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!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Right to Run 19k - Seneca Falls, NY

So, as I said in the last post, I had done 2 back-to-back races, which I really enjoyed. Racing is one of my favorite parts of running: the pageantry, competing, being with other people, really pushing myself – it’s awesome.
My mom, who has been racing up a storm, running several awesome 2:05 half marathons this past year (and she is in the grand-master category), sent me a link about the inaugural 19k Right to Run race in Seneca Falls, home of the 1848 Women’s Convention and the future home of the Women’s Hall of Fame, with honoree Kathrine Switzer, who is an actual pioneer of women’s running and the champion of getting women into running. In case you didn’t know, 19k is about 11.8 miles and was to honor the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
It was the day before Mother’s Day, and so was the perfect reason to go home to spend Mother’s Day weekend with my mom and do a great race together. This was going to be my third race in three weeks, but I also thought that after 2 5ks, a longer rac, would be a different test of endurance. Also, it had been pouring in DC for several weeks (breaking a record), and a race in sunny Western NY (who would think Rochester would have the better weather?!) sounded great!
My mom, Kathrine Switzer, and me before the race
It had been over a year since my mom and I did a race together, and 2.5 years since we did a race together in NY. I think because my running career started off when I was single and my parents were (and still are) my two biggest supporters, I still have so many fond memories of driving to races with them, sitting in the back seat while we get ready for a race. So it was so nice to do that again, and now to have them involved not just as spectators, but also as fellow runners (on this day, my dad was our dutiful Sherpa, but has been getting ready for his first triathlon this summer). The night before, my parents asked me what I was hoping to run, and I figured somewhere around 7:15 pace would be good. Last month, I did a 16-mile run at 7:46 pace (one of the best tempo runs of my life, running great negative splits and getting faster throughout the run), so I figured 30 seconds faster for 5 miles shorter would be reasonable.
We got to the start, which was near a farm in Seneca Falls – fairly remote, and flocked to see our beloved hero, Kathrine Switzer, who was the official starter of the race and was checking in on things before things started. We hadn’t seen her in 5 years (since my mom and I ran the NY Mini 10k in June 2011), but she has an incredible memory and hugged and greeted us like old friends. Like a coach, she wished us the best, then we parted ways and headed to the start. The race was supposed to start with a pre-recorded version of the Star Spangled Banner, but since they were having technical difficulties, we began to sing it as a group. It was pretty cool, and our voices echoed into the quiet landscape, and then we were off.
It is such a stark contrast to race in DC, where the route is lined with monuments, statues, tons of people, and change at every block. We took off on a small two-way road that was on the perimeter of a farm. It was so quiet: the map indicated that the majority of this race would be on rolling hills through residential Seneca Falls, and then finish downtown. There was a woman next to me, close in age, size, and physique, and so I estimated that she would be my main competition, and I was right. We took off, and we were the only two women taking it out hard, and there were a cluster of guys right in front of us. With such a quiet landscape, you could really hear other conversations, and these guys were talking about how they planned to go out at 6:00 pace and just hold on. This did not happen. We were running in the 6:35-6:40 pace, and the other woman and I were running virtually side-by-side, leading the women. I would put a little surge in, to see if she would follow, and she would either join me, or just be a step or two behind me – close enough that I could hear her breathing. I was clicking off sub 7 pace so well. And I say that being now 2 years removed from a formal training program, track workouts, etc. But there is something about accumulated knowledge/leg strength/endurance that pays off. I came through 5k in under 21 minutes, and was just feeling good, even though I had the feeling that down the road (literally), this would not be sustainable. But frankly, why not try to go out hard, and push for a good pace when things are relatively low-stakes? This wasn’t a marathon, where such foolishness is often met with such a cruel punishment, but a race where perhaps the final couple of miles would be uncomfortable but not terrible. So, there we are, me and no-name chick, occasionally picking up snippets of conversation of these guys shooting the breeze. And finally, I couldn’t take the bro chatter, and decided to push ahead, through the mob of dudes. It was definitely a mental victory, because at a certain point, listening to that was so distracting. So, I’m still sub 7, and we are climbing some hard hills, including a long segment on rocks. Not gravel – make no mistake about that, but rocks. Do you ever run on rocks? No? Shocking! Not fun, and just took some physical maneuvering to just keep powering through. It was such a relief to get back on the road, and I was still clicking off the miles relatively comfortably. No-name chick was nearby, the sun was out, and it was so quiet and beautiful. I kept waiting for the bottom to fall out, for the pace to become unsustainable. That happened at mile nine, when we had to climb a really hard hill on a mix of grass and gravel that seemed to stretch on for so long. This was my bottom, and all of a sudden, I knew I had maxed out, and I could hear feminine breathing next to me. I assumed I was ceding first place to no-name chick, but it was another woman! This short runner who looked like she was in her 40s, blew by me on the hill (which is such a crushing blow – I’ve been on the other end of this, and I know how it can be a psychological tool to defeat an opponent), and I just had to let her go. I’ve done races where there’s been back and forth, neither of us willing to yield, but not then. Not only did she blow by me, but she was quickly putting in 100, 200, 300 yards on people. Amazing and well played.
I just needed to protect second place and try to not fall apart completely, as we still had almost 3 miles to go. We had gotten closer to Seneca Lake, which is just gorgeous, and provided some mental relief/distraction as I felt like I was plodding along, watching my times slow down. I got a final boost crossing a bridge that had a statue of Susan B. Anthony, a woman who has influenced my life in so many ways (my Girl Scout troop made a trip to her house and to the Seneca Falls Convention Center that got me interested in women’s history and ultimately led me to pursue a career in history), knowing that my small suffering on that day paled in comparison that what they went through and sacrificed to get the right to vote for women. And hearing my dad cheer me on, I pushed to the finish line, finishing in 1:22:59, 7:02 pace for 11.8 miles.
Kathrine Switzer herself gave me my medal, and a hug. I have to say, with the exception of the six marathons I’ve done, this was the hardest race I’ve done (and I think I’ve probably done close to 100 races now). The physical terrain was really rough, with those switches onto stone and grass, and the hills too made this quite a challenging distance event. I was thinking of my mom on every challenging part of the course, knowing that she would meet those obstacles as well.
I waited with my dad for my mom to finish, and we cheered so much as she came storming in (yes, storming, she totally blew by this one woman with 200 yards to go) in 1:57:23 (9:57 pace). She worked so hard on this course, and I knew that she had found the terrain be difficult as well. When I told her that it was one of the hardest races I had ever done, I know that she valued that, because to her, it offered a sense of legitimacy to her own thoughts about the race. I was so proudof her (she’s run two half marathons this year, both 2:05s, both PRs – amazing), and was so thrilled and happy to spend the weekend with her.
It was a big honor to receive my plaque from Kathrine Switzer, who is not just a champion of women’s running, but was a champion runner in her own day (with a 2:51 marathon PR). She truly is one of the most gracious people I know, and spent a few minutes talking with me and my parents, more like old friends, rather than a few people who just admire her greatly. This was a hard race (and I’ve taken it really easy in the weeks since – I really laid it out there on the course), but linked with such an important cause. As Kathrine noted in her speech on race day, many fought so hard for the right to vote, and we need to honor them. There are still many miles to go in terms of women’s rights, particularly in the area of equal pay, but with women like Kathrine at the helm, things are running in the right direction.