Thursday, April 9, 2015

Calculating Community: The Running Equation

How does one do something they perceive to be so difficult that they never thought they would even consider doing it? How does one go from being a non-athlete to running 100 miles at elevation? And, how does this have anything to do with mathematics? I challenge you to read this blog post and replace “running” with “mathematics” for most people.

In my free time, I run. I run a lot. In fact, my new favorite race to run is the 50-miler, but I have completed three 100-mile events. One of these 100-mile events I completed in under 24 hours.

Was I born a runner? No, in fact I was a scrawny girl with chicken legs who would do anything to get out of gym class. Running used to make me cry. It was hard and it hurt. But, I was curious. Why did so many people run and say they loved running? In January 2009, I set out on a mission to find out what this running hype was all about. I trained for my first half marathon (13.1 miles) diligently for 4 months. I followed a training program to the nth degree, ran my race, and found my new hobby. The next day I signed up for a full marathon, 26.2 miles. I again trained and still liked running after completing it. Everyone I talked to told me that after running it I would never want to do another one, but instead I was looking for my next race shortly after I finished my first one. I didn’t want to tell anyone, but I wasn’t all that tired by the end of the race. I was hungry, but not tired. What was going on here?

I had thought I hated running because it was difficult, but I did my homework and ended up liking the feeling of success. With each step of the way I thirsted for more, even though others told me it would be “too hard.”

For a few years, I was able to fill this thirst with trying to run faster, but then I moved to Omaha. Here is where I found the ultra running community – the Ph.D. program of running.

26.2 miles was enough “difficulty” for me for years and I even thought it was insanity to run anything over that distance. Who does that for fun?!?! Not only is an ultra marathon anything over 26.2 miles, but they are often ran on dirt trails following flags on a course that may or may not be well marked. However, they do feed you multiple times along the way and I like food. Think of an aid station as a semester break in grad school. It means you have survived another semester. You get to rest, eat, recover, and forget the pain for a while. Then you go back for more with each leg of the journey providing new challenges and opportunities for growth.

How does one survive such madness? My answer to surviving both mathematics classes/programs and ultra running events is one and the same: community. When people are brought together to complete a task that at the time seems impossible, there’s something special that develops. Here are a few tips I have for creating that community that comes with embarking on a hard task.

The buddy system: Find people to train/work with who inspire you to do more than you think you can. This does not always mean finding people who are better than you. I would say that this should people of varying abilities. For instance, I have three training partners who come to mind when I think of the types of people who help me go beyond my “limits.”

First, there is my friend, Steve Stender. He is fast. He is very fast. He’s also the person I have ran more miles with than anyone I know. By being a friend and getting to know me as a person and as a runner, I value what he has to say. He shows me on a regular basis that I can go faster than I think I can and longer than I think I can with good company. He also has flat out told me to “go out and win something.” This being told to a non-athlete is something I am still not even sure if I believe. However, I have won races now and don’t think I would have even tried without Steve. He would be the friend encouraging you to get an A+ on an exam instead of just passing it.

Second, there is my friend, Kim Moore. She is tough as nails. She challenges me to go beyond my comfort zone. Somehow this lady has gotten me to run outside in the cold all winter and to run in the dark. I hate the cold and am scared of the dark. She would be the friend who encourages you to take the hard instructor or the difficult class. These things make us stronger, even though they may be painful at the time.

The third “type” of running friend I have is similar to my friend, Eric Schelker. He is someone who I mentor/train. He couldn’t run two miles when we met a year and a half ago, but now he is training for his first marathon. There’s something about helping someone and knowing they are looking up to you that makes you not want to quit. This also helps me want to do well and be a good role model. This would be the friend who you have to “teach” while working together, but in return you then understand the material better.

Regular meetings: This one is rather simple. Once you have a core group of people to train/work with you, meet regularly. This helps develop friendships and holds you accountable for doing your training/work. Don’t forget to make these meetings fun! Our running group meeting at a local bar on Tuesdays that has 50 cent tacos. We run 3-10 miles and hang out afterwards eating cheap tacos. My calculus classes meet daily before class to finish homework in a casual setting.

Talk to strangers: Whether there are newcomers in your group or you are seeking out a group, don’t be afraid to make new friends. Everyone feels awkward talking to new people, but you may just meet a life long friend or future colleague by talking to strangers.

Cave into peer pressure: Before you know it you will be running crazy distances (with these people who were once strangers) or taking crazy hard math classes. Sometimes peer pressure is a good thing!!

Impossible goal: Lastly, don’t be afraid to set a seemingly impossible goal for yourself. Break that goal into baby steps and conquer it with the help of your new friends.

For more details watch my TEDx talk at:

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