I Can See For Miles

I’ve mentioned Cardiff Parkrun before. This is a weekly, free 5k run organised entirely by volunteers. Running is something that I do on a fairly regular basis, and like studying it can be a very frustrating business.
When studying it is obvious that over a period of 3-6 years, that there will be highs and lows. Deadlines missed, disappointing grades, work that is not up to your own standards, other students that annoy you, lecturers that annoy you, and, of course, life events that get in the way of our study. But, counterbalancing these lows will be unexpectedly good grades or complementary feedback, fabulous lectures/seminars/tutorials, sudden realisation that something is easier than you thought, new friends made, old friends rediscovered and, of course, exams passed.
In running too there are highs – personal bests, new distances conquered, new friends, new courses. And, of course lows – poor times, injuries, lack of motivation. In both studying and running landmarks are passed and highs are achieved. That’s the point, isn’t it?
So I was really pleased last Saturday to reach my fiftieth Parkrun. It wasn’t a PB, and I certainly came nowhere close to winning, but nevertheless it was a milestone that, during a year of minor injuries, I never thought I’d make.
Reflecting on the run later I started to think what bigger lessons were there. If I’m honest, I never really struggled as a student, so I can’t think of an essay or seminar that was analogous. Perhaps the day I submitted my PhD thesis to the University of London is the closest. Unlike, the PhD, however, I don’t feel that the Parkrun is the end of a journey, but rather simply a point on a continuing journey.
Which made me think that perhaps, after all, so was the PhD. I have always been an advocate of life long learning. This is where running and learning connect for me. Life long learning implies a lifetime commitment to learning, not necessarily a life long commitment to passing exams. Since my PhD I have tended to avoid exams in which I am the participant. As a lecturer I set and mark exams for others, of course.
In my running ‘career’, I have completed a marathon, a couple of half marathons, a couple of 10k’s and, of course 50 5k’s. It has not been a straight line, gradually doing longer and longer distances, but rather characterised by sudden bursts, unexpected faster times, followed by a diminishing of motivation or punctuated by injuries of one sort or another.
Life long learning is a process by which, over time, we come to realise that the knowledge ‘out there’ is far greater than the knowledge in our own heads. Sometimes, being a life long learner means taking formal courses and exams. More often it is about retaining a sense of wonder about the World we live in. It is often a case of being prepared to learn, rather than being prepared to be taught. Students often set up a hierarchical expectation where for them to learn, ‘we’ must teach. In reality, that makes learning a function of teaching and whilst some knowledge may pass from one person to another, it is unlikely that much real learning will take place. Lecturers often like the relationship simply because it flatters their ego.
Life long running is also a process. It does not have to be about winning, going faster, or going further. Every time I lace up my shoes and step out for a run, I have, in effect, won. Likewise, every time I ask a question, check something on the internet, read a book or simply wonder ‘what would happen if….’ I am improving my mind, and learning.
I would like to thank all the people who organise and turn up on every Saturday morning. It is an incredibly friendly and supportive environment. But, I’d also like to thank all my lecturers, tutors and especially students, past, present and future, for being co-passengers on my journey.
I know that I have more runs and more learning inside me. At the moment, I feel that I am on a hilltop from where I can see for miles. I also know that in that landscape are highs and lows. In the lows it is sometimes difficult to imagine the highs that lay ahead, but, trust me on this, both running and education are really no more than an endurance test..

Keep on running

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I thought there were parallels between long distance running and education. Education can be seen in the same category as a marathon in that both require planning, dedication and commitment.
I had cause to think about this metaphor last week when following a training run on Sunday morning I found myself rushed into A&E. I’m sure you want the detail of that sentence, which I’ll provide, but you might be wondering how this links to the themes of this blog – teaching and learning.
It occurs to me that students very often run into unexpected difficulties. Those difficulties might be life events, or losing motivation, or just struggling with some part of a course. It’s always struck me as self-obvious that how we react to set-backs can determine whether we eventually reach our goals or not.
So, what happened to me? On Saturday after a long time of trying I had broken through the 26 minute barrier on the Cardiff Parkrun. To be honest I had managed this previously but after straining my ankle ligaments my times had hovered between 26 and 27 minutes, and I was starting to think would never improve. So, on Saturday I was delighted. If you want an analogy I can well remember the desire to achieve those elusive A grades as a student. Most students seem to regard a 2:1 as a kind of Holy Grail these days and strive to achieve that and are, naturally, delighted to do so. And, conversely not quite so pleased with a 2:2 grade.
Feeling great after Saturday I set out on Sunday morning with my partner (running and life partner) to have a leisurely 8 mile run. This was half-marathon training and was focussed on distance rather than speed. Once again, the run had gone well. We returned home and as I sat down to put some ice on a sore knee, I was suddenly struck blind. Literally, my World went pitch black. This was frightening and a bit disorientating. The blindness passed quickly, but now my heart rate increased and I was sweating profusely. I decided at this point that I should get some air and stepped outside the front door.
I quickly realised that I was not improving and my partner called an ambulance. They were on the scene very quickly and once in the back of the ambulance they told me I was suffering from supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
By the time I arrived in hospital my heart rate was 160 bpm, and to say I was feeling poorly is to use an under-statement. Now, I am and have always been a supporter of the NHS. Having said that my relationship with the medical profession has always been to keep them as far away from me as possible. But, whatever else we can be proud of in Britain, the NHS is still the ‘jewel in our crown’.
The doctors and nurses who took care of me were brilliant. And, after hyperventilating, my heart rate returned to normal. Thank you NHS!
Naively, I expected them to send me on my way with a warning to ‘take it easy’, but this was a heart problem and that was simply not going to happen. I soon found myself on a cardiac ward, surrounded by people who seemed to be genuinely ill, and hooked up to a monitor. Gradually it dawned on me I was going nowhere fast. A succession of nurses and doctors visited me taking blood, checking my blood pressure, scanning my heart and generally working hard to establish what was wrong with me.
Thankfully, the condition known as antrioventricular nodal reentry tachycardia was established. Whilst not life threatening ( and you can imagine my joy at hearing that), it is likely to re-occur (and, you can imagine my dismay at hearing that!) if untreated. So, it will be treated with what I am told is minor surgery, probably in the next couple of months or so.
This episode occurred when I was, ironically, feeling fitter than I had for a while, and gave me pause to think how it is often when things appear to be going well that some crisis, minor or otherwise, pops up to remind us of the dangers of tempting fate. I think this is particularly insightful when I think about the complicated lives that many students have.
You don’t have to end up hooked to a heart monitor for the rug to be pulled from beneath your feet. A poor grade, an illness, a major life event can all feel like that metaphorical kick in the teeth. Whilst I was being prodded and tested I was not sure how serious things were and I spent some time considering my options. Would I be able to run again? Would I be able to complete all my current projects? How would ‘urgent’ stuff at work get sorted in my absence? Mentally, I went through the options: if A then B, but if C then D. But one thing I was clear on was that I would make no decisions until I had as much information at my fingertips as it was possible to get. I was also clear that whatever was coming my way I was going to remain positive.
I appreciate that being positive in the face of adversity is not always possible, but if something does happen that interrupts studies sorting out your options before making a decision is. Many of the things that seem devastating to students at the time turn out to be hiccups in the long scheme of things. As I was surrounded by professionals who wanted to restore me to full working order, so students are surrounded by professionals (lecturers, advisors etc.) who want to see them succeed.
I’ve taken a couple of weeks off ‘serious’ running to get over this incident, and students likewise have the option to extend a deadline or defer their studies. Athletes are used to having minor injuries, and occasionally serious ones, we keep on running regardless. Students too must expect to have minor setbacks and, my advice, keep on studying regardless.

Born To Run

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Can education be reduced to a metaphor? I ponder this question because I’m rather fond of metaphor’s, especially bad one’s. I have often used the metaphor of a journey to describe the research process. This is not just because it is a good metaphor, but mainly because it allows me to use pictures of the Starship Enterprise in my presentations.
But recently a friend of mine lent me a book by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In this non-fictional book he talks about ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘, which is a great title for a book. I haven’t completed the book yet, but in reading it I was struck by how much the author compares the art of writing to the discipline of running. This struck a chord.
I enjoy a run, though probably using the word ‘enjoy’ in this context isn’t entirely accurate. However, like Makurami I run regularly. I’m not a great runner, but neither am I a disaster. I can complete 10 kilometres in about 54 minutes. And, regularly average a pace of below 5 minutes 30 seconds on longer runs.
Has any of this got anything to do with ‘Thinking Socially’? I’m glad you asked. Reading Makurami’s account of his experiences running I started to wonder if running was a good metaphor for education. When students start courses isn’t it a bit like a distance run. At the start of a long distance race everybody is very positive and excited. They expect to do well. Like education, they are not necessarily in competition with the others in the race, but mainly with themselves – those all elusive ‘Personal bests’ are what rattle a runners chain.
But nobody can compete a marathon, or even a half-marathon (my current goal) without doing a fair bit of training. Is a degree a marathon, or perhaps we should keep the marathon metaphor for the PhD? Researching and writing a PhD certainly feels a marathon undertaking. It fits nicely inside ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ the classic 1959 book by Alan Sillitoe. That book, a fiction, is about the struggle of a young criminal, Smith, to assert his individuality through his running. The run and the training become a metaphor for life. Anybody writing a PhD will recognise the feelings both of isolation and invigoration that are key themes of Sillitoe’s work.
So, yes, a Marathon can probably be a metaphor for a PhD. But long distance, even short distance, running provides a metaphoric language for education.
Starting a degree is not dissimilar to the first few training sessions for a new runner. I regularly attend the Cardiff Parkrun, a weekly 5 kilometre run with around 400 other runners. Times range from 13 minutes to 45 minutes. Everybody there has an individual goal. Everybody wants to complete the course, often a goal of new runners is simply to run the entire 5k. I have never had to walk/run, even if my 26 + minutes is not going to break any records. But new students often make the same mistake of over-doing it. The idea that you can hold down a full-time job, keep your family satisfied and complete two modules simultaneously only appears over-ambitious when you get fired, divorced and fail at least one of the courses. Like runners who have never run the distance before thinking they might win the race, students very often have over ambitious goals.
If training for a run requires dedication it often requires you to face up to truths you have been trying to ignore. Having completed my second 10k of the year last weekend I realised I was nowhere close to being able to complete a half-marathon in 3 weeks time (for which I entered before picking up a niggly knee injury). I had been kidding myself I would be fine. I have now realised that the gap between my actual fitness and my optimism is so large that I am delaying my half-marathon attempt until March 2014.
My inner conversation reminded me of discussions with students who clearly are struggling to find time to put in the effort, but still expect good marks. With Universities under pressure to improve retention and completion rates we are confronted with a moral dilemma. What is in the interests of students is not necessarily in the interests of the organisation. Like demented personal trainers who drive on people to levels of effort their bodies reject (at a recent 5K a runner came past me at the finishing line being driven on by a personal trainer, on completion they threw up), we keep students studying who should defer, or even drop out, the equivalent of walking part of a run, or dropping out of a race we are in no fit state to complete.