Running the boroughs of New York City

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Looks like in the context of running 2019 will be huge! I was drawn for the BMW BERLIN MARATHON 2019. It was my second attempt. I applied to start in 2018 without luck. This time over, I got in and on September 29th, 2019 with about 50000 other runners we will jam the streets of Berlin.

This means that upcoming nine months will be filled with a lot of training. Meanwhile though, I thought that it would be nice to walk down the memory lane and tell you about the most amazing running experience I had so far: The New York Marathon. This post is based on journal entries written on the next day after the marathon. So, it was cold and rainy Sunday, November 5th, 2017…

Before the start

The emotions were high and the adrenaline level was enormous. My plan was quite simple. I wanted to run at 4:30, I felt for 4:30 and, after the Wroclaw marathon two months earlier, I had a vague idea how to make it. What I did not take into account were the New York bridges and nasty uphill parts that devastated most amateur runners, including myself… but let’s start at the beginning. On Sunday, very early in the morning.

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My runner’s set. Everything was ready and waiting in the evening the day before. Everything was possible thanks to the substantial support of my alma mater – the Wroclaw University of Science and Technology.

To get to the starting line on time I had to get up at 5:00. Just in time to bite something and jump on the subway at 6:00. Twenty minutes later I was at the ferry terminal from which the ferry to Staten Island was departing every couple of minutes, taking hundreds of runners right to place where the race shall began few hours later. The famous orange ferries were not only the most convenient way of getting to the starting line, but also very photo-attractive. They carried people next to the Statue of Liberty and we were all able to admire the morning panorama of lower Manhattan. At the other side, all runners were directed to the buses going to Fort Wadsworth, where all runners needed to wait for their turn. Logistics and flow management of 60,000-70,000 people takes time, so even though I was on the ferry at 7:00, I got off the bus quite late, at about 9:00. It didn’t really bother me much. My start was scheduled at 11:00 and the alternative to that long ferry/bus ride was just standing in cold rain for additional couple of hours. Not fun.

In the waiting zone spirits were high. People seemed excited, still the tension was leaking everywhere. Five, maybe six helicopters overhead shook the atmosphere (NYPD, media …). Free coffee, bagels, energy bars and hundreds of toi-tois were available on demand. If someone needed some help to relax before the start, there were therapeutic dog booths here and there. There was a lot of time to talk to other runners and meet some interesting people.

The runners were divided into three groups (Blue, Orange, Green), which started in successive waves (Wave 1-4) . For order, each Wave was placed in six separate corrals (A-F). I gave up my bag of clothes (stashed for picking up after the run). and found myself with a pack of other runners at the start of Blue Wave 4 in Corral D. At the right moment, the wave (all corrals) approached the starting line. The anthem, the cannon shot … and we went!

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Excited crowd on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

All the way to Manhattan

The run took off calmly. It takes time to get into proper rhythm and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was perfect for such warming up. The first few miles were rather quiet, because there was no cheering on the bridge. The helicopters were flying overhead. People took pictures of themselves and vigorously pushed forward. The crowd was quite dense, so I used this first bridge establish my pace. For this I used the paper pace calculator on my wrist. It was just a strip of paper with printed times and distances necessary to follow in order to finish the run in 4:30. It was a nice idea, but it was calibrated in miles, so coming from Poland I was initially a bit confused. Fortunately,  before the bridge was over, I found myself another runner to follow. He was wearing a t-shirt from some club of blood donors and ran perfectly steady for 4:35. For the first hour we went head to head. Unfortunately, after the fifth mile, in the middle of Brooklyn, he decided to go for a technical break (pee) and that was the last time I saw him.

In the meantime it started to rain…

At this point, I have to mention the cheering, which was simply sensational in Brooklyn. Crowds, crowds, crowds. Screaming, chanting, giving high-fives, playing music. The support method changed gradually. Details varied depending on which part of Brooklyn we were in. At Greenpoint, of course, we were welcomed by Polish flags and Polish music. Throughout the route, people shouted, served on their own food, bananas or other sweets. In general, the media estimated the number of supporters to be above one million.

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Green, narrow, and crowded streets of Brooklyn.

The idyll lasted until the Pulaski Bridge, which led us to Queens. Up to 25 km I was running steadily for 4:30. Well, maybe  a little faster, because I wanted to earn couple of  minutes to spare later. I expected to lose them anyway in the last kilometers of the race. After losing my first running partner (the blood donor), I found in the crowd a girl named Jessie. She ran for approx. 4:20, almost exactly as I needed. The plan was good and it worked until the Queensboro Bridge. At this point, I slowed significantly. Unfortunately, Jessie did not manage to keep up the pace as well. That was how I lost my second pacemaker. I managed not to stop running, but at the bridge hundreds of people gave up and started to walk. The slope was really challenging.

Suddenly, we found ourselves in Manhattan. Seventeen kilometers (and some) to the finish line. Time was around 2:11…

Hitting the wall…

It is different for different runners, but for most of amateur marathoners the real challenge starts at approx. 25-26th kilometer. It is the moment where the infamous wall hits. In New York my grit was tested right at the Queensboro Bridge and afterwards. Fortunately, the Queensboro Bridge took us to Manhattan giving the so desired motivation. The finish line seemed to be so close! You can see on the map that the bridge is next to the 60th street, so exactly on the same block on which the finish line is located. But it was not the end yet! Right after the bridge, the route took a sharp turn and took us north along the 1st Ave. The wall felt terrible, but the cheering of the crowds here was overwhelming. People were holding motivating signs or wearing big pictures of their favorites printed. You could hear cow bells. The signs saying “go on random stranger!” were really inspiring. It was really needed support, because right after the Queensboro, we had to run 75 blocks north (all the way to the 135th), through the next bridge, to Bronx!

On the 1st Ave I began gradually loosing my strength. My average rate decreased from 6:08 per kilometer to 6:30. It was still raining. At the 18th mile there was a little surprise in the form of a fire in the building adjacent to the marathon route. Although the situation was taken under control very quickly, part of the marathon route was occupied by a fire brigade and a very distinct stench of burning was hanging in the air. The organizers approached the matter very seriously and informed the runners well in advance about the situation on the route. I got a message and an e-mail when I was running through the Queensboro Bridge, that at about 18th mile there is “temporary obstruction” and that I should be ready for a break on the run! Fortunately, no one stopped us.

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Towards Upper Manhattan and Bronx.

Willis Ave Bridge which led us to Bronx was not as murderous as Queensboro, but my legs felt it anyway. I entered the phase when running is no longer purely  physical challenge but also the mental one. “I can, I can, I can do it …”, “go, go, go …”. It got even darker because of dense clouds. Despite everything, I ran through Bronx fairly quickly. Someone handed me sweets, and someone else gave me a high-five with hand smeared with cold balm for muscle pain (brilliant idea!). Desired moment of relief.

We needed to return to Manhattan, yet one more bridge was waiting for us. Some guy stood next to it, holding a hand-written sign saying “the last damn bridge!”, to which everyone reacted with laughter and applause. The final fight began at the last five miles, when we ran into the famous 5th Avenue. Especially in one particular location, at about 38 km, where the Central Park begins. There is a small but long ascent. On the distance of about one and a half kilometers, the elevation raises over 20 meters! Normally it should not be a difficult challenge, but after four hours of running in the rain the conditions are no longer normal. It started at the height of 102nd street, and the ground slowly raised all the way until the 60th street. Along the Fifth Avenue, my pace has dropped to more than 7:00 per kilometer. I lost all extra minutes I had earned earlier, and then some. From 4:30, it pushed me to 4:45.

The finish line was about there. The rain was heavy, shoes were soaked, clothes were soaked, my glasses needed wiping every few minutes, and the finish was not there. We turned into the 60th street, then another turn and, finally, the finish line… but first, the last 400 meters were sharp uphill! But this was the last surprise hurdle, and then … success, joy, and a happy ending to this story!

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The next day, the New York Times posted a list of finishers. Here I am!

 

The next Top 500 Innovators’ networking event is coming! Save the date!

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Panel discussion during the Top 500 Innovators (Stanford 2012) reunion in Poznan.

Several weeks ago our group of Top 500 Innovators Alumni conducted a little reunion. It has been six years since our group of forty researchers and technology transfer experts was sent to California to study scientific management and commercialisation at Stanford University. It was an amazing experience, and we gained a lot of practical skills there. I mentioned a few in this post.

The more I think about it, the more I see that the most important result of our stay in the USA is the network that we formed. Six years have passed. We all got older (hopefully wiser) and many of the bonds that we developed in Palo Alto are still strong. Our little reunion in Poznan felt like family gathering during Christmas!

Academics are a very interesting tribe. Entrepreneurs value networking as an important skill and tool. By comparison, academics are (on average) shy, quiet, introverted, and prefer to schmooze with other academics from similar fields of expertise. Contrary to entrepreneurs, scientists often need to be convinced that reaching towards a wider audience offers some value.

The truth is: networking as a scientist is neither simple nor easy. The language of science is not exactly inclusive and demands a lot from listeners. Journal articles are not that easy to read and understand. Keynote speeches at conferences are often difficult to comprehend (still easier than papers). Unfortunately, innovation and modern scientific development thrives on interdisciplinary networks that reach beyond the twisted corridors of the ivory tower.

We must learn how to network, network extensively, and most importantly network effectively. The best institutionalised examples of networks are the COST Actions, but there is a tactic suitable for everyone. The books and experts always advise to keep in touch with peers. All the time, not only when they are needed for something. Sounds like an introvert’s worst nightmare, but is it really that hard to pay a visit from time to time, eat lunch, or just make a call? For those who need some encouragement, there are also networking events…

Perhaps this is why I am so excited about the next Top 500 Innovators’ Meet-Up that will take place in May 2019 in Wroclaw. It will not only be an occasion to see all those friendly faces, but also and opportunity to strengthen and expand our network.

With a group of friends we are about to form the organising committee and create the framework for a two-days event aimed at researchers, entrepreneurs, and technology transfer experts. You don’t have to be the member of the Top 500 Innovators Alumni in order to participate and benefit from keynotes, workshops, and dinner table discussions. With a bit of luck some new unexpected areas for collaboration might emerge.

Save the date May 9-10th, 2019 and stay tuned. We will let you know more soon!

Two extraordinary books that impressed me this summer (and will delight you too!)

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Summer holiday is always a good opportunity to catch up on some reading. Indeed, I read a few good books during summer months, but there were two exceptional ones that really resonated with me. I would like to share them with you.

Olga Tokarczuk’s “Bieguni” (“Flights”)

“Bieguni” is not really a new book. Published first in 2007 and awarded with the Nike Award in 2008 was recently brought back into spotlight. Translated to English, it was awarded in 2018 with the Booker Prize, a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK. I read the Polish original, but many critiques and reviewers say that the translation is similarly exceptional.

“Bieguni” (“Flights”) takes you on a journey along with mystery travelers. The book is  named (the original title) after a fictional sect of Slavic nomads who endlessly wander the planet. It tells stories about people from different times and places. The theme is travel, and the only constant here is continuous movement from place to place. Sometimes to unexpected spots far away from the beaten tracks, to dark corners of human soul, right next to twisted secrets of human existence. It is a captivating novel with distinct philosophical flair.

The stories are enchanting and intense. The characters are unique and special, driven by strange desires and hidden motivations are looking for answers in different times and places.

Those who spent their time at various airports will quickly identify and feel belonging to the constantly moving anonymous passing crowd. And right then, just after takeoff, the novel will grab and take you to some time and far away place to just to unfold yet another narrative. A must read.

Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”

Compared to the above mentioned book, this one belongs to completely different category. After several days of dreamy spiritual journeys, “Homo Deus” was a return to the world of science, knowledge, and reason. A sequel to Harari’s global bestseller “Sapiens” is in many ways worthy continuation to the awarded predecessor.

Chances are that you know other Harari’s masterpiece “Sapiens”. The book unveils the story of evolution and complicated history of humanity. “Homo Deus” takes the discussion even further. Using philosophy, history, sociology, in combination with the latest technological advances, Harari looks for the answer what might happen to us in the future. This is a challenging task because according to the author in the 21st century might bring the most profound change in the history – we might finally evolve beyond limitation of our minds and bodies. Will we achieve eternal life? Or rather, who will belong to the privileged cast of immortals? Undoubtedly our societies will change, religions will have to adapt to the new situation. Will the emerge of AI change everything? Those are only a few of many interesting problems discussed in this brilliant educating book.

And one final recommendation. My wife, who also finished this book few weeks ago, said that reading it was like spending an enjoyable evening with a wise friend who makes sure that you have great time and makes you feel smarter. I think this is the best summary of “Homo Deus”. Get a copy, make a tea, and find yourself.

I can’t do justice to these books, so to learn more take a look at much deeper and detailed reviews here and here.

What students and academics can learn from the greatest Polish athletes

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Storm clouds gathering above the Olympischer Stadium in Berlin during evening session of the European Athletics Championships

What an unbelievable success! Polish athletes showed in the last few days truly inspiring and motivating performance.

They taught us important life lessons on grit, determination, and hard work. Something we all can use, whether we are students, academics, or just human beings looking for inspiration. They showed us what high performers in any discipline need to understand to reach the highest level of skill and grab the prize.

Hard training

One of Polish newspapers had this headline: “many of the winners might not be well known, but they were surely working very hard.” Well. They are known now! The way how Paulina Guba (shot put) bravely reached and grabbed the title of European Champion will make everyone to remember her name!

Such success would not be possible without hours and hours of focused deliberate training. No one can win without proper skill, and to gain this level of skill it is necessary to clock enough hours first. Some say it is 10000, some claim it is more. The lesson is clear, you can’t get to the top unless you roll up your sleeves and work harder. The result? Just look at Justyna Swiety-Ersetic. On Saturday, she won gold medal and European Championship running 400 m, at the same time setting up her new personal best time. If this was not spectacular enough, less than two hours later she beautifully finished 400 m relay and won for her team another gold medal.

Well-thought-out strategy

Success is not only about skill and speed. To become master you need a good strategy. It is impossible to win 800 m finals a without a clear plan when to attack, when to save energy, when to hide, and when to pass your opponents. Down to every second. This is how Adam Kszczot became European Master third time in a row. His friends, his opponents, media, everyone calls him “the Professor”. Also, now you know why this story belongs to an academic-themed blog.

A bit of luck is also important

In the end, this is a still a competition. Very fierce one. Sometimes pure luck, an opponent’s mistake, random push, or even a second of doubt can cost you your precious advantage and ultimately lead to your defeat. There are some factors during the execution of your plan that you just can’t control.

Failure is always an option. Sometimes, passing a baton during relay will not go smooth enough and precious seconds will be lost. Sometimes, opponent will elbow you, and you lose your rhythm. What matters is how you fight despite the obstacles, and our athletes were fighting hard.

Congratulations! Thank you for the inspiration! Thank you for the motivation! You made us all proud! Chapeau bas!

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My .blog domain started to work properly today. This time over, instead of using my own hosting service, I just set up everything on wordpress.com. Have to admit, it was surprisingly easy to configure. Took me maybe half an hour to figure out domain mapping. Fifteen minutes later it was running smoothly. Enjoy!

Hello (again)!

I was wondering for quite a while what to write about. Is it a good idea to write a blog again? I already had a blog and kept it for several years. It was some time in 2003-2009, and it was all about my interests, self-development, and some curiosities related to science. It was written in Polish, and after a while the audience grew up to several hunders of readers. Looking back, I think it was quite an achievement to build a facebook page liked by 800 people, without any kind of plan, strategy, or concrete goal.

Without surprise, I burned out after a while. At that time I was in the middle of my PhD studies, and this period in academic life is, well… it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. My head was was spinning full of ideas, which I was eager to share. Yet, at that time so many blogs were popping up around the web that I started to lose my voice in all that noise. I found it was harder and harder to sound original, and whatever I wrote about, there was something similar already written somewhere. It was a great experience, but I cared too much and after a while it was not fun anymore.

Being slightly older and having slightly more mature view of the world, I found myself longing for that feeling of writing for an audience and to be able to share something. I decided to give it another shot. There will be some differences though. It is not that I don’t care. I am just more confident now, and I think that my experience and voice are more valuable now than before.

If by any chance you are familiar with my previous scribblings, I happily welcome you back. You might notice some similarities, but there will be differences. The most noticeable one is the language because this time I intend to write majority of posts (if not all of them) in English. Also, this edition will be a bit more professional than personal. I will tell stories related to my life as an academic and write about ideas, motivations, and tools that I value.

So, hello (again)!