I am not suggesting that a PhD is needed for ultra running. I am only trying to squeeze-out every last drop out of my PhD experience. There were some clear lessons that I learned when doing my PhD and here is how I have applied them to my ultra running.
Ultra running is any distances significantly longer than a marathon which is 42.2 kilometres. Is 42.3 significantly larger than 42.2? No, 'significantly longer' implies that this distance is large enough for a runner to have to use different strategies for pacing and training and that this distance will need to be 'run' differently. Typical everything from 50km onwards is considered Ultra. The worlds longest known ultra race is 4,989 kilometre long and it goes in loops around just one block in New York. I have tried to apply these lessons to the 4 ultras - two 50 km distances and one 72 and 84 km each - that I have run so far.
For my PhD I studied the predator-prey dynamics between the snow leopard its wild herbivore prey and livestock across seven sites; 5 in Himachal Pradesh, one in Ladakh and one in Mongolia. Contrary to popular belief that carnivores kill livestock when there is not enough wild herbivore prey, I found that when there is more wild prey, there are more snow leopards and that leads to greater amount of livestock killing in that area!
|Me at one of my low points in Malnad Ultra 50K. Then, I thought that was bad. Today, I know how much worse it can get. I am sure I have much worse to see in the future.|
Back to Ultra running, what could a PhD in Ecology and conservation teach about Ultra running?
1. Don't sign up under peer pressure: Do I need to say more about this? A PhD or an Ultra run are hugely demanding. You alone are the judge of your mental and physical preparedness to undertake such an endeavour. When one is forced to give-up mid-way, it can be a major setback for self-confidence.
2. Surround yourself with people you like and people who like you and support you: PhD and Ultra running are often thought to be very solitary pursuits. Which might be true. But they are surely more bearable if you have friends to support you in this long Journey. I had my family, friends and mentors supporting me in my PhD Journey. My mentor continues to support me through my Ultra running together with my friends and family who are often on the side of the course cheering for me. Those bits of encouragement go a long way to forget the pain inflicted by the repetitive stress of PhD and distance running.
3. There is no Eureka moment: My PhD taught be that even the most fascinating discoveries take years of working on solving smaller problems one at a time. As a scientist, you can visualise the resulting picture much before it appears, but until then you put your head down and work until you can show that picture to the rest of the world. Ultra running is a bit like that. I did not wake up one morning and said that I want to run ultras. After years of running shorter distances of 10, 21 and 42.2 km, I could see that I was now ready for the ultra distance.
4. Break it down into bite-sized chunk: It is too much to think of the entire PhD or a 80 km run at one go. It helps to break it down into chapter, and objectives within those chapters and the data required for each of those objectives. Similarly, I break down an 80 kilometre run into sections between each aid-station and each of those sections into mini-sections depending on the route and terrain.
5. Make the most of the momentum: There were times during my PhD when writing did not feel so difficult. That was the best time to write. Write when writing comes easy because then there will be times, when it will be hard to write even one sentence. There are times in an Ultra when it is not so difficult to run harder, that is the time to run. Because there will be times when just putting one foot in front of the other will seem like an impossible task.
6. When you hit the low, 'survive today fight tomorrow': There are low points during a PhD. An impending deadline for a proposal or a talk, or a meeting and you are in the pits. That is the time to prioritise survival. Just find a way to survive it. Your PhD will not be defined by those lowest points. Wait it out and things will improve. Surprisingly, when you feel like quitting an ultra run, just hang in there for a few more kilometres and chances are that you will again feel better. I was on the verge of quitting after 32 km of my most recent ultra. I walked for a few kilometres, had a friend on my side to talk, and then went on to run 84 kilometres that day!
7. Plan for the short-term and for the long-term: My PhD taught me to plan. I planned my work for the day, for the week, for the month, for the year and for the entire duration of the PhD. When conditions changed, I updated my work plans. That is exactly how I run the Ultras. I have a plan for the next stretch of the road until the next bend. Then a plan for the next kilometre (eg. I want to run this kilometre at a 6:00 min pace). Then a plan to get to the next aid station (eg. I would like to be at that aid station by 10am). Then a plan for the entire race distance. As the conditions change, I change my plans. In one of my ultra, I had IT band pain at 50 km and I had 22 km to go, so I used an anti-inflamatory spray on my knee, reduced my pace and carried on with a new timing goal which was slower than my original goal.
8. Do your own PhD (Run your own race): I learned to focus on my own research. There were others who had published their first paper while I was still struggling with my proposal. In an ultra, Run your own race, don't start chasing the leader from from the gun. I am told that a 100 mile race starts at the 80th mile. I am yet to experience that.
9. Learn from experiences of others: Science builds on existing learnings. As a PhD students, I read what others before me had done and I built on it. The same is true for ultra distance running. I have read most books out there on Ultra running. I have watched all the decent youtube videos about ultra running. I try to learn from the mistakes and successes of others.
10. No problem asking "Why am I doing this?". The correct answer is "You signed up for it": This only works if you followed advice number one.