nomeatbarefeet

a vegan couple: eating; running; living–minimally.

Tag: trail

Running and Writing a Dissertation: A Metaphor

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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ARE Adventure Race; or, really real trail running.

Dippikill Pond

Over the river (bogs and streams)
And through the woods (not to mention up and over that boulder covered hill)
To grandmothers house we go (but why is her house on the other side of that ravine?)

If you are wondering what the ARE Adventure Race consists of here is a good metaphor: walk outside your house, look for the most heavily wooded area you can find, now run through it. In 27 degree weather. In the snow. Now do it uphill. Now do it with wet feet. Now do it for an hour.

That’s basically what Katie and I found when we showed up at the Dippikill Wilderness retreat Saturday afternoon (which, I just found out, is owned by SUNY Albany; that means Katie and I can rent a cabin up there!). An hour and a halfish drive north of Albany, the surroundings are gorgeous. On an 800 acre area, you are in the Adirondacks no doubt about it. The registration was inside one of the main retreat buildings, The Farmhouse. Used bibs from previous races were handed out for our numbers (great idea); we used the bathrooms and then jogged around a bit until the race was to start.

One other point of note: we decided to run this in our Bikilas and not our Merrells. Katie was actually the one who was set on this. I had been thinking all week about running in my Trail Gloves, but the morning of the race she mentioned that she was going to run in the Bikilas, and the more we talked about it I thought, “Why not? Why do I think that I cannot do this?” No good response came to mind, so we went ahead with it. That’s my wife, always one step ahead:)

The Start Two things about this race: (1) No one has prior knowledge of the actual distance. Its usually 4-8 miles in length, but none of the volunteers know exactly how far it is. (2) This race is known for its unusual starts. One year everyone started in the bathrooms; another year everyone started in their cars and had to wait for an air horn. This year we were told to sit on the ground with our feet out straight…then we had to all take our shoes off.

The Race In actuality, the instructions are quite simple: follow the pink ribbons wherever they go until you end up back at the start. Katie and I had agreed that we would run this together—it would be more about the experience of running and finishing than of trying to achieve a certain time (why bother??). So after we got our Bikilas back on we headed around to the back of the white building to the start of the race. Most of the run (I’d say the first half or so) was run single lane, single file, as there really was no place to go. If you really wanted to have a good time then you made sure you got to the front of the pack at the beginning, or else you were pretty much stuck.

Don’t let the below pictures deceive you: these were really steep sections with very treacherous footing: lots of mud, rocks, roots and leaves. And yes, that is Shrek in front of us. Surprisingly quick, we never passed him. Who would have thought?

I tried to hand the camera off to Katie every once in a while, though that did prove a bit tricky. The terrain really varied: we descended into ravines and climbed up boulder strewn hills; but then we would hit flat patches of actual groomed trails! It was blissful to find yourself on 100 yards of root free running. We also hit a couple bogs that lead to ankle deep water. Mostly, though, we were quite warm. The problem came when we had to stop and walk for long sections. That dropped our body temps, and left our hands and feet aching. Also, towards the end of the race the winds picked up, dropping the temperature and making things a bit more challenging.

Of course we also hit some beautiful areas around Dippikill Pond. I had to stop and take a few shots. Despite the craziness of the conditions it was one of the most amazing runs we have ever done. The Adirondacks are truly a special place, and to get to run through sections that are largely untouched and fully grown with wildlife is a rare treat.

The last quarter of the race found us getting off track a number of times. The course would take a sharp turn, or go up a tree and over a giant rock, and we would be looking at our feet and miss the flags. We were running in a small pack of runners, and this forced all of us to backtrack a number of times. Then, this is funny, we hit a hill. Ok, it was more than a hill. The slope had to be more than a 45 degree angle; it was, by now, solid mud, with very little places to latch onto. This was the perfect time to snap a picture!

I think the narrative goes like this: I am saying to myself, “Don’t drop the camera.” Katie is saying, “Cuss this hill!” Our priorities are a bit off.

Well we finished in about 1:38:30. And the distance? About 5.5 miles! That leaves our pace at almost 18 minutes per mile! What?! Even the leader finished in 56 minutes or so, which means he wasn’t running less than a 10 minute mile. Crazy to think about. After the race we warmed up in one of the lodges, next to a roaring fire; ate some veggie burgers and cussed ourselves for not bringing a beer.

We had to have a post-race photo shoot, as well.

Final Thoughts This was probably the most fun we have had running. It was cold; wet; we were sore and tired; but we did this together, and we finished. It was a blast. No doubt we will do this again next year, and for $10 its a steal of a race. The only thing I might do different is bring our own food and drink, so that we can have a few more options. ARE was great in preparing some veg-options, but we can help by bringing more. Other than that this was a super race and lots of fun. If you want to challenge yourself and do a race just for the joy of running and the experience of nature running, run this race!

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