Road to 100: Weeks 8 & 9 Recap

Monday:  Rest day

Tuesday:   Day 1 of our ultimate frisbee league, so there was much sprinting and speed intervals that way, plus I did a bit of speedwork on the bike once I got home.  Today was also my appointment with my RD, who was shocked at how little I was eating, given how active I am.  I’ve been struggling to lose the weight I’ve put on since starting this Ph.D. program, so she gave me a calorie target to follow for the next few weeks until we meet again.  I feel like I never stop eating to meet this goal!  Sure, I could easily meet it if I were eating junk food, but I generally avoid that stuff (thanks to my uncontrollable, raging sweet tooth once I get a taste of the stuff), so that’s not so easy!

Wednesday:  Another speedwork on the bike day.  Although it’s light out much later now (thank goodness!), it’s been cold and super windy in Boulder this week, making running outside far less enjoyable.  So a trainer workout is better than nothing!  Although the intervals were short this time, there were a lot of them, and I was feeling it pretty hard by the end.  But overall, I felt strong, and powered my way through.  I was also happy to see that even though I felt like I was nonstop stuffing my face the day before, things seemed to already be going in a much better direction, weight-wise.

Thursday:  A snowy day here in Boulder!  The trails were already covered in some snow by the time I got out of work, so I planned for another trainer session at home.  (I don’t like to run on slightly snowy trails because it’s enough to hide the rocks, but not enough to make you not trip/roll your ankles on them, and I am terrible with that.)  Later in the evening, I got on the bike and started pedaling, only to realize how much my sit bones hurt from the previous two days on the bike.  So yeah… that didn’t happen.  I have to build my saddle butt back up!  I lost it this past year since I didn’t do an Ironman – not nearly as much time on the bike.

Friday:  Friday I awoke to a beautiful, snowy Boulder!  We got 14″ of snow – way more than expected, and we had gone from 70 degrees and sunny the previous week to a winter wonderland all over again.  Colorado never ceases to keep you on your toes.  No running today since the trails weren’t packed down yet, and I had a bunch of work and prep stuff to do for my upcoming trip to Houston.

Weekend, and all of week 9:  Away in Houston for a conference all week, so things were plenty busy.  And the lingering on-again-off-again “allergies” I had been dealing with for the last week or two turned into actually being sick, so I was miserable (still am).  I completely lost my voice on Tuesday, and spent the rest of the conference whispering and squeaking at everyone.  Needless to say, I didn’t get any runs in.  I felt like crap, everything was achy, my throat was killing me, and I couldn’t breathe without coughing.  Fun times.  Once I got home from the conference, I spent most of my time passed out on my couch.  Not very glamorous.

What worked well:  Doing speed sessions on the bike when the weather isn’t cooperating.

What I struggled with:  Illness

What I will do to improve next week:  Get healthy!

Total weekly mileage:   22 bike miles before getting sick and being out of commission.

Road to 100: Week 7 Recap

Monday – Thursday:  For the most part, not a very exciting week.  I wasn’t able to train for the bulk of the week due to some lingering effects from that medical thing from the previous week.  So instead, I mostly just worked.  Boo.

Friday:  First day back!  Since I was coming back from a little medical setback, this week wasn’t about speedwork or anything really crazy.  Instead, I went out in the afternoon and busted out a strong 4.5 trail miles.  I continued to see improvement with my pace and climbing.  I still have a long way to go, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction!  Even with stopping to take the occasional picture (it was a crazy hot, and beautiful day), my average pace was still just under 12:00/mile, which used to be my awesome-busting-ass-pace.  So hooray!

Friday runNo complaints

Saturday:  Saturday was time for a nice long run.  It was a gorgeous day, and I planned to get out for a long run with Molly and another awesome runner girlfriend of ours, Cheryl.  Cheryl is totally badass, and was tapering for her first 50 mile run the following weekend, so she is far beyond my abilities – especially considering how far behind the last year of school has put me.  Needless to say, I was a little worried about running with the two of them, but also looking forward to it.  We always have a good time together on the trails.

We headed out from Cheryl’s house and started the long 2.5 mile nonstop, gradual climb up on to the mesa trail.  It only took about a quarter mile for Molly and Cheryl to pull ahead of me, and I was slogging along, bringing up the rear, and getting really upset with myself.  Here I thought I had been improving, and yet, I still suck.  WTF.

Molly and Cheryl ran along ahead and left me in the dust.  After about a mile and a half, I caught up with them (they had stopped to wait for me), and Cheryl immediately took off again.  I was pissed.  The slowest person in the group is the one who needs the rest break the most!  So I angrily said “fuck this, I’m out” and turned around to head back down the trail on my own.  They could go off and kill it together.  I was pissed and pouting.

I ran about 1/10 of a mile back down the trail, and decided to sit on a rock for a minute and just cool down.  After calming myself down, I decided to push on on my own because I knew I would be upset with myself for giving up on the run.

I started back up the trail, grumbling to myself about what turds they were being (they were fine – I was just being really grumpy).  The climb up the mesa was long and tiring, but eventually I got to the top and picked the pace back up.  From the top of one of the hills, I saw Molly and Cheryl off in the distance, and decided to try and catch them.  There were several downhills coming up, which is my strength, so it was worth a shot.

After another mile or so, I managed to catch up with them.  I was cranky and a little grumpy, but happy to see them again.  Cheryl decided to take off on her own, since she had something very specific she was trying to do that day, and Molly and I continued on together.

After Molly gave me some tough love – basically telling me to shut up and stop being a brat, which I was (thank goodness for training partners who know you well) – we ended up having a great day!  The trail was perfect and runnable, and we wandered our way south out of Boulder for several miles until it was time to turn around and head back.  We ended up doing 14.25 miles and had a lovely afternoon after all.

Saturday runEnjoying the Mesa Trail at the base of the Flatirons

Sunday:  Molly and I were both rather sore and tired from our long run the day before, so today we celebrated the fourth anniversary of her spinal fusion by enjoying a delicious brunch at our favorite indulgent breakfast place, Snooze.

What worked well this week:  Talking myself into continuing on for the long run on Saturday.  I could have easily given up and headed home, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

What I struggled with:  Medical things outside of my control.

What I will do to improve next week:  Get back on my training plan.  I’ve been doing pretty well with it, and I want to continue with that momentum.

Total weekly mileage:   18.75 miles.  Not terrible considering I was out of commission for most of the week.

Road to 100: Week 6 Recap

Monday:  Monday was scheduled for a tempo workout, which I combined with the missed speed workout from the previous week.  I did these on the trainer since it was already dark by the time I had a chance to train that day.  I made sure to push hard on the tempo and speed intervals and felt really good!  They were tough to complete, but I forced myself to maintain the intensity and not drop off at the end.  By the time I was done, I had completed 16 miles in 53 minutes, which ends up being an 18.1 mph average pace!  A marked improvement from previous trainer workouts!

Tuesday:  Rest day!  Not only did I have a minor medical thing done in the morning that requires 24 hours of no exercise, Tuesday was also caucus day here in Colorado.

Oh. My. God.  It was INSANE.

I waited in line for an hour and a half.  The line wrapped around the school and athletic fields and onto the track.  By the time everyone made it inside, precincts had already voted and we missed the whole thing.  We were PISSED.  Fortunately, my precinct captains tallied the latecomers votes as well, and added them in.  But MAN, that was some horribly run caucusing.  Even if I had been able to train, I wouldn’t have made it home or to the gym in time.  By the time I got home it was late and I was totally wiped out.

Wednesday:  Speed day!  My boyfriend and I went over to the indoor track later in the evening so I could get my speed workout in while he played some basketball. (I do not partake, as I hardcore suck at basketball.)  I busted my butt for the speed intervals, which got shorter with each round.  Somewhere around the middle of the workout, I felt my right hamstring start to get a little tight and uncomfortable.  I must have tweaked it at some point earlier in the workout.  I managed to finish the intervals, but cut the cool down a little short because by that time, my leg was rather bothersome.  Instead, I worked on stretching it out before we headed home.  Overall, it was a good workout, and I got the key stuff done, so I was happy with that.

Thursday – Saturday:  I had intended to get some runs in these days, but my hamstring continued to plague me whenever I would walk, climb stairs, or really, exist.  So I gave myself a couple days to let whatever I did to it go away, and tried to stretch and roll it out as best I could.  This proved to be tricky, since it was more my upper hamstring/groin area.  I had a hard time getting the foam roller to be effective, but I did the best I could.

Sunday:  My guy, my pup, Molly, and I all headed out for a fun afternoon trail run down on the Flatirons Vista trail in South Boulder – one of our favorites.  The boys sprinted on ahead – positively bounding down the trail – while Molly and I made our way along behind them.  This was not my day.  No matter what I did, everything felt like it took 1000 times more effort than it should.  I felt like I was positively busting my ass the entire time, and moving so slowly.  I was getting super pissed at myself, and fortunately, Molly knows how this goes, so she let me just bitch to myself for a while and vent it out.


Once we were on the long final downhill on our way back to the car, I started to get a bit more rational.  Looking at things objectively:

  1. My hamstring felt okay.
  2. I ran all the uphills, which I never do.  Ever.  Even the really long ones!
  3. My overall pace was 11:35/mi.  This is a huge trail pace PB for me.  I am usually thrilled if I am in the 12s.  And today I was sub-12.  By a decent margin.  And that included stopping for puppy poop breaks.  And the occasional brief walk break.


By the time we reached the car, I had cheered up quite a bit.  Yes, I felt like pure crap the entire run, but maybe that’s because I was pushing myself harder than I have in the past?

What worked well this week:  I don’t think anything worked particularly well… but I’m really proud of my crappy/not crappy run on Sunday.

What I struggled with: Minor hamstring injury.  But hopefully I’ve got that under control now.

What I will do to improve next week:  Lots of stretching!  Also, more time on trails.  I’ve been doing my speedwork indoors since that’s much easier for intervals.  But I think all my other runs really need to be on the trails.  I feel like that might have also played into my crappy feeling on Sunday.

Total weekly mileage:   Not as much as I hoped.

Road to 100: Week 5 Recap

Monday:  Rather than stressing about trying to make up for my missed runs last week – as I often do – I kept on going with the plan as written.  Today was a tempo day.  I busted by butt all day and cranked out stuff at work (hooray!), and was planning on heading over to the gym once it got dark and doing my run and a nice long swim.  Once I headed out of work, it had gotten rather cold in Boulder, and I wasn’t dressed for wandering quite a ways over to the gym and back.  So I headed home with the plan to get warmer clothes and head back over later.  Once I headed back out to the gym, the snow had started to fall and the roads were getting a bit dicey.  Instead, I turned back and did my workout on the bike trainer while I made some headway on GoT season 2.  (I have a lot of catching up to do before April.)  I was proud of myself for still getting things done (I am able to do these workouts on the trainer as well, so it was still as written) – even when things didn’t go as planned.  Plus I managed to sustain 21 mph for my tempo section of the workout, so that was pretty sweet!

Tuesday:  I wanted to go home after work sooooo badly today.  It was cold out and I was tired from powering through sample analysis all day, but instead of turning to go home, I forced myself to head to the gym and kept reminding myself that I would be glad I did once I got there.

I was right!

Tonight was a speedwork night, and since the intervals changed length every time, I couldn’t program that into my watch, so I decided to run on the treadmill to make things easier.  I figured I could do the math once I started each interval with the clock right in my face.  It worked well.

I wanted to push myself on this speed day, since things are very low volume right now – quality, not quantity.  I ended up doing my speed intervals in the low 8s, which felt fast but sustainable.  I was really happy with that!  I was hoping to swim afterwards, but by the time I was done I was tired and hungry, so food won that battle.

Wednesday:  Today should have been a tempo and hill day, but I was working all day, and had plans for dinner and a show (The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) with one of my girlfriends that night.  To make things a little more manageable, I decided to forgo the workout for today and make it a rest day instead.  Also, the show was hilarious.

Thursday:  I went to sleep Wednesday night feeling horribly guilty for missing my hill workout, and extra motivated by the beautiful weather.  So I decided to make Thursday a tempo and hill day.  I enlisted one of my work friends to go do the Wednesday tempo and hill workout in the afternoon, and we had a great time.  5 minute hill repeats up Mt. Sanitas is no joke!  I really wanted to get these in, since climbing is my biggest weakness.  So I made sure to run – albeit a slow shuffle – the entire interval, and not wuss out.  No matter how much I didn’t want to do them.  I was proud of us to sticking it out.  I had hoped to also do the speedwork session that was originally scheduled for that day later that evening, but I was wiped after hill repeats, and wanted to be fresh for speedwork.

Friday:  I originally intended to do that speed workout today, but ended up working alllllllll day and all night instead.  Way less fun.

Saturday:  Saturday ended up being my long day of the week.  I went for a hike on the Mesa trail with one of my girlfriends and our dogs in the morning, and then met my boyfriend for a run up at Walker Ranch afterwards.  I was hoping to do the whole 7.5 mile Walker loop, but it was a total slop-fest, which I wasn’t expecting.  Neither of us brought traction, and parts of the downhills were rather dicey with slick snow and slush, so we did an out and back and enjoyed the beautiful day anyway.  It was so nice to run with him!  Looking forward to lots more.

Sunday:  Sunday was mostly spent as a work day, while wistfully looking out the window at the beautiful weather.  But fortunately, I was able to squeeze in a short run around the neighborhood with Molly and the dogs in the evening.  Even though it was short, it felt great just to get out.

What worked well this week:  Doing the hill workout with my friend made a big difference in me completing it.  I think I would have been far more likely to wuss out on that second interval if I had been alone.

What didn’t work well this week:  Mud season really drives me nuts.

What I struggled with:  Food!  I keep going back and forth between not eating enough, and eating too much.  Trying to find that optimal balance that will allow me to complete my workouts to the best of my ability, while at the same time trying to lose the excess weight I put on from school stress.  My body clearly responds best when I keep my carb intake low, but when I eat high fat, protein, and fiber, that keeps me quite full on not too much.  But numerically (calories, volume), I should be eating more.  I made an appointment with a dietitian to get this fine tuned this month.  So hopefully I will have that sorted out soon.

What I will do to improve next week:  Run with friends more.  If I do workouts on the trainer (totally acceptable), make sure to push myself so I’m not just spinning away on the important tempo or speed intervals.  Make sure to get a really good long run in.

Total weekly mileage:  16.4 mi running, plus 7 mi on the trainer for a tempo workout (would have worked out to another 3 miles or so running).

Road to 100: Week 4 Recap

Monday:  Theme of the day: DOMS is a bitch.  I spent the day stiffly wandering around work and trying to roll out and stretch out my quads and hamstrings.  I haven’t done strength training in a long time, so I was really feeling that workout from Sunday.

Tuesday:  Speedwork day!  The intervals today were twice as long as the previous session, and I was feeling it.  But they were still manageable.  I’ve enjoyed running on the indoor track instead of a treadmill.  Besides boring me to tears, I feel like my gait changes on a treadmill, and it’s not quite the same.  Afterwards, I made sure I stretched and did some planks before heading home.  I’m trying to get in the habit of stretching after my workouts, since I’ve been horrible about that for years.

Wednesday:  Today was a short tempo day.  I took the dogs out for this run around the neighborhood to enjoy the beautiful afternoon.  Jade wasn’t loving the tempo part of the run, but she held on!  This workout felt way short compared to my usual, but I keep reminding myself to just stick with what Michele has written, and trust the plan.  Quality, not quantity.  🙂  I definitely ended the evening considering adding in some swim and bike miles as well though.

Thursday – Saturday:  Beautiful days in Boulder!  I was hardcore itching to get out on a trail and just run my brains out, but instead spent the whole time analyzing samples in windowless rooms.  Woooooooooo…  Trying to crank out this paper before the conference in March is really killing my running productivity.

Sunday:  Ski day at Loveland!  It wasn’t a run, but I definitely got a good workout in nonetheless.  I was hoping to knock out something when I got home, but by the time we got back it was getting dark and I was totally wiped out.  I ended up sleeping for 11 hours that night.  Yowza.

What worked well this week:  I started the week out strong, and got my workouts in as written.  Things fell by the wayside when I let my work stress take over.

What didn’t work well this week:  Not being as productive as I would like at work.  This caused my running time to get eaten up by more work as the week went on.

What I struggled with:  I’m trying to not add in extra mileage and just trust Michele’s low volume start.  I feel like I should be running more – my standard weekday run is usually around 6 miles or so, so anything less than that feels weird.

What I will do to improve next week:  Be more efficient at work and keep the distractions to a minimum.  This means socializing, random internet browsing, etc.

Total weekly mileage:  NOT ENOUGH.  Let’s not even talk about it this week.

Road to 100: Week 3 Recap

Monday:  Food poisoning recovery day.  Not my finest moment.  But by the end of the day, I was feeling mostly better.  There was no way in hell I was running today though.

Tuesday:  Crazy day squeezing in work, hut trip preparations, and a curling match (our first win!).  Yes, I am on a curling team:


I knew I was going to get some pretty solid workouts in in the upcoming days, so today was just a frantic rush to get everything done before heading out on the hut trip Wednesday morning.  Even then, I didn’t finish packing until about 2am.

Wednesday – Friday: My first hut trip!  My boyfriend and I headed to the outskirts of Breckenridge for a backcountry skiing trip up to Ken’s Cabin.  This was my first hut trip, and I was super excited.  I’ve wanted to do one of these since moving to Colorado.

We got to the trailhead around 2:30 in the afternoon or so, so if we were speedy, we could make it to the hut before dark.  The trail up to the hut is actually a dirt road that’s closed in the winter, so it was super easy to follow, and a really gentle grade.  I felt pretty comfortable skinning up the trail on the AT skis after only a few minutes, which was a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, my rental boots (I don’t have my own AT setup yet, so I rented skis and boots for this trip) were pretty much the worst things I’ve ever had on my feet ever – and I’m including my collection of 5 inch heels in that group.  After about a mile or so, I was in so much agony from the pinching of my toes, and the massive blisters I could already feel forming on my pinky toes, that I had to stop every 15(ish) feet to try to wiggle things around, and try not to cry.  By 2 miles in, I sat down on the trail and tore the boots off my feet out of a combination of pain and anger.  My wonderful, sweet boyfriend (he is a saint for dealing with my whining about those boots) fashioned a makeshift sled out of my skis and boots to haul behind me, and I hiked the last snowy and icy 4.5 miles up to the hut on top of the continental divide in my bootie slippers.  I must have been a sight.

slippersI hiked 4.5 miles in these things!

The slippers were sweet relief (and held up amazingly well), but didn’t help much with weight distribution.  The smaller footprint (compared to skis or snowshoes), plus the 40+ pound backpack I was carrying resulted in a lot of postholing up to my knees, and sometimes deeper, as we got closer to the top of the divide.  It was slow going, but eventually, we made it to the hut!  Thank goodness!

The rest of the trip was relaxing and uneventful.  Wonderful company, a roaring fire, delicious food, beautiful scenery, and plenty of UNO and Scrabble made the time fly by, and eventually it was time to pack up and head back to civilization.

IMG_8273Heading back down from the divide

Fortunately, coming back down was easier on my toes than going up.  They still hurt quite a bit, but I looked at this as an adversity training day.  I kept reminding myself that my feet are going to feel a lot worse during Run Rabbit, so I might as well suck it up and deal with a couple little blisters.  Taking those boots off at the car was amazing.

Saturday:  Work make-up day with one of my best friends.  She’s busy working on a senior thesis project, and I needed to make up for my early “weekend” this week.

Sunday:  My first day on Michele’s training plan!  I would have loved to run outside, but as per usual during the Boulder spring, the winds were howling, and I would have gotten blown in every possible direction except the one I was trying to go.  So over to the rec center indoor track it was.  This was a speed day, with pretty short intervals.  I felt surprisingly good, considering how far I have to go still.  I enjoyed people watching on the track, and the intervals went by pretty quickly.  Overall, I knocked out 4.5 miles.  Then it was time to stretch (trying really hard to be good about this this year!) and do my strength workout.

I was really proud of myself for getting this first workout done – and as written!  Looking forward to seeing progress over the next several weeks and months.

What worked well this week:  Taking the leap to work with a coach!  Knowing that I made the conscious decision to work with Michele gives me that little extra fire under my butt to get out and do my workout, even if it’s so much more comfortable to stay on the couch in my sweatpants.  Which, let’s be honest, is awesome.

What didn’t work well this week:  Travel’s always a bitch.  Especially when I have to make up for the lost time at work, so I spend extra hours working instead of getting workouts in.

What I struggled with:  Nothing horrible this week.  Things were pretty crammed before the hut trip, so that could have been better.  But overall, no major problems.

What I will do to improve next week:  Keep on following Michele’s plan!

Total weekly mileage: If I count the 13 miles of cross country skiing/hiking, then 17.5 mi.  Still a low-volume week, but I’m just rebuilding my base right now.  I need to keep remembering that.

My New Coach

Over the past 6 race seasons, I have struggled to put together and follow my own training plan.  Sure, I found marathon, triathlon, and ultramarathon training plans online, but they were always very general, and not tailored to my specific strengths and weaknesses.  I also struggled with a major lack of accountability.  Besides writing training updates on here and recording workouts in my ridiculously long-running excel training log, I had no one to answer to but myself.  And I’m really good at talking myself out of things.  REALLY, really good.

So this year, I decided I was sick of squeaking my way through my races on the bare minimum of training.  It was time to get a coach.

But who?

There is certainly no shortage of coaches out there, so I had a lot of options.  After doing some research, and talking with some local runner friends, I decided to work with Michele Yates, from Rugged Running.  I like Michele’s coaching philosophy of “quality, not quantity,” as I have often struggled to carve out large chunks of time for training – especially now that I’m back in school again.  I also heard great things about her from other local ultrarunners who work with her.  Plus, Michele’s familiarity with the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler (she won it in 2013 – not too shabby) was great, since that’s the one I’m working towards again this year.

I’m super stoked to start working with Michele this week!  I got my training plan from her a couple days ago, and am excited to dive in and see how it goes.  I won’t be posting the nitty gritty details of the plan on here, since that’s Michele’s proprietary information, but I will continue to write weekly training recaps (general things and how stuff felt) and race reports.

Road to 100: Week 2 Recap

Monday:  Rest day!

Tuesday: Boulder got 16″ of snow Monday night, so things were a little tough for running today (it was also pretty icy under there).  So in an effort to not spend the entire day hunkered under a blanket, I put my bike on the trainer and spun out some miles.

Wednesday – Friday: I got ZERO runs in for the rest of the work week.  I spent all my time busting my butt to make some progress on my research and writing a paper draft to submit for publication, and sacrificed my run time instead.  Normally I wouldn’t stress about cramming in the work so much, but I knew I was going to be away for part of the following week (hut trip!), and wanted to make sure I got a decent chunk of work done beforehand so that didn’t cause a problem.  Boo, responsibilities and stuff.

On the plus side, I feel like I actually got some work done, so that was satisfying.

IMG_8243Saturday: At this point, that 16″ of snow we got early in the week had been reasonably packed down on some trails.  I spent a good portion of the morning scanning trail reports on facebook (the Boulder County Trail Conditions page is great for this), and settled on Heil Ranch, since my usual runnable favorites were sounding impassable.  I figured the trees at Heil Ranch would have kept the drifts to a minimum, so it might not be as bad as the others.

Fortunately, I was right!

The trail at Heil Ranch was beautifully packed snow all the way up to the top of the hill, about 2.5 miles from the trailhead.  I enjoyed the absolutely gorgeous day, and ended up stripping off three layers, down to my t-shirt.  The climb to the top of the hill is gradual enough that I can run a decent bit of it, so this was some nice hill training.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get in the 10 miles I had hoped for.  When I got to the top of the hill, the packed trail narrowed and became a choppy, less packed mess, and wasn’t very runnable.  Clearly, fewer people had come up this way than the trails down below.  Instead of running the big loop, I turned back and bombed my way back down the hill to the trailhead, for a 5 mile run.  Better than nothing, but I was a bit disappointed with myself for not pushing through the mess and just sucking it up.  I need to get better about that.

Sunday: I spent the morning working on stuff for school, and then headed over to a superbowl party that evening (go Broncos!).  Overall, it was a fun night, except for later when I got food poisoning from something at the party, and ended up miserable, shaky, weak, and sick, and curled up in bed.  Not a great end to my week.

What worked well this week: Not much, unfortunately.

What didn’t work well this week: Everything?

What I struggled with: As always, balancing work and training.

What I will do to improve next week: Try to get out for some morning runs before going to work, but a good portion of my week will be backcountry skiing instead of running.  This will completely kick my ass though, and is great cross training.

Total weekly mileage: Between the storm and work, a pitiful 5 miles.  I can do so much better than this.

Homemade Dill Pickle Cashews

Many years ago, my best friend got me totally hooked on Target’s/Archer Farms’ dill pickle cashews.  Unfortunately, our love was short lived.  One fateful day, they were discontinued.  To this day, every time I am in Target, I scan the nut section in the hopes that they brought them back – but no luck.  (I just found these online, but have never seen them in the store, and they are a different brand, so I don’t know how good they are.)

Finally one day I decided to take matters into my own hands:

DSC_0138Dill Pickle Cashews

  • 2 cups roasted cashews
  • 1 tbsp dried dill
  • 1/2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tbsp onion powder
  • 1/2 – 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp pickle juice (I just pour this straight out of a jar of pickles)

Combine all ingredients and shake to coat cashews.  Try not to inhale them all at once.  🙂

Thinking about grad school in the sciences?

I am currently a third year Ph.D. student in geology.  Lately, I’ve found myself talking with a lot of prospective grad students and friends interested in going back to school.  By now, I’ve managed to sort through my thoughts and experiences from the past few years, and have found some things I really wish I had known or thought to do back when I started.  So in an effort to reach as many prospective grads as possible, I thought I would take some time to put together something that I hope people find useful.  Some of these things may be geology-specific, but I’ve tried to keep it applicable to the sciences in general.

So you’re thinking about grad school?

Before applying

If you still have some time before you will finish your undergraduate degree, there are several things you can do to make yourself as competitive as possible when you go to apply to programs:

Take whatever courses you can that apply directly to the field you are interested in.  This will not only help develop your skills and knowledge base, but it will also help you confirm whether or not this is a field you want to pursue.

Learn how to really read a journal article. (See below for some helpful articles and tips.)  Read up on the topic(s) you find interesting and see where your interest takes you.

Do a summer REU/internship.  This gives you great experience and connections, and allows you to continue investigating a topic or subfield that you might be thinking about for your grad program.

Do some fieldwork!  If possible, get yourself out in the field.  Take advantage of the experience and learn as much as you can.  Ask lots of questions.  Learn how to take good field notes (hint: write down EVERYTHING, and be SUPER thorough in your descriptions).  This fieldwork could be part of a research project, or a field camp.  Just get out there and get dirty.

Do a senior thesis project.  This shows that you are capable of doing research, and have at least learned some of the basics.  No one will expect you to be an expert, but it’s great experience as an undergrad.

Attend and present your work at a conference.  If you can, give a talk.  Posters are great, but talks are more prestigious, and giving a talk at a conference as an undergrad is extremely impressive.  But if nothing else, do a poster.  They are a great – low stress – chance to talk with people one-on-one and get some excellent feedback on your work.

Publish your thesis work.  Getting your name on a paper as an undergrad is AWESOME.  Especially if your adviser will allow you to be first author (this would mean you do most of the work and writing).  That’s HUGE.

Some things to consider when you are narrowing down your list of schools to apply to:

What are you interested in working on?  You don’t need to have a whole project figured out before applying to a program.  It’s really a matter of narrowing down what field you are interested in.  Start by thinking about courses you took that you really enjoyed, or what types of news/journal articles you find yourself drawn to.  Are you seeing a theme?  Start reading everything you can get your hands on within that subject area.  The more you read, the more you will start to refine your area of interest.  Once you have narrowed in on a particular topic, see what names keep appearing as authors on the papers you are reading.  Those would be good potential advisers.

What is the program’s reputation?  Just because a university is well-respected doesn’t necessarily mean that this particular program/department has an equivalent reputation within that field.  Look at rankings by program (like this one and this one) and see how this particular program stacks up against others.  But even more importantly…

What is your potential adviser’s reputation?  The name of the school might be important, but your potential adviser’s reputation is even more important.  This is the person you are considering to have as your “professional parent.”  They will help you network, and your association with them will either help or hurt you.  Do people know who they are?  Do people know who they are because they do good work, or because people think they are a kook?  (One useful tool for this is Web of Science.  Look up your potential adviser on here and generate a “citation report.”  This site does require university access, so if there’s a school near you, you could potentially log in from the library there.  Or, if you are currently a student somewhere, ask faculty members in similar areas of interest what they know about your potential adviser.)  Age can sometimes be a helpful indicator, but is not the bottom line.  My adviser is rather young (he was in his late 30s when I started working with him), but he is freakishly prolific, so he has established a very strong and positive reputation in a short time.  Also, how many grad students have they had, and what have their former grad students gone on to do?  Someone who hasn’t had many students might not be a bad choice, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind, because they are likely still getting used to advising.  You can still have an excellent time working with someone like this, but you may need to be more aware of what you need from them, and don’t be afraid to ask for it.

What is your motivation for pursuing a graduate degree?  In geology, you are your most marketable with a masters degree.  This allows you to teach, work in industry, and even some research labs.  A Ph.D. is far more specialized, and is generally something you pursue only if you are interested in working purely in research/academia.

You’ve narrowed down your list of schools to apply to.  Great!  In geology programs (and possibly other science programs), it is typical to contact the faculty member you are interested in working with via email before applying to the program.  This email is meant to introduce yourself and start up the conversation about their research and what you are interested in working on.  This is a good time to find out what kind of funding they have available for grad students, and what sort of things they are currently working on.  If you feel that you would be a good fit with this adviser/program, you then submit an application.  Contacting the faculty member first serves two purposes: 1) to find out if you would work well with this person and if they have funding available for new grad students, and 2) to prevent you from being a random name when your application appears on their desk.


When putting your application together, it’s all about properly presenting yourself and your skills.  No two prospective grads are the same, and everyone has something unique to bring to a research group.  Maybe you did a bunch of research during undergrad.  Maybe you didn’t, but you have other skills or work experience that you’ve gathered along the way.  Yes, today people really seem to like undergrad research experience, but if you have some other relevant work experience or skill set, that’s a great thing to set you apart as well.  If you know people in graduate programs or former grad students in your field, ask them to take a look at your CV and personal statement.  Feedback from others is always extremely useful.


Campus visit

Think of your campus visit as a mini job interview. You don’t need to go in a full suit, or be able to give faculty members a critique of their papers, but it’s good to look professional and polished, and be familiar with their work – especially if they have done previous work on the topics you are interested in. You’re both feeling each other out.  It’s not just them checking you out.  It’s like professional dating.  You want to make sure that you feel comfortable with your potential adviser, and the prospect of working with them.

When you sit down to chat with your potential adviser, there are many things that are good to find out:

What is their advising style?  Are they very hands off?  Do they like to micromanage?  Better yet, talk with their grad students about this.  They are the ones who can give you the best sense of what it’s like to work with this person.

What they are most interested in for research right now?  Old publications might not give you a good idea of where their interests have gone in the more recent (yet unpublished) years.

What are their expectations for grad students?  Everyone should have that conversation with their adviser – preferably before they decide to work with them, but if not then, at least in the first month or so.  This may include certain benchmarks (getting things done by a certain deadline, or whether they expect you to be on campus at certain times/days, or publish things by some deadlines, etc.), or other things that may go unsaid if you don’t specifically ask.

At some point, you will likely sit down with some of their current grad students, or go out for a lunch with a group of them.  This is incredibly valuable time!  They will be the ones to give you the honest truth about how it is to work with this faculty member.  Take advantage of this time and ask lots of questions!  Good things to ask current students:

  • What is your potential adviser’s advising style?  (This is where you will get the honest answer.)
  • What are your potential adviser’s expectations for their grad students? (Again, more honesty here)
  • What is it like working with this faculty member?
  • What kind of resources are available for students?
  • What is their funding situation like?
  • What challenges have they faced?
  • What have they learned since starting this program that they wished they knew before?

Congratulations!  You’re a grad student!  Now what?

You’ve been accepted into a program and have finally arrived on campus!  Where to begin?

Get to know the other grad students.  You and the other students in your cohort will likely be at similar stages during the upcoming years, so it’s nice to have some people you can turn to for feedback, or to simply lend an ear when you need to vent.  Those in more advanced stages of their degree will be extremely useful when it comes to the ins and outs of the program, feedback on proposals, or suggestions of things to try that worked well for them in the past.

Get to know the faculty.  Though you may feel like the faculty members are way out of your league, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  One very helpful thing to remember when interacting with faculty members (or anyone, really) is to not act like a student.  The point of this degree is to prepare yourself to enter the academic/professional world.  So begin to act like the academic/professional you want to be in the future.  This doesn’t mean be a snobby egomaniac who thinks they know everything.  It’s good to ask questions and admit when you don’t know or understand something.  But presenting yourself with an air of professionalism will go a long way.

Get to know the office administrative staff.  Administrators are the key to everything in the professional world!  Treat them kindly and get to know them!  They are a fantastic resource when you have questions about something in the department, and can be incredibly helpful.

If you haven’t already, have a talk with your adviser regarding their expectations for you.  Will they only be happy if you are on campus certain hours or days of the week?  Do they have specific deadlines they expect you to meet?  Are there specific classes they want you to take?  These things can easily go unsaid if you don’t have this talk, and can lead to frustration for both of you down the road.  This is also the time to create a “road map” of sorts – what should you do during your first year, second year, etc?  What do you need to do/create/submit/present to pass your comprehensive exam?  What do you need to do/create/submit/publish/present to eventually pass your dissertation defense?  Knowing these things from the start will help you plan out your time, and give you solid benchmarks towards which you can work.

Set up a regular meeting time with your adviser.  This could be weekly, monthly – whatever works well for both of you.  This is a time to sit down and talk about your research, questions you may have, and things you are struggling with.  Establishing this routine from the very beginning will help you out in the long run.

Don’t be afraid to tell your adviser what you need from them.  This doesn’t mean “I need pizza, beer, and a million dollars.”  Rather, if you need them to check in with you, if you need feedback on something, if you have questions for them – make sure they know!  Advisers aren’t mind readers.  And neither are you.

Start using a reference manager program.  Do this from the very beginning and save yourself a LOT of time and heartache!  I am completely in love with the Mendeley reference manager.  These programs allow you to search all the papers you have collected (and will likely be scattered across multiple folders on your computer), write notes on them, search those notes, find the folder that actually contains the pdf you’re looking for, and creates and manages your bibliography when you are writing papers.  It’s a miracle worker.  Just use it.  Seriously.  I can’t stress this enough.  I spent the first year and a half of my program without this thing, and I can’t believe I did that. (For the record, I have no affiliation with Mendeley.  I just love it and tell everyone about it because it’s awesome and I wish I had known about that from the start.)

While we’re on the topic of journal articles…

Read – a lot.  Then read more.  One of the things that kept me from pursuing a Ph.D. sooner was the worry that I wouldn’t be able to come up with an original research project idea.  I knew the general area I was interested in, but beyond that I couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t been done or needed to be expanded on.  I feared that I would never be able to come up with a project idea.  You don’t need to have a developed project when you start a graduate program – you just need to know what area you are interested in.  Reading everything you can get your hands on in that particular field will help you begin to see the holes, and come up with questions that have yet to be answered.  The more you read, the more you will see these things.  And those questions will lead you to read other papers, which will help you develop your idea further.  Once you have your project idea, keep reading!  There are always new papers coming out that you should be familiar with, and you will keep stumbling across old relevant papers you didn’t find earlier.  However much you think you should be reading, it should really be about three times as much.  You can never read enough.  If you aren’t already adept at reading scientific journal articles, learn how!  It’s not like reading a regular book or news article.  Check out these resources:

Don’t be afraid to reach out to collaborators.  Science isn’t done in a vacuum.  You will often need to turn to other people besides just your adviser.  Start building these relationships from the very beginning (your adviser may or may not help you with this – don’t sit around and wait on them) and save yourself a lot of time later.  These people may help you learn how to analyze samples or data, or teach you some new technique.  They are a wonderful resource, and are generally happy to help you.  It’s easy to get caught up in feeling like you are supposed to do everything all by yourself, but that’s not actually the case.  Use the resources around you!

Start using some kind of system to organize your weekly/daily goals, and keep yourself productive.  I love this productivity planner I found on Kickstarter a while back.  (I am also not affiliated with this.  I just like it and have found it to be helpful.)  Breaking your day into smaller segments is also a really helpful technique to try (check out the links for more details and the science behind the Pomodoro Technique).  It’s really easy to get distracted in a grad program, and all of a sudden it’s three weeks later and you have nothing to show for your time.  Breaking your tasks up and laying everything out in whatever format works best for you can help you maximize your time and not fall way behind.

Speaking of falling way behind…

Remember that you are not alone.  Grad school – and Ph.D. programs in particular – are rife with depression, anxiety, guilt, and impostor syndrome.  You will likely feel all these things at some point.  These feelings can be extremely isolating.  It seems like everyone around you is so smart, is getting so much done, is working so much harder than you, is further along, and actually understands what they’re working on.

Truth is, they are feeling exactly the same way you are.

Talk with your grad student friends about your mental state.  Everyone has gone, or is going through the same thing.  You are not alone.  It’s really unfortunate that this is normal for grad programs, but the fact of the matter is we all deal with these feelings of inadequacy at some point.  Sometimes, simply talking with your fellow grad students and hearing that they have felt/are feeling the same way can alleviate some of your worries.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling with any of these feelings.  There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.  Everyone is faking it until they make it.

More on impostor syndrome:

In an effort to make your life not 100% about grad school, make a few friends that have nothing to do with schoolMeetup (or other similar sites) is great for this.  These people can be wonderful when it comes to taking a mental break, or providing some perspective when you’re up to your eyeballs in research and are stressed to the max.

When preparing for your comprehensive exams, talk with current and former grad students who had the same adviser or committee members as you.  These people will be exceedingly helpful when it comes to knowing what to expect.  They may even be happy to send you copies of their research proposals, comps talks, follow up talks, etc.  These people are an incredibly valuable resource!  Use them!  They know what you are going through – they were there not that long ago.

Attend conferences/workshops and network as much as possible.  Your reputation is your professional currency.  The more you can build your network now, the better it will be later when you’re looking for collaborators, postdoc positions, or a job.

Once you’ve published something (a conference abstract, journal article, etc.), make yourself a ResearchGate and Google Scholar account.  These are an excellent way to virtually network with people both within and outside your field.  ResearchGate also encourages you to post full-text versions of your work, so it’s a great way to have all your publications accessible and in one place (great for getting yourself some visibility within your field!).  You can also post PDFs of conference posters and talks, which is really useful for people wanting to see more than just your abstract. (Again, I have no affiliation with these.  They’re just handy.)

Overall, grad school can be a really great experience, and you will grow and learn more than you ever thought was possible over the course of a few years.  There will be ups and downs, and I hope you find some of these things helpful in the process.  If you think of any others, please add them in the comment section below!

Some other useful sites:

This post was originally published on my racing and training blog: