Sunday, February 26, 2017

When there is a bigger race ahead: Race for Equal Justice 10k

Every year for the past few years, my New Year's resolutions have largely been tied to something with graduate school: finish master's program, pass Ph.D. comps, get proposal approved, write X amount of chapters, etc. This year, the resolution is to finish the dissertation and graduate. There were no running goals, frankly, no other life goals: just eyes on the prize. Running has been a coping mechanism: a way to clear my head after writing and rewriting, staring at the computer and trying to figure out the best way to articulate my argument. Getting some fresh air and the chance to let my brain wander is not just a reward for getting some good work done earlier in the day, but a necessity to ensure that more productive hours will follow.

I'm really close to defending. My advisor has read my entire draft, and after those revisions, I've submitted the revised version to my committee. I can count on one hand the number of steps left until the defense. Once I receive feedback from the rest of the committee and make those changes, I'll be ready to defend. Stating that unequivocally or without hesitation feels a bit strange, because so often (despite my mom's insistence), the finish line has felt unattainable. But at this point, unless I implode in the next six weeks, the dream will become a reality. And to be honest, the past few months, everything leading up to the finish, have been some of the happiest moments of graduate school. Instead of confusion and doubt, there's been clarity and encouragement.

But because I'm competitive in nearly all aspects of life, it's hard for me to put any sort of racing completely on the back burner. After all, I did get my half marathon PR in September amid a lot of writing. So, I signed up for the GWU Law School Race for Equal Justice 10k. Very low stakes race on Haines Point: a course I've ran on at least 15 times. I've finally gotten my mileage over 30 miles per week consistently, with long runs going up from 10 miles to 15 miles last weekend. I hadn't really done much speed prep beyond trying to push hard in the last few miles of a long run. But I hoped that muscle memory would kick in, and that shooting for about 45 minutes was a reasonable goal (maybe even faster than that).

To say I was humbled and brought back down to earth is putting it mildly. My first mile was 7:15, and the way it felt seemed closer to 6:15 pace. It was a race in which every mile felt tougher than the next. For comparison, I ran my half PR in September at 7:02 pace, in which the first 10 miles where at 7:00 pace consistently, and then I slowed down by about 10 seconds per mile. During that race, I felt so in control. During this race, I watched people pass me effortlessly, while my legs failed to respond. I finished in 50:08 - my second slowest 10k ever (second only to my 10k debut in 2008). And I was spent - not like finishing a marathon or PR, but clearly just not at the level I'm used to performing at.

But as I was running, for nearly the entirety of the race, as my pace continued to slow down with each subsequent mile, I had the following thoughts running through my head: This doesn't matter, what matters is that you've been throwing all of your energy into finishing. The race you're chasing after is much bigger than anything you'd encounter on the roads. Your time is well-spent writing. And yes, you're competitive and your running friends are out there running faster, but you're seeking a different kind of PR (a Dr.)

So, while the stubborn and competitive person in me finished feeling a bit stubborn and dejected, I had already found perspective and had my eyes turned on the bigger race (race date TBD - stay tuned).

Saturday, January 14, 2017

When The Boss Says to Put Work on Pause: Pushing Aside the Cloud

When a boss, or in my case, my advisor gives a recommendation, I'm usually quick to take it. Usually this has to do with working on my prose, consulting additional sources, or other pieces of advice designed to further the progress of my project. But a week before I turned in my draft last month, I received a suggestion that was counter to her usually recommendations:
Once you submit this, do not look at it for several weeks. Do not be tempted to go through it, but give yourself permission to set this aside. At this point, you're so close to the project that you now need to create some distance between you and it. Don't think about it over the holidays, and that way, when I give you feedback in January, you're looking at your writing with fresh eyes.
For the past few years, if we've chatted, most likely you've seen me look like this. Bright-eyed, with at least some attempt of looking put-together, and usually with a smile. And usually, in my daily life, that was at least a partially-accurate interpretation. But my interior reaction to the writing process has often felt more like this:

For better or for worse, the dissertation has followed me quite closely for the past few years. I didn't think about it on our wedding day, and there have been a few other days over the years (my brother's wedding too) when it's been pushed aside, but typically for at least part of each day, the dissertation hovers like a cloud. Some of it is nagging guilt (You should be writing), other times it stems from well-meaning questions about my progress (So, how's your thesis? When do you think you'll finish? It sure takes a while, huh?).  I don't know if other people experience a similar feeling, or if people in different lines of work feel the same way, but that inner cloud followed me for a lot of the writing process.
It was only a few months ago that the cloud started to shrink. I think part of it had to do with watching it all come together, part of it was the positive feedback I was receiving, and another part was the realization that the dream was truly en route to becoming a reality.
I didn't touch the dissertation for 22 days. My husband and I went on a lovely vacation to St. Michaels, MD, where for a week, we relaxed, lounged, celebrated, and truly decompressed. No alarm clocks were set, no schedules were made, the only requirement was fun.
It was amazing. I remember even when we went on our honeymoon, there was a little bit of the dissertation cloud (just the tiniest bit), but the cloud finally abandoned its location over my head. If someone (I was at an academic conference during the final days of the 3 week break) asked about my dissertation, an internal knot did not form in my stomach. Nor were my words carefully couched, told with a forced smile and feigned optimism. I could feel the genuine optimism and sincere excitement as I updated any inquirers, "Yes, I turned in the full thing!" "It looks like if everything goes right, I'll defend in the spring!"
And when the first round of feedback came in this past Monday morning, I tackled it with excitement. To clarify, it's not like I was sitting there grinning as I waded through the necessary corrections - that would be slightly insane. But there was an enthusiastic intensity to my work, and yes, a degree of excitement as I pursued through some articles and book chapters, finally having the time to dive into some of the broader issues surrounding my project.
There will still be moments of doubt and anxiety in the coming months - I'm pretty sure about that. However, that larger cloud has been pushed aside, and I'm looking forward to taking on these final busy months like this.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Putting Operation Endgame into Action

I can point to one simple reason why my blogging fell by the wayside, yet again, in the final months of 2016. I had written a very exuberant blog post about how Operation Endgame was in motion, and then proceeded to focus on reaching the first milestone in that part of the dissertation marathon.
Then, I was in the middle of writing my final body chapter of the dissertation, and in an effort to relieve my brain from the single focus of that chapter (which felt so tedious to write – it was the chapter about which I was the least confident), I started to tackle the introduction and conclusion as well. To me, one benefit of the nature of the dissertation is that different components of it require different aspects of your brain. On the surface, it is a day-in, day-out grind, but truly, as one part overtaxes your mind, you can relieve some of the pressure by turning to a different section, until your brain has recovered enough to return to that previous roadblock.
Mid-November, I submitted that final chapter, and with just over a month to go, took to revising the old chapters and bringing together the big ideas into the project’s beginning and ending chapters. I had received enough encouraging feedback to feel galvanized and energized for this homestretch of 2016. All of the thoughts that had been swirling around in my head about the project as a whole, which previously were relegated to an ongoing Word document, finally had a proper place in the wrapping and packaging of the project. And with the exception of Thanksgiving break, during which I happily set my writing aside to be home with my family, I wrote, revised, and threw myself into getting the full draft ready for submission.
There have been times when the writing process has brought me to my knees. Sometimes in prayer, sometimes in tears, sometimes in frustration, but it has been an endeavor that I’ve participated in my whole body. There have been physical pains, emotional highs and lows, spiritual moments (almost a given as a Catholic writing about devotion to the Virgin Mary), mental anguish and intellectual triumphs, but it’s been a labor of love, full stop. But it was also my hope that as I raced toward the finish line, the memories I would carry with me of those final months would be filled with mental stimulation and motivation.
And during that monster month, that’s exactly what happened. I worked every weekend (save Thanksgiving), and many evenings were editing, and although it was exhausting, and sometimes filled with moments of uncertainty about reaching the deadline, it was also exciting too. For finally, as those questions swirled around, from classmates and professors, to well-meaning family and friends, the question “so, how are things with the dissertation?” was met with, “I’m getting close to submitting a complete version,” said not with a grimace, but with at least a modicum of optimism.
And on December 20th, I submitted a complete draft of my dissertation. To see the whole process come together, to print out and bind a full draft that could be read from cover to cover, brought back the feeling of satisfaction that came with doing the first (of what would become many) 20 mile run that was one of the final benchmarks of practice before the marathon. Yes, it was met with a familiar feeling of fatigue, but a tiredness that comes an intense, passionate effort.

I was under strict orders from my advisor to take a break and not think about it until the new semester. I was more than happy to oblige, and just as whole-heartily as I entered into the monster month, I stepped away, happy to step off the train until the conductor summoned me to board again.

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!