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May 30, 2006

The Dipsea Race

OK, I've done a lot of rambling about totally random stuff lately, so for this post I'm sticking 100% to running, in an effort to equalize things a bit. Well, let's make that 99% running...have I mentioned that there's a spelling bee this week? Less than 48 hours away now. Just thought I'd remind you. Now on with the post...

Every year on the second Sunday in June, the world-famous Dipsea 7.1M trail race (see race schedule link at right) is run through the hills of Marin County, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach.

Each of the last 8 years, I’ve been there, too. And in less than two weeks, I’ll be there again.

The Dipsea is truly a legendary race, held in almost religious regard amongst Bay Area trail runners. It is the second oldest footrace in the country (behind only the Boston Marathon), and this June will mark the 96th running. The motto of the Dipsea is “The Greatest Race”, and it is definitely the most exciting event most people will ever run.

This race is not for the faint of heart. Although only slightly longer than a 10K, more than 75% of the race is on challenging single-track trail or fire roads. The course profile is simple: climb 650 feet, immediately descend 500’, climb another 1360’, then race downhill through the forest until you reach sea level at the beach.

It all starts in the picturesque town square of Mill Valley, but immediately turns nasty as runners ascend 670 stairs, the height equivalent of a fifty-story building, in order to reach the start of the trail. They cross Panoramic Highway, descend into Muir Woods National Monument, then start the second climb up and over Mount Tamalpais. The long final downhill includes railroad-tie stairs, river crossings, and jumping over an unmarked fencepost about ½ mile from the finish.

Different stretches of the course have distinctively intimidating names such as Cardiac, Steep Ravine, The Swoop, Insult Hill, and Dynamite. The most ominous name of all comes relatively early in the race. At a fork in the trail about 1.75 miles into the race, a sign is posted: one arrow on the sign points to a trail marked “Suicide”, and the other arrow says “safer”. As the race brochure will tell you, Suicide is the traditional racer’s route.

The trail becomes crowded in many places, and hot weather causes dusty conditions which limit visibility and make footing very treacherous. Passing becomes dangerous on the long narrow stretches, especially if a competitor doesn’t want to cede the trail. In these situations, the race turns into a full-contact sport, and it’s not unusual to see people knocked to the ground. A good deal of time is also spent jumping over fallen runners who have tripped on precarious roots and rocks, or slipped on the steep slopes. Some runners even start the race wearing protective equipment that may become necessary deep in the forest.

The race is unique for several reasons. Foremost is its handicap-start system, which gives head start minutes based on gender and age. Thus, the oldest women and youngest kids leave first. Each minute thereafter, the other runners leave in groups according to their assigned handicap. By the time the 20- to 30-year-old men leave, the first runners have more than a 20-minute head start.

The handicap system streamlines the amount of runners on the single-track at any one time. It also means that younger, faster runners are constantly passing all those who started ahead of them. (For a sense of what this looks like, check out this photo of me from last year's race. For this one hour each year, I feel absloutely no shame about barging past old men or young girls as I'm storming through the trail. Don't hate the player, hate the game.)

The first person to cross the finish line wins, and the only thing that matters is overall place; no age group or gender awards are given. The assigned handicap times are adjusted periodically to make the race more competitive. Typically the first five finishers include a combination of high-school runners, top 50- or 60-year-old age-groupers, or extremely fast open runners.

If you finish in the top 100 your place will be on your bib number the following year. The first 35 finishers are awarded a black shirt numbered with their overall finishing place. These shirts are coveted status symbols in Marin County, and are the most prized possession of any runner’s collection- far more valuable than any PR or age group award.

Another unique aspect of the race is the “open course” system. Basically, once you leave Mill Valley, you’re free to take any shortcuts through the forest that you know about. This provides a huge potential advantage to Marin County runners who frequently train on the Dipsea trail and explore various options to shave a few seconds wherever possible.

There are several places where the trail splits into branches, which reconnect at a later point. There is strategy involved with taking a longer, wider route instead of a more direct single-track which may be crowded.

The consensus “best route” is marked, but racers are always dashing off through the woods at unmarked areas. It’s risky to follow someone off the course, because there’s no positive way of knowing if a “shortcut” is actually a faster route, and you both may end up getting lost or injured.

The race started as a 2-person contest in 1904, then grew into an invitational event, and eventually became open to the public. Entry into the race is somewhat complicated and intentionally favors Marin County runners. In order to limit damage to the trail, the race is limited to less than 1500 runners, although about 4000 apply. However, with persistence (and a good bribe- I’m not kidding), it is possible to obtain an entry.

I love this race and fear it in almost equal amounts. Through the years, it has come to occupy a special place in my heart. The Dipsea will be on my mind a lot over the next two weeks, and I’ll write a couple more posts about it as race day approaches.

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May 26, 2006

Great Moments in Spelling: The Interview

We’re now less than one week away from the National Spelling Bee. If you’re like me, you’re feeling the electricity in the air in anticipation of the event. And if you’re not like me...well just humor me over the next several days and pretend like you’re interested. Because things might only get weirder from here.

Have you ever met somebody and wondered how your paths didn’t cross years sooner? I found someone like that a few months ago, who will be my co-blogger over the course of several posts related to the NSB.

Through a mutual acquaintance, I have been exchanging e-mails with a man named Dave Riddle, who lives in Pacific Grove and was the National Senior Spelling Bee champion in 2005. His son Christoph represented Monterey County in the NSB on 2004. They were 50 feet away from the famous Akshay Buddiga faint, a moment that will go down in Bee history in similar fashion as Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game for basketball or Game 6 of the 1986 Mets/Red Sox World Series for baseball.

It also happens that Dave is an awesome runner. His PRs in every event just smoke any of the best times I’ve ever run. For all these years, I thought I was the only guy who dreamed of an Olympic running/spelling duathlon, but it turns out I wouldn’t even have a chance of making the team – this guy would leave me in the dust in both disciplines.

When I heard that there was a fast local runner who also happened to be a National Senior Spelling Bee champ, who also had a kid who participated in the NSB...I mean, I wouldn’t have been any more excited if you told me Beyonce had moved in down the street and was looking for a running partner. I figured this was a guy I had to talk to.

After we touched base, I blindsided him with a crazy proposition: I wanted to interview him, and by extension his son, about the spelling bees. I wanted to see how the preparation and competition affected a person and his family, and compare it to what athletes experience in their particular events. And I wanted to post the interview on my blog.

Amazingly, he agreed. And then my head started spinning. The problem wasn’t coming up with questions, but limiting the amount and scope of things I asked so my interest in him didn’t cross the line from “curious inquiry” to “disturbing fetish”. I eventually settled on a list of questions, and fired them away.

So Dave doesn’t have to answer all the questions at once, I’m going to post the interview in sections, starting with Part 1 today. Part 2 will be whenever we get around to putting it together, and so on.

Here, then is Part 1 of what I think will be a very interesting series. It discusses family commitment, overcoming setbacks, and triumph through perseverence and endurance. If you’ve stuck with me this far through this post, the interview is definitely worth another few minutes:

***

Q: First, give me some of your running credentials. How many years have you been running? How much running (miles per week, or workouts per week, etc) do you do currently? What are your favorite races? What are your best times? Any other info you want to give me would be fine.

A: 5K 15:50 Stuttgart (1984); 10K 32:50 Frankfurt (1984); 10 mile 55:47 San Diego (1976) ½ marathon 1:12:57 Korea (1982); marathon 2:33 Long Island (1982). I had been running and competing in earnest since 1965 and quit in 2003 with the Bubba Gump 5K. I wanted to end on a high note by winning the division (50-55) and breaking the 6-minute pace. While no stunning achievement, I was happy to do both. I’m free to not run now and stay fit anyway. Tennis is my overwhelmingly favorite sport.

OK, on to the spelling questions…

Q: First of all, congratulations to both you and your son on your amazing accomplishments. There probably aren’t too many parent-and-child teams who have individually competed in national championship competitions. How did you each get involved in the competitions? Did one of you start, and the other join in later, or has it always been a family thing to train for spelling bees? Do you train together? Does the rest of the family get involved, too?

A: The father-son spelling thing began in 1999. My son, Christoph, was doing spell-offs in the 4th grade to qualify for the annual Lyceum bees for 4th and 5th graders. The same year, the Friends of the Pacific Grove Library announced it was putting on the 1st annual adult spelling bee as a "Butterfly Town" fundraiser. My son and my team each did well in our respective events---but won no honors.

Over the next few years we did better. In the 5th grade Christoph was the school’s alternate for the Lyceum Bee. I began poring over obtuse spelling word lists, definitions, and etymologies. This learning experience enabled me to gradually bolster Christoph’s chances of succeeding in the one bee that counted: Monterey County.

He really wanted to go to DC. I was motivated to right that 1st year’s “loss” at the Pacific Grove Adult Bee and set an example for Christoph. I organized adult teams that won 3 years straight. My family always sat at our table as supporters.

As parents know, the pressure is immense if your child hasn't achieved what he/she would like to achieve--e.g., place in or win school, county, regional, national competitions--whatever it is. It’s tough on the parent, too. My son, Christoph, tried and tried, leading up to his third and final attempt to qualify for the NSB by winning our Monterey County Bee in 2004.

It was his last-chance effort, and he knew he was the underdog. The girl who had been second in the previous two county championships (and who won the Lyceum bee) was back again for her last try too. The Monterey Herald article is below. [Editor's note: long-time running bloggers will recognize the name on the Herald by-line.]


HAVING THE LAST WORD
After 5th place in 2003, teen wins spelling contest

By JONATHAN SEGAL

In a 29-round rumble rivaling any prize fight, York School's Christoph Riddle took down Carmel Middle School's Stacy Little on Sunday to win the 2004 Countywide Spelling Bee.

Call it the Fracas in Salinas.

Stacy had finished second two years in a row. Christoph was looking to top last year's fifth-place finish.

Their 49 other opponents vanquished by Round 8, Stacy and Christoph, both eighth-graders and seasoned spelling-bee veterans, sparred for 21 more rounds. They traded spellings on words that could make even the most stout-hearted librarian break out in a cold sweat.

They spelled words like diaphaneity -- the quality of being translucent -- or eurybathic -- capable of living underwater in a wide range of depths.

Several times, one child or the other would get a word wrong, opening an opportunity for one to become a victor. But each time, the other child would spell their word wrong, too.

Each time, that is, until round 29, when Stacy met up with acervation, a noun meaning an accumulation. She misspelled it by inserting an "S."

Christoph sashayed to the podium, correctly spelling cachexia, which is the wasting away caused by a chronic disease, and, finally, patache, which is a smaller ship that tends to a fleet.

And Riddle beat Little. He's headed to Washington, D.C. to compete in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. How does it feel?

"Pretty damn good," said Christoph. "I would have been happy with second."

Christoph's victory was a team effort, said his father, Dave Riddle, a government lawyer at the Presidio of Monterey. But in the end, the father had to watch from the audience at Hartnell College. Dave said he felt like he was exploding as he watched his son from the stands.

"It was a family thing we were doing," the elder Riddle said.

The analogous sports term would be “upset.” You can bet we have a laminated copy of the article at home with its color photos.

***

OK, that's enough for Part 1. Michelle has probably had to refill her tea twice by now. More to come later. Have a good weekend everybody.

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May 25, 2006

Signature Songs

Instead of staring at my cubicle and laptop yesterday, this is what I spent most of the day looking at:


Cardinals at Giants, AT&T Park in San Francisco, on a beautiful 70 degree day. Afternoons don’t get much better than this.

I have this on again/off again fascination with baseball, which is currently in the “on” phase. It’s such a simple game in its fundamentals: you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball, etc. Yet the more you study or practice it, you see the rich complexity in considerations and calculations that take place at any given moment, with every pitch.

An activity that looks simple, but has inner complexity. Hmmm…sound familiar?

Actually, I’m keeping the running portion of this post relatively minor. There are a few other items I want to touch on beforehand:

1) Good dad/bad dad: It occurred to me when I posted yesterday that some people might wonder whether my son was supposed to be in school. Yes, he was. So was I a cool dad for taking him to a ball game, or a bad role model for escorting him on his own Ferris Bueller day?

Here was my rationale: if he weren’t a good student, didn’t take school seriously, or had missed several days already, I probably would have waited until his summer break. But he is, he does, and he hasn’t, so I felt OK about it. I think some experiences like this are more valuable than a day in the classroom.

(And just for good measure, my wife had him do a full day’s worth of schoolwork in the evenings before the day he missed. At least the kid has one responsible parent.)

2) Barry Bonds: He didn’t play. We were glad. When we picked this date on the calendar six weeks ago, we thought it would be a great day to go when the stadium wouldn’t be too crowded. Then the whole Bonds/Babe Ruth situation reached a crescendo, and we were looking at the possibility of being there on a historic day.

I wasn’t looking for historic. I was looking for mellow. Plus, I dislike Bonds in too many ways to discuss here. So I may have been the only person at AT&T Park who was happy he wasn’t playing.

3) Gilroy fries: It’s impossible to walk around the stadium without smelling the Gilroy garlic fries that are served throughout the park. Gilroy fries have become San Francisco’s equivalent of Dodger Dogs. I’m a garlic fanatic, so I knew there was no way I could pass these up (Angie and Olga, maybe you better not look):


Yes, they were as greasy as they appear. And they were absolutely delicious. And they may or may not have explained the following exchange when I returned home:

Me: (walking over to wife): Hi sweetie, we’re home. (leaning over to kiss her)

Wife: (pulling away, making a face) Wow...you stink. Go take a shower.

(Ah, marriage...it gives you such a soft place to fall at the end of the day.)

4) Intro songs: Here’s the part that had me thinking about runners. Each player has his own song played when they come up to bat. Usually it’s just a 10-second snippet, but it’s the same song each time. Same thing for the relief pitchers – when they are warming up on the mound, the PA system blasts their “signature song”.

A lot of the players chose rock/metal tunes. One Giants reliever selected “Mother” by Danzig. Some of the batters had Metallica, AC/DC, and Rush.

It got me to wonder: if I could pick a signature song, what would it be? If I could choose a song when I’m warming up for a road race, or if I was ever introduced at a track meet, what song would I select?

I’ve never really had a “favorite” song, but here’s the short list I came up with:

1) Lose Yourself, by Eninem. A song about rising to the occasion for a major event. Pretty self-explanatory.
2) Best of You, by the Foo Fighters. This is a bit confusing. I think the lyrics are intended to be about being abused, but I always hear the chorus question “Is someone getting the best of you?” as a self-analysis, asking myself if I’m doing the best job I can at something. Like I’m reminded to give the best of myself to what I’m doing. Am I wrong in this interpretation?
3) Higher Ground, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kickin’ it old school here. If there were just a 10-second snippet, the lyric “I’m gonna keep on trying, ‘til I reach my highest ground” set over a funky bass line is a tough one to beat.

The most likely scenario, I concluded, was that I would be one of those neurotic players who drive the PA people insane by asking them to change my song every week. Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t do this in running.

Anyway, that was my day, and those are my song choices. What would your song be?

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May 24, 2006

Out to the Ball Game

No blog post today. Except for this one. It's not, you know, a real one. Not a long one. Not a regular one. You know what I mean.

The kid and I are headed to San Francisco to take in a Giants game at AT&T Park. There's not a much better place to blow off a day of work or school.

See you tomorrow.

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May 23, 2006

Idol Ennui

I’ve been asked why I’m not writing about American Idol anymore. Given that tonight is the final round, this seems like an appropriate time to address my recent apathy.

Since the departure of my boy Chris Daughtry a couple of weeks ago, I could really care less who wins this thing. I know how strange that sounds, in that I was totally fired up just a few weeks back. But honestly, I think I’ll just be happy on Thursday that the show is finally completed.

Here’s the best comparison I can think of: watching the final rounds of this season’s Idol is like watching a 4x100m relay final in an international championship without the United States participating.

Despite my well-documented interest in trash TV, there’s nothing I like watching better than a World Championship or Olympic track meet. At these events, the American sprinters are always the class of the field, with a talent pool that far exceeds any other nation.

At every international competition, the US team is the favorite to win the relays, which are held after the individual events. The relays are the marquis races at these meets, and the excitement for them builds at a steady clip through the course of the meet.

Unfortunately, we also seem to breed sprinters with very slippery fingers, because our teams constantly struggle with relay exchanges. At three of the last six World Championships, and two of the last four Olympics, a US team (men or women) has failed to advance out of the qualifying rounds because of a dropped baton. At the Athens Olympics, a botched handoff was the reason the US men lost the gold medal by .01 of a second to England (I actually wasn’t too bothered by this. We beat England when it counted, 200 years ago. They can have a relay medal).


And when the US doesn’t make it to the final because they’ve failed to perform to their potential, it feels like a punch in the stomach. I shouldn’t get emotionally affected by a result that’s beyond my control and doesn’t directly impact me, but I do. I’ve stopped trying to change it.

What’s worse, we’re then left watching nations like France and England and Jamaica and Russia (no offense, Olga) and other countries that most of us don’t care about or respect nearly as much as our own. We know the most talented team isn’t taking part in the race, and we don’t have nearly the same interest in watching.

It’s not that the winner isn’t worthy. They still have to earn the medals by beating everybody else on the track. I simply become disinterested. I know somebody will win. Good for them. I don’t want to hear about it.

That’s how I’ve felt about this season’s American Idol finals.

In a way, it’s extra disappointing, because Chris never really dropped the baton – it just got voted out of his hands. In fact, the week he was voted off, he sang as well as or better than any other week this season. (Not only that, but the others had off nights. In the two previous weeks, Kat had a wardrobe malfunction and forgot the lyrics to a song. After most of her songs, the best thing the judges have to say to her is “Well, you look gorgeous...” How is that raising her game? I need to move on, I’m getting too upset here…)

So now we’ve got Katherine and Taylor in the musical equivalent of Jamaica vs Canada in the 4x100m relay. And while I don’t have any hard feelings about Jamaica or Canada (I mean, some of my best blogger friends are Canadian...), I know they only have a shot because the best talent is no longer in the competition. Is there anyone who thinks Chris wouldn’t blow either one of them off the stage if he hadn’t been robbed a couple weeks back?

It’s not that the winner isn’t worthy. He or she will have survived numerous cut-downs and vote-offs to remain the last person standing. I just recognize that the competition is not as exciting as it could be, and I don’t have the same passion about watching the outcome.

On Wednesday night I’ll probably tune in to the results show with the same ho-hum attitude as I would watch an Olympic final with no Americans. I’m curious to see who wins, and I’ll congratulate that person on the victory. Then I won’t give it another thought.

After all, there’s a big spelling bee coming up next week...

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May 22, 2006

Heart & Sole Race Reports

Last weekend our family spent the morning in Salinas for the Heart & Sole Races. This race always conflicts with the Carmel Valley 50K trail race, and most years I select the trail run for my weekend event. But this year I was happy to skip the trail race for a couple of reasons:
1) My son wanted to try another 5K, this time with me accompanying him instead of his Mom, and...
2) My employer is a sponsor of the Heart & Sole. It’s never a bad idea to put in some face time at a company charity event. Plus, it’s always amusing to see your co-workers and supervisors walking around in running shorts.

Since I wasn’t running the race competitively (well, sort of...you’ll see), I thought I’d keep a diary of the events for a race report blog post:

8:10AM (all times PDT): My son and I turn in our registration forms, and my friend Mike is working at the table. When my son is out of earshot, I lean over and half-jokingly ask Mike, “So how does the under-10 competition look?” OK, maybe it was one-quarter-jokingly. I’m pretty sure I was joking a little bit.

8:30: The Annual Heart & Sole Race is underway! For all but two people, that is. Despite peeing just ten minutes earlier, my son is crossing his legs and bending his knees throughout the National Anthem. Finally he tugs at my shirt, and we head over to the porta-potty just as the star-spangled banner was yet waving. So much for getting a jump on the field.

8:31: My son exits the porta-potty, and our race is underway!

8:44: Mile 1 completed in 12:05. When we were training, the farthest the kid ran continuously was 1600 meters. So when I ask if he needs a walking break, and he shakes me off, I’m more than a little impressed. The kid has his game face on.

8:50-8:55: I notice we are slowly gaining on a young-looking boy running alongside his iPod-wearing mom. Without even realizing it, I start accelerating to reel him in, leaving my son a few paces behind. I gradually slow down to my son’s pace again, and nonchalantly say, “Hey, that kid looks about your age.” No response; the kid is either focused or oblivious. Either way, we’re still jogging.

8:56: Mile 2 completed, total time 24:00. Pace holding steady. We’re still jogging. And we finally pass iPod mom and her kid.

9:00-9:04: We’re actually reeling more people in now, mostly very old men and a group of fifth- and sixth-grade girls. We’re also getting passed by the first 10K runners who are coming around the course a second time.

9:05: A young-looking boy catches up and runs beside us for a while. Before he moves ahead of us, I give him an enthusiastic “Nice job, keep it up,” followed a few seconds later by “So, how old are you, anyway?” You know,...just trying to be friendly.

9:08: We see the finish line and my son hits the jets, as I look over my shoulder to see if any other little kids are gaining on us. It’s good news: we’re in the clear. I can relax now.

9:09: We cross the finish line in 37:14. For my son, this is a 6-minute PR over his time at the Big Sur 5K 3 weeks ago. At this rate, he’ll be running sub-20 minutes by the end of the summer.

9:10: In the finisher’s chute, a 40-something, overweight Hispanic woman comes in behind us, and tells my son, “You were my inspiration to keep going!” Apparently she had been only 5-10 yards behind us for the last two miles, but seeing as how she wasn’t a 10-and-under male, I didn’t seem to notice her. This was her first 5K, and my 7-year-old kid helped her finish. How cool is that?

10:15: Heat 1 of the Toddler Trot features my 4-year-old daughter blasting away from the competition for a decisive victory. OK, there was only one other 4-year-old kid in the race, but still, my girl looked awesome. She’ll move up an age division next year, but she’s left behind a 4-and-under course record that could stand for years. I need to write more about her soon.

10:20: In Heat 3 of the Toddler Trot, my 2-year-old daughter jumps out to an early lead and gradually pulls away for another convincing win. Both of my girls have trounced the competition this morning – I feel like Venus and Serena Williams’s father at the 2001 US Open when both daughters reached the final.

10:25: The buildup to the eagerly-awaited Salinas Valley Fruit and Vegetable Dash (pictured) has all the odds-makers guessing. The carrot clearly has the best runner’s physique, but the chili pepper has been a bundle of energy all morning. The zucchini has a score to settle after everybody has mistakenly been calling her a cucumber all morning. And if you read this blog at all last week, you know who my family was cheering for.


The race was a tightly-contested affair, with contact amongst the runners and several lead changes to keep the crowd buzzing. The grape bunch surged to win by a belly at the line, just edging out the strawberry and the chili pepper. Results will become official after the grapes submit the obligatory urine sample and pass the drug screen.

10:30: Heading back to the car, I check the age group 5K results. My son was 5th in his 10-and-under age group, behind one ten-year-old, two nine-year-olds, and an eight-year-old. Not a bad showing for the kid – and he has three more years to conquer this division if he keeps at it.

10:35: Best aspect of the Heart & Sole: every kid in every race gets a medal. As our family walks back to the van, my kids are wearing medals (or, as my 4-year-old princess predictably calls it, her “necklace”) and talking about the good time they had at the race this morning. My wife and I tell them how proud we are of everybody, and they’re all talking about doing it again next year.

The medals on these kids are merely an outward sign of what their parents already knew: they’re all winners to us.

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May 19, 2006

Berry Burnout

You know what? I've done a lot of blogging this week. The whole strawberry mini-series idea turned out to be more work than I anticipated. I cranked out four posts that were much longer than I originally intended. I spent way too much time on the computer each night.

I'm tired. My kids miss me. My wife thinks I'm becoming an Internet recluse. And to top it off, the number of comments dropped off steadily with each post - a clear sign of collective fatigue settling in to R&R this week. (One other comment-related note: is anybody else interested to see a post from Olga elaborating on her comment about teen love in a strawberry field? Maybe if enough of us suggest it, she'll indulge us.)

So today, I'm keeping it short. One quick story with a strawberry theme, and I'm calling it a week. Just for kicks, I'll even relate it to Wednesday's Jewel post as well. And I promise to keep it under 300 words. Starting...now:

My favorite flavors of energy gels have always been 1) just plain, and 2) vanilla bean, in that order. But you know what they say about plain vanilla guys. So every now and then I get this wild notion to try something different.

So at the Big Sur Marathon expo I bought energy gels from a vendor, and noticed one of the Clif Shot flavors was "Sonic Strawberry". And, well...you know how I feel about strawberries by now. I bought a few packs to add a little flavor to my training.

Last week I did my first long run since the marathon, and brought the Sonic Strawberry with me. About 8 miles into the run, I finally got to try it.

It tasted absolutely awful. How could they screw such a delicious flavor up so badly? It reminded me of cough syrup and Sucrets. I drank about half of my bottle of Gatorade just trying to rinse the taste out of my mouth.

Then I remembered that the reason I settle into patterns in the first place is because I like those particular patterns. Sure, I'm a plain vanilla guy, but that's what I've found works best for me after years of trial and error.

The Sonic Strawberry experiment was my version of Jewel trying out hair extensions and body glitter in 2003: the notion that being more exotic or exciting will make life more appealing and/or successful. Not surprisingly, the results didn't work out well for either of us.

So on my next long run I'm going back to using my vanilla bean and just plain Gu packets, and not second guessing my boring preferences.

And the next time I get a strawberry craving, I'll just eat some out of the refrigerator.

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May 18, 2006

Strawberry Fields

Occasionally I can block out the middle of the day for a workout, and I’ll go for a run or bike ride through the fertile fields of the Salinas Valley.

The campos (fields) are generally laid out in a large grid pattern, with major thoroughfares paved, and the others left as simple dirt roads. It’s an easy area to run or ride, because there are a lot of opportunities to cut a workout short, or tack on an additional square as needed.

Given the Valley’s distinction as the “salad bowl of the world”, most of the major agricultural companies are based here. If your next bag of lettuce is from Fresh Express, Dole, or Ocean Mist (among others), or if your current box of strawberries is from Salinas or Watsonville, chances are I’ve rode or run right past your meal in its early stages of production (don’t worry – I make sure I’m in the middle of the road when I blow snot rockets out).

The aromas of the fields vary with the seasons. Sometimes I’ll avoid particular grids simply because of the smells I anticipate there. There are certain crops – cauliflower, for example – that have a powerfully unpleasant smell when baking in the sun all day. And needless to say, when it’s time for fertilizing any of the fields, I make a beeline upwind.

This time of year, the overwhelming smell is the sweet fragrance of strawberries. I like to ride my bike through the campos and smell the berries with every breath I inhale.

The visual effect is also pretty cool. The tops of the bushes are covered with leaves, and as my bike glides between two adjacent fields, it’s like I’m sailing through a lush green ocean, with a strawberry-scented sea breeze in my face.

In the campos, I also witness the labor that harvests the strawberries I’m so fond of.

Typically there are teams of migrants who pick the berries by hand, walking bent over from the waist for miles at a time, collecting the berries in boxes that are stacked on a nearby tractor, for other workers to bundle and strap together.

Those crops that aren't hand-picked utilize an enormous harvesting machine that drives among the rows. A large group of workers walks behind or alongside the giant machines to gather the produce that the machine doesn’t catch. Still more workers ride on the machines to sort out the endless stream of roots, stems, rocks, and leaves that rains upon them from a conveyor system below.

If my bike is like a sailboat on the green sea, these machines and workers are the leviathans of the ocean, slowly trolling the landscape and scattering vast amounts of dirt and leaves in their wake. Many times I’ll roll by them almost unnoticed, as the entire crew remains focused on the task at hand.

Since I’m frequently in the fields during the middle of the day, I ride past some workers on their lunch breaks. They usually sit in the dirt roads on the fringes of the fields, leaning against their cars to utilize whatever shade they can find in the midday heat. Their clothes and bodies are filthy, and they sit quietly to save their energy to get through the remainder of the day.

I know their bodies probably ache from the strain of yet another day of hard labor. I know they make far too little money for the pains they inflict upon themselves. By comparison, the fatigue of a strenuous bike ride or run is trivial.

I know that most of them will go home and share a house with as many as 30 other workers, living in conditions that we normally associate with third-world poverty. I know that most of them left wives and children behind many months or years ago to work in these conditions. I know that they sleep restlessly, worried about their health or their security or their ability to provide for their families. I know that the next morning, they’ll wake up and do the same routine all over again.

In those moments, there’s definitely a guilty feeling in my stomach when I ride past them on an expensive bicycle, dressed in colorfully clean workout clothes, peering at them from behind darkened glasses, taking a midday break from a job that pays me more money than in a month than they may see in a year.

I sometimes wonder what they think when they see me. I’m sure it’s some mixture of resentment and envy and disregard, but you would never tell by their expressions. When I pass in front of them and our eyes meet, I’ll lift my hand and say a quick hello, and occasionally I’ll get a head nod or a quick greeting in reply. Then we go on with our respective tasks.

But when I get off my bike and notice the layer of dust on it blown from the soil, I think of how much dust must be in their lungs. When I see the tan lines from my bike shorts, I think of how harmful spending day after day in the sun can be. When I feel the soreness in my legs, I think of the damage they endure just to make it to the next day.

And when I smell the beautiful fragrance of strawberry fields, I think that for many people, perhaps that smell is not particularly sweet.

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May 17, 2006

Goodbye Alice; Hello Jewel

I’ll get to today’s post in a minute, but first, an administrative note. Check out the anonymous comment I received yesterday from my Spellbound post: “I’ll be(e) there for the national finals competing as number 19. I really hope I can make it to the ESPN or ABC telecast.”

Can somebody confirm this? Did I really just get a comment from a real NSB contestant? If so, this would be a watershed moment in the history of the blog. Honestly, I wouldn’t be any more stoked if Malcolm Gladwell ever decided to post a comment. How very extremely cool.

If this is legit, I’ll totally be cheering for number 19 on June 1st. And if not…well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been fooled.

As for today’s post, I thought I would get to Rhianna, but it just got too long in the end. I’ll save the ideas for another time. You’ll have to settle for Jewel on her own.


I can’t believe it’s taken me four weeks to say how happy I am to have Jewel back in the game. Not only is she making a comeback, but she seems to have found herself again.

Remember in 2003 when Jewel released an album called 0304? She made a video for “Intuition” where she wore hair extensions, torn form-hugging clothes, makeup and glitter, and danced around the streets of New York City. Somehow she got soaking wet in the process (I can’t remember how – I think it was an open fire hydrant), which was a, um...nice touch.

Her record was full of dance grooves and beat-box rhythms, with number and letter substitutions for words (like “Run 2 U”) in all her titles and printed lyrics. It was Jewel’s attempt to make herself more “street” and broaden her fan base a bit.

You can’t really blame her. Remember that this was 2003. She was competing with the most amazing collection of video hotties anyone had ever seen: Beyonce was inventing the back pop in “Crazy in Love”, Christina Aguilera was playing the ultimate bad girl with “Dirrrty”, and Britney Spears - the unbelievable 2003 Britney, not 2006 trailer park Britney - was dressing in lingerie and making out with Madonna. (All in all, it was a fantastic time to be a music video watcher. But that’s neither here nor there.) The poor girl was just trying to keep up with the popular gals. A lot of us probably would have done something very similar.

But in Jewel’s case, the experiment clearly misfired.

After all, everybody knew her as the girl raised on a farm in Alaska, who played guitar and possessed a soulful, operatic voice. She sang simple, intimate songs with tenderness and soft vulnerability. Her first single just wouldn’t have come across the same way if it were written “U Were Meant 4 Me”. Above everything else, she was genuine.


So when her video for “Again and Again” premiered last month, it was gratifying to see she had fallen back into her comfort zone. It’s like 0304 never happened. (Fittingly, the new album is called Goodbye Alice in Wonderland)

Jewel’s simply a beautiful girl, and appears to have figured out that she doesn’t need to be anybody other than who she is to find success and happiness. Think Britney has learned that yet?

The reason I’m describing all of this – you know, besides giving me rationale for posting Jewel pictures - is that as a blogger, I tend to identify with the 2003 version of Jewel. Allow me to explain.

I enjoy reading other people’s blogs, and hearing about the different events everyone is doing. If I could just leave it at that, everything would be fine. But whether it’s my competitive nature, or my longing to be “in the arena” at all times, I find that whenever I read about other events, I want to do them as well.

So when Jeff writes about going to Boston, I want to go, too. When Olga runs Miwok, I want to run it with her (OK…probably behind her). Anytime someone does this marathon or that ultra, I want the race experience for myself, too (except for Rob's last 50K – you can keep that one for yourself, dude). And I haven’t even mentioned all the Ironman bloggers out there yet.

Rationally, I know I can’t possibly do that kind of race load. But sometimes I get the urge to throw my common sense out the window and try playing everybody else’s game. And like Jewel putting on glitter and torn clothes, I know that I couldn’t carry that act for long before I realize it’s the wrong path for me.

I run a lot. I participate in a handful of events that I love. I typically train just as much as I want to (I’ve written too much about this in another post already). I like to gradually push the boundaries of what I’m capable of managing.

I’ll probably take on new challenges from time to time in the years ahead, but I don’t want to completely throw away the events that have come to define me over the years. Like everything else, it will be a balancing act.

I want to stay like the 2006 Jewel, not the 2003 one. I’d love for Jewel to stay in 2006 mode for a while longer, too. Now if we could only figure out some way to get the 2003 Britney back, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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May 16, 2006

Fresas de la Bodega

(OK, I made it about 24 hours before I wanted to bail out on the whole “strawberry theme” idea for the week. There’s a post about Rhianna and Jewel just jumping out of my head right now. But I think I can hold out until tomorrow. So here’s Part II of the strawberry mini-series, with a probable break for shameless pandering tomorrow… )

On the outskirts of Salinas sits a tiny gas station. It occupies an intersection of Highway 68 and one of the main paved roads through the strawberry fields on either side of the highway.

The building is so small that many drivers pass by without even noticing it. But the business isn’t just a gas station: on the inside it’s a mini-bodega and taqueria, a place where workers from the fields can come in for a soda and a bite to eat on their lunch break or before returning home.

The station is owned by two Mexican brothers who always work behind the counter, assisted by various sisters and cousins as needed. There is a small TV beside the counter that is always tuned into a game of Mexican league futbol. All of the signs are written in Spanish, and almost none of the customers speak English. At the end of the day it becomes a gathering spot for a lot of the laborers.

Since their operation is so small, they can afford to charge a few cents per gallon less for gasoline. When gas prices spike, the bodega/gasoline station is home to a curious mix of Mexican immigrants and frugal white folks trying to save a few bucks. Some people like me come in just to enjoy the atmosphere.

You won’t see a lot of luxury cars or guys in suits entering the store. The overwhelmingly Mexican nature of the store tends to keep the overly pretentious or self-important white people away.

On the other hand, I’ve been buying gas there for years.

The brothers are two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. They always address me first in English, and when I answer in Spanish, we’ll converse a bit before they give me some small tip to improve my second language. They even hand out small packs of chicle (gum) whenever the notion strikes them.

Everyone that comes into the store is greeted as “amigo”. We all say “amigo” so much that we’ve never bothered to learn each other’s names. In fact, I’ve come to use that word as the name of the business, as in, “I bought gas from the amigos today.”

(OK, I’m finally getting to the strawberry part now…)

One evening after work about four weeks ago, I walked into the store to see a huge stack of strawberries beside the counter, with a piece of paper taped to the top basket saying “Fresas $1.00”. One amigo explained, “They’re from my amigo who is in charge of this field (pointing over his shoulder). They’re the first berries of the season – they usually have an extra sweet flavor. Son muy buenas.”

So I bought a box of fresas to take home. Which led to the following exchange with my wife when I got home:

Me: I bought some strawberries.

Her: But I just went shopping today – there are two big baskets of strawberries in the fridge already.

Me: Yeah, but these are from the amigos – they said they’re extra sweet. Try one.

Her (trying one): Wow.

The strawberries were amazing. We didn’t have to worry about clearing space in the fridge, because they never made it there. The box was empty before dinnertime.

The next morning, after a hard training run, I stopped at the bodega again on my way to work, and bought another basket of strawberries. My amigo said, “Son buenas, si? Por desayuno, tambien (good for breakfast, too).”

That box didn’t make it through the work day. I don’t think it even made it to lunchtime. On my way home, I stopped at the bodega again.

My amigo said, “Sorry amigo - no mas”. And less than 24 hours after I discovered them, the sweetest strawberries of the season became a mere memory. It was the gustatory equivalent of seeing a shooting star.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had plenty of good strawberries since then. But there was something distinctive about the first fruits of the season from the local fields, gathered by workers who I had probably passed by countless times without saying a word.

They gave me a moment’s appreciation for the pleasures this land has to offer, and made me grateful for the bodega that serves as a convergence point of two disparate worlds. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the hands that brought the berries to the store in the first place – which I’ll explore further in another post.

(You know,….after I get the pandering out of the way first.)

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May 15, 2006

Strawberry Week

It’s springtime in Monterey County, which means one thing. OK, that’s not true – it means a lot of things, but for the purposes of this blog, this week, it means only one thing: strawberries.

Strawberry fields are prominent and plentiful in the Salinas Valley from April through September. They serve as a backdrop to everyday activities in incidental ways that take on more meaning with each passing occurrence.

I’ve had several strawberry-related snapshots in my head I’ve wanted to discuss over the past several days, but instead of including them all in a single long-winded, meandering post (which if you’re a regular reader, you KNOW I’m capable of), I decided to make it more like a recurring theme.

Think of it as an on-line mini-series. I don’t exactly have lofty ambitions – this won’t nearly be as groundbreaking as Roots or as instructive as North and South, or (thankfully) as exhaustive as Ken Burns’s Jazz. But I think I have enough material for a collection of decent posts.

So that’s my plan for the week: the topic of each post will be related in some way to strawberries. Of course, if Thursday rolls around and I’ve run out of things to say or my hit count takes a dramatic plunge, I reserve the right to change my mind. I know that sounds noncommittal, but that’s pretty much as good as I give nowadays. Don’t you judge me.

As for today’s post, I’ll flash back to the Big Sur Marathon.

I’ve already written ad nauseum about the most difficult portion of the Big Sur Marathon: miles 21-24 through Carmel Highlands, where the road rises and falls mercilessly at the point of the race when runners are in their most fragile mental and physical state. It’s the stretch of road where pleasant or strong marathons go to die.

There is, however, one outpost of comfort and relief during this daunting stretch of the race: the strawberry station at mile 23. Runners speak of it in a reverential manner, like travelers who come across a silhouette of the Blessed Virgin in the markings on the side of an abandoned taqueria. Many of them don’t know the station is coming, but their hearts leap with joy and hope when they come across it.

This is a point of regret for me, in that I’ve never stopped for the berries. I don’t know who mans the aids station, where the berries come from, or how many runners they serve. I’ve always been too paranoid about losing precious seconds to eat a handful. I’m also fearful that if I stopped, I might enjoy the moment so much that I would decide to kick my feet up and stay a while.

I do know this: every runner I’ve ever talked to that has stopped for the strawberries considers it one of the highlights of their race. It’s something that keeps them moving through the hardest miles: the knowledge that the strawberry station is ahead, at which point they can stop to recharge their batteries before conquering the final 5K.

I haven’t completely missed out on the strawberry bounty at Big Sur, though. One of the things awaiting runners at the buffet table in the finisher’s tent is an enormous stack of strawberry crates. So in addition to bagels and water and energy bars, I always walk off the course with a full basket of Monterey County strawberries.

Those strawberries are always the first thing I consume, and they never fail to be absolutely delicious. Maybe it’s the context of complete exhaustion or the satisfaction of accomplishment, but those post-race strawberries stand out as one of the most pleasant experiences of race day.

Actually, just about all of my strawberry experiences are satisfying in one way or another…as I’ll talk about in my posts for the rest of the week.

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May 12, 2006

Masters Rock

Hey, did you hear? Pearl Jam has a new album out!

It’s always interesting when a formerly enormous band disappears for a while, then releases a strong “comeback” album to a lot of fanfare and excitement. The marketing idea is to have people recall the band in its glory days, and make us believe that the current band is the same as it ever was.

And we’re generally a forgiving culture, so we can selectively forget the reasons why a popular band actually becomes unpopular in the first place. We’re the society that gladly gives second chances to people like Marion Berry, Martha Stewart, or Ron Artest - so we can certainly overlook the terrible albums like Binaural orYield that Pearl Jam offered us in the late 1990s.

Like just about everybody else between the ages of 20 and 30 in the early nineties, I was a huge PJ fan. They even influenced my running career: during the 1993 Los Angeles Marathon, I was feeling miserable on a hot day, and one of the only things that kept me going was repeating the chorus of “Alive” over and over in my head until I reached the finish line. (To this day, whenever I hear that song, I remember myself staggering through the last 10K in the heat at L.A. Despite the way it sounds, it’s a good memory.)

So I’ve been listening to the new album a bit, and it’s actually not too bad. A few songs are old school grunge-rockers, and there are also some brooding, melodic pieces that were PJ’s hallmark back in the day.

But this morning I heard “Even Flow” on the radio, and noted that Pearl Jam hasn’t made any songs on the new album nearly as good as that old one. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the old band was way better than the current version.

We need to have some special category for rock bands that get older, just like there is a separate category for masters runners at road races. I mean, nobody expects a 45-year-old guy to come out and win a local 10K – so why should we expect a rock band of 40-year-olds to compete against younger groups at the height of their talents?

Sure, that 45-year-old dude may be an excellent runner – let’s say he ran a 33 minute 10K ten years ago. He probably runs something like 37 minutes now, which will still beat everybody but a handful of racers. But he just doesn’t have the goods to seriously challenge the best 25-year-olds who can crank out 35 minute 10Ks on any given weekend.

And it’s fair to compare the master runner’s best times to the younger runners’ best times, and conclude that the master would have kicked their butts if he were in his prime. But his best days are behind him, so he usually comes up a bit short when trying to hang with the big dogs. It’s a cold dose of reality that is sometimes hard to swallow.

That 45-year-old has changed in too many ways to pretend that he’s still 35. He’s most likely got a family and a career, and matured such that running is not an overriding priority in his life anymore. If he tried to mimic the lives of younger runners who eat, sleep, and breathe their training, he would look strangely out of place.

The 2006 edition of Pearl Jam is that 45-year-old dude. They’re never going to match the energy and intensity of songs like “Porch” or “Rear View Mirror”, but they are still good enough to crank out “Life Wasted” and “Big Wave”, which are better songs than a lot of rock music on the radio.

But – here’s the cold reality - the new album isn’t strong enough to make me take the Foo Fighters or Avenged Sevenfold out of my car CD player.

Pearl Jam is the mature band now, singing about poverty and politics and a larger worldview. How can you compare their work to a song like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” by a band called the Arctic Monkeys? Despite their enormous talent, it seems a bit odd to hear PJ songs in a modern alt-rock lineup on the radio.

It’s fair to argue that when they were at their best, Pearl Jam was way more talented and influential than groups like Fall Out Boy will ever be. Ten was an absolute classic, to the point where it was like a soundtrack of my college years. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy listening to it more than FOB’s From Under the Cork Tree today.

So can we recognize older rock bands in some manner besides putting them up against what is currently popular? Because you can apply this exact same thesis to U2, Jon Bon Jovi, Metallica, and even (gasp!) the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Why couldn’t there be a separate Grammy category for “Best Masters Rock” or something similar? You could even go across genres and include “Best Masters Rap” now that guys like LL Cool J and Reverend Run are putting out CDs again. And when the Beyonces and Shakiras and Mariahs of today keep making records into their 40s, there could be a category for “Best Formerly Smoking Hottie Who's Still Workin' It” – come to think of it, Madonna could win that award now. The possibilities are just fascinating.

There would be more awards to give out, older musicians wouldn’t compete against younger ones, and fans of the older bands can see them recognized for their talents. Does anyone think this wouldn’t be a success?

For a group of older dudes who released their best album almost 15 years ago, Pearl Jam has done a darn good job on the new disc. And from a personal standpoint, it’s great to see them back in the spotlight again. Whatever additional fame and money they gain from this CD is well-deserved.

They’ve definitely earned the age group award for their effort. And I’ll give any age group winner a great deal of respect.

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May 11, 2006

Shock and Blah

Part I: Shock

I guess you can say I’m stunned.

I almost couldn’t believe my ears when Chris Daughtry was sent home from American Idol last night. So much for my prediction that he would win the whole thing.

Remember my post recommending that some Vegas casino open up wagering on reality TV show outcomes? Thank God nobody ever listens to me. If that scenario had ever materialized, chances are I would be out a lot of money this morning, and spending the next several days screening calls from my bookie and looking skittishly at any overweight Italian wearing a patterned shirt. I don’t need that kind of stress. But really...who would have bet against Chris?

On the flip side of that coin...if there had been gambling lines two months ago, what do you think the odds of Elliott making the finals would have been? 50 to 1? 100 to 1? 1000? He’s like George Mason University in the NCAA hoops tournament: flying under the radar while the big names knock each other out one by one, and delivering surprisingly strong performances at key times. Yet it still seems no one really gives him much of a chance. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.

Last night’s unexpected turn of events also highlights two key lessons:
1) Perhaps all those people who yammer about how TV has a mass dumbing-down effect are on to something. There’s really no rational reason why I should get emotionally invested in a glamorized singing contest, or why I should care about who gets fired from the board room or sent home in a limo or voted off the island. Yet somehow, on some level, I do. And if anybody other than Terry wins Survivor next Sunday, I’ll probably be bummed out about that, too. So how stupid does that make me?
2) Regarding my prediction of the Idol winner: please realize at any given moment, on almost any given subject, there’s a better-than-average chance that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Just thought that needed to be said.


Part II: Blah

Five of us met at the track this morning. It was our first speedwork session since the marathon, so we made sure to choose a simple workout.

Some of us (me included) are shifting gears in our training somewhat during the summer, to focus on different races and shorter distances. My next serious race (separate post coming soon) is less than five weeks away, so I didn’t want to take too long of a layoff before getting back into the training groove.

We chose a workout that on paper appears to be very quick and painless: three sets of 100m, 200m, 300m, 400m, with equal distance recovery each time. Total distance 3000m of speed, with 3000m recovery.

The workout absolutely kicked my butt.

It was one of those workouts where nothing felt right at all: I was constantly short of breath, felt strange muscle twinges, had occasional pain in my back, and generally lacked any snap or spring in my stride. I also felt about 20 pounds heavier than last week, which – if you’ve ever seen the way I eat in the week after a marathon - may not be that much of an exaggeration.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to feel any better than I did this morning. It usually takes one or two efforts like today’s to blow all of the cobwebs out of the pipes, and get my body reacquainted with the demands I’ll be placing on it again over the next few weeks.

So now the bad workout is out of the way, and things are almost certain to only get better from here.

Except for the fact that I can’t watch Chris Daughtry on TV anymore.

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May 10, 2006

Spellbound

Did anyone else let out a cheer when they read this article?...

***
Top spellers to vie on prime-time TV
National Spelling Bee final to air June 1 on ABC

By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Move over American Idol. For the first time in its 79-year history, the National Spelling Bee — the original "reality TV" — will go prime time for next month's drama-filled finals.

After 12 years of showings by the sports cable network ESPN, the final rounds of the two-day Scripps National Spelling Bee will be shown live at 7 p.m. June 1 on ABC.

"I think we're ready for prime time, and I think America is ready for spelling bees in prime time, too," said Paige Kimble, the bee's director and its 1981 national champion. "We like to think of ourselves as the original reality television programming."

ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu said the bee really is a sport, though without the physical contact. The pint-size spellers endure rigorous practices and training; some even have coaches.

"It's captivating, just sitting down there and watching these kids spelling words you've never heard before," he said.

About 275 spellers, ranging in ages from 9 to 15 and about evenly split between boys and girls, will compete for the national title and more than $30,000 in cash, bonds and scholarships.
***


Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I’m completely fascinated by the National Spelling Bee. I circle the day of the Bee on the calendar like regular people mark upcoming weddings or birthdays.

And you know what – this TV thing was partially my idea! For as long as I can remember, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen (read: my wife) that I couldn’t understand why the Bee wasn’t featured more prominently on the television landscape. I'm actually on record recommending that the Bee has its own dedicated weekend, just like the Super Bowl or Boston Marathon.

The best part of this prime time deal is that the earlier rounds will still be televised earlier in the day on ESPN, so those of us who dream of watching six consecutive hours of competition are still satisfied. By the time the final round is broadcast that night, I'll probably be having leg cramps and difficulty staying focused - it will be like the last miles of an ultra, but in the comfort of my own home.

I know I’m a bit, um, unorthodox in my interests, but I can’t be the only one out there who is hooked on watching hundreds of pre-teen wonder kids sweat it out under the national spotlight. And I’m convinced that there is a vast untapped market of spelling fans out there. Yes, I typed that sentence with a straight face.

I mean, look at what’s happened to poker in the past few years. These Bee kids are at least as compelling as those slobs. Why couldn’t ESPN package the Bee as a series, like they do with the World Series of Poker? At the very least, the ratings would certainly outdraw professional hockey.

If you doubt my passion, I've submitted a couple of links for you to review as Exhibits A and B. Before I was a blogger, I wrote articles about each of the last two National Spelling Bees, for no other reason than it seemed like a perfectly fun thing to do. When I first started Running and Rambling, I wasn’t sure how this whole blog thing worked or where it might lead me, and I posted one of my spelling bee articles just to see how it looked in the blog format.

Since I only had about three readers back then, chances are that post went unnoticed by a lot of people reading now. (On a related note, to Jeff, Karen, and Danny: you can click off this page right here, and not miss anything you haven’t seen before.) So I’m linking to that early blog post here, and linking to another article from the previous year here.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to instruct my TiVo to clear out its schedule for June 1st.

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May 8, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell and Plinko

For various reasons, I didn’t post nearly as much as I thought I would last week.

I had this general fatigue, which shouldn’t be surprising in the week following a marathon. Work was busier than usual, and it just seemed like one of those weeks where a lot of things were going on.

The primary reason, though, was that I hadn’t been running. At all. Not one mile.

The one-week layoff was by design, allowing my body to recover from the marathon. I also welcome the downtime as a much deserved mental break – it’s refreshing to have a brief respite from planning workouts or worrying about getting to bed on time or obsessing about weekly mileage.

But the creative drought was something I didn’t quite foresee. I’ve heard about this phenomenon from several writers who utilize their daily run to facilitate the process. The well-known running philosopher George Sheehan was often photographed hunched over his typewriter wearing his running tights and sweatshirt, with beads of perspiration still visible from his morning run. He wanted to put the ideas on paper as quickly as he could after stimulating the creative juices.

In fact, an article by Kristin Elde in this month’s Runner’s World discusses the power that running has to tap into a reservoir of otherwise underutilized cognitive power. She quotes Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink), who says he runs three to four times per week, and uses that time explicitly to work out his writing problems.

Now, I just happen to have this thing about Malcolm Gladwell. He’s a brilliant writer with razor sharp insight, and has a way of writing about all manner of esoteric subjects in a way that reads like an espionage thriller. He can tell you about a syphilis epidemic in Baltimore, or an Ivy League admissions policy, or a retrospective analysis of the “Pepsi Challenge” taste tests in a style that’s not merely interesting – he actually makes you wonder why you didn’t realize these topics were so darn compelling a long time ago.

Over the past two years he has become my favorite author. I’ve also learned that he’s a passionate, knowlegdeable sports fan, and – to top it all off – he even has a blog. It’s probably a good thing I don’t actually know him, or else I’d be in danger of developing some kind of man-crush on him. (Wait...was that out loud? Let's move on...)

So Gladwell is a writer who runs a bit. I’m a runner who writes a bit. And it turns out we have this one small thing in common: the act of running facilitates our writing.

Running is like the Plinko game on The Price is Right: I have all of these ideas for posts floating around inside my head that are the chips resting at the top of the board. They're more or less worthless up there. It’s only when I’m out on the trail or road that those chips bounce around my brain and eventually make their way to the bottom of the board, where they become something tangible.


Sometimes I’ll get an idea that’s the equivalent of a $5,000 chip. More often, my notions are like the chips that land in the $0 slot. But regardless of their future value, they all have to go through the same process before they are revealed.

So today I went running again, fired up the big Plinko game in my head, and all sorts of things came bouncing down. Here’s a brief preview: spelling bees, strawberry fields, sexy guitar players, and oh, yeah – maybe a bit about running, since I'm actually doing it again. (I also came up with the whole Plinko analogy during today’s run – but you probably guessed that already).

Obviously, no one will ever mistake my talent for Malcolm Gladwell’s. My writings probably won’t even justify the money your boss is paying you to read this blog. But I’ll at least try to keep things interesting enough over the next couple of weeks to keep you checking your Bloglines list.

That’s right: I’m promising randomness and mediocrity. And believe me, I’m capable of delivering.

(And if Malcolm ever happens to read this...if you’re ever in Carmel Valley, drop me an e-mail. We'll go running some day.)

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May 7, 2006

Through the Darkness

"Out of darkness comes light, twilight unto the heights...
Said, thank you to my God, now I finally got it right
And I'll fight with all of my heart, and all a' my soul, and all a' my might."
- Matisyahu, "King Without a Crown"



I’ve still got a couple of leftover items from last weekend’s Big Sur Marathon to talk about before I get the race completely out of my system. Just bear with me a little longer…

First, the leader of my son’s Good News Club reported to my wife that last week my son asked the group of his classmates to pray that his dad’s legs would feel better soon. Which speaks to a couple of obvious points:
1) I was in a lot of pain last week. I spent the better part of last week hobbling around in slow motion, wincing and moaning the whole time. Apparently it was even worse than I realized. And…
2) I mean, how great is this kid? He way more selfless and considerate than I was at his age – or ever, come to think of it. I guess the simplest thing I can say is that when I heard that story, it didn’t surprise me one bit.

Second, I wanted to revisit this idea of going through dark, desperate straits during the marathon. I described how it happened to me. I received e-mails from people who had similar experiences.

As you would suspect, most people ran into trouble at the same part of the course – Carmel Highlands at miles 21-23. No one who has run a marathon should be surprised to hear this.

The thing I wonder about is that in the aftermath, runners often talk about how disappointed they are to have succumbed to hopelessness and despair, even if they only faltered to a slight degree. And truthfully, I’m no different. It’s only been one week since the race, and I’m already second guessing why I couldn’t have gone just 20 seconds per mile faster for three tough miles, to shave one extra minute off my time.

It’s a natural thing to consider, but also somewhat pointless. I mean, to some degree or another, everybody goes through a difficult stretch like that during the marathon. If you are running hard and pushing your limits, you are going to suffer. It’s just part of the deal that we sign up for when we choose to take on this particular event.

It took me a long time to accept this fact, and in the meantime I frequently beat myself up for losing my focus or straying from my target pace in the latter miles of several races. I used to think I was psychologically “soft” for being unable to stay confident and positive throughout the most difficult stretches.

But here’s the thing: I was killing myself last Sunday. My feet were torn up, my calves and quads were on fire, my stomach was cramping, and I felt like my legs were made of lead. I inflicted so much pain on myself that four days later, my son was praying for my recovery. And in some form or another, two thousand other people were doing the exact same thing.

So the real question should be, why wouldn’t somebody’s thoughts turn a bit negative under these circumstances? I can’t imagine somebody going through similar conditions and being able to completely block out all of those physical alarms.

It’s almost like a chicken-and-egg scenario: do our thoughts turn bad because we are struggling physically, or do we struggle because we lose our psychological focus?

The answer I’ve settled on goes something like this: my physical training before the race prepares my body to carry me through the most difficult stretches of a marathon. The better my training is, the more efficiently I will get through those dark miles (i.e., without losing too much time). But that doesn’t mean I won’t encounter self-doubt or other mental anguish along the way. That particular obstacle is unavoidable, no matter how well-conditioned someone is.

But here’s the funny part: going through that darkness is the part of marathon running that many of us appreciate the most.

Those of us who are hooked on this sport know that there is nothing more rewarding than working our bodies to the brink of failure and facing down our inner demons, then somehow pulling ourselves through to emerge triumphantly on the other side. Some finishers will tell you they don’t even know how they get through those difficult patches, yet they always find a way.

And every time we go through that fire, we gain a self-appreciation and self-respect that is (as MasterCard would say) truly priceless. What’s more, we’re thankful for the hardships that helped us earn this awareness, because they aren't so easy to find in our everyday lives. Many of us become addicted to the feeling, and start looking for another race to renew the fight all over again.

Those people are called marathoners.

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May 4, 2006

Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Office

(I had a story that I wanted to tell last weekend, but it just didn’t fit in well with the other posts, so I saved writing about it until this week. Apologies to Pearl Jam for the title...)

About 5 weeks ago I hinted at the fact that I was working in a new office, sharing a room with two other people. I only slightly exaggerated my concern about being able to listen to Green Day and Fall Out Boy on my computer like I was accustomed to in my previous work space. (Sure, I'm learning new job duties and taking on increased responsibilities, but I can still find time to fret about these things. I’m gifted that way.)

I soon discovered that my fears were somewhat unfounded. One of the women in my office spends a lot of time off site, frequently vacating her desk for a half-day at a time.

And the other woman is as deaf as a post.

She’s one of those ladies who looks about 70 years old, dresses in outdated fashions, and takes about five full minutes to rise from her desk and shuffle over to the printer. And it took me a while to understand that her failure to respond to my questions wasn’t just her way of giving me the cold shoulder.

I’ve since learned that she pretty much relies on lip reading, and unless I raise my voice to a near yell, she’s pretty much oblivious to noises around her. Her desk sits behind the front counter of our office, and I pass back and forth in front her several times per day, yet she barely notices.

So we settled into a pattern where we each go about our own business – her typing and printing whatever unknown tasks she is responsible for, and me plugging away at my computer with my head bouncing happily to Yellowcard. Honestly, it’s an ideal arrangement (Believe it or not, I’m more of a keep-to-myself type in the workplace. Blogging is like channeling some alter ego.).

Then one day last week she startled me by tapping me on the shoulder while I was sitting at my desk with my back turned. After my initial jump, I saw she was holding a small white bag out to me, and said “I stopped at the bakery on my way in.”

I peeked inside the bag, and saw that she brought me a dozen donut holes.

This was on Friday morning. Less than 48 hours before the Big Sur Marathon. There was no way in heck I was eating those donut holes.

But I put on a happy face, thanked her about ten times, and made a big fuss over how nice she was to think of me. I placed the bag beside me until a bit later in the morning, when I opened my desk drawer and dropped it inside.

About 30 minutes later she tapped me on the shoulder again. Again, I jumped. When I turned, she was holding another white bag, and said “It looks like [our office mate] isn’t coming in, so you can have her bag, too.”

It took me a few seconds to return my jaw to its upright position before I could manage going through the same routine of thanking her again, then waiting a while before hiding this other bag in my desk next to the first one.

On my way home that night, I dropped the bags in a trash can in our parking garage. I knew I wouldn’t be eating them that weekend, and they were getting a little stale to bring home for somebody else to eat.

I felt kind of bad, though. I think I played the situation off well enough to avoid hurting the old lady’s feelings, but I still felt like it was almost disrespectful to be so dismissive of her goodwill offering.

Perhaps my actions say something about the importance I placed on last weekend’s race. More likely, they just demonstrate my overriding neuroses about anything I perceive to be a threat to my running. Either way, I wanted to make some sort of amends this week, now that the race is over and I’ll pretty much eat whatever the heck I feel like for several days.

So this morning I brought her a donut, and told her to have a nice day. She smiled and seemed happy. Then I went back to my desk and cranked up the Foo Fighters.

Just like that, all was well in the office again.

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May 2, 2006

Scenes From a Marathon

(Author's note: This is an expanded version of the article I wrote Sunday night for Monday's Monterey Herald)


The 2006 Big Sur Marathon is in the books. You’ve read the articles telling you the primary results: who won the race, how many people finished, etc. But there’s always so much more to the story. Here, then are some details that didn’t make headlines, but were memorable nonetheless, from the 2006 Big Sur Marathon.

Cool new pre-race ritual: With his sisters at Grandma’s house and his Mom out to dinner, my son chose to relax at home and watch Star Wars with me the night before his 5K race. Which was very cool for two reasons:

1. When I was seven years old, my absolute favorite movie in the world was Star Wars. And every time I think this kid and I don’t have much in common, he never fails to do something exactly the way I would have at the same age. And…
2. No matter how many times you see it, watching Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star is simply a fantastic motivational boost. I totally had the Star Wars theme in my head the next morning.

Best way to start a race: I can’t claim to be Scottish, but there’s no more inspirational song to hear at the beginning of a marathon than “Scotland the Brave” played on the bagpipes, which has become a BSIM standard over the years. It never fails to put a jump in your step and courage in your heart.

In fact, I’ve made a mental note to travel to Scotland some day, just to see what all this bravery fuss is about.

Karnazes spots the field 10 minutes: A lot of us were on the lookout for ultrarunner Dean Karnazes making his way south on Highway 1 for the first half of his out-and-back double marathon. Unfortunately, Karnazes was a bit behind schedule, leading to the unusual scene of thousands of marathoners yelling “Hi Dean!” to him during the first mile while he passed in the opposite direction, finishing his run to the start line before turning around and running an “official” time of 3:33.

This wasn’t in the race brochure: On an open stretch of road during mile 7 lay a skunk that had probably met its untimely demise under the wheels of the countless buses traversing the road in the early morning darkness. The result was the aroma of freshly-killed skunk drifting almost a full mile down the course, growing increasingly strong until runners finally passed the scene of the crime.

Biggest missed opportunity: When we crested Hurricane Point, thick fog was all around us – we couldn’t even see the ocean directly below. I felt bad for the runner from Indiana next to me and commented in true Yogi Berra fashion, “It’s a really nice view here, when you can see it.”

Then again, maybe missed opportunities are OK sometimes: Of course, when the sun did finally come out, temperatures warmed up very quickly. It went from “cool and foggy” to “hot and stifling” faster than any year that Mike and I can recall.

Most unexpected race garb: My 2-year-old daughter’s favorite shirt is solid blue with a giant Cookie Monster face depicted on it. Imagine my surprise to see a runner on race morning with the exact same shirt. I didn’t even know they made an adult version. I wonder if you can special order it in coolmax.

Sharing the love: I ran most of the race very close behind or ahead of the 1st place woman. Appropriately, the spectators and walkers go crazy when the first place girl runs by. I heard a full three hours worth of “Go girl!” or “Hey – first woman!” and all sorts of whooping and hollering. For some reason, the crowds don’t make as big a fuss over the 28th place male. But running near the lead woman is a nice way to hear a lot of cheers – and if you close your eyes, you can just pretend they are for you.

Completely random and improbable accomplishment: This was my fourth straight year of being the 28th overall finisher. I'm not flashy, good-looking, or blazing fast, but you can call me Mr. Consistency.

The sons also run: My 7-year-old son ran the 5K, then hung around the course to cheer me across the final bridge at mile 26. He then ran the rest of the way with me to the finishing chute, thereby crossing the marathon finish line ahead of Mike’s 31-year-old son, who ran his first Big Sur Marathon in 3:30. Both dads were very proud.

After pain comes pleasure: there’s really no way to describe how good it feels to be massaged by six hands at once shortly after finishing a marathon. But that’s just what happens in the massage tent following the race. If we could figure out some way to go back several times, one of these years we might just skip the race, and duck in and out of the massage tent throughout race morning. That alone could be worth the price of a race entry.

The streak is over: Mike’s Lance Armstrong-like streak of consecutive age group victories came to an end this year, as he finished second in the 55-59 age group in his slowest Big Sur Marathon time of 3:12. When it was announced at the awards ceremony, the crowd let out a collective gasp like when Mandisa was voted off American Idol. Count on Mike to have the eye of the tiger next year when he turns 60 – all you 60-year-olds should be very afraid.

Best reason to make friends with fast relay runners: Individual age group winners traditionally receive a bottle of Blackstone (Monterey County) wine. The winning 5-person relay teams don’t get separate bottles, but instead are awarded a large magnum bottle. You know they have to open that bottle sometime – so why not stop by with a corkscrew some night to congratulate them?

Warmest reception for age group winners: Hugo Ferlito, chairman of the BSIM board, stands on the podium while awards are handed out after the race. He shakes the hand of each winner as they exit the stage, and when local runners pass by, he embraces them in a warm hug. It’s a great feeling to get a bearhug from the chairman - and just another example of the hometown charm at this world class race.

Hopefully some of these stories and other articles about the marathon will inspire you to join Mike and me for the 22nd running of the Big Sur Marathon next April. You now have a full year to train for it, so go ahead and get started! We’ll be here to help you along the way.

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May 1, 2006

Big Sur 2006 Report

So much to say...where to begin? I guess it makes sense to start with my race. This could get long-winded, so it might be a good idea to fix yourself a nice tall drink, and pull up a comfortable chair. Go ahead. I'll wait a minute.

(Waiting.....) OK? Here we go...

Looking at the numbers, especially after everything I’ve written over the past week, you might conclude that I’m disappointed with the way things turned out. You would be right, but only a little bit. I've certainly made my intentions clear about chasing after a sub-three hour marathon.

In my last few marathons I had been fairly conservative in the first half, kept a consistent pace through the late miles, and come in just a few minutes above three hours. So my mindset going into Sunday’s race was to be a little more aggressive in the early going, which would hopefully do one of two things: 1) establish a slightly faster-then-normal pace that I could maintain consistently to finish a few minutes under three hours, or 2) give me just enough of a cushion that I could slow down a bit and still duck in under the wire.

I ran the first four miles ahead of pace but very comfortably; these are the gently downhill miles that are the easiest of the course. Beginning with mile 5, the course leaves the shelter of the tall redwoods and traverses vast coastal pastures - these next 4 miles are a long, gradual uphill stretch that lies exposed to the wind. It was during this section that I hit my first decision point.

My heart rate monitor was beeping above my target level while I was clinging to a pair of runners to draft as much as I could. If I slowed the pace and dropped from these runners, chances are that my heart rate would have been just as high even while running slower, since I would be facing the headwind on my own.

(And as far as the weather goes, let me say this: it was pretty typical Big Sur weather. The winds were mild at times, stronger at others, and generally unpredictable. When the sun came out, the course seemed to warm up in a hurry over the last 10 miles. So conditions were far from ideal, but not worth complaining about. We’ve had much worse. You just take whatever you can get at this race, and Sunday was a perfect example. )

The other thing that bears mentioning with this race is that if you find yourself in the first quarter to third of the pack, you will run long stretches of the race on your own. There just aren’t a lot of fast runners who sign on for this race, because it’s about the exact opposite of what you look for in a PR course. So any time you have a chance to draft with a pack of runners, you need to take advantage.

I made the decision to stay with this pair of runners, working harder than I would have liked but keeping with my strategy to be more aggressive. We broke apart on the descent to the base of Hurricane Point, but by then I had caught up to the lead female runner, and ran with her most of the way up the 2-mile climb. After another downhill mile I crossed the Bixby Bridge, the halfway point of the race at 1:29:25 – more or less right where I wanted to be.

From this point I just wanted to keep working hard, taking the race one mile at a time, knowing if I kept an average of 6:50 per mile I would finish in 3 hours. The road kept rolling up and down, and I was gaining a handful of seconds per mile, but beginning to feel the strain.

I hit mile 20 in 2:15 – leaving me 45 minutes to do a final, very hilly 10K. I had a good chance to do it, but I was definitely feeling the pain.

I clicked off mile 21 in just over 7 minutes – meaning I was slowing down. And up next were the two toughest miles of the course – miles 22 and 23 through Carmel Highlands.

I’ve suffered through the steep hills of the Highlands many times during my marathon career. It’s a backbreaking stretch of road that can completely demoralize the best of runners. It’s the place where my inner demons emerge, and my body cries out against the pain I inflict upon myself to continue onward.

This year I felt more desparate than others – probably because of the extra effort I had spent earlier in the race. There were several times when I felt like I was barely keeping my legs moving. More than once, I gave myself a visible target to reach before I could stop and take a walking break: just make it to the next cone, the next telephone pole, the base of the next hill. The marathon became a nearly continuous series of 50-yard efforts, and it was all I could do to move from one to another.

Somehow I willed my body onward, and surprisingly never gave in to the temptation to walk. And while it felt like I was jogging in place, my mile splits were 7:26, 7:46, 7:18 - not a complete collapse, but just slow enough to put me behind my target pace. I hit mile 24 at 2 hrs, 45 minutes. It was still possible to break three hours, but with the way I was feeling I knew the odds were heavily against me.

I maintained my “dead man running” mode through the final two miles, and while I remained optimistic, in the back of my mind I knew I would just miss the goal time. The strategy I had employed was effective in putting me in position to succeed, but I couldn’t make the final move when the need arose. My only goal became to maintain forward momentum all the way to the finish.

Then came the silver lining. The 26-mile marker sits on the Carmel River Bridge. When runners cross the bridge, they see the finish line for the first time. And waiting for me just across the bridge were my son and wife, yelling and cheering me on.

They had done the 5K earlier in the day, and hung around the finish to see me home. And in the space of about two seconds, I did the following:
1. Glance at the finish line clock, which had just turned to 3:00:00
2. Turn and look over my shoulder to make sure no one was gaining on me, and
3. Gesture and call to my son to run with me down to the finish line.
And from there I shut the motor down, and jogged the final 200 meters to the finish line with my son right beside me. I probably could have broken 3:01, but at that point it didn't matter. We crossed the finish line together and started telling each other about our races while I staggered through the finisher’s chute.

Now, the three events above happened in precisely the specified order. I’d like to say that if the clock had read 2:59, or if someone had been hot on my heels, I would have done the same thing. But in all likelihood, I wouldn’t have. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make such a call, and the happiness of the last 200 meters more than made up for the disappointment of missing my goal time.

I believe that everything happens for a reason. I think that when God closes a door, he usually opens a window. I feel that if it wasn't meant to be for me to break 3 hours on Sunday, maybe the outcome was scripted to happen exactly as it did: with my son and I crossing the finish line together, sharing a moment of joy and relief, reveling in our mutual accomplishments.

Even without the memorable finish, I would have been satisfied with my effort on Sunday. I made a calculated gamble that didn’t quite pay off, but gave me my second best result here ever. To get there, I navigated through some very dark psychological waters, and pushed my body nearly to its limit to persevere.

I have even more to say about this race that I’ll discuss in the days to come. My son had a very enjoyable day, which I'll report on soon, and he has already mentioned doing another race someday. I’ve touched on a couple of other issues in this report that I’ll explore further in future posts. My next post will probably be our Herald article with some memorable snapshots of marathon day.

One thing is certain: there will be NO running this week, so there’s bound to be a lot of rambling. Most of it will be about Sunday, but then I’ll move on and talk about the new direction my training is taking over the next several months. And this blog just wouldn’t be complete without mentioning yet another music video hottie I’ve had on my mind lately. So I’ll definitely keep the information flowing during this down week.

Finally, I wanted to say thanks again to everybody who sent kind words before and after the race. It means a lot to know there are people out there interested in your results (you know, besides those who have the obligation of being related to you). As I’ve said before, running is an extremely difficult sport – so I’m glad to take every little bit of encouragement and support I’m fortunate enough to get.

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