Running the PhD race: lessons from a half marathon

This blog is in response to http://thesiswhisperer.com/2015/04/15/sink-or-swim/ a post that compares swimming training to PhD work. The authors find some key lessons from swimming that relate to the skills and qualities required to get through a PhD. Below is the response I posted as a comment (long comment!).

Thanks for your blog Michelle and Tori! I hope my PhD is not like my last attempt at swimming. It was in Broome at Cable Beach. I’m not a swimmer but decided to give it a go, on a social swim. It was an unusually wavy day for Cable Beach and although my limbs were moving, I essentially didn’t move! A little while in the murky warm ocean, watching my friends get smaller and smaller, thinking about what may be lurking underneath, I decided I’d revert to my strength which is jogging 😉 It’s funny, because I still feel as though I am showing weakness and even failing if I can’t ‘conquer’ this skill of swimming. As though I need to master every skill that my body is capable of…

Perhaps as long as I look at swimming as my pet ‘failure’ and I am motivated to conquer it only to prove myself better, rather than, say, enjoy myself (!) or just make a game of it, it won’t happen. And perhaps it’s the same with my PhD tasks…

But running is my real love (after years and years of cultivating it mind you!). I have run two half marathons in the last two years. The first year I trained by myself. I wouldn’t push myself overly hard and if I wanted to walk little stretches, I would. On the day of the half marathon (~20kms), I got to the last 5 kms and I was in struggle town. I was battling my mind more than anything, which had had enough. I walked a little, then forced myself to keep jogging. I did a PB but it wasn’t particularly fun.

The following year (last year) I had a running buddy, the first time I have ever consistently run with anyone. Often neither of us wanted to run. But my friend would turn up on my doorstep none-the-less and off we’d go. We didn’t run at the same pace, but she was always there. She set one rule for us “Never walk”. “You can slow your pace down, but never ever walk” she coached, as she had been coached. At first my inner voice said “I can’t be told what to do”, but the challenge had been set. After a few months, I didn’t feel like walking anymore. My friend also introduced me to running nutrition – we bought little gel packs to suck on during the race and we tried them out on a training run beforehand. Which reminds me of her other key advice: “Never do anything new during the race. Make sure you’ve tried everything out first, your gel pack, your clothes, your socks, even your undies”.

During the half marathon that year I had the time of my life. Unlike the first year, the last 5 kms were the best. I was enjoying myself so much I practically skipped the last few kms. I had trained, I had what I needed, I was ready.

So, after that long story, I feel my running (especially my running friend) has taught me some good principles. Find my pace and stick to it. At the times that I feel like avoiding a task I have set (and I want to ‘walk’), just keep pushing through, no matter how slow, and trust that I fill find my groove eventually. I should also continue to ‘try out’ all of those skills that I will require to submit my thesis; writing, editing, analysis, writing and more writing. Also, I think I should find my PhD buddy, someone who will turn up at my door to write even (especially) when I don’t feel like it. An online ‘shut up and write’ community comes to mind, which I am yet to join (I’m an external student).

Thanks again Michelle and Tori for your thought-provoking post!

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