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.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

When I Almost Died

In February, 1972, my wife and I, who were living in the Riverdale area of Bronx, New York at the time, planned a week's vacation to visit our parents in Wilmette, Illinois. (Our families lived four blocks apart.)

I remember taking a cab to the airport and feeling wonderful that morning and excited about the trip. The plane was crowded. My wife took the window seat. I sat in the middle. On the aisle was a cheerful man at least seventy years of age.

Normally I strive to keep to myself on airplanes so I can get some serious reading done. On this occasion I struck up an animated and pleasant conversation with the man on the aisle. I no longer remember a single word of what we discussed, only that it was a thoroughly enjoyable encounter, and that we talked most of the trip.

Airplane seats are close together. If you talk to someone next to you, you must either look ahead and not face your conversation partner, or turn your head to talk, in which case you are in closer proximity to that person's face than the unwritten protocols for granting private space would normally dictate. (When is the last time you carried on an extended conversation with stranger, your noses barely a foot and a half apart?)

My parents met us at the plane. While in the process of disembarking and picking up luggage, I noticed that I wasn't feeling particularly well. My chest and nose had filled, my throat was raw, and my breathing was labored.

We were met at O'Hare airport by my parents, who took us to the house I grew up in, where we would stay. It was about a forty-minute drive.

In my entire life I have never become so sick so rapidly as I did during the duration of that drive. I barely realized I was getting sick as I was leaving the plane; by the time I arrived home, although an old friend I hadn't seen in years dropped by for a visit, it was all I could do to sit up in the living room and be pleasant for a few minutes before I had to excuse myself. Simply crawling up the stairs to get to bed required the greatest effort.

What had formerly been my old bedroom had been turned into a guest room with twin beds. I took the one nearest the bathroom and fell into it, while my wife wondered what on earth was going on with me, and why I couldn't make a bit more effort to be more sociable.

The reason I was not behaving sociably was because I was rapidly getting so sick that in retrospect I sincerely believe I came close to dying that night, and no one but me knew it.

Somehow I remember counting — over the next two days I left that bed only to crawl quite literally on my hands and knees the ten or twelve feet from my bed to the toilet to vomit — thirteen times. How is it even possible to retch that many times in such a short span?

If I had been in my right mind I should have asked to be taken to nearby Evanston hospital, where they probably would have slapped an IV on me because I was losing fluids, but I had fever, and all my thoughts were incoherent during that period, as all I could think of for hours at a time was how I was going to take my next breath.

My wife and family carried on, doing whatever they were doing, I guess figuring that I was being a spoilsport, unable to eat or drink anything whatever, or to leave my bed or even to sit upright even for a minute for three full days.

Part of the reason we made the trip was because my brother Dale was giving his senior cello recital at University of Illinois, where I too had been a music student, and we earnestly desired to go down and hear it. While there I wanted to show my wife the campus, all my old stomping grounds, and look up some of the people I knew while I was there. I had been gone only four years, and had been there for six, so there were still plenty of faculty and graduate students around who had been my friends.

We were scheduled to travel to Urbana on the fourth day of our vacation. I wanted nothing more than to hear my brother's recital. He had become an outstanding cellist, and I hadn't heard him play since our wedding two and a half years earlier.

But when the time came I didn't want to go because I was just too sick. It was February, the weather was cold, rainy, and dismal, and while I was better than I had been the previous two days, I still couldn't even sit upright indoors.

But my mother insisted that I go, because after all that was why I came all the way from New York. The deal was they would put pillows and blankets in the back seat, and I could recline the whole trip, but for better or worse, I was going to that recital. I resisted, but my mother would not take no for an answer.

It was probably premature for me to do that, but also good for me to force myself to move around and do things, as unpleasant as it was. By the time we got to Urbana, I was able to be up and perambulate.

I remember little about the trip other than visiting the mobile home Dale lived in on the edge of town; that the recital went well; that he played a Bach unaccompanied suite among other things; that his teacher Peter Farrell praised him to the skies; that we ate at my favorite old haunt, the House of Chin, where I ran into my least favorite teacher, the composer Herbert Brun; that we made the rounds the next day to say hello to whomever we could find, which happened to include the girl friend who preceded my wife; and that my wife — the first one, the one who never showed much interest at all in anything I ever did — was utterly bored by it all.

It took a full month to recover from that case of flu or pneumonia, or whatever it was, which I now regard as the sickest I have ever been in my life, so bad that I believe my life was in danger, but none of us even recognized it, including me. I could have been much sicker and still be here to relate the tale today.

Which brings me back to the airplane. We know today that the closely confined space of an airplane cabin is a place to catch germs from other people. Given that I was healthy as could be when I left the house that morning, for years I assumed that I caught whatever it was from the kindly gentleman with whom I conversed. Later I wondered if perhaps it was the other way around, that I had something brewing.

What I will never know is if that man got sick too, but I'm rather sure that if he did, given that I was not yet thirty, while he was at least seventy, I doubt that he lived through the weekend. Did I kill him? I will never know.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Family Affair

As a runner who is deeply involved in the organization and presentation of Across the Years, yet who also manages to run the 72-hour race each year, mostly undistracted by official responsibilities other than to answer an occasional question, I enjoy a unique insider's perspective on the race.

It has been my pleasure to to participate in this most wonderful of multiday races each year since 1999 — the first year (the year of the six-day millennium run) as a 24-hour runner, the next as a 48-hour runner, and for the last six years as a 72-hour runner. The race has become the core of my running program, the event around which all other running that I do is built.

Especially since moving to Nardini Manor, the race has increased in quality by an order of magnitude each of the past four years to the point that it's hard to imagine how we could make it much better. But raising the bar is what ATY does, so I'm sure next time will be even better.

The most essential factor making the race a high-quality operation is its volunteers, with its team of key operatives, some of them specialists on a professional level in what they help out with, each of whom recognizes that ATY is far from just another race, but something quite special. So everyone works extra hard to make the experience memorable for all persons who attend — runners, spectators, and the volunteers themselves.

Outstanding among them are host Rodger Wrublik, a hard-working man of unparalleled generosity, who has allowed the race to invade his personal space for the past four years, and race director Paul Bonnett, a people person who understands ultrarunners and responds to their needs well.

Then there is Nardini Manor itself, with its setting in the quiet countryside outside Phoenix, its comfortable custom made track, the attractiveness of the premises, documented by the nearly 4,000 pictures now on our web site, and the convenient big tent that is heated at night, giving runners and crew a welcome refuge from the sometimes bone chilling cold of desert winter nights.

We also have the benefit of the best in chip-based timing equipment, operated for the past two years primarily by omnipresent ultrarace volunteer Dave Combs, a computer professional who is able to handle technical problems deftly, and who tested and made many useful suggestions and contributions to the web projects I implemented during the year.

My own small part in the preparations has been to provide the web site, including the registration system, biographies, webcast features visible on race day such as the current results program (Dave Combs wrote the part that uploads the latest to the web site every few seconds); the popular greetings package that people think is email but isn't; database design and maintenance; statistical reports; a suite of administrative programs to use during the race by the folks behind the computers, including one by means of which to upload, register, and caption pictures during the race; the Runners Manual; and the FAQ. In addition I've served as part-time publicist, advocate, de facto historian, and unwanted opinion renderer.

The truth is no one ever asked me to do any of this, nor was a request made for a volunteer to do any of it. I just invited myself to the party several years ago, and started doing things that I thought might prove to be useful, and never quit. So I still feel like a bit of an outsider.

When race day comes, I step aside from all that, whereupon my role changes to that of runner, while the others continue the really hard work of making things go smoothly during the race itself.

We were more pressed for time than usual completing preparations this year. Some plans had to be deferred to another time, but in the end the essentials came together.

The biggest technical problem was with Rodger's new razzle dazzle webcam, which due to failure to make a proper satellite connection, never did get working, leaving a hole in the middle of the web site's front page for part of the race. Finally, on the afternoon of the second day, they hooked up the old webcam we used last year, with pictures allegedly not as good as the new one, but at least it filled the need for the remainder of the race.

The 2006 edition will be known as the year of the ATY Family. The race has numerous participants who return faithfully year after year. These include runners who are far from being in the elite category. Elite and big name runners are as welcome as anyone else to sign up for the race, but it is current official ATY protocol not to cater to or attempt to attract them, certainly not in preference to the roster of loyal supporters that return annually. Forty runners have run the race between five and fourteen times. Race founder Harold Sieglaff has done it 23 times. Needless to say, there will always be a place for Harold as long as he wishes to continue running.

After last year's race the organizers realized we had a megahit on our hands. If the race was to have open enrollment as in the past, it would sell out in minutes, with many of our old friends being left behind. Not good.

Therefore, at a committee meeting some parameters were set by means of which we defined a list of runners we called the ATY Family. We extended advance private invitations to them in May to register for the race. The response was overwhelming and immediate. By the time general registration opened, there were only five race spots still available. Within ten minutes of opening we detected fifteen people hitting the web site attempting to get those spots. Prudently, we also arranged for a waiting list, and before long we had to stop taking additions to that as well.

As race day approached cancellations enabled a few more new ones to participate. A quick visual check indicates about 20 new ones of 105 total runners, with at least four of those being relatives of veteran runners.

The next race we intend to switch to a lottery system to choose runners. No matter what happens, some people will be left out because there are stringent limits to the number of people that available resources will support.

Enough of the overview. This is where this report becomes highly Lynn-centric.

As I have done the past three years, I set a goal of 325 kilometers, nearly 202 miles, mainly because I want the 200-mile buckle offered the last three years. My PR from 2004 is 188.275 miles, so 200 has seemed to be in reach. But I arrived at race day this year fat as a horse, with my running having fallen off dramatically since November, even though I was in the best shape I've been in for years from mid-September to mid-October.

Yes, I have been running; but I experimented with some new training advice involving reduced mileage that simply hasn't worked for me. By race day I was certainly rested, but to the degree that I'd gained a significant amount of weight in a short span — over fifteen pounds since late September! — and I'd lost some fitness.

A week before the race I hammered out a detailed race plan, with daily goals, divided into into six-hour segments of 30%, 27%, 23%, and 20% of the projected day's total, calculating the average pace per segment. One must, of course, run faster than the average for each segment in order to account for breaks, including sleeping, which are hard to predict the need for, but inevitable. In a 72-hour race, only the hardiest can rightly consider doing it without sleep. I've gotten as little as three or four hours, but can by no means go sleepless the whole race.

The day before ATY is to me like Christmas Eve is to some people. For me the fun starts on December 28th. It's an occasion to get to the race site early, set up my stuff, and especially to greet people as they arrive, while getting into the spirit of things.

If there is one thing that ATY does well, it is to communicate with its runners — before, during, and even after the race. As webmaster I answer myself countless questions people send in during the year. I also compose and send most of the pre-race bulk mail, and of course I know most repeating runners to some degree already. By the time race day arrives, I know almost everyone on a first name basis, even those I have not yet met, so naturally I get around to lots of people at least to say hello in the few hours I'm there.

Dave Combs had everything under control in the timing tent, so there were no web-related problems for me to check out from there. Most of what I needed to do yet that day would better be accomplished from home, so I left by 2:30pm.

Late Thursday afternoon I zeroed out critical database tables, made the first official entry in the online news blog, uploaded my own pictures I'd taken that afternoon, and finally enabled the race day front page of the web site with all the critical new webcast features enabled. By then it was time for dinner and to bed promptly at 8:15pm.

I slept well most of the night, and got up at 5:30am. It's difficult for me to stay in bed that long on any occasion, but somehow I managed.

The only change I made to my usual race morning routine was to eat a big bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, stoking my energy reserves early. It proved to be a good move.

That hour or so between arriving and the start of the race is always a nervous time. There is much to do. When I arrived the tent was not yet warmed up. It was a bit uncomfortable until Rodger arrived and fired up the propane heaters.

I had become just another runner going about my preparations. I checked in at the registration desk, picking up my goodie bag with the shirts I hadn't seen myself yet. Very nice! This year we lost Patagonia as a sponsor, but picked up The North Face, which supplied us with stuff that is every bit as good as the gear from Patagonia we gave out the previous two years. Besides, I like The North Face's groovy red logo better than Patagonia's. Personally, I'm happy about the switch, and hope we are able to continue with them.

Next it was back to my tent, followed by the impatient fumbling around with things, making sure everything was put in exactly the right place so I could find it later, dragging the right stuff outside to be at my personal aid station just across from the tent entrance, greeting more people, making jokes and small talk, and waiting for Paul to call the prerace briefing to order.

This year's prerace formalities included a moment of silence in honor of Mark Witkes, who ran the 72-hour race in 2001, and who died near the end of Tucson Marathon on December 8th. The 2006 race was dedicated to his memory. His experience serves as a sobering reminder that engaging in our sport is not without risk or consequences, and that we should by all means enjoy ourselves, but also be careful to show due respect for the life God has given to each of us.

We were off at precisely 9:00am.

My objective was to start out uncomfortably slowly, moreso than I had ever done, with an initial goal of 77 laps (38.5K) in the first six hours. I completed the 77th lap in 5:59:01, as close to on schedule as I could hope to be, but in retrospect I believe it was still too fast. If so, it also means that 325 kilometers was out of range for me this year, but that's the speed I needed to go to make it.

The beginning of the race each year there is much chatter on the track, as the banter bounces back and forth. It seems to follow a sort of curve. Initially there's small talk, jokes and introductions between people who have not yet met but will be spending from one to three days in close proximity. Newly acquainted runners usually start by comparing notes on the races they have run. "Oh yeah, I did the Death and Transfiguration 10,000-mile last year. Great race. I'm thinking of doing a double next year." It's not considered inappropriate strategy to impress or terrify your fellow competitors, as long as you tell the truth.

The first hours of each day's race are for me another occasion to meet people. At ATY we wear bibs with our names in big letters. These are not needed for official reasons, because the chip timing system keeps track of our progress. At ATY the bibs serve a social purpose — they are signs that call out: "This is who I am. Please say hello!" In other races wearing one's bib on the back is an instant sign of a newbie, but at ATY it's generally understood that we wear our bibs on our butts so people coming up behind us or that we pass can see who we are. This year Paul made no announcement suggesting we do so, but the practice was almost universally followed. I guess it's become a part of the culture.

Most satisfying to me was the large number of people who took the initiative to say hello to me, many of whom expressed generous gratitude for features of the web site. It was gratifying to have our work so lavishly and warmly commended, and a thrill to know that ATY participants genuinely love the race. By afternoon of each day I recognized, knew the name of, and had personally said at least a few words to all but a very few participants.

Within two hours things become quiet as the magnitude of the job ahead sets in, and people start to separate. By late at night one hears the sort of hushed and intimate talk reserved for people dying of cancer. As the sun rises and race end approaches, the sounds revert to jubilation and impending success.

The degree to which I am able cope with sleeplessness varies on a race by race basis. Sometimes I get away with almost none. At other times I'm obliged to stop and sleep. If I had been in the 24-hour race, I probably could and would have fought it off, but with three days of labor ahead of me, the wise thing to do was to accept it and get some sleep when my path began to lead me into bushes and fences.

My splits indicate that on the first day, I had a 26-minute lap at 6:00pm. I'm sure I didn't sleep then. Thereafter, I was off for 56 minutes at midnight, again for 42 minutes at 1:45am, and again for 54 minutes at 3:00am, so about 2.5 hours of actual sleeping for the day, including time to settle down, adjust clothing and whatever, potty stop, and of course time around the track for each of those laps.

By mid-morning on the second day I knew I was significantly behind in my race plan, which meant first of all that I was already sure I would not make my 325 kilometer goal, and that from that time on there wasn't much point in trying to keep up with the race plan, but that I should just continue to do the best I could. I was not feeling bad at all, just a little frustrated over having arrived at race day less than optimally ready.

Local super-runner Dan Brenden, who is among the kindest of men, and who usually runs ATY as a training run between Grand Slam races and runs across the African desert, saw me the second morning, and apparently sensed that I may have been suffering some distress, so offered to walk a lap with me. We talked about comparing our expectations with our actual performances at any given race. The discussion continued by email after the race. I've taken the liberty of quoting and paraphrasing part of what he said here, which contains a valuable lesson for all ultrarunners:
Prior to a run runners set their expectations. During the run if they find that they will not be able to satisfy those expectations we engage in negative thinking about ourselves. We do not deserve this negative thinking and should be praising ourselves not belittling our performance.

The source of the problem is not in our performance but rather in our expectations. Our expectation setting process is faulty leading to error riddled expectations. I believe expectations are a combination of a variety of factors including past performance times, anticipation of our training outcomes, how we feel the day we set the expectations and other factors that are individual and some of which we are not aware.... We blame ourselves when our performance does not meet our expectations. Wherein often it is the case, because we have accomplished something, we then store it in our mind as average when we should continue to look upon it as astounding.

Running is so much more than an experiment of matching some extraneous time value with a superfluous distance measurement. If running was only a matching game we would all stay home and do the Sunday crossword puzzle.... The greatest runners are not those who finish the fastest or go the furthest but those who give the run their whole body and soul and teach the rest of us not only what it means to be an ultra runner but more importantly how to live our lives.
Nice stuff, eh?

Dan may have thought I was suffering more emotional trauma than I actually was, but fortified by the kind encouragement, I continued to reflect periodically on what he said. While I did not make my goal, neither did I start the race thinking I had a realistic chance to do so. To have gone over 200 miles would have put me in the range of champions and record holders. Sometimes I can do fairly well, but I'm not that kind of runner and know it.

Sometime during the first day I told Paul Bonnett that one thing is absolutely assured: In a 72-hour-race there will be some period of time for every every runner when he (or she) will feel like garbage, when he begins to question his sanity, wondering whether it is reasonable to continue. But these periods are part of the challenge, and they pass. At ATY 2006, I never felt bitterly discouraged or remotely like giving up. I believed that I would surely do better than last year, when my performance was greatly diminished by physical problems I began to experience by about 100 miles. And prevail I did. This year my 100-mile split was six hours behind last year's, but I beat my total distance by 17 miles. In total mileage my race ranked fifth among my six tries.

This race I confronted the problem of better nutrition. The year of my PR I ate like a Conehead, and enjoyed the food immensely. It was my determination to avoid the Bad Stuff entirely — that grab and gulp section of the aid station table with heaps of cookies, chips, candy and other sugary treats that normally I would be unable to resist, but during the race did not interest me in the least. M&M's are normally a great downfall for me, but to my credit I never consumed a single M! Sometime during mid-race I did treat myself to about a half dozen cookies with a white frosted covering, and one single Oreo.

For hydration I brought my own concoction — two gallons of water with maltodextrin and Crystal Light mixed in. When I did not drink that, I stuck entirely to plain water at the aid station, except for one cup of Coke. I maintained my hydration and electrolytes admirably, and never sensed any problem with an imbalance.

I didn't eat much of the little food I'd brought for myself. Instead I stuck mainly to hot cooked foods from the aid station whenever I could get them: pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, cups of soup, the catered meals that were sent in: chicken cordon bleu, lasagna, pizza, and burritos; also oatmeal, scrambled eggs, and whatever stick-to-the-ribs delights I could get my hands on. That way I felt like I was actually eating something nutritious rather than just snacking.

Sometime during the first day someone commented he might like to take a shower before the next day. I reminded him that the the shower stalls at ATY are outdoor and sort of communal, though it's certainly possible for a person to maintain adequate privacy. The guy I was with commented, "The last thing I think about wanting to see when I'm here is a naked woman." I replied: "That is, of course, until you happen to actually see one!" — which semi-happened the morning of the third day as two of us guys ran by a lady runner who shall remain discreetly anonymous, and who quipped, "Well boys, I guess you get to see a show today!" as she pulled her top off to change into something more comfortable.

A tool new to me at ATY this year was my 80 gigabyte iPod, which I acquired last September. I've been running for many years without a music player, but a year ago I bought my wife a 40 gigabyte player for her to walk with, on the supposition that I would try it myself, and if I liked it I'd want one for myself. So I tried it and liked it, and when the new 80GB players came out for not much more than the 40GB machines, I bought one. As a one-time musician I have about 650 music CDs (and as many vinyl records), almost all of which are now on my iPod, with 18 gigabytes left over.

I saved the iPod for late night use, which performed perfectly, so I was able to tool around the track while listening to Handel, Mozart, Keith Jarrett, Elliott Carter, the Beatles, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Randy Newman, Stockhausen, Verdi, Kronos String Quartet, Bach, Rameau, a couple of Bible books, and Stravinsky. An edifying way to pass the time while freezing one's butt off at night.

On the second night I was passed by a runner I didn't recognize at first, running in a white heat, then again and again. Suddenly I realized it was Rodger Wrublik. At first I figured he was out to do a few laps for fun, though he has said repeatedly that he does not like running on his own track. Since I had put him and Paul Bonnett and Dave Combs in the race database for administrative reasons, he reasoned that he might as well slap on a chip and get in a long run. He wound up running 65 miles in 11 hours that night, while at the same time handling chores like picking up and stomping down trash. The third night he ran again, and by 4:45am he had acquired 100 miles. That accumulation was in roughly 22:45 of actual running time. Meanwhile, in other hours he managed to handle problems as the race host.

Rodger will be running the HURT 100 in Hawaii next weekend. How nice that he could get a sub-23:00 100-miler in a couple of weeks before as a tune-up. The man continues to amaze me with his vast stores of energy and abilities.

The weather was unseasonably cold at ATY this year, with temperatures dipping to near freezing. The nights were brutal, enough to drive a greater number than usual runners into the tent at night. A few dropped out early, apparently victims of the cold. As a winter race with 13 hours of darkness, the nights are never easy at ATY. Personally, I always hope for unseasonably warm temperatures during the day, just so the nights don't get too cold. This year I was well prepared for it, and though I could sense it, it didn't impact me negatively this year. In 2002, when we were still camping out on the soccer fields of a high school track in Queen Creek, the cold almost caused me to quit outright.

My favorite sight at Across the Years is one that I experience repeatedly at night, in former years while traveling in the counterclockwise direction, but this year while running clockwise.

Runners pass slightly uphill in front of the house and over the driveway, then through a portal of bushes that leads into the main treed area, which Rodger calls the forest, with the timing tent on the left (moved from previous years, with vastly superior effectiveness), the gazebo, yard, and main corridor lined with runners' personal aid stations. Late at night, with reduced light and sensory perceptions altered by hours of running, the sight acquires an indescribable visual appearance. This year there was a bit of white light leakage from the projector used to display laps that did not directly hit the screen. Some hit bushes and trees, framing an arch overhead. The sight running down that lit corridor toward the aid station is surreal, as I get the impression of being lost in space and time, losing all context of where I am, what I'm doing, and why. For those few moments each lap, I'm just there, as my whole world seems to be focused on just that moment, and there is nothing else that matters. It's my favorite visual impression the race, and is one I am quite sure is incapable of being captured by a camera.

The sensation is increased in the hours leading up to midnight on New Year's Eve, as party decorations begin to appear around the track, tables with sparkling cider are set up, the music and bonfire are stoked up to higher levels, and visitors appear, sometimes dressed in holiday party attire or formal wear, as they mingle around the bonfire, enjoying conversation, sipping wine or cider, and watching runners go by. This is something you simply will not see at any other race.

As it happens, this year and last I missed seeing everything that happens around midnight, as I was sound asleep in my tent, in the middle of my longest break of the race, a lap of six hours and twelve minutes. I was briefly awakened by the sounds of celebration and fireworks, but was not inclined to get up to witness it.

Traditionally, I experience a third day surge of energy, usually in the wee hours of the morning, but this time and one other year, in the afternoon hours of December 31st. On Sunday, for about an hour and a half in the early afternoon, I began running once again. It felt exhilarating to do so. My philosophy of strategy is that there are enough periods during this race when I don't feel good at all, that I should go ahead and get my miles when I feel like running, rather than follow some arbitrary race plan. But 1:00pm was too early for the surge to start, as I still had nearly 20 hours of race left, and I wound up paying for it.

The ailment that took me out of the race last year was "ultrarunner's lean", tentatively diagnosed by Andy Lovy as an exhausted left iliopsoas completely lacking in potassium and therefore unable to fire so as to hold me up straight, causing me to lean to the right, ultimately resulting in great back pain because of consequent inability to run or walk in that position.

All through 2006 I did exercises to strengthen those muscles on both sides. It might have done some good, but not enough. Fortunately, the problem attacked much later in my race than last year, and with less devastating consequences. It was when I began feeling uncomfortable from the leaning that I headed off to my tent for my longest break of the race, hoping that some outright rest might help.

It didn't. For two solid hours in the early morning hours of January 1st I virtually channeled my walking, concentrating on nothing else but trying to maintain good form so as to make good progress and minimize the pain. Finally I told Andy Lovy about it. He had sent me an electronic truckload of material on the problem early in the year, much of which I put on the web site. What I had overlooked in his analysis was that there is also a possible solution: potassium glutamate, which is available in health food stores without prescription, and which they had in the medical area.

Say what? How come I didn't know about that? I rushed to the tent to get some, took a capsule that I was told would last ten to twelve hours, and in ten minutes I was walking upright again. Whether I was experiencing the effects of faith healing, believing that this would solve my problem, I do not know. The benefits lasted barely two hours. I asked if taking more would be harmful or beneficial, and was told it might be neither, so I did, and it may have helped a little, but was far from the solution I was looking for.

I was not alone in suffering from ultrarunner's lean. Tracy Thomas, who was on her way to setting the women's course record, began to manifest signs of it as well, though she was leaning in the opposite direction. Mistakenly thinking I had become the big expert, I trotted up beside her and told her confidently that there was a solution to the problem. "What?" she inquired with notable skepticism. I told her with great authority what I had learned about potassium glutamate, as though I had known it all my life, and demonstrated by holding my arms out and walking ahead of her a couple of steps.

Tracy's pointed response was: "You only think you're standing up straight." Ha! The Emperor had no clothes and was now revealed. This realization, while humbling, made me laugh out loud, as I replied: "I think that's how it works!"

That episode signaled the end of my ideas of salvaging my race with potassium glutamate. From then until the end, I tendered no further hope that any miracle substance would improve the situation, and all that was left was to grit it out. Fortunately, by then I had only a few hours to go.

For the record, as far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on the question of what causes runner's lean and what can be done about it. I have no idea, and am back to square one.

When I crossed the mat at 8:52:20 on January 1st, I had run 512 laps, 256 kilometers, a good 8-bit hacker's number. My last lap brought me to 159.071 miles. I could have run one more lap in the time remaining, two with great effort if I had been able to run (which I could not do), but at 0.31 miles per lap it would have taken three more laps to squeak over 160 miles, which I greatly wanted, but it was not to be.

Instead I rushed to my tent to pick up my camera and return to take finishing pictures for the web site.

And so the race was over, with John Geesler and Tracy Thomas winning the 72-hour race, Hans Bauer and Julie Aistars the 48-hour race, and Wendell Doman and Terri Handy the 24-hour race. Complete results are on the web site at

My humble 159.071 miles was good for 16th out of 35, so still into the top half, but with the caveat that the rankings in these races are skewed by runners who do not run the race seriously, but run for some arbitrary sub-goal and then stop. I have personal mixed feelings about these performances, but that's a topic for another discussion, and in any case, they are allowed under present race rules.

The food at the postrace luncheon, which my wife arranged for, but not until late the first day of the race, included enchiladas, burritos, chili, salad, and other items of taste and substance — not what most people in the world would be eating at 10:00am on New Year's morning. I suppose a lot were consuming Alka Seltzer. But multiday runners are not most people.

Paul Bonnett conducted the awards presentation with his usual aplomb. Several primary contributors to the race were warmly acknowledged with sustained standing ovations by the tired runners and others present.

We sat at a table with Tony Mangan from Ireland, who finished the 72-hour barely 4.5 miles in back of John. Hans Bauer, winner of the 48-hour was also there. It was interesting to hear the conversation between Tony and John, who came over to compare war stories.

John blamed himself for not making 300 miles, which was his goal, and thought he could have made it if he'd just tried a little harder. He said that he never slept during the race. He laid down once, but couldn't fall asleep, so got up and kept running. Someone said: "I hope you're not driving anywhere from here!" Without missing a beat, John replied: "I'm flying the plane! All those people will be waiting for me." Right.

Because I'd had some sleep during the night I was not as sleepy on the ride home as usual (my wife always drives me home), and was able to take care of a few tasks at home before showering and getting a few hours sleep. It was Wednesday before I got all my stuff pulled in from the car and put away.

As of several days after the race I have thus far have avoided any negative consequences from my ravaged endocrine system. My feet survived quite well, with only one blister that I didn't even know about until I got home. It was of no consequence during the race. But for three days I almost couldn't get my feet in my shoes for the swelling.

But the news was not all good: on Sunday, five days after the race, my lower left leg swelled up so enormously and painfully that I feared I might have sustained a stress fracture. A Monday visit to the DO and x-ray suggests that it is not broken, and merely a case of leg edema. Tomorrow I will take sonogram test to search for blood clots.

Across the Years 2006 is now in the books. No plans whatever have been made as yet regarding future ATY races, but if there is one, which is likely, I will be there.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Half Crazy

Most distance runners have been asked by non-runners: "How far is that marathon you'll be running?" We all have our own saucy answers. I'm sure somewhere there's a smart aleck who replies: "It's just a standard marathon." "Ummm ... Oh! Great!"

One day a man at the gym asked me as I whizzed by him: "How did you do in that marathon?" "Which one?" "Ummm ... the last one." "Oh that — 188 miles." "Errr ... ummm ... Great!" I told him the truth but gave him no comprehensible information. I didn't have time to stop and explain.

Jim Puckett has dubbed the marathon the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, an oddball distance that does not relate in round numbers by any standard scale, and therefore has come to be regarded as its own unit of measure. But like helpless Americans who can't compute things in metric or who ask "How much is that in real money?" when faced with foreign (non-US) currency, non-runners who accept the marathon unit still find it hard to deal with.

But we runners are attached to the word "marathon" because of its connotations of being the Ultimate Challenge, and most runners, particularly those who are strongly testosterone fueled, like to believe they are capable of rising to and conquering that Ultimate Challenge, regarding it as nothing less even when there are 30,000 other people doing it with them on the same day and in the same place, hundreds of whom have conquered that Ultimate Challenge dozens of times before, many of them ten or more times in the past year. Face it — what we really like is to be able to walk around in public with t-shirts that say "Marathon" on them, and hope non-runners notice.

Even ultrarunners use the word "marathon" to describe their races in a comparative way. We run, not marathons, but ULTRAmarathons. Among ourselves we just refer to them as "ultras." And a few, finding ultras to be insufficiently superlative, run super-ultramarathons.

Whazzat? Does it mean we use the distance of a marathon as a standard unit of measure and go some multiple of that?

Nope. Not on yer life. Well ... sometimes, but rarely.

An ultramarathon is an event with all the connotations of a standard marathon — still the Ultimate Challenge — but on a grander scale, sometimes much grander.

"How much grander?" you ask. Well, to ultrarunners it means anywhere from 18.4% grander on up to whatever you can think of, including running all the way around the world, except across the oceans, as fast as you can. Given the earth's equatorial circumference as 24901.55 miles, and that the distances across the oceans are generally compensated for by zig-zagging across continents, a trans-world run would amount to 949.76 times the Ultimate Challenge — a mighty improvement on Ultimacy if I do say so myself.

But get this ... and herein lies the real inspiration for this essay: Runners are so possessed by the word "marathon" that they even use it to describe events that don't qualify to bear the appellative.

So we also have half marathons, which of course are not marathons at all, but exactly half the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, or put another way, Half of the Ultimate Challenge. Hmmm.

With such a description, one may still claim to be conquering the Ultimate Challenge, but — almost parenthetically — only half of it. How many runners do you know who like to tell people that they love to run races that are 13 miles, 192 yards, 18 inches long? Who would even think to do such a thing? If there is a distance that is even stupider than the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, it's half that distance.

Not only do people line up by the thousands to run that distance every weekend — they keep world records for that distance, competed for by runners of the highest stature such as Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. And they call them marathons. Ummm ... half-marathons, that is.

Half craziness doesn't stop there. It extends into the ultra world as well. Recently I downloaded an application for the Lean Horse 100-mile race, and noted that in the race's panoply of offerings they include — not a 50-mile race, but — yes, you guessed it: a Half-Hundred! Wooo!!!

I love it. I'm still giggling over the discovery. First time I've seen it, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

"So how far is that hundred-mile race you're running next August?" "Ummm. It's fifty miles." Classic. (I myself am planning on running the whole hundred. Well ... probably walking half of it, but that's a hypocrisy of a different color.)

In my several years of multiday running I have often thought about what a great experience it would be to compete in a six-day race. I've been thinking about that a lot recently, now that it's 46 hours until the start of my sixth consecutive 72-hour outing at Across the Years, wondering if I'll ever have an opportunity to run a six-day race.

Hey, I know! In 2007 we'll bill the 72-hour race at Across the Years as — yep — Half a Six-Day! Perfect.