What I’ve Learned

Dissertation

Well, I’m done.  This last half-a-year I have been completely consumed with bringing my doctoral dissertation to a close.  And now it’s finished.  It’s a very surreal feeling to have four years of work come to a close — reading, writing, learning, analyzing, and presenting.  The defense will come in a few months, but the hardest part is over.  My heart was pounding in my chest as I printed out the final version this week.  To finally see all 300 pages take physical form was both nerve wracking and awe inspiring.

I will walk away from these four years with both a degree and a certain level of “expertise” on one very specific topic, but it feels so much bigger than that.

This whole experience has been extremely humbling.  I thought learning German was the most humbling thing I’d ever do, but, oh,  was I wrong.  Constantly putting your ideas and work out on the line for criticism is no easy task, but that is at the heart of research.  It’s not about developing your ideas in a vacuum and then hiding them away somewhere.  You have to send your work out into the world, talk about your ideas, incorporate critique, improve your work, and then do it all over again. And again. And again.  That’s how we learn, and that’s how science progresses.  But man, is it painful sometimes.

Very related to that was letting go of my perfectionism. Perfection really is the enemy of the good, and definitely an enemy of a finished dissertation.  As every doctoral student has heard at one point or another: a good dissertation is a finished dissertation.  It shouldn’t be the culmination of a lifetime of work, but rather just the starting point for a lifetime of research.  But that’s so hard to see when you’re in the middle of it all.  I really thought I would be able to complete my PhD in three years, but I clearly had no idea what I was getting into.

Especially as someone who is older and has had a less traditional academic path, there’s a huge incentive to bring this phase to a close and move on to the next one.  My desire to be able to contribute again to something larger than myself and my own research aims has become overwhelming as of late.  No doubt, it was the right time to let go of the perfect and aim for the finished.

And now what?  Well, in the very immediate future, I’ll be taking a few vacation days on the North Sea.  I want nothing more than just to relax, walk along the ocean shores, warm myself up in the sauna, read a book, and drink some East Frisian tea.  Everything else will just have to wait…

Books | Fall Reading 2014

How can it be autumn already?  The leaves are turning beautiful colors and falling to the ground, but it was sunny and nearly 70 degrees yesterday.  The first day of November!  In Germany!  It’s like some kind of crazy time warp, isn’t it?  Personally, I was just getting used to summer.  But indeed, time is marching on.  I haven’t felt like I’ve had a lot of time for reading lately, but apparently I’ve blazed my way through a few books that are definitely worth sharing…

Long-Walk-to-Freedom

Long Walk to Freedom

I can’t put my finger on what exactly inspired me to read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.   It was more like a general dissatisfaction at having everything I knew about Mandela being based on popular media and imagery.  I wanted to get a taste of the complexities of Mandela’s life and ideals, in his own words.

He wrote Long Walk to Freedom twenty years ago, so it does not cover too much of the time between his release from prison and his death in 2013.  Instead, it focuses on Mandela’s childhood and young adulthood, his early days as a lawyer in Johannesburg,  his increasing involvement with the African National Congress in the campaign against oppression, and his 27-year long imprisonment.

Mandela’s attention to detail in this autobiography is incredible.  I came away with a strong sense of the inner workings of the ANC and a profound respect for the commitment of those in the anti-apartheid movement.  It’s completely mind-blowing the extremes to which the South African government went in order to repress the overwhelming majority of its population.  That Mandela and his colleagues continued this struggle even within prison is impressive.

It was also clear from his writings that he was deeply conflicted about the sacrifices his family had to make for him to be a freedom fighter.  Although it pained him, he acknowledged that it was not possible for him to be both the “father of the nation” and a real father to his own children.  For Mandela, the greater good of freeing South Africa from oppression was worth the sacrifice.  In any case, it was a fascinating peek into Mandela’s mind and at South African history.

The-Giver

The Giver

I decided to read The Giver after being deeply disappointed with the Hollywood version I saw during a surprise sneak preview hosted by my local cinema.  I knew the book was much loved and the winner of many awards for children’s and young adult fiction, so I was hopeful that the story would be much more compelling in novel form.  Thankfully, where the movie fell flat, the novel was rich in detail and nuance.

The story centers around a dystopian community that promotes “sameness” in order to avoid the pain and conflict that comes with diversity.  But in doing so they also deprive themselves of love and joy.   Needing at least one individual in the community to carry the wisdom from the world prior to sameness, Jonas — an adolescent boy — is chosen to be the receiver of all memories.   The descriptions of the community and of the dilemmas Jonas faces with his new knowledge are fascinating.

But I have to admit that I was disappointed with the ending.  It was vague and unsatisfying.  It’s just the first book in a series of four, but I had still expected the story to be able to stand alone.  But since it’s so short, it’s still a valuable read, especially from an adult perspective.

Wild-Cheryl-Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

I’ve had Wild recommended to me several times, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.  It’s a memoir of Strayed’s 1,100-mile solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail during a particularly turbulent time in her life.  Recovering from the sudden death of her mother to cancer, Strayed’s life unravels at the seams.  As a way of finding herself again, she embarks on this very ambitious journey with shockingly little  preparation or experience.  Strayed suffers from her rookie mistakes and learns very painful lessons, but always manages to keep on putting one foot in front of the other.  Along the way she manages to make peace with herself and let her mother’s spirit cross over to the other side.

Altogether, Strayed told her story beautifully.  After the somewhat stilted prose of a Long Walk to Freedom, it was a pleasure to revel in Strayed’s gorgeous imagery.  But as someone who loves being over prepared for everything in life, I found her lack of preparation for the PCT maddening and downright dangerous.  But it’s authentic and part of her story.  I think anyone who has undertaken such an enormous physical challenge as Strayed did, will identify with the ways in which it leaves you a changed person.  And maybe it will inspire a few more people to shake up their lives and see where the trail leads them.

What should I read next?  I have Being Mortal, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Hard Choices at the top of my list.  What have been your favorites lately? 

Race Report | Bremen Half Marathon

Bremen Half Marathon Race Report | No Apathy Allowed

I had meant to get this race report up a little sooner, but I came down with a cold just a couple days after the race and it sucked up all my spare energy.  But better late than never!

Towards the end of this particular training cycle, I had noticed that my training runs were becoming more solid and that I was consistently reaching faster paces than I ever had before.  I knew I was capable of running a personal best during this race.  But given that it’s a very stressful time at the moment with my dissertation, I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself in case it didn’t happen.

However, I did try something new. I normally like to run a conservative first half and then negative split the second half of a race. But this time I wanted to put everything out there at the beginning of the race. To have more faith in my training and my abilities and to leave no room for doubt. Instead of letting myself get freaked out by the paces on my watch, I wanted my legs to simply show me what they could do.

Bremen Half Marathon route | No Apathy Allowed
Bremen Half Marathon route

And that they did. I was actually calmer than I have been at other races. I was happy to be racing on home turf and wanted to enjoy myself as much as possible. The first 5K went by in a flash. Maybe a bit faster than would be wise, but I felt good and my breathing was steady, so I just went with it.

By around the 10K mark, I was really feeling the midday sun. The temperatures were warm for the beginning of October and the race hadn’t started until 11:30am. I developed some really painful side stitches around this point and slowed my pace a bit.  I focused on my breathing and was able to run through them.  I  was at least 2 minutes under my goal time and knew I had some room to slow down if I needed it.

The next few miles weren’t my favorite because it already hurt and I knew I had about another 10K still to go.  But I focused on each kilometer separately.  Usually I’ve always kept my paces calculated in miles, but I may have crossed over to kilometers in this race. Mentally, it was just so much easier to handle maintaining 6:00 per kilometer than 9:40 per mile!

Once I hit 15K, I focused on just staying at my goal pace. It was more of a struggle than at the beginning, but I never doubted that I could.  I knew it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and pushing through it.  The crowds were also fantastic the whole way and gave me a real energy boost!  Plus I had the jaunt through the Werder Bremen football stadium to look forward to, and friends lined up at different points to cheer me on in the last kilometers.

Seeing familiar faces really kept me going strong.  I was so exhausted but knew I couldn’t give up.  Around 19K, I realized that if I pushed it a bit, I could finish under 2:05, which was my secret goal for the race (so secret that I may not have even admitted it to myself). So I gave it all I had. I was ecstatic and exhausted when I crossed the finish line nearly half-a-minute under!

Bremen-Half-Marathon-Splits

I couldn’t be more thrilled with my new personal best for a half marathon: 2:04:32.  It’s nearly 4 minutes faster than my last half marathon this year in Bonn, which was also a personal best — meaning I’ve taken a total of 9 minutes off of my half marathon time this year.  This is HUGE!  I’ve been running half marathons for more than a decade, and never really saw too much improvement in my finish times until now.  I’m SO going after that sub-2:00 half marathon in 2015.   And my 5K and 10K splits from this race were pretty dang close to personal records, so we’ll see if I have time for a few of those too.

But in the meantime, I need some rest.  Actually, thanks to this cold, I’ve had a little more rest than I bargained for this week.  But I guess I needed it.  Once I’m well again, I look forward to getting in more cross-training than usual in the form of swimming and strength  training and yoga.   Sounds like fun!

Have you been enjoying the lovely fall weather lately?  Any races planned for the coming months?

InstaFriday | Fall Colors Week

I wasn’t quite so on top of it as to actually post photos corresponding to Poppy Talk’s schedule for Fall Colors Week.  Rather I just took photos whenever I could and only tagged them in Instagram if they actually matched the schedule — so as not to ruin the effect when scrolling through all the images everyone’s posted.   Na ja, sometimes that’s just  the way life goes, right?  (I’m more than a little preoccupied with preparations for the half marathon on Sunday and a mid-November deadline for submission of my dissertation.)

Golden Fall Colors
Monday: Golden
Fall Colors Red
Tuesday: Red
Brown cobblestones
Wednesday: Brown
Gray feather
Thursday: Gray
Blue street art
Friday: Blue

P.S. Today is a public holiday celebrating the reunification of Germany in 1990.  So to all my German readers, happy Tag der Deutschen Einheit!

Traveling. Running. Living.