Friday, October 17, 2014

The 2014 Ten for Texas: A Story of Teamwork (and Redemption)

Here it is: my first race report since saying goodbye to running in late July.

This past weekend, I participated in the 10 for Texas. It’s a 10-mile race in The Woodlands, Texas, and it’s one of my favorites. I’ve run it twice before—until this weekend, my 2011 experience was the most memorable. Now, it’s a tossup.

Here’s my swag from this year:


On Friday, I reported to the packet pickup site at 2:00 p.m. Another volunteer demonstrated how to stuff race bags with shirts, hats, and coupons. However, I didn’t get much opportunity to put the lesson into practice—my bag-stuffing partner was an absolute whiz at it, and the bag-stuffing rate decreased whenever I stuck my clumsy paws in to help. So, while she stuffed bags like mad, I went to work greeting the runners. As each runner arrived, I pulled the correct (hopefully) race bib out of a numerically organized accordion file, and grabbed a race bag stuffed with the appropriate-sized shirt. I handed the bib to the sleep-deprived race organizer, who checked it in on the computer. It didn’t take long to learn my lines. “Do you know your bib number?” “You can look up your bib number on the wall outside the store entrance.” “Don’t forget the safety pins; they’re at the end of the table.”

(For my non-running or non-racing readers: Race bibs are different from baby bibs, though both are worn on the front of the shirt. Race bibs are just squares of coated paper that display the runner’s race number. In this case, they are also embedded with a timing chip, used to record the runner’s official time as he or she crosses the start and finish lines.)

Soon another volunteer arrived, making my job easier. Now I didn’t even need to grab the bags—I just told Lauren, my new partner, the shirt size, and she found the bag and gave it to the runner. Pretty soon, I had to learn another line: “We’re so sorry, we’ve run out of Small shirts. You can choose a Medium or an Extra Small.” Lauren knew the drill—as soon as she spotted a bib that said “Small,” she grabbed two model shirts, tossed one to me and held up the other. “I’m holding a Medium shirt, and Lauren is holding an Extra Small. Which one would you like?” The runners were amazingly good sports about it, with very few showing any disappointment or annoyance. Runners are an easygoing bunch, I think. Hmm, I wonder why…is it possible that running could have positive effects on one’s mindset?

I had a blast at packet pickup—the time flew. Lauren and I stayed until our host, the Luke’s Locker running store, locked its doors at 7:00 p.m. My surgically sliced abs performed well, and didn’t start barking at me until the fifth and final hour of my shift. I left the stored tired but happy. The tiredness was partly from being on my feet for 5 hours, but mostly from knowing I had to report to Hydration Station #3 at 6:30 a.m.

It was dark, with hardly any traffic, when I parked my car on the grass verge of Lake Woodlands Drive. Our hydration station was in the median, at a crossover. It was an out-and-back course, so we would see the runners twice, about Miles 3.5 and 7. Maybe a dozen volunteers (I didn’t count) were assigned to the station. Most of us didn’t know each other, so we set to work making new friends.

The race organizers clearly knew what they were doing, and had supplied us with everything we needed. There were eight tables, four or five Gatorade-filled coolers, and a big blue reservoir called a Water Monster. We had lots of cups, extra trash bags, rakes (to pick up the discarded cups), and three water pitchers (which would have been enough, if we had figured out our efficient water-pouring system at the beginning instead of the end). A plastic bin held bug spray, ponchos, band-aids, and other sundries. It also contained our bright yellow volunteer T-shirts, individually labeled with our names. After a quick shirt switcheroo (under cover of darkness, behind a fellow volunteer’s SUV), we were ready to work.

Before long, all the tables were covered with cups of Gatorade and water. We watched and waited, and finally saw our first runner! He was speeding along, and didn’t need anything from us. Others soon followed, until we had more than enough customers. We shouted “Gatorade! Water up ahead!” and “Water! Water!” At first, all went well. The cup-fillers were keeping up nicely with the cup-distributors. But then we got slammed—the runners were slurping the drinks faster than we could replenish them. I started out filling Gatorade cups, but soon switched to water, our more desperate need.

It was crazy. We filled water cups furiously, but still couldn’t keep up. “Why did they only give us three pitchers?” Fill cups until pitcher runs out. Sprint to Water Monster. Wait impatiently for pitcher to fill. Tell Water Monster to hurry up. Get mad at Water Monster for obeying the laws of physics. Meanwhile, some unfilled cups are temporarily abandoned, risking that the cup-distributors mistakenly grab the empties and offer them to the runners. (It happened, I’m sure.) The cups were generally laid out by a separate person, so the pitcher-wielder could concentrate on pouring and refilling. But sometimes the cup-arranger had to stop and shove the full cups toward the street side of the table, so the cup-distributors wouldn’t grab the empties. Then the cup-arranging would fall behind.

Eventually, we started to get traction. Our efforts were just as frenzied but not as futile. We were catching up. The improvement was mostly due to the slower runners being more spread out, but partly due to improvements in our processes. For example, I learned that I had been pouring all wrong. I had been tilting the pitcher down for each cup, then back up, then back down for the next cup. This wastes a ton of time. Instead, I needed to make sure all the cups were touching, then pour a whole line of them in one continuous motion, without lifting the pitcher. Who cares if the table gets wet? I wish I could take credit for figuring this out, but I learned it from another volunteer. I think she had worked water stops before, but maybe she was just a whole lot smarter than me. Yea, three college degrees, including one in engineering, and I can’t figure out the optimal way to pour water. Embarrassing.

We didn’t get to breathe for long. We had survived the westbound rush, but now the eastbound rush was beginning. (It was an out-and-back course… the runners u-turned a couple miles down Lake Woodlands Drive.) This meant a do-over opportunity, and we hoped to redeem ourselves. The well-stocked tables on the eastbound side had been robbed during the earlier chaos, so we were starting from scratch. That was just fine, because we were improving by the minute. Our previous disorganization had gradually been replaced by efficient teamwork. One person “cupped,” covering the table with long straight rows of cups. Two of us poured continuous lines of cups, working from opposite sides of the table to avoid collisions. One guy did nothing but fill water pitchers. As soon as my pitcher emptied, he handed me a full one. Water Monster still obeyed the laws of physics, but moved faster, thanks to someone discovering that the hose-tap released a larger stream of water than the thumb-press spigots. (Easier on the thumbs, too.) Through proactive communication, we avoided the full/empty mixups: “Pull from Table 2!” Then the cup-distributors used Table 2 and left us alone. When Table 1 was 100% covered in filled cups, we shouted “Pull from Table 1,” and got to work on Table 2. It worked beautifully.

After a while, we were well ahead and I finally had time to watch the race. I handed out a few cups of water and Gatorade, just to experience another aspect of volunteerhood. I am definitely not cut out to be a full-time cup-distributor. The task requires far more coordination than I possess—you have to hold a cup in your outstretched hand, and let it go at exactly the right time, without either dropping the drink or getting your hand tangled with the runner’s hand. Even trickier, you need to get in and out of position without tripping the runners or yourself. I managed okay with the slower runners, but when the leaders come through, I’d better stick to pouring water or cupping tables.

The best cup-distributor in our crew was also the youngest. Well, she may not have been the most efficient, but she brought a smile to the most runners’ faces. She was a beautiful young lady, about eight or ten years old, and she distributed three cups at a time—one in each hand, and one balanced on her head. If she stood very still and the runner was coordinated and not too fast, it worked well. I hope she didn’t try it with the leaders.

By this time, nearly all the work was done. The westbound (first) side of Hydration Station #3 had already been broken down, and the equipment was neatly stacked in the median. I didn’t even see it happen. One young man had raked cups for several blocks, all the way to the stop lights on either side of our crossover. He searched the bushes and pulled out every stray cup. The trash bags were filled, tied, and stacked. We cheered for the remaining runners, with an especially loud cheer for the last runner. With all of us helping, it took almost no time to clean up the eastbound side, rake the cups, stack the equipment, and empty the Water Monster.

As an extra-special bonus on a special day, I got to say hello to my friend Fred, as he grabbed some water on his way to the finish line. Three years ago, I had the honor of running the first couple miles of the 10 for Texas with him. At that time, he was 83 and the oldest runner in the race. He’s still at it.

What a marvelous morning. I was sad to see it end, and sad to say goodbye to my crewmates. Before the race started, I was determined to run the 10 for Texas next year. Now, I’d almost rather volunteer again, especially if it meant reuniting with my Hydration Station #3 team. Next year, we’ll know all the tricks from the get-go, and we’ll get it right the first time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Oh no, not a writing appointment! Anything but that!

Nearly every writing expert maintains that I should schedule my daily writing session, and protect it like an important appointment. (Because it is…right?) By “schedule my writing session,” they mean that I should commit in writing to a specific time and place. Then I must show up at the appointed time and place, ready to write.

This is how appointments work. I understand the concept, and I have no problem making appointments with my doctor, my hair stylist, or my car mechanic. (Well, sometimes I have problems getting around to making the appointments when I should. But once I make the appointment, I keep it, and I do not resent these professionals for requiring an appointment.)

For some reason, writing appointments evoke a completely different reaction. They make me shudder and want to hide. My resistance is irrational, but real.

I have been writing consistently for about three years now. In fact, tonight’s writing session has extended my writing streak to 382 consecutive days. Hmmm….I just looked at my log and, wow, this ties my previous record for consecutive writing days, reached on January 22, 2013. Cool! I definitely need to remember to write tomorrow. Last time I reached 382 days, I forgot to write the next day, and was devastated to see my writing streak end. Almost none of those writing sessions were scheduled in advance for a specific time.

I have generally convinced myself that as long as I was writing daily, it didn’t matter that I failed to schedule the time. My writing streak and my finished dissertation are proof that my system is working. But is it working? Maybe I have been deluding myself. Yes, I am writing, but my failure to plan may be destroying my writing efficiency. (Well, you can’t destroy something that never existed. More accurately, my failure to make writing appointments may prevent me from ever becoming an efficient writer.)

How about a trial period? I should schedule my appointments for a week, and see if it helps. I took a deep breath and pondered my week. What time would work best? I would have to make this tough decision seven times, once for each day. I wavered and gave up. It was just too much.

Would planning one day at a time work? Maybe that would be less intimidating than planning writing appointments for a whole week. I tried it. I sat there with my pen and my calendar, and willed myself to write down a time, in ink. I couldn’t do it. Scratch that. “I couldn’t” is surely a lie. My hand muscles were perfectly capable of grasping the pen and using it to write words and numbers on the paper. “I wouldn’t” is indisputably the truth. Regardless, it didn’t happen. The thought of writing down a time was revolting to me—my mind pushed back, vehemently. It was as if I had walked into a room with a really strong unpleasant odor, and my body pushed back, doubling over and wanting to throw up. That’s how I felt when I thought of committing to a specific writing time.

Why? Why such a strong negative reaction to the notion of scheduling my writing? It makes no sense.

Is my aversion to scheduling writing-specific, or does it apply to other activities? What about running? I almost never schedule the time I run, and I usually don’t decide the mileage in advance. I have never successfully followed a training plan to completion. However, I once followed a marathon training plan for a couple months. I didn’t schedule the exact times of my runs, but I knew approximately when they would occur (10:00 p.m., when my favorite writing venue kicked me out.) During the time I followed the plan, I hit nearly all the weekly mileage targets. Planning my running doesn’t seem to evoke nearly the level of negativity as planning my writing.

Is it rebellion? Not wanting to be told what to do? I love my little Toyota Corolla (238,000 miles and still going strong), which gets excellent gas mileage. But if the government passed a regulation requiring fuel-efficient cars, or incentivizing them in some way, I would be seized by a strong desire to drive a large truck or land yacht—preferably an old rickety one that makes coughing noises and spews blue smoke.

But with writing, how could it be rebellion? The government is not telling me to schedule my writing times, and neither is my employer. The decision about when to write is mine alone.

Perhaps my distaste for writing appointments is tied up with my fear of failure and rejection. Scheduling my writing time sets me up for failure. If I schedule myself to write at 10:00 a.m. and I oversleep, then my day is a failure before I even get out of bed. If my writing appointment is at 2:00 p.m. and I let myself get sidetracked by email, I have failed. I clearly can’t hack it as a writer, so I might as well not even try.

I hoped that writing about it would help me resolve my scheduling revulsion. It didn’t. I still do not understand it, and I have not defeated it. So, at least for now, I will continue as before. As I wake up each day, I will delight in my freedom, knowing I can write at whatever time I choose. No matter how tight the constraints of the day, there is always choice…some scrap of time I can devote to writing, if I wish. Scheduling would rob me of one of writing’s pleasures—the pleasure of choice.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Goodbye, my friend Running

A week ago, on Monday, July 28, I ran 8 miles. That’s a really long run for me, these days. Until the last three weeks or so, running has been hit-or-miss (mostly miss), due to fallout from finishing my dissertation. Eight miles was probably a couple miles too long for my fitness level, but I didn’t care. You see, I knew this would be my last Running outing for at least six weeks, and I wanted it to be special.

The day after my 8-miler, an expert surgeon sliced my belly open, removed a misbehaving part, and stuck me back together with 17 staples.

I knew I wanted to get in an extra-long run the night before my surgery, but it took me a week to figure out WHY. At first, I thought it was to prove something…to show myself I could still do it. But that made no sense. I already knew I could get myself in shape to run 15 miles, if I just kept at it. Then, I thought maybe it was some sort of fist-shaking last hurrah, a way of telling my medical problems “ha, you can’t keep me down.” Except they could. I toyed with the notion that an extra 8-miler would add some miniscule bit of fitness, allowing me to return to running at a higher fitness level than would have been possible if I had only run 6 miles. Nonsense, I’m sure. Six weeks ago, when this surgery began to seem inevitable, I resolved to get myself in as good a shape as possible, maximizing my probability of a quick recovery. An extra 8-miler would help, right? No way...the fitness gains come from the recovery, not the stress. With less than a day before surgery, overdoing it was likely to overtax my system, making recovery more difficult.

Finally, I figured it out. That 8-miler was my way of saying good-bye to a dear friend. When Running and I first met five years ago, our relationship was based on mistrust, even active dislike. I found Running to be boring, unpleasant, and demeaning. For some reason, we stuck it out, moving to tolerance, then cordial acquaintanceship, and finally, steady friendship.

When I was feeling blue or discouraged, Running would cheer me up.

When I was worried, Running gave me perspective.

When my mind was overwhelmed with too many things to do and no idea where to start, Running helped me prioritize.

When I was wrestling with a data analysis decision, Running helped me brainstorm.

When I couldn’t figure out a title or leading sentence for my dissertation, Running patiently listened while I tried out endless variations.

When I was stressed or mad, Running didn’t judge me, but gave me space to decompress.

When I was struggling with a difficult decision, Running brought clarity.

When every other area of my life was marked by incompetence, Running gave me a pat on the back for doing something right.

When I was terrified I would fail, Running reminded me Who was in charge, and that I could not fail without His consent.

When I was rude or unkind to people, Running gently rebuked me, and made me apologize.

When I was convinced I wouldn’t meet people’s expectations, Running presented the facts about those people, showing me I was misjudging them.

When I needed time to think, Running gave it to me.

When I needed time away from thinking, Running gave it to me.

When my eyes were turned outward, looking at the monsters around me, Running turned them inward, toward the things I could control.

When my eyes were turned inward, dwelling on my problems and inadequacies, Running turned them outward, showing me how far I’d come and how small my problems really were.

When I disappeared for a while and didn’t make Running a priority, Running welcomed me back (though my absence took a toll on the relationship).

Even when I didn’t feel like hanging out with Running, I was always glad afterward. On nearly all our visits, I ended up in a better and wiser place afterward than before. (Occasionally I miscalculated and spent too much time with Running, throwing off the day’s schedule and stressing out. But that was my fault, not Running’s.)

So, when I found out Running had to go away for a while, I felt compelled to make time for an extra-long visit. It didn’t matter that I waited too late at night to start, and we ran out of daylight. It didn’t matter if I had to take a few walk breaks the last mile. It didn’t matter if my feet hurt, or I had a stitch in my side. On a last visit with a friend who is going away, their annoyances turn into endearing quirks. I just wanted to celebrate our time together.

Farewell, friend Running. See you on the other side.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The 100% Rule for Running

Uh-oh…in my efforts to regain my running fitness, I think I may have made a grievous error (or narrowly avoided one, the data aren’t yet complete). Last night, my brother (who runs ultramarathons) reminded me of something I had forgotten—the 100% Rule. He said that most running experts agreed that a runner should not increase mileage by more than 100% per week.

What prompted this warning? Well, I had mentioned that I ran 20 miles in 4 consecutive days, something I have not done in quite some time. (Not 20 miles each day, mind you, but a total of 20 miles—specifically 5, 4, 4, and 7.)

Hmm, I have some questions about this 100% rule. When the percentage increase is calculated, is it always based on the prior week? It seems more useful to base it on some sort of rolling average, perhaps the average of the four most recent weeks. Suppose I ran weekly mileages of 10, 14, 10, and 2. If I based my allowable 100% increase only on the most recent week, I could only run 4 miles, far short of what I logged just two weeks ago. On the other hand, if I average these four weeks, I get a mean mileage of 36/4 = 9 miles. A 100% increase would get me to 18 miles, which seems very reasonable. Surely the experts would agree, right?

Another question: What if the prior weekly mileage (either for a given week, or for an average of several weeks) is 0? Then a 100% increase would put me at, well, 0. Even if the 100% rule were modified to something far more conservative (a 10% rule, for example), someone running 0 mileage could only increase it by … 0 miles per week.

Thus, there is a natural consequence to any rule based on a maximum percentage increase: no non-runner can ever become a runner. To become a runner, one must be born running, or must break the rule. There are no other options.

So, assuming the running experts actually want non-runners to become runners, there must be a mileage threshold below which the percentage increase rule does not apply. Rookie runners (or runners returning from injury- or dissertation-related layoffs) can dink around at the low end of the mileage continuum, until they reach the magic minimum mileage number—at that time, the 100% rule should be applied, to keep them from increasing mileage too quickly.

I wish I knew the magic number. Maybe the safest course is to assume I have already reached it,
and start limiting my mileage increases. My mileage for this week is 20 so far. Depending on whether I squeeze in another run this weekend, my next week’s mileage must not be allowed to exceed 40-48 miles.

I’m so glad I was reminded of this rule! I have really been enjoying my return to running, and I don’t want to risk ruining it by injury.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I’m PhinisheD!

It is PhinisheD. Yep, somehow I finished my dissertation, defended it, and graduated. And I’m back! (on my blog, that is).

To start, I must first apologize to my small but faithful cadre of readers. I should not have abandoned you. To write an (at least somewhat) inspirational blog post about the joy of spending Thanksgiving Day at McDonald’s, then to disappear without a word, for over six months—such behavior is unacceptable. Perhaps I can explain it, but I cannot justify it. No, scratch that….I cannot explain it, because I do not fully understand it myself.

Still, even if inadequate, an explanation is warranted. Here goes…

Words cannot describe the emotional, mental, and physical drain of my last four months of dissertating. (Keep in mind that “drain” is not always negative….intense joy can be draining too!) A few days after that Thanksgiving blog post, I set my dissertation defense date, for January 31, 2014. Driven by a fear of not finishing (two chapters had not been even begun, and the other chapters were extremely rough), I found myself able to work far longer and harder than should have been possible.

Once the draft was “finished” (no more unwritten sections), I turned to revising, trying to bring the rough sections up to snuff, in hopes they would pass muster with my committee. I revised until I ran out of time, and then I sent it off—hoping for the best but fearing the worst. I knew my paper still had very real flaws, and I knew my committee had very real standards. However, I was unsure of the seriousness of the flaws relative to the standard.

The process is rather like being in a dark tunnel and having to leap over an unseen rock wall, of unknown height. You know you need to jump high, but you don’t know how high. Until you jump, you don’t know what will happen—you might sail cleanly over the top; or you might hit the wall hard, hard enough to bruise and batter your body, and then fall back down the way you came. With luck, your head will not crack open and you’ll be able to try again another day. Or, you might jump almost high enough but not quite—just high enough to grab the top with your fingernails and somehow drag your body over the wall, scraping yourself up but successfully arriving on the other side.

As it turns out, I made it over the wall with nary a scratch. All the writing training, feedback, and hours of revision paid off—I only had to do a few tiny edits after my committee read my paper. A few more tiny edits (formatting) for the Thesis Office, and I was done. (Some of these “tiny edits” were rather time-consuming, such as paring my abstract down to the specified 350 words, obsessing over my Acknowledgments, and looking up doi numbers for my 128 references—these tasks were mostly enjoyable, not stressful.)

Somewhere in the process of finishing my dissertation, all my creative writing energy was drained away. It was as if someone opened a spigot and just let it all pour out onto the ground. Blog ideas used to constantly invade my brain. I didn’t always write them up, but I thought of them…sometimes I even started writing them, and stashed them in the archives for later polishing (nope, I still haven’t slain the perfectionism monster). But from November to March, no inspiration. It had been stolen away, maybe by physical exhaustion, maybe by the mental effort of writing, maybe by the intensity of emotion, from fear to overwhelming joy. I had no energy to do what I should have done—start writing in hopes inspiration would strike.

After I cleared the Thesis Office in early March, I started to feel normal again and vowed to restart my blog. The problem was, that after such a long absence and after an event so momentous as a Ph.D. graduation, I was convinced my next blog post had to be SPECTACULAR. It had to engaging, inspiring, and beautifully written. Anything less would be a disappointment and might even out me as a fraud. I made a few token efforts, but they all fell short.

Finally, I came to my senses and gave up. If my first blog post as a Ph.D. had to be good, my blog was doomed. I can’t let that happen. This little blog has been a creative outlet and a source of joy for me (plus, it’s great writing practice!)…. I’m not willing to let it go.

Onward and forward… a new chapter in my blogging life awaits.

P.S. Interestingly, I started this blog almost exactly three years ago, on June 22, 2011. I just missed my three-year anniversary. I thought of waiting three more days, until June 29, so this post could land on June 29, the anniversary of my first real post (rather than the intro post marking the existence of the blog). But I decided the risks were too great—if I suffered a perfectionism attack during those three days, my blog might sit idle for another six months. Better to strike now, while my courage holds.