Blog post

Running from my Dissertation

June 10, 2021
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By Felicity T.C. Hamer

Woman running with arms outstretched In my head, I looked way cooler. Sporty. Photo by 2019 Circuit Endurance, Course Saint Laurent, 10km.

“I’m just going to go upstairs and write my book now.” This joke went on for months.

Returning home after dropping my youngest off at daycare, I’d chat with my aunt on the front porch and conclude with this line before heading inside. We’d laugh because – how? How does one just sit down and write a book?

The answer is you don’t. You can’t. (Well, maybe some can, but I didn’t). For me, this felt like an impossible task. So, I joked about it and plugged away little by little until one November day, the book was done.

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Diving into a new writing project is exciting and unbearably daunting. Miles and miles lay ahead, and once rolling, I frequently feel lost in the massive document – unsure where I’ve been and where I’m going. Never knowing how to respond to the question: “Are you almost done?”

As a PhD student, you’re never done. There’s always the next milestone, more you could be doing, and the final stage – the dissertation – is the biggest and baddest of them all. An unending abyss of research, writing and edits that many never complete (walking away satisfied with the hard-earned label: ABD, all but dissertation). This is where I am – swimming somewhere in this sea of D.

Throughout this process, running has been a kind of lifejacket. Every time I head out for a run, I get to choose my speed, when to turn around and most importantly, when I’m finished. With this larger goal not yet on the horizon, running presents an opportunity for mini-victories – for movement – at times when I feel most stuck.

But it’s more than that. Running is a way to get out of my head, into my body and then back into my head again – freed from the urgency of a pen or keyboard. Without the pressure to convey ideas in any coherent way, my thoughts drift where they will. And these brief unstructured moments are some of my most creative.

I Can Do This

Strava screenshot from Mount Royal lookout Up up up. Strava screenshot, F. Hamer.

I rediscovered running while working on my MA thesis. I was a new mother, overwhelmed and thrust into a very different day-to-day. My body remembered the Mount Royal track meets of my youth, losing control over my feet, hot-faced, my heart beating fast. I remembered I could do this. I remembered the bouts of endorphins, those tingly moments when I was sure I was trailing a glittery streak in my wake.

When so much of my life seemed out of control, running was something I could do. There was no time for myself, but I had to get back home from dropping my son off at daycare, somehow. Ditching public transit and instead running home to write, created a much-needed buffer between two worlds – a way to transition between the chaos of family life and the focused task of my research.

It never occurred to me to try to go further until a friend suggested it. I laughed when he asked that I join him in an organized 10km – that was nearly double my usual route! But when I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I registered (without telling him). What if I couldn’t do it? What would happen if I wandered off the route into the forest? Would the tracking device in my race bib record my shame?

Somewhere around the 8km mark it dawned on me that I was going to do it. And when suddenly I spotted my friend’s wife on the side of the track, waving to someone excitedly – I knew he was there just ahead. I surprised her by shouting her name and then sped up to alert him of my presence. We are since known (mostly to ourselves) as The Falcor Racing Team.

Sometimes you just need a little nudge – from family, a friend, a supervisor – and I’ve been extremely fortunate on all counts.

Series of four selfies of two individuals Falcor Racing Team, pre-race(s). Pumped. Selfies by Daniel J. Rowe

Together, Apart

When the pandemic hit last year, I turned to running more than before. Locked down with my family, it offered a rare opportunity for solitude, exercise and oddly, for socializing. While the world outside our home felt dangerous and unfamiliar, when I was hyper-aware of the presence of others, I tried to overcome this discomfort by smiling and waving at anyone I passed.

I began regularly recording and sharing my stats on social media, alongside photos of things I had seen on my run – everyday scenes I was growing more appreciative of. I would joke about why I was running – labelling my activity things like 'running from my grading' or 'running from my kids'. And in a way, I was running from a feeling of being stuck, not just in my writing but also physically in my house (or in a world that was feeling somehow smaller and closed in). So, yeah, I was running away – but it always felt good to choose to run back (and of course I had to).

Two Strava screenshots – parked car & ‘running from 39 papers’ Pandemic running. Strava screenshots, F. Hamer.

Long Goals and Short Goals

It’s important to set goals and to take steps towards achieving them, but I believe it’s equally important to break these up with smaller victories along the way – especially when staring down a PhD-sized undertaking.

I may not run very far or very fast – nor do I look cool doing it – but I get where I’m going because I’m determined. So much so that sometime in January, I got it in my head that maybe I could run a half marathon. Achieving this goal on my birthday in April, was an important reminder that I can do things I don't think I'm capable of, and that I do it all the time.

I may never run a marathon, but I’m going to finish this dissertation.

“I’m just going to go and finish my dissertation now.”

Two Strava screenshots – ducks and cropped face I did it. Strava screenshots, F. Hamer.

About the author

Photo of Felicity T.C. Hamer

Felicity Tsering Chödron Hamer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies. She has a background in photography (Dawson Institute of Photography DEC) and holds both a BFA (2012) and MA (2015) in Art History from Concordia University. She is a Montreal-born, recording and performing vocalist, songwriter and mother of two.

In her research, Felicity explores the relationship between photography-based media and remembrance. Her doctoral research has been supported by scholarships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Fonds de recherche du Québec - Société et culture (FRQSC) and Concordia University. In 2020 she was awarded both Concordia’s Stand-Out Graduate Research Award and FRQSC’s Relève étoile Paul-Gerin-Lajoie Award for her book "Parental Grief and Photographic Remembrance: A Historical Account of Undying Love." Bingley: UK, Emerald Publishing. (February 2020).


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