4 Ways That Running A 50 Miler Was A Lot Like Writing My Masters Thesis

When I tell other graduate students I like to run ultramarathons, they ask why I would ever do something so long and pointless. Irony aside, instead of writing a traditional race report, I had a fun time thinking about how running the Dirty German 50 Miler this past weekend was similar to my experience writing my masters. Below are some pieces of how the race went, some reflections on grad school, and a lot of slander against mud.

1. In theory I had all the tools to succeed but I was still pretty unclear on how it would all come together.

Shortly after I signed up for this race, I realized that having a coach would probably be very helpful. I thought that the pressure to actually follow through on running mileage with an actual intentional running schedule would be good for me (rather than the seat-of-my-pants bullshit I was pulling before). For the past few months I’ve been getting coached by UESCA certified, 2022 100K National Champ, #4 All Time American 50 Mile record holder Zack Beavin (no I am not getting paid to brag about him like this). It has been lovely and I’ve definitely noticed myself getting faster and stronger. It wasn’t like I didn’t think I wasn’t ready for the 50 miler, it was more that it is such a big thing to wrap my brain around. How do you really accurately visualize running for 8 hours? My two brain cells do not have the ability.

When I started my masters, I thought I knew how to play the academia game. I graduated from Purdue at the top of my major, I had several internship and research experiences under my belt, I thought I knew what to expect. Contrary to my initial beliefs, I did not know what I was getting into. I had jumped from being a big fish in a small pond to being one of those mediocre throwback fishes people think are too lame to really keep unless they’re new to fishing. I was behind in so many dimensions, there was so much knowledge that was expected of me that I never had access to even learn. It was overwhelming and I felt like I had no idea where to begin.

It turns out, both in research and in running, the best way to start is to just do it. It may not be pretty, but as long as it’s getting done it still counts. In the same way I hacked away at my masters, I hacked at this 50, checking off aid stations to visit and just thinking of choosing to go on a 5 mile run over and over again. And much to the surprise of literally no one other than me, it worked, *spoiler alert* I actually finished.

2. The circumstances were less than ideal

I started grad school in Fall 2019, so the majority of my masters was completed during heavy lockdown (when we actually believed in doing such a thing to fight the public health crisis). I took classes not designed to be online, I lived alone in a building MIT refused to let me have visitors in, I battled through research meetings with little technical mentorship. It sucked.

If it was sunny and dry, I think Pennypack Park in Philadelphia would make a wonderful trail run. Its fairly flat, the ground is soft with few tree roots peaking out, and it has miles and miles of singletrack. But May 7 was not sunny and dry. It had torrentially rained the day before, and it continued to rain the day of the race. When not in the middle of the forest, there was 15-20 mph wind, making it impossible to stay warm.

Part of why I enjoy trail running is that it can be a meditative experience for me. Connecting with nature, appreciating the power of your body, a good trail run can feel like the clarity you feel after a relaxing yoga session. That experience did not occur for me during the Dirty German. As I slogged through the first lap, hoping that I would finally reach a ‘good’ section, that the rain would let up and maybe the ground would be more runnable; I was faced with the realization that hope was gone. There was no clean break. In fact, as time went on, the course got even worse. Areas I looked forward to as opportunities to cut time on subsequent laps soon because filled with slick mud and even bigger piles of standing water.  I was frustrated. When I had dreamed about this race, I had inherently assumed that it would be tough but I would still love the experience of running. I was not having fun running and I felt like that was something that was owed to me for my first 50 miler. If I wasn’t having fun, I felt like the purity of the experience was ruined.

Something that is said very frequently in my department is that your masters thesis doesn’t matter, you just have to get through it. Older students will share that their thesis was terrible, and that nobody reads these things anyways. Internally, I always thought about how that may be true for them, but it certainly wouldn’t be true for me. My masters thesis would be great and change the field and be written eloquently and clearly. I would work on it in advance and avoid the pitfalls of my predecessors. Three months before my thesis was due, I became very aware that history was about to repeat itself. My thesis was a bunch of Google Colab notebooks and a dream pieced together by sugarfree redbull fueled writing hallucinations.  And even though my thesis wasn’t written the best, and was hardly novel, I was (and am) still immensely proud of it. It was the best I could do with what I had, which has now become somewhat of a life motto.

Shuffling at mile 24 past a guy puking his guts out, I became very aware of how ridiculous my frustrations were. As I checked on vomit guy to see if he was okay, he affirmed that this wasn’t even the worst 50 he’s done, that it’s all part of the experience. Hearing that helped pull my head out of my ass. This race was what I made of it. The weather and the state of the course were out of my control, but how I felt about them was something I chose. Instead of being irritated that this course was some sort of fucked up trench warfare recreation, I chose to find it funny. It is ridiculous to run 50 miles, and it was ridiculous to be so uppity about it that I couldn’t find it hilarious that it’s just all mud. I didn’t have to love everything about this 50, but I could pick the parts I liked and laugh everything else off.

3. It was really easy to get caught up with what others were doing as a way to punish myself

Prior the emergence of the state of dirt that should not be named (m*d), I had optimistically hoped that this race would take me somewhere in the 7 to 8 hour range. The Dirty German is constantly advertised as flat, runnable, and fast. Running the first few miles, it was more effort than I hoped for the pace we were going at, but I assured myself that it was just being eager the first few miles and the adrenaline would wear off.

The thing they don’t tell you about writing a masters in a pandemic is that you have absolutely no sense of time and pacing. Instead of going into lab and seeing other people work, you’re left with an ambiguous sense that others must always be working, that they’re probably ahead of you in writing, that you’re falling behind.

Now in running, you will know very quickly and easily that you are behind, they will tell you. It’s so easy to think that each passing person is a sign of failure, that if you had it together somehow, you would be the one ahead of everyone else. As the race went on, I was left on my own for the majority of it, with no real sense of how I was doing other than the people that were passing me. With the weather being what it was, I quickly jettisoned my initial timing goals and just hoped that I could finish, that I wouldn’t be so slow that I’d miss the cut-offs.  In fact, I was fairly concerned I would somehow miss the cutoffs, with how rapidly the course was deteriorating, and the fact they were packing up some of the aid stations as I passed through(never a good sign). When I crossed the finish line and they asked for my bib number and handed me a third place trophy, I was shocked. I figured the real win of the day would be that I finished, because I was nowhere near the speed I wanted to be at. I saw all these women pass me at the start, and just accepted the reality that this was a finishing thing and not a competitive thing. I had counted myself out when I shouldn’t have. I could lie and say that just finishing was the accomplishment, but honestly the third place coocoo clock is pretty cool and much more functional than my sense of accomplishment.  

4. It’s something I’m really proud of, but I hope I can build upon this with more impressive things in the future.

One of the recurring thoughts I had during the race was that any future 50 miler will be easier, because the conditions of this 50 miler were so bad. Even if it was hillier, at least I could appreciate the beauty of the hills. Even if it was drier, I could appreciate that it wasn’t mud. I think it’s probably a good sign that I’m looking forward to the next race, rather than swearing off running all together. For my next 50 (yes there will be more), I hope I can get faster and faster.

I am immensely proud of how my body held up, and that mentally, this really wasn’t much of a battle of attrition but moreso a battle of irritation. I am also excited to hang up my coocoo clock by my desk and annoy the shit out of my labmates with its chiming. While I’m not sure if I’m ready to touch any course that has mud on it in the near future, I did have a fun time running this race. I’m very grateful to all the volunteers that spent their whole Saturday in the cold and rain to support us. I’m grateful for the race director for putting it together (and I now know to question any races in the future with dirty in their name). Even on the worst days, trail running is still such a special community and I am very lucky to be a part of it


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