Anyone familiar with the intense job of an Actuary understands the need for a counter-passion for their exhausted left brain. Endless information-gathering, analytics, risk assessment, and financial modeling doesn’t lend itself to the phrase “Chasing Joy.” Unless you are Melanie Dunn.
Meet Mel. Mel is an Actuarial Consultant, managing heavy business travel in a demanding professional field, who found ultra running as a way to reset her busy brain. Her long training hours on the trail have given her more than that reset and refresh. They have made her better at her job, and at managing life’s ups and downs. Here’s more from Mel, in her words.
Q: Mel, you are a 100%-ON kind of person. In work, in life, and in running. Case and point - you love to run 100-milers! Tell us about your athletic background and how you started ultra running?
My “athletic background” traces back to high school weekends spent on the couch watching TV reruns with my mom and eating junk food (our favorite was platters of french fries with melted cheddar cheese). I slowwwly picked up some exercise habits through my college and early career years, mostly because it gave me a sense of control as I waded through consulting stress, actuarial exams, relationship turmoil, and an on-again-off-again eating disorder.
A close friend told me about ultra running when she was training for one of the country’s hardest 50ks in the mountains of North Carolina. What still sticks in my mind about her stories is that she used to bring her fly fishing rod on her runs, because why not stop and fish mid run if the stream is calling to you?
Running and backpacking to the tops of mountains and deep into the woods is the first “athletic” pursuit that captivated me so thoroughly that I forgot my schedule or the pace I was supposed to run and chased joy instead. And chasing joy keeps bringing me off the roads and away from the city, back to long run days in the mountains where there’s time to jump in an alpine lake or river (though I still don’t fish).
Meanwhile my passion for cheese is completely unchanged, and 4 of 5 pieces of cheese quesadilla from an aid station is my favorite push to climb up the next mountain during a long race. (Thanks, Mom, for the early training and the iron-cheesy-fry-stomach.)
Q: As an Actuary, you are incredibly analytical. And as an Ultra Runner, you get a lot of time in your own head. Can you tell us how skills you’ve learned at your job have helped you develop as a runner?
The lessons of running have been transformative at my job. In a long race, like a 100-mile run, it is overwhelming to think about the entire distance to be covered, so instead I think about getting to the next aid station. I do the same at work, focusing on getting through a long week and knowing that I’ll get a chance to “reset” mentally before the next week.
As far as analytics go, I have to shake off every instinct that I have as an actuary to analyze and track metrics when I run. I have a sense of control at my job because there is a “right answer.” There’s a correct amount of premium that an insurance policy can charge to make sure that funds are available later to pay the benefit. But on a run, if I’m checking my watch for the “correct” pace or counting my mileage, it gets my brain clunking around in circles - like I accidentally put a tennis ball in the clothes dryer - and then there’s no room left in there for joy. Lately, I’ve taken to wrapping a buff around my gps watch, so I can look at my pace or mileage later, but I can’t see it while I’m running.
Q: Your work demands a lot from you, as does your training. What advice do you have for anyone struggling to set boundaries at work in order to take care of their mental and physical health?
Be flexible with the timing but firm with the demands. Never describe training as a concession your work should make for you, because it’s an investment that makes you a better version of yourself and hence a better employee. Don’t doubt it.
There are some refrains I go back to when I’m setting boundaries:
“I’ll handle this task tomorrow morning, because I’ll be more effective if I take a mental break and go for my training run.”
“I can reschedule my morning training run in order to take that early morning meeting, I’ll just need to leave the office by 5 that day to get the run in the evening.”
“My training keeps my stress levels low, which makes me so much more productive on a day-to-day basis.”
“I’m most effective when I’m training, because it keeps me mentally sharp and forces me to be proactive about scheduling and organization to make it all work.
Q: What are some challenges that you have in terms of your work-life balance - and what are your tricks for working through this?
Oh boy, how much time do you have?
My “100%-ON” personality doesn’t take naturally to setting boundaries from work. It’s natural for me to check email continuously and it’s frequent that I work through the whole weekend on a new assignment that has me interested or worried about the result. Since my tendencies are extreme, so is my strategy for handling them. I leave cell service to be in the mountains for days at a time as often as I possibly can. When I can’t do that, I schedule yoga classes to force me offline and encourage me to clear my head.
Another challenge is the tendency to spiral when work gets busy. Sometimes it feels like if I can't do the run I originally planned, it's not worth doing anything at all. This is an area where I think guidance from a coach could be helpful, to help me stay accountable or shift my schedule to still get valuable training, even if I don't have as much time as I hoped.
Q: Thanks so much for sharing your story, your passions, and your advice with us. I’d love to hear about some of your big athletic goals. What do you have brewing over the next few years that we should watch out for?
I’m not ready to announce anything specific, but let’s just say I’m *really* intrigued by Laz’s festivities in Frozen Head State Park.