5 A.M.

Jet lag is good for one thing and one thing only – it gets me up and out of bed between 5:00 and 6:00 am, which is (perversely) my favorite time of day to run. I am not a morning person, but I do love those early hours in Singapore – so, sort-of-kind-of a win? Or at least it feels like a win with some good music in my ears. Here’s a short list of the songs keeping me company in the wee hours this week:

Little Talks (Of Monsters and Men)

Shake It Out (Florence + The Machine)

Human (The Killers)

Yoü and I (Lady Gaga)

Falling (Haim)

Papaoutai (Stromae)

Dance, Dance, Dance (Lykke Li)

When Doves Cry (Prince)

Sad Songs (Matt Nathanson)

1234 (Feist – Vans She Remix)

The Mother We Share (Churches)

Chocolate (The 1975)

Gang of Rhythm (Walk Off the Earth)

Shake It Off (Taylor Swift)

Running as Life Lesson (Part 1000th)

My friend Katherine and me after finishing the Beach to Beacon 10k in Maine. Winners.

Me and dear friend Katherine after finishing the Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine. Winners.

It seems like every time I lace up my sneakers and hit the sidewalk or the treadmill for a run, I’m struck by how well running serves as a metaphor for my work as a graduate student. Most days, the metaphor is about discipline. It’s about doing something daily so that it becomes habit. It’s about how running that extra half mile teaches me I can push through another thirty pages of reading or another ten exams at the end of the night.

But yesterday was different. Full disclosure: I haven’t run in at least a month, in large part because this semester has been the busiest yet and I’m not always great at structuring my time well. So when I stepped out the door into a cold, windy, March day in Jersey, I knew it would have to be a short run. There was no way I could go the three to four miles I was running a month ago. I don’t have the strength and endurance for that now. Two miles, I knew, would be enough to get me back in the habit and still leave me strength to get out the door again today. Yesterday’s run was about knowing my limits and learning how to say, “This is enough.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend for two miles to continue to be my limit. Today I’ll go a little farther and start working back up to three, four, or five miles. I’ll start setting goals to move faster; I’ll run with people who push me. But yesterday I had to face what I was capable of – and what I was not capable of.

And this is especially important for me as a grad student this week. I have a to-do list a mile long and I haven’t yet accomplished the goals I set out for myself on any given day. Matter of fact, I’m three days behind the schedule I typed out on Monday. But not because I haven’t been focused or productive. It’s because I haven’t been setting reasonable limits for myself. As a person who does not function well on too-little sleep, I cannot expect to grade all of the midterms for my class, write an internship application, read three hundred pages, attend a two-hour choir rehearsal, and have a run all in one day. (I’m not exaggerating – this was supposed to be yesterday’s schedule.) It’s like trying to run a marathon. I can, however, grade the midterms, read an article, return books to the library, catch up on emails, run, and attend choir practice. That schedule, on the other hand, is a two-miler.

Maybe I’m underestimating my abilities – I’m the first to admit I have some time-wasting habits that need to go. But at the end of the day, I need these more confined task lists and shorter runs to escape the my own nagging voice that says, “Not enough. Never enough.” At the end of the day, I need to be able to recognize that what I have accomplished is enough, even if I acknowledge there are ways to be a better student tomorrow. I need to learn to say to myself, “Two miles is enough today.” Even if I’ll run farther and faster tomorrow.

The Delaware River winding away to the north.

Two Down…

Only forty-eight high peaks to go.

Last summer’s feat was a grueling hike up the Saddle Trail on Mt. Katahdin with my one and only brother, S.B. Katahdin is the last peak on the Appalachian Trail and, honestly, it’s a wonder anyone ever finishes with a climb like that right at the end of two thousand miles of walking. We left Bangor, ME at 4:30 am, hiked for nine hours, ate what seemed like a box of Clif bars, nearly wore out two pairs of sturdy hiking boots, and endured what must have been the greatest concentration of rain on the face of the earth since God put a megaphone to his lips and said, “Noah. My friend. You’re gonna need to build a really big boat.” I won’t tell you how long my muscles ached after that little stroll. It’s embarrassing.

One hearty brother-sister duo at the top of Maine's highest peak.

This weekend, I climbed High Point, NJ with M.L. (who, to his credit, is a remarkably good sport about mountain climbing), thereby doubling the number of peaks bagged by yours truly.

This is M.L.'s best, "I climbed a mountain," face.

This is mine (sans thumb, of course).

Round two of Heather vs. high peaks was almost disappointingly easy. High Point is a literal mole hill next to a mountain like Katahdin, rising only 1800 feet above sea level to Katahdin’s 5200. (To be fair, Katahdin’s 5200 feet look awfully demure next to Mt. McKinley’s 20,000+.)

Still, how could I resist the seductive charm of pride? The chance to say, “Well now, I’ve climbed not one, but two high peaks on the east coast”? I never have a fighting chance against the potential for bragging rights.

The obelisk, more officially titled "High Point Monument." It's quite impressive, really, and visible from almost anywhere in the park.

So, on a very sunny day in mid-summer, up to the obelisk we went. The climb was incredibly short–only ten minutes to from the trailhead to the summit–but the view was spectacular. High Point boast views of the New York State line and the Delaware River, evergreen forests and New Jersey farmland.

The Delaware River winding away to the north.

The High Point Monument offers the chance for an even better view. For those willing to brave what begins to feel like an infinite number of steps plus a decided temperature spike, the reward is a bird’s-eye view of rolling hills and valleys in all their summer glory. Anyone who thinks New Jersey is void of all natural charms should take a peek from one of the obelisk’s lofty windows.

Hiking it to the top of the monument.

We finished off the day with a slightly longer hike along the ridge connected to High Point. For the most part it was a lovely hike with some steady, but moderate, inclines and some local fauna that differs from New York’s Adirondacks, which are more familiar to me. (Sweet fern in particular abounded on both sides of the trail along with a low shrub akin to the holly bush.)  There was challenging stretch at the end of the trail–a set of rough-hewn stairs to take us back up to the top of the ridge–that made for a satisfying end to the excursion.

With my last two states of residence Maine and New Jersey conquered, I’m setting my sights on the home state next. Mt. Marcy, NY, here I come.

dear new jersey. you are beautiful.

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods this week, which chronicles the author’s hike through portions of the Appalachian Trail. Despite Bryson’s horrific tales of black bears, drifting murderers, and life-threatening mountain passes (all of which have troubled people other than him, of course), the book contains charming passages about deep forests, gorgeous ridges, and stunning summits.

And it’s had me itching to hike since I turned the first page.

I climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine with my brother last summer, and if all goes well I’m hoping to bag two other modest state high points this summer: Mt. Marcy, NY and the oh-so-creatively dubbed High Point, NJ. But as neither of those peaks (or mounds, in the latter’s case) were in reach this past Sunday, I headed for Hacklebarney State Park, an out-of-the-way little plot of forest outside of Chester, NJ.

My favorite is the advertisement for a "Rock Grove." Which happens to be, yes, a pile of rocks much like every other in the park.

The park had everything I wanted for the day – trails, no parking fee, and the opportunity to stop at Alstede Farms (where I’m a CSA member) for homemade ice cream on the way home. And not a single bear to be found. Besides, why would a bear go for my plain ol’ Larabar when he could have all the  hotdogs, side dishes, and s’mores from the numerous picnickers instead?

The "Windy Ridge Trail" via which I avoided numerous small, inevitably whining children, cantankerous fishermen, and one prolific Pakistani family reunion.

One of Hacklebarney's six simple, picturesque bridges.

Why do people always want to leave their mark in the woods?

The walk was lovely, moderate, and just long enough to get the hiking impulse out of my system for a moment. Hacklebarney’s 3 or so miles of trail can’t boast beautiful views or challenging hikes or even rugged charm, but it has a river, a brook or two, six bridges, and plenty of benches for taking in the scenery. All in all very pleasant and a lovely way to kick off the summer.

A flowering tree, smooth rocks and a babbling brook. The best of the forest at Hacklebarney.

One happy hiker on the trail.

Throw Your Hands Up At Me.

Once upon a time, certain parenting manuals recommended good mothers and fathers keep their daughters away from high-minded books and strenuous physical activity. The former would rot girls’ brains; the latter would imperil their wombs. (I’m paraphrasing.) Let’s just say I wouldn’t necessarily have made great marriage material in mid-nineteenth century England.

For a start, I have philosophers, historians, critics and novelists from Matthew Arnold to Oscar Wilde sitting on my bookshelves, with heavy doses of Durkheim, Hobsbawm, Kierkegaard and Voltaire in between. My reading list for the summer includes some knock-outs too, like Holy Feast and Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum and Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

And then there’s the annual moving adventure in which I cart, carry, haul, and heave my boxes, bags, and bric-a-brac from one apartment to another. This summer’s move (the fourth, and counting) across Madison, NJ held a new challenge: furniture assembly.

Challenge 1: The 27-step, full-size bed. It took me three hours and twenty-six minutes (if I had to estimate), after which my screwdriver needed a tune-up, my wrist needed a massage, and my new housemate was undoubtedly second-guessing my grasp of the English language. (There were plenty of “shoots” and “galldarns” emitting from the room, among other choice phrases…)  I could have sworn the pictures were in Swedish. By a minor miracle I only back-tracked twice and didn’t lose a single peg or screw or nut while I was at it. And the bed hasn’t fallen in on me yet.

Challenge 2: The “Craigslist-steal” desk. At nearly five-feet long, it was a feat to even transport the pieces in my Civic hatchback. (If you put both the back seats down and then tip the passenger seat back so it’s laying just about flat, a 1991 Honda Civic DX has almost 72″ of cargo space. Yes, I measured.) Safely back to the apartment, I had to unload the pieces that it had taken two people to put in the car. The legs, crossbeam, and drawers on wheels were no problem. The desktop, standing almost as tall as me, was another story.

Like the blackened pot I blogged about a few months ago, this was a multi-strategy operation. I tried walking with it on top of my feet, twisting it back and forth, sliding it, pushing it, lifting it…you name it, I gave it a shot. And, lo and behold, managed to inch it past the dining room table, through the living room, and into the bedroom which has become my study. (Did I breathe a prayer of thanks for first-floor living quarters? You bet I did.) I’ve reassembled the desk, too, and it hasn’t collapsed either, thank you very much. Even held my weight while I put up new brackets and rods for curtains this afternoon.

So, in good fun and celebration for my victories over instruction manuals, I blared “Independent Woman” while I finished unpacking this afternoon. Classy, yes?

I should qualify: I love interdependence and I definitely don’t just “depend on me.” I know I couldn’t have finished this move or any other without good friends, family members, and strangers helping me transport the material portions of my life from place to place. Pure independence is not only rather overrated, it’s impossible.

Still, sometimes it’s deeply satisfying to say, “I can do it myself.” And then prove I actually can.

Ten Things I Like About Running on a Sunny Winter Day

Snowflakes by Wilson Bentley

1.) It beats the treadmill any day, any time.  Hands down.  (Really, who doesn’t feel like a gerbil on those machines?)

2.) The feeling of triumph over nature.  As in, “Take that, snow!  Go ahead.  Try to keep me indoors until July.”

3.) The knowledge that everyone driving past me is thinking, “That woman is crazy running in the snow.  That’s nuts.”  (Or at least that’s what I usually think of people running in thirty degree weather.)  But they’re also secretly thinking, “I wish I was that sort of person.”

4.) There’s almost no one on the paths and sidewalks to see how pathetically slow I’m moving or how laboriously I’m breathing.

5.) Even if there are people on the paths and sidewalks to notice how slow I’m moving, I can just tell them I’m making sure I don’t slip on a patch of ice and dislocate my knee.  Which would prevent me from ever running faster, of course.

6.) Because there are so few people on my path I can throw up my hands and have a little victory celebration when I make it over the wimpy little hill that’s been kicking my butt for the last six months.

7.) Running outdoors is a great chance to wear my awesome long sleeve wicking shirts.  The ones I bought back in September…and haven’t worn yet.

8.) Because it’s sunny and relatively warm and I’m already pleased as punch that I’m even making the effort to run, I run farther.  If I’m going to exercise, I’m going to make the most of it.

9.) It’s a great excuse to brag a little to my housemate who only ran on the treadmill this morning.  (Never mind that she runs everyday and I only run…well, nevermind.)

10.) Running outdoors on a sunny winter day inspires blog posts.  Good enough, yes?