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Keeping on Track

My First Steeplechase Race — One to Remember

June 1, 2010

by Gary Grobman

A few years ago, I competed in the USATF Mid-Atlantic Regional Masters Championship, my first Master’s track meet. I ran a decent 5000, and finished second overall to Maurice Pointer, who finished the year ranked #1 nationally in the 5,000. My family was there, and it was really hot and humid, and they didn’t want to stick around for the 1500. So without really knowing what was on the schedule, I asked the officials if I could enter the next race. They said it was the Steeplechase and while the registration form said folks had to preregister, they said if I paid the 10 bucks, they would put me in the race. Assuming I got to the starting line in time, which was in about 10 minutes.

I had never run a hurdle race before at any distance or level, but it looked easy enough, and there was an almost certainty that I would medal in the race by simply finishing–not unusual for many (if not most) Masters track races. So, I ran to the car to get 10 bucks. Then I ran into the stands and changed my shoes, JUST IN CASE I was unable to completely hurdle the water jump, thus ruining my new racing flats. Best decision I made all day.

I got to the start line about a minute before showtime. I’m still drenched in sweat from my 5,000 but feeling somewhat elated as I had medaled in my first race.

Crack! The gun goes off. I race to the lead, with almost no one keeping contact with me. I come up to the first hurdle. And I stop dead right up to the hurdle. No way I can see myself getting over that hurdle the way I see it on those televised track meets, which is the only way I had even seen a Steeplechase race. It looks about nine feet high to me, and there are no steps or ladder available.

It takes what seems like a minute, but I figure out I can simply put both my hands on the hurdle and climb up and over it. Somewhat slower than hurdling, but I didn’t have any lunch plans. (Glad I didn’t have any dinner plans that evening, as well, considering my finishing time). After climbing over the hurdle, I am in last place, but I am sprinting to catch up to some of the other runners, who can hurdle, but aren’t that fast, and I spring by them. Until I come to the next hurdle. Again, it takes me a long time to get over this hurdle, and I am again in last place by the time I make it over. But I sprint pretty good, and now I come face-to-face with my first Steeplechase water jump. A rite of passage!

Confidently, I climb over the hurdle, starting to gain some technique, and this now takes me only 10 seconds or so rather than a minute. As I climb down, however, I am getting the impression that the water at the bottom is a bit deeper than I expected, based on seeing races where the athletes barely make a splash after they hurdle the jump, assuming they don’t completely hurdle the jump. And in my confusion and consternation that this is becoming another, er, hurdle in my quest to eventually become the USATF national champion (M54 at that time), I trip and fall head first into the water.

I am completely submerged.

Some of you know that the water jump is tapered, and in the area close to the hurdle, the pit is perhaps 2-feet deep. The spectators adjacent to the track (both of them, which is not a bad showing for typical Masters track meets, are laughing out of control. My family is considering placing an emergency call to River Rescue. And I’m complaining that it is ridiculous to have a nationally-sanctioned event such as this with no lifeguard on duty at the water jump. I know that next time I do this event, if I do it (and it is unlikely I will ever do it), I will be wearing floaties.

I finish in more than 15 minutes, dead last, humiliated. (Several officials at nationals know me as a result of this race, and have reminded me at both the USATF Nationals in Orono, ME and Spokane, WA how much they “enjoyed” my performance.) But I feel somewhat refreshed from the cool water of the pit. Perhaps, this might have served as a refreshing vacation if there had been some sand placed around the pit area.

My performance was good enough for the Bronze medal (as there were three in my age group).

My time was also good enough to be ranked 12th nationally at the end of the year on the Master’s T&F rankings, so I guess I can brag that I was a nationally-ranked Steeplechaser last year, slightly higher than I was ranked in the 5,000. Which tells you something about the value of national rankings that usually include only the REALLY major meets such as the nationals, supplemented by those who self-report. My guess is there have been no reported drownings of those who have raced the Steeplechase, but I know for a fact that there have been reported deaths from participants in the pole vault, including one recent case at Penn State. So, while I have had thoughts about trying this, I think I will pass, and limit my death-defying track exploits to possibly competing in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the senior games this year, which may not be as bad as my experience in the USATF Eastern Regionals a couple of years ago in Maryland, where the 5000 was inexplicably scheduled for 3 p.m. on what might have been the hottest day of the year.

Keeping On Track

February 1, 2010

by Gary Grobman

Since 2007, I have been participating in Masters (35 and over) track and field competitions sponsored by the USA Track and Field Association (USATF). And I’ve enjoyed it. It is a departure from the usual 5K,10K, and half-marathon road races that have become a perfunctory exercise (pun intended) in my life. There are aspects to the competition that are more fun than road racing, and limitations as well.

Among the advantages is the opportunity to compete, REALLY compete, against some of the best athletes in the world, include world record holders. Now, I have been in races with some classy runners who have been household names. But I don’t really think Bill Rogers remembers that I raced against him because of the other 20,000 competitors who might have been in the race with us. And perhaps I caught a glimpse of him running by me the other way in a loop race. I waved to him; he didn’t. On the other hand, I distinctly remember being on the track with a former USATF Master’s Athlete of the Year Nolan Shaheed and talking some trash before he lapped me in the USATF 5K Outdoor National Championship in Spokane, Washington in 2008, running a staid and controlled 17:01 in the heat, shutting it down with a lap to go to conserve for his 1500 the next morning. At the age of 59! Among the more prominent names who compete at these meets are Joan Benoit Samuelson and Henry Rono. An occasional former Olympian will show up for kicks.

It is rare that there are more than a dozen competing on the track in a 5K or 10K, and for some reason, my medals from these meets seem to glisten more than my haul at road races. And I still get a thrill each year running in the same race as Frank Levine. Who is Frank Levine? Frank competes each year in USATF sanctioned events ranging from 400 meters to the 5,000. When I run in the Middle Atlantic USATF and Eastern Regional USATF Championships, it is not unusual for me to run in the same heat (both literally and figuratively) with Frank, who is 95 years young, and holds the world record for the 5K for his age group. And I beat him! As I look back on my running career, I think my best race ever occurred on the track, chasing down a current age-group world record holder for a satisfying win in a 1500 meter final in July 2008. And she (Lorraine Jasper) was really fast, for an old lady.

It is easier to get in a rhythm running on the track. You know exactly how much you’ve got left to run before you finish. You are given splits every 400 meters outdoors and 200 meters indoors. You don’t have to look down all of the time for potholes. And I’ve yet to get lost on a track course even once! You also know where your competition is at all times, as races are usually run by age groups, at least at the national level.

But there are some disadvantages. Running 25 laps around a 400 meter track in 95 degree heat can be a bit tedious. A typical road race 5K is part race and part festival. At track meets, there is no souvenir t-shirt or goody bag given out, unless you buy one when they are sold. There is no food. Registration can be expensive, particularly at the national level, although track clubs often subsidize registration fees.

The typical track meet competitor seems to me to be a bit more “serious” than those you might find at a 5K. While even the national USATF track and field competitions are “all comers” meets where anyone with the registration fee can simply show up and compete, few do who are not among the elite in their age groups. And it can be expensive to plan a trip to compete in a national track meet. In successive years, for example, I flew to Orono, Maine; Spokane, Washington; and Palo Alto, CA to compete in national championships of one kind or another.

Fortunately, we have two wonderful annual track and field opportunities not far from us—the Keystone Games and Pennsylvania Senior Games—which are held in late July in York, PA. I must say that even a mediocre runner can build an impressive track resume by competing in these meets, as there is a paucity of competitors, considering the prestige of being able to brag about being the state champion. I think that these competitions are among the running community’s best-kept secrets.

Comparing the Ph.D. Program to a Marathon

November 15, 2009

by Gary Grobman

In my Ph.D. program, the director always referred to his Ph.D. program as a marathon, not a sprint. As someone who was, and still is, a competitive runner at distances from 400 meters to the marathon, I often shared my irritation with that analogy.

Yes, I would concede, there are some things in common between this program and a marathon. It does help to keep a steady pace and not get too distracted and upset by minor, mid-course corrections and strategies in your plan to complete the event. One such common mid-course correction for me during both the Ph.D. program and the marathon was the uncontrollable urge to scurry as quickly as possible to the side of the road (or out of the classroom or dissertation proposal meeting) and spill my cookies.

Both running a marathon and getting a Ph.D. require no special talent and can be achieved by almost anyone who is willing to do the training and pay the “entry” fee. Marathons and Ph.D. programs can be competitive or noncompetitive. Running the marathon, runners can work together to provide the psychological support needed to finish—many runners who have met for the first time during the race will bond, run together, and share the triumph by finishing arm in arm. Or runners who are competing engage in tactics that try to break their competitors physically and psychologically, in order to be the first to cross the finish line. Some Ph.D. programs purposely isolate their students, discourage collaborations, and pit students against each other. Other programs, such as the one in which I taught, encourage group projects, and try to build a community among their student populations.

Both finishing a marathon and completing a Ph.D. program are significant, lifetime accomplishments, which convey bragging rights to those who complete them successfully. Only a limited number of people do so—although it isn’t clear whether this is because few people can or few people choose to because they know better (or perhaps because they have read this book). It is common to hear marathoners say that in a marathon, when they reach the 20-mile mark with 6.2 to go, they’ve just started the race. In the same way, completing your classwork and comprehensive exams is a significant milestone; it only gives you a hint about whether you will finish the program successfully, as the “race” to the finish has just begun when and if you reach the milestone of starting your dissertation.

And you could make the case that a Master’s program is a sprint in comparison.

My own experience is a salient validation of this point. I was in a mid-career Master’s in Public Administration program at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. I could schedule any courses I wanted from the entire Harvard campus, provided at least four were offered by the Kennedy School. I had hundreds of courses to choose from each term, all of which would “count.” I needed just eight courses to graduate. School began in September. My graduation was the following second week of June. I hardly figured out where the bathrooms in my building were by the time I was presented with my sheepskin. I didn’t want this educational experience to end. But I knew in advance it could end, and could end with me receiving my degree if I scheduled and passed enough courses. I took 11 courses and sat in on parts of others. I learned a lot of useful skills and met some really interesting people, both student and professors. Among my professors were the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the 1988 Presidential election, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, and President Carter’s Domestic Affairs Advisor. Some of my student colleagues had been cabinet members of national governments and were potential heads of state. And most important, of the 165 students in the program, 163 received their Master’s degrees, as I recall.

In contrast, my Ph.D. program had no standard requirement for the credits needed to advance to the stage at which one was finished with classwork and ready to take comprehensive examinations. A candidate got to that stage when the doctoral committee agreed that it was time. There were required classes to take in the program, but they were offered infrequently, and there were many instances of students in the program being unable to even take one course that would “count.” No one really could be sure how many courses were needed to pass. Other scheduling problems tended to stretch the time students would be in the program. And, unlike in my Master’s program, it was my opinion that my colleagues tended to be all burned out losers, like I had become, with little future other than the hope that they might be able to jump-start their failing careers if they could only obtain a Ph.D. and start over. Most of my colleagues who were not burned out losers, and there were some, quickly realized that they would inevitably become that way if they didn’t catapult themselves as far away from the program as possible and as hastily as they could. And for these, finding a way to leave the program with their dignity intact became a sprint, not a marathon.

Dr. Grobman’s Ten Differences Between a Marathon and a Ph.D. Program

  1. In a marathon, you pay your race fee upfront and receive detailed instructions about the course and amenities available along the route. If a marathon were administered like a Ph.D. program, you would make a small payment at the beginning of the race, and you would have no idea what the final costs would be for completing each segment of the race. As you passed each milestone, you would be required to make a payment based on whatever the market would bear, and if for some reason you weren’t able to make that payment, you would be summarily removed from the race, even if you had only a mile to go to the finish.
  2. In a marathon, when you get to mile 25, it would be quite unusual for the race directors to make a decision to lengthen the course to 30 miles because they don’t quite think you are “ready” to finish the race or they’ve judged that you haven’t expended enough energy to justify completion.
  3. Marathon officials generally let you run the course unimpeded, rather than having the course monitors come out and try to trip you or otherwise knock you down so you can’t ever reach the finish line.
  4. In a marathon, the closer you get to the finish line, the less distance you have to go to complete the course. In a doctoral program, this is not necessarily the case!
  5. In a marathon, all of the competitors run the same course, at the same time, under the same conditions, and get rewarded based on their effort. You don’t win the race simply because you were physically attractive, because you brown-nosed the race director, or because the officials capriciously moved the finish line up or back a few miles only for you to meet some political agenda. Women and men alike run the same distance. In many Ph.D. programs, women are asked to do more simply because they are believed by predominantly male faculty to be more easily exploited and because they are seen to have a higher threshold for pain.
  6. In a marathon, the physical and emotional pain one suffers is usually temporary. In a Ph.D. program, the emotional scars almost never heal.
  7. In a marathon, only a few people have died trying to complete one. This is not the case for students in Ph.D. programs, who die of old age, heart disease, cancer, and other maladies before they finish their programs, either triggered by or exacerbated by the stress of being in a program. And this list does not include those who died as a result of doctoral students “going postal” or inflicting fatal wounds upon themselves.
  8. You can drop out of a marathon at any point for any reason with few consequences. Okay, perhaps you have wasted your entry fee, although you still get to keep the commemorative T- shirt, gorge yourself on Gatorade and energy bars, and revel at the post-race party. If things don’t seem to go right, particularly at the beginning, you can wait for the straggler bus and enter another marathon the following week. Dropping out of a Ph.D. program has more serious consequences. You’ve wasted years of your life and have virtually nothing to show for it— as the actual “educational value” (i.e., education that can be applied to making your real life decisions better) of typical Ph.D. level classes is typically only a fraction of comparable classes at the Master’s level, if there is any educational value at all. It is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to be admitted to another Ph.D. program once you drop out of one.
  9. You have a good chance of successfully completing your marathon once the gun goes off and you have made it to the start. It is not unusual for more than 95% of starters of a marathon to finish. This compares to well less than half of Ph.D. program “starters” in the social sciences successfully crossing the “finish line.” And finishing a marathon is mostly dependent on things within your control, such as your training, your diet, and your stick-to-itiveness. In a Ph.D. program, finishing depends on the good will of your faculty, the internal politics of the program, blind luck, and many other factors that you cannot control.
  10. Running a marathon is fun.


The above is an excerpt from Just Don’t Do It: A Fractured and Irreverent Look at the Ph.D. Culture, to be published by White Hat Communications (print edition) and Science and Humanities Press (Kindle Edition) in January 2010.©2010 Gary M. Grobman. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission from the author.