Running and Writing a Dissertation: A Metaphor

by nomeatbarefeet

A Metaphor for…—The snow crunched under my feet, and my lungs burned with chilled morning air as I trudged around my normal loop of Hard’ack in St. Albans. I hadn’t run in a few days and I had been itching to get back on the trail. I decided to bring along my iPod to listen to a recent Trail Runner Podcast to help pass the time (the podcast happened to be with one of my favorite guests, “our favorite Brit”: Warren Pole). As the conversation meander (much like the trail I was running), a primary topic emerged:

How, if at all, does running affect other aspects of your life? And, conversely, what can you take from other aspects of your life and apply to running?

As Warren, Scott, and Don talked about the spill-over between running and work, I wanted to shout, “Yes! This is exactly the kind of connection I have been thinking about!” Now, you may be wondering why anyone would get so excited about this seemingly benign topic of conversation. It just so happens that my past year of running has been a wonderful metaphor for the current status of my life, seeing as how I am in the process of finishing my dissertation in Philosophy.

Just a bit of the mass of dissertation material. The book, "Art and Illusion," is my primary text.

Just a bit of the mass of dissertation material. The book, “Art and Illusion,” is my primary text.

The Fear of the Blank Page — I started working on my dissertation almost 7 years ago. The start of that process felt fairly insignificant; probably because the goal of writing a 200+ page paper was too big to comprehend. After my initial proposal was approved, however, the reality of what I needed to undertake sunk over me like molasses: I needed to write, a lot. When Katie and I switched over to running trails I had already mentally commited to running an Ultra. I was in the process of transforming the mental wherewithal into an actual commitment. But even after I had signed up for the race, the goal was still so big that it didn’t really sit in. Then I figured out that I had 4 months to get enough mileage and time on my feet to feel that I could run 30 miles of trails: I needed to run, a lot. The initial fear of unstarted progress—of facing a blank page—can stop any of us. How do we keep going in the face of huge, seemingly insurmountable goals?

Taking Smaller Bites—I have been lucky enough to work at a job that has allowed me to both write and run. I am also very lucky to have a wife that has been very supportive and has worked incredibly hard to support our family (read: us and Arlo, our dog). Given the luxury to set my own writing schedule, it usually takes place in short bursts (though occasionally those can draw out into longer bouts if the creativity is flowing). I have found that writing a dissertation and running (especially training and running an Ultra) can be accomplished if you take them in smaller bites. Always having that huge goal in mind every time you write or run can be overwhelming, but if you take things bit by bit, step by step (or word by word) you can achieve even the seemingly unattainable.

With that, I believe that writing a dissertation and running have a number of things in common.

Writing:

I work in chunks of time, writing for an hour or two hours. Then I give myself a break—I simply get burnt out and become unproductive if I try and force an idea, or try to slog through. I don’t have a set number of pages or words I need to get done everyday or even every week. I chip away at the block of writing–a little here, a little there—until I find that I have 20, 30 or even 40 pages. Then I tweak, hone, and edit to make the finished piece.

I don’t write a lot everyday; some days I don’t even write at all. I know that I have to get things done, but sometimes trying to write everyday leads to a mental block, a kind of cognitive disenfranchisement that pushes me away from the fact that I do enjoy writing…

…In fact, I have come to really enjoy both the writing and the research. Looking up facts; making inferences and cashing them out; drawing interdisciplinary hypothesis that require work in other areas…all of this I have grown to love. I found out a lot about myself since begining this dissertation journey: it might sound overly trite, but I did not know what I could come to know. I could not imagine that my dissertation would become what it is, and I cannot imagine what more I will get to learn.

While I recognize that I have a natural ability to write well, it has taken a long time to work at that skill. Trial and error; countless hours of practice (i.e., writing, editing, re-writing, re-editing)—all of that has helped me develop my ability to write.

Philosophy is process about discovery, and it is a life-long process that hinges on curiosity—something which I have no shortage of.

Running:

Pocketbooth-12-11-30-11-44-33

Hats, coats, (some of) my Vibrams, my Lone Peaks, and “the stick.”

I run in chunks of time. Especially once having switched to the trails. I don’t usually wear a watch, though if I do it is a cheap $15 one (and it is just to ensure taht I can get back to get ready for work). It is not about how many miles I need to get in. If I put too much pressure on myself I find that I lose what I love about running—that is what happened when I first started running. I simply had to do this workout, or run this far, and if I missed it I beat myself up. Running should not be about that. Get an hour in here, or two hours in there—chip away at the larger goal and soon you find that you can run 3 or 4 or 5 hours at a stretch.

I don’t run everyday. Even when I was training for my Ultra I probably didn’t run more than 4 days a week (very, very rarely did I do a 5 day week). I did a few back-to-backs, but not many. My longest timed run was 5 1/2 hours…at half the distance I was training for. My point is that I didn’t stress too much about how often I ran. The idea was quality over quantity.

I cannot believe that I have come to enjoy running as much as I have—I cannot believe that I have come to running trails as much as I have…then there is the Ultra thing. Why would anyone want to, let alone enjoy, running for that long? And yet, I do love it. I have found out a great deal about myself on the trails–I did not know how far, or through how much pain I could push myself. I cannot wait to find out what more the trail will teach me.

I also recognize that I have a natural ability to run—not only that I enjoy it, but that I am pretty good at it. But it has taken me lots of time out on the trails to discover and then improve upon what the abilities I have.

Running is a life-long process of discovery. It begins with the audacious thought, “Can I do that?” and it continues by means of a curious nature–finding out which distances, situations, and obstacles you can overcome. Finding out when you can answer that question with “Yes” and when you have to answer, “No.”

My disseration will have taken me almost 7 years to complete; my first Ultra took me about 6 and a half hours to complete. In both cases I had a goal that I was working towards; a goal that seemed unattainable. I truly believe that you can do anything you set your mind to. So long as you push yourself, dig deep for your endurance, develop a thick-skin against criticism and a willingness to accept suffering—nothing is unattainable.

In all things, live deliberately.

Then get out there and attain what you beleive is unattainable.

Run mas.

-J

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