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Spotlight on our Students: Chasing the Dream in Kenya

Mitch at the gate to Iten, Kenya.

“The UHP seminars and capstone project helped me develop reflection skills and learn how to think critically and break down problems in a pragmatic way.”

In this edition of Spotlight on our Students, we had to run to chase down recent graduate Mitch Rees-Jones about his training regime in Iten, Kenya where he is honing his skills in preparation for  USA Track and Field club cross country nationals. Mitch is a recent University Honors Program student from West Jefferson, North Carolina with a degree in Computer Science. Read on to learn more about his cross-country goals both on and off the track.

UHP: Mitch, so good to catch up with you. Your story sounds amazing. How long have you been a runner? And what inspired you to go all the way to Kenya to train?

MRJ: I’ve been running since middle school.

Last fall, I studied abroad in Cork, Ireland. My experience was largely defined by training with the Leevale Athletics Club, a cross country/track/road racing athletics club with some top-tier runners (think Olympians, top NCAA athletes, European Championships qualifiers), both current and past, to train with. At some point during the semester, it dawned upon me how much better my training could be if I took it more seriously. Then I wondered what my “ceiling” is, and the loftiest goal I could think of is qualifying for the Olympic Trials marathon. The B standard is 2:19, which is 5:18 mile pace. Compared to my current fitness level, this looks like an absurd goal. But, as Thomas Edison said, “If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves”.

I decided the best way to learn how to get way faster is to go to where the best runners in the world train, in Iten, Kenya. Look it up on Youtube. Iten is unique because it offers a window into the professional running world, even if you aren’t professional yourself. I’m here now for 2 months, still learning how to be a really good runner.

UHP: That sounds really intense. What do you want to learn most from your time in Iten?

MRJ: How to treat running professionally and how to consistently train injury-free at a high volume, because that is how I will reach my ceiling.

UHP: So learning how to push to your fullest potential. What would you say is the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far during this training?

MRJ: Talk is cheap. Training hard and recovering intelligently is valuable. Also, I’m going to have a harder time staying injury-free than other people at high mileage, so I will be doing more physio exercises and cross training than most.

UHP: What are some of the main challenges you’ve faced during your time in Kenya. I imagine there are many.

MRJ: Well physically, I got an overuse injury in my knee on the second day here. I learned that a balanced training plan, physiotherapy, sports massage, hip abductor strength, core strength, stability, and proper recovery are very important. In the meantime, I’ve been crosstraining as much as possible. I go to the gym 2-3 times a day.

Also, my jetting around the globe to pursue some abstract personal challenge just for fun somehow feels wrong once you see the poverty that exists nearby – you don’t have to go far outside Iten to find mud-walled houses and other signs of extreme poverty. Seeing this caused me to start doing some work with a school needing funding. You may hear about this soon.

UHP: Yes, there are real problems at every level that must be considered. Good to hear you are trying to help in some small way. How would you say your time in the University Honors Program has helped prepare you for this experience?

MRJ: The key result I need to see in my running within the next year is a consistent drop in my PRs (personal records). To achieve this rather abstract outcome, I need to reflect on my training and lifestyle to figure out what to improve and change. The UHP seminars and capstone helped me develop those reflection skills (especially Philosophy of Research) and learn how to think critically and break down problems in a pragmatic way.

UHP: Yes, break any problem down into small, actionable items and keep moving forward. That is the spirit. Changing gears a bit, can you tell us about the position you recently accepted at Facebook in Seattle?

MRJ: After completing 2 internships with Facebook, I was hired as a general software engineer. At this stage in my life, I’m optimizing for surrounding myself with the best people that I can, and Facebook engineers are absolutely top-notch. This played a role in my decision to work there. Another part of the decision was that Facebook currently has some very important social, ethical, and technical problems to work on.

UHP: Indeed. Hopefully, you can be a big help in that arena. In closing, what is the best bit of advice you’ve ever received?

MRJ: “You get out of life what you put into it.” – Dad