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.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Short Stories on Sunday

July could be neatly categorized as hot and humid. As someone constantly editing prose in an effort to be concise in my dissertation writing, the weather and running here can be boiled down to those two words. While I’d rather be knee deep in snow, I’d still rather slog it around in the heat than not be able to run at all. Amid the consistently 90+ degree-days, a few bright spots and notes: - hot takes, if you will!
A couple of weeks ago, I did the Bastille Day Four Miler. Never got around to blogging about it, particularly because after we got back from the race, and hear about the terrible tragedy in Nice, there wasn’t much worth celebrating about Bastille Day. This race is a low-key $5 evening race on the C&O Canal in Georgetown. It was 97 and a heat advisory when I left the house to run to the race – the warm-up itself was redundant, I was dripping by the time I arrived to pick up my bib. Mercifully, even though the heat index had hit over 100 degrees, the race was in the shade, which offered at least a modicum of relief. While in the previous year, I averaged 6:45 pace on a hot day, this day required some scaling back in terms of pace. I figured around 7:00 pace was reasonable to get in a good effort but stay safe. I ended up averaging 7:00 exactly, although the way I did so was not even: 6:49, 7:10, 7:00, 3:34. Yes, the math doesn’t add up. They apparently measured the course short, which made for a surprise finish. 25:05 for 3.59 miles (7:00 pace) I still had a little energy left and would’ve kicked harder. Oh well. I chalked up to a good speed workout under challenging conditions and placed reasonably well (7th woman).
I haven’t paid too much attention to mileage lately – I’ve tended to average 30-35 miles lately, with a couple of weeks hitting 40, long runs tending to average between 10-12 miles, with the occasional 13-14. This is a far cry to the days where I was consistently running 40-50 miles, with a low week hit about 32 miles. However, with my eyes on a half marathon in September, I know I’d feel more confident getting back into the 40 mile weeks with a long run over the half marathon. I was happy to get up to 43 miles last week, even though it was one of the hottest weeks of the year. Other than my track workout of mile repeats, my pace hardly dipped below 9:00 miles – run your easy days, easy! And when it’s hot, slow down more! I got in 2 long runs in over the weekend, 10 and 12 miles, respectively. Although I would’ve liked to go further just to get in some extra mileage, it was the smart decision to stop. On both days, I was tired but not spent, sweaty, but not dehydrated or overheated. There is a fine line of tightrope walking in training in the heat, and I’d rather not fall off the wire!
I was pleased Wednesday to get in a second track workout. I did 8x800 at 7:30 in the morning (hubby had an early morning meeting which got both of us up and at ‘em), and thankfully about half of the track was in the shade. I like 800s a lot because they go by pretty quickly (much faster than the mile repeats) but not quite at the blistering pace of 400s. Again, I used to totally have a rhythm about these and could descend in times almost to the second in accuracy. It’ll take some time to recalibrate to that specificity. Quantitatively, I was hoping to knock off 2-3 seconds per interval – that did nott happen in reality: 3:26, 3:23, 3:20 3:14, 3:13, 3:12, 3:10, 3:10. Ok, so I was clicking things off nicely, and then overshot the 4th interval and basically needed to just hold steady. However, I never blew up: this was still a good set of progression intervals. Looking forward to going back to these old workouts on a new track with renewed grit and determination! Got a 15 mile run in on Saturday, making it the second consecutive week of 40+ miles.

I’m looking forward to cooler temperatures, but will continue to gut things out in the heat – albeit with smart and healthy tactics! Stay tuned, stay cool, and stay safe!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Coming Home and Back on Track

As tough as the training was when I was on a running schedule, training upwards of 50 miles per week for shorter races, I thoroughly enjoyed the hard schedule. The different runs, particularly the speed workouts, felt more like puzzles and games, rather than insufferable sessions. They were often character-building workouts, where some sort of challenge pressed me to dig deeper than I had previously. While I think the tempo workouts on the road were probably what strengthened me the most and helped me to become prepared for race season, my favorite workout of the week was the track workout.
This excitement usually the night before, as I lay out my clothes and prepared myself mentally for the challenge the next day: 5 x 1 miles, 8 x 800, 20 x 400m, or some sort of mix. I had developed enough familiarity with my pacing that even though I was doing the workouts by myself, I knew what times to hit, and how to not bomb a workout completely by going too fast. And the victories that came from these track workouts only could compare to race day magic. I often had graduate classes a couple of hours after those workouts, and any challenges I faced in school, or in meetings with my professors, felt so much achievable after knocking out hard miles on the track.
I don't think I've mentioned it on here, but I've signed up for the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon in September. While I have been running over 13 miles for a while, it has been over 4 years since I last raced a half marathon. And although I haven't been training as seriously as I was a few years ago, I wanted to sign up for a longer race to see how close I could get to my PR (1:32:33). So, the race now is just under 2 months away, and although I've been using some of these races as speed workouts, if I really want to knock at the sub 1:34 door (I think that's my main goal), I need to get back on track, literally. So, I thought I'd go back and dig up some of the golden oldies: the workouts that got me into shape and stretched me as a distance runner.
 I'm so fortunate to have so many colleges nearby, and American University is just a couple of miles away with a great track. The last time I actually ran on this track was over four years ago when I broke 6 minutes for the first time in the mile. And, more importantly, the last time I had set foot on a track, period, for any workout was April 2014. If it sounds like a long time - it is - I had a different name then! Needless to say, there was some trepidation about getting back onto it. Objectively, I'm not at that fitness level anymore, and while I'd like to think I can get back to it, it'll take some time.
The workout I came up with was 3 x 1 mile, followed by 4 x 400 meters. I would take a lap to recover after each mile, and half a lap after each 400. As excited as I was about getting back on the track, I clearly wasn't automatically in track-mode - I totally forgot my flats! While I had spent the first few years of running track workouts wearing trainers, I totally got used to wearing flats and feeling super light and fast. I needed to keep that in mind when I toed the line - it was possible that I might be slower because of both the physical and psychological attachment I've had to the speed race shoes.
And as if no time had passed, I was toeing the line, and that familiar feeling of excitement came back as I mentally said "bang" and took off! Oh it felt so good to be tearing around that oval again, and while it was clear that my speed needed some development, it's like riding a bicycle - you just don't forget how to do it. All of those memories came back, and while it took more energy both physical and mental to click off the laps, I got it done: 6:54, 6:40, 6:39. Clearly I need to recall my old pacing strategies (the goal was to knock off 5-7 seconds per interval), but the leg speed was there. It definitely took more effort than I remembered, but I'm sure it will become easier with time. Muscle memory, right? And then to stimulate my legs in a different way, I did a set of 400s - which just took a lot of grit and determination: 1:37, 1:33: 1:32, 1:34. Overall, this was a good first effort back and a reminder that A) the cumulative training over the years makes a big difference and B) While I can certainly call on those cumulative miles, I still need to put in the hard work now.
Feeling pleased to have both writing and running on the right track these days!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Just Keep Moving (How Brenda Martinez Inspires Me)

Part of the compelling nature of the Olympic Trials and the Olympics themselves is seeing the stories of redemption. Yes, the people who go to the Olympics and compete on the highest stage of competitions are achieving their dreams, but so many of those stories are filled with redemption. Everyone loves a comeback story, and to an extent, many Olympic stories are filled with redemption. No one experiences a meteoric rise overnight without hard work, and most reach the peak of their sport having overcame different obstacles. Whether it is injuries, loss of sponsors, change of coach, or other training difficulties, the road to the top is scarcely smooth nor linear.
There were a bunch of great stories from the 2016 US Olympic Track and Field Trials, and the ten days of races and events were a lot of fun to watch and read about. It’s also one of the few times a year when I actually feel like I know what’s going on in sports! One of the most exciting and upsetting events was the Women’s 800M Final. A collision knocked some of the country’s best out of contention for well-deserved spots on the team: For many, the 800m was their only option, and so this was game over.
 But for Brenda Martinez (who, incidentally has a bronze medal from the 2013 World Championships in the 800m), she is so talented and diverse in her ability that she was also qualified for the 1500m. She managed to go through the heats of the 1500m, just days after her devastating fall, and managed to squeak by and nab a spot on the team! And the crowd went wild as the scoreboard revealed she got it. The best part of this was that the winner of the race, Jenny Simpson, ran to find Brenda, hugging her as she lay on the ground, exhausted from the effort and uttered: “I am so proud of you…Nobody else could have done this.”
It was a beautiful expression of friendship and shared joy of two teammates achieving their dreams together. This wasn’t just a feel-good moment; it represented so much hard work and saying yes to challenges when others said no. Speaking after the race, Brenda Martinez commented: “I feel like it had to happen for a reason. And that’s the way I believe life works, you’re going to get tested. And if people can see what I went through, then maybe they won’t doubt themselves next time something happens to them. And if I can give them any words of encouragement it’s ‘Just keep moving.'”

 Just keep moving. Such an important lesson to take away from this, and it has such broad applications. I recognize that the obstacles and tests, and even stumbles that I’ve had in life are small. However, my professional life as a graduate student has had its share of obstacles, particularly during the writing phase. And in moments of doubt, the previous failures and stumbles have a special way of creeping back into my head at the most inopportune moments. But those failures have been followed with going back to the drawing board, keeping my head down, and figuring out ways to proceed.
Just keep moving. It is so small and simplistic, and yet sometimes such hard advice to follow. I have gotten a lot of writing done this summer. And some days, the writing hasn’t been the most eloquent, but with just a couple of exceptions, I have been writing every day. That is the habit that ultimately so many writers encourage: cultivating a habitual writing habit. It is not always natural, but it is exponentially more natural than it was a year ago, even six months ago. Of course, so many liken picking up a writing habit to a running habit, and I wish it came as naturally! But I have to say, even though there has been mental “soreness” that has come from such intense writing this summer, I feel like I’m finally in the groove with it.

Just keep moving. I am rounding the bend on my doctoral program, well into the depths of my dissertation. The finish line isn’t quite in sight, but it’s getting closer. And the only way to get closer is, just keep moving.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Reston Firecracker 5k

After spending 9 summers working at CTY, when I didn't really have a flexible schedule, I've been trying to take advantage of the fun summer activities available  e in DC when you're not responsible for hundreds of kids and faculty for seven weeks. One of the biggest joys has been to participate in some of the area's summer races 
I signed up for the Reston Firecracker 5k with a friend a couple of weeks ago, not totally sure of my fitness. I had had a great spring racing season, culminating in a second place finish at the 19k in early May. But after 5 hard races, I needed some low-key time for running, and frankly, time to focus getting some good writing in.

I was bummed when my friend couldn't do the race because she was sick, but since this would be the beginning of summer racing, I was still hoping for a good gauge of my fitness. Mercifully, like some sort of Fourth of July miracle, it was overcast and only about 68 degrees this morning. This is unheard of in July, and while such weather doesn't bode well for other kinds of Fourth of July activities like the beach, it was just perfect for racing. I was hoping to run somewhere between 20:00 and 20:30, knowing that the average first female time is under 17 minutes. I was hoping that instead of a small race where I'd be lucky to have someone running near me, I'd be with a larger pack and could pick off people.

We were off and running, and the first mile or so was pretty hilly, and so crowded that a couple of collisions happened near me. I ran through the first mile in about 6:32, so a little bit off of sub 20 pace. I realized that no matter what, I should try to pick up the pace. 5ks are uncomfortable at any pace, and I thought that I should just try gutting it out as much as possible. I started to speed up a little, particularly as we hit a small downhill, using that to ramp up my speed. I reached 2 miles around 13:00, so I was running a pretty even pace, but was actually picking off people. 

It is remarkable that the miles can really tick off during a long run, and even a run between an hour or two can go by relatively quickly. Conversely, I was trying to break things up minute by minute, and when I reached that two mile mark, was hoping that it just meant I had roughly 7 minutes left. I simultaneously was passing people, but was just trying to focus on knocking off another minute at a time. Going by people with confidence helped a lot, and distracted me from my tired legs.
5ks are always uncomfortable, and this proves it!

With about .2 to go, I was going uphill, trying to pick off a couple more people, and just willing for the seconds to go by. I was so happy to see the 3 mile mark, but at about 19:35, knew that sub 20 was way out of reach. 
I did my best to finish strong at 20:20 (6:34 pace)
14/781 of all women
5th in age group (first time in the 30-34 division!)

American Dream Way
This was a very competitive race, and so overall, I was pretty pleased with how I did. The female winner's time was 16:44, the second place finisher came in 20th in this year's Olympic Marathon Trials, and 12 women broke 20.
I had a great cool down on the W&OD trail - my favorite trail when we lived in Virginia. It was so nice and quiet, and still relatively cool out. I stopped at one point to take a picture of this bridge (so many great names in this area: Difficult Run, American Dream), etc. Wrapped up the day with 10 miles under my belt, it was a good way to start the holiday.
Overall, I was pleased with my performance and think it's a good indicator of some racing to come this summer!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sanctuary in Rock Creek Park

Summer in DC can be neatly summarized in two words: hot and humid. While the flowers are in bloom, and the monuments are well-maintained, this is the season I'd least recommend for visitors...or residents. And as someone married to a government employee, I wish our nation's capital wasn't built on top of a swamp. Those who train for fall marathons and suffered through super-sweaty runs are rewarded with cooler temperatures and low humidity. Those of us with dogs are constantly carrying a water bottle around and trolling for restaurants that put water bowls outside to provide some puppy sanctuary. And while some shiver in January and lament the frigid temperatures, I'll take that any day over red-raced runs in June. 

So, that's my rant. It makes me miss my summers working in Santa Cruz, when the morning runs barely hit 50 degrees, and Rochester when spring carried well into June. I've lived in some wonderful places, and this is my permanent place and I wouldn't trade it, but if someone could stop that whole climate change thing and figure out how to cool things down, that would be great.

Sanctuary, simply defined, is  a sacred place, and people usually think of it in the confines of a church or religious space. But more broadly, it is any sort of haven, or place that provides feelings of safety and serenity. And church provides a lot of that for me, and I've been so grateful to have that sort of sanctuary. But for years, running has provided that as well. I'll leave it to the always eloquent Kathrine Switzer to describe it, "For miles around in open country and wild landscapes I felt God everywhere. I was free, protected, and approved of. The rhythm of running and my own heartbeat tapped out a universal connectedness to the environment that I had never before felt, and I was both exhilarated and humbled." - Marathon Woman.

And she hits the nail on the head here. There is something special about running, for me, that gives that sense of connecting to the world, yet freedom from my own little world, and it's indescribable. And I know that there are many different sanctuaries for all sorts of people, and it can take a long time to find one's sanctuary. 

I love Rock Creek Park, and I think part of that love stems from the idea that Rock Creek Park is an oasis in the middle of the city. This urban park cuts through Northwest DC and sits on over 2,000 acres of beautiful land. It is the third oldest national park in the country, and truly provides an outlet for the 600,000 residents of the city, and the many tourists and visitors who flock to the capital. And if you look at the pictures I took from this evening's 10k run through it, you would have no idea that this sanctuary was just a couple of miles away from our federal government, the hub of the free world.

It has been so hot in the city, and the park has functioned as such an oasis for so many reasons. The forests create so much shade and particularly as dusk falls, helps to drop the temperature so much. And everyone who seeks to kneel at the altar of the park does so on their own terms, without pretense or judgment. People put aside their beliefs and attitudes at the park (with a few exceptions - no one is perfect), and despite their concerns and worries of the day, whether it is work, or family, or car trouble, or the bills, it goes away. The park does not judge and does not care when you mess up. The park forgives you for an unproductive writing day, the park understands when you didn't make the bed or do all of the dishes, or...I think I've made my point. A judgment-free zone, and amazingly enough, a zone where I'm least likely to judge myself.

And despite that so many people do come to this park to run, bike, do yoga, walk the dog, go on picnics, it is so quiet. The temperature was mercifully cooler, and for the first time weeks, I wasn't beet-red after fifteen minutes of running. It felt idyllic in all sorts of ways: the temperature, the quiet, the beautiful landscape that looked like it belonged hundreds of miles away instead of adjacent to the infrastructure that governs the free world. 

I had had a good writing today, but sometimes after hours of the mental exercises of writing, editing, organizing, and crafting a thesis, I was starting to feel foggy. And I've finally learned that caffeine does not always do the trick, particularly after multiple cups of coffee with my writing. So, it was running that cleared my head, and no amount of humidity was going to get in my way. It ultimately worked, and just like the humidity had evaporated after yesterday's downpour, the swarm of medieval thoughts and arguments in my head quieted down. 

Sanctuaries cannot be simply mapped out or searched for in an atlas. They are often found through one's own pilgrimage, one's own journey seeking respite amidst the haze and craze. There are different kinds of stained glass windows, those crafted by an artist, and those crafted by God, all of which allow us to peer through something differently and watch the light stream in.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Slaying the Dragons in a New Age Bracket

This Sunday (Father’s Day), I turned 30 and while I don’t think I felt too much angst about turning 30, it certainly gave me pause about closing out my twenties and what lies in store in this next decade. My parents came into town, and Saturday night I had a little party with them, my husband, and my closest friends from graduate school. I couldn’t help but think of Julie Powell in one of my favorite movies, Julie and Julia. While we had pizza and cupcakes instead of lobster thermidor, we were marking time in the same way. Just like Julie Powell was midway through cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was with my friends and family midway through my dissertation. I think I love that movie so much because both Julia Child and Julie Powell have such big ambitions, but so often also had to sweat it out through the difficult changes of writing a book, writing a blog, learning to cook, speak French, etc. They both did it with loving husbands by their sides, just like I’m doing (and I also have great parents who have been cheering for me since I was in diapers). And while they often despaired and were met with great criticism, they emerged triumphant in both their personal and professional goals.
And so as part of a new age bracket and sights set on defending in Spring 2017 (less than 10 months away!), it’s time to get medieval. As much as the dissertation is an individual project, it would be impossible to do it in isolation. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a writing group with some of my peers, and I’ve also been writing regularly with some other classmates. I think it’s really important to surround yourselves with people who won’t just encourage you, but challenge you to push harder. My best friend is a dermatologist, and was the top of her med school class, and has just worked her butt off throughout her entire career. My best friend in graduate school earned graduated with distinction, which is really hard to do, and I’ve constantly sought her advice and just tried to model my work ethic after hers.
I was listening to an interview with Lauren Fleshman (one of the country’s best 5k runners) and she said to think about it as not slaying demons, but dragons, and as a medievalist, I really liked that idea. The challenges that are ahead with writing and defending the dissertation are not insurmountable, nor are they bad. The demons are more of an internal struggle – trying to slay the doubt that comes with a challenging project.
           I managed to slay one dragon this spring. After some tough feedback on a chapter I worked on last summer, I spent the spring semester revising this chapter and submitted it in May, hoping that the revisions were substantial enough to satisfy my advisor. For the past few weeks, I’ve checked my e-mail regularly (fanatically is more like it), hoping for a response and an indication that things were moving in the right direction. Today, I received the following response, It's a big improvement over the earlier draft I read….(specific feedback about content and structure)… In any event, I think the chapter has now taken good form.  Now all it needs is a bit of prose polishing.
Victory! I nearly burst into tears with relief. I was sitting with one of my writing partners when it happened, and it was so wonderful to share it with him, because he can totally understand the trepidation and apprehension that comes with writing and revising.

There are hurdles along the way to the finish, and there is still much work to be done, but it is possible to slay dragons and conquer the castle!