Monday, December 24, 2007

My Gym

I've been away from my blog. The following Piece was written in late October, 2007, about two weeks before I moved to Columbus, Ohio, about which I will more to say at another time.

I invite you to view some pictures of the Bally's indoor track I run at on my Web site. Allow time for the index page to load the thumbnails. From there you can click any one or scroll through them.

Sometimes a seemingly small event will have life-changing consequences, but we are unaware of it at the time.

On December 26th, 1994, I was on vacation, enjoying a year end break. The previous June I had rediscovered "jogging." At first I could barely run at all. By the end of the year I could run an hour and fifteen minutes without breaking to walk or cursing the day I was born. That was already a longer distance than I had run on any regular basis years before, during my first personal running boom, which began in 1977.

Prior to June 1994 I had also been struggling with weight. One day my wife tactfully pointed out that I wasn't looking as trim as I once did. She was right. By late December my weight had come down from a high of 220 to something still over 200. Like a thousand trombone players at the bottom of the ocean, it was "a good start."

Suzy has had a gym membership since before I knew her. I never paid much attention; she would just go do whatever she did. I hadn't been inside a gym since I was in college. At the time, Suzy went to US Swim and Fitness, which was later bought and renamed Bally's. USSF offered a plan where family members of existing customers could get free three-month trial memberships. Suzy suggested that I go with her the morning of that fateful day of December 26—it was the day after a holiday for many people—and afterward we could do other stuff we had planned.

I had no interest in the aerobics class she was in, but thought I'd try out the other resources. Somehow, I had never run on a treadmill in my life. But all the treadmills were full that day, since the day after that particular holiday gyms are typically jammed with people vowing to work off the consequences of their seasonal abuses.

But I discovered to my surprise that this gym had an indoor track. There was a sign posted that said it was 155 yards on the center white line, about 11.4 laps to a mile—not exactly a round number, but at least it one by which to measure activity from run to run.

To my surprise, I enjoyed loping four miles around that track, which on that day was crowded, then tried out some of the machines. In my college days we had only benches and free weights.

I had so much fun that I resolved to come back the next day—and the next, and the next. And I ran longer — and longer, and longer—often longer than a marathon, and on occasion as far as 42 miles in a single day.

I've been going to that gym five or six days a week ever since, without any breaks in training. In the process I became first a runner, then a runner who participates in races with "K" in them, then a half marathoner, then a marathoner, and in 1999 an ultramarathoner.

Over the years I did a great deal of training on that indoor track, with nearly the equivalent of three trips across the US in officially logged mileage, and at least another thousand in miscellaneous runs and walks of oddball distances that were not noted in my logs.

As I reflect back on it all, I recognize wistfully that going to that gym on that day became one of the three or four most significant turning points in my life, as it marked the time of my transition from overweight couch potato to healthy athlete in training.

Few people are as blessed as I have been with an opportunity to regain a measure of youthful vitality, along with the self-discipline to make it happen, after years of unhealthy neglect. When I started back, I was significantly overweight, with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, potentially a walking stroke or heart attack who might not be alive today if I hadn't taken the advice of my doctor to bring it under control. It is by far the commoner experience for people to drift from youth to premature death without a struggle.

It is having an appreciation of that reality that has led me to be adamant about exercise, particularly running. It's a priority in my life of equal stature with eating, sleeping, working, maintaining spirituality, and good relations with others. It's not optional, not ever. My insistence on making room for it has sometimes—though rarely—caused persons close to me, mostly persons who do little or nothing to care for their own physical health other than just to hope for the best, to wonder why I regard it as so important, and why I can't, for instance, just go to dinner with them at some exorbitant restaurant for gluttons after some affair in which I've done nothing but sit all day, until I have first gotten in a run. Runners understand. Others do not.

The time is rapidly approaching for me to say goodbye to the track at Bally's, and to the many people I have met and who know me there, as I am preparing to uproot the life I have cultivated for nearly thirty years to move across the country to Columbus, Ohio and a largely uncertain future. Therefore, yesterday, to create a photo memoir for my own pleasure, by means of which to recall the place where I have worked so hard for so many hours, I took my digital camera to Bally's at a low volume hour and discreetly took some pictures from which I created a slide show.

I'm getting older, I'm slowing down, a bit of the weight I lost (53 pounds at max) has returned, so has a bit of the cholesterol and the blood pressure, but I'm fighting it. I'm determined that I will never, ever go back to the way I was in 1994, not even in my new life in Columbus.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, October 25, 2007

San Francisco One-Day Race

This race report lacks literary merit. Besides being endocrine depleted, I'm too busy to make it any better. But some people are hoping to see some sort of a report from the San Francisco 24-hour race, put on by Wendall Doman and Sarah Spelt of Pacific Coast Trail Runs, so this is my public record.

Among my running goals for 2007 was to do a 24-hour race, and attempt to set a lifetime PR therein.

When setting that goal I had no idea that my life would soon be uprooted, that after nearly thirty years of living in Phoenix I would find myself at year end moving to another state far away and to another life. Such disruptions tend to put a dent in endeavors of lesser importance such as running. And so it came to be. But I'm not unhappy.

We arrived in San Francisco after a thirteen-hour drive, the last ninety minutes of which was the ten miles across the Bay Bridge, and from there to our motel in the last block of Lombard before Presidio, within walking distance of Crissy Field. We had just enough time to get delicious dinner at the Curbstone restaurant up the street, get my gear laid out, and get to bed. The hotel was cheap, but admirably clean and comfortable, with a great bed.

I slept exceptionally well for nine hours, probably because I was not stressed about the race, ready to accept whatever happened.

Getting up and out went as smoothly as possible. I settled for the coffee, orange juice, muffins, and fruit from the motel office for a pre-race meal, and we arrived at Crissy Field at 8:00 AM sharp.

For this race I made changes to my usual footwear arrangement. I taped the balls of my feet as always, but not my toes, and overlaid women's half height nylons, but with the toe end cut open. Then I added Injinji socks, worn for the first time in a race (I'd done a long run in them), gaiters, and my shoes (Asics 2120s), but without the prescription orthotics I've worn since 1996. This combination worked for me, as I had absolutely no trouble with blisters or any other sort of foot problem the whole race — a good thing, since I'm still missing two toenails, and the skin on the balls of my feet is still new and tender from my last race.

The park does not allow tents (I wouldn't have brought one for just a 24-hour) or personal tables, so setup amounted to joining a string of camp chairs heaped with bags. This worked just fine. I didn't plan on sitting down the whole race, though I wound up doing so anyhow.

I'd looked closely at the course using Google Maps, but it became clear only when I finally got a chance to look at it first hand. Being right on the ocean front, practically at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the path surrounding a beautiful lagoon, the setting couldn't have been more beautiful, particularly with the cool and cloudless weather we enjoyed. The temperature ranged between 60 in the afternoon and 52 at night.

Part of the course is on asphalt (Mason Street), the rest on well-packed dirt. At a distance of 1.0174 miles, a loop matches closely the distance at Olander Park in Sylvania, Ohio, another 24-hour course around a lake, and the one used in the Sri Chinmoy 6- and 10-day races in Queens, New York, both courses that many runners think are ideal in both length and ambience, even if dirt would have been easier on the legs than the asphalt.

It's always fun before a race to renew old acquaintances and connect a few new faces to names. Having spent now a total of 24 full 24-hour days of my life circling around various tracks, I've gotten to know quite a few of the people who participate in this mode of the sport. There were plenty of old friends to see. I also had the pleasure of being visited by subscribers to the Ultra List who were not running. In the evening I joined Karen Guenther for a few laps, mistakenly thinking she had come by to visit, but she was in the race. Karen showed up at 7:00 PM, ran 50 miles, then went home to shower work before heading off to a full day of work on Sunday morning.

My goals were as follows:
  • Plan A: PR (83.28-plus miles, set at Olander in 2001)

  • Plan B: 90 miles (89 laps would have done it)

  • Plan C: 90++ miles (meaning 91 or more)

In the end I came up short on all of them. C'est la vie.

I ran consistently for the first few hours, walking some every loop, according to my usual custom, with lap times in the 13 - 14 minute range. The day was beautiful, I felt good, and had no desire to hurry.

Soon we were not alone, as thousands of people assembled at the west end of Crissy Field to do a charity walk for juvenile diabetes research. They took off walking east on Mason Street, apparently having been told to leave the coned inside lane free because there was another race going on, but with thousands of people including kids and dogs, before long it got a bit crowded. Most people could see the runners wearing numbers heading toward them, and had the courtesy to keep out of our way. But some people took to congregating in the two tight turns at the west end, in the three feet or so between the cone and the edge of the course. In most cases they were just oblivious to the fact that something else was going on.

During the afternoon the dirt straight on the north side between the lagoon and the bay front was occupied by large numbers of people, including many runners, some of them blazingly fast. A few going our direction (clockwise) did get in the way a bit, strolling at museum pace inside the cones, but it wasn't inconvenient. Besides, we all live on the same planet and we have to share it.

It was amusing to be asked by three different walkers what charity our race was supporting. It's hard to say anything more than, "None!" when you're in motion, going the opposite direction, but I paused for about twenty seconds to chat with one puzzled couple, who couldn't imagine why anyone would do such a thing without some sort of ulterior mission to accomplish.

Charity runs and walks are, of course, a completely different genre of activity from what ultrarunners engage in — which observation is not meant in any way to denigrate the efforts of those who present and participate in health and fitness events. (I do have a bit more of a problem with those who try to mix them by bringing large teams of slow people who run in groups and gum up a marathon that is being run for the sake of the running.)

People who run 24-hour events are not typically the sort who sign up for a fun run with teams from their workplaces, but trained athletes, albeit sometimes old, slow, fat ones, with experience running long distances, some with national and world records under their belts or in view. In other words, ultramarathons are real races. We run them because we like to run and to explore the outer limits of our physical endurance. Just because we're running 24 hours straight without some cause to provoke us doesn't mean that we're self-absorbed lunatics.

By shortly after noon most of the charity walkers had left, and the crowding problem diminished dramatically, as we had only the local citizenry out for a Saturday afternoon in the park to dodge.

Nighttime came. It was dark on the north side; I could have run without my flashlight, but didn't. (A few runners did.)

Before long the ranks thinned out as some people retreated to their chairs. As I discussed with a couple of people both during and after the race: this was supposed to be a 24-hour race, right? So WHERE DID EVERYONE GO? From midnight until almost sunrise it looked like there was never more than a half dozen people out there at any time grinding out laps. I was one of them, slow as could be, averaging about a 20-minute pace by this time, the tortoise gradually catching up with but never quite catching most of the snoozing hares.

At some very late hour someone passed me and asked: "Have you been watching the meteor shower?" Ummm. No, I wasn't aware that there was one. "Oh yeah, I've lots of them." I tried running for ten seconds with my head cocked to watch the sky. That doesn't work for me any better than trying to run landing on my toes, so I never saw a meteor. I could probably run in a rain shower and not notice the drops.

I've gotten better at going through the night in recent races. No such luck this race. Other than a quick potty break around mile 23, and twice for about three minutes each to empty some pebbles out of my shoes after the gaiters came loose, the first time I sat down was after 58 miles, dozing lightly for around 20 minutes. Then I took a second 20-minute break at 63 miles, which held me until dawn, when I sat down for less than ten minutes.

Before long we were invaded again. The Nike Women's Marathon and Half Marathon started nearby, and all 40,000 ladies (by one estimation) came streaming west on Mason Street like a column of ants. I've never seen so many women in one place, at least not without men chasing them.

Before the race started they set up a small cheering squad on Mason Street that I called the hooters, a sort of Wellesley West as it were, whose incessant whooping and hollering at the top of their lungs could be heard a half mile away for two hours straight.

Our little San Francsisco 24-Hour race could not compete with this, but Wendell and Sarah had it covered. Shortly before the Nike race started they rerouted us so that from then until the end of the race we did out and backs along the dirt path only. I would have liked to run alongside all the ladies myself, but I guess it would have been hopelessly crowded.

Modern marathons sure do alter one's perception of what a "race" is. What exactly is a race these days, when so many people start and some walking competitors stop by the side of the road to take photos of all their friends? Isn't that more like a shopping expedition?

Even ultralister Deb Clem, who was in the women's race, took time to run a third of a mile over to where our race was going on and say Hi, and pass around hugs to all the people she knows before returning. Presumably this had some impact on her race time.

At exactly 23:00:00 I crossed the lap start, leaving one hour to get three more miles without having to suffer too badly to get them. Four was out of the question by then. I wasn't hurting at all, felt just fine, and could have gone for hours longer. I did start running just a little bit in order to be sure I didn't shave it too close. My splits show 18:33, 16:33, and 17:19 for my last three laps, with nearly seven minutes left to stand and watch the final finishers come in.

When it was all over I had accumulated 75 laps, for a total of 76.3 miles. Even though this was a personal worst for me at 24 hours, and about seven miles short of my Plan C goal, it still placed me 27th out of fifty runners who logged laps (the 54th percentile), the first time I did not finish at least in the top half in a fixed-time race, but at least still a mid-pack placement.

So what happened? I was never hurting. I ate and drank plenty, some of both almost every lap, and I kept my electrolytes balanced. But by the time I got to around 40 miles I lost the urge to battle. I was perfectly content to be out there walking, and could have gone for hours longer. Instead, except for the last three laps, I walked most of the second half of the race.

Do I care? Not at all. Recently, with a move barely three weeks away, it's seemed like I've been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I've been running, and I'm in good health, but running has not been a top priority focus lately.

It's going to be interesting seeing how I manage to work in training for Across the Years, which is now 66 days away.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Consummate Word

P.G. Wodehouse.

What he said.

How he said it.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

My Bus Trip

"I haven't been on a bus since I was a child," I told Ursula, the pleasant, businesslike clerk behind the counter at the Greyhound Station at 720 W. Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, Kentucky. "What's the process?"

There was no one in line, and getting situated was easy. "That wasn't too painful, was it?" she inquired as I parted, relieved I did not need to submit to a strip and cavity search.

I had arrived well over two hours early for my bus trip from Louisville to Indianapolis, but didn't mind, because I cherish my travel time for the opportunity it provides for reading.

Normally, I would have rented a car or flown, but Indy is only a couple of hours drive from my daughter's home, and the cheapest one-way car rental available was $115 from airport to airport, plus an expensive cab ride, an expense I would have to foot myself, even though I was traveling on business.

For a little inconvenience and $28.50 for so short a ride, the bus seemed like a reasonable alternative. At least, I reasoned, there would be no cancellations and my arrival would likely be on time — not necessarily the case when flying. I wondered what happens when there is an accident or a problem with the bus, but convinced that these things are as rare as plane crashes, I put question the out of my mind.

The first thing I noticed was a long line of miserable people looking like the condemned waiting to be admitted to hell, but really only waiting to be let aboard an open seating bus to somewhere most people don't want to be. From this I ascertained that I would have to watch for a line beginning to form at door five, my door, so I would be among the first and could have my choice of seats — an amenity I've earned by being so early.

The people who inhabit a bus station are not ones who have come straight from the opera or Wallace Stevens discussion group. They are mostly either outright poor or well disguised as such, sporting a variety of weird beard and tatoo configurations, wearing torn blue jeans or hip hop attire. Three quarters are obese, tubes of Pringles and half-consumed sugar drinks in their laps, at 7:30 AM, cigarette packs visible in their shirt pockets or purses.

The second thing I learned was that the hard steel mesh seats in the waiting room are more uncomfortable by an order of magnitude than in any fast food restaurant I've ever been in, probably to discourage vagrant bums from sleeping on them. I was never comfortable the whole time I sat there.

A half hour before departure two women and a young man got in line in rapid succession, so in anticipation of a rush, I elected to do the same. The twenty minutes I stood there only one more person got in the line.

Eventually a man picked up the microphone to a sound system that reverberated throughout the building's waiting room, saying something that sounded like: "MMERJW LEENR RLJJ VMMAN WOFADEF GEFB ZZMK LLM NTSNT RT," out of which I was able to determine that persons going to Indianapolis were to line up on the right side of door five, whereupon, being already on the right side of door five, everyone else immediately picked up and moved three steps to the left to be on the left side of door five. In my scramble to get my cell phone put away and bags in order, I lost two places in line, leaving me behind a tall, bearded, pony-tailed man with a wife who could crush concrete by standing on it, who was not yet in line herself, as it was her job to carry all their luggage. The man queried hopefully: "This is the bus to Bloomington, right?" No, it's the bus to Indianapolis. Oh. Suddenly I was fifth in line.

The director of boarding stood at least six feet four inches tall in his rumpled and ill-fitting uniform, being certainly no less than 350 pounds, looking like an example of what happens to NFL linemen named Bubba when they can no longer play and discover they also have no intelligence and no life skills. We filed by him to get on the bus. Bubba waved a wand over me, which beeped, so he asked me if I had change in my pocket, which question I had to ask him to repeat because I could not understand him through his football player's dialect.

I answered that I did not have any change in my pocket, which was apparently good enough to convince him that I am not a terrorist. He went on, asking "Ticket?" Huh? Oh yeah. I handed him the envelope. "Take it out of the envelope please." Oh, sure.

"I haven't been on a bus since I was a child," I felt obliged to explain once again, "so I don't know the routine." "Mmmm hmmm," was his rumbling reply.

At least it looked as though I would get a good seat, fourth on a bus that had SEATING CAP. 55 painted near the door. Five minutes before departure we were joined by two more people, who were the last, making a total of six people plus the driver, on this "express service" ride to Indianapolis, due to pull in the station at 11:59 AM, just in time to call it still morning.

"So this is what it's like to travel when you're poor!" I thought to myself as we inched out of the station. It wasn't really that bad. I enjoy cross country driving, and now someone else would do the driving at a nominal cost, while I had opportunity to read, look out the window, and even had all the room I needed to stretch out, open my laptop, and work in privacy if I wanted. "Almost like having my own limo!" I surmised.

One thing proved to be annoying. The bus made a heck of a lot of rumbly noise. "Is this the way they all are?" I wondered. Doesn't sound too healthy to me. Must be okay, though. Every airplane gets a thorough checkup from a diligent and competent technical crew before it takes off. How much less could Greyhound care about the welfare of its passengers than the airlines?

While turning my butt into a waffle in the steel mesh seats, I finished the superb John Updike novel I was reading, then began a collection of his short stories. The first was dreadfully dull. After twenty-five minutes I opted to pull out my laptop and make a thoughtful list. Despite the absence of people, I still had to lay my seat back in order to have enough space to lift the screen up. In two window frames I opened files named PRO and CON, in which I could itemize thoughts in connection with a potentially life changing decision I have been researching for several weeks, while the bus bumped along noisily.

Too noisily. Before long the vibration got to be such that my computer bounced up and down to the degree it was getting difficult to type and read. My fondness for bus travel was beginning to diminish.

Forty minutes out of Louisville, the noise in the bus became extreme. Soon I concluded not all was right with the bus. The sound changed from a hmhmhmhmhmhmhmhmhm to a sickening scrape coming from just behind and below me. The driver slowed the bus. This was not a good sign.

Next we were grinding along in the appropriately named breakdown lane. Less than a minute later, 150 yards from exit 41, we stopped. An ominous odor eminated from the vehicle. The driver ran around to look underneath, and came running back. "EVERYONE OFF THE BUS! NOW! GET OFF, GET OFF! RIGHT NOW!" he urged subtly. A woman in the back had to be awakened. Not to be rushed and seeing no imminent crisis, I put my laptop away carefully and exited, joining my busmates standing twenty-five yards up the road.

There was smoke coming from under the bus. The driver grabbed an extinguisher, hollered that someone should call 911 (sorry, not on my phone), and proceeded to empty the extinguisher on the bus engine, causing large clouds of white smoke to rise from the bus and drift across the highway, which must have been amusing to oncoming drivers.

Not to be perturbed, standing in ankle high grass with my Tumi shoulder bag, a good eight yards off the edge of the highway, and being that it was a lovely morning and I had nothing else to do, I pulled out my book began reading a second Updike short story, more boring than the first, while the driver looked at his bus in dismay as though this was all his fault and he would have to pay for the damage to the bus himself.

After emerging from a phone conference he told us that the problem was that the universal joint blew. A mechanic and a new bus were on the way, but would not be there for about an hour.

Disappointed, but in reasonable spirits, four of the other bus passengers took off at different times in pairs for the exit, where there was a truck stop with a bathroom and a source to replenish their supplies of Pringles and soda, which had apparently been on the verge of running short.

The police pulled up, but didn't stay long. They left some "accident" forms to be filled out by two witnesses and turned in. The bus driver evidently perceived from the fact that I was reading a book and therefore literate that I might also be the sort of person who is able to fill out a form; and besides I was standing right there, so he elected me as a witness, and I obediently did my best to fill it out. Did I witness the accident? Ummm, well it wasn't exactly an accident. No, I was not injured, merely inconvenienced, as I was expected at work at the Convention Center in Indy before long.

The bus driver told me: "This is amazing. That's the first time I've had a breakdown." Then after a long pause, he added quietly: "This year. First time I've had a breakdown this year." How comforting.

I responded, desperate to be sure everyone around me would be aware: "I wouldn't know how often these things happen. I haven't been on a bus since I was a child," wanting to distance myself from the experience and remain a dispassionate observer. And then I added: "I believe it will be the last time."

Before long it was deemed safe for us to re-enter the bus to wait, this time with the passengers bunched closer together.

The man across the aisle remarked: "For such a religious state as Indiana, I find it surprising to see all the ads for adult book stores along the highway. There's one almost every mile." A true statement. From the seat in front of me a young, nondescript woman wearing pedal pusher pants, sunglasses, and her hair pulled back in a bun, answered, "We aren't in Indiana. We're still in Louisville," while dropping chips from a Pringles can down her throat, stretched out on her back, legs splayed apart, her feet up on the glass window. We had in fact left Louisville and Kentucky simultaneously five minutes out of the station, as we crossed the Ohio river headed north. The young lady's comprehension of geography boggled my mind. As if being still in Kentucky would cause everyone to say, "Oh, well no wonder."

Then she popped up and asked if she could use my cell phone. I hesitated briefly. "Ummm, the account is actually my daughter's and I don't use it to call anyone except on Verizon." "Oh, my grandma is on, Verizon, has been for years!" She said it with sufficient spontaneity that I believed her. And besides, how could I resist helping out a fellow traveler in an emergency? So I handed the phone over to her, with which she made a mercifully short phone call.

An hour and a half after we stopped, another bus pulled up, this one far from empty — filled, in fact, with far more bodies with vacant faces seemingly unsympathetic to the idea of crowding the bus a little more than with vacant seats. I completed the rest of my journey next to a woman who grunted when I wished her good afternoon, then rolled over to sleep the rest of the way to Indianapolis, and across from Chatty Cathy the geography maven.

On the way off the bus she said, "Do we get our money back? I want my money back!" I responded, "They should at least offer to give you another free can of Pringles."
Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What Is Jogging?

Louis Armstrong allegedly said once, when asked what jazz is, if you have to ask, you'll never know. In a roughly similar way, I've found that there are three types of people in this world who run: runners, joggers, and those who don't know the difference. The attempt to define the terms is the subject of recurrent discussionions on running lists.

Few people can remember the very first time they heard a word that is a part of their fundamental vocabulary. Curiously, I remember well the very first time I heard the term "jogging". It was early fall of 1954, when I was eleven years old. Some readers may be surprised to learn that it goes back that far.

At the time I was a Boy Scout, showing early signs of loving an activity that has become dear to me. Those of us from Troop 2 who had signed up for the adventure made a twenty-mile out and back hike on the Black Hawk Trail in western Illinois.

To quality for this hike we were required to read a book of two-hundred pages about Chief Black Hawk and write a book report on it, which I duly did, though some kids (not from our troop) were caught trying to cut the corners, and were therefore not permitted to go. Shame on them! Honor meant more in those days than it does today.

While on the course we were to spot and identify by type as many numbered trees as possible ... there were about twenty of them to search for. My hiking partner was the smartest kid in the troop, a boy named Tom Gardner, who knew all the trees and knew enough to carry a field guide, so even though we finished last (a sign of things to come), we (Tom) correctly labeled all but one of the trees. They told us beforehand that no one had ever gotten them all.

We must have been about five miles down the road when — What did our wondering eyes behold? — A uniformed phalanx of Scouts running past us. (Our sternly militaristic troop was not required to wear uniforms for this hike, but instead wore garb more appropriate for the activity.)

What in Sam Hill were those nutty boys doing!!?? Didn't they realize this was a twenty-mile hike?

An adult counselor who passed us by explained: Those boys are jogging! (None of them looked too happy about it, either, as I do remember well.) So — What's jogging? we anxiously inquired. He explained: The boys were alternately walking fifty steps and running fifty steps. We were told this technique was derived from military training. You run a little and walk a little. In the end you get where you're going a lot faster than if you just walked, and less tired than if you just ran, which none of those eleven- to thirteen-year-olds could do in any way, shape, or form.

Can you think of a more mind-numbingly boring way to spend a day in the woods than counting your steps as you go? I can't.

I don't know how long they kept it up or what they did about the tree identification requirement, or whether they stopped to run the compass course and correctly identify one of three or four marked trees starting from the statue of Chief Black Hawk at the turnaround point, also one of the requirements to get the finisher's medal. (I kid you not — there was one, which my mother kept for decades.) But I never saw anyone running on the return trip, and my guess is that we had seen a case of would-be manly little boys being abused by their pretend military commanders, subjecting them to way more physical stress than their likely untrained prepubescent bodies were ready to handle on that day.

By the time we returned, it was dinner time. How relieved we were to find that on this outing the tasks of setting up tents and cooking had been accomplished by the scoutmasters and volunteer assistants while we were out wearing out our soles and building up our souls. The other Scouts had already eaten and were sitting around the campfire singing John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmitt and doing other little scoutly things that little Scouts do, but it was all we could do to drag our weary derriers into camp, gulp down some food, and hit the sleeping bags. It was the only time I can recall that I ever slept on the ground when it actually felt soft. The next morning I learned that was because the spot of ground where they placed my sleeping bag was over what had recently been a latrine, so the dirt was soft.

And so it was that the idea of "jogging" came into my consciousness, with its notion of a little bit of running alternating with a little bit of walking. Today, 53 years later, judging from the discussions I've seen among the erudite and deeply experienced readership of the Internet's primary running lists, most people still don't know what it is, but most people have sort of vague notion about it. Now you know.

Today word "jogger", which must have appeared on the scene somewhat after "jog" and "jogging", can have two meanings:
  • A person who is at this moment jogging, regardless of whether he has ever done it in his life before, or will ever do it again. "Look Mommy, there's a jogger!" The child knows it is so, because he sees the person in question jogging. He may in fact be running for his life from a bear. This an accepted use of the word.
  • A person who habitually or regularly jogs, regardless of whether their present state is tearing up Heartbreak Hill or quiescent. "Say Bud — I hear you're a jogger!" The inquirer isn't sure because Bud is at this moment sitting in his Barcalounger quaffing a beer, with a bag of Cheeze Doodles in his lap, and therefore, even though he may indeed be a jogger, he is not now jogging, nor does he show evidence of being a jogger.
It's from the latter form that derivative expressions have grown, for instance: jogging suit and jogging trail. No one has ever seen a suit or a trail jog. These references are obviously to clothing and terrain appropriate to the jogosphere.

But you knew that, right? Why is it then, that so few runners are able to agree on what jogging is?
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From the Snake Oil Department

Tonight my wife brought home one of those ladies magazines full of self-improvement schemes targeted at desperate women of the type who are not in the habit of thinking things through clearly.

The titles on the cover featured articles designed to help women lose "winter toxins" (toxins??? name one), another about how to make a "yummy slimming treat" which appeared to me to be a banana cream pie (I think the secret must be to make it and then give it to someone else to eat, who will then become fatter than you), and another article on how to "Drop one pound every day!" Last I heard, that accomplishment would require about a 3500-calorie deficit per day for the duration. It would be tough to do for someone who requires about half that total that on a daily basis.

Inside was an article under the title "Too busy to exercise?" (I reply to anyone making such a claim that the president of the United States is not too busy to exercise — so what's your excuse?)

There's a picture of an apparently "busy" lady lacing up a new pair of sneakers, Earth Shoes, said to "give wearers major health and beauty benefits." (Beauty too? From sneakers? Oh my, how impressive. Eleanor Roosevelt, may she rest in peace, could have used a pair in her day.)

It goes on to say: "Women (apparently not men as well) are able to reduce cellulite, build calorie-burning muscle mass and alleviate back pain, all as they go about their busy days." Amazing. I'm sure you're itching to know how this is accomplished so you can get a pair, and be done with this arduous business of having to run for miles every day.

Okay, I'll tell you then.

The secret is the shoe's "negative sole." (I know there's a pun itching to be given birth in there, but I'll resist.) "The shoe's heel rests lower than the toe box to simulate walking uphill at a 3.7-degree incline. The advantage: double[1] the butt and thigh toning (I'm sure they checked the figures), plus a 25 percent greater calorie burn compared with walking on a flat surface — but without the huffing and puffing of climbing a mountain." Well thank goodness for that. You wouldn't want to get all huffy puffy and tired from exercise, would you? What's the point of that?

If you believe that, then I'd like to talk to you about buying a bridge I recently acquired and am willing to pass on for a bargain.

Interestingly, this so-called "negative sole" performs exactly the opposite function as the $385 custom podiatrist prescribed orthotics both my wife and I have worn daily in our shoes since 1996, which are designed to raise the heel a bit in order to take strain off the achilles tendon.

In an unrelated sidebar on the same page, under a title that says "Smile file" is this quip: "There's one thing that's really great about waking up early, and it's not jogging or greeting the day — it's just that that's when they make doughnuts."

I'm not making this up. Perhaps the lady who wrote that can "tone" her butt and thighs wearing the Earth Shoes in an early morning walk to the doughnut store to pick up a dozen to eat before leaving for work?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Do-Tasks and Not-Do-Tasks.

There are two kinds of tasks: Do-Tasks and Not-Do-Tasks.

Most of the big life goals we set out to accomplish are achieved by Doing a sometimes complex array of tasks, often in some logical order. For instance, say I want to run an ultramarathon: I know I must train for it, so a Do-Running task goes on the top of the list. Secondary activities are added related to the acquisition of skills and knowledge, pursuant to my desire to get through the experience with only modest suffering: Hydration-Learning, Fuel-Intake-Learning, Blister-Prevention-Learning, and a host of others that if ignored will come back to bite me in the patootie and cause me to fail.

Along the way overhead tasks are added such as Right-Gear-Buying, Registration-Sending, and Plane-Ticket-Buying. (Do I sound like a COBOL programmer?)

It's easy for me to recognize when I'm progressing, because Do-Tasks are accomplished by an act of will. All I have to do is pick something off the Do-list and just go ... do it.

Do-Tasks can be planned for and scheduled. "Whoop! It's 4:00pm. Time to stop Do-Working and switch to Do-Running." And when I'm running I can say to myself with confidence and satisfaction: "I'm making progress! I'm working on the Do-Running task, the biggest part of the plan." As long as I keep running, keep doing, I'm making that progress.

Duh. But ...

Some objectives are pursued via Not-Do-Tasks. These jobs can be harder than Do-Tasks. For instance, to save more money, I begin by Not-Spending. But when does one actually begin such a thing?

The example I'm inclined to discuss is the challenge of Weight-Losing! The simplest and most direct technique for Do-Weight-Losing is another example of Not-Doing: Not-Eating!

Since most of us are lazy by nature, and eating takes at least some effort, it would seem to be an easy thing to simply allow ourselves to become negligent about it. Not-Eating is not a Do-List task. It's what fills the spaces between acts of Do-Eating. I'm Not-Eating right now — as most people are most of the time, so theoretically I should be losing weight, shouldn't I? But I know I'm not, because whenever I step on my scale the number it shouts at me is bigger than the last one. And it's been going on like that since mid-October.

Because Not-Eating is a Not-Do-Task, it is not something I can schedule and plan and then begin. To the contrary, the very act of making a beginning requires that Do-Eating precedes it, which is what I'm trying to avoid. It seems to work much better if I inadvertently happen to discover: "Whoa! What's this? I'm Not-Eating! Well then, let's see just how long I can keep this up!" But Do-Eating begins almost as automatically as blinking, breathing, and sleeping, as I've learned from passing through the kitchen only to suddenly discover myself to be chewing and swallowing upon emerging from the other side. We should have a built-in alarm somewhere that prevents that, but some of us do not, so it takes concentration, like walking on a tightrope.

Contrastingly, I have no corresponding objection that Do-Running must be preceded by Not-Running. In fact, it seems that Do-Running is so necessarily bookended by Not-Running that runners often write down the time that defines the beginning and ending period of Do-Running. Worse yet, during the heat of an intense training period, Not-Running is sometimes logged positively as Do-Resting.

Many poor souls try in vain to lose weight by performing Do-Tasks: Do-Diet-Planning, Do-Calorie-Counting, Do-Health-Food-Shopping, but in the end the task includes Do-Eating, and that's where they trip up. It reminds me of a rip-off diet book my wife was suckered into buying called: "Eat More — Weigh Less." The first part worked great, and she really got into it. It was that second part that was a killer.

We would do better if we could just leave out that part, but after all the Do-Diet-Planning ... -Shopping phases, it doesn't make sense to skip the Do-Eating part — which is why diets usually fail. Whereas it is during periods of Not-Eating — intentional or otherwise — that progress is made toward Do-Weight-Losing.

And can someone tell me why my head is aching with thoughts about Gestalt psychology right now? I'm in a forest, but I don't seem to be seeing any trees.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Neglected Pianos

Sometimes I hear about neglected pianos, upon which I go on a bit of a rampage. As the owner of a Steinway model K, which I bought brand new from the dealer, an instrument I have always tuned and cared for myself, the idea of a piano sitting in a garage for longer than a couple of days, essentially outdoors and subject to the elements, eventually becoming a storage unit, rankles my sensibilities.

I long ago lost track of the number of times, upon being told by someone: "We have a piano! Of course it hasn't been tuned in ten years" (or maybe never), responding without hesitation: "You used to have a piano. You now have a Gesinch." For those who don't know, which is everyone, because I made the word up myself over thirty years ago, a Gesinch is a pseudo-German word meaning roughly: "A large, clutzy, useless item that gets in your way." The prototypical example was an enormous recliner I bought in about 1973 to put in our tiny apartment's living room in Riverdale Bronx, New York, where there was not enough room to fully recline it without dragging it out from the wall (it took two people to move it), upon which the foot end would stick out well past the middle of the room. Buying it was one of my Worst Ideas Ever.

A neglected piano is a Gesinch. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who acquire pianos, often with the intent of learning how to use them (or for their children to do so), an enthusiasm that dies down in a few weeks as persons soon discover: "Say — this piano playing stuff is a Really Hard Thing!" Upon which the piano becomes an indoor storeage unit. A piano must be maintained whether it is played or not, or it quickly falls into a state of disrepair beyond which it can no longer be recovered to full functionality. It's not sufficient to strip and refinish the surface of an instrument that is old or has been neglected. If the soundboard is cracked (usually because of temperature and humidity changes), the instrument will be beyond restoration to its optimum condition and may be worthless. The odds that a piano stored in a garage for a full year will not have a cracked soundboard are infinitesimal. The piano action — the internal mechanism that starts with the surface of the keys the player presses and ends with the tip of the hammer that strikes the strings — is a complicated mechanical device, with between 80-120 pieces per key, depending on the maker. Think of it as being like an automobile with 88 carburetors. The entire 88-key mechanism slides out as a unit. (I've done it several times; it makes my heart go pit-a-pat when I do so.) This mechanism needs periodic maintenance, too, though most people simply neglect their pianos when they are new until entropy causes them to rot and no longer be worthy of anything more than finding some hapless friends or relatives to help load it into a truck so it can be hauled off to a dump. Imagine buying a new car and never once changing the oil or doing any of the standard maintenance tasks to keep it in running condition. It's an apt comparison, but that's what people do with pianos.

It's true that pianos can be "restored", but only to a certain degree. I've played on vintage Steinways at the local dealer's store and elsewhere — instruments said to be 100 years or more old. The cabinetry on these display instruments is invariably superb, but every one I've ever touched frankly feels and sounds crummy. These intruments make fine parlor pianos for those who have the space and want to display a piano in their home more than actually use it, and if continuously maintained, they're quite adequate instruments for most modestly skilled players, but for the expense involved, anyone who wants a good piano would be better off to get something newer and maybe a little plainer, and be resolved to take proper care of it.

For some persons an electric keyboard of some sort might be a preferable option. The sound is not as good, any more than a CD recording is as good as a live band, and neither is the feel. Their longevity is nowhere near that of a well-maintained good quality piano, but they never go out of tune, and they require little or no maintenance until they just flat out break. By comparison: My Steinway is now 22 years old, in near perfect condition, and should serve me the rest of my natural life. My Korg 76-key electric keyboard is 1988 vintage, does not conform to the most recent MIDI standard, has keys that stick, with their internal mechanism inaccessible by me, has a lousy sound, is close to useless, and needs to be replaced.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Places In My Life

Given an infinite universe, coincidences abound. From the Small World department ... Follow this link to a Google map of a block in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.

You will see a block long building between 8th and 9th Avenues to the east and west, and 15th and 16th Streets on the north and south.

When I moved to New York City my first apartment was at 320 West 15th Street, the second building west of 8th Avenue, on the south side of 15th Street.

It was a spartan apartment in a tough and unattractive area, undoubtedly the lousiest hole in the wall I ever lived in my whole life, but I was 24 when I moved in, a semi-employed funky musician, and hadn't earned the right to live anywhere better.

I never knew what business that big building across the street was in, but it had an enormous truck dock that spanned most of the block, directly across the street from me. Gargantuan trucks would pull up to it 24 hours a day, squeaking their brakes, jamming their gears, racing their engines, and someimes blasting their foghorn tooters. The street was narrow, so drivers would often pull up onto the sidewalk to get enough swing room to back their trailers in. I lived on the second floor in the front of the building; when those trucks pulled up, if I had been standing out on the fire escape, I could have whacked their pollution spewing smokestacks with a stick. Sleeping in that apartment took some getting used to.

So ... guess what that big building is used for today?

Are you ready for this? I just learned this today:
"Step out of New York's 14th Street subway stop, turn up Eighth Avenue, and there, in the heart of Chelsea - amid the traffic, delis, pizzerias, and restaurants - is Google's largest software engineering center outside of Mountain View," reports Information Week. Google opened their new NY offices 5 months ago and already has around 500 employees who work on print ads, Google Finance, Google Spreadsheets, Checkout and more. ...
Yep, Google's biggest office outside headquarters is a rock throw from where I lived for exactly one year. The building's main entrance is on the 9th Avenue side.

When I left there I moved uptown to 52 W. 71st Street — which by another incredible coincidence happened to be right around the corner from the Dakota Apartments where John and Yoko Lennon settled, but not until a few months after I moved from that neighborhood. Lennon used to visit the coffee shop across the street from my former apartment to read the paper in the afternoon when he was in town because it was quiet and the owner would stick him in a booth at the back where he wouldn't be bothered. Had I continued to live there much longer I might have run into him, because he would do this frequently, and usually without bodyguards. Here's a map of that address.

The Dakota Apartments are that squarish building in the upper right, at the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, one of the main entries to the park.

Today Google is my favorite high tech business; for several years, up until about when I moved out of my 71st Street apartment, my life pretty much revolved around the Beatles. Therefore I find the dual coincidence of proximities interesting. Which is not to say that it means anything.

It seems like greatness follows me around but never quite catches up.
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all
John Lennon / Paul McCartney

Monday, February 12, 2007

I've Seen the Future

Yesterday (February 10, 2007) I ran the Pemberton 50K at McDowell Mountain Park northeast of Fountain Hills Arizona, together with a total of five longtime fellow members of the Dead Runners Society, a highly social online running club that has been in existence since the early nineties: four from out of state, two local, plus a local lurker who served as a volunteer.

People who know me are aware that I work hard at ultrarunning despite having no discernible talent for it. Often my reports are about failures or DNFs.

At Pemberton 50K I ran my heart out, and had what must be described as a good race relative to my present condition — in the sense that I kept hammering from beginning to end without letup.

One benefit of low expectations is you don't have to rise very high to meet them. For all the effort I wound up with a finishing time of 7:25:50, a personal worst by 48 minutes over the previous time that I ran the race three years ago.

I was not Dead Last nor even Last Dead, but I had to haul serious butt to keep in front of the two people remaining on the course I knew to be barely a minute or so behind me.

I should start by pointing that I did not train for this race at all. My single longest run in 2007 has been 10.75 miles, run on the indoor track at Bally's gym.

Because it has become my passion for the last eight years to reserve my best effort each year for Across the Years, January is inevitably a month of recovery, as I take inventory, rest and recover, fix what is broken, and gradually get back to where I can run regularly and passably again, before ramping up for the next year's plans. Running an ultra in early February has become an unreasonable proposition for me, but I made an exception this year because of the other five Dead Runners who were planning on running, and I wanted to connect and enjoy the experience with them all.

Under the circumstances, I knew that covering the distance would not be an obstacle for me. I'd gone nearly 160 miles at ATY six weeks earlier. The question was whether I was ready to run again on trails and to push as hard for a respectable time as my body would allow.

It was an utterly beautiful day for running, with a starting temperature in the low fifties, bright but cloudy skies, and an official high of 77, which did not become a factor for those inclined to be affected by such a mild warmth who were still out on the course until after noon, and only barely at that point.

An advantage I have over some others who were running is that I live locally, train frequently on Pemberton Trail, and have logged every one of the 52 loops that I have now run on it, plus several short (Tonto) loops and also extended loops including side trails. Therefore, I've developed a keen sense of strategy on how to approach this run.

Although the aid stations are placed close to equidistantly on the course, the nature of the terrain is such that when run in the clockwise direction (race direction for PT50K), the first third is by far the toughest and slowest, even on fresh legs, the second is not quite as hard, and the final third is quite easy, providing occasion for anyone who is inclined and able to run like the wind. Negative aid station splits are not only possible, but normal, as Cathy Morgan's race report, listing her aid station splits, demonstrated with empirical data. From this I calculated that she ran 35.88% of her total race time time from the start to the first aid station, 33.80% from the first to the second aid station, and only 29.86% of the time running the third section, even though most people slow down the further they get. The only reasonable explanation is that the three segments vary that much in difficulty.

Because I know what to do, the beginning of a race at Pemberton Trail reminds me of the alleged Big Bang, as those who don't know better go tearing off at an insane clip, while I deliberately lay back to get my legs warmed up, walking much of the first part, at least until I cross the base of the Tonto Tank intersection about twelve minutes out. By the time I climb up onto the high, rocky ridge and have a view, I see many runners fanned out before me, while I am already by this time close to last and running nearly or actually alone. I'm confident that if I don't overdo it, I will do relatively well on the jeep trail eight miles ahead.

For a while on the ridge I ran in close proximity to Dead Runners Jane Colman and Ironwoman Cathy Morgan. We jockeyed positions for a while. Eventually we separated. There was one other person, a man close to my age, back at our end of the race. I never got his name, but later learned he is from Sacramento, had run Jed Smith 50K last weekend, and is planning on running two east coast marathons next weekend.

My first goal of the day was to get the best time I was capable of for that day. A secondary but important goal was not to finish Dead Last. While I was running among friends, it was nonetheless a race, albeit one to avoid being in last place.

One thing I did quite well this race was to manage my turnovers at the aid stations in record time. I lived the entire race on water, Hammer Gel, and Clif Shot Blocks — my new favorite race food, which I carried in a baggie in my hand — plus some Coke at the aid stations on the second lap. I never took any significant time at the stations, even at the headquarters. I think I drank and took a sufficient number of electrolyte tabs on a more-or-less regular schedule, and did not use any Advil or caffeine tabs to get me through.

I wasn't inclined to look back often, particularly at the beginning, because I didn't want to get into an "Ohmigosh, I'd better pick it up!" panic mode. Whatever would happen would happen, as I concentrated on running what was the best possible outing for myself.

It took me longer than usual to feel thoroughly warmed up and in a mood to run, but was starting to feel normal by the first aid station. I replenished my water supply and headed off immediately, but spent some time juggling gear as I'd made the mistake of tucking my Succeed caps in an inaccessible place. I moved them to a front pocket where I could grab them readily, re-hitched my UD bottle belt, and was off again, now behind Cathy.

Less than five minutes out of the aid station, on a section that was not particularly tricky, I caught a toe and took a dive onto both knees and hands. It hurt a bunch, and broke the skin on my right hand and right knee, leaving scrapes elsewhere. The effects were pretty visible, as thereafter whenever I saw someone he or she would say "Did you take a fall?" Or from those who know me: "Did you fall down again?" But I had not fallen on that trail for over two years, as I've actually gotten much better about picking up my feet and don't shuffle nearly as much as I used to.

At first both of my palms felt like they were on fire, so I walked for a couple of minutes while the pain subsided. It was not a factor in the race, other than losing maybe a minute or two from the recovery walk.

After a while I passed Cathy when she headed off the trail, apparently to inspect a tree; I stayed ahead for the rest of the lap. I didn't know how far back Jane was.

When we hit the jeep road, I told Cathy, who was then right behind me, that this was the place I'd been telling everyone that a person could run hard if inclined. Sure enough, I ran all the way to the aid station, about 15 minutes from the turn onto the jeep road, where I first hit the portapotty, which I urgently needed by that time, losing about three minutes taking care of nature's business.

By the time I vacated the booth, Jimmy Wrublik had already grabbed my stuff, refilled my water bottle, and had it waiting for me. Cathy was waiting to use the portapotty. By getting there first, I actually got a couple minutes advantage, as she wound up losing a couple more minutes waiting for me.

Just as I turned to take off running again, Jane came into the aid station with the other man who was running with or near her. I managed to run pretty much the whole way back to the end of the loop from there, walking only three or four 50-foot uphill pieces on the single track section.

Just as I crossed the road, where there is a trail marker saying it is 1.5 miles to the trailhead, Paul DeWitt came blazing past me, as he had already lapped me, on his way to winning and setting a new course record of 3:11.NN. (That's an astonishing 6:12 pace, calculated as 3:11:00 and in knowledge that the course is actually about 0.3 miles short of a full 50K.) My stopwatch said 3:02 at the time.

My lap split, which I forgot to punch on my watch, but memorized when I saw the clock, was 3:21:50.

Ebullient DRS supporter Kevin Smith, crewing for his Dead Runner wife Sally, omnipresent at all DRS gatherings (and at one time a pretty good runner himself) was there to take pictures and offer enthusiastic encouragement and assistance, as I lumbered right through the stop, getting only a water refill, and dumping my now mostly empty Hammer Gel flask, which I never did recover. He ran ahead on the trail a piece to take more pictures.

I believed that by running hard the last third of the lap I put a significant gap between me and both Cathy and Jane. I was now running quite alone. Because I don't like looking over my shoulder, which takes energy, and accomplishes nothing, I continued to assume I would stay ahead of the three people I knew to be in back of me, and had locked in a final finishing position of fourth from last.

The road that goes up to the rocky ridge is a switchback. Upon getting on top of it, I was able to look down to the road below, and still saw no sign of anyone else, so figured I had a comfortable lead. Because I know both Cathy and Jane are tough as nails, I was positive neither one would have dropped after a single lap, so they were back there somewhere. I just didn't know how far.

I ran less on that ridge than the first time, having already fallen once, and because I had the same experience as Cathy wrote about in her own report: after catching a couple of toes I concluded that I didn't want to fall again on this day, so played it conservatively, but continued to walk hard hard more than run.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when barely 20 yards from the aid station, Cathy pulled up beside me, took close to zero time refueling, and forged ahead! Whoa! I hadn't expected that.

As both an Ironwoman and a Clydesdale, Cathy is an incredibly strong woman. When I headed off to the second station, I watched her build a lead on me as she climbed inexorably up the still mostly uphill terrain, until eventually she was out of sight. There wasn't a thing I could do to catch up. I never saw her again until the end of the race. Her report says that she finished in 7:12, 13 minutes ahead of me.

Way to go Cathy! Excellent second lap.

So I still was not in last place, but by this time I had begun to experience some pain in my lower right back, and stopped every ten minutes or so to bend over and stretch it out for just a few seconds. I'm guessing that falling during the second lap probably helped to wrench my spine into a pretzel, and I was now suffering the consequences.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when around two thirds of the way to the next aid station, two very cute and cheerful young women in their early twenties pulled up beside me wearing race numbers. Say what?? I asked: "Do you mean to say you've been behind me all this time?" "Wellll ... yeah." The chatty one said they walked all the way to the first aid station on the first lap because it looked real hard and dangerous, and they didn't want to trip on the rocks. Then they took a long break somewhere. So they were way back there, but then decided to get moving. And off they went. They remained in sight for another twenty minutes or so, alternately trotting and walking, visibly gabbing all the while, and eventually disappeared. They saw me and jumped up and down and waved to me from across the parking lot as I was headed to my car later on — telling me they thought I was awesome. Hmmm. What irony.

Ah, sweet youth.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when minutes after I met the young sweeties, yet another couple pulled up and said hello! Sigh. This was getting ridiculous. When I said that I certainly had not expected to be passed by anyone else at this point in the race, they explained they were not in the race; they were just out doing a loop for fun and wanted to say hello and wish me well. Whew! That was much different. What a relief.

Before long I hit the jeep road again, and as it turns out, I did have the legs to run it all the way to the aid station, which by virtue of taking an extra five or six minutes to get to this time, seemed to have been moved.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when not long after turning down the jeep road, what should my wondering eyes behold?: "Hi Lynn." It was Jane. Whaaat? I thought she was at least two or three minutes behind me, probably more. Actually, I had stopped to irrigate a bush shortly before the turn, so gave up a bit of that gap on Jane and the man of unknown name who was still behind us both, but not by much.

From this point on it became in my mind a race between me and a woman my own age plus two months who didn't know a race was on. Being basically uncompetitive in my heart, I'm inclined to yield readily to someone putting forth an admirably superior effort. Perhaps I'm way too polite when it comes to racing.

But on this day I wanted to do my best, so after jockeying positions for a couple of minutes, I relaxed, worked on my running form (because it helped my back to concentrate on running upright), and breathing, told myself that walking was not an option right now despite my aching back, and pressed on.

Again I got through the final aid station swiftly, and as I shoved off, I saw Jane and Mr. Anonymous coming in. So I ran and ran and ran all the way past Cedar Tank by the 158th Street exit (a couple of steady miles), and onto the single track section that leads back to the finish. This time I had to walk a little more frequently over the lumps on the single track section, but I refused to give in and just walk it in. I really didn't need to, and was actually doing fine, so why stop now? I could rest at the end.

For the rest of the race I refused to turn around and look behind me. Every so often I imagined I heard footsteps behind me (but probably didn't), and pressed on.

Cathy reported being 0.1 miles from the finish. There really is a sign there with that distance marked on it, as it's an intersection to another trail called the Scenic Trail — which it is, but it's way tougher than anything on Pemberton, as it goes through a sandy wash, and then steeply up to the top of a mountain ridge on very single track trail — narrow enough to hide nearby snakes, which I have almost clobbered a couple of times when running it.

When you see that sign you can also see the edge of the ramada, and you know you're done. I put it into what was left of high gear, and went sailing in. The Dead Runners who had finished before me were all congregated at a table in the ramada, waiting for the remaining two of us to come rumbling in. When they spotted me, wild cheering ensued, so I picked up the speed a little more, stood up straight, and sucked in my gut for the sake of a good finish picture, as Kevin was there waiting with his camera. My final time was 7:25:50, as noted above.

The first thing I said over the line was that Jane had to be at most a minute behind me, and sure enough it was no more than that when she came flying across the finish, looking outstandingly strong. She won her age group award! (I'm told there was one other lady in the group, but she dropped.)

Way to go Jane!

Way to go Dead Runners!

The last one across was Mr. Anonymous, barely thirty seconds later, and that ended the race, as we were assured they knew there was no one left out on the course.

Following DRS group pictures, I headed over to the ramada to get some delicious chili, of which there was still a bit, hot enough to eat, but my body was in too much of a turmoil to eat more than half of what I took. It was 7:00pm before I could tolerate a meal.

After goodbyes were said, the other Dead Runners headed off for showers and to reconvene for dinner. I hung back for a little while to chat with Woofie (locally well known ultrarunner Anthony Humpage) and two-time ATY runner Erin Richards, who had succeeded in locking herself out of her car, and was waiting for a service truck.

Last night, rather than hanging out at home and resting, we went to Herberger theater to see a production of "Souvenir" — must-see theater, if you are interested in such things. Almost every Saturday of my life I do a long run of some description, and because my wife and I attend many music and theatrical performances, I'm usually galumphing by the time I get there. I'm sure at some time or other some wife has observed about me to her husband: "Oh look honey — there's that poor old man who limps!"

I've arrived at the point in life where I'm experiencing diminishing returns for the same amount of effort. I work at running just as hard as I always have, maybe harder, but seemingly every race I get slower, as at age 63 I'm beginning to fall inexorably off the bell curve that measures who even tries to participate in such events. The evidence has let me to this conclusion:
I've seen the future —
and everything I see is in SLOW MOTION!
But that doesn't mean that I'm planning on giving up. This year I'm already committed to attempting to complete Leanhorse 100, also Wendell and Sarah's San Francisco 24-hour, and if we can get it together, Across the Years for a ninth time.
You must never give up! — Richard Nixon

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Do I Have to Empty the Bit Buckets?

There was a maintenance man named Bill where I worked at Four Phase Systems in about 1985 who was a nice fellow, but one of the dumbest guys I've ever encountered. He was one of those guys for whom carrying a ladder was risky business, and whose crack hung out of his pants every time he bent over.

One time I was running a big test in our lab with at least twenty plain text terminals scrolling text endlessly up the screen. Bill came in to replace a light bulb, one of his more complicated assignments, and one that often sent people running for cover.

When finally he had completed the task, Bill stood in the middle of the lab watching the meaningless display of dancing text, absorbed in thought. Finally, he came over to me and asked: "I've always wondered — where do the words go when they roll off the top?"

I'm not making this up. I should have told him that they fall into the bit bucket in the back of the terminal. I'm sure if I had said that, he might have wondered if it would become his job to empty these periodically.

A Thought on Literary Precision

Compare the consequences of a lack of a single punctuation mark in English and in software. Imagine what would happen if high school students were not permitted to graduate for failing to insert a quotation mark in an essay.

I've heard the likely apocryphal story of how the lack of a semicolon in a controller program's source code has led to rocket ships and their passengers falling from the sky to flaming, screaming death.

The lack of a closing quotation mark in a program's source file recently caused the company I work for not to get money from clients who had signed up for things they are supposed to pay for, resulting in most of a day's work on the part of a couple of engineers to rectify everything.

They're not going to fire the programmer who made the mistake for the booboo. It was just one of those embarrassing little things that happen sometimes with software. But the experience illustrates that in software, precision is of the utmost importance.

While I don't wish either flaming death or failure to advance in school on persons who make silly writing mistakes, I do wish in this age of electronic communication that people would take greater care with their written correspondence.
I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. — Oscar Wilde

Mechanical Aids in Races

The use of mechanical aids to assist a runner in moving forward is against the rules in most ultramarathons. For instance, a runner will be disqualified for getting a lift in a car, riding a bicycle, or hopping along on a pogo stick.

Some fools classify trekking poles as mechanical aids. Remind me again -- exactly how many moving parts does a trekking pole have? Is it therefore also illegal to use the branch of a fallen tree as a walking stick? If so, is it illegal to grab rocks and branches with one's hands while climbing up a steep slope?

But it's not my purpose in this article to argue in favor of trekking poles. Rather, I would like to consider for a moment a new device that has entered the scene: the iPod (and similar devices).

Should the iPod be declared an illegal mechanical device? It has two buttons and a spinning disk drive, which makes it considerably more complex than a trekking pole, and could be classified as a drug delivery system, in that playing good music is known to stimulate the production of endorphins and adrenalin which propel a runner forward.

When I first started running with my 80GB iPod, after decades of running without any such assistance, I started by listening to the podcast of a talk show. While the content was fascinating, I definitely ran slower than usual. But when the show was over and I switched to some of my favorite music my pace picked up considerably.

Think of the possibilities: You could sabotage someone else's race by erasing all the good music on his iPod and substituting podcasts of Fox network news (a.k.a. McOpinion), bringing the listener way down. You'd be able to beat him walking on your hands. But some people would probably think that would be cheating.

Maybe the only solution is to ban iPods entirely.

The Paradox of Censorship

Censorship imposed on one sector of society by another is an act of the first group's taking away freedoms that belong to the second group, regardless of the first group's intent.

Censorship is perpetrated by persons, organizations, committees who have seen, heard, read information they don't like or approve of, and so set a standard for others. While anyone is free to share an opinion, including cautionary warnings, I resent anyone else making such a decision in my behalf, deciding what it is that they know about that I should not. I'm capable of making such decisions for myself, and I believe the standard I set for myself will likely be higher than the one being set for me by self-appointed watchdogs.

The overriding point is that someone else has seen something and has decided that I (and others) should not.

The tradeoff for freedom of access is the risk of exposing oneself to that which may be overwhelmingly difficult to avoid influencing us negatively. If censors prevent (for instance) child pornography from appearing on the Internet, which they try but are unable to do, then I will never see it; this is fine in itself, because I hope never to have that horrible experience. If such material is present — and it is — there is always a chance one might stumble across some in complete innocence.

The world would be a much better place if people would behave themselves and not propagate information that is repugnant; but laws that limit free choice by individuals are untenable, repugnant in their own way. In contrast, if I apply sieves (literal or abstract) to my own environment, whether by leaving the TV off, not going to the movies, being discreetly selective about what I choose to read, avoiding likely trouble spots, enabling restrictive options in Google searches, adding powerful filters to my incoming email so that spam and messages from known jerks are blasted automatically to the iconoclastic infindebulum, all of which I actually do, it's my choice and right and even my moral obligation to do so. Just because badness exists does not mean that I must encounter and experience it first hand. But I cannot exercise my moral prerogative or righteous indignation toward what is bad if someone else has prevented me from doing so.

Failed Diets

Some diet plans, notably Weighwatchers, depend on logging everything that is eaten, playing on the theory that if you have to log it, you may eat less.

One reason some people fail miserably in all attempts to control weight is because they become obsessed with food, and in the process realize they're hungry, and wind up eating, often what they shouldn't.

People "get religion" about some new diet plan. In their newfound zeal to implement it, they plan virtually bite by bite all the things they will be eating for some prescribed period of time into the future -- exactly this for breakfast, that for lunch, whatever for dinner, swearing off this comfort food and that junk food, resolving to snack only on sand, etc. Then they head to the store to stock up on all that stuff, sometimes inhaling a package of Little Debbies or Cheetos, enjoying "one last fling" while running the cart up and down the aisle, the surest sign that their project is doomed already.

It doesn't take long for people who are thinking day and night about what and when they are going to eat to fall off the wagon.

My contrasting belief has long been that successful dieting is more about what we don't eat, rather than what we do.

Sure, the excuse that's used is: "You've gotta eat something!" which is true, but if once in a while a person can just skip it, just forget about eating entirely, when trying to lose weight, he'll probably be better off than if trying to make frustratingly small portions, weighing them and going to all the trouble of figuring out the calories and writing them on a chart.

We eat so impulsively and so thoughtlessly sometimes that it's hard to avoid popping something yummy into our mouths just because the idea to do so occurs to us. Maybe an effective part of a solution is, when we catch ourselves doing that, to say: "Whoa! Not this time."

Saturday, February 03, 2007


A friend once told me: "The more I repeat things the more good things happen." He spoke of living his life according to an orderly daily routine.

Most lives progress in cycles with controlled variations, from which emanate all that becomes one's productivity, that by means of which we will make our mark, and for which others will remember us.

For me it's early morning work, running before dinner, study, research or evening projects, and reading before bed during the week; taking care of business, chores, long runs, music, theater, movies or just relaxing at home on the weekends.

Saturday afternoons in February are good times. I've recovered from my annual year end extravaganza. There are no immediate races to train for. (2007 is an exception.) I'm just beginning to map out a training plan for the still new year. Saturday afternoons in February in recent years have become a time for intense, well-balanced workouts.

Usually I limit the run to a half marathon or fifteen miles at most at the gym, but with some extra exertion, and follow that with a half hour to an hour of strength training, stretching on a matt on the aerobics floor, and sometimes a bit of swimming and sitting in the hot tub. It's always relatively quiet at Bally's, with fewer people that I know and talk to regularly than during the week. The people who are there work hard. There are the sounds of clanking weights and whirring machines in a familiar ambience, one in which I have spent many, many contemplative hours while working out.

Afterward there is the feeling of overwhelming but pleasurable exhaustion, the satisfaction of time well spent. I lumber slowly to the car to drive the ten minutes home, possibly to a short nap before dinner and possibly going out to a theater or opera production, which happens about every other week between February and early May.

Then comes Sunday and a new cycle begins.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Boredom Yet Again

Time for a rant: About being bored on the track—speaking as one who has spent a total of twenty-three 24-hour days and nights circling various tracks and short, flat pieces of road. The topic comes up often.

Persons who say that they are bored, as distinguished from those who fear they may be if they tried it, are rare. They generally make the claim for one of a few reasons:
  1. They have no clue. They may even say it in an egotistical, bostful, even hostile way so as to imply a mental deficiency on the part of one who does enjoy the experience, thereby dismissing and implicitly putting themselves above the likes of Yiannis Kouros.

    Such persons seem to need to be entertained. Their minds are blank. While the entertainment value of beautiful scenery is not to be denied, viewing it is still a "push" experience, whereas thinking is entirely interactive. Those who prefer to avoid it or don't know how to do it will likely be bored.

    Persons with blank minds rarely contemplate much that is important: they don't think about problems; they don't think about their spouses or families; they don't think about art or music or beauty; they don't seek to understand truth; they never give any thought to God.

    To quote a source that a few people respect:
    ... whatever things are true, whatever things are of serious concern, whatever things are righteous, whatever things are chaste, whatever things are lovable, whatever things are well spoken of, whatever virtue there is and whatever praiseworthy thing there is, continue considering these things. — Phillipians 4:8
    Time spent running provides plenty of opportunity to reflect on such matters; the thought process, sometimes called meditation, is educational and upbuilding. At the other end of the process, after a run, the person who does it is better off than he was before he started. He may even be smarter and wiser.

  2. They would rather be doing something else.

    When I train for months, and sometimes a whole year, to participate in a track race, once I am there and in motion, I am doing exactly what I have chosen to do, and want to do more than anything else at that particular time.

    How can a person possibly be bored when he is doing exactly what he wants to do? And if he doesn't want to do it, given that running for hours at a time on a track is not exactly easy, then why not quit and go do something else? Better yet, don't even show up so someone else who wants to do it can have his place.

  3. They aren't running hard enough. Are you bored while running? Try kicking it up a notch or two. I guarantee you it will engage your attention.

Most ultrarunners learn when they actually try it, being generally brighter than the average cross section of society, that the actual experience of fixed time track running is not boring at all, but rewarding in ways a person cannot know until he has had the experience.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Such a Lonely Word

We recently heard a Bible talk that touched on honesty. It included exhortation to students to avoid looking at someone else's paper during tests.

My high school (attended 1957-1961) prided itself on what it called the "honor system", something they began to prepare us for as early as seventh grade. Students were trusted not to cheat and were required to monitor each other. It was not unusual for a teacher to leave the room with instructions for students to leave their papers face down on the desk when the bell rang, and then not return.

The way it worked: at the top of every test I ever took at that school we were obliged to write the words: "I pledge my word of honor that I know of no cheating on this test." Then we would sign it. Our way of reporting cheating was to cross out the signature, which invariably led to some sort of clandestine follow-through.

In those days it worked well. During the four years I was a student there it came up in my classes only a couple of times. I never once saw anyone else cheat, nor was I ever remotely tempted to do so myself, even if I wasn't doing well, preferring the consequences of a bad grade to the humiliation and loss of self-respect that cheating and/or getting caught at it would inevitably bring. The code was strongly inculcated in school culture. I certainly knew no one in my own circle of friends who would have ever cheated on a test. It was never even a topic of conversation among us.

Times have changed. Today schools need armed professional security guards and metal detectors.
"We trust we have an honest conscience, as we wish to conduct ourselves honestly in all things. — Hebrews 13:18

"Honesty is such a lonely word" — Billy Joel

Snobs in Wilmette?

The summer between third and fourth grades (1952?), my family moved from a blue collar neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where the men were policemen and plumbers, to an upscale suburban neighborhood, where most of the fathers were businessmen who did things none of us kids understood, some of them probably illegal.

We moved there because we could afford it (barely), and because my parents now had four sons who needed to be educated, and the conditions there, especially the schools, were excellent. At the same time, I had been given a sense of values that led me to understand from my earliest years that no person is better than another just because of the sort of work he does for a living, where he lives or comes from.

One day in school my teacher decided to go around the class, asking each child to tell the rest what his father did for a living. Maybe the teacher was just curious herself. In those Dick and Jane days all mothers were housewives. The ones who were not (I did not know any) worked because they were poor and were ashamed to admit it.

Most would say, "My father works for Rumptydump Bank in Chicago," or "He sells insurance," or "Daddy is a doctor," and a few said, "I don't know." My own father's occupation as a successful professional musician was considered highly unusual and mysterious, but worthy of respect because he was often written about in the local paper. Some children confused "musician" with "magician", and thought he did tricks. His biggest trick was continuing to support us in this community.

One of the last to report was a girl named Geri, who proudly announced, "My father is a janitor!"

There is nothing shameful about what a man does for a living as long as it is honorable work. We all believe that, right? Then why did a hush suddenly come over that classroom? The apparent embarrassment the other students felt was palpable. Of course, no one dared to utter a word or a gasp or a giggle in response.

Friday, January 26, 2007

What Is Economy?

Recently I mentioned to a friend that it was difficult to communicate with some persons I need to keep in touch with because they either do not use computers, or do so infrequently. Sending them email is next to useless, and other means of contacting them is way too slow. He suggested that I have little patience with and feel sorry for those who refuse to keep up with technology. That was far from what I said or feel, but it led to an interesting discussion.

My friend lamented the pros and cons of technological advancements, describing them as being like making two steps forward and one and a half back. The essence of what I said in reply follows.

It's really more like tacking, to draw on a sailing analogy — like zigging and zagging. I'm not aware of many outright backward steps. The ultimate result is forward progress, in some sense of the term, and it's usually for the common good.

Mankind is by nature an explorer and a learner. We also have ability to share our knowledge. We are social creatures, meaning that being made in the image of the God of love, we intuitively help one another. It's built into our biological firmware to do so.

The term "economy" is wontedly associated with commerce and money, therefore implicitly with materialism, greed, and selfishness, concepts that rankle the sensibilities of persons with sensitive consciences. They may as a result condemn industry for its intrinsically base motives.

I don't think that way myself for a second.

Economy is at its core about people helping one another. I do for you, and you do for me; the result will be that we'll both be better off. It's more ... umm ... "economical" for us to have that sort of relationship.

When God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he created what? — an economy — in the form of a family. God is recorded as having said at the time: "It is not good for the man to continue by himself. I am going to make a helper for him, as a complement of him." (Genesis 2:18)

Later God had the Congregator Solomon record this thought: "Every man should eat and indeed drink and see good for all his hard work. It is the gift of God." (Ecclesiastes 3:13) Working hard and getting results is good and has God's blessing.

Each one of mankind who is able to do so is obliged to participate in contributing to the work of mankind to the best of his ability. The apostle Paul warned those who lazily refuse to hold up their end with this admonition: "We used to give you this order: 'If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.'" — 2 Thessalonians 3:10

In Eden, at least for a while, Adam pursued his calling while Eve fulfilled her complementary role. They worked both independently and together as one, and were mutually benefitted by the arrangement. Adam might have said to his beloved partner, the most beautiful woman in the world: "While you're preparing a fire, I'll go gather vegetables for dinner from the garden. When I get back we can make something to eat." And so it went.

Unfortunately for us all, before long their business failed, but the principles of economic cooperation they first enacted remain.

Today's world economy is structured from individuals, teams, companies, and cooperating governments at various levels, ostensibly, though not always in practice, working together to oil the wheels.

People whose motive in starting a business is simply making money earn little respect from me compared with those who nurture their passions and talents to produce something extraordinary that others can benefit from. Not that the exchange of valuable commodities or services is unimportant; if no one wants the left-handed weasel traps some entrepreneur offers, he gets nothing in return. Economy stops; everyone shifts gears and moves on to other pursuits.

As a convenience, men have created money — to measure, regulate, and standardize the exchange of that which is perceived to be of value. Ordinarily, if I need a bag of carrots from the grocery store, I don't write a few lines of computer code for the farmer who grew them. The way it works is far more complicated and flexible than that. Countless individuals get involved in the process, with money or its equivalent changing hands on many levels. Underneath it all, that's basically what's happening: A farmer grows carrots and sends them to market, and he gets paid for them. I want carrots, so I go to a grocery store with money and get them. I get most of my money from writing computer code. In the end neither one of us knows the other is alive, but we have worked to benefit one another.

A few years ago the Internet came along and changed everything — absolutely everything — far more than any previous advances in communication and transportation ever have, even more than automobiles or airplanes or telephones, or television, and even more than computers all by themselves. For better or worse, the global village that Marshall McLuhan predicted decades ago has become one of the most pervasive realities of our age. All around the world electronic devices are now persistently connected. When those devices started talking to each other, so did the people who ran them, and things really started to happen — and it's barely gotten started.

Well, not quite everything has changed. Admittedly, we who live in the US tend to have parochial views about the rest of the world. Yes, there are still billions of poor people in the world who are starving, totally uneducated, and so helpless in the face of their own desperate circumstances that their only prospect in life is to hang in there until they die. Most of them will never have the opportunity to make worthy use of the lives God gave them. I've never met one, but I'm led to believe they're out there.

But for those who live within reach of the cyber-sphere and its periphery, the reality is that we're more in what I refer to as the "I Love Lucy" era of the Internet. It's barely gotten rolling. A few visionaries are just now starting to figure out what we can do with all this newfound power.

The entire world economy and our way of doing things has shifted, but even the wisest visionaries still have little clue just where it's headed, even in the next five years. They didn't predict the state we are in today five years previously. I doubt anyone could do any better regarding what's just ahead. Mankind now has the tools and ability to grow world knowledge and understanding at an exponential pace, but none of us individually has the ability to absorb more than a tiny fraction. What it all leads to, as the rate of change approaches the asymptotical, will understandably become increasingly hard to predict, and even more so to control.

There's no universal law dictating that anyone has to go along for the ride. Everyone has freedom of choice. It's still entirely possible for someone to live a contentedly happy and healthy life paying little or no attention to what goes on around him. No one is obliged to own telephones or televisions or automobiles, or to read books or even to acquire indoor plumbing. That stuff all costs money — lots of it — and makes life correspondingly complicated, and we are taught by allegedly wise men to believe that a simple life is a better life, are we not?

It's not always easy, though, to avoid those things. And it's definitely often not advantageous, including for persons who must interact with those who remain isolated.

People who grouse about technology are usually those who have been left behind, have left themselves behind, or who have misused it or refused to put forth any effort to confront it. Most of such persons would grouse about something else in the absence of technology.

How am I supposed to be of assistance these days to someone who has no telephone or means of transportation? He has made himself helpless, but is it my obligation to adjust to that person's ways? I think not. In such cases there's an unbridgeable disparity that obliges us to live in different worlds.