Saturday, December 10, 2016

Connections and Climbing: Andrea Fellenz on a new journey

For a lot of good reasons, Boulders Climbing Gym is a special place. Lots of people come and go, and lots have been there long enough to be a part of its blueprint of change. I don't really remember ever not knowing Andrea Fellenz - she's one of the most positive females I enjoy, and certainly one I admire for strength and setting routes. When I learned she was pregnant and saw her climbing while pregnant, I was just really, really excited for her, for Ben, for the community. I wanted to check in with her - selfishly, to get her pregnancy and birth story in writing, but also just to get to know her since our paths mostly crossed as climbers. I learned some big things and a few little things - like her vice being beer with dinner and she indulges in chocolate ice cream, but my favorite part of this interview are her stories about swimming and mountain biking. Enjoy! -Vera

An outdoor life as a child led to love of nature as an adult 

How about some background info? 

I was born and raised in New York, growing up in a suburb of New York City. I went to college at Colgate University, (located in central NY) where I majored in biology. After graduation I spent a year working at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland before heading to graduate school in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Grad school is what brought me out to Madison. I never imagined I would stay in Wisconsin after school, but I found a place that really felt like home and people I love, so I have never considered leaving. After finishing my masters degree I started working full time in the same lab that I did my graduate work in. Since that time I have changed positions but still work at the University. My position is part of the Primate Center, offering services to support research in virology. Our work mainly supports research in AIDS, Influenza and Zika virus.

Favorite childhood memories that turned into life lessons? 

Hiking Zion National Park
I have lots of great childhood memories. As a child we spent lots of time hiking and playing outdoors which has certainly influenced who I’ve grown up to be. I think is extremely important to nurture a love of and respect for the nature/outdoors. When I was little (2 or 3) my dad was training for a big backpacking trip. He would always take me hiking with him. He says I was good training weight for his pack. He could hike with me sitting on his shoulders. He says this worked out great except that I would complain about someone having sweaty shoulders.
As a child I loved swimming, and to be perfectly honest, imagined myself to be a pretty fast swimmer. I always wanted to be on a swim team and race competitively. When I got into high school I finally had the opportunity to join my school’s swim team. First, I was amazed at how physically exhausting the practices could be, and how sore it made me, but I loved it anyway. As our first meet approached I was very nervous. How would this race go? I had already realized that I was not the best swimmer out there, but I still wanted to do well. I hadn’t yet figured out what my best stroke or distance was, and in the meantime my coach put me in the 200m freestyle, which seemed long to me. I worried about the race the whole day. By the time we got to the meet I was a nervous wreck. I remember climbing onto the starting block barely able to catch my breath. 8 laps seemed like forever. I remember the starting gun going off. I can still remember how cold the water felt and the really disappointing feeling of my goggles rolling down my face and catching around my neck. That race did feel like forever. I was exhausted (I hadn’t yet learned how to pace myself) and disappointed, but I was determined to finish. I was really happy when it was over and I knew things would have to get better than this race. I learned a lot from swimming and being part of a team through the years. From that day I learned the importance of working hard and sticking with something, even if the race is not going well and you can’t see a thing because your goggles are wrapped around your neck. The afterword would say that I did eventually find the events I was good at and stuck with swimming through high school and college. Even though I don’t swim regularly anymore I do really miss it. 

Thoughts on education and school - is there a difference? Who mentored you and what's cool about the work you're doing now? 

There is definitely a difference between school and education, though I believe both are very important. School provides materials to teach you how to learn, and follows a certain curriculum. I think education, in addition to schooling also encompasses learning life skills, common sense, life experiences, and learning how to survive in the world. The two can and hopefully do overlap quite a bit, but education goes well beyond the classroom. I feel that I was very fortunate growing up where I did. My parents made sure they lived in a town that had excellent schools. A lot of value was put on education there, and as a result I had a lot of excellent teachers (and a few that were not so great). It is hard to pick one from grade school that stands out above the rest, especially since it was so long ago. 

I was particularly close with my college advisor, and he was influential on my life. I first met him when I took his molecular biology class. I thought he would make a good advisor and I was interested in his research, so I worked in his lab for several semesters. He later told me that at Colgate they usually don’t allow sophomores to work in the labs and (standard practice here at UW though) the other professors thought he was crazy, but he took a chance on me anyway. This was the start of what would later become my career. Aside from giving me that opportunity, my advisor was someone I could talk to and get advice from. He taught me all the basics about working in a lab. In fact, when I look at the good habits I have developed for working in the lab, most of them came from him. He helped me figure out what I was going to do with my life and how to do it. I can also credit him with first exposing me to the Grateful Dead. I don’t know if there was ever a bigger fan.

My job can be very interesting and varies from day to day. I love that it involves problem solving and figuring out how to make new assays work. Learning new things about diseases is fascinating and it is rewarding to think that it may help ameliorate these diseases. I am also very fortunate to work with a wonderful group of people, which certainly makes a job much better. People who are interested in science should certainly consider a job like mine, but if you are not passionate about it, it can also be very tedious and boring. It is definitely not for everyone.

Would love to hear about your pregnancy journey!

I was very lucky in that I had a pretty easy pregnancy. I knew even before I was pregnant that the hardest thing for me would be abstaining from my normal activities. Fortunately it turns out you can do a lot of things while pregnant. My doctors (and online research) were very encouraging about continuing to be active while pregnant (of course with some adjustments). I was really happy that I was able to continue running, though I did eventually slow down to an absurdly slow pace. I was able to bike, though I had to stop mountain biking by 5 months. I even biked to work the day before Fitz was born. I was also able to keep climbing throughout the pregnancy. 

In the beginning of the second trimester I switched from bouldering and lead climbing to only top-roping (and only in the gym). By the 3rd trimester I did notice a drop off in my ability to do certain things. For me it was hard not to get frustrated when I couldn't climb at my normal level, but I just reminded myself that this is a temporary setback, and it is totally worth it. In the end though I was just really happy that I was able to climb at all, so coming to the gym and doing a bunch of easy routes was fun for me. I found it helpful/inspirational to read some of Beth Rodden’s blogs and research on climbing while pregnant and while raising a young child. I also found it helpful to talk to some of the other women at Boulders (including Vera) about their experiences. People were very encouraging and supportive, which makes a huge difference.

And of course, your birth story?

Fitz’s birth was certainly exciting. We had low amniotic fluid levels, which complicated things. During labor his heart rate dropped a few times. Fortunately we were able to recover it quickly each time, but this led to urgency in delivering him. It seemed increasingly likely that we would need an emergency c-section. In the end, thanks to the excellent medical care we received we were able to avoid the c-section and Fitz was born safe and healthy. I didn’t know what to expect, so the whole process was somewhat surprising for me (and Ben). The hardest part was how scary it was when Fitz’s heart rate dropped. We were of course very worried each time. Aside from the low fluid levels complicating the delivery, things went relatively smoothly. Our doctors and nurses provided excellent care and made us feel safe and well taken care of. 

It is hard to explain how life has changed. The instant Fitz was born I knew things would never be quite the same. Fitz has already brought so much love and joy to our lives! We are adapting to life as parents and learning to put Fitz’s needs before ours. We are trying to do things as a family and not just as Ben and Andrea.  

What did you imagine you'd be doing at this point in life? 

I don’t know that I ever had a specific plan. It was not all that long ago though that we wondered whether we would have a child. We both always thought we would want to have a family but were waiting for the right time. We have been very happy and were hesitant to make any changes. Then we decided that the only thing we were missing was a child. The next thing we knew, our family has grown and our lives have changed for the better!

What makes you stop and go "Wow!"

Lots of things, but given my recent life changes, I would have to say my son Fitz and all the little things he does.

High point in climbing or other sport/recreational thing? Low point? 

As much as I love climbing, my first love is actually mountain biking. In fact, I think to some extent my love of mountain biking holds me back in climbing. Unfortunately, both activities are done outside on nice days. Most times when I have to choose I will go mountain biking.  I have a single story that included high and low points. 

For years I had a goal of biking a century (100 miles). I had always thought I would do that on my road bike, but one day I decided that it would be more fun and more challenging to do it on my mountain bike. I chose a 100 mile race, the Mohican Trail 100 and registered myself and my husband Ben. For the next 6 months, I dreamed about crossing the finish line after having ridden 100 miles, mainly on single track, and how happy I would be to have completed that. Of course that year we had a particularly wet spring, preventing us from doing many long rides leading up to the race. The course ended up being a lot hillier and substantially harder than I imagined. Somewhere around 50 miles into the race I bonked pretty hard. 

In my discouraged state I started calculating the miles I had left to go and the time cuts and started to think I might not be permitted to finish. (I knew there was no way I would make the decision to quit, but if I didn’t make the time cut I would be stopped along the way). In my disappointment I cried a little. 

Then I took a deep breath, determined that crying and being disappointed was not going to help, so I started walking quickly while eating some shot blocks. I got back on my bike and focused on turning over the pedals. I knew I just had to keep trying and hopefully I would make up some time. Once the sugar from the shot blocks took effect I felt a lot better. I focused on pedaling as fast as my legs would allow. It also turned out that the next few miles were easier than the previous miles, so I did in fact make up a lot of time. 

All of a sudden I found myself at the final aid station with only about 10 miles to go. I was so exhausted I could barely pedal but I knew there was no way I wouldn’t finish the 100 miles now. I was so happy and relieved! I will never forget crossing the finish line. I was so proud. 

In fact, I think I was even happier about it after having felt so close to failing. I remember crossing the line and looking for Ben (who was of course standing in line at the beer truck) to make sure he saw me. I specifically remember the announcer calling out my name and commenting on how I was one of the few people who finished the race with a smile on her face. I don’t know how you could finish any other way! 

What's your music of choice? 

Pearl Jam has always been one of my favorite bands. I think this is partly because the first concert I ever went to was Pearl Jam, when I was 16. It was a great experience and I have loved them ever since. Bruce Springsteen is another fave. Born in the USA was the first album I ever owned (on vinyl). I generally like classic rock, 90s grunge music and bluegrass.

Top ten things that make you uniquely "you?"

My determination/stubbornness, enthusiasm, my energy, my smile, the experiences that have shaped me, passion for outdoor activities, work ethic, joy for life, and I was born with 6 fingers on my left hand.

What makes you feel grateful? 

Ben and Fitz, loving and supportive family and friends, our dog Spike, jobs that allow us to lead the life we want (they pay enough and give enough time off/flexibility), and vacations. 
Thank you again, Andrea!