Friday, June 16, 2017

To be an Explorer...

There are those among us who know from a very young age what is they want to do with their life, what their passion is, and what they want to be "when they grow up". These people know it with such a fierceness, that I've always been incapable of truly understanding. I've so often found myself envious of those like this...those that "just know" where their heart lies.

For me, my life has always been about a mix of positive experiences...always seeming to move on from one thing to another, liking many things, but never truly finding that "one thing". As a young child I fell in love with the sciences and have always gravitated towards them. I wanted to be a entomologist when I was in grade school and I even kept mounted insect specimens that I would proudly display to horrified friends. Later on in High School I thought I wanted to be a Chemical Engineer until I realized how much I disliked working in a chemistry lab. I found a lot of curiosity within myself towards both the Earth Sciences and Cosmological sciences...thinking I'd go to college to major in either Astronomy or Geology (of some kind), but ultimately decided something more career-oriented was more appropriate, so chose Computer Engineering. After years of working that field I began gravitating back towards the Earth Sciences and decided to apply for Graduate School to study the Geosciences. What I didn't realize at the time though was that what really drew me into the Geosciences was the thought of exploring and doing field work. That thought, more than any other, is what stirred the fire in me.

It wasn't until multiple deployments to Antarctica, and many adventures to odd places around the world that I finally realized what it is that my heart is drawn to....Exploring. I think back to all of those days as a young child studying maps in my living room.  I am an explorer through and through, and nothing feeds my soul greater than seeking out new places. Just thinking back to my trip up to Nunavut, or my bush-wacking hike to the North American Pole of Inaccessibility gets that sparkle in my eyes a' twinklin'.

These thoughts have been weighing very heavy on my mind the past week.

Today I finally got my official rejection letter from NASA informing me that I was not selected for the Astronaut Candidate program despite being a qualified candidate. This is the fourth time I've received such a letter.  You all my years of trying to find my path, one thing has remained constant, I've always applied to the Astronaut Candidate calls put out by NASA.

The letter read in part,

"Dear Dr. John M. Fegyveresi,

Thank you for applying for the Astronaut Candidate Program.

NASA received a record-breaking number of applications (over 18,000) for this round of astronaut candidate selections. This extremely large number of applicants made the selection process a very difficult one. Last week, NASA selected 12 individuals from among the thousands of aspiring astronauts with the potential to make a contribution to the nation's space program.

We appreciate the opportunity to consider you for the Astronaut Candidate Program, as well as your interest in the work that we do here at NASA. We hope you continue to be a space enthusiast and perhaps even help us spread your enthusiasm to others. Below are some resources on ways to follow along with or even get involved in NASA's continuing exploration efforts.


I knew this letter was coming as I was not selected for a final interview and NASA had already announced their selection class...but it still always is a bit hard to see it in print. While I've only come to truly and fully understand recently that exploring has been my implicit passion for my entire life, I now know that it has in fact been my lifelong dream to explore beyond the surface of this planet since my youngest days that I can remember. 

Since submitting my first application as an eager undergraduate student, I have made every effort to better myself and make myself a stronger candidate for the program in hopes that I'd make the initial cuts for an interview (at the very least). I've focused on areas that I knew would benefit not only myself, but my ability to be a valuable asset to the program.

-  When I first applied, I was a mere college student. I had nothing really to tout about myself other than my youth, and my good grades throughout high school. I talked about my SAT and PSAT well as my Honor Society and National Merit Finalist recognition. I talked about my acceptance into top schools and now my subsequent full academic scholarship to a top notch Science and Engineering School. I talked about my first year on the Dean's High Honors and my love of both Astronomy and Engineering. As expected, I did not receive an interview with NASA.

- For my second application, I was now a college graduate. I talked about my experience throughout college, and proudly stamped my application with my "Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Engineering". During my college years I spent two full summers working internships at NASA Lewis Research Center working on computer code used to test ceramics for a Mars mission. I felt like I'd contributed in some small way to the greater good of humankind and the NASA missions (and mission statements). I knew my chances were slim, but still, I applied hopeful. As expected, I again did not receive an interview.

- Fast forward several years. I had been working in an IT environment for a while, having built entire server farms and parts of the network infrastructure for a large hospital. On the side I began taking classes again at a local community college. I also spent 2 full years taking flying lessons earning my private pilot license. I even went so far as to complete all of the Instrument and Commercial instruction as well.  I had over 150 hours of pilot-in-command time, and was licensed to fly. I knew that having a pilot's license was a huge boost to any NASA application.  A few years later, I quit my job and decided it was time for some life experience. I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from end to end and was accepted to go back to graduate school to study Geoscience.  I had proved to myself that I could handle adversity, hardship, and subject myself to grueling physical testing.  When the next round of Astronaut applications were called, I had just finished my Masters Degree and spent 2 full field seasons in Antarctica. I was excited that for the first time, I might actually be "qualified" to apply to be an earnest. I was educated, could fly, had life experience, and mostly, had a passion for exploration and working in remote and difficult environments.  After months of waiting, I finally got the letter thanking me for my application, but declining to interview me. I could have been deflated, but I instead I took it as a challenge to better myself even more...

- Fast forward to 2016. I had now spent 7 full field seasons in Antarctica, had become a rather active endurance athlete (admittedly amateur), and most importantly, finished my PhD. Now I was a real doctor in a science that would be of interest to future Astronaut classes for possible missions to Mars. People want to study the geology (and in my case the polar ice caps) of Mars. While in graduate school I was even accepted to participate in a Mars Simulation in the Canadian Arctic (see here: Penn State Student Mars Simulation), but sadly never went as the program was canceled before I could go. After graduate school, I began work in a Federal Lab, establishing myself as a GS Federal Employee (coincidentally of the same grade an astronaut comes in at). I had passed all the federal background checks and was already serving as a Civil Servant. I also was appointed as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Boston University and given the opportunity to teach a 300-level undergraduate class. In addition, I strived to participate in as many outreach activities as I could, going to several classrooms of eager middle-schoolers...and talking all things climate science. I had even had a few of my papers published in peer-reviewed science journals as well. I really thought that this time, I would actually get the call to at least interview. I knew my age would be a big factor however as a 39-year old applicant is less than ideal. I also knew, that this might be my last chance at realistically applying. I'm not sure how attractive a 43 or 44-year old applicant would be a few years from now.  A few weeks after I applying I saw that over 18,000 applicants applied, and I knew my odds would be miniscule. I began hearing of many of my friends and acquaintances actually getting to the interview stage and I was so genuinely excited for them. As the months went by I knew my hopes of being called had all but faded however. Today I received the email and it was certainly emotional.

I heard a story on NPR about one of the early astronauts applying something like 11 times before getting the as always, I take this email today as a challenge. How might I better myself to be a better person and a better candidate. All I can do is to keep exploring, keep learning, keep striving to chase my curiosities and hope that one day I'll get that call.

There is a silver lining to all of this.  During my 2nd field season in Antarctica at the WAIS Divide Field camp (2009-2010) I came to know one of the ice core drillers....Robb Kulin. I remember that at the end of the season, he busted out a full tuxedo that he had carried all the way from the US with him, just to wear in Antarctica. On New Years Eve, Robb wore the tux and marshaled in a loaded LC-130 aircraft. It was a spectacular sight to behold. Last week, Robb was named as one of the new class of 12 NASA Astronauts. I'm so super excited for you Robb and I can't wait to read your stories. They could not have picked a better candidate to represent us all. Now get out there and explore for all of us!

Robb in 2009 waiting to marshal in the LC-130

Robb bringing in the Herc

Robb's Official NASA Press Photo!
Woo hoo!

So I ask all of you to never stop one day, you might get that call.

Now get out there...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Boston Bound

Mile ~21 at this year's Revel Rockies Marathon - Still Smiling!

Had you asked me two years ago if I ever had any interest in, or desire to run, the Boston Marathon, my answer would have certainly been "No". While I have run my share of road marathons, I have definitely gravitated more towards trail races over the years. Add to that the obvious enormous field size for Boston, and the general difficulties with travel logistics...and I simply never had interest. I would hear stories from my running friends in Pennsylvania who would run it and sometimes thought it would be cool to maybe run it one day simply because of the storied history of the race and the honor behind qualifying, but honestly I never thought I'd be fast enough to actually qualify until I turned at least 40 (if not 45).  For those that don't know, as you get older your qualify time comes down to reflect the slowing effects of aging.

For me, my fastest marathon to date was a 3:20:55 at the Pocono Marathon back in 2011. For my age group for the past several years, my Boston Qualify time was 3:10 and then 3:15 after I turned 35. Just before I turned 40, the qualify times were lowered, and what would have been a 3:20 qualify for me at age 40, was lowered by 5 minutes down to in reality, unchanged for me. Because of the sheer number of runners applying though, a runner has to generally run about 3 minutes faster than their qualify time to actually get a chance to run simply because faster qualifiers are honored first during registration (and spots run out before all applicants get slots). So in essence, I would have had to run a 3:12 marathon. This equates to a ~7:19 per mile pace for 26.2 miles....something I never thought I'd be capable of.

Things all changed last year while working out in Colorado, when I decided to try an experiment. As is tradition when headed out of state, I always browse around for local short races to participate in. I noticed a marathon race listed in the Denver area that touted itself as the fastest Boston Qualify course in existence as nearly the entire 26 miles was downhill. A small light went off in my brain..."I wonder if I could qualify on a course like this....?"

I signed up and when I arrived in Denver just a week before the race, I was grossly underprepared and out of shape. Yes I had just attended the 3 Days at the Fair event in May, but other than that, I had essentially NO running for the past two months. For a fast road race, some strong and speedy road training miles are essential. Still, I figured I'd wing it and see what happened.

Finishing the 2016 Revel Rockies Marathon in VERY rough shape

What actually transpired on race day was almost miraculous. I say almost, because up until mile 19, I was actually on pace to qualify for Boston...until my body revolted. Somehow, I had managed to let gravity assist me on the first 13 miles of steep downhill and I had averaged about a 7 min per mile pace. I crossed the half-way timing mat in just over 1:30 and was beaming with excitement that I'd qualify. "This isn't so hard..." I thought.

But then the wheels fell off and just a few short miles later and I was plagued with intense stomach cramps and pains that necessitated walking breaks. My guess is that the extreme heat/sun finally got to me and I was just too overworked, dehydrated, and quite simply...bonking.  The last 5-6 miles were a death march and I completely broke down. All I needed to qualify was to run the 2nd half of the race in 1:42 or less.  Instead, I ran the second half of the race in 1:55 and finished the race in 3:25+, over 13 minutes slower than needed to qualify. So not only did I not qualify, I didn't even beat my marathon PR of 3:20+.

Experiment failed. 

My pace data for the 2016 Revel Rockies Marathon...showing my collapse after mile 19.

Rewind for a moment....
So why would I even care to qualify to begin with? Well the short answer is that I finally got to experience the Boston Marathon in full as a spectator and immediately realized why so many strive to run it. My new Boston-area apartment is literally one mile from the course (near mile 17), and I was able to spectate a few friends in 2016. While I was amazed by the shear number of spectators and support from the entire city, it was really this year (2017) that solidified it for me. This year, I again spectated and something inside me stirred. I knew that I wanted to participate at least once in the race myself, now that it was my "hometown race". What better event to be a "hometown race" than the famed Boston Marathon?

Spectating the 2017 Boston Marathon from Mile 17+

Knowing I'd be headed back to Colorado, and knowing that I'd been running a very long streak since January (and putting in lots of road miles), I made a secret goal of running the Revel Marathon again to try and qualify. I slowly began incorporating speed and tempo workouts, as well as striders to my weekly running. I wanted to come prepared this year. I wanted to actually run a marathon with near-even splits.

One of many "Tempo Tuesday" runs on my calendar: Tempo Tuesday
One of many "Strider" workouts: Striders!

I ran a lot this Spring...mostly for fun and overall better training, but also to get into good shape for my 2nd go at the Revel Race. So when I did arrive here in Denver just 2 weeks ago, I was in pretty damn good running shape.  My goal for this year would be to start out a little bit slower, so as to hopefully better pace over the entire 26 miles. In addition, I told myself I would drink A LOT of water before and during the race to properly hydrate...even if it meant stopping for bathroom breaks during the run. Leading up the race weekend, everything felt good, and I was tapering nicely.

Race morning, things went off without a hitch, and before I knew it, I was again sitting at 10,500 feet, wrapped in a mylar blanket, waiting for the countdown to the start of the Revel Marathon.

Gear Notes:
Unlike most marathoners, I opted again to carry my own handheld and was glad that I did. I never had to worry about water and was able to top it off at the later aid stations.  The bottle was a very old amphipod. For food, I carried two packets of gummies chews, and for clothing I wore my new favorite shorts: Patagonia Striders. I didn't have a running singlet, so I cut the sleeves off of an old running shirt. It worked amazingly well.

Regarding shoes....well I knew I wanted to run in racing flats, but I didn't have any with me in Denver. I went online, and after a few minutes of quick review browsing, I bought a pair of asics running flats that were incredibly reduced in price on clearance at They ended up being awesome, although I definitely wouldn't run more than a marathon in them and would never use them as daily trainers. (Asics Hyperspeed 7's).

Revel Rockies course
Elevation Profile for Revel Rockies!

At 6:00 am promptly, the gun fired and after drinking over 2 liters of water in the previous 2 hours, I was off down the mountain. The weather was predicted to again be warm, but thankfully there was some nice early morning cloud cover blocking the direct sun.

The first 5 miles went incredibly smoothly and I settled into a pace just under 7 min per mile. I was aiming for 7's flat, so I was very content with my internal pacing.  Everything felt good, and all cylinders were firing as normal. Each mile ticked by exactly when it should and my breathing was fine. My heart-rate monitor recorded some weird numbers in the first few miles, but then as expected showed numbers in the high 140's...right where I wanted to be. At mile 6, feeling great, I made the decision to stop for a 20 second bathroom break. I simply couldn't hold it any longer. In retrospect, I think that this stop was a blessing in that it forced me to check myself from pushing too hard. Sure it cost me 20 seconds, but I was very glad to forcefully put the brakes on for a short bit (and there was no way I was running 20 more miles on a full bladder).  

At 6.55 miles (1/4 of the way in race), I crossed my first timing mat, and my average pace time was 6:59 per mile...perfect. Even with the 20 second stop, this was almost exactly the same time I went through last year. I was feeling great and the running was feeling effortless.

Numbers for first quarter of the race

Feeling great during the early miles

Around mile 11, you come out of the twisty mountain road section and flatten out along a busy highway section along the way to the town of Evergreen. You pass by a wonderfully bucolic mountain valley with an old log cabin in the background. It is quite picturesque and I was tempted to simply stop and admire the view. I continued on though, and starting at mile 11.5, you are presented with 4 consecutive up-and-down rollers along the course. This is the only stretch of the run that features real uphills, but they are still feisty to deal with. This year, I knew exactly when there were (I had written the mileages on my hand), and was eagerly anticipating tackling them strongly. I knew I had four 1/2 mile climbs starting at 11.5, 13, 14, and 15. Then, it would be smooth sailing to the finish. My goal was simply to try and maintain sub 7:20's through that stretch...or my necessary pace for a 3:12 finish. My hope was that I'd have enough of a cushion by then, that a few slower miles wouldn't hurt me.

I hit the first climb at 11.5 and was surprised that it looked a lot smaller than last year. I hit it conservatively, but assertively and was on top quite quickly only slowing my pace slightly. I made up for it by speeding up the subsequent descent and was right back on pace again. 

The following climb starting at 12, was a bit more protracted. I slowed a little more on this climb but held it together quite well. My heart-rate increased notably, but I wasn't worried. I still was averaging only high 140's/low 150's. On the descent from the 2nd climb, I could see the half-way timing mat just past mile 13. I remember getting to that mat last year just over 1:30 and PR'ing my half-marathon time. This year, I would be just a few seconds slower, but feeling infinitely better and exactly where I wanted to be timewise. It was during the hills last year that I first noticed I was beginning to hurt a bit. This year, I still felt fantastic. What's amazing is that my time for the 2nd quarter of the race, was actually FASTER than for the first half, which I still can't comprehend considering the first half is so much steeper, and the second half had the couple of rollers. My only explanation is that without my bathroom break both quarters would have been identical splits. So in short, I had just run 13.1 miles on a perfectly even ~6:57-6:59 pace.

Second quarter pacing showing a 6:57 pace!

The lovely view near mile 11 (log cabin in background)

About to make the turn to start the rolling hills

After the half-way point, you have the longest climb of the course, it is over a half-mile in length and just seems to drag on a bit. I definitely slowed down up it, but maintained my assertive attitude. Last year my confidence began waning somewhere just after the half-way point. This year, I wanted to stay motivated, focused, and confident. I kept talking at myself...telling myself to keep it up, and keep pushing. I had one more short hill, and then it was smooth sailing.

Sure enough, after the long climb I had a nice speedy descent and then one final climb after finally turning off of the busy highway section and heading away from Evergreen towards the town of Kittredge. 

As I topped out on the final climb near mile 15, I took a deep breath and settled in for what I hoped would be a smooth and relaxed final 11 miles. In my mind, every mile I made it past at my current pace and feeling good, was one more mile I was in better shape than last year. Somewhere around mile 16 last year is where I first starting really slowing down, before getting hit with my debilitating cramps around mile 19.5 (just after crossing the 3/4 mark). I patiently settled in and didn't think more than a single mile ahead. I focused on my music to keep me on a synchronized pace. Before the race, I had loaded several tracks that I've determined are the perfect cadence for me, and give me some mental boost for running. I simply had that playlist on repeat and it had been working well thus far.

When I got to Kittredge and mile 18, things starting getting real, and I started actually thinking about that 3/4 timing mat at mile 19.65. I wasn't doing math in my head yet, but I was thinking that I already was in so much better shape than last year. I was still pain free, and not cramping...and only mildly fatigued. I had 8 miles to go, and still felt fine. Could this actually happen? I just kept telling myself, "don't count your chickens....this is what happened last year and you catastrophically failed".

When mile 19.65 came, and I saw that timing mat, I couldn't help but be a bit excited. Here I was just about to hit 20, and I was still doing great. I was eager to see what my pace had slipped to since the half-way point...hopefully not too much. Over the past few miles I had noticed I was now running in the low 7's.  To me, each mile I ran sub 7:19, was a good mile...and a mile that was adding to my time buffer. Sure enough, when I crossed the mat, my third quarter pacing was 7:15 per mile. I was a smidge worried about the slip in pace, but not enough to panic. There were two big rollers in the third section, and I was still running sub 7:19's.

3rd Quarter pacing showed 7:15 for the segment, but still averaging 7:03 overall!

When I crossed mile 20, I began thinking back to last year. It was somewhere right around mile 20 that the 3:10 marathon pacer passed me. I don't know why, but with starting to feel bad already, seeing that guy speed by me was utterly deflating. I knew I had to finish within 2 minutes of him in order to qualify and still had 6 miles to go. I think it was at that moment that my dream of qualifying last year was actually abandoned.

This year, I was still well ahead of 3:10 overall pace, and not anticipating a pass by the 3:10 pacer until very close to the finish....or maybe if I was lucky....not at all. Still, I caught myself peeking over my shoulder.  No pacer in sight! Yes! Still, something I noticed that had me on notice, was that my 20th mile was at 7:25 pace. It was the first mile that I was eating into my buffer.

I plugged along.

Mile 21....Mile 22....still feeling ok, but noticing two more slow miles: a 7:21, and then a 7:28. Crap. Was this it? Were the wheels coming off? The thing was that I wasn't necessarily feeling bad, and I hadn't hit a big wall, I was just getting tired. This is when I told myself simply that it was time to suck it up buttercup...and that it was going to start hurting a little bit. I had 4 miles to go, and they weren't going to be "fun".  At mile 21 a picture was taken of me and I was smiling from ear to ear. I realize now it's because I was happy about my time, but also because I had been very slowly easing my pace down to stay comfortable. While this may have still resulted in a Qualify time, it wasn't how I wanted this race to end.

So picked it back up....and it did hurt.  I also started doing math. I realized with four miles to go, I had to average something like 8:30's to qualify with a 3:12. This was awesome...but still not a gimme. I could have a horrible cramping episode again and all bets would be off.  So I just had to make it to 23 and then go from there.

At mile 21, I was smiling and running well
(because I hadn't noticed I was slowing down)

When I crossed the mile 23 marker and my watch beeped, I noted my mile pace was 7:14. Better, I thought, but not good enough. I wanted to finish strong dammit. So I ran even harder.

When I crossed the mile 24 marker, I did some math and only had to average 10:30 miles to qualify with a 3:12. I looked down at my watch and despite some real pain starting to set in, I grinned happily at the pace: 6:57.  Hell yeah. No we're talking. The pictures taken at this point along the course show it. I was hurting.

Over the final two miles, things finally started breaking down and I was in a fair amount of pain. I started audibly grunting a bit, and breathing hard. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't pretty either. I continued to push though...I wanted that mile 25 banner so that I could say I had 1 mile to go.

At mile 25 I looked down at my watch and the pace was 7:01. I was ecstatic that I was able to push out another fast mile so close to the end. At 25.2 I crossed the final timing mat (a one-mile-to-go timing mat) and my pace for the previous 5.5 miles had only slipped 2 seconds thanks to the previous 2 fast miles. I had run the 5.5 in 7:17 pace....STILL below my 7:19 required pace. I crossed the matt just over 2:59 and realized I had 13 minutes to run the last mile. I could essentially walk the entire last mile and still qualify. It was at that point that I knew I had it locked in. I was hurting quite a bit now and could feel myself slowing down a fair amount. I tried to maintain the ~7:00 pace, but it wasn't happening. About a half mile from the end, I turned around and smiled when I realized the 3:10 pace was still not in sight!. I was not only going to qualify, but I was going to actually qualify by more than 5 minutes and finish sub 3:10! Hell yeah!

I made the turn just past mile 26, and headed up the final small climb to the finish line stanchion. I pushed hard on the final sprint and crossed the line with a final time of 3:06:43...over 7 minutes faster than I needed and with a final race pace of 7:07 min per mile average.  This was the best possible result I could have imagined. I sat down and immediately felt better. I even began wondering...could I have run even faster? Maybe so.  But for the moment, I was elated (and quite emotional) that after 10+ years of solid running, I finally got my marathon qualify time for Boston.

One mile to go!!!

Nearing the finish...not feeling fantastic...but actually quite happy.

Pushing hard up to the finish line

Final overall timing splits: 7:07 pace, 3:06:43 final time.

When looking at my GPS data (found here: Revel Rockies), I was amazed at my even pacing. This was the first time that I ever ran a long race and actually came very close to even splits. I almost always run 2nd halves of races considerably slower. Here I ran a 1:31, and a 1:35...slowing only 4 minutes over the 2nd half. If you consider that the first half of the race has considerably more and steeper downhill, with the 2nd half having more rollers as well, you could argue that my splits were effectively even effort-wise. What's more, other than my obvious bathroom break, my pace line shows no real obvious drop in pace or wall-hitting late in the race. You can even see my short speed up over the final miles. In addition, you can see the four hills in the middle based on my four short drops in pace. This was probably one of best executed/perfect races I've ever had from just about every aspect (if not thee best). So pumped by the outcome. One of the coolest parts in all this is that with my finish time of 3:06:43, I would have actually qualified even if I was 35! This old guy still has some spunk in his legs after all!

Pace data (the big drop at mile ~6 was my bathroom pit stop)

Mark you calendars.  Friday, September 15th at 10:00 am is when i'll get to register for the Boston Marathon. You better believe I will be eagerly waiting to.