Wednesday, February 27, 2013

(A Post Nearly As Long As) The Process

Last July, right around the week of the 4th, I had a revelation at work.

"I can't do this for another 20 years."  

Rather than just wallow in the unhappiness, I started looking for alternatives.  Like, right there in the meeting that was making me want to punch someone.  I've worked for my boss for nearly 13 years, across a number of companies, so I knew I couldn't just find a new job - it wouldn't make me any happier (I'm still happy with my boss, I just don't like what I do) and it would be like a really bad breakup.  Well, those who have known me a long time know I've wanted my PhD since I was about 5.  However, when I graduated college, I wasn't going to get a PhD in chemistry and I figured I would wait until I knew what I wanted to do.  A whole lot of life happened after that and it was never a good time to go back to school...till now.

When I broke the news to Jeff that I was really considering going back to school - that I needed SOMETHING to make me happy with my working life again - he was very supportive.  I charged right into learning what I would need to do to apply, while still exploring various programs and schools.  Given my enthusiasm for sport that has developed in my adult years, exercise physiology and similar fields were what really held my interest.  I mean, you know you're looking at the right field when you sit around at home in front of the TV reading journal papers for fun.

I quickly organized a plan - it was easy to find/request my old transcripts, but after 15 years I'd need to take the GRE again.  And maybe at my age, I should take some classes to prove I still have school-brain? And what else would help my application?  Since so many exercise physiology/kinesiology departments handle PE classes, would some coaching certifications help?  I tried to analyze what my weaknesses would be - so much time out of school in the workforce, coming from a different field, etc - and figure out how to address them.

First up, the GRE...

I signed up for a GRE test date at the end of September.  That gave me nearly 3 months to prepare.  Oh how little I knew what a good idea that was at the time!

I've always aced standardized tests and I had great scores on the GRE last time, back in 1997, so I didn't think it would be a big deal.  I bought a test prep book and took a practice exam and...well, things have changed a bit since I last took this test.  Not only are the sections different and the scoring scale very different (no more 200 to 800 like the SAT), but the testing methodology itself is entirely different.  I had taken the GRE when they'd first gone to computer based testing but now the test actually adapts to your answers, challenging you with harder and harder questions.  And it's looking for more analysis than it had previously.  And there would be two essays involved.  After years of scientific writing, it was a challenge to try to stretch an argument out into a page or two when I was programmed to make it concise and to the point.

In any event, I walked into the test center on September 29th, having studied and prepared as much as was possible.  I'd practiced writing essays (though not that much, I admit - it bored me and I was counting on a little race day magic to help me out), I'd taken a gazillion tests on paper and online.  I was NOT prepared for how much the testing environment has changed since the 90s.  I suppose it was inevitable with the introduction of technology to cheating...

First I signed in at the front desk.  I was given a locker key and instructed to put EVERYTHING I brought with me in the locker, except my ID.  Even my watch.  Then I had to fill out a long form and write out a pledge not to cheat IN CURSIVE (when was the last time you wrote a long paragraph in cursive? Ow!).  When I was called to the testing room, I had to sign a form, and then sign it again because my signature did not exactly match my ID.  Then I was wanded down with a metal detector and had to turn my pockets out to prove they were empty.  I was warned that I could not take my sweatshirt off in the testing room if I wore it in there.

With that fun all said and done, and my knees knocking, go start your test!  Yikes.  I took a moment to breathe and try to tune out the keyboards tapping around me and the video cameras overhead and then set to work.  First up, the essay questions - of course!  At least I got them while my brain was fresh.  From there the test flew by as I rejoiced when math questions were things I'd studied and wracked my brain when I got a curveball.  When I finally submitted the test and provided the schools I wanted my scores sent to, the screen flashed my raw score numbers for math and verbal (you get the important part - your percentile ranking on each section - with the score for the essays later).  But I saw enough to know, race day magic had indeed happened.

About 4 weeks later, this arrived in my mailbox.  Verbal and Math are scored on a scale of 130 to 170 and Analytical Writing on a scale of 0 to 6.

One task down, on to the next...

Back to School

I mentioned last fall I was taking a couple classes at the local community college for fun.  Well, they were also to help support my application and give a sense that I could handle the field.  My sisters might have made fun of me for being an overachiever and doing all the extra credit but it was a big confidence boost to learn I still had an aptitude for learning.  My only regret is they don't seem to report A+ grades, as I had them in both classes.

Coaching Certification

Thinking this would give me added perspective from another side of the field, I took a USAT coaching certification course in October to get a better feel for where the data can be helpful and just in case it would help my application chances by being able to TA certain PE classes.  It was fun, though clearly Level 1 is barebones compared to the depth of knowledge the ELF and so many other great coaches have.  If I had to do this process again, I'd skip this particular item.

Personal Statement/Letter of Intent

I let my thoughts on this percolate for a few months and then one day in the swimming pool it just came to me.  Thankfully it only took a few drafts and revisions from there to get what I wanted.  A clear connection between my work in interventional cardiac medicine and my desire to approach the problem from the other side, with disease prevention, my lifelong passion for science, and a desire to get back to basic research.


And then I had to come up with recommendation letters.  Since I've been out of school forever and professors would no longer remember me (not that any of them knew me back then anyway), I had to really ponder this.  I ended up choosing two current co-workers - my boss and another PhD in the department - and one former co-worker.  As all of these women are quite busy, I had to give them a ton of lead time and advance notice in order to get my letters in before the deadlines.  Like 3+ months!  Thank goodness it went well when I broke the news to my boss - she too was uber supportive!


Finally I was ready to submit my applications, my transcripts, my resume, my letters of intent.  A few clicks of the mouse and a few stamps in the mail and it was done.  So then it's...late October and you have nothing to do but wait.  And hope your recommendation letters are submitted on time.  And stress a little.  And put it out of your mind!  You still haven't told anyone outside of family and very close friends, so you just wait.

In the end, I applied to one local school (my original thought had been to go to school in San Jose and stay at my job part-time), one Arizona school (because I would have free housing there) and three Colorado schools (because the more we talked about it, the more we both acknowledged that we wanted to get on with the move to Colorado that we've been talking about for YEARS).  If I could get into a school in CO we knew that's where we would go.

My top choice was a school with a slightly different, much more hard-science and research focus.  Integrative physiology at CU covered not only exercise physiology but so many other areas related to how the body responds to stimuli.  I drooled every time I looked at their webpage.  Based on an email or two I'd had before applying, I didn't get my hopes up but I threw my hat in the ring anyway.

Waiting Wondering

In December, I found out I was accepted to my backup-backup school in CO.  Which meant at least we knew I was moving out there for sure.  I admit, I'd really hoped that since my applications went in early, I'd hear from everyone by the time we came home from Central America in late January.  I'd already set up a late February trip with my sisters to CO in order to show them a bunch of schools and hopefully help me make up my mind.

About 10 days into our cycling trip, I got an email while sitting in our room on Bocas del Toro in Panama.  A lab at my top choice was wondering if I was interested in their research.  We set up a Skype interview for the week after I got back to work.    I'll skip over the story of the Skype interview and just say I was sure I'd blown it, that I'd flubbed the questions and sounded like a moron.  I was in the depths of despair.  Until 2 days later, when I heard that they wanted to fly me out for in-person interviews.

As someone who hasn't interviewed for a job in 13 years, two straight days of interviewing - meeting with a different person every half hour - was...daunting to say the least.  I obsessed over what to wear that was both professional and would work in the Colorado winter.  I read up on everyone's research and analyzed some papers and came up with lots of questions.

I flew out there and ran the interview gamut and ended up enjoying every minute of it.  They were all interesting active people doing great research.  I. Loved. It.  One of the interviewers let slip that she was pretty sure I was their top choice.

I walked around Boulder with a huge stupid grin on my face the entire time because it was everything I'd dreamed and more.  I called Jeff from the curb at the airport to declare it was "the warmest sunniest 27 degrees I've ever experienced" (not hard after 4+ winters in Chicago).  I went for a run early in the morning, all around campus and The Hill and Boulder Creek Trail, and I loved it in my oxygen-deprived state.

And then I flew home, exhausted but elated, to wait again.


Thankfully, some people don't take forever to make decisions.  I only had to wait a week before I got the email offer and another week for something tangible in my mailbox.  I still have to officially confirm things with the university and figure out what project I'll be working on and a start date and plan a move and so many other things!

It might have been noticable that I planned a race schedule for 2013 with no local (CA) races after July.  There was indeed a method to the madness!  For now I will just keep on training and racing and working and saving $$ for my life as a poor graduate student.  But I'm excited beyond belief for the new beginnings ahead.  I'm grateful that I've reached a point in my life where it's possible to go back and chase down the dreams that were put aside.  Better late than never!

And what have YOU been up to that you haven't posted about publicly on your blog? :)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Confession Time...

I will post more about the process of what I've been doing since July tomorrow but for now I'll just share the same announcement I made on Facebook yesterday.

I've been working on a little something for nearly 8 months and now that it's officially official in my mailbox this morning, I can come clean!

This summer the beardies and I are moving, as I will be starting work on my MS/PhD in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Jeff and Puck will stay behind to close things up in San Jose and join us around springtime.

We are all very excited!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Travels, Training and Torture

I've been a lousy blogger lately.  I knew this year was going to be nuts!


I just returned yesterday from 3 days in Boulder, Colorado with two of my teenage sisters.  We took the trip with the intention of visiting several colleges for them to scout out (they are high school juniors).  As it so happened, we landed in the midst of a snowstorm that prevented us from taking the longish drive north to several schools.  BUT we were staying across the street from the University of Colorado (CU) and got lots of time to explore there as well as all over town.

Heading out

The start of the snow

Since we couldn't drive to Fort Collins Thursday morning, we opted for sledding and hot chocolate (followed by Beautiful Creatures, shopping, and Pearl Street!).

We had a blast with the campus tour of CU on Friday and afterwards drove up Flagstaff for a view over the town.

Farrand Field

A view from inside the dorms

The Flatirons!

Carlson Gym (home of the Integrative Physiology department!)

Ralphie statue and Folsom Field in the background

Ralphie I

Boulder (CU campus in the center)


Training is going remarkably well! I feel like I've gotten back on track in this last block.  Last Sunday I had instructions to find a good TRAIL for my long run, with my upcoming trail race in mind.  So I headed out to Quicksilver county park, which is where all the local ultrarunners go.  I got trail alright...the map doesn't look too bad till you read the elevation numbers.  I managed twice as much elevation gain in a ~7.7 mile run than I did on a rolling 28 mile ride the day before.

As far as the bike goes, I'm still feeling the benefits of the Central America trip as far as getting stronger  on the bike.  I'm probably going to need another bike test (shhhhh don't tell Coach).

And the pool...well, I show up and do the work.  It'll pay off eventually.  I found myself bored at masters early last week and realized it just meant I wasn't working hard enough.  I focused on chasing my friend for the rest of practice and it wasn't boring at all.  I also stayed in when the pool heater was broken last week (and it was 33 outside) longer than anyone else - some people dipped a toe in and then drove home!


Well, the dogs are always here to torture.  It's been 3 weeks since their last bath, so they were overdue.

Stanley knows how to work the misery for every last bit of food we have

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Du The Three Bears Race Report

On Saturday I got to do my first multisport race of the year, a tough little duathlon up in the East Bay hills.  I knew the course would be hilly but...yeah. It was hilly.

Run #1 elevation profile. Down to the dam and back up again, mostly on squishy muddy trail.  Note that nice steep hill at the end of the run.

The bike elevation and heart rate. Pretty much my HR was through the roof the whole time, with recovery possible on the downhills.  Roughly 1600 feet of climbing in 19 miles.

Run #2.  Like Run #1, with all the hilly fun and mud. And the finish is right at the end of that steep fucking uphill again.

So here's how it went down...

I got up to the San Pablo reservoir bright and early about 90 minutes before the race start.  It was 30 degrees out at that point.  Um, good thing we aren't swimming?  I did a quick setup in transition (bike, helmet, shoes - duathlon setup is easy!) and then stayed in my warm car waiting for my friend Stacey to arrive.

It had warmed up to about 32 by the time we lined up at the start.  Yay?  Well I knew once I got going I would be warm at least.  I haven't felt 100% since returning from Central America (took a while to kick a stomach bug from the trip, work stress, etc) but I was eager to kick off racing for the year and set a baseline for where my fitness is at.  I fully expected this race to HURT and it delivered.

I'm 2nd row back, to the right, in the blue Multisport Mastery jersey and the hot pink armwarmers.  I think those lasted about a mile into the run before I shoved them into my bra.

Without too much fanfare, the race director counted down and we were off!

The run began down a steep hill to the lake, then along the lake on a dirt trail to the dam and then back up to transition.  The return trip was...uncomfortable, to say the least.  BUT I did run my fastest mile ever along the way, so that's a nice indicator that even when I don't feel like my legs are in the shape I want yet they are getting there.

I came into transition ~5th or 6th place woman and passed all but one of the women ahead of me in transition and the first 100 yards of the bike course.  In and out of transition in 36 seconds (fastest of all the women and nearly all the men - hit one of my race goals there!).

The bike course was a very popular riding route known as The 3 Bears loop.  I don't live close enough to have ridden it but I could see why it's so popular - it was a beautiful loop on mostly nice pavement, some challenging climbs and minimal traffic.  The three big climbs are - duh - Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear.  Mama Bear and Papa Bear f*ck with you by making you climb climb climb, then give you a short downhill and then you climb again.  Baby Bear is just one short STEEP little bastard.  Not knowing the course, I was a little unsure how long some climbs would last and conservative in my gearing.  But I redlined it as best I could and my power data shows this was a good race for me.  My 20-minute average was at my bike test watts, for a race that took me substantially longer than that, and overall my numbers were really high.  I was passed by 3 women on the steepest descent at the end, as there were some large bumps and cracks in the road and I was cautious descending at 30+ mph.

Given that, it's no surprise that I came in off the bike with pretty tired legs!  I dashed through transition in 23 seconds (fastest T2 in the entire race, another goal nailed!), waved at my friend Shannon who came to spectate, mumbled something about "that was painful" and took off for the second run.

I tried to just let my legs carry me downhill to the turnaround, knowing I'd have to return back uphill.  I passed one of the women ahead of me in transition and another within the first 1/2 mile of the run.  As I neared the turnaround I was able to assess my position overall at 3rd place woman and held on to that to the end.  The return trip uphill on the trail was NOT pleasant - I very badly wanted to walk - and the final steep uphill was miserable.  But then the finish line was there and I was done!  I'm sure Shannon was happy I didn't barf on her shoes immediately upon finishing either.

As it turned out, my race was good enough for 2nd in my AG and the aforementioned 3rd woman OA.

Hanging with Stacey and her husband Mike, who'd done the relay, and super-spectator Shannon

Stacey and Mike came in 2nd in the relay

I enjoyed my well-deserved rest day today with no swim, bike or run.  Stanley really thought I should get off the couch and do something fun with him.

I finally succumbed to boredom and did some light yardwork - raking and weeding - this afternoon.  Max suggested I call him if I needed help with digging anything up, that's his specialty.

I hope everyone had a nice weekend!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Well, after 3 countries, 320 miles of cycling, and over 18,000 feet of climbing, the trip was done and we headed for home.

The best part of coming home was getting to pick up the dogs!!!  2 weeks apart was our longest ever and we were missing them for sure.

Back to work was a little rougher but altogether not too bad.  Things have been quite busy for both of us at the office over the last 2 weeks though.

Returning to training has been a bigger adjustment...I really thought being on East Coast time would help me get up for 5:30am masters but it's been a struggle.  I've been overtired and cranky and I think still carrying around a bit of the bug I picked up in our last days in Panama.

On a positive note, it's race week!  My first multisport race of the year is nearly bike is off for a tuneup and my race plan has been approved so all I can do now is rest and wait!

One big change with our return home was the end of the hockey lockout - we've been busy going to Sharks games again and while it was somewhat frustrating to see the season start so late it's good to have our favorite sport back.

This past weekend we were at an agility trial and I ran Max for the first time in years.  I will only run him in preferred jumpers, where he gets a lower jump height and won't have contacts to risk re-injuring his shoulder.  After spending all last year getting him healthy from his awful 2011, it was a delight to walk him to the start line and experience that easy teamwork - you could just see the joy on his face when he realized he was going to get to run a course again!!!  I just wanted to have fun with him, no matter the outcome.  And wouldn't you know it...after not seeing agility equipment - not a bit! - for two years...he nailed it and qualified!  (He came back the next day and did the same thing for a 4th place too!)

It's hard to believe we are already nearly a week into February!  I've got a ton of travel coming up this month - going to take my sisters on some college visits - and it will be busy.  With any luck the month will fly right on by and we'll start seeing signs of spring!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Day 14 - The End

Yes, finally this trip log is done and I can go back to blogging about mundane shit like my training and my dogs.

On our last day in Panama, I went for a run and came home with a friend.  I kept trying to kick him out of our hotel room and sneak back in the door.

Eventually I booted him out, we cleaned up and we started our day with a tour of the Panama Canal!  Really an impressive feat of engineering to see up close and personal.

Then it was time for one last ride!  We went through the jungle along the canal to a nice lunch stop on the lake.

The whole gang on the Canal - a ship going by!

Our super awesome guides and driver

Officially DONE!

Ride map and profile (a little short, I forgot to start the Garmin)

The next morning, we were up at 4:30am to catch our taxi to the airport.  It would be 21 hours of travel before we reached our beds at home!