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October 25, 2005

First Day of Pants

I hadn't run for more a week after finishing last weekend's 50-miler, so on Saturday I headed out for an easy neighborhood run.

I had been feeling pretty good during the week, so I was somewhat surprised at how absolutely terrible this run felt. Everything ached - every muscle group in my legs was sore, and I felt like I had gained about 30 pounds (10, I could believe - but 30 seemed high even for a binger like me.)

The run was only 4 miles, but it felt like 40. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After all, running 50 miles must take its toll on the body somehow, right? I misread my lack of resting soreness as a sign that I was ready to run again.

A full recovery will probably take weeks, but that's OK by me - I've got nothing on the calendar until springtime.

Additionally, today was the first day of the year that I had to wear long pants. California's central coast has a generally mild climate and somewhat different seasons than the traditional calendar would indicate.

We seldom have tempurature extremes, or severe weather like thunderstorms or blizzards, so I keep track of the seasons by what I need to wear for my morning run. I'll write more about this later.

But today was the first day of pants...and it finally feels like autumn.


October 21, 2005

Yasso This!

Reading about Jeff's track workout got me to thinking...

I'm beginning to dislike Bart Yasso.

He's the Runners' World contributor who came up with the smarty-pants theory of predicting marathon times based on 800-meter interval track workouts.

The theory is this: during the course of your marathon training, include a weekly track session of 800m repeats. Build up the number of repeats until you do a workout of 10 repeats, with a rest break equal to the interval time between each one.

Whatever time you can run consistently for ten repeats corresponds to your marathon time, by changing the units. For example, 3-and-a-half minutes equals a 3:30 marathon. If you run them all in 2 minutes, 50 seconds, you're in shape to run a 2:50 marathon.

Sounds simple, right? And according to the RW website, this formula was tested on hundreds of runners, and holds true all the way up and down the line, from 2:10 marathoners to those who need over 5 hours.

The problem is, I have tried this particular strategy several times, and have never even come close to my predicted marathon time. The closest numbers I have ever put together were a 3:03 marathon at Napa after running ten repeats of 2:49 to 2:53.

I have also used this formula in preparation for marathons at Humboldt, Los Angeles, Big Sur, and San Francisco, with similar disappointing results. The rest of my training included all of the usual recommendations- long runs, hill training, easy days, tempo runs, etc.

So...am I the exception to the rule, consistent over six different courses? Or is there something more complicated than meets the eye? And how can you predict uncertainty, anyway?

The Yasso formula had me so screwed up that sometimes after a marathon I was unsure whether I should feel good about it, or be discouraged.

I typically use a heart rate monitor to pace myself in marathons, and I typically run withing a few minutes of even splits nearly every time. So even if I run an evenly paced 3:09, and kept a solid effort throughout the race, Yasso's formula tells me I should have been at least 10 minutes faster.

That's a tough thought to contemplate on a long drive home after the race.

What I've decided is that there is absolutely no reliable way to predict what anyone's time will be on any given day, especially for a marathon.

Have you ever played team sports? f you were lucky enough to play on a good team, there were always some games where you could "take it easy", knowing you could probably win even without playing your best. A team's win-loss record can be deceptive, based on the quality of the opponents they had played - just look how screwed up the college football polls get every year.

Luckily, there are no such illusions with running. It is a brutally honest sport, both in training and on race day. I can't run fast without training hard. And even if I do all of the arduous work to prepare for a race, I have to produce an exceptional effort during the race to achieve a PR.

When I do attain a PR or any other particular goal, I know that it was hard earned and well deserved. I know there's no reliable way to predict a race performance, and no way to fake it. And I wouldn't have it any other way.


October 20, 2005

Thanks to Dean and Dave

Every November, Mike Dove and I use our running column to express all the things we are thankful for.

This year, I'm definitely going to thank Dean Karnazes and David Letterman.

In March, Karnazes went on The Late Show to promote his book Ultramarathon Man. I had previously had only a passing awareness of Karnazes, seeing him in photos from running magazines.

Letterman was in good spirits, but seemed genuinely confused about whether to be amused or impressed by Karnazes's exploits. The interview was equal parts absurd and inspirational - not unlike the sport of ultrarunning, really.

I bought Karnazes's book and tore through it. For many years I had wondered if I could complete an ultra, and by the time I had finished Ultramarathon Man, I was absolutely convinced it was possible.

I trained throughout the summer, and last week I finished my first ultra, the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in Castro Valley. It was a beautiful race, and one of my most rewarding experiences in running.

I don't know if I'll continue my foray into ultrarunning, but I definitely know that I wouldn't have started when I did if it weren't for that Late Show interview. For giving me the impetus to start, I'm grateful to both of them.

So thanks, Dean. Thanks, Dave.

(The interview can be seen on Dean Karnazes's website here.)


October 19, 2005

Great Moments in Spelling (Part II)

At long last, the day I circled on my calendar months ago had finally arrived: the 2005 edition of the Scripps National Spelling Bee! Five hours of coverage on ESPN, live from the Independence Concourse of the Grand Hyatt Washington in downtown Washington, D.C.

Why in God's name do they have this thing on a weekday? I mean, not all of us can skip work to watch year after year. What on Earth did people do before TiVo? The Scripps folks should have the Bee on a Sunday, like the Super Bowl, or on a holiday weekend, like the Indy 500. It's that important.

To commemorate the day, I compiled a real-time diary of random observations that occurred to me when watching this year's event. Herewith, a runner's thoughts on the 78th annual Bee:

10:02 (all times PDT) - Today's co-host: Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, winner of the 1979 National Spelling Bee. It's like having Frank Shorter doing commentary for the Olympic Marathon. I'm guessing she kept her maiden name so that people would recognize her: "are you that Katie Kerwin, from the 1979 Bee?" She's still basking in the glory, 26 years later. This has to be about as far as anyone can milk having "former National Spelling Bee champion" on her resume, right?

10:13 - The first seven spellers have all spelled their words correctly. There are a finite number of words used for each Bee, so there is always the possibility that the entire word list could be used up before all the contestants are eliminated, resulting in co-champions. It hasn't happened since 1962, but today we're starting out on course record pace...

10:14 - Nevermind. Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan just tripped over "lignapurdous" (something that destroys wood). Game on.

10:32 - Katherine Seymour is struggling with the word "incunabula" (books written before the year 1500). In the process of asking her permitted questions, she tries to slip in "How do you spell that?" The judge pauses and smiles, and everybody in the room has a good laugh, thankful for the light moment. Katherine then misses the word and is escorted offstage. The lesson: never lose your focus. It's a fatal mistake.

10:33 - I know this one! "Matutinal" describes an activity that habitually takes place in the early morning hours. I got this word a few weeks ago on my word-of-the-day e-mail from dictionary.com (thaat's right...insert your geek joke here), and I've been waiting to drop it in a column about running. I mean, my training group is definitely comprised of matutinal people. Way matutinal. They don't make 'em much more matutinal than us. Apparently Sahiti Surapaneni is familiar with the word also, as she easily nails it to advance to Round 6.

10:37 - Returning from a commercial break, ESPN shows the clip of the legendary "euonym girl", Rebecca Sealfon, who jumped up and down while shouting the letters of this final word to win the 1997 Bee. Quite simply one of the best Bee moments ever. It was like watching Alan Webb's high school record mile at the Pre Classic - an electrifying, unforgettable breakthrough performance by a young phenom at their absolute prime.

That type of performance at the Bee will never be duplicated. It's a lose-lose situation for any kid with the temerity to imitate that response on the final word. Spell it correctly, and you're just copying the girl from 1997. Miss it, and you look like a complete choker.

11:02 - 12-year-old Nidharshan Anandasivam is stumped by the word "muesli", taking almost all his allotted time before tripping up and omitting the "e". My goodness - muesli? That word knocked a kid out of the contest? I could understand if it were "Cap'n Crunch", with that unconventional p-apostrophe-n variant, but wow - "muesli." For the rest of his life, whenever he goes down the cereal aisle of the grocery store, this poor kid is going to flashback to his most disappointing moment ever.

11:33 - Monterey County has the Big Sur Marathon and the Wildflower Triathlon on successive weekends; in Washington, 11-year-old Bonny Jain finished 4th in the National Geography Bee one week before his appearance here at the Spelling Bee. I wonder how the training between the two events compares. Does studying for one event impact your performance in the other? There may be some good cross-training potential: after you manage to locate places like Uzbekistan or Kuala Lumpur, their names provide great opportunity to polish your spelling skills. Is fatigue a factor in entering back-to-back events? Did he purposely not taper for the Geography Bee, so he could stay sharp for the Spelling Bee? I'm full of questions about this.

Come to think of it, why don't these geography kids get more dap? The spellers have become superstars in recent years with movies and national TV coverage, so why is the Geography Bee neglected? They must be equally strenuous events. In fact, geography is probably harder in many ways - I don't remember any catchy rhymes like "i before e..." to help remember the highest point of each continent. It's probably a much larger volume of information to learn, with capital cities, rivers, mountain ranges, and relative sizes of every country. Geography kids deserve much more attention than they're getting (gosh, it's even more like triathlon than I thought).

11:38 - Every year, there are lots of musical terms (dolcissimo, pianissimo, notturno) and medical terms (pleurisy, trichinosis, spondylitis). People joke that the first step to being a great runner is to pick the right parents. I'm thinking if there were some kid with a doctor father and a concert pianist mother, he would be almost unstoppable in the Bee.

12:00 - 1:00 - Lunch break. 29 spellers left. P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E.

1:23 - After they hear their assigned word, some kids like Alexis Ducote and John Minnich turn their placards upside down and pretend to write the word on the backside. They aren't allowed pencils during the bee, but this practice helps them to visualize the word as it is written. Sports psychologists are always yammering at us runners to visualize success, and picture ourselves running strong and effortlessly. I've always thought it was bunk, but most of the kids who do this at the Bee end up spelling the word successfully. Ducote just nailed "persifleur" (one who indulges in banter). Maybe I'll give that visualization thing a try sometime.

1:48 - As contestants miss a word, they get escorted to the "comfort room" off stage. The cameras don't go there, which of course makes me wonder- what goes on back there? Are there free sodas and video games to cheer you up? Do they play Hilary Duff CDs and hand out stacks of Yu-Gi-Oh cards? Why can't they go interview the kids back there, like they do in the "kiss and cry" area with figure skaters who have just crashed a triple axle? There's a lot of ratings potential here.

2:27 - After Marshall Winchester is eliminated by missing "serang" (the boatswain of an East Indian army crew) in Round 11, the remaining four contestants are of Indian descent, guaranteeing us another Indian winner. This makes three years out of the past four with an Indian winner, and numerous second through fifth place finishes in the last five years. If the Spelling Bee were the Boston Marathon, these Indian kids would be like the Kenyans, increasingly dominating the event year after year. Am I the first person to notice this? Ten years from now, it will be a shocker if the winner isn't Indian.

2:38 -11-year-old Samir Patel has made the Bee look effortless to this point. Often, upon hearing a word such as "hooroosh", he asks some show-offy question about the definition such as, "Does that mean a great commotion?", or about the origin of other words like "Is that of Latin origin, translated from the Greek form?", which of course he knows are correct before he even asks them. He's in the final two and a clear favorite to win, but suddenly in Round 19 he stumbles on "roscian" (relating to or skilled in acting), and there is a collective gasp through Independence Concourse. The door is now open for Anurag Kashyap to win, like a patient runner who drafts the leader for the whole race before sprinting past him in the final straightaway.

2:40 - Anurag nails "appoggiatura" (another musical term! It's an embellishing note one half-line above or below the note that precedes it) and claims the prize. Like last year's winner, David Tidmarsh, Anurag's response is to hide his face behind his placard and cry. What does it say about the stress of the competition that these kids are reduced to emotional wrecks- even the ones who win? Remind me to keep my kids away from this sort of thing when they get older.

2:42 - In his post-Bee interview, Anurag is asked to describe how he feels. He stammers for a bit before finally coming up with..."ecstaticness". What? Is that even a word? Apparently not, for he quickly corrects himself to say "ecstatic, sorry." After completely wrestling the English language to the ground, the kid finally bonked and went into multi-system shutdown. It's like watching a marathon runner run a strong race and pump his fists across the finish line, and then collapse and get carried to the medical tent by an elderly volunteer. He still gets to keep the marathon medal, and Anurag still keeps his trophy.

Watching at home, I can only hope he's headed for some refreshments and a massage tent somewhere. After his performance today, he certainly deserves it.

See other installments of this series on sidebar at right


Go All-In

The World Series of Poker on ESPN is a unique glance into the world of high-stakes gambling that the vast majority of us are too terrified or too poor (the entry fee to the main event is $10,000) to enter.

The contestants make for truly fascinating viewing- it's one of the biggest collections of oddballs, creeps, and weirdos outside of a Star Trek convention. Harvard PhDs compete with uneducated laborers, mathematic whiz kids stare down vice peddlers, and just-off-the-boat immigrants play alongside old-school Texas oilmen.

There are high rollers, Jesus freaks, pregnant women, and lots of fat guys. If only someone could invent smell-o-vision, we could also sense the cigar stench and the stale nachos and the B.O. (come to think of it, maybe we could do without smell-o-vision).

They all compete in one of the most ruthless varieties of poker, called No-limit Texas Hold 'Em.

The shameless plugging of the WSOP by ESPN has blurred the boundaries of the sports network. Really now...can poker legitimately be considered a sport?

No one would dare call card players athletes, as even casual observers can take one look at the players and tell that these aren't the smoothie-after-a-workout types.

So what is the appeal to the traditional sports crowd? For one thing, the complexity of the game has some athletic parallels, particularly to running. The most dramatic similarity occurs when players decide to "go all-in".

The most exciting aspect of the no-limit game is that anyone can go all-in on any hand, wagering their entire stack of chips. If you have a higher chip count, you can go all-in against a lower stack to intimidate them off a hand, further building your pile. If you go all-in with the low stack and lose the hand, you're out of the tournament.

You would think players would reserve such a gambit for only a few premium hands, but in fact it's done all the time. Tournament rules require increasing chip bids for each hand, so the player who plays conservatively will slowly bleed his chips away before the ideal hand comes along.

Thus, going all-in is a necessity, as players are unable to win large pots or knock other players out without this tactic.

Now think of going all-in as racing. To runners, every race represents a time to push all of your chips onto the table, reveal your cards, and see who comes out on top.

In poker, the decision to go all-in is partly based on your opponent: do you think he has a better hand than you? Can you get a read off of him that indicates what cards he is holding?

In racing, we are often concerned with how we will perform in comparison to others. Some of us try to beat our training partners. Others try for age group awards, while some are afraid of finishing dead last.

The apprehension in each of these scenarios involves the perceived strength or speed of the other runners. The training everyone has done before the race is like the cards that are held face-down- only the individual knows for certain, but others try to get a read on it.

On race day, every one of your competitors is going all-in, and the race itself will reveal who holds the better hand.

Without a doubt, the fear of losing is the most nerve-racking aspect of going all-in for professional card players. In no-limit poker, any given hand could result in sudden elimination.

Similarly, with every race, runners risk failure or disappointment with a poor showing. But just as there is no way to advance in the WSOP without going all-in, there is no better way to improve our performances without putting everything on the line in a race.

Any of us who are concerned with PRs, age group places, and comparative times from year to year need to go all-in on a regular basis, not just when we have the perfect hand.

Without the motivation of the next race looming over us, many of us would tend to ease up on our training, gradually losing our edge and our speed, the same way a pile of chips can dwindle away one hand at a time if never risked.

Although I would never have the stomach for entering a high-stakes poker game, I've had major-league cases of the jitters leading up to several races. This is the nature of any competition: dealing with nerves is simply a part of the game.

Longtime gamblers profess that this is the "juice" that brings them back to the table year after year- the panicky tension, the ongoing drama of exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows based on the fall of the cards.

Most of us that are hooked on racing are seeking the same thrill. Many coaches say that if you aren't terrified before a race, you aren't properly prepared for it.

Maybe poker players and runners have more in common than it first appears. Running brings together people from disparate backgrounds. Some of us are weirdos. A lot of us have B.O. Maybe there aren't quite as many fat guys in our group, but the internal makeup is largely similar.

Many runners use the phrase "go all-out" to indicate their maximal effort in any given race, but next time, try this: when you are lined up at the start line, envision yourself pushing a big stack of chips into the middle of the road, and commit yourself to going all-in.


October 18, 2005

Running and Rambling

I'm learning this blog stuff on the fly. I have an existing archive of articles called Running and Rambling that I've had saved for a few years. I'll play around with the blog format soon. In the meantime...please check out www.runningandrambling.com. Thanks! DB

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