/American dream. He shows time and time again what it means to work hard, day in and day out. I loved his book, Race to Overcome, and his story really is a series of chapters when he overcomes the odds, and works to achieve seemingly insurmountable goals.
While his times are “soft” in comparison to national and world records in the marathon, Meb remains one of the greatest marathoners. He is the only person (not only American, only person) to win an Olympic marathon medal, the New York City Marathon, and the Boston Marathon. Some would wear this Triple Crown with arrogance, and well-deserved haughtiness. After all, running over 100 miles a week for two decades, sacrificing so much, to achieve those highest accolades in competitive running, would entitle someone to such arrogance. But Meb is the people’s champion again and again.
When Meb won the Boston Marathon in 2014, the first American to do so in almost 30 years, and a year after the horrific bombing, he did so while wearing the names of the victims. For him, this was not just a symbolic gesture. It was clear that he carried them in his heart while he trained day in and day out.
I realized afterwards that I’ve now met all four living American Olympic marathon medalists, all of whom represent greatness in their own ways.

Joan Benoit Samuelson
 Frank Shorter
Then I met the two 2004 Athens Olympic medalists, who really did revitalize American running. I can’t say that first-hand (I had just graduated high school the summer of 2004 and was too busy getting ready for college to even grapple with the idea of the marathon).
But once I was introduced to Deena Kastor as the face of American distance running, has been a role model and hero for me, and meeting her in 2013 was a game changer.
And finally, I got to meet the king of American marathoning, and when you meet the King, you dress for royalty.

Dear Meb, it was a pleasure meeting you.
As evident in the post race press conference after you punched your ticket to Rio, it's clear that it's not just us average runners who adore you, but your fellow Olympians do too.
You have showed Americans time and time again that there is hope after heartbreak, but those feelings of hope and optimism also come from hard work and a #RunToWin attitude.
Family life: as an immigrant family who left war-torn Eritrea in search of a better life and took to it diligently. Your father patiently taught you and your siblings English and you all got quality educations. You are raising daughters and modeling for them a hard working spirit and attitude, something that gives me hope for the next generation.
Really, I got about two minutes with you. But what you represent and stand for is bigger than that, and I think that’s why it was important for me to meet you in person, and to thank you for what he has done for our sport and to revitalize the American spirit after Boston.

There is a reason why athletes can be role models. And many succumb under the pressure of the spotlight. But those like Meb, who carry the mantle of responsibility seriously and with pride, you give those of us who run behind you a lot of ideals to chase. Thank you.
A big fan, Vanessa

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Breaking the tape: Scope it out 5k 2016

I've run the Scope it Out 5k twice before, and it holds a special place in my heart, because it's where I broke 20 minutes for the first time in 2012. It was a game changing race for me - dipping under that mark is still so memorable to me, even four years later. So, I even though it was questionable if I'd dip under 20 minutes this time, I definitely wanted to come back. It also doesn't hurt that Freedom Plaza (where the race started) is just a jog away from our apartment. While it didn't look springlike or feel like it (38 degrees) on the first day of spring, it was time to lace up and race toward the Capitol!
Looking around, I had a feeling I was going to be taking things out hard on my own. The last time I did this race in 2013, I came in 4th and pretty much ran a solo race. There were so few people around me, and I remember it being a hard effort to run by myself. It didn't seem like there were a lot of fast people (and spoiler alert: the male who won was 55 years old), so I was going to just run hard and hope to tack onto some guys. And we were off!
Within half a mile, I was the lead female, and while it's happened a few times now, I must admit, it is still a very cool feeling to lead a race. Maybe part of it is that as a child, I was never good at sports. I was afraid of the ball when it was thrown at me, and I just never saw myself as an athlete or a big winner. There were other things I was good at, school, music, but was never #1 at something. And even though this may happen at smaller races, I'm certainly no big-wig runner, winning is a victory that goes beyond race day. So that is something I will always savor - and it is a feeling that will also always make me push to make sure I protect first place and not let someone snatch it in a moment of weakness or hubris. I went through the first mile in 6:35, and it was a cold first mile. Running into the wind was hard, particularly without a lot of people to help block the wind. It would've been hard to knock so much time off the next two miles to break 20, but I was going to be damned if I didn't try.  6:30 for the second mile, and I picked up speed in catching one or two guys -- there is something about the act of dueling it out with someone that enables me to focus and just dial in and block everything else out. 
This race is very cool because it is a race down Pennsylvania Ave and around the Capitol. So, with the eyes on prize, waving the Capitol goodbye again and trying to nip one more guy in the final mile. 
Because of the out-and-back nature of the course, as I was making my down for the home stretch, there was a big pack of people going in the opposite direction. And as groups of women saw me, clearly in the lead among women, they whooped and cheered "First lady!" "Woo!" "Go, girl, go!" And in response, I pumped my first at them in solidarity. We are all women doing this, getting out there, and it's important to recognize that. It's time like that when I think of pioneers like Kathrine Switzer, who got out there and showed other women that they can do this, be runners, push when it's hard, and leap over hurdles that seem unattainable to clear. It was that thought and those cheering women that made me smile as I crossed the finish line and broke the tape.

All smiles breaking the tape at Scope It Out 5k 2016
20:26 is not my fastest 5k time, but that's not what this was about. And my family said that too, "Who cares what time you ran, you won!" And they are right. We need to cherish victories of all shapes and sizes. I won this race (and a pair of running shoes!), and for all of the women in this race, during Women's History Month, this was a victory.

Friday, March 18, 2016

St. Patrick's Day 5k/10k Double

DC has offered a number of running doubles races where they offer both a 5k and a 10K and schedule them so you can run both races. I had never done one and had admired those who had done both races, pushing hard in 1 and then turning around literally half an hour later to do a second race. Part of my goal in 2016 is to try new things, so I bit the bullet and signed up for the St. Patrick's Day 5K 10K double.
I hadn’t raced a 5K in almost 6 months and 10K in 5 months so it was going to be a lot of new things for sure. I haven't done speed work again in a long time either, so I was preparing for this to be tough when I started pushing the pace. The weather was cool, there wasn’t a lot of wind, and most importantly, it was on a course that I'm quite familiar with. I figured the big goal was to push in the 5K. I had scheduled another 5K for two weeks later and wanted to see what kind of 5k shape I was in and then just hang in there for the 10k.
The gun went off for the 5K and I went out feeling really good, surprisingly so because I hadn’t tapped into sub 6:30 pace for a couple of years. Still, I was able to come through the first mile around 6:25, which I was very psyched to see (6:26 pace is needed to break 20 minutes). For me, 20 minutes is sort of the golden standard for a really good 5K time (last time I ran under 20 minutes was February 2014). So I went through the mile just under 5K pace for breaking 20:00 and feeling good. I thought to myself “If you just keep going at this pace it’s possible you could get do it, and if not, this is still much better than it did last year.” Thankfully, there were a couple of girls around me and we were going back and forth passing each other and I could feel that there's someone right on me. That always helps motivate me to keep going, if I can feel someone on my shoulder like that. I clicked off 6:27 for the 2nd mile and I thought “Oh my gosh, I really could break 20!” I just just need to hold on tight, but really the 5k is just about finding an uncomfortable pace and hanging on as best as you can. With about .5 to go there was one final hill before you hit the Washington Monument. I've done enough races on this course to know that it does take a bit out of you, and l I was trying to find that perfect balance between saving enough so it wouldn't kill me and making sure I wasn't holding back. I crested running down the final stretch and I could see the clock and it's always good when you can see the clock and you're watching the seconds tick off. Someone blew by me and I knew I couldn’t catch her. There was no way I had that kind of closing speed that she did. But, I pushed and pushed and smiled so hard as I finished in 19:55. I couldn't believe - I hadn't broken 20 minutes in 2 years! Me and the other girl congratulated each other -- it's really we good that we pushed each other and motivated each other to a strong finish. The picture says it all - I was just thrilled and felt like the old me was coming back.

I was very happy and then the plan was to jog around for about 15 minutes trying to keep my legs moving and keep my body temperature up. It was about 40 degrees outside and I just didn't want to get too cold or too stiff so I just slowly trotted around the National Mall and tried to simultaneously celebrate my 5k and prepare for the 10k that is going to happen in 25 minutes. Once again I got back into the corral with the goal of going under 45 minutes for the 10k. That wouldn’t knock it out of the park by any means, but I really was not sure what it was going to feel like on tired legs. In the cooldown/warm, I felt pretty good but the real time would tell when the gun went off.
I took off and I was clocking out under 7 minute pace, which would be under 45 minutes. It was certainly evident that I had already been running hard earlier in the day and the way people had spread out, I was running by myself which is pretty hard when you’re tired and want to feed off of other people. I managed to catch a group of people 2 miles in and just held on so I could have some external motivation. At one point, I had a crowd of men running around me and one guy running so close to me that he ended up elbowing me, which frankly kind of irritated me. It is an open road! But the anger and frustration motivated me to keep going in to try and pass him, which I don't think I did. By mile 4, I was tired and both in terms of legs and my whole body. I felt like I could have fallen asleep. As lively and quick as I felt in the 5k, I felt just the opposite here: no longer fresh or spry. The goal was to try and not fall off the rails too much, but I was definitely counting down the minutes. Again, I had that final hill that I needed to save my energy for. I hung in there and finished at 43:16.

I finished completely exhausted but very proud. I came in 9th for the women in the 5k, and 17th in the 10k, and third woman in the double division. I was very proud of this race. It was a new experience for me. I'm not sure if I'll do it again, but I am currently looking for new challenges this year and this was definitely a challenge! I am very excited and looking forward to putting together a good racing season in Spring 2016!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Setting the World on Fire: A Medieval Goal in a Modern World

5 years ago, I wrote a post called Everything is New and Shiny and it marked the beginning of Spring Semester 2011, the start of my Boston Marathon training, and the start of my gluten-free diet, having recently been diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I wrote, "Today is a fresh start. New semester, new diet, new training." It was so optimistic, and yet, there was also a lot of follow-through, despite the fact that there were many steep mountains full of challenges.
It really took me at least a year, probably closer to 18 months to really hone in on my diet and learn how live gluten-free. Now, it's nearly a reflex, and while it may take some detective work to find places to eat when traveling, when it's on my terms, I know what to do. It also helps that I've finally learned how to cook and have access to good grocery stores like Trader Joe's that have so many options. The FDA has come a long way in five years in terms of labeling, and the food industry, in part jumping on the bandwagon of gluten-free living as a trendy diet, has learned how to make and prepare many more foods gluten-free. I"m stunned by how much I actually like to eat now, and so instead of the diet limiting what I can eat, because I'm eating things that don't hurt my stomach and ballooned up immediately, I find it so much more enjoyable.
Looking back, the amount of training I did in 2011 to get ready for my PR Marathon in Boston of 3:27:00 was insane. I was rehabbing an IT band injury, and so every morning and night I did 20 minutes of stretches. Three days a week I cross trained twice a day (swimming or rowing in the mornings, and then elliptical and weights at night), and then was running 4 days a week, averaging between 40-50 miles per week. No wonder my time dropped so much! And while I'm not at that level of fitness these days, I do hope I could "get it back" once I finished my dissertation and had some extra time and energy to devote to running beyond maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Things went well with my courses that semester, I think in part because everything I was doing was so regimented - I was training hard, changing my diet, it also made sense to push hard with coursework. I even had two part-time jobs (working in residence life, serving as a Teaching Assistant).  Five years later, what has happened to that work ethic? It's changed, in part because the nature of writing a dissertation is so different from a class schedule. I also was single, and now I have a husband. There were Friday nights when I went to the library, Sundays where I worked at school, and most nights after classes, I was hitting the books. And now, the loneliness is gone, but I must admit, it's also a lot more tempting to just call it a night when my husband comes home from work, rather than push on like I used to.
So, how I go back to that semester, when so many things came together because of such hard work?
Last year, I wrote out a writing contract that I managed to uphold, at least in theory. Looking back, I think I was too regimented, and didn't take into consideration how some writing days can be unpredictable and goals may change mid-day, mid-chapter, etc.
New writing resolutions!

  • Recognizing that prepping for classes and teaching takes time, at least four days a week should be committed to dissertation writing
  • I'm going to have three sets of office hours each week. If students aren't around, this is a good opportunity to get a small, concentrated set of work accomplished. No goofing off.
  • On dissertation writing days, I should aim for between 2-3 writing sessions throughout the day, with at least a clear plan for the first session (allowing for greater flexibility as the day progresses)
  • At least two weekends a month, I should aim to spend a chunk of time (i.e. Sunday evening) planning ahead for the week and completing one writing session.
  • At least one writing session per week needs to be devoted to editing. 

But using that contract as a starting point, some goals to make this a productive semester:
I think those are reasonable, achievable goals. Looking back at what I used as a writing contract last year,what I set out to do was too ambitious, to the extent that it did not feel like I could sustain those goals beyond a few weeks. There is certainly room for flexibility, and if there are days when I can really take off with the writing, I will. But I'm not going to beat myself on days where I only got out a few hundred mediocre words.
New Year's goals should not be so hard that they cannot be achieved. The goals that are attainable are the ones that will help set the world on fire.
And I full recognize that saying a medieval dissertation on the Virgin Mary will set the world on fire may be a bit of a stretch. But some of the medieval saints who I admire so much encouraged everyone to aim to do just that, in whatever way you see your life's mission.
In the past week, once from an e-mail with a distant relative, and once with an exchange with another customer waiting for our cars to get our state inspections, I had two people with little reason to offer encouragement and demonstrate their interest in my project. The relative (my aunt's mother-in-law), wrote "If your aim is to pique ones interests, you have done a magnificent job," and that meant a lot to me. While at times I get really frustrated at my project and/or myself, I need to remember moments like that, or when random faculty (or even people I meet in social settings) ask what I'm writing on, and comment on how interesting it is. I am not finding a cure for cancer, teaching impoverished students, or ministering to those in developing countries. But I do hope that my finished project will cause people to think about Mary differently, the role of women in the Middle Ages, and the power of a woman's voice, both then and now. 
I think it would be easy to fall into the trap that a dissertation on an ancient figure, mediated through medieval Christian texts, is antiquated and has nothing to offer for our own world today. Yet, by dismissing the project as irrelevant, that brushes aside that the voices of women, all women, both the exalted and unprotected, are often silenced, or when given permission to speak, those words fade into a distant echo without the resonance they deserve.

            Mary’s voice, when illuminated from the medieval sources, should resonate in our world today. Mary was seen as a champion, as an advocate, and with a glass ceiling that continues to loom over women today, we still need a voice as an advocate. While occupying a status that is unequivocally impossible to imitate as a virgin mother, Mary still occupied (albeit briefly) the roles of a daughter, single woman, wife, and mother – positions still relevant in our own world. Mary lived in a patriarchal society, and in the medieval sources that wrote about her, continued to face limitations and scrutiny in the eyes of the male clergy. Yet, her ability to rise and remain one of the most influential women in Western history should remind us of ways that Mary can and should occupy a place in our society today.
I think her message, as well as that of St. Catherine of Siena (who exemplified political boldness to "speak truth to power" by working with the pope and other powerful members of the clergy to bring the papacy back to Rome) is still relevant and inspirational today.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Doctoral Student's Favorite Question

To be innocently asked at holiday parties, social gatherings, random interactions with old acquaintances, generally at a moment of the doctoral student's height of self-doubt, worry, and fear.

So, when do you think you'll finish?

It's a question that's hard for many reasons. First of all, a doctoral program is not like a law degree, MBA, or medical degree, spaced out and designed to be finished at a precise time.

The question does not always factor into other responsibilities, such as a job, teaching, family responsibilities.

The question does not always take into consideration department changes, such as faculty on sabbatical, developments in the material, changes in funding, etc.

On the surface, it looks like an easy question, to be answered quickly and precisely. But no.

It's a question that we've had to prepare and revise often, as the project has developed. Our original defense date may have been pushed back by an advisor's recommendation, our own delays, unrealistic goals, or a set of other circumstances. It's a question that we often fear that when we answer, we will have disappointed or let down the person who asked it, showing that we were unable to meet our original deadline. It is our least favorite question, because our response is carefully crafted to hide any fear of failure or feeling like an imposter (just one article of many on Imposter Syndrome in grad school:
Feeling not smart enough to successfully write a dissertation looks like this

I read an article on Inside Higher Ed before the New Year that was a response to a concerned parent (also an academic) whose child who like her, became a professor, but had yet to get her book published.
I’m writing because she will be visiting us for the holidays, and I don’t know what to do. I wish I could finish the book for her, but I can’t. I’m not even sure if I should ask the dreaded question: “How’s the book coming along?”
A Professor's Parent
The author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, came up with an excellent response ( and I think her main points can be applied to the support network of graduate students. We all need our squads, but I think sometimes our loved ones don't know what to do say or do, for fear of hitting the wrong nerve. I'm including a few relevant sections, with my own comments in italics. 

Create the Space for Real Conversation
If you decide you want to have a meaningful and supportive conversation about your loved one’s progress on her book, ask about it in an appropriate setting where you can have a private conversation and when there’s enough time to have a meaningful exchange. In other words,
  • Do not ask the dreaded question in the first 10 minutes of her arriving at your house.
  • Do not ask the dreaded question as casual conversational banter over the snack table (“Did you get a haircut?” “How’s the book coming along?” “Wow, your cheese dip is yummy. Can I get the recipe?”).
  • Do not -- under any circumstances -- ask the dreaded question in front of a crowd of others (at the holiday dinner table, in the middle of a football game on TV or during a gift exchange).
All of these examples send the implicit message that the answer is one sentence and that you’re not interested in listening to what’s really going on in a writer’s life. You want the opposite: a quiet, private space where you can have a supportive conversation. Amen. Part of the reason it's not an easy question to answer is that we want to discuss with you the various components that we've been working on within the dissertation, and how they impact our defense date.
Ask Permission
This may be hard. But if you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone you love about her progress on a book manuscript, you need to ask if she wants to have that conversation with you. That means being open to the range of possible responses: she may be relieved to discuss it with you, she may be hesitant and/or she may be completely uninterested. You can simply say: “I love you, and I’m genuinely curious about your book project. I also know how hard it is to talk about a book project when you’re in the midst of it. So I’m wondering if we can have a supportive conversation.” Then stop talking.
If she says anything resembling “No,” “Back off,” “The best support would be to stop asking me about it” or “I really don’t want to talk about it,” that’s OK. It’s her choice as to whether she trusts you, wants to confide in you on this topic and wants to talk about it in that particular moment. If you are rebuffed, all you need to do is let her know you’re there for her if/when she wants to talk. That can be as simple as saying, “OK, I respect that and want you to know you can talk to me if you ever need to. I’m here to support you in any way I can.” Yes! I am generally not one to say "back off," but the thing to take away from this is that the questioner is ready to offer support no matter what the response.
Listen and Reflect
If she wants to continue the conversation, encourage her to share how she’s feeling, what she’s experiencing and how she’s thinking about the project. Your job is to listen. By that I mean literally listen (i.e., don’t talk over her, interrupt her or give her unsolicited advice). But also try to listen deeply by staying open, being curious, asking questions and remaining entirely focused on her.
The reason listening is so important is that writers who are stuck in a project tend to self-isolate, and it may be the case that, up until now, the only conversation she’s having about the book is in her own mind. So her thoughts and feelings may come out messy and disjointed and/or sound irrational. But in that moment, writers just need to be seen, heard and understood. That means your primary job and greatest gift in that moment is to listen. If it feels as if you need to say anything, try reflecting what she’s entrusted you with. (“What I hear you saying is ….”) Or ask the kind of questions that encourage further sharing: “What is that like for you?” or “How is that impacting you?” I really like this point because it addresses the issue of self-isolation. Most days, I am completely in my own head about my writing and don't get an opportunity to discuss it with others until my husband comes home, or my mom gets off from work. So I certainly appreciate and welcome opportunities for real discussion, and to get a sounding board outside of my head.
Offer Support
At a certain point in the conversation, you will be able to sense that the writer has fully described where she is the writing process, the challenges she is facing and where she may be stuck. At that point, offer your support by asking directly, “How can I best support you now?” Because you’ve been listening closely, you’ll have several ideas in mind. But it’s important to ask her first because she may need a very specific form of support.
Alternatively, she may be so stressed out that she doesn’t know what she needs. If that’s the case, then you can suggest several concrete forms of support. The most common types of support I see offered are: 1) household assistance (child care, cleaning service, help with errands, food delivery, etc.), 2) task support related to manuscript completion (editing, proofreading, formatting, etc.) and 3) social support (someone to call, a listening ear, a hug, etc.). We all can use help. I know I can keep my house in order, but as I get closer to finishing, I'll want someone to look at my work. I can always appreciate social support, because I definitely benefit from my loved ones.
I hope that these suggestions will help you move from asking the dreaded question to having a truly supportive conversation. And for all the  writers out there who are already anticipating the dreaded question over the holidays, I hope these ideas help you to recognize that many family and friends truly want to support you and are often just looking for the best way to do so.
Okay, and a little love from Ryan Gosling doesn't hurt either.
But seriously. Do I have an answer right now? Not a precise one. It is my hope to defend by the end of 2016, which would mean earning my degree at age 30. If I can get into a good rhythm and get into a good submission and revision routine with my advisor, it is a possibility. The university gives me a deadline of end of Spring 2017, so most likely I will be finishing either slightly early or right on time. It's not something that can just be cranked out, and if I could just use sheer determination and will power, I would. But it's neither a simple nor straightforward process.
All of this is to say, I don't always have an answer at the ready. I know what I need to do to make it to the finish line - I just can't precisely predict my finish time in the great marathon project of my life.
But when the question comes from a place of genuine love and concern, I'll always be glad to give an answer, even if it's vague or full of feelings and worries. And even happier when I can answer with a set defense date.
Will make this dream a reality someday!And there will be many people to thank who I know will help get me to the finish line.