(Mile 14 - Oil Creek 100 photo: L. Makey)
1) First off let me preface this post with a very important distinction. While technically I am still a graduate student and don't participate in commencement until December, I have in fact finally come to the end of my PhD turmoil. I thought about how I might explain or detail exactly what it is with regards to this, but I find it's easier to simply copy/paste an email I sent to my friends on the Vol State listserve:
Just a quick personal story I thought I'd share. It has been a very long time since I actively participated in any of the lists, but I've been patiently waiting for the day that I could finally send this email.
This summer was extremely difficult for me on the ultrarunning front. In late June I was torn with the decision whether or not to run Vol State. I so desperately wanted to be there, but I knew that doing so would put my dissertation defense in jeopardy. Watching the race unfold from the confines of my desk chair was incredibly exciting (so many great stories this year!), however it was also hard not to be a little upset that I couldn't be a part of it. I wanted to meet the new folks and run again with many of you whom I call friends. I wanted to pass out the new patches and laugh with you all on the ferry when everyone still thought running 314 miles wouldn't be "that difficult". I wanted to laugh with Laz and Carl during dinner again. Throughout the month of July, I was in a consistent state of extreme sleep deprivation (having slept probably only a few dozens hours over the whole month). I ate terribly and drank way too much coffee, feeling in many ways like a reckless undergrad again. I even had to put my running on temporary hiatus. It was the first time in 7 years that I wasn't running at least 5 days a week. It was awful. In August I did pass my defense, but still had a fair number of post-defense edits and corrections to get through, so I never really felt like it was done or like I could honestly celebrate. But....
Today is the day. Today is the day I can finally let out that long overdue exhale. Early this morning, the last member of committee signed off on my dissertation, officially making it complete. Aside from walking my form up to the graduate school office and turning it in, it means I can finally say that I made it...I finished. The past few years have cumulatively been one of the most difficult "ultramarathons" I've ever endured (albeit metaphorically). Today....there are no more edits, no more drafts, no more signatures. It is done...and it feels good. As of a few weeks ago, I finally started picking up the serious running again too, and I am beginning to feel like my old self. You can't even imagine just how much I look forward to being part of the community again. I can't wait to see you all at various races and events in the future. On November 1st, I'll be running the Masochist with Travis and a few of the other Barkley guys (AT and JB)...and this has me so incredibly giddy that I can barely sit still. The world is suddenly a lot more clear today...and the air just a little bit more sweet.
7 years of hard work...for this single page.
An award I received from the ice-coring community for
"Scientist that spent the most time at the WAIS Divide Field Camp"
For those of you wondering what the hell this is...
It's a piece of an actual ice-core tray used during the project
2) In other news, I participated in a rather interesting ultra experiment this past weekend. Allow me to explain:
This has become the year of non-qualifying for me. For the past 5 years, I've qualified and applied for both Hardrock and Western States...failing in both lotteries each year. This year I was to have 32 tickets in the Hardrock Lottery. I was scheduled to run the Plain 100 in September but was unable to due to the scheduling of my dissertation and lack of training. (The Plain is not something you go into lightly and undertrained). In the end, I wasn't too upset about this as Hardrock does not "reset" tickets if you miss a year like Western States does. I will simply re-qualify again and maintain my 32 tickets at some point in the future. But....Western States is a different story. Despite my numerous ultras this year, none were on the WS qualifying list. Without a qualifier, I would lose all of my previous tickets. I know WS is getting extremely expensive, but that doesn't mean I don't want to run it at least once. So here's where the experiment comes in.
At the end of May I was in peak shape. I had just finished 1st place in a 12-hour event (Mind the Ducks) with 73 miles, and finished 2nd in a 3-day event with 246 miles (3 days at the fair). Following that, I ran another 12-hour and finished 1st with 71 miles (Dawn to dusk to dawn ultra). Things were shaping up great for another shot at Vol State and a summer of good running. BUT...when I started looking at how much time I was losing, and my looming PhD defense date of August 7th, I knew there was no way I could afford the 10 days it would take (with travel) to run it again. I managed to squeeze in a quick running at Finger Lakes 50, and in June, and with my training beginning to wane a bit, pushed out a brutal finish at Manitou's Revenge 50 (Horrendous Course!). During my recovery from the race, a panic mode set in and I literally began working 20+ hours a day on my dissertation. The running immediately dropped off. Days went by and I simply didn't have a spare 30 minutes to even go out for 3 or 4 miles. I was perpetually exhausted and burnt out. I had no motivation to do anything other than finish my chapters. A friend of mine once told me that the final 3 months of your dissertation prep destroys a part of your soul, but that over the years that follow, it eventually comes back. I believe them now.
Needless to say, days went by with no running...and then weeks. It was the first time in years I hadn't run consistently. I was pissed that I was losing valuable fitness, but I had no choice. I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel a little nice to take a some time off...but I only wish it was so that I could be lazy on a couch or because of a legitimate injury, and not because I was strung out on 5 cups of coffee at 3 am writing thesis chapters.
I spent a week out West after my defense in August and managed to tough out a couple of 14er peaks, and a few mountains in California, but no true running. I quite literally went almost three months without any real running.
My running log for the past 6 months. Notice the obvious gap!
So the experiment...well comes down to a question. That question being,
"Is it possible to qualify for Western States on essentially zero training?"
The answer, at least for 2015, is YES!
This past weekend was the Oil Creek 100, a race that I've completed the past 3 years in fairly respectable times (~21:45 - 23:40). Despite my complete lack of training, I decided I would go to Oil Creek again this year and spend as much time as I felt like plodding through the woods. I was desperate to feel some soft single-track trail under my feet, and I didn't care at all about finishing. I would simply start, run for a bit, and then change my focus to that of a quick-paced hike. At the time I began the event, I hadn't even thought about Western States...in fact I had thought the race committee had already removed it from the qualifying list. Turns out that it's still a qualifier for 2015 (but not 2016). So as the race unfolded, I jogged very slowly for the first 31-mile loop. The lack of fitness was overtly apparent. I was running slowly, and straining to keep my normal pace. So...at the start of loop 2, I grabbed my poles and headed out with the mindset of a thru-hiker. I power hiked the entire second loop, sprinkling in a little jogging, and had a blast!. I felt like I was back on the PCT. It felt SOOO good to be outdoors and in the woods again. My soul was in desperate need of it. The leaves were beautiful, the trail serene and lovely, and I was steeped in it. At some point in my third loop, I could tell my body was telling me it had had enough though, and I slowed to an easy walk for the last 10 miles of the loop. Upon reaching the school at mile 91, I had essentially decided to call it day. I accomplished my goal of having fun in the woods and honestly didn't care about finishing. It had also become extremely cold and I simply didn't want to go back out for another 8-9 miles. I remember talking to someone about Western States and they told me it WAS still a qualifier, so after a very long break at the aid station, and a few cups of hot cocoa, I finally decided to just walk out the 8 and finish. I decided it was worth it to whimper out those last 8 miles in order to keep all of my lottery tickets for 2015. I sauntered along the trail for those last miles, willing away my leg pain, and absorbing the beautiful single-track one last time. I strolled across the finish line after 26 hours completely thrilled to have even finished. Needless to say, I managed to qualify for the lottery with a slow and steady finish at Oil Creek. Now...it's time to actually get in some daily runs again!
loop 1 somewhere (photo. C. Houpt)
Loop 1 under the oil derricks (photo L. Reiners)
3) One final and unrelated note:
Back in November of 2006, I can vividly remember resting on my couch in Cleveland, listening to Damien Rice's new CD "Nine Crimes" on repeat. It had just been released a few days prior. Damien's music was quite literally transformative for me. For almost 2 years of my life, I listened to nothing else. I own every live cd, every import, and every cafe recording of him that's out there. There are most certainly punctuated moments in my life that I associate entirely by the music which carried me through them (much like John Cusack's character discusses in the movie High Fidelity). For me, what got me through the difficult years of 2006-2007, was the music of Damien Rice (and Lisa Hannigan). So, it should seem fitting that I began my new life in 2006 with my Appalachian Trail thru-hike and my leap into Graduate school with what was at the time a new Damien Rice album (Nine Crimes)....and that now, I should begin my new post-grad life with his next new album, "My Favourite Faded Fantasy". I can't remember the last time I was this completely excited for a new record release. It took 8 years for him to put together this new album, and based on the already pre-released tracks....well worth the wait. I've already pre-purchased the limited edition wooden box cd he has for sale on his website.
Hike on everyone...