The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Blankie ever after

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On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the third and final post about the experience and how it compares to my graduate school studies in clinical psychology.

You can check out the first and second instalment of the Tough Mudder Trilogy here and here.

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Blankie ever after

It was cold. After the Hold Your Wood and Dirty Ballerina, my hands were freezing so badly that Saturday Night Live’s Mary Katherine Gallagher could not have warmed them up. I ran with my arms tucked under my armpits, occasionally dropping a knee into a lunge and screaming “SUPERSTAR!”.

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Superstar!

Before the Trench War-fare obstacle, I asked a first aid volunteer if she had any towels that I could warm my hands with: she offered me a garbage bag. When I told her that all I wanted was to wrap my hands in cloth, she looked through her red box and offered me a triangular bandage.

Meet Blankie.

Safety behaviours are strategies, such a repetitive behaviours or objects that serve to cope with a threat or reduce anxiety. For instance, you might refuse to write an exam without your “special eraser” or feel safer giving a presentation while holding cue-cards just “in case” you forget something. I felt safer completing a ridiculous obstacle course with a triangular bandage.

Once my fingers were wrapped in the warmth and love of Blankie, there was no getting away from her. She became my race-mate. I wrapped Blankie around my neck to cut off the wind, used her to wipe mud off my face and keep the hair out of my eyes. My sole purpose was to keep Blankie dry (keeping her clean was impossible given the circumstances) and she would keep me warm and safe in return. Blankie was my security blanket, my safety behaviour.

You might think I was in a mud-induced delusional state. That is highly likely.

Blankie and I’s first separation occurred at the Walk the Plank challenge. I didn’t want to her to be drenched in muddy, cold, water as I jumped from a 15 foot cliff. I seriously considered bypassing the obstacle. However, water is my element: I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor for almost 10 years; I could not allow myself to skip a water challenge. So I asked a spectator to hold Blankie. He gave me an odd look, similar to those I get when I ask for the time while holding my cell phone or when I tell people that finishing my graduate degree will take seven years in total. He did not further question the sanity of someone who was doing the Tough Mudder challenge and held my Blankie. I was grateful.  I got the same look over and over again when I asked spectators and participants to hold Blankie or to leave her on the ground at the other end of a challenge.

Blankie supported me through the “I’m not happy” portion of the race, which took place between the 5th and 12th kilometer of the 16 kilometer course. During this period, running did not warm me up and my vision was playing tricks on me. I think I had hypothermia. Megan, who seemed to have been injected with happy hormones (I obviously missed that station) tried her best to cheer me up. I saw mirages of a warm blanket and hot coco. I held onto Blankie until the sun made its first appearance of the day and I found hope again.

After the Wounded Warrior Carry, I realized two things.

First, having a security blanket (i.e., Safety Behaviour) is not as bad as one would think. According to some research, Blankie might have encouraged me to do more in the initial portion of the race! She helped me face challenges that I would otherwise skip. I tucked her into my shirt as we ran through the electroshock therapy challenge – one that I had promised myself I would bypass. Yes, I could have completed the race without Blankie, and if for some reason I had to leave her behind, I would have finished the race in her honour. Having her with me gave me a reason to finish – Blankie had to make it to the finish line as much as I did.

Meet Blankie after the race.

Blankie after the race.

Second, as cliché as it sounds: shit gets better. No matter how cold, muddy, or tired as I was, a water station and snack were always nearby, my teammates gave me a pat on the back, and I managed to complete an obstacle and run between different stations. Our bodies and mind can endure incredible circumstances. Just like in graduate school, when our supervisors are unhappy, our results are not significant, when participants and clients don’t show up or clients don’t get better…eventually, things turn up. We find a solution and a reason to keep going. Someone, or something, no matter how faint or muddy is cheering us on.

And if things don’t get better, they will eventually end.

After 16 kilometers, 14 obstacles, 8 challenges, and 4 hours, Blankie and I (and my teammates!) made it to the Finish Line. Someone put a headband on my head, a bracelet on my wrist; I grabbed a protein bar for someone and headed towards the person giving away shirts. I graduated. The next half hour is a blur. My teammates and I were so cold, injured (all of us hurt our knees on the Everest challenge). We cleaned up under the freezing cold showers. It was awful.

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When I ran into my other teammate Rob, who finished the race 2.5 hours earlier, he said “You did it! How did it go?!” I couldn’t think of anything positive to say…. “I don’t want to talk about it”.

People asked me the same question for days after the race. “How was it???” I wish I said that it was a fantastic experience where I pushed my body and mind to its limits, where I discovered how strong I can be, where I met interesting people, and faced my fears. What typically came out was some variation of “It was painfully cold, awful really…but I’m glad I did it”. As our minds like to do, I had to justify the agony I put my body and mind through, so I elaborated “If it wasn’t for the cold, it would have been better….it was hard….we had a great time…the team was awesome…check out my bruises and battle wounds!” and typically ended withyeah….I would do it again”.

That is strangely similar to the answer I give when someone asks “how is that PhD coming along?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

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2.5 years in 3 minutes

A month ago, I signed up for the “3 Minute Thesis” competition at my university. The Three Minute Thesis (3MT® ) is an academic competition developed by The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia for research students. The concept is simple: graduate students describe their Master’s or Doctoral research to a non-specialized but intelligent audience in 3 minutes. The presentation can be accompanied by a single static slide. No animations, no props, no songs, no dance.

Being one of the few people who doesn’t dread public speaking I signed up without hesitation. My enjoyment of giving presentations is probably one of the few areas where I am not on top of the average curve.

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At first, I thought that summarizing my research in 3 minutes would be a breeze. I know my project inside out, and am still at a stage where I enjoy talking about it. It’s my intellectual baby.

I was wrong.

The version was 8 minutes long and my first slide draft looked something like this:

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This presentation forced me to squeeze 2.5 years of my life and hundreds of hours in 3 minutes. Not exactly straightforward. Or simple. It forced to pin point the most important aspects of my research, simplify it without dumb-ing it down, and conveying its importance to an audience that was there to support someone else.

I challenge you to do that about anything you are passionate about.

I wasn’t as anxious as I expected on qualification day. I stayed quiet as I sat with the other participants. Others chatted, discussing their study, explaining how difficult it was to squeeze everything into 3 minutes. The man next me introduced himself. I wasn’t in the mood the talk. I wanted to breathe and change my shoes. Thankfully, he didn’t really give me the opportunity to speak. He engaged in a monologue about his plans to invite the entire department to the finals if he made it, and since he is the president it shouldn’t be too hard. He took a short intermission to greet members of his fan club and turned back to me. I nodded while I vaguely gazed in his direction and took deep breaths. He was not rude, not even arrogant, simply too talkative…about himself. To me, his expression of confidence was a reflection of his insecurity.

It is sad how poorly attended departmental events when there is no free food. Looking around the old auditorium, I noticed that there were as many audience members as there were contestants – everyone managed to bring at least one person. Having posted a Facebook event, I was expected a handful of people. I reluctantly turned around every time the auditorium door clicked open. Finally, two friends walked in and smiled in my direction. My shoulders dropped from my ears – where they like to hang out when I’m anxious – and I was ready to start. It was comforting to know they took the time out of their busy schedule to watch me (and 10 others).

The next 20 minutes were a blur. Students stepped up one by one, described their work elegantly, concisely, and clearly. No mumbles, no “ums”, no trips, or falls. Even the man next to me presented. He had a reason to be confident.

My name appeared on the projector and I jumped up – I didn’t think it was my turn yet. Despite the clear instructions we were given about staying on the X marked on the ground, I wondered back and forth in front of my slide. I was in a trance while I told the story of my mother asking me if the stove was turned off when we left the house.

Let’s fast forward 3 minutes. Let’s imagine my friends giving me thumbs up as I step off the stage. Let’s fast forward through the fact that I finished second place in my qualification heat and made it to the finals!

The chatty guy? He didn’t make it, neither did all the members of his department.

Let’s fast forward to my final presentation, where again, I knew 3.5 people in the audience of about 100.

The .5 is a prof in our department that I don’t know at all, but saw his face on our website. So we he counts as half. I hope he doesn’t take offence. 

I didn’t win, the winner deserved to win though.

I could write about how hard it was to condense 2.5 years of my life in 3 minutes. I could also write about the sadness and loneliness I felt when very few people I knew showed up at the qualification rounds or the finals. I know that many people would have been there physically but instead sent positive vibes. This is not mean to be a criticism of who wasn’t there, it is meant to be a focus and appreciation for those who were.

The idea of support, like I wrote in a previous post, is like layers in the same cake. Layers support and complement each other, and that means showing up at a silly (read nerdy) event during a busy week, reading over each other’s work, or helping out through peer supervision. Thank you to all those who did. Thank you to those who asked about it and supported me through it from close or far. 

A dissertation, like anything else in life (read: graduate school), is not not a solo project. Sometimes supports means being critical of each other, other times it’s about shutting up and listening. Either way, it is critical to success.Support is also about saying (and meaning it!) when you say “good luck!” or “that’s sound so interesting”. Its about congratulating each other for our efforts, achievements, and successes and most importantly it’s about giving each other a little push when we need a little help.

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Averagely yours,

the candidate