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April 30, 2006

3:01:20

That's the short version. My son finished the 5K in about 43 minutes.

I'll post a full race report later. Tonight I need to knock out a Monterey Herald article, and then I'll be back here with all the details - hopefully by sometime tomorrow. Despite the time above, it was a really good day.

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April 28, 2006

Go Time

My last order of business before any big race is a very simple, very symbolic one. After my final training run, I clear the memory of my stopwatch.

I typically let workouts accumulate on my watch for several weeks. It doesn’t serve any practical purpose, but it’s somewhat comforting to carry around a reminder of all the training I’ve been doing in case I ever want to reassure myself that I’ve been preparing well.

But today it was time to put that behind me. I did an easy 3-miler, then pressed the lower right button of my watch:

“Hold to clear last wrkout – hold to clear chrono mem”.

Just like that, it was done. And just as quickly, I mentally shifted into race mode.

The past is now prologue. The real story begins Sunday morning.

This will be my last post until after the marathon. Thanks for everyone's encouragement this week.

See you on the other side.

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April 27, 2006

Take Our Advice - Please!

Like many runners, Mike and I tend to be somewhat competitive on race day, especially on what we consider our home course.

But that doesn't mean we aren't good sportsmen. So in today's Monterey Herald article, we've compiled some recommendations for any out-of-town runners who will be trying to beat us this Sunday. You can read the article here.

No need to thank us. Really. We're glad to help. Honestly.

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April 26, 2006

Goody Bag Breakdown


One cool aspect of the Big Sur 5K is that students who register with their elementary school receive their goody bags and race numbers early during race week. My wife and son picked up their race packets yesterday, and I figured that my son’s first-ever goody bag was worthy of a closer look.

Here then, are some of the contents of the kid’s 5K goody bag, and subsequent observations:

• Race t-shirt: very cool design (above). Unfortunately, no youth sizes were available – which is somewhat puzzling, seeing as how several hundred grade school kids are involved. Anyway, it’s an adult size small – and should fit just perfectly in a couple of years.
• Race bib: his first race number! If you think that’s not going on the wall somewhere when he’s finished…then obviously you’re a first-time visitor to this blog. Welcome to Running and Rambling. Open 24 hours. Comments always appreciated.
• Gift certificate for a free pair of socks: I’m holding out hope on this one. If the running store doesn’t carry kids’ sizes, this could be gravy for Dad.
• Newsletter, recipes, and coupons from Earthbound Farms: the largest organic producer in America happens to be right in the heart of Carmel Valley. It’s at the turnaround point of many of my long runs. So if you’ve ever bought their products, thanks for supporting our local economy!
• Free checking account offer from Washington Mutual: um…ask me again when he’s in college.
• Runners’ World subscription coupon: don’t worry about this one, kid. Dad’s got it covered.
• Marathon Foto advertisement: really? Are they doing this for the 5K? This may be a potential investment – we’ll wait and see.
• Team in Training brochure: good cause. Wrong guy.
• 7g Aquaphor sample tube: leading to the following conversation...
Me: I’ll take that.
Son: No, I want to use it.
Me: OK, but first tell me…what is it used for?
Son: (blank stare)
Me: I’ll take that.
• OC Marathon brochure: When I was in college, I ran this marathon, but it was named the Orange County Marathon. Now it’s called the OC, implying that it’s a much hipper race than it used to be. Or maybe I was way cooler than I realized in college - you know, before anyone actually called it the OC.
• Bay to Breakers brochure: great race, but here’s the thing: a lot of people run naked there. A lot more run while drunk. Do we really want kids to participate in this? I need to think this one over.
• Light blue “run to remember” plastic wristband: wait - are we still doing this? I thought the whole wristband thing was over with (Except yellow. Wear yellow as long as you want. I’ll always be down with Lance). I couldn’t even tell what we were supposed to be “remembering” until I dug through the bottom of the bag and found the 2-inch high paper that explained it. Apparently it’s for hospice care. Which is certainly a worthy cause, and associated with running because...um, because...well, maybe I’m just not thinking of it. But it is a worthy cause.
• “Marathon” bar by Snickers: leading to the following conversation…
Me: I’ll take...
Son (interrupting): No way.
• Sample size Promax bar: don’t worry, Promax. The kid was hooked on these many years ago. But thanks for the sample.

As goody bags go, this one was pretty decent. I tried to explain to him that most bags don’t have quite so much stuff in them. However, that somehow evolved into a discussion of what kind of free food would be available at the finisher’s tent after the race.

So if the kid wasn’t hooked on running before, maybe all the little perks will help push him one step further down that road. Now all that’s left is for him to actually do the race.

And I have a feeling he’ll do just fine.

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April 25, 2006

The Sub-Three Thing

(Author’s note: I get entirely too analytical and introspective when I’m tapering for a race. It’s like the physical energy I normally use for running is transformed into nervous energy during race week. This is a somewhat rambling post, so proceed at your own risk of boredom...)

Previously in this blog I’ve mentioned one of my primary marathon goals: covering the distance in under three hours. It will be my target for Big Sur this weekend, as it has been for just about every marathon I’ve done over the past several years. So I thought I should explain what I’m up against.

First off, running a sub-three hour marathon is pretty darn tough for any runner on any course. Doing so at Big Sur, with its relentless hills and typically unfriendly winds, is a very impressive feat.

And for someone like me to accomplish it at Big Sur is almost unbelievable.

I hinted yesterday that I have an idea of my “outer limit” of athletic performance. I think that if I maximized all of my genetic variables, at my peak racing age, I could probably have been something like a 2:40 marathoner. Admittedly, this is pure speculation, but I’ve done enough races at various distances to make an educated guess as to my capability.

But I’m not at peak racing age anymore. So if I were to rearrange my life tomorrow and completely commit myself to being a competitive runner, I could probably run something between 2:45 and 2:50.

As for the person I am right now, with the balance I’ve currently struck, my best performances land me right in the neighborhood of three hours.

Maybe a few minutes under, maybe a few minutes over. It’s always very close.

There isn’t much margin for error. If I miss a week of solid training or blow off a couple long runs or carry a minor injury to the start line, my chances are pretty slim. If weather conditions are bad or if I don’t follow the proper strategy on race day, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that I’ll be a few minutes over my goal time (see also: 2006 Napa Marathon).

I don’t often run sub-three. In fact, I’ve fallen short many more times than I’ve succeeded. It used to be extremely frustrating. But over the years, I’ve come to think I like it that way. If I could run sub-three every time I lace up my shoes, I would lose my appreciation for the accomplishment.

When I was a novice runner, I trained for years to break 3:10 and qualify for Boston. It was a monumental deal when I finally did it. Now that running 3:10 is more routine, there’s really no excitement in reaching that particular benchmark. But I do find the same thrill in chasing three hours now.

The number itself really doesn’t matter, except for some reason the “zero” numbers (3:20, 3:10, 3:00) are more psychologically compelling. I felt just as happy running 3:10 to qualify for Boston the first time as I was with my first sub-three marathon. The primary satisfaction was in having a goal that initially seemed out of reach, but eventually became attainable with prolonged, determined training and a courageous, focused effort on race day.

The notion of running a sub-three-hour marathon is like a beacon that pulls me through endless mornings of training. It’s the idea that makes me run in the rain, helps me wake up at 4:30 to do long runs, and compels me to do track workouts by myself when the rest of the group doesn’t show up.

In many ways, I really don’t have any business running a three-hour marathon. I’m far too big. I eat WAY too much. I don’t get nearly enough sleep. I never train as much as I plan to. I don’t take care of injuries or illnesses properly. I’m not genetically predisposed to be an efficient runner (and if you don’t believe me, I’ll post pictures of my parents and sister someday – nobody will ever mistake my family for a 4x400m relay team).

Yet this is the person I am. This is the balance in life that I’m comfortable with. And marathoning is the event I love.

So here’s what it typically boils down to: if I train like a madman for a few months, get just enough sleep to keep my car on the road on the way to and from work each day, and have sufficient discipline to keep my appetite under control for a while, I can approach the three-hour barrier with a legitimate hope of dipping below it. If I fail in any of those measures, the deal is off.

I’m actually thankful to have this challenge that intimidates and inspires me all at once. When I get philosophical about it (you know, as in this entire post), I feel like this specific goal in this particular event is what I was made to chase after. It’s like God created this exact situation for me, where I’ll only find success by bringing out the best in myself in training, then taking a leap of faith on race day.

Will it happen this weekend? I honestly have no idea. I think I’ve done a decent job with the “bringing out my best” part. All I can do now is wait to take the leap of faith on Sunday morning.

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April 24, 2006

Finding the Balance

None of us like to admit it, but we all have our limits.

Almost nobody is the runner (or triathlete) they would like to be. All of us are bound by countless barriers that prevent us from training more consistently, or performing better in races.

Some of those limits are beyond our control – our age, our genetics, and (although it may be sexist to say) our gender. This is just as true for elite athletes as for everyday back of the pack runners. There’s ample evidence at races: some runners can simply train less and still run faster than others who spend much more time and effort training. We all know the guy who you never see on the road for several weeks, then he shows up at a local 10K and runs 36 minutes.

Sure it’s frustrating, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Like they say, the first step to being a great runner is to pick the right parents. Fatalistically, our highest level of performance is largely determined before we are even born.

Yet no matter how genetically gifted a person is, somewhere out there lies a physical task that is unattainable. It’s just at a different place for each person. That guy who can run a 36 minute 10K on minimal training may have a barrier of 32 minutes. Somebody else may never break 40 minutes. For elite level marathoners, it’s somewhere under two hours. Paula Radcliffe’s might be 2:10. Although the boundaries to these limits are nebulous (maybe Paula is capable of 2:05 or better - who honestly knows?), they are as immutable as the laws of nature.

So we all have a physical barrier that is unsurpassable. On top of that, we have additional limits that we impose upon ourselves, in how much time and effort we dedicate to maximizing our potential. These limits are largely determined by how we prioritize our training in relation to everything else in our lives.

If training is a relatively low priority, we will never come close to approaching those physical boundaries. Typically, the self-imposed limits completely overshadow our genetic predisposition, so most of us have no idea what our true potential might be. In fact, it’s entirely possible that there’s someone more gifted than Lance Armstrong walking around out there who is oblivious to his gift because he’s never been involved in athletics.

On the other hand, the exclusion of extraneous concerns allows us to fully maximize our potential. This is exactly the theory that has produced dramatic improvements in American distance running over the past several years: gather a group of promising athletes together, provide all of their living expenses so they don’t need jobs, give them expert coaching, and let running be the sole focus of their lives for several years. (It seems like an obvious formula – so how come it took us 20 years of getting our butts kicked to figure this out?)

The rest of us make our own decisions as to how much time and effort we devote to reaching a certain goal, and how much we set aside for other things. That balancing point is in constant flux; it may vary greatly from year to year based on countless other circumstances.

Eventually the runner in us strikes a bargain with all our other roles (as a family person, a professional, etc.), and uses whatever hours we are allotted during the week to develop our athletic talents, and gain an approximation of where our ultimate barriers might reside.

That's actually part of the attraction for many runners: the chance to explore the outer limits of our body's physical capacity at a given task.

I’ve often wondered about where my limit as a marathon runner lies. It’s a romantic notion to ponder how fast I could run if I were fully committed to training. Really now - who wouldn’t want to know? After several years of racing, I think I have a ballpark idea, which I’ll save until the next post (in the biz, that’s what's known as a “teaser”).

There’s no question that if I didn’t have a job, slept eight hours per night and took midday naps, spent as much time as I wanted in running or cross-training, and could afford unlimited physical therapy or massage therapy, I could easily shave several minutes off my marathon time. But for me, that reward wouldn’t justify the sacrifices required to attain it (plus, I couldn’t watch nearly as much reality TV – and what kind of life would that be?).

Over the years I’ve struggled to balance of the amount of training I do with my roles as a husband, father, and provider. It’s taken a lot of trial and error, and there were definitely times when I overemphasized running to the exclusion of more important things.

Right now, the balance I have is comfortable, if delicate. I’m usually satisfied with the amount of training I can do, and I’ve given up the longing to find out what my ultimate limits as a marathon runner might be.

All of which brings me to the task I’m facing this weekend. But today’s post is long enough already. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll elaborate more.

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April 21, 2006

Birth of a Trail Runner

Occasionally I get the opportunity to introduce a fellow runner to my favorite local place to run: Garland Ranch Regional Park in Carmel Valley.

I’ve been running through this 4500-acre preserve for more than a decade, and my love for the hills and trails has not diminished with the passing years. If anything, my familiarity with each trail and pond and rock formation has helped me appreciate the area even more than when I first explored it.

Taking someone into the park with me is frequently a symbolic stage in my relationship with that person. For some reason, I feel more kindred with somebody after running through these trails than I do when running together on the roads.

I feel the most peaceful, the closest to my true self when I’m on the trails. So if running with someone on the roads is like dating, then taking that person to Garland Ranch is like bringing him or her home to meet the family. It’s like the first hometown date on The Bachelor – the best opportunity for the other person to get an accurate snapshot of the person I really am, for better or worse.

Therefore, just like when I was dating, I’m somewhat selective about whom I take with me into this setting. And yesterday, I brought somebody with me to run the trails for the first time.

Yesterday, I ran in the park with my son.

We hadn’t done any running together since last week’s 5K workout. In the meantime, he hasn’t complained of any leg pain, and just for good measure, I bought him a new pair of running shoes. (And since I put a picture of my own shoes here a couple months ago, I figure I’d do the same for him. So here they are…)


(Same question I asked about my own shoes – do they look fast?)

Since the Big Sur 5K course has some trails, I figured we needed to do some training in the dirt. He has been in Garland Ranch before on his bike, but the majority of the park is off-limits to bikes, so running was his opportunity to see things and go places that were completely new to him.

We ran on a couple of my favorite trails, and he enjoyed hopping over rocks and maneuvering around roots and branches as we went along. We met his sisters and mother for a rest break at the “waterfall” (not a real waterfall - just a trickle of water down a rock face. But the name sounds cool, doesn’t it?), then resumed our adventure on a couple more single track paths on the way back to the car.

I have no idea how far we ran. It was probably close to three miles, including all the walking breaks. I wasn’t at all concerned about the distance.

More important to me was the number of times he said “Cool!”, or “This is fun!”, or “I like this” as we were winding our way through the trees. When we finished, he said he liked trail running a lot better than laps at the track, because he likes to “see all the nature.”

Last week’s workout convinced us that the kid is capable of finishing next weekend’s 5K. But yesterday’s run might have done something even more important: it planted the seed in him that perhaps there is more benefit and enjoyment to be had from this activity besides just entering and finishing races.

He also gained some awareness of what I do on the weekend mornings while he's still resting in bed. The next time I come home muddy and sweaty, he'll understand what I've been doing and why I enjoy it. Maybe he has a better sense of the type of person his Dad really is.

He's discovering things in himself and in nature that he hadn't known before. He's learning things about his father that I could never teach him by merely talking. Best of all, he appears to be enjoying himself along the way.

Call it another beautiful run in Garland Ranch.

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April 19, 2006

Hurricane Drums

If you've ever browsed my website of article archives, you may have come across a version of this article I wrote before last year's Big Sur Marathon. I wasn't a blogger then, so I've tinkered with this article a bit, and the current version is below. It's about one of my favorite parts of the Big Sur course...


It's been twelve months, and I can still hear them.

Most marathons make an honest effort to provide some sort of course entertainment for the runners (after all, it can be a very long time to stay focused), but none lend themselves as easily to inspirational accompaniment as the Big Sur International Marathon.

The scenic coastline easily echoes the beauty of instrumental music, and there are several points between Big Sur and Carmel where runners are encouraged by orchestras, jazz bands, bagpipes, or piano sonatas. However, all of these sounds fade in comparison to the impact of the Taiko drums at the base of Hurricane Point.

Japanese Taiko drums originated over 2000 years ago as instruments of war. Their thunderous sounds were ideal for intimidating an enemy army from a distance. The drumbeats could be heard across the whole battlefield, and changes in pace or pattern were used for coordinating the movement of large numbers of soldiers.

Once a battle was waged, the constant drumming above the din reassured and motivated the soldiers to continue fighting, no matter how formidable the opponent appeared. They knew that as long as they heard the drumbeat, the battle plan was still in effect.

During the Big Sur Marathon, runners hear the drums before they see them. Depending on wind conditions, the first faraway sounds are picked up about 1-2 miles before the Little Sur River bridge, where the drummers stand on the shoulder of the road. The bridge sits at 40 feet above sea level, and immediately after crossing it, the runners begin the 2.2-mile, 520-foot climb to the top of Hurricane Point.

Hearing the drums in the distance, runners know they are approaching the signature climb of the race, and even experienced racers get a slight sick-in-the-stomach feeling about the challenge that lies ahead.

Talk about intimidation from a distance.

At the base of the hill, the emotional dynamic changes. The sound of the drummers grows louder and louder, until you pass right in front of them and see them pounding away relentlessly. Amidst the thunderous drums you hear shouts of encouragement from the congregating relay runners, and your heart thumps harder as you take the full measure of the daunting obstacle ahead.

It's a pure fight-or-flight situation, and (assuming you don't quit the race right here) the adrenaline boost emboldens your spirit and puts some extra spark in your legs as you take your first brave strides upward.

Before too long your body begins to protest the climb, and the drummers are no longer in sight. However, you can still hear their drumbeats above the sound of your heavy breathing and the howling of the wind as you soldier ahead in the midst of your battle against the hill.

I like to match the cadence of my strides to the rhythm of the background drums, as if I'm channeling the energy of the drums into my legs, to maintain my turnover and steadily reach the summit.

Shortly after the summit of Hurricane Point, the actual sound of the drumming ceases, but their powerful echo still resonates in my mind. Even as I'm passing the grand piano at Bixby Bridge, or any of the other musicians in the last half of the course, I keep the sound of the drums as my primary motivation as fatigue sets in.

I'm reassured in that as long as I can hear the drums in my head, I can keep my legs moving toward the distant finish line. I keep their rhythm through the final challenging miles, until I ultimately cross the finish line.

It’s only at that moment that I finally allow the drumming in my head to cease.

By now I've run the Big Sur Marathon so many times, and the sound of the Taiko drummers is so distinctively strong, that I'm able to conjure their rhythm in my head almost any time I need to. I frequently summon the drums when I'm ascending a long hill, or when I'm growing fatigued in the final miles of a 20-mile training run.

As the months drift toward the end of the year, my memory of the inspirational drumbeats of April grows slightly dimmer. But then the calendar turns to January, and I realize that it's time to shift my Big Sur training into high gear. Into February, the sound of the drums grows more prominent with each passing week.

By the time April arrives, I can clearly visualize myself at the base of Hurricane Point, close enough to the drums to feel their vibrations, charging ahead against formidable odds.

The drums fill me with dread. They also fill me with strength. The drums inspire and encourage me, through the race and through the year.

I can't wait to hear them in person again next week.

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April 17, 2006

Boston or Big Sur?

Sometimes a single word makes a big impression. I was reminded of that after my last post.

It didn’t hit me until I read several comments that I probably implied the wrong message about my shortcomings. I primarily felt stupid for not anticipating the situation that would arise with the kid’s shoes. But then I wrote about what a “good” dad would do, when the proper word choice would have been what a “smart” dad would do.

I wanted to convey that fact that I felt like an idiot, not that I thought I was an inadequate father. Unfortunately I was a bit off-target in expressing this.

So as always, thanks to everyone who left comments, because that’s what usually allows me to see if the message intended (by me) was actually the message received (by you).

OK, so enough of that. On to today’s post…

Every April, marathon runners in the Monterey Peninsula face a conundrum of sorts in deciding which marathon to run – Boston or Big Sur. Both are premier races, but for different reasons.

Boston is such a legendary and exciting race that every marathoner should run it at least once, just for the experience. Big Sur is awe-inspiring, and perhaps the ultimate “destination” marathon in America. If you lived halfway between the east and west coasts and had to pick one of these races to do...well, it would be a tough call.

Of course, there are always some locals who take the best of both worlds, and do both races every year.

We talk about all of these topics in our Monterey Herald article from last week, which you can read here.

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April 14, 2006

Sore Feet

My son and I couldn’t have asked for a better day yesterday to do our 5K training together. It was sunny, warm, and beautiful – in other words, exactly what Carmel Valley is supposed to be like in the spring.

I know we’re not completely in the clear yet, as there’s supposed to be rain again today and then a bit over the weekend. And I’m certainly not a meterologist, but there was just something definitive about yesterday’s weather. It was like spring had finally barged through the door, planted itself on the couch, grabbed the clicker, unbuckled its belt, and decided to settle in for a while.

It seemed like an opportune time for a good workout. I felt even more optimistic when my son stated that he wanted to cover at least 4K. He did 3800m last week, and wanted to progress onward from there - a good trait in a runner, I’d say. The conditions were ripe for a breakthrough day.

We did the following workout: 1600m jog, 400m walk, 1200m jog (fast last 100m), 200m walk, 800m jog (fast 100m each lap), 200m walk. Total distance 4400m.

Without telling him the distance, I asked how he felt, and he said he was doing OK. So we added one more flourish: 400m jog (fast), 100m walk, 100m jog.

Total distance…5000 meters!

After I told him the distance, he had about half a second to make an astonished face before I grabbed him in a bear hug and congratulated him like crazy. It was, as Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul would say, a moment.

He walked back to the car with a big grin on his face. I asked him again how he felt, and he said “tired, but happy.” Which was exactly the answer I had hoped for. Then he surprised me and took off ahead, racing me to the car. Clearly, the day went as well as I could have expected.

Or so I thought.

After my wife and I fell asleep last night, our son came down to our bedroom complaining that his feet hurt. Both of them, on the tops of the arches. We gave him some motrin, a massage, and a heating pad, and eventually resettled him in bed.

So, um,…maybe we overdid it a little bit yesterday. Luckily his feet felt OK when he woke up this morning, but I’m taking last night as a red flag that I need to be a little more cautious in progressing our workouts.

It also occurred to me that he might benefit from an actual pair of running shoes. When he’s running with me he wears his school shoes, which are also his everyday walking around shoes, and his working outdoors shoes, and his pretty much doing anything except going to church shoes. (Obviously the kid doesn’t have quite the same shoe stipend as his father.)

And of course as I typed that last paragraph, I felt stupid for not recognizing that this could potentially be a problem. You know, a good dad would have figured things like this out ahead of time. Preferably before his son became injured.

Hopefully we can resolve the issue before it gets any worse. I’ll spend some time today or tomorrow looking for a basic pair of running shoes to get him through the race without hurting.

Because my primary goal is that he enjoys himself on race day. After all the training he's done so far, he certainly deserves it.

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April 13, 2006

...And All Californians Shouted "Amen!"

The sun has been shining all day today. Not a trace of rain in sight. It's 76 degrees outside with blue skies and a slight breeze. Spring is definitely on.

Hopefully this also signals the imminent termination of Californians complaining about the weather. Our long national nightmare is over.

I'm heading outside to run with my son.

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April 12, 2006

From Kelly to Alan

This morning I ran for 35 minutes, and it seemed odd.

I typically base my taper off of a three-week framework that Pete Pfitzinger wrote in Running Times several years ago. The general idea is to have a handful of hard workouts interspersed among several short, easy runs, while gradually bringing your overall mileage downward.

Yesterday was a fairly difficult 13-miler (on the loop), and tomorrow will be 11 miles with 7 at marathon pace, so that made today an easy day – the schedule called for 30-40 minutes at an easy pace.

After several weeks where my shortest run has been about 7 miles, it felt very strange to turn and head for home after running only 15 minutes. I tacked on an extra 5 minutes just to appease my OCD tendencies, but ended the workout feeling like I had barely started. I guess that’s the point.

Anyway, my mind usually starts to wander when I’m running aimlessly, and this morning was no exception. And this morning, it kept wandering right into Kelly Clarkson’s abs.

I’ve watched her “Walk Away” video a handful of times over the past week now. It’s a funny video, and the tune is fairly catchy. In the video, Kelly wears an outfit that covers her arms and chest, but leaves her stomach exposed down to her low-rider jeans.

And I need to be careful about how I say this, because I dig Kelly. And like I said, the video is amusing. But I can’t help thinking that she still needs to raise her game a bit when it comes to showing us her stomach.

It’s not that it’s a bad-looking stomach. Far from it, actually. But it’s clearly not in the same league as Beyonce’s, or Shakira’s, or the all-time classic: Britney Spears circa 2002.

Sure, that’s a tough comparison to make, but ab-baring is definitely a game where you have to bring it strong, or don’t bring it at all. And - just to re-state for emphasis - Kelly’s good. She’s probably better than 99% of us. She’s just not world-class.

Since this is (ostensibly) a running blog, I’ll use this illustration. Remember Alan Webb in 2001? He was the best high school runner in a generation, poised to take the world by storm. Then he started running in international meets and getting his butt kicked by Kenyans and Moroccans and even a lot of European runners. He won the Olympic Trials 1500m by almost a half-lap in 2004, but didn’t advance past the preliminary round at the Athens Olympics.

He was still the best miler in America, but he wasn’t quite world-class. But now a few years later, he holds his own against international fields, and his name can be legitimately entered into a discussion of the world’s best runners.

So let’s think of Kelly Clarkson’s abs like the 2001 Alan Webb. She’s got one of the best looks going, but Beyonce and Shakira are totally kicking her butt right now – they’re her versions of Bernard Lagat and Ramzi Rashid (using the same analogy, Britney Spears would be Hicham El Guerrouj – simply the best miler ever). And if she wants to compete at their level, she needs to step it up yet another notch.

She's winning-the-Olympic-trials good, but not competing-head-to-head-with-Beyonce good. There's a big difference.

But she’s still young, like Webb, so there’s cause for hope. And personally, I’m pulling for her to jump into that world-class discussion – I mean, there’s always room in the talent pool for another hardbody, right?

Not to mention, this is the kind of competition I could really enjoy watching over the next couple of years.


(See what kind of crazy things can happen if I don’t get enough running?)

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April 11, 2006

The Cost of Parenting

I’ve always wondered about the true cost of raising a child.

Occasionally I’ll see news reports about the estimated dollar amount that is required to raise a child for 18 years. Several parenting-related websites have charts for new or prospective parents to assess this information, and the USDA even has a child-cost calculator that considers variables like the price of housing, clothing, healthcare, and so on.

Of course there are numerous faults in such methods, like the obvious one: what kid is financially independent by age 18? Not to mention, the major costs of parenting aren’t necessarily the big-ticket items like a mortgage or health insurance, but the relentless nickel-and-dime stuff like replacing broken sunglasses or buying a jumbo bag of popcorn just to go shopping in Target. And until there’s a calculator that factors in the increased number of 20-oz sport bottles I have to buy because my kids always chew the bite valves apart, I’m not listening.

I bring all this up because my 2-year-old daughter recently discovered the delight in picking the child-proof lock to my bathroom drawer in order to pull out my Bodyglide and dig her fingers through it like a block of Play-Doh. Apparently Bodyglide ranks right up there with toothpaste and hair lotion in the “unusual texture that feels really cool when you squish it, and makes Daddy act crazy when he sees it” category. Unfortunately, it only takes a few episodes of this to render the Bodyglide more or less unusable.

It’s seems equally hopeless and pointless to try curbing such behavior, so let’s just say I’m eagerly waiting this particular phase out. And on top of whatever parenting costs I’ve racked up to this point, I’ll just go ahead and put another seven bucks on my tab.

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April 10, 2006

Taper Time

(If it seems like I'm writing about rainbows a lot, that's because it's STILL raining just about every day here. Just thought it was worth mentioning...)

Throughout the day on Friday I had developed this unsettling sense of foreboding about my scheduled long run the next morning. Our weather forecasters had been talking all week long about an arriving storm on Saturday morning, and as late as Friday afternoon they weren’t budging off that prediction.

This past weekend was three weeks before Big Sur, meaning I had to do one of my longest training runs, and Sunday morning wasn’t an option. Given that I had already bailed out on the previous weekend’s scheduled long run, I couldn’t really blow off two weeks in a row without my confidence going into a tailspin. So Saturday’s scheduled run was more or less non-negotiable.

And it looked like I would be doing it in the rain again. I can’t say I was excited about the prospect.

Then just before dinner, my 4-year-old daughter was standing at the window and shouted, “Hey! Come see the rainbow!” We all ran over, and this is what we saw:

The picture doesn’t really do it justice. The colors were more deep and prominent than anything I’ve seen in a long time, and the sunlight around it took on a hundred different shades of white and yellow. It was one of those moments where you stop whatever you’re doing and take it all in, because you know the beauty is just as fleeting as it is impressive.

It was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits. I went to bed with a glimmer of optimism that perhaps the storm would pass more quickly than expected during the night.

The following morning four of us met at the finish line of the Big Sur Marathon, and ran down and back on the course we will be racing less than three weeks from now. We covered 23 miles, kept a steady pace through Carmel Highlands (the most difficult hills at miles 21-23 of the course), and picked up the pace for the final miles.

Best of all, my optimism from the previous night proved accurate. The rains that had been promised never showed up. It was a spectacular morning on one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.

The run was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits. The miles were tough, but with each passing one I could feel my confidence for race day building. And when we finished, we all had the satisfaction of knowing that the hardest training was now behind us.

Usually the tapering period arrives like a rainbow after the storminess of running high mileage for several weeks. It reassures you that things are happening as they are supposed to, and gives a sense of optimism about the task ahead.

My spirits are lifted. The training storm is over. Race day approaches.

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April 7, 2006

Big Sur Advice

Before we get to today’s post, I’m wondering…how does Mandisa’a being voted off American Idol this week compare to major upsets in sports? It was like the Indianapolis Colts losing in the divisional playoffs, or Team Canada failing to advance in the Olympic hockey tournament. I was almost as shocked to see this as I was watching Paula Radcliffe’s DNFs at the Olympics. Yes, I think about these things. But that’s enough for now, because today’s post is a long one…


From time to time, though various avenues - either via blogging or my newspaper column or mutual acquaintances – I get questions about marathon training. And as spring approaches, many of those people are seeking information about the Big Sur Marathon.

One very cool thing about having this blog is that I’ve come across some local runners who will be doing their first marathon at Big Sur this month. I’ve found that although the web is world wide, it is also great for making local connections (Sorry, that sounds like a slogan for match.com, but you get the idea.)

In particular, I’ve exchanged e-mails with a man in Pacific Grove who first contacted me in January for training advice during his buildup to Big Sur. Unfortunately, he also happens to be the head football coach at our rival high school, whose teams have kicked Carmel High’s butt pretty consistently over the past several years. I felt like Jan Ullrich waking up one morning to find an e-mail from Lance Armstrong in his in-box.

Demonstrating our collective maturity, we decided to overlook our conflicting loyalties and maintain friendly relations. This was pushing the envelope of graciousness for me – let’s just say I wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to Pete Carroll if he ever called me out of the blue. But it turns out I like the guy, so go figure.

Anyway, most of his questions are very typical of novice runners. Since I happen to know a handful of first-time marathoners, and a lot of folks who are preparing for Big Sur, I thought posting these questions and answers would be beneficial for a larger group of readers.

So, for Brian, Dave, Kim, and anyone else who is gearing up for Big Sur: pay attention, this is for you. As for anyone else, feel free to read along as well (Or don’t. My hit counter has already registered you anyway. It’s up to you.)

***
Question 1- Hills: I've noticed that in training runs, I sort of settle into a hill. What I mean by this is that at the start of the hill I get a little moody, breathe harder, etc. Then, as I progress up the hill, everything calms down, and it almost feels like it gets easier for a while. It this at all normal?

A: I think your observation is pretty typical. You're probably settling into a rhythm that your body feels it can maintain for the length of the hill. All those jitters at the bottom of the hill are just your fight-or-flight alarms going off.

Just wait until you're at the base of Hurricane Point, and you hear the Taiko drummers thundering in your ears as you stare up the hill. I mean...I get excited just typing things like that [Ed note: In fact, I wrote a whole article about it once. I’ll post it here soon.]

Anyway, the take home lesson is to not worry about how fast or slow you are going on the long hills, but just find a comfortable groove and ride it to the top.

Question 2 – Wind: I read in one of your previous articles that you have to view the wind as just another part of the course, and I'm not really afraid of the wind. Is it predominately a head wind or a side wind? It's almost more difficult for me to hold a rhythm when I'm getting pushed from the side.

A: The winds at Big Sur are typically on a diagonal coming from the north and west. It can easily shift to a headwind or a direct lateral wind, though. One year we saw guys getting blown sideways all over the place going up Hurricane Point (and yes, that day pretty much sucked). Pretty much the only thing about which you can be certain is that it will never EVER be a tailwind, so don't even get your hopes up.

Question 3 – Pacing: As a first time marathoner, how should I approach my pacing on race day? Typically my long runs go something like this - my first six miles stay a little under the 10-minute mark (9:40-9:50), my next six are almost at 10 exactly, and my last six are a little over 10. I have also noticed about the same variance based on downhill (under 10), flat (a little under 10), and uphill (10 and 1/2 ish).

My main goal is to finish Big Sur safely, and I am pretty confident that I can accomplish that. I know conditions on race day will be a factor in my final time. I thought I would go more by feel than being a slave to the watch. "10" is such a nice round number and so easy to track in terms of a pace that it seems natural to stay in that neighborhood. What's a good way for a first timer to pace?

A: The best answer is to pace yourself by effort, and let your split times fluctuate up and down with the terrain. The Hurricane Point miles may take you 1-2 minutes per mile slower than your average pace, and that's OK. You'll naturally go out a little faster than average in the first few downhill miles, but you need to be very careful to not get carried away and go too quickly. You may also get an adrenaline rush just after the halfway point and feel like you can make up some time, but DON'T DO IT! Even if you feel fantastic during miles 15-20, keep holding back until you hit the final 10K. Experienced runners say the marathon starts at mile 20.

I like to think of it like operating a car or a bike - you want to cruise the middle of the race in a comfortable gear, and you always want to know there is at least one more gear you can shift into during the final stages of the race when the going gets tough.

I can't emphasize enough, and it's impossible for you to yet appreciate, exactly how difficult the last 10K of the race can be. Think of whatever your most arduous, difficult training run has been, and then magnify it times three (if you’re having a good day), or maybe even ten (if you’re having a bad day).

Yes, I'm purposely trying to scare you a bit here. Your mindset should be to stay very conservative through the entire race, and never lose your focus in that regard. At the same time, keep a positive attitude that you can persevere and overcome, and just keep plugging away. So be terrified, but optimistic. Got it?

Honestly, I wouldn't even worry about your finishing time. Your only goal should be to finish the race without it becoming a death march at the end. If you do this well, it will be a positive experience and you will be inspired to continue this wonderful habit you've started, whether it's with another marathon in the future or just as a beneficial lifelong habit. There will always be future races where you can worry about running faster.

***

So, if you’ve ever wondered what I do when I’m not running or blogging, here’s your answer – I’m pretty much thinking, talking, and writing about running. As my new friend the football coach told me in his last e-mail, “Your wife must be a saint.”

Um, yeah. No kidding.

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April 6, 2006

You Go Girls!

Perhaps it's old-fashioned, but I've always had this notion that female marathon runners are more admirable than male runners, because they frequently have to overcome more challenges just to participate. It just seems like the women I train with need to juggle their multiple responsibilities much more than the guys do, just to make it to workouts.

Truth be told, I've never known a dedicated female runner that I didn't hold in very high regard. So I wrote a Monterey Herald article last week trying to express these sentiments, to give the women their due appreciation.

Then my wife read the article, and the first thing she said was, "It's very condescending." Which totally took me by surprise, because it was the exact opposite response I was going for. Considering it now, I guess I see what she's saying, but I'm not positive that I agree with her on this one. Although if past history is any indication, she's probably right.

So there are two possible explanations here. The first is that I missed the mark in expressing my point. If that's the case, and if someone is offended, that wasn't my intention and I apologize.

The other possibility is that I just don't understand women. If that's true, and if the fact that I have a mother, a sister, a wife, and two daughters apparently hasn't helped me yet...then perhaps I never will.

Anyhow, you can read the article here and let me know if I'm way off base.

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April 5, 2006

Two in the Rain

OK, stop me if this sounds familiar – but when I picked up my son after school for our scheduled 5K workout, it was raining.

It wasn’t falling too heavily, so we stood under the eaves of the school library for a few minutes, then decided to give the workout a try. It was a mutual decision – and to my son’s credit, he didn’t seem overly concerned about getting a little wet.

It’s funny, but there’s a concept of psychology called “conditioning” that describes how we respond to what is presented to us in our environment. The same term is used for physical training. With that one decision to run in the rain, my son demonstrated progress on both fronts. (Honestly, I’m just trying to help the kid run – I’m not trying to go all Pavlov on him.)

So we ran again, and we were lucky to catch a brief break in the storm. We even saw the sun peek out a couple of times. Here is his workout:

1200m jog – 200m walk – 600m jog (last 100m fast) – 200m walk – 800m jog (last 100m fast)– 200m walk – 400m fast jog – 200m walk. Total distance 3800m.

And now here’s my question: when do I get to count this mileage toward my own training? When we first started, it wasn’t even a consideration, but now he’s going more than two miles total. That’s too much to just write-off, isn’t it?

I ask for a couple reasons. First, my mileage totals are always approximate. I’m not (yet) a GPS guy, and I do so many miles on trails that I’m always estimating my totals instead of knowing for sure. I typically err on the conservative side, but still I wonder sometimes if my 70-mile weeks are really more like 68 or 69. Which really wouldn’t matter so much if I weren’t so neurotic about these things. But if I could count the two extra miles yesterday, that gives me some margin of error. And who knows, that peace of mind might even help me sleep better (Did I mention I’m a bit neurotic? Just checking.).

Second, I mean…a mile is a mile, right? If I cover 2 additional miles with the kid on top of my 70 for the week, that should add up to a 72-mile week. Sure, we’re going at something like a 15-minute pace - but I’ve done slower miles than that in ultras, and you better believe that those miles count just as much as the faster ones.

At any rate, with less than 4 weeks until his 5K, I think the kid is coming along quite nicely. Yesterday’s workout was the farthest he has run, and he definitely showed signs of fatigue at the end. But he bounced back pretty well afterwards, and is developing a sense of confidence that he’ll be able to complete his race.

We’ve even come up with our own slogan, after two weeks of running in the rain, doing workouts that stretched his ability in ways he was unaccustomed to. Walking back to the car, he repeated the same words I told him after last week’s workout: “Running isn’t for sissies.”

He’s right. And I’m counting the two miles.

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April 4, 2006

The Agony and The Ecstasy (But Right Now, Mostly Agony)

(This post may be entirely too philosophical for a college hoops game, but I had a lot of time to think while UCLA was falling hopelessly behind last night...)

Ouch.

Monday night didn’t go exactly as I hoped, to put it mildly. It’s so strange how a group of players who look so good one night can become completely inept two nights later. Obviously the Bruins ran into a much better team last night, and never really had much chance of coming back once they fell so far behind.

So congratulations to the University of Florida on your first men’s basketball championship. 10 more to go and you’ll catch UCLA (sorry, that was easy…)

Actually, the outcome of last night’s game was decided so early, it gave me some time to ponder the nature of losing. I was asking myself questions like “Is getting blown out like this worse than losing a close game that turns on a few key plays, or worse than losing on a heartbreaking shot at the end of the game?”

I concluded that getting blown out definitely sucks. Probably worse than the other scenarios. It was just gut-wrenching to watch. I assumed a state of nearly-complete despair, occasionally interrupted by brief glimmers of hope that were invariably quashed mere moments later. Finally as all pretense of hope eroded, I started questioning why things like a college basketball game matter so much to me, and how they can make me feel so miserable.

And the longer I contemplated, the thought process became more familiar. Because I’ve had the same conversations with myself countless other times – not about college hoops, but about running.

I’ve had that same frustrated, anguished feeling after several races through the years. Whether it was because I didn’t perform as well as I hoped, because I narrowly missed a goal time, or because I inflicted an irrational amount of physical misery on myself to finish, there have been many times when I’ve questioned the stakes of my emotional investment in this sport.

Thankfully, I’ve mellowed somewhat in recent years, and don’t place nearly as much importance on my race results as I used to. But there is still a large part of me that thinks that racing really matters – because it’s only with the risk of failure that we accomplish great success.

Some of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had in my life have been during races. I still remember the ecstasy of running my first 40-minute 10K, of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, or running a five-minute mile. In each case, those accomplishments only came after failed attempts and hardships. In each case, they meant more to me because of it.

My feeling is that the joy and satisfaction of accomplishing a major goal is much greater than the pain of losing or failure, and that is the reason we persevere.

The Florida players must be on cloud nine, having reached a place no other Gator team had been. Ask any Red Sox fan about October of 2004, and they’ll tell you it was the ride of their life. In my case, I remember how great it felt to see UCLA win in 1995, and the thought of having that feeling again was what had me cheering them on during this year’s tournament.

That’s the reason we loyally follow our teams, and that’s the reason I continue to chase running-related goals. Yes, we run the risk of never accomplishing our goal or never seeing our team win a championship - but if we don’t put ourselves in the arena, we guarantee it.

So next March I’ll probably be training for the Big Sur Marathon again, and watching the NCAA Tournament. By that time, the results of this year’s tournament and race will no longer matter, and I’ll once again be optimistically focused on the possibilities ahead.

Because you never know when something magical will happen. And when it does, I want to be ready to enjoy it.

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April 2, 2006

Knock-Knock-Knockin'

In response to Matt's comment on my last post…I’m not quite in heaven yet. I would describe it more like I’m in heaven’s waiting room, sitting on the couch and waiting for the receptionist to tell me “You can go in now,” like people waiting for Donald Trump to call them into the boardroom on The Apprentice.

It’s an interesting parallel…remember season 2 of The Apprentice, when they were down to the final two contestants? Kelly Perdew (coincidently, another UCLA grad) was clearly the most qualified candidate, but he was competing against Jennifer, a really hot-looking blond who flew under the radar for several weeks before making some very strategic moves in the later rounds to end up in the finals. Nobody was really positive that Jennifer could win, but she looked so good and came on so strong that she made everybody nervous.

So let’s just say that the University of Florida is like Jennifer – a good-looking team that has played extremely well down the stretch, and makes the UCLA guys very nervous. It should be a great game on Monday.

But I won’t call it heaven unless we win the whole thing. Remember, they only hang one kind of banner in Pauley Pavilion.

On the running front, this weekend just kills me every year. Losing an hour of sleep on Saturday night is like a knife to the heart of my Sunday long run plans. I get precious little sleep on a normal night (typically less than six hours), so when I arbitrarily lose another full hour, I feel like a smoker who found out his last pack of cigarettes got soaked in the laundry - and I’m probably just as irritable.

I don’t know why I’m such a sissy about one measly hour of sleep, but it happens every time we spring forward. Next year I may as well just pencil it in on the calendar that I’ll only do about half of whatever workout I had planned for that day, then revise my weekly schedule accordingly. Of course, I’ve only been telling myself this for about five years now.

So this morning’s planned 3-hour run turned into a 1-hour run with a 4-mile time trial. My time trial was about 15 seconds slower than 2 weeks ago, but this run came at the end of a 70-mile week instead of a 50-mile week last time, so that adjustment seems about right. At least that’s what I’m telling myself, because the alternate explanation would be that I’m getting slower.

I’m still pretty confident that I’m where I want to be with my training. And I’m only looking at one more high mileage week and one more long run before it’s time to taper for Big Sur.

That’s all for now. Monday will feature a late wake-up time, an easy midday run, an early dinner, then three anxious hours in front of the TV watching the national championship game.

And if all goes well, a very happy Tuesday morning loop.

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