Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k

I’ve spent the last month not working, and it has been fantastic.

It was such a huge push to defend my PhD, and then I had a few more months of work at Eawag, trying to finish up projects and papers. I wanted to make sure to take some time to myself before starting a postdoc, because I’m not sure when I’ll have another chance to just completely unplug. Science moves fast and as soon as I start my postdoc, I’ll be applying for jobs all over again.

“That’s great!” People would say when I told them I was taking the summer off. “What will you do with yourself?”

“Well, a lot of hiking, sleeping late, and reading,” I’d say. “And in July I’m doing my first real mountain running race.”

Thinking back, I have realized that the race – the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30 k – isn’t really my first mountain trail race at all.

Last year I did a trail marathon, the Transruinaulta, with 6,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

In 2016, I did a trail half marathon that went straight up a downhill ski resort in Arosa, Switzerland, for 4,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

What about all the times before, during and after college that I time trialed up Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire? Or participated in the Presidential Ridge Relay Race?

Those were all, in fact, mountain running races. Especially the one in Arosa. But I for some reason didn’t consider them to be my “real” mountain running debut, probably for two reasons.

One was that maybe I wanted to be ready for that debut, to have prepared, to train, to take it seriously. I didn’t do that before Arosa, I just signed up and figured I was a cross-country skier so I’d be fine. Now, I’ve been preparing.

And the second one was maybe because, having lived in Europe for a while, I have this picture in my head of a mountain running race, with singletrack trail and glaciers in the background. I think in my mind my mountain running debut had to fit that image. And Arosa… it was up a ski resort. It didn’t feel so wild. Transruinaulta was as much on dirt roads as trails. Moosilauke, you only race up, not down.

Whether it was my “first real mountain race” or not, Gran Trail Courmayeur is in the books. It was awesome, and I’m excited to explore the mountain/trail race scene in North America after this intro from the Alps.

I had never really been to the Mont Blanc area, so went down the Thursday before my Saturday race. It was amazing to see this huge mountain, and so much ice crammed up in there. I’ve seen glaciers running into the ocean, glaciers filling valleys in the Alps, shrinking and sad-looking patches of glacier on mountainsides. But the amount of ice just perched up there, literally hanging off the side of the mountain, blew my mind.

I wanted to just look at it, to soak it in. What a cool place.

The Friday, I didn’t know what to do with myself – I wanted to explore, but didn’t want to get tired. So I splurged and took an expensive cablecar ride up to Punta Helbronner, 3,466 meters high and looking over at Mont Blanc.

Well, where Mont Blanc should be. It was covered in clouds.

 

The highest peak in Europe west of the Caucasus is back in there, somewhere.

View in the other direction was pretty nice though. (click to expand)

But being up there sure was amazing, and seeing ant-like figures trekking across the snowfields. I kind of couldn’t believe I was in Europe, and that the hot valley floor was just a few minutes cablecar ride away.

An aerial view down on the Rifugio Torino and onwards to my racecourse, over around and past the green ridge in the center of the photo.

Then, I went to the sports center to pick up my number. The race organization was typically Italian: everything worked out perfectly in the end, but it was very confusing. For example, I had studied the course map trying to figure out where the start/finish would be. It appeared to be in the middle of town, but on my way past, I hadn’t seen anything you’d expect for a race starting in just 12 hours.

The line to pick up our numbers; race officials had to check our medical certificates to make sure a doctor had said we could participate in such an event without dying. This is a common requirement for races in Italy and France, but explaining the request to a Swiss doctor was interesting. Also – do you see many women in this line? sigh.

“The race start is not here, it is somewhere else, is that correct?” I asked the woman who handed me my number.

“The start and finish are here,” she said, looking at me like I was crazy.

“Oh, really? Here?”

“Yes, down, outside, with the big arch!”

Okay, so I’d have to subtract two kilometers from everything on the course map/profile, because they seemed to be using the same loop as the map on their website [I assumed], but moving where the loop started and ended. Makes total sense.

I’m a pretty organized person, and I’m also a nerd, and I also worry a lot. At races like this, it can be challenging for me to prepare because I want to have a detailed plan of exactly how the race was going to go. This sort of uncertainty didn’t help.

I pored over the course map, sussing out how the 1,800 meters (6,000+ feet) of elevation gain and loss were distributed around the course. One big climb in the beginning. Then a flat that I doubted was actually flat, for six kilometers. Then a second major climb. A drop down to a valley, a shorter steep climb, and then all downhill from there. Steeply.

And I checked the finishing times from the previous year, trying to estimate how long the race would take me. Four hours? Five? It all depended on the trail. And whether there would be any other surprises in store for me along the way.

The next morning I hurried down from our AirBnB to get to the start, because it was written that we had to enter the start pen 30 minutes before the start, and then they would close it. Well, the start pen didn’t even open until 20 minutes til start time, and then it stayed open. Again, classic Italy.

Once the race began, though, everything was perfectly organized. We ran through neighborhoods out of town, with people cheering along the sides of the road. After two kilometers or so, we joined the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) trail and climbed upward: about two and a half kilometers of an average 25% grade.

This part of the race was a hiking race, and it felt a little bit silly to be hiking. The trail was crowded with hikers carrying backpacks big and small: tourists out for a day hike, or folks backpacking the whole TMB loop. We were sure moving faster than them, but we must have looked ridiculous.

I tried to stay at a steady pace, below my anaerobic threshold, and just climb away. By the top my legs were aching a bit, nothing major, but reminding me that although I had only been going for an hour, I’d already put in more than 2,500 feet of the course’s elevation.

We passed through the first aid station, then crested a pass. We had just been climbing straight up, and my eyes had been glued to the trail in front of me. But suddenly, there was no trail or hill in front of me.

Just the Mont Blanc massif in all its glory, basking a bit in the sun. Everyone around me paused and took out their phones for pictures. It was just amazing.

I really, really don’t usually stop to take photos in races. But this was such a scene, and everyone else around me was stopping to take pictures too. So I did.

That feeling, that image I had been looking for for my “first real mountain race”? As we set off on the singletrack along the Balcon de Ferret, I definitely had it. This was it. This was the stuff of dreams and legends. I was there and I was doing it.

As I had expected, the Balcon wasn’t actually flat. But for the most part, it was runnable, and a really fun trail.

There were a few guys around me and we cruised along. I felt better, like I was in a running race after all. The views were continually astounding, and every once in a while there would be hikers pulling off the trail or having stopped for a snack in an alpine meadow who would cheer us along.

“Brava!” they would shout as I passed. I wasn’t sure how many women were ahead of me, but there were few women in the field (just under a third of the entrants in the 30 k were women), and so seeing me among the sea of men was probably still notable no matter how many women were faster.

Before long, we ran out of Balcon and turned right up a steep hill. This was the start of the second big climb, and its beginning was a doozy, a shock after the easy kilometers we had been lulled into. Here there were even more spectators, because there was a hut up ahead where they were probably planning to have lunch.

We climbed for a while, and then the trail leveled off into a broad bowl-like meadow valley. Looking ahead, all you could see was mountain.

You might want to stay in such a nice, welcoming, pleasant spot. But we couldn’t. After a dissapointingly short flat section, up we went, steeply again, to the top of the second major climb.

And here I got my first surprise of the race. It had nothing to do with the organizers; it had to do with me. I wasn’t feeling strong exactly, and I was struggling to eat (not because of stomach issues, but on a hot day my food just didn’t seem appealing). And yet, I began to catch people who had hiked away from me on the first climb.

On these big hills, you can see everyone spread out way ahead of you, and I watched in amazement as I came ever closer to two women whom I hadn’t seen in over an hour.

“Don’t get too excited,” I tried to tell myself. “There’s a lot of race left. You could still blow up and they could pass you back. Just be careful and do a good job.”

But on the downhill to the next valley, I put distance on them (and passed some men, too). The “last” steep climb up to the final pass felt terrible, and my legs were screaming. For sure they’ll catch me, I thought. But they didn’t. In fact, I was catching more men, and another woman. Again, I was amazed. I didn’t feel strong.

The last pass!

And then, the big downhill. This was my second surprise.

I love downhill. Maybe it’s because I’m a skier, but running downhill is just fun. I’m pretty confident in my footwork, and I know that it’s easier to zoom than it is to be braking all the time and put so much stress on your quads and knees. I had dreamed of this downhill for kilometers. I was going to fly. My resolution: I wouldn’t let myself be passed by any woman.

Somehow, I had failed to completely account for the magnitude of this downhill. We had eight kilometers to lose 1,300 meters of elevation, and there were 150 or so meters of climbing thrown in there too. So on average, the grade was more than 15%. That’s steep. We classify “A” and “B” climbs in skiing, categorize climbs in bike racing, etc etc… but we don’t classify descents.

The beginning of this descent was unreal. Loose dirt, incredibly steep. I found myself taking tiny steps, putting on the brakes, terrified of sliding out and falling down the mountain. I was not zooming. I wouldn’t be at the finish line as soon as I had hoped, that much was clear.

And my concern was justified. A few kilometers later, I heard a terrible scream. I couldn’t place it – somewhere in front of me, but was it a person? An animal? Was it a racer, or a bystander, maybe a kid? I ran on, and eventually came across a few male runners stopped on the side of the trail. Ten feet down the side of the mountains, someone was moaning and trying to climb out of the brush and the forest. It was a racer down there, who must have tripped and fell over the edge. One of the men was on a cell phone calling for help.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“I guess you can go on,” one of them said. Not speaking Italian, I did doubt how useful I would be in helping this poor person, but as I ran on, it also felt wrong to leave.

When we reached the next aid station, the men I was following explained more to the volunteers about the injured runner. They were setting off to go assist.

I sucked on an orange slice, glad for the new option for sugar delivery. I was thirsty and knew I should eat more, but the downhill pounding and the heat made doing so very unattractive. Oranges, though? Perfect. I started running again.

Although I was so much more tentative on the downhills than I expected to be, I still passed quite a few people. No more women, after that, but some men. There were sections of trail that were less steep, or just more even, and there I could fly.

That’s what I thought, until a woman with a long braid went sailing past me. Shewas flying. I hadn’t even known what flying was. It was instantly clear that I could not keep up with her. My resolution was broken. I have to practice downhills before my next race, I guess.

We eventually hit a paved road and dropped down into town, across the river, and back towards the sports center and the finish. There weren’t many signs or markings through town; roads weren’t closed; people were watching, but they didn’t have any clues about what was happening. I had expected an adrenaline rush, but mostly, the tourists were just going about their day and we were some weird sideshow that they barely noticed.

The final 10 meters of climbing leading up to the finish line were brutal, and I felt I couldn’t push at all. I crossed the finish line exhausted, but happy, and took off my sunglasses and smiled big for the finish line photographer.

I had done my first “real” mountain race, or my second or third or or eighth mountain race. Who cares? It had been fun and brutal, which are two things I had been counting on. The trail had been technical – if 4:30 (my final time) seems slow for a 28 k race, the actual trail was a big part of that, besides the up and down.

I had felt okay, but most importantly, I had felt like I belonged there. I was running and hiking with people who obviously trained for this, but we also all had fun enjoying the spectacular scenery. The atmosphere and camaraderie were fantastic, a great combination of serious sport and doing this because we actually enjoy being in the mountains.

And I had finished ninth. I don’t know what top ten means in this field, and that’s actually something I love about racing in new places. I didn’t know a single person there, so my analytical mind couldn’t really consider whether that’s a good or bad or respectable result. A whole exhausting, self-defeating doom loop I could just skip. But top-10 always has a nice ring to it.

The next day it was a long trip back to Zurich, during which I read almost an entire book. Since I’m on vacation, I could recover on the sofa at home in the next few days, rather than dragging my tired body around at work and trying to make my tired brain be smart.

Instead of working, I’ve been dreaming up what my next adventures will be.

It’s Italy so… post-race (and post-shower!) aperitivo!

How to Give a Great Presentation

A few weeks ago now, I hosted the Biotweeps Twitter account for a week. It’s an account with rotating hosts: every week, a different biologist takes over and posts about, well, whatever they want, but usually at least partly about their research.

I had a lot of fun hosting. I talked about research in the Arctic and climate change; I talked about stream biodiversity and why freshwater conservation is important; I talked about what an ecosystem is and how ecosystems are connected in cool ways; and I also talked about work-life balance and what I do for fun. I had great discussions with the account’s followers about what other jobs they’ve had, if they always knew they were interested in science, and how life experience shapes us into scientists.

(You can see my whole week of posts here– it will show up with someone else’s name because someone else is hosting now, but these are my posts from June.)

But some of the threads that got the most attention were about organization and what we might consider “transferrable skills”: the non-research part of how to do good science (these skills are very important for many other jobs, too, not just science!).

I had the idea to post about this because last year, Kevin Burgio shared his organizational system when he was hosting BioTweeps. I have since adopted part of his system and it has been immensely helpful. I wondered if some of the things I’ve learned could help others.

So I posted about how to organize and manage data, from pre-experiment planning to analysis, both to make your life easier and to promote reproducibility. I talked about general organization, and how to get the most out of going to conferences. These posts generated a lot of discussion and I learned a few things too.

Hosting BioTweeps was a lot of work, and it took more of my time than I would have expected.

At the same time, I was in a bit of a blogging rut. I had resolved to blog more this year, and for a while I did, but then I sort of ran out of steam.

I realized that I was talking about a lot of things on Twitter that earlier I might have turned into blog posts. This wasn’t just true in BioTweeps week, although it certainly hit a peak then. I have been trying to think about which venue is more important to put time into in terms of communicating. There are a lot of stories, especially ones about travel or my outdoor adventures, that I don’t think I could tell well on Twitter. I want the space of a blog post to compose and tell them.

But there are other things that could be either. It’s a bit easier to make a Twitter thread than a blog post, so maybe I have been leaning in that direction, and I now have enough Twitter followers that I feel like I might reach more people that way.

But blog posts have their own plus sides. They are a bit more permanent, and they are easier to find with a search or refer back to. I don’t think I should stop blogging.

And so, here I am: I’m going to make a blog post out of one of my BioTweeps advice threads, about how to give a good presentation.

How to give a good talk

Why do I think I’m qualified to give advice about this? First, I really enjoy giving presentations. What’s more fun than talking about work you’re excited about? Second, I’ve won a few “best presentation” prizes at conferences, so I think I don’t suck at it.

Those prizes are not all because of me. Especially in the last 4 ½ years, I have gotten a lot of advice from colleagues. In my (now-former) research group, we had a culture of giving practice talks and getting extensive feedback on them. It was sometimes brutal but we all gave as good as we got. As a result, everyone in our lab gave great presentations.

But there are other things that go into making a talk that I do myself. I was motivated to share tips after I realized last summer that people thought it was easy for me to give a good talk. Haha. Nope.

I first saw the mismatch in expectations when attended a conference with my boss. He was shocked that the night before I was scheduled to give my talk, I locked myself in my room and practiced for hours. He thought that I was just good at presenting and didn’t need to practice.

I’m sure that there are people who can wing it and do great. But that’s not most of us, and it’s also not me. Quite the opposite. One way to make your delivery seem effortless is to practice it until it is, at which point, the hard work becomes partly invisible.

Practice is a basic, but very important, tip. Here are some others that will help make a great presentation.

  1. How should you structure your talk?

I’ve recently moved away from structuring my talks like research papers, with sections for introduction, methods, results, and then discussion. Now I just try to tell a good story. My talks are better for it – and I think this would be true for any kind of presentation, on any topic.

I try to think a bit about what I learned about constructing a story as a journalist: how do you draw the reader in, and then keep them reading?

Just as in a written story, start with a lead that grabs the the audience’s attention. This probably shouldn’t take more than a minute or two, although depending on how long the presentation is, it could vary.

Then, you get to what in journalism we would call the “nut graf”. This follows the lead and should be one slide, if you’re using PowerPoint. It’s the thesis and motivation of your whole presentation: what question are you trying to solve and what are you going to do? Give this to the audience early enough that they know where you’re going with the rest of the talk.

From here, there are lots of possible structures depending on the length of your talk and the material. You could have a bit more introduction after the nut graf, or you could get into the meat of your presentation.

Supplement your story with technical details, but not too many. You want to include enough that people trust that you are an expert and did things right, but you want them to remember the big picture, not that you had a lot of equations on your slides. Once you’ve demonstrated your expertise, just highlight the things the audience needs to know. Don’t distract the audience with some number or result that isn’t important.

(If you really think someone will want more detail, make extra slides that you can go to in Q&A. But don’t overwhelm or bore the 95% of your audience that doesn’t want that level of detail.)

For scientists, I find that using the traditional paper structure can lead to a lot of repetition, and if you have several analyses or result to present, the audience might have a hard time remembering what methods went with which results or why you are jumping from one topic to the next. Remember that this is a talk. It’s not a paper where they can flip back and remind themselves which method you used.

So if you have several sub-questions/results, explain each one separately. For three research questions, this would go, methods, results, methods, results, methods, results. Use narrative to link them together: “based on result x, we were interested to follow up with experiment y.”

Then, make sure to have a discussion and conclusion that ties all those sub-questions together.

  1. Content: what do you put on your slides?

This is not original advice, but it’s advice I swear by: don’t put too much on your slides. I like to have some that are just a photo, a figure, or a few words. I leave them up as an anchor/background while I talk about something. You want people listening to you, not reading your slides.

I also use visuals because then the audience has two ways of getting information. The text you write will probably be very similar to what you will say, so if they don’t understand your spoken explanation, additional text might not help very much.

There are a few more things you can do to make it easy for your audience to follow the story. For example, choose a consistent font throughout the presentation and make the text big enough to read from the back of the room. You think it’s big enough? Make it bigger.

Do you have charts or graphs? Make the text big. Don’t just recycle figures from a research paper or take them straight out of Excel. Make the labels and text bigger and easier to interpret from far away, and if possible use the same font as your slides’ text.

Choose a nice color scheme. I make my graphs in R (a statistical software) and I like to use the online tool ColorBrewer or the ‘viridis’ R package to choose color schemes that are more pleasing than the defaults. If you have multiple charts with the same set of variables, make sure the color scheme is consistent throughout all of them – this makes it easier to follow.

No matter what software you are using to produce figures, make sure that they are easy to interpret for people who are color-blind, of which there will probably be at least a few in your audience. ColorBrewer indicates whether a color scheme is colorblind-friendly.

In PowerPoint, you can use the same tools to choose a color scheme to apply to your layout.

There are also some good sources of artwork you can use to make your slides nice. Pixabay has some free images, or search Wikipedia or Creative Commons. Phylopic is great for free images of plants and animals. Government agencies often have free imagery too. IMPORTANT: attribute any images that are not your own!

Whether it’s a chart or diagram, I often go through visuals sequentially. For example, for the first graph, I will often start with a slide that has just the axes, and I will explain what they are before adding the data to the plot. I will sometimes add the data in a few different steps if it is a complicated figure. This can make your results much easier to understand. The same goes for a complicated diagram: adding elements sequentially can allow you to highlight and explain what’s important about each one.

Finally, don’t forget to have a slide thanking people who helped with your research (including funders). I don’t like to end on this slide, because during question time I want to leave a slide about my conclusions up. Recently I’ve tried putting my thank-you slide second, or in the middle.

  1. Delivery: you’ve made your slides, now how do you do the talking?

As mentioned above, my best advice is simple: practice, practice, then practice some more.

I’ve been working in Europe for seven years, and people often tell that presentations must be easy for me because I’m a native English speaker. And yes, it’s obviously an advantage to give a talk in your first language!

But they’re surprised when I say, “Well, I practiced this talk 10 times…”

I am incredibly lucky that I don’t have to do science in a foreign language, and I don’t want to downplay this advantage. But remember: we’ve all heard terrible talks by people presenting in their native language. This might be because they haven’t practiced, or they simply don’t care very much, or they are nervous and uncomfortable with public speaking.

Practice and enthusiasm can go a long way. If you aren’t quite done with your project but have to present about it anyway, you can absolutely give a good talk despite lacking a finished conclusion. If your results are disappointing, your talk can still be great – it’s all about how you present and deliver it. If you aren’t completely comfortable giving a talk in a non-native language, copious practice can help. If your slides are clear and your demeanor is positive and enthusiastic, the audience will almost definitely be on your side.

Practice also helps me fit a lot of content into a short time slot. My talks are dense with information, but most feedback I receive is that they are still clear and easy to understand. By practicing repeatedly, I can pare my language down, cut minutes off of the length of the talk, and settle on the most concise, clear wording.

So, practice. One colleague said he didn’t want to memorize his talk because he didn’t want to sound like a robot. I told him if you memorize a talk well, you can actually be quite dynamic. The trick is to practice until your delivery is more or less automatic, and then keep going. Once you know it 100%, you will become so comfortable you will begin riffing a little bit, and you won’t sound like a robot at all.

One you’ve practiced a bit on your own, practice in front of colleagues and friends. Even if they aren’t familiar with the content, they can still give great advice on delivery and slide design. Scheduling this ahead of time and some days/week(s) before your presentation will also force you to make your presentation before the last possible moment.

Two reminders that should go without saying, but apparently are needed. No matter whether you think your voice is loud or not, use a microphone. Your audience might not be able to hear you, and you actually aren’t the best judge of whether they can or not.

And finally, keep to time. If you don’t, you are inconveniencing everyone else, whether it’s by making a meeting run long or running into the next slot at a conference and possibly costing someone else the chance to communicate their project.

I hope these tips can help you nail it next time you need to talk to an audience about whatever you’ve been up to!

Night to Day on the Hardergrat

Annie defending after the Augstmatthorn, partway across the Hardergrat and just after sunrise.

Annie & Joel descending after the Augstmatthorn, partway across the Hardergrat just after sunrise.

A few years ago I ran into a college friend who was visiting Zurich. When we met up, he and his girlfriend had just done a hike of something called “the Hardergrat”. It was an all-day ordeal that they said was amazing and terrifying and exhausting.

When we were living in a large shared house back in our early 20s, my friend hadn’t been much of a hiker or runner. He was paddling all the time, finding adventures in whitewater and not so much on land. The fact that he (1) had taken part of his Switzerland time to do this route and (2) was raving about how epic it was, made me sit up and listen.

It turns out that Hardergrat, a long ridge between Interlaken and Brienz, is low-key famous in the hiking and trail running community. And it is not a joke. The ridge is very exposed for long periods of time. The trail is just inches from thousand-foot drop-offs to one or both sides. People die there if they make a small mistake on footing. The Hardergrat is also very long, and has thousands of feet of climbing and descending.

When I heard about the ridge, it was just a few weeks after I had wrecked by ankle, and I wasn’t in any shape to be attempting a route so long and technical any time soon. Last summer also didn’t feel right: I was getting back in shape and training for a marathon, but I didn’t feel like I was actually *in* shape yet.

But the Hardergrat stayed in my mind, in the background. It was in my friend Annie’s mind too. I was determined that before I left Switzerland, I would do it.

Earlier this summer we emailed about possible dates with Joel, another adventure buddy. The Hardergrat has to be dry just to be attempted. The snow has to have melted, and many of the paths are just narrow dirt tracks through the grass. If you slip on the mud or wet grass, you will fall thousands of feet. It was a late-melting spring, so we waited impatiently, and then listed the possible summer weekends, the ones where none of us were traveling or racing anywhere, and then crossed our fingers for the right weather.

Last weekend, the weather came through. Sort of. Europe has been in a record heat wave, maybe you’ve heard. The Hardergrat would be dry, that was for sure. We didn’t know if we’d get another good opportunity, so we had to go for it.

But the heat… the ridge is completely exposed for about 17 kilometers, and the sun would be beating down on us. One thing I know about myself is that I suck in the heat. Even when I was training in Vermont, on hot summer days I would sometimes wake up at 5 or 6 and do my long workouts alone, because if I waited until 8:30 or 9 to start with the rest of the team I’d be roasted and useless before we even finished. I was worried about the heat.

Many people start the Hardergrat at 4 am for “various complicated reasons” (Annie’s quote), and so we began thinking. It didn’t seem worthwhile to get a room in Interlaken (incredibly expensive) for just a few hours. We could camp near the base of the trail, but then we’d have a tent, and since the route is point-to-point we would have to either carry it (not desirable, we wanted to be light and nimble) or leave it somewhere.

And so a plan was born: to avoid the heat of the day, we would take the last train from Zurich to Interlaken and start hiking up at 1:30 in the morning.

I also need a lot of sleep, so I definitely questioned whether this was a good idea. But for some reason, I just went along with it and didn’t really worry.

It turned out to be probably the best decision that we made.

It was surreal taking the train to Interlaken, carrying our small running backpacks and surrounded by people who were going home after a night of partying, many still drinking and/or smelling of beer.

When we got off the train, too, some people were biking home from nights out. We ran past them with our headlamps. On the steep climb up to Harder Kulm (about 5 km and 750 meters of up), we could hear the noise from Interlaken, parties still going on. In one sense, we couldn’t leave the crowded world of tourists and “culture” completely behind.

But in another one sense, we were in the forest, in the dark, focusing just on the trail in front of us. We weren’t sure which direction it was going to turn or where it was going to go. Insects flew into our faces, attracted to the light of our headlamps, which also illuminated ants and so many kinds of beetles scurrying around on the ground in front of us. Every once in a while we would hear the noise of bigger animals like deer crashing around in the forest above or below. At one point I heard what I thought was a stone rolling off the trail, and looked left to see that it was actually a large frog, escaping my disturbance to his night-time peace.

In the middle of the night with just the halos of our headlamps to follow, I entered some kind of meditative climbing. I didn’t really notice the distance or the time. When we came around a corner and the Harder Kulm restaurant/viewing platform was right in front of us, I was surprised we had come up so far, even though it had been over an hour of hiking. I’m actually very glad that we started in the dark with this unique night-time experience, because in some ways it made the climbing at the start mentally easier.

We paused at Harder Kulm and looked out over the lights of Interlaken below us. Then, we headed back into the woods and continued up and up.

By the time we reached the ridge, the horizon was getting a little lighter and tinged with orange. It was only 4 am, far from sunrise, but it felt like we had reached the next stage of our journey: a great combination of timing. The climb up and up and up (I know I’m being repetitive, but so was the climbing) through the forest was done. I felt a new level of excitement.

45 minutes later we came out of the scattered trees and took a short rest (Annie wanted to nap, but Joel and I were a little cold) in a ridgetop meadow, gazing over the ever-lightening landscape. The orange was spreading to more of the mountains and we could glimpse Brienzersee, as well as the outline of the first few mountains we would have to conquer on the ridgeline.

Photo: Annie Chalifour

We also started seeing a few headlamps in the distance, and when we got closer to those first mountains, we realized that people had hiked up (directly, unlike our long route…) to watch the sunrise, too. A few had also slept out overnight. We smiled and said hi as we passed them. A community of people who had sacrificed sleep for a pretty amazing experience.

By the time we stopped and sat down for “breakfast” on the Suggiture (2084 meters), it was 6:15 in the morning. We had five hours under our belts, maybe 12 kilometers, and at least 1500 meters of elevation.

Here’s looking at you, Alps. Photo of me by Annie Chalifour.

I’m not sure any sunrise view has ever been so special.

The air is full of dust from the Sahara right now, because the heat wave has blown in from Africa. In some ways this is a little unfortunate, as it made our views of the ridge and the snow-covered 4,000-meter peaks in the distance a lot less crisp. The air over the Lake of Brienz and the valley to the north was hazy.

But for the sunrise, I think it made the colors even more spectacular. We really couldn’t believe it. Looking around erased some of the effort it had taken to get up here. All I could do was be amazed that I was in this place at this moment.

As we got ready to continue, we began to have our first sense of what was ahead of us. We still had some climbing to get to the Augstmatthorn, the first “major” peak on the ridge. And now we could see the Brienzer Rothorn, which seemed very, very far away.

As we continued, at first we were still stopping every few minutes to continue gawking at the view. The sun was beginning to hit the snow-covered peaks and the dawn alpenglow was constantly changing. The morning light was incredible.

Photo: Annie Chalifour

Atop the Augstmatthorn, I think I had the first real sense of what we were up against on this adventure. Going up was one thing, but for the first time I got to see one of the big downhills, the ridge stretching ahead of us, and how full of uphills and downhills it was. It’s kind of impossible to count how many bumps there are on this ridge, but there is almost no flat.

It felt like we had put in a lot to get to the Augstmatthorn, the highest peak for a few kilometers in any direction. But we were immediately going to lose 300 meters (1000 feet) – and we were going to lose them steeply, with a cost to the quads because letting yourself roll and pick up too much momentum would be a mistake in terrain like this where tripping over a rock would have scary consequences. It hurt a little bit psychologically to immediately lose such a chunk of the elevation we had worked so hard to gain.

But as we continued, it was clear that this was the whole experience of the Hardergrat. The ridge is long, but in some senses not so long. From where we had come out of the trees and taken our rest/nap break, it was 17 kilometers to the Rothorn. That’s long, but I’ve done many runs and hikes far longer. So it’s not the length that makes the Hardergrat such an undertaking.

It’s the terrain. Sometimes you’d see the bigger peaks out in front of you. I remember at one point counting: one, two, three, four. One big-ish one, then the Tannhorn, then another big-ish one, and then up to Rothorn. Four big climbs left. But as soon as you got to the top of one hill, you’d see three or five more, with steep up and then steep down again, in between it and the next one. A kilometer or more of these big and little bumps before the next “peak”. And maybe even another one you hadn’t seen that was just as big as the one you were counting as “three”.

“It literally never ends!” Annie exclaimed at one point.

I must have mentally prepared well, because this actually never got to me too badly. I had heard one estimate that it takes 10 hours to do the Hardergrat, and I kept that in the back of my head. Even though the most elevation gain I’d done in a single hike/run so far this year was 1100 meters, I was pleasantly surprised when we were on top of Suggiture that even though we’d already come up more than that, I felt mostly fine. I think from that point on, I just thought, “You’ve come this far and you’re fine, so of course you can keep going. Stick to your pace and you won’t have any problem getting this ridge done. You’ve done the training to make you strong.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so positive on a hard route. The work I’ve been doing this spring on self-confidence seems to be paying off.

It made it fun to look around and enjoy the trail and the scenery.

Our little trail threading over the narrow ridge, kilometer later kilometer. Photo: Annie Chalifour

Pretty nice views.

There were a few more aspects of planning and execution that I’m also really proud of, that enabled this to be an amazing and actually fun experience instead of just a difficult slog. I am doing a race in two weeks, and I really wanted to make sure that this adventure was a good training stimulus, not something that destroyed me for days.

I was determined to go an “easy” pace, not above my aerobic threshold. I knew it would probably make me slower than Annie and Joel, but I managed to not let my ego get upset. I was going to do this at my pace (trying to keep my heart rate below 150 or 155 at the very most; my max is ~195, and my anaerobic threshold in the high 170s somewhere) and if they had to wait for me, they could wait.

(And they did. Repeatedly. I’d watch them just hike away from me, and then I’d focus on the trail in front of me and remind myself to enjoy going my own pace.)

I also brought a lot of snacks, and after the first hour I ate something (just a chunk of a bar, a few gummies, or a little ball of rice with soy sauce and honey) every 20-25 minutes. This is my strategy for long runs and races, but I’ve never done if for an effort as long as this ended up being (10 hours, counting all the big and small breaks we took). It was hard to keep eating, and I honestly didn’t know how well my body would handle it. But I also knew that after the halfway point, if I gave up on my eating schedule I would bonk, or at least have to stop and eat something more substantial. So the two times it was hard to choke something down, I did anyway. It worked. I never bonked.

Just keep grinding. Photo: Annie Chalifour

And finally, hydration. I was really scared of the heat. It was good that we got a lot of the distance over with before the sun really came out, but once it did it really was hot. And there was no place anywhere to refill on water. I had brought four liters of water – a full liter and a half more than Annie – and I drank almost all of it (with some Skratch Labs hydration mix). I had also drank plenty of electrolytes and sodium the day before to try to prepare. I was definitely thirsty by the time I finished, but I think I managed about as well as I could have hoped. Despite the extra weight I was carrying in the beginning, I was happy to have brought so much water. I needed it.

Those might seem like technical details, but on a route like the Hardergrat all these small aspects of planning are key to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time. Besides just not wanting to feel too wasted afterwards, I was nervous about the terrain. The consequences of a mis-step were so serious, and the more tired I was, the more likely I would be to make a mistake. I needed to be the least tired I could reasonably be.

So all the planning is indeed what enabled us to have such a great time. None of us ever took a serious stumble, even though the terrain got more and more scary as the ridge went on. The climbs were not so bad, most often a dirt path cutting through grass. If wet, this would be terrifyingly dangerous, but it was dry and so it was mostly just perfect; the only difficult aspect was the steepness.

Many hours in and still this happy.

Joel on one of the easier downhills. Photo: Annie Chalifour

But the downhills were something else. Often we were climbing down cliffy piles of rock and loose soil, using our hands to help ourselves. It wasn’t technical climbing, really, but it sure wasn’t just walking on a trail. The consequences of slipping were severe. Every peak or hilltop we reached as an adventure of looking down the other side and asking, “what’s in store for us on the downhill this time?”

As we crossed more and more of these downhills, I began wondering what would come after the Tannhorn. At 2200 meters, it’s the biggest peak on the ridge other than the Rothorn at the end. And I had read that the “crux” of the ridge came after the Tannhorn. So if the crux was more dangerous than what we were already doing, what exactly was it going to be!?

It turned out not to be what we expected. The part after the Tannhorn was in some ways easier: the trail was not as rocky or loose. It was actually a trail that if it was somewhere else, I would definitely run. It was some of the least technical trail we’d seen in a while.

… but… it’s the crux. That’s because this trail was a knife edge. It was probably less than a foot wide in many places, and the drop-offs on either side were even more enormous than most of the areas we had crossed so far. To the north, they led to a rock glacier. That would be even worse to slide down onto than a normal glacier.

Because the terrain was easy, I knew that all I had to do was just walk like normal. There was no reason I would make a mis-step. Just treat this like normal, I told myself.

But as I focused on the trail in front of me, the drop-offs on either side glided past in my peripheral vision. It was vertigo-inducing and made it impossible not to remember the risk of where we were walking. Good thing none of the three of us have a fear of heights.

Because we had prepared so well, though, we made it through no problem and were smiling after we got back on (comparatively) safer ground. Like, “that was it?” And by now we were so close to the Rothorn, just a few kilometers. We were tired but I felt somehow lighter, because I knew we were going to make it no problem.

We had one more fun ridge to follow, of relatively more gradual terrain; we could actually run a little bit of it. I was so full of happiness.

Me and Joel, on the next-to-last ridge! Photo: Annie Chalifour

We hit Wannepass, the last low point before the Rothorn. The finish was in sight! The trail wound up and to the left away from us, which didn’t make that much sense because the Rothorn was to the right. But I followed Annie and Joel on up.

Soon, I was looking up a steep couloir. I didn’t quite comprehend – I kept looking to the left to see if the trail perhaps wound all the way around these cliffs and somehow behind them. But then I saw Annie and Joel up above me, in the loose scree.

I heard Annie’s voice saying something indistinct, and then Joel: “well, if they are coming down this, than of course we can go up it.”

For the first time all day, I thought… fuck my life.

It was so steep, just a ribbon of scree between a cliff and a patch of snow. Near the top, someone had actually built concrete steps. But to get there, you had to climb up loose gravel underlain by dirt that was wet with the melting snow.

I had manage my effort and my pace well until here, but there was really no way to go up something like this after 25 kilometers and 2500 meters of climbing without going pretty hard. I periodically stopped to rest and wondered what the heck I was doing here. When would it end.

When I finally reached the top of the climb and rejoined Annie and Joel, they were similarly unimpressed with the end of the hike. But from there, it was an easy path over to the Rothorn; even a bit of downhill, and we could run again. Just a few minutes later, we were pulling out chairs on the porch of the restaurant and ordering cold drinks.

We had made it to the end.

Or, I had…

My knee had been bothering me since I tweaked it 10 days before, and had been quite painful on some of the downclimbing. So I decided that rather than drop the 1700 meters down to the lake, I would take the steam train down. Joel and Annie would continue running, making it a 40 k day for them by the end, but I had the chance to not further aggravate my injury and I took it. I felt no shame, because I had completed the hard part of the ridge.

So we said a hurried goodbye, and I trotted off for the train. The steam train was loud, but I fell asleep repeatedly. I had felt fine while hiking, but the lack of sleep finally caught up with me on the way home.

For the last 48 hours I have just been marveling over this experience, which is one of the most magical hikes I’ve ever been on.

I’m also just amazed that my body can take me on adventures like this: no sleep, heat, 9,000 meters of elevation gain. It didn’t kill me. I have so much confidence now, that I am putting in my pocket and taking with me on the rest of my summer adventures.

I’m really happy that my preparation and planning allowed me to enjoy it so much, and I can barely believe that we stood on that ridge, much less traversed the whole thing. There aren’t so many places in the world like Hardergrat.

If you ever get the chance, you should check it out. 1 am start optional.

All this we did! Plus some hiding behind the last peak in the background.

Easter Break in the Alps

Coming from the U.S. and a non-religious family, I never thought about Easter all that much once I grew up and stopped having Easter egg hunts. But in Europe, the Easter weekend is a major holiday, a kind of spring break of sorts. Even in places that are no longer particularly religious (or, no longer very observantly religious), Good Friday and Easter Monday are often off from work, making a long weekend for family, friends, and maybe travel. Many people tack on a day or more on either side, or take the whole next week off.

If you follow any Scandinavian or Finns, you probably saw pictures of their Easter holidays spent skiing (cross-country, downhill, or touring), snowmobiling, ice fishing, and getting sunburnt up north. This always makes me jealous – the days are getting long up there, the sun is warm, and there’s still snow to play in. Exhibits A, B, and C.

This year we decided to go to the Valais, one fo the parts of Switzerland with the highest mountains, for our Easter weekend. We arrived Thursday night just in time to take in the views across the valley from our AirBnB. Clearly, this was going to be a nice time.

We were staying in Riederalp, a car-free village accessible by cablecar. The offseason had begun and many hotels and restaurants were closed. There were tourists, but only a few to add to the less than 500 people who live there (some of whom were certainly off on their own holidays in warmer places). Our rented apartment was between the two village centers, and so very quiet. This was exactly what I needed. Every morning we would wake up and have a coffee on the porch looking at this view and how the light changed on the mountains.

Riederalp is just below a ridge, and if you hike up there you are offered a view of the Aletsch glacier, the largest one in the Alps. It’s 23 kilometers long, surrounded by 4000-meter mountains, and by 2100 is predicted to lose 90% of its 27 billion metric tons of ice.

The “Aletsch Arena,” as the greater area has billed itself, is one of the big tourist draws. But we realized that it wasn’t the perfect time of year to have all kinds of adventures.

Riederalp is on the south side of the ridge and much of the snow had melted even at 1900 meters where we were staying. I thought maybe that meant we could make a trail running loop around the closest small mountain, but once we got going, reality set in. There was kind of a lot of snow.

This was one of those days where I made a plan and Steve was maybe not thrilled to be tagging along with my bad plan.

Still, part of the reason I had wanted to go to the mountains – other than the extreme happiness I get from just looking at them – was to do some running with vertical, as I’m training for a trail running race in the Alps in July. So I tried to make better plans. A few days, we ended up hiking/running on the “Winterwanderweg” winter hiking trails.

These were pretty high up, so the views were spectacular. They were also packed down – occasionally groomed, and then walked on by people in boots and sometimes snowshoes. Depending on whether the snow was still frozen or soft and slushy, this made it quite challenging running, either sliding around or constantly stretching your ankles in different directions as your feet landed in frozen ruts. It wasn’t the most fun running and by the end of the last day my ankle was sore, but at the same time it was the most fun running, because who can argue with this scenery!?

Two other days, I mapped out routes of about 20 km each that we hiked/ran. Both had a lot of vertical, and some snow patches despite my attempts to route down to lower elevations. The first was through villages and involved losing and then gaining about 1000 meters of elevation to get back to our porch, and it pretty much destroyed me.

The other was a new favorite loop following two local trails, the “Massaweg” and the “Hexeweg”, which curved over singletrack around the side of a mountain and then down a stream valley.

Anyway, we certainly got in some miles and some vertical.

But the nicest part of the holiday in many ways was just being quiet and not worrying too much about work. Sleeping late, sitting on the porch and looking at the mountains. We took some walks around the near-empty village and wondered what it would be like to have a place here. What it would be like to grow up here. What it was like to live here 200 years ago.

Spring is a great time to stop and take a breath. And this was a great place to take that breath.

“I Contain Multitudes”: Microbiomes, Ecology, a Book Review, and Speculation

IMG_5214

Perfect with a negroni.

What is the measure of a good science writer?

Both my boyfriend and I – one of us a scientist, the other not – adore reading Ed Yong’s columns in The Atlantic. That might be a pretty good measure, and it is one that Yong passes with flying colors: both the experts in fields he writes about, as well as nearly everyone else, are happy when he puts words on the internet.

(His Valentines tweets are no exception. I’m trying not to get sidetracked, but it’s hard, and that link is worth clicking, I promise.)

Nevertheless, when Yong’s first book, I Contain Multitudes, was released, I wasn’t that thrilled.

It’s about the microbiome, and I just wasn’t that excited to read about the microbiome. It seemed very of-the-moment, very bandwagon-y. As an ecologist I was kind of sick of hearing about the microbiome, and of people asking me whether my study organism’s microbiome might explain X or Y thing I had found about it.

Like, I’m studying all these complicated non-microbial things about my organism’s ecology, and I’m supposed to somehow have all the skills, techniques, and equipment to also understand its microbiome? Please go away. That’s so too much to ask.

Anyway, this month I finally read the book, and boy was I wrong.

The book was great.

And the microbiome is fascinating.

It was a delightful read, and among the reasons is that Yong describes perfectly some fundamental things about being an ecologist. Take this passage, for example:

“Here is a strange but critical sentiment to introduce in a book about the benefits of living with microbes: there is no such thing as a ‘good microbe’ or a ‘bad microbe’. These terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world…. All of this means that labels like mutualist, commensal, pathogen, or parasite don’t quite work as badges of fixed identity. These terms are more like states of being, like hungry or awake or alive…”

For any scientist who has found a result, then explored seemingly the same situation over again and got a completely different result, this passage will spark a laugh or sigh of recognition.

It can seem like everything in ecology is context-dependent. Sometimes we can demonstrate what context matters and how the mechanism operates; other times it’s just a nice way of saying, we have no idea what’s going on.

Anyway, through Yong’s typically-excellent storytelling and the way I could identify with the scientists he profiled – men and women, young and old, at universities and zoos and NGO’s and research institutes around the world – I became immersed in tales about microbes.

As Yong points out, microbes were everywhere when multicellular life evolved. So we multicellular beings evolved with them. They made our lives easier, in some ways; and we helped them get ahead. Sometimes the relationship is good for everyone, sometimes not. But with microbes all around us for millions upon millions of years, the relationship is inevitable.

And so we have incredible interactions.

Of course, there are all the microbes in our guts: the gut microbiome, which is discussed all the time, it seems. Ours are worse than they used to be, worse than hunter-gatherer societies, worse if we eat more highly-processed food. This influences our health in so many ways.

But there are also more seemingly-fantastical things.

Microbes that help squids glow, canceling out the shadow that predators might see from below against the night sky, and thus protecting them from death! That makes a brilliantly intelligent cephalopod which just happens to be bioluminescent.

Mice that have gut microbes that help them eat creosote without any ill effects! Cute little fairy tail creatures that can eat a poison pill and just keep on going.

Another charming example? Having a pet, and a dog in particular, is one of the best ways to have a healthy, robust, microbiome. The pet brings microbes into the house from its travels outdoors, and those microbes become your microbes. I’m tallying up all the possible justifications for why we should get a dog, and this is a great one to add to the list! We need a dog because, science.

(Also on the list is that a dog can help you decide author order on papers. I mean, there are other ways, but let’s get a dog.)

Some stories are discouraging, like how a microbes help mountain pine beetles process and disarm the chemical defenses of trees, and thus to kill vast swathes of forest in North America. I thought I knew a fair bit about pine beetle devastation, but this was new to me.

Others stories are hopeful, however.

One of my favorites was a story about researchers trying to combat dengue fever. They raise mosquitos with a bacteria living inside them which makes them resistant to the dengue virus. And now they are letting those mosquitoes loose: they started in Australia, and went door to door to convince neighborhood residents to foster the new mosquitoes, even though most people would say “no way” if you asked whether you could drop some extra mosquito larvae next to their house. Bzzzzzz.

Just by carrying a bacteria, mosquitoes as a vector of this particular disease might be a thing of the past, at least in some places.

Yong also highlighted the work of Dr. Jessica Green, who was a new-ish professor in my department at University of Oregon back when I worked as a technician there.

Green studies the microbiome of buildings. It’s fascinating stuff, and even more interesting when you get to hospitals: leaving the window open to let natural microbes in might help fight off the bad microbes that give so many hospitalized people infections.

Thanks to microbes, there are simple interventions that might make a big difference in people’s lives. Our modern way of living and germ-phobic worldview has broken many of the relationships we used to have, but we are learning more and more about which ones we should preserve or restore. And it’s leading us to create new ones, too.

Along the way, I also began to think about a lot of things not covered in the book.

(I Contain Multitudeswas published in 2016, so a lot of science has happened since then in this rapidly-advancing field.)

For example, how might the microbiome alter human performance? The first thing that popped to mind was sleep. I have pretty much always been terrible at sleeping. I have a hard time falling asleep at night, and sometimes my sleep is restless.

In many aspects of life, sleep is vitally important. I think back to my time as an athlete: rest is one of the most important aspects of training, but if you aren’t sleeping well, you’re missing some of it. I definitely was.

Since 2016, some science has come out suggesting that lack of sleep alters your gut microbiome, and that the relationship also goes the other way, that your microbiome affects the process leading to sleep. But it’s hard to parse this research and assess its quality. I need someone like Yong to do that for me, and condense the reliable findings down into something digestible (see what I did there?).

In fact, I wondered about how the microbiome might affect athletes more generally. People doing a lot of training would benefit from all sorts of specific adaptations, including to diet and metabolism. Do microbes help in that? Does having the wrong microbiome hold you back?

Here, too, there has been a bit of research. For example, Outside wrote up a piece where they had seven elite athletes get their gut microbiomes sequenced. They found plenty of deviation from the average American, but as you can read in the piece, what did that actually mean? Hard to say. There is still so much we don’t know about microbes and which ones do what.

Another recent paper found that rugby players had increased prevalence of microbes that with functions that increased muscle turnover. This approach, looking at “metabolic phenotyping” and metabolomics rather than only the composition of the kinds of microbes, might be more informative. However, because the athletes in the study ate different diets than the non-athletes, it’s hard to totally understand the implications of such differences.

Still, I’m interested in work like this. What would it say about endurance athletes?

Something to remember, though, is that even if we figured out that the human gut microbiome could be used to get better athletic performances or to maintain a better training load, it might be hard to act on that information.

In humans, there are still few silver bullets for the microbiome. Knowing that a microbe is good isn’t enough. In many cases, a microbe can be helpful or protective in one context but harmful in another (for instance if it reaches too-high abundance).

And it’s also hard to deliver a microbe into the gut and have it take hold.

One of the first stories I heard about the microbiome was about fecal transplants, which were used with great success to reset some people’s guts and solve major, seemingly-unsolvable health problems. It was on a podcast, although I now can’t remember which one. It was a wild story.

Yong writes about this, too. But he points out something researchers have learned in the years since the first fantastic results using fecal transplants to cure people of aggressive diseases.

The reason that fecal transplants work so well with some diseases is that the native gut flora has been pretty much wiped out by the combination of the disease and the antibiotics used to treat it in its initial stages.

“This pharmacological carpet-bombing clears many of the native bacteria from their guts,” Yong writes of patients with Clostridium difficileinfections who receive fecal transplants. “When a donor’s microbes arrive in this wasteland, they find few competitors, and certainly few that are as well adapted to the gut as they are. They can easily colonise… ‘you can’t just infuse microbes into people and expect a transplant to happen’, says [gastroenterologist Alexander] Khoruts.”

So even if we knew of a silver-bullet microbe that would help you metabolize or do something else to perform better, could we get it to colonize an athlete’s gut? Unclear.

In the end, if you want a healthier microbiome, a lot of it probably just comes down to eating a healthy, diverse diet, and having healthy habits. And that’s what athletes should be doing anyway.

I wonder if the best way to have your microbiome help your athletic career is just to do a bunch of things that you already know you should do. Eat well. Sleep. Hug the people you care about.

Here’s my final take about the measure of a science writer. A good writer can make you understand things you’re already familiar with in a whole new light.

An entire research group in my department studies the aphid-Buchnerasystem.

Aphids are small insects that like to live on, for example, pea and bean plants. Buchnera are bacteria that live inside the aphids; they got there over 200 million years ago, and each strain of aphid has its own strain of Buchnera. The bacteria produce amino acids that they don’t get from their main food source, phloem. And there’s another microbe, Hamiltonella defense, that protects the aphids against parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs in an aphid and whose larvae gradually consume them from the inside out, turning them into “mummies”. (Yeah, it’s gross.) Different Hamiltonella strains have different protective abilities and costs.

I can’t tell you how many research talks I have listened to about aphids. Usually, it has just seemed complicated and confusing – even when my friends and close colleagues are explaining it.

But when I read Yong’s description of the study system in his book, all of a sudden, the whole thing made sense to me. First of all what was going on, and secondly why it was fascinating. I will look at my colleagues’ projects differently, and with a lot more interest.

If that isn’t the measure of science writing success, I’m not sure what is.

You can purchase I Contain Multitudes at Powell’s or your favorite independent bookseller.

Women Get Cited Less. What Can We Do About It?

A few weeks ago, a paper came out about the fate of research papers in ecology and evolution (my field!) pre- and post-publication, comparing outcomes between male and female authors.

I want to focus on just one aspect of their nuanced analysis (you can read the whole paper here for free). In this section, the authors gathered citation data on over 100,000 papers published in 142 journals in our field.

They found a slight, but significant, difference in how often papers by men and by women got cited. On average, controlling for the impact factor (a proxy for quality[1]), papers by women accrued 2% less citations.

A hundred thousand papers! That’s a lot, and it’s why the authors could detect this small difference. The sample size allowed them to do a quite powerful analysis.

It also revealed some interesting interactions. For example, papers with female last authors (which often indicates seniority or leadership of the research group) were cited less than those with male last authors at high impact journals, but the effect was reversed at low-impact journals.

Because more people cite papers in high-impact journals, this meant that overall, women were cited less often. [2]

I guess this shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it’s not something I had seen data about before, and consequently something I hadn’t really thought about.

But it is something that matters. Like it or not, citations are a metric of success that is easy to measure, and therefore whether others cite your work is a good piece of evidence that you’re a valuable scientist when you’re up for a job position, tenure, or an award. It’s not great for women if there is bias preventing them from doing well on this metric. [3]

Sounds About Right

Like a lot of research and headlines about challenges facing women in science, this got me mad. I’m a feminist, and this stuff pisses me off.

I see the experiences of my female friends and colleagues, and see when they are treated differently than their male peers. Not always, of course, but enough to make a pattern of our own anecdotal experience.

Then there’s the fact that in my study topics, almost every giant in the field is a man. The ones that defined the discipline and published the equations in a top journal? Men. There are women there, doing great work, but they are less famous.

When data on various aspects of academic life backs up our experience it’s like, “yup, sounds about right.”

Academia is harsh on most people; it’s a place with a lot of rejection, high standards, low pay, job insecurity, and so many power dynamics. The fact that academic science is even harder on women is just not fair.

And that’s not getting into the more complex and devastating nature of the structural problems in academia, which are even worse for other minorities, especially minority women. This paper found that on average women are cited 2% less than men; how much less often are minority women cited?

Anyway, I read this paper, and I was mad.

What I Did Next

Being mad doesn’t accomplish all that much. I tried to think about what we, in our daily lives as scientists, could do to work against this problem.

As an individual early-career scientist, I can only do a very little bit about peer review outcomes or paper acceptances.

But citations? That’s different. I am always writing papers, and I am always citing others’ work. I realized that this was a small step I could take to try to contribute to supporting female scientists. It sounds trivial, but I can cite their work. Could we all do this?

I brought this idea to our lab group, and was curious what they would think.

Some colleagues immediately recognized that this was a problem, and something we don’t think about enough. There are a handful of big names in our subfield, and we mostly cite them over and over. But do we need to do that? Are their papers that we cite every time actually the most relevant? Maybe not. There is probably a lot of work being done around the world we could cite that instead, or at least in addition to the now-traditional canon.

Another common reaction was for someone to say that they don’t think about the gender of authors when they search for papers, read them, or cite them. Here it diverged: a few people said, “I don’t think about it and now I realize that I should.” Others said, “I don’t think about the gender of authors when I’m citing them, therefore I’m not part of this problem.”

I challenged this statement. Does that really mean you’re not part of the problem? Maybe not, I said – and if not, that’s great for you, good work! But instead of assuming that not consciously citing more papers by men means no harm is done, check your reference list on the paper you’re writing. What’s the author breakdown? Do you think this strategy is really working?

I don’t think I was popular for making this callout.

Rubber Meets the Road

As I mentioned in a tweet a few weeks ago, “caring means walking the walk.”

In my paper-reading project, I track the gender of the authors I read, and I found that I am reading fewer papers by women than by men. I was curious about what the ratio might be of the papers I end up citing.

I went through the references section of my current manuscript with a blue and a pink highlighter (I know, supporting stereotypes, etc., it was lazy). The results were not pretty.

I was frankly surprised at how few of the papers I had cited were by women. I knew it wouldn’t be 50/50 for a lot of reasons (discussed below), but I didn’t think it would be that bad.

I basically proved to myself that in order to cite women, you have to do it on purpose. Just not intentionally excluding them isn’t enough.

It’s like how colorblind policies don’t work. Not intentionally doing harm is not the same thing as not doing harm. As Evelyn Carter writes about claiming to be colorblind with respect to race, “if you ‘don’t see’ race, but you say you care about inclusion, how can you advance inclusion efforts that will effectively target communities of color?”

There is a lot of unconscious bias and systematic barriers that lead us to contribute to inequality. Working for equality and to recognize contributions made by women and minorities means actively working to overcome those unconscious biases and systematic barriers.

Shifting the Balance

After my discouraging experiment with the highlighters, I went through the paper and looked at the places I had cited different work. In some places, I was able to find a paper by a woman that I could cite instead – and often even one that supported my point even better than the paper I had cited originally.

That was the most delightful aspect of this task I had set out for myself: I discovered papers in my core area of study, that were by women and that I had never read. And they were really good and very interesting!

The point of reading and citing work by women isn’t just to check boxes and give women a fair shot at career metrics. The main reason is to do better science. Science is creative; it involves having ideas, being exposed to new things, thinking outside whatever box you’re in. Reading work by more different people will necessarily help that process.

I’m really glad that I found these new-to-me papers.

As I discussed with a different colleague later, a lot of this issue comes down in part to poor citation practice, which is endemic across academia. We cite something because everyone else cites it, even though maybe we haven’t read the whole paper. Or we cite something because it’s already in our reference library and we are in a hurry. I’m completely guilty of this, and I’m quite sure everyone else I work with is, too.

If we spent more time reading, and more time looking for and getting familiar with other work that’s related to what we’re doing, I think all of our papers would have much more diverse author lists – at least in terms of evenness and not being dominated by the famous people in our field.

Our papers might also just simply be better, because of all the ideas we would be having.

Don’t Worry, I’m Still Citing Men

After this citation overhaul, my reference list was still majority male first authors. You need to cite what is relevant, and in a lot of cases this work is by men. One reason is that over the history of ecology, there is a lot more work published by men than by women, especially the farther back you go. [4]

Plus, if you need to cite a classic paper, it doesn’t matter who it’s by. That’s the one you need to cite. That’s a second thing. [5]

And likewise, if you need to cite something about your specific study organism or system, there might be only a handful (or a few handfuls) of people in the world who publish on this very specialized niche. They are who they are. If you need to cite peer-reviewed literature, you may have limited choices, and you need to cite the best and/or most relevant work out of that array. [6]

So there are a lot of reasons you can’t just take your reference list and manipulate it towards 50/50 gender equality. I want to make it completely clear: I am not advocating for a departure from citing good and relevant science!

When I mentioned this idea to colleagues – that citing women was a seemingly small, basic thing that we could do in our everyday lives as scientists to make a difference in structural biases – some were deeply uncomfortable that if they sought out work by women, then they would have to leave out other papers.

Listen: there is so much research out there, it boggles the mind. It’s growing exponentially. It’s insane. And in no paper do we cite all the possibly important research on a topic. We’re going to leave things out anyway. It’s just that now, we seem to be structurally leaving out work by women. Again, to overcome this bias is going to require intentionality. This is not a problem that we can just hope will go away because we are good people and don’t mean to cause harm.

No matter what we do, we’re going to keep citing a lot of great research by men.

Tokenism?

Among women, there was another layer. Many of the women I talked to did not want to be cited just because they were women and someone needed to move their reference list towards gender parity. They wanted to be cited because someone genuinely thought their research was the best and most relevant.

And I get that. I was invited to give a talk once because the organizer was looking for a replacement female speaker after the originally-invited woman couldn’t participate. I was so excited for this opportunity, but at the same time it felt weird to get it explicitly because they were looking for a woman.

I’m not sure what to do with this concern, but I think it comes back to proper citation practice. Is your work relevant to the topic, and being cited correctly? Then you deserve to be cited. If papers by women are accepted less often and cited less often, then part of the reason you are not currently being cited might be simply because someone isn’t familiar with your work.

And The Inevitable Question, Does Quality Limit Equality

Finally, we had some conversations about whether this might be because women’s work just wasn’t as good as men’s.

It’s pretty hard to assess that (although the paper I started this blog post with tried to, by using journal impact factor as a covariate).

I have two thoughts. One is that I doubt it’s true. There was an interesting graphic and paper that went around Twitter – about economics, not ecology – showing that papers by women are better written than those by men, that women incorporate reviewer comments more often, and that they improve at presenting information over the course of their careers.

It’s provocative and I’m not sure if it’s also true in my field or not, but I believe it. I think we are culturally trained from a young age to try to please, and so we might be likely to try to pacify reviewers, and to make a revision extra perfect if it was rejected the first time around.

Also, in the sciences, women have to be better to be evaluated as being as qualified as men.

Second, about the content. If it is possible that the data and experiments presented by women are less strong, why might that be?

It is interesting to think about how structural problems would lead to this. Could it be because women get less funding to do their research, and thus might have less resources or support? Could it be that women are asked to do more departmental service and teaching, and have less time to do research?

If the research really is worse – which I’m not convinced it is, but there’s little way to objectively assess, at least not for a dataset of any size – this very well might be a result of the same structural issues that cause the citation patterns.

What Next

What do you think about this? Are there any other ways to work on this problem?

Notes

[1] Impact factor is not a perfect measure of journal quality. It is an estimate of how often work there gets cited, which is a traditional metric for how important it is. For any individual paper, the impact factor of the journal it is published in doesn’t say much about the quality of that paper. However, I think it was the best covariate the authors could find to control for the differences in quality between papers when comparing men’s and women’s outcomes. Also, for better or for worse scientists pay attention to impact factors, so it may affect citation practice even if it’s not an actual metric of “quality” per se.

[2] I have an interesting, harebrained idea about this: if papers by women are less likely to be accepted, do good papers with women as last authors end up in lower-impact journals? That could explain why the better-cited papers from those journals are by women. Totally spitballing here.

[3] Citations shouldn’t define one’s value as a scientist, colleague, or employee anyway, but… that’s a discussion for another day.

[4] Is it really though? Women probably contributed to many important ideas. They typed the manuscripts. Maybe they did some of the work. There are tons of cases in science where people had the same idea independently, and one person got famous, and the other didn’t. Sometimes both these people were white men. I’m guessing there’s a lot of times when some of these people were women, minorities, scientists from outside Europe and North America, and people who were/are otherwise excluded from the elite science community.

[5] Given what I just wrote, I think I – and we all – need to put more effort into finding papers that were written around the same time as the famous ones that “came up with” ideas, and represent contributions of the community-building of those ideas by other people.

[6] When you’re looking for very specific things, there might be a lot of important and relevant data in theses and lower-impact papers by students who did not continue in science. This is valuable literature to search for, and might expand what you think the contributions of women and minorities are, given that these people are less likely to continue in academic careers either by choice or by exclusion.

Ganghoferlauf 50k and Feeling Like A Skier

At the finish of the Ganghoferlauf classic marathon. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

Wednesday night I couldn’t fall asleep.

We were supposed to leave on Friday to go to Austria for a Saturday ski race, and the forecast was for rain all day on race day. Would there even be snow left, after the crazy-long warm snap that we’ve had plus even more rain? Would I make it through 50 k of being out in the rain? Should I just bag the trip if it was going to be miserable?

Racing isn’t my whole life so these questions shouldn’t have weighed so heavily, but the next 48 hours provided me with so many highs and lows.

I traveled to Austria. I was disappointed with the ski conditions. I loved our hotel setup! I despaired about the wax. I had a really fun 25 k of racing! I felt so alone and discouraged and stopped dead in the middle of the trail to eat a snack. I got my motivation back and careened another 25 k around the course, stuffing my mouth with Clif ShotBloks along the way.

I felt like a skier. That was the best part, the highest high.

And then, when I crossed the finish line exhausted, a guy asked to take my picture. Sure, why not? I smiled, with the Tirolean Alps in the background. As the shutter clicked, I heard the announcer.

“And this is, from Switzerland, Chelsea Little, she is the third woman to come into the finish after 50 k.”

What?

After all that angst, it turned out to be a very good day.

***

I’m not good at giving up on things, but the idea of skipping the race really was going through my head mid-week. I didn’t know what to do. I’d imagined this classic marathon, the Ganghoferlauf, as my season finale. It looked like it was literally going to rain on my parade.

By Thursday the forecast had changed, and it looked like it would be right around freezing and with a light snow at the start, warming up to the mid-40’s and sunny over the course of the race. How do you wax for that?

I’m not good at giving up on things so I got on the train on Friday, but somehow things didn’t get better once we got to Leutasch.

Midwinter skiing this ain’t. Note all the dirt in the snowbank in the left foreground.

I tested klister on Friday afternoon and nothing felt good. My skis alternately slipped and iced up. The snow was basically slush and as we ate dinner, it rained some more. Completely saturated. Lovely.

I had figured I could buy some of the appropriate wax at the expo when I picked up my bib, but there wasn’t really an expo (or a ski shop within a kilometer). The small collection of the klister in my wax box was all I had to work with: Swix base green, KR 45 purple, and one each of Toko green, blue, red, and yellow. Because I’m not good at giving up on things, before bed I re-applied the KR45 and Toko red to one ski each of my test skis – not at all confident either of these things would work the next day – and a thin layer of base green on my race skis.

“Shit, I really wish I had a riller,” I lamented.

“A what?” Steve asked.

“Never mind.” Right. Riller is not a word used by 99.99% of the human population.

Miraculously, I managed to get a good, deep sleep.

I woke up to the fact that it had frozen overnight, which was actually more than I had dared hope for. The tracks would be fast, so I reasoned that I’d have to suffer for much less time than if it had been slush from the start, like I’d been imagining.

But after eating a quick breakfast and hopping on my test skis, I found that both the KR45 and the Toko red were grabby and iced up. Not good. I was practically falling down on the flats they were so grabby. I tried covering them with a warm hardwax, but then I couldn’t kick up the hill.

I saw a fast-looking young woman out testing wax, but she was discussing with her coach/wax tech and was clearly testing more options. I haven’t had a team in years and this was a problem I needed to figure out on my lonely own.

Thinking about the forecast, I picked the KR45, crossed my fingers that the snow would stay relatively frozen, and heated it into a pretty layer on my race skis using the hotel room hairdryer. And then I went to the start.

The days leading up to the race had been so stressful as the weather forecast changed constantly. I was also mentally exhausted from a very intense three-day retreat with my research group. It was a gray damp morning. I had zero confidence in my skis. I have to say, I really did not want to do this race.

Then the gun went off, and the race started.

***

I’ve had a weird year of ski racing, and really of skiing. There was no snow early, so I bagged the race I had planned to do in December because I hadn’t even been on skis once. Then in January I went to Cortina, Italy, to do the Toblach-Cortina 35 k, but it was canceled.

The Ganghoferlauf 50 k was what I picked to make up for that race. A few years ago I went to Seefeld (just a few kilometers away) for the Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, back-to-back 60 k’s where I did the skating and classic races. They were very well organized, on fun trails with beautiful views. So when I was looking for a late-season classic race in central Europe, it was pretty appealing to go back. I booked a spot in Leutasch.

The race start. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

And as we headed off the line, I felt like I had made a good decision. There were plenty of classic tracks for the first kilometer or so, and I easily had room to pass people despite starting near the back of the pack.

Very early, after about a kilometer and a half, we hit the biggest climb of the whole race. It was steep and long and much of the field immediately got out of the tracks and started herringboning their way up it, occasionally tangling up with each other.

I stayed in the tracks to the right. My purple klister, which an hour earlier when I was testing had been a disaster, was fantastic. I just strided past people and probably had a big grin on my face because I seriously couldn’t believe my luck. Out of a pretty limited wax box, it seemed like I had nailed it.

A kilometer later on the first downhill, I realized that not only was my wax not so grabby that I’d be falling down, but my glide job was also decently fast.

This was going to be fun. In the space of just a few minutes, my entire perspective shifted.

I cruised around the course, and after skiing through a rolling meadow system for about eight kilometers, we hit the flats of the bottom of the Leutasch valley. I was still skiing with packs of people, and just trying to hold a steady pace. At some point, we started up the hill and into the forest on the other side of the valley, and zig-zagged up and down smaller climbs for a few kilometers.

On the downhill of one of these zags, I caught a woman I had seen in front of me for the whole first 15 k of the race. We double-poled along the flat for a while, and after two more sets of uphill zigs and zags, caught another woman.

For the last seven kilometers of the 25 k loop, the three of us skied together, with the occasional guy trying to jump in between us, as they usually do. It was really fun. Johanna and Sanne – our names were on our bibs, so I weirdly felt like I got to know them – were good skiers. They were fun to follow and we had our own little race dynamics doing on, especially through the “Waldloipe” forest loop that had lots of fun ups and downs, twists and turns. Sometimes one of them would sprint over the top of a hill, but the other two of us would usually catch up.

As we looped back through the start/finish area, Sanne pulled away, and then I watched as she and Johanna turned left.

They were doing the 25 k.

Crap.

***

After I signed up for this race, I was describing it to Steve, and mentioned that it was a two-loop 50 k.

“When you have to ski straight past the finish and go out on a second loop, that’s going to be so terrible,” he said, already half laughing at my future anguish.

And oh boy, was he right.

A view from the 8 k meadow loop, the day before the race.

I’d had so much fun skiing with those two women, and I had worked pretty hard to stay with them over the last few kilometers. Maybe it wasn’t the most clever thing to do halfway though a 50 k, but it had felt good. Except now they were gone, the sun had been out for half an hour, and the snow had turned from ice to slush. I was staring at the big climb again, and could barely see anyone in front of me. I turned around and saw only other skiers turning left.

Yes, this was despair.

I realized that I hadn’t eaten any solid food, and stopped and dug out a Clif bar. On a hunch, I had decided to race with my running vest, something I’d never really done before. I knew it would be hot by the end of the race and that I might need more hydration than usual, and it also gave me the chance to carry some klister in case my wax job sucked as the conditions warmed up.

Now, I was very relieved to have the vest because it had snacks in it. There were a few spectators on the side of the trail who weren’t sure how to cheer for me as I stood there eating a bar, but it was completely worth it.

The calories almost immediately made me feel better, and I tackled the hill. I was tired from my ill-advised battle with two 25 k skiers, but my skis definitely didn’t suck. (I later realized this was because my kickzone consisted entirely of pine needles, not that the KR45 was somehow still working.)

The course consisted of little finger-like loops, the zigs and zags up and down hills. Coming out of one such loop I saw that there was another woman coming out of the next loop. I had no chance to catch her – we were separated by maybe two kilometers – but it was nice to see here there.

And coming out of another loop, I saw two other women just beginning it. They were perhaps another two kilometers behind me. This provided some good motivation: they probably wouldn’t catch me unless I really ran out of steam, but this was a marathon so you never know. I had to keep pushing just in case.

For most of the second 25 k I was in no man’s land. I could see a guy in a pea-green suit ahead of me, and sometimes I got within 20 meters, but then he’d pull away again.

I kept drinking from my vest and eating snacks, and trying to push on through the deepening slush. I was striding on the flats because it was so slow, and it made my back hurt. Then there were the road crossings, where the crossing guards let cars through between racers and only sometimes shoveled snow back onto the road. I cringed for my poor race skis, which were surely going to have a permanent reduction in speed by the time the day was over.

By the time I made it through all the zigs and zags and around the Waldloipe – no friends to chase this time – I emerged into the big field to see that there was nobody behind me. It was a relief, because there was a kilometer of flat to go and I had no sprint in me.

I took a purposeful but relaxed double-pole to the finish, and was smiling by the time I crossed the line.

***

On the podium! (Photo by Steve)

It turned out that I was third (out of just 25 women) in the race, and won my entry fee back. It had been impossible to tell my place when I was racing because of all the 25 k racers mixed in with us. So it was a legitimate surprise to realize I was on the podium.

It was a very nice reward at the end of the season, and I got a funny antler trophy as a prize.

But the result was just gravy. The best part of the day was feeling like a skier.

As I wrote, it’s been a weird year for me for skiing. In some ways it has been great; I have done a fair amount of skiing in some of my favorite places, including making time before work once a week many weeks (okay, getting to work extremely late once a week many weeks…).

But I’ve raced a lot less than planned – the Ganghoferlauf was just my third race of the year. The first race was not a positive experience. The second race was pretty fun, but on my “home” tracks in Einsiedeln and quite low-key.

In this 50 k, I felt like I was competing. I had a blast skiing with the sixth- and seventh-place women in the 25 k. I was engaged and focused, using my technique and my strength.

And then came the hard part: going another 25 k alone. It was hard, but I did it!

I did it because I’m decently fit and I planned my training to be rested (physically, if not mentally) for this race.

I did it because I used my experience and logic and a little bit of luck to make good skis.

I did it because diagonal stride is my favorite.

I did it because I wanted to use every tool I had to get to the finish line fastest.

In that lonely loop, I still felt like a skier.

I live in a city where it rarely snows, but skiing is what I love. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a skier anymore because I can’t ski out the backdoor and I don’t have a team or skier training buddies. Sometimes I get to the ski trail and I feel uncoordinated and floundering. Or I get to a race and I look at all the skinny, strong, fast-looking people in trendy ski gear with this year’s skis and boots, and I feel like I’m not one of them.

Those aren’t the things that define who is a skier and who isn’t, but sometimes it feels like it.

When I get to feel like an actual skier – which I am – it’s the best feeling.