Thursday, 16 February 2012

PhD defense completed

Well, the long road is at last near its end. Transitioning from one path to another, this time in Halifax. I'm feeling a mixture of joy, exhaustion, and I don't know what else. This has everything and nothing to do with running. I started my PhD with little more than casual running experience. It was used as my backup plan in case the snow wasn't good for skiing. Often I would even run with poles. Then I came to McGill. Nothing of that nature changed initially. I was busy with school, learning the city, and trying to understand what my research project was going to be.

To keep my mind healthy I joined the McGill cross country ski team, memories which I will treasure always. As a club team, the focus was on enjoying mostly casual skiing and raising money (through many samosa sales). We travelled around Quebec and Ontario quite a lot, most memorably entering the Canadian Ski Marathon, completing 100 miles classic-style in 2 days. Not a single regret, but skiing was not brining out my competitive side. And I liked that, for a while. In my second year on the team I got antsy about not feeling 'race-ready', which is different than racing; it's the feeling that you raced your hardest. Somehow I wanted to feel competitive again. So in the spring of my first year at McGill, I decided that I would train for September's Montreal marathon. I had no idea how to train for a race so long, and it didn't seem to matter. Somehow racing was the name of the game. I had a goal.

I entered my first half-marathon in the spring, correctly assuming this would be a good first step. The longest I had ever raced was 10km, which I usually took me 36-37 minutes to complete. The surprise for me was how small that first step was. I ran the 21.1 km in April in a time of 1:22 or so. It wasn't that hard, only felt somewhat longer than a 10k but no different. Maybe it was the Ski Marathon training. Skiing 100 miles is surprisingly easy compared to running such a distance, but as training it makes being on your feet for less than 90 minutes trivial. Now there was nothing left but the marathon, and years of schooling ahead. That summer classes were done, I had no teaching assignments, and the horror of spending all those months indoors conducting lab measurements forced me to focus on something more tangible. Promises of publishing manuscripts are vague compared to a guaranteed race date. September 10th it would remain. Not having even the sense to plan for a race, I figured just running most every day would suffice. Twice a week I instinctively ran fartleks.

When I look back on my scheming it was pretty close to what any coach would have told a first-time runner to do. Natural running. I wore shoes I bought from Sport Experts; they were flimsy, just like a good racing flat should be. No idea what brand they were. Didn't pay attention to that stuff back then.
And so I ran, alone or with my friend Sandra, also a member of the ski team, was finishing her Master's at McGill (the team's undergrads were out of the city). Running came easy, easier than I thought possible. Already my desire was growing with the added miles. There was no race plan because I had no idea what I'd feel like racing for so long anyway (the half marathon was clearly no indication). Marathon books were unfamiliar to me and remained so until much later. I was feeling pretty good in August when I entered a very small 8k race on Mt Royal and won. I had never won a race before, so this was a confidence booster.

September approached, and nerves were beginning to grow. I took up an offer to go camping the week before the race. It was from a friend from the ski team, and no meek car camping trip. Sort of knew what I was in for, 90 miles of canoeing in six days; either this would prep me for the marathon or kill me. A good learning experience: distractions themselves produce distractions, layered one on top of the other until you trick your procrastination ways into a form of twisted productivity.

Race weekend, I still didn't know what to expect. I picked up my kit and waited for Sunday. I didn't have a very productive summer in the lab. I has passed my first review, attended a conference in Halifax and that was about it. This weekend would be something more concrete. Race day, the start was reachable on the Jean Drapeau island via metro. Warm late summer weather as expected. Gun goes off, and away I went. Memories were a blur, but the first half went well, passing the split in 1:20, already a PB for the distance, but the second was painful. This was not expected yet obvious. Feet were starting to ache. Chasing early ended with late struggling. Finished in 2:53, 16th overall. Not bad. The rewarding part was that sense of competing. No rivalry, just competing.

For a week after I limped from place to place, but that race, and that summer, really started for me what McGill was going to be about for a long while to come. Joining the McGill XC running team came the year after, and a few papers were also published along the way. Graduated, more or less officially now. Entered the game young, came out a little older. Learned a few things along the way. So it goes.

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