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July 31, 2006

Family Milestones - Part 1

The end of July is a big deal for our family. Today I’m writing about reason #1, and the next post will be reason #2.

On Saturday morning, I was awake long before dawn to put in a couple of hours on my bike. There would be no talking myself out of this particular workout, and this is why:

It’s my son’s eighth birthday cake, made by my wife. It goes with the shark theme for the pool party we had at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

I’ve written before about my wife’s skills when it comes to making cakes. This shark was no exception – it was crazy delicious. Here’s how attached I become to these cakes: every time we have a birthday party, I find some way to oversee the slicing of the pieces to all of the kids, to make sure they are small enough that we have lots of leftovers afterwards. (By the way, I graduated from college more than ten years ago.)

Since there’s no turning down these culinary delights, I always make sure to get in a good workout on the morning of a birthday party. The cake seems to taste even better if I feel like I’ve earned those extra calories.

Luckily, my wife usually makes enough to spare, because we also have a cool family tradition of having birthday cake for breakfast on the morning after parties. (When it comes to cool family traditions, we have some pretty great ones.)

So I had my share of shark cake at the birthday party. And believe me, it was certainly worth riding 30 miles in the dark.


Actually, my son’s real birthday was last week. It led to the following conversation one night before he went to bed:

Me: Hey…do you know what you’ll be tomorrow?

Him: I’ll be eight.

Me: I can’t believe it.

Him: Me neither. But I’ll still be the same.

Me: But what about me? I have to learn all kinds of new things. I’ve never had an eight-year-old before. I don’t know anything about eight-year-olds.

Him: You don’t?

Me: Not really. I don’t know as much as you think sometimes.

Him: It’s OK. You’ll be fine.

Me: I know. We both will.

What I didn’t tell him was, I was only half-kidding. I feel like I don’t have a clue about this parenting thing sometimes. It’s like an ultramarathon where each mile poses its own unique challenges, with equally memorable high points and low points along the way. You don’t know exactly what the next ones will bring – you just know that somehow you’re going to keep moving through them.

The birthday parties are like aid stations where you take stock of how far you’ve come, get some encouragement from others who are there to assist you along the way, and shove down as many calories as your system can tolerate. Then you head off down the trail of the upcoming year.

Only in this case, each kid is a one-shot deal. You can’t do the race a second time. If you’re smart, you’ll remember to enjoy the journey, because once you are through it, there is no going back.

So bring on milestone #8, and let’s keep on rolling. I have a feeling it will be a blast.


July 28, 2006

Infomercial Madness

Many of you know that my friend Mike and I write a twice-monthly column about running in the Monterey Herald. For the first several months of this blog, I made a habit of linking to those newspaper articles that I kept on my original R&R website.

I haven’t done that for a while now, for two primary reasons:

1) A lot of the ideas for the newspaper column originate on this blog, so if you were to read both articles, you’d notice an awful lot of redundancy. Over time, this blog has become the on-deck circle where articles warm up before stepping up to the Herald’s home plate. (That may be an inaccurate analogy – because I have no idea how many people actually read the Herald stuff. For all I know, there may be just as many who read this blog.)

2) I’ve been extraordinarily slow in getting articles posted to the original R&R site recently. For some reason I make this step way more complicated than it should be, and consequently it’s very easy for me to fall behind.

However, from time to time we’ll come up with something for the paper that hasn’t already been test driven on this blog. That was the case last week. Mike had been recuperating from an injury and started to keep track of all the outlandish infomercials he saw for various fitness products. We took that premise and had some fun with it.


The Running Life 7/20/06 : “Infomercial Fitness”

From time to time, both of us have battled recurring injuries. The standard advice injured runners always hear is to take some rest.

Unfortunately, we both happen to be terribly impatient. We get antsy when we can’t go running. So during our “rest” periods, we look to other forms of exercise to stay in shape until we can hit the roads again.

Fortunately we have television access for our indoor cross-training. Whenever we’re pedaling away at a stationary bike or tugging on a rowing machine, we channel surf through the countless infomercials promising a fast lane to fitness. (Unless of course we come across a Girls Gone Wild video, in which case we immediately stop surfing – but not pedaling.)

We’re amazed at how much we didn’t know about fitness before we started watching early morning television. Sure, running is the easiest and fastest way to get in shape, but apparently it isn’t the sexiest.

Now we have some better alternatives. Here then is our money-back guaranteed recommendation for anyone looking to achieve peak physical fitness:

You have a DVD player, right? Buy several DVD’s that you can alternate from day to day in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Monday can be Yoga Booty Ballet, hosted by fitness superstars Teigh and Gillian. Hollywood celebrities use it to flex, firm, and burn. This workout seems primarily aimed at women, but men would certainly enjoy watching Teigh and Gillian work their booties. Like we said, you’re in the privacy of home.

On Tuesday try Chalene’s Turbo Jam Workout. You can lose 10 pounds and 10 inches in 10 days while learning calorie-busting kickboxing and dance moves. And Chalene’s not bad to look at, either.

Wednesday would be the classic, the pioneer: John Basedow’s Fitness Made Simple. John cares about you. Just do John’s workouts and follow John’s nutrition recommendations, and any man will undoubtedly end up looking like John. Single women will land themselves a man that looks like John, so everybody wins.

On Thursday do the Inside and Out 6 Week Body Makeover with Michael Thurmond. You can sleep in a little, too, because you’ll only need 18 minutes for the body sculpting routine. You’ll be able to eat more, exercise less, and get fit - guaranteed. Michael is a master body sculptor who has transformed the bodies of countless celebrities.

Then again, you can work out with real celebrities on the remaining three days of the week.

Supermodel Elle McPherson and less-than-super actor Patrick Duffy are spokespeople for Supreme Pilates. Note that it is “supreme,” meaning it must be way better than that plain old Winsor Pilates crap that Daisy Fuentes sells. But don’t play favorites – give each of them one day of the week. Besides, how exciting would it be to have both Elle and Daisy in your living room? It’s the kind of thing guys dream about.

Don’t think that Sunday is a rest day, because we’ve reserved that day for our favorite workout, Billy Blanks’ Tae Bo Boot Camp. You’ll transform your body and mind, and blast into shape in just 7 days. Have you seen Billy? Would you argue with him? Us either.

So you’ve got your indoor workouts covered. What if you want some fresh air? In that case, we recommend that you park the cars outside and start filling your garage with exercise equipment. No, it’s not “really” outside, but this way you’re protected from the harsh wind and rain. And sunlight.

Sure, it can be quite expensive, but if you are serious about total fitness, you absolutely need this equipment. Start with the Bowflex Extreme, for as little as $20/month. You’ll still be paying for it six years from now, but by then you’ll have the body you always wanted. You’re worth it!

If that’s not your style, how about the Total Gym? In just 6 to 8 minutes a day, you can look like Chuck Norris or Christie Brinkley. All this time, did you think Christie was just naturally beautiful? If it weren’t for the Total Gym, she’d be just as frumpy as the rest of us.

Leave room in the garage for abdominal machines. Those old fashioned sit-ups and crunches are for chumps. Work your abs into a frenzy with the Ab-doer, Ab-blaster, Ab-Lounger, RED (Rotational Exercise Device), or (our favorite) the Torso Tiger. Or if eight minutes per day is too much commitment, just buy the Slendertone Flex Ab-Belt, which you simply wear and go about your daily routine, with no exercise needed.

Got all that? Your exercise regimen is now complete. Oh, wait - there’s one more thing. Read the fine print on all of these revolutionary programs:

Results may vary. Advertised results not typical. You may be less successful. And of course, best results are achieved by using this product along with a consistent program of sensible diet and traditional exercise.

You know, traditional exercise…like running.

Come to think of it, being injured sucks. We’d much rather save our money, and just get back out on the trails and roads.


July 27, 2006

Vacation Report, Part 2: Big Trees

OK, one more post about last week’s vacation, then it’s back to business as usual. But just to clarify one point that apparently stood out from the last post – yes, I really did TiVo the World Series of Darts when I was gone, and I really did watch it when I came back. The unintentional comedy of that show is simply off the charts. I’m also following VH1’s World Series of Pop Culture, and with the World Series of Poker currently underway, I’m at risk of developing a World Series of Bedsores on my backside from spending so much time on the couch.

Anyway, back to the running. The second location I ran in was Calaveras Big Trees State Park, at the relatively low altitude of 5000’.

The sequoias here are the largest living things ever created upon the Earth. The park today stands as a monument to the majesty of nature, and the wonder of these breathtaking trees. Unfortunately, it also bears witness to the colossal damage that humans inflicted upon the trees before they became protected by early conservationists such as John Muir and Robert Johnson in the late 1800s. So running through the main grove elicits some conflicting feelings, as I’ll describe later.

From where we were staying, it was less than a half-mile to a fire road that provides a side entrance to the park. The fire road stretches for another mile into the heart of Big Trees Park, before connecting with a single track that stretches between the two primary sequoia groves.

I took one branch of the trail for about one and a half miles to the North Grove, which is the main visitor destination of the park. But in the dawn of early morning, I was the only person there. Everything around me was silent, except for the whistle of a light breeze in the high treetops.

It’s impossible to portray with words exactly how imposing the giant sequoias are. The dimensions they reach are simply mind-boggling: many of them grow over 300 feet tall, and stretch more than 30 feet across their diameter. Many of them still have a 16’ diameter as high as 50 feet above the base of the tree. They would be roughly the same height and weight as an ocean freighter standing on its nose. One signpost on the trail points out a fallen branch lying in the brush – the branch alone is as big as the trunk of a full-grown oak tree.

Even pictures don’t do nearly enough justice to the enormous stature of these trees. Unfortunately, the most telling examples come from human misconduct through the years. Some of the destruction was rooted in good intentions, while other damage was merely negligent.

The centerpiece of the North Grove is known simply as the Big Stump. It is the remains of the first giant sequoia to be discovered in this forest. A bear hunter named Augustus Dowd encountered the tree while tracking a grizzly bear in 1852, and word soon spread about the grove of “monster trees” high in the Sierras. Although Dowd argued for preservation of the tree, less than one year later it was felled by speculators.

Perhaps the best depiction of the size of this tree was what happened after its demise. At various times over the years since 1853, the stump was used as a dance floor, and a bowling alley and bar were built on top of the fallen trunk. Today - 170 years too late - the stump and trunk are left to rest in peace.

Many people have seen pictures of cars passing through a carved out tree. In the 1880s, the Wawona Tree Tunnel was carved from a tree in Yosemite National Park. Shortly thereafter, the caretakers of Big Trees Park created a similar tree to attract attention (and tourist interest) further north to this area.

This tree was selected because it already had a huge fire scar at its base, and the tunnel was cut through it. And while it’s very cool to run through the middle of a tree, the publicity stunt came at a steep price: the tree can no longer support growth in its upper half, and the hollowing leaves it especially vulnerable to fire.

The most graphic illustration of negligent destruction to a tree lies further up the trail, at a sequoia known as the Mother of the Forest. In 1854, speculators stripped the bark off the trunk, and reassembled the bark at various conventions and fairs in the eastern United States to demonstrate the size of the fabled giants to skeptics.

Unable to transport nutrients and without its natural defenses, the tree deteriorated for many years, and fell victim to fire in 1908. Today a blackened remnant is all that remains from the once majestic tree – and if you look closely, you can still see the horizontal scars from the chainsaws that were used to remove the bark.

Knowing the stories of these trees adds a somber component to running in this particular forest, but it’s not an overwhelming sensation. Despite the visible reminders of human foolishness, hundreds more sequoias remain on over 6000 acres of park land. Instead of sadness, as I made my way around the tourist trail and back home on the single track, my mood was one of humility, respect, and joy.

Humility, in that there is no way to set foot in this place without feeling extremely small. In addition to their sheer size, most of these trees will live to be 3000 years old. They were here long before humans laid eyes on them, and they’ll remain for centuries after we’re gone. That fallen trunk from the Big Stump will lie in place for another 1000 years before it decomposes back into the soil. Considering these timelines, a human life span is a relative blink of an eye, and the 90 minutes I spent running here seems infinitesimal.

Respect, because despite the travesties that some of these trees have suffered, they clearly are in the hands of loving caretakers today – and it’s not just the employees of the park. Almost every runner and hiker, every camper and every family who sets foot here comes away with a sense of reverence for these majestic creations. The trees are forever protected as much as our laws will allow, ensuring that the sequoias will continue to inspire and amaze many future generations.

Joy, for in one morning, I was able to do one of the activities I love amidst one of the most beautiful backdrops imaginable. During those 90 minutes, I had this park and these trees all to myself - there was nowhere else I wanted to be, and nothing else I wanted to be doing. I can’t think of a much better way to spend an early morning.


July 25, 2006

Vacation Report (Part 1)

Did I forget to turn off the oven when I left? Because it’s ungodly hot around here. It feels like we somehow took a wrong turn on the way home and ended up in Arizona.

I’m somewhat later than I expected in providing this post. It’s a classic case of needing a rest day from the vacation: after a long, busy, exhausting week, I was slow to jump right back into the swing of things. Plus, I had eight hours of Tour de France coverage on TiVo to catch up with, not to mention five episodes of PTI and week 1 of the World Series of Darts (what – you thought I’d stop being a sports geek?) But better late than never, so here’s the vacation report.

Here is the tent cabin where we slept at Lake Alpine:

Given my frequent exaltation of the great outdoors, I have a confession to make: I hate roughing it. I love spending day after day in the wilderness, but at night I always yearn for a comfortable bed, shelter from the bugs, a hot shower, and high-speed Internet access. I’m basically a tough-on-the-exterior guy with a soft chewy center – you know, kind of like a Tootsie Pop.

So the tent cabins were a nice compromise. It was rugged enough to convince the kids that we were really camping, but gave us some elevation off the ground, with an overhead light and mattresses for our sleeping bags (and my ergonomically contoured pillow – have I mentioned I don’t like roughing it?). It also provided nice shelter during the electrical storm that tore across the lake one evening.

The first place I ran was on the Lakeshore Trail around Lake Alpine. It’s paved for about ¾ of a mile, and single track for the remainder. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a trail map to be found, so I didn’t have much idea where I was going, other than knowing the trail would eventually circumnavigate the lake.

So when I came across a sign inscribed with the words “Inspiration Point” and an arrow pointing perpendicular to my path, I was faced with a decision: remain on the path where I knew I could stay oriented, or diverge onto the unknown path.

You know what I decided. Really - with that kind of name, who could resist?

The path to Inspiration Point was probably less than two miles, but it was very rugged and rocky, with difficult footing and steep uphill slopes (more on this later). I needed a couple of walking breaks to get there, but it was worth the effort. Here is the rock I eventually stood atop:

And here is the view of the lake from Inspiration Point:

Given that the elevation of the lake is 7400’, I would estimate that Inspiration Point is close to 8000’ – but remember, I’m not a GPS guy, and half the time I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. So let’s just say it was noticeably higher than 7400’.

On my return to the Lakeshore Trail, I still had to walk many of the downhill sections because of the tricky footing. As I continued around the trail, I remembered something which periodically slips my mind: that locations like this are where real trail running takes place.

Monterey County has many miles of beautiful trails – and I’ve written quite a bit about them. We have plenty of hills and oak forests and stream crossings and a fair amount of wildlife to keep things interesting. But compared to the trails at high elevations, the area where I live is like Double-A minor league baseball, with the mountains representing the major leagues.

In order to complete my loop of the lake, I constantly had to traverse loose, rocky terrain, climb over and under massive fallen trees, scramble up the faces of enormous granite formations, and dance across boulders at river crossings. I also got unnerved by a couple of signs warning me that I was in bear country, and by seeing several trees that bears had “debarked” to mark their territory.

It seemed like there was never a moment when I could diminish my focus on the footing or the peripheral surroundings. In some places it was a challenge to simply stay upright. Throw in the fact that all of this exertion is taking place with the oxygen flow meter turned down by about 25%, and suddenly I felt like I had been called up to the big leagues, taking my first at-bat against Roger Clemens.

I’ve run in the mountains of Colorado and California enough times to be familiar with the feeling, but it never ceases to be awe-inspiring. So to Stronger, Deene, or any other mountain runners out there: I hope you realize how fortunate you are to train where you do. Those mountain pathways are the big-league ballparks of trail running. Whenever I'm running there, I never want to stop - I just want to run forever.

Eventually I made it around the lake and back to camp, and my high-altitude adventure quickly took a back seat to the rest of the family activities.

My son and older daughter both went fishing on the lake with Mom and Grandpa (and not with Dad. I’ve never liked fishing – but that’s a whole separate post). Last summer, my son caught a 4.5-lb trout in this lake. He had his picture taken at the lodge, and it was still hanging there for us to see last week. So this year he goes out and somehow manages to land a 5.5-lb trout – the thing was nearly two feet long, and he could barely haul it in the boat. They took his picture at the lodge again, and put it on the same wall as last year’s photo. The kid’s becoming a minor celebrity up there. Someday he could probably become a sportfishing guide on Lake Alpine.

Here’s the strange part: his great-grandfather fished on this lake for 30 years, and never caught anything larger than 4 pounds. His grandfather has fished there nearly as long, and never caught anything that big. But the kid has gone up there two straight years and managed to land a monster, once-in-a-lifetime fish each time. And he has no idea how unlikely events like that are. He’s like the Forrest Gump of trout fishing.

His younger sister wasn’t to be outdone, however, and managed to take in the largest haul of fish one afternoon in the boat. So they both had something to brag about afterwards.

We also took kayaks out to the rocky island in the middle of the lake to do some exploring, and spent a lot of time splashing on the shore. In the evenings we did the whole campfire thing with burgers and s’mores, and taught the kids how to play Dominoes. The family spent a lot of time in close proximity, and nobody drove anyone else crazy. In other words, it was about all we could ask for.

Later in the week, I ran in another beautifully memorable setting - but this is a long enough post for today, and I don't want to fall any further behind on my TiVo. I’ll continue the story in a future post.


July 14, 2006

On Vacation

Next week, when I wake up in the morning, this is where I’ll be:

That would be Lake Alpine, at the top of Highway 4 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The lake sits at an elevation of 7400 feet, and is part of the Stanislaus National Forest, with 750 miles of trails that go as high as 11,000 feet. It’s the hub of a vast wilderness of rugged, beautiful, challenging terrain – in other words, a trail runner’s dream.

There is a network of roads and paved paths around the lake for bike riding. And for swimming, um...did I mention that there’s a lake? If you’re an amateur triathlete seeking an ideal setting for high-altitude training about two months before your goal race, this is a pretty darn perfect place to spend a week.

On the other hand, if you’re a father of three taking the family along on vacation, all training bets are off.

We typically travel to this area of the mountains twice per year as a family getaway, and I’m never quite sure how the week will to unfold in regards to getting a few workouts in. Whenever the kids are in an exciting, unfamiliar setting, and when none of us have any structured schedules to adhere to, everything becomes unpredictable. They might sleep in, or (more likely) they might wake up at 5:30. They may spend four hours fishing, or just hang out at the cabin or campsite playing under the trees.

The uncertainty of everything pretty much prohibits my having a scheduled time to go running. Whatever exercise regimen I happen to be on at the time quickly goes from a very high priority (to me, that is) to an afterthought in favor of other activities.

That’s not a bad thing. We love spending time with the kids, doing things we don’t get to do at home. It’s also great just to relax and watch them have fun in the beautiful surroundings. And honestly, it’s usually a nice relief for me to not worry about keeping pace with the previous week’s training. In the big picture, the forced rest usually does my body more good than harm.

Sure, the altitude training would be fantastic. But even in a best case scenario, how much time would it help me me shave off of my upcoming race - maybe a couple of minutes? In the “time spent to reward gained” equation, that’s just not enough of a payoff to justify making my exercise a point of emphasis for the trip. There are certainly other enjoyable things to do.

Despite all this, my saintly wife usually acknowledges my need to sneak off for some sort of activity, so I may in fact do some running up there. I tend to pack in anticipation of the best (exercising a lot), but mentally expect the worst (no exercise at all). In recent trips I’ve hit both extremes, but more often I manage to find some middle ground.

The only downside of the whole trip is relatively minor, but directly affects this blog. There is a small lodge near the lake, but it’s not exactly the kind of place where you expect to find Wi-Fi capability or remote blogging access. I anticipate that Running and Rambling will be unoccupied for the next week or so.

However, be sure to check back here next week, because I think I can put together something to help you kill some time during your so-called “work breaks”.

In the meantime, if I don’t leave comments on your blog for a while, don’t take it personally. Honestly, you’re a great blogger. I mean it. Any reader should feel lucky to have you. I’ll think about you when I’m gone. Really. It’s not you, it’s me. I just need some time away right now.

And when I come back, we’ll have some catching up to do.


July 12, 2006

A Man Scorned

During the first week of July, I suffered a betrayal that shook me to my very foundation, and disturbed me so much that it’s taken until now to write about it. It was sudden and unexpected and seemingly defies logic.

During the first week of July, my favorite radio station decided to change its format.

Monterey is probably one of the smallest independent media markets you’ll come across, but for the past few years we’ve been fortunate to have one of the best alt-rock stations I’ve ever heard. It was comparable to KROQ in Los Angeles, Live 105 in San Francisco, and...well, that’s about all I can compare it to (is 91X still going in San Diego? I'm not sure). But trust me, it was pretty darn cool.

Then without warning, they tinkered with the format to include rap music alongside its standard modern rock. They alternate back and forth between styles, so now a typical four-song sequence would be something like 50 Cent followed by Matchbook Romance followed by Kanye West followed by AFI. I mean...huh?

Their new moniker is “The Revolution,” but instead of feeling groundbreaking, the overall vibe just seems really weird. Am I missing something? Was this trend pioneered in a big city somewhere? Has this format been successful someplace else that I’m not aware of? Are there huge groups of kids out there who are swapping heavy metal and gangsta rap music files on Napster? The whole thing just seems baffling to me.

Thankfully, they haven’t completely abandoned the old format. But imagine if your longtime girlfriend suddenly came home with a pentagram tattoo and an introductory witchcraft book. You’d probably hang around for a while to see where things headed (especially if the, um, “relationship” was good), but deep down you would be thinking of getting one foot out the door before things got too bizarre.

My relationship with my radio station was good. I was satisfied. I never let my ears wander around the dial. (Yes, I can have feelings for a radio station. Really – at this point, does this surprise you?) But I can’t help feeling like this is the beginning of the end.

If so, it would truly be a sad development in my daily existence. And worst of all (you knew this was coming), it might even affect my running.

In my daily travels by car, I’m a traditional radio guy. I haven’t converted to satellite radio, and I haven’t invested in an iPod or mp3 docking system. I have a lot of CDs, but to keep things fresh I’ve always tuned in to (what used to be) our great alternative rock station.

Now here’s the connection to running. At least two or three days per week, I leave my house before 5:00 AM to drive somewhere for my morning run. Driving through the darkness, I use the up-tempo rock music to help keep my eyes open and stimulate some adrenaline production for the workout that lies ahead.

And since I never run with headphones, the last song I hear typically stays in my head throughout that morning’s run. I’ve become accustomed to hammering out the miles to the beat of Blink 182, Velvet Revolver, Linkin Park, or the Offspring. I don’t know if these songs helped me cover the miles any faster, but it’s become a familiar groove that I’ve embraced over the years.

So my question is this: Am I going to run any differently after listening to Chamillionaire, Pit Bull, or Lupe Fiasco? Is my alertness going to be adversely affected by getting less than my RDA of hard rock in the mornings? Will my internal rhythm be offset to the point of disrupting my natural running cadence? Am I going to start wearing my running cap sideways and tilted, or use a giant rotary clock on a chain around my neck instead of a Timex on my wrist?

OK, that’s a lot of questions. But you can sense how I’m troubled by all of this.

As surprising as it may seem (even more so after reading this post), I’m a grown man. I know what I like, and what works for me. I enjoy rap music primarily as a comedic diversion, but I’m not going give up my identity as a new rock aficionado. I don’t foresee myself buying into the whole hip-hop lifestyle, especially since I couldn’t afford the yacht or SUV limo or the gold-plated grill for my teeth. And I’m darn sure not going to let some stinking radio station have a negative impact on my training.

Like that guy keeping a closer eye on his girlfriend, I’m going to let this situation with the radio station play out a bit and see what transpires. I'm hoping it's just a short-lived experiment, before they see how misguided it was and return to the old formula - kind of like Coca-Cola did after their crazy "New Coke" idea bombed. But I realize I may not be sticking around for long, and I’ll have absolutely no reservations about severing my ties to this particular Revolution if necessary.

And when that happens...let’s just say if you don’t already have stock in iTunes, this might be an opportune time to buy in.


July 10, 2006

Weekend Ramblings

Nothing especially earth-shattering happened around these parts over the weekend, so I thought I’d just jot down some loose odds and ends from the past couple of days:

• It was nice to see Italy win the World Cup yesterday. As I indicated a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been a longtime fan of the Azzurri.

However, I’m also the guy who in 2006 has pulled for the UCLA basketball team, Chris Daughtry on American Idol, Terry the Navy pilot on Survivor, and the American guy going up against Kobayashi at last week’s Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Throw in the fact that I missed my goal time at April’s Big Sur Marathon by one minute (I mean...not that I’m still thinking about that), and it’s felt like a year of consecutive near-misses. So it was nice to see somebody for whom I was rooting finally be able to seal the deal.

Plus, I don't remember the last "Whoa!" moment in a game quite like when Zidane completely lost his mind and leveled the Italian dude. I don't care what the sport is - anything that makes you jump out of your chair and think, "Did that really just happen?" makes for pretty riveting television. Instead of Brent Musberger, we almost needed Jerry Springer to close the broadcast with a final thought. Who says soccer isn't exciting?

• My 7-year-old son had his first-ever swim meet on Saturday. This is his first summer on the swim team, and he just started learning the breaststroke and butterfly about two weeks ago.

At the meet, he was entered in the 25-yard free, the 50 free, the 25 back, and 25 fly. The last event led to the following two separate exchanges...

Conversation 1: Between my son and me, after he finished his warmup and sat next to me wrapped in a towel:

Son: So what events am I racing today?

Me: 50 free, 25 free, 25 back, 25 fly.

Son: Oh...(long pause)...Dad?

Me: What?

Son: What’s the fly again?

Conversation 2: Between our team’s assistant coach and my wife, as our son was lining up on the block for the 25 fly:

Asst Coach: So, um…how did he end up in this event?

My wife: The coach asked if he’d do it, and he said yes.

Asst Coach: Oh...OK then.

Needless to say, our expectations for the butterfly race weren’t exactly soaring. Yet my son dove right in and somehow managed to splash his way through 25 yards. And despite the relative difficulty – or maybe because of it – it turned out to be the most memorable part of his day.

He had a brief near-panic episode about 30 minutes prior to the race, fearful that he wouldn’t be able to do the stroke the right way or wouldn’t be able to finish. But his mother and I (OK...mostly his mother) talked him through it, and he found that he was capable of more than he thought.

It’s one of the reasons that I’m glad he’s doing the swim team thing this summer. I don’t really expect him to be a competitive racer, and I don’t anticipate that he’ll ever master the butterfly. But sports provide so many opportunities for small lessons and have such enormous potential to improve someone’s self-esteem, that I think it would be sad to completely miss out on those experiences.

Plus, I’ve already taught him to bike and run, so...um, on second thought, never mind. Let’s just leave it with me being proud of him.

• Finally, on the running front: remember the 4-mile tempo run workout I wrote about last week, and the way I was anguishing about running my slowest time of the year? Well, I did the same workout this morning, and ran it more than 20 seconds faster than last week.

So I guess it’s possible that I over-exaggerated my plight a bit. It’s a good reminder of how the vast majority of what I write here frequently ends up being meaningless. But you probably knew that already.

I’ll try to keep the whining to a minimum from now on. Because although I’m still slower than I’d like to be, I’m improving. And that should always be a reason for optimism.


July 7, 2006

La Tortura Me Encanta

“And I'm on tonight, you know my hips don't lie and I'm starting to feel it's right…
All the attraction, the tension…Don't you see baby, this is perfection…” -
Shakira, “Hips Don’t Lie”

Yesterday, prior to getting in the shower for the second time that day, I had an epiphany of sorts: working out twice a day is exhausting.

I was standing in the middle of our employee gym, stretching and watching (what else) music videos. Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” video was playing, and it seemed perfectly appropriate.

(**Disclaimer: this is likely to be a convoluted post completely devoid of intellectual significance. If you’re looking for something thought provoking, this would be a good jumping-off point to visit another blog.)

I confess that I’ve never really been into Shakira. She always seemed like a little more than I could handle.

This is the girl whose previous video for “La Tortura” features her making out (putting it very mildly – what’s the best phrase to describe “having sex with your clothes on”?) with a man in her kitchen while holding a 12” carving knife. She also douses her entire body - hair included - in what looks to be motor oil, then writhes provocatively on the floor while repeatedly arching her back and rubbing her hands all over her body.

I mean...there’s sex appeal, and then there’s borderline insanity. Shakira has always seemed like that crazy girl in college who is exotically beautiful and passionately sexy, but has an intensity to her that is overwhelming. Normal guys couldn’t come close to satisfying her, although secretly they wonder if they would be up to the task (especially with a girl whose current album is called Oral Fixation).

She’s the girl who would completely devour all of your time and energy if you ever tried to date her, and may potentially turn psychotic on you if you ever try to extricate yourself. Most guys, when they’re thinking rationally, know to stay away from these chicks.

(Actually, one of my college roommates dated a girl like this, and we wouldn’t see him for weeks at a time. Sometimes they would be in his bedroom with the door closed, and not come out for three days. He may as well have been on the moon. It was totally surreal. We didn’t know whether to envy the guy or stage an intervention. And it took him two years to finally break up with her. But I’m getting off track…)

Let’s say you’re at a frat party where Shakira is on one side of the room, and Jewel is on the other. Who are you going to start hitting on? Part of you can’t help wonder what it would be like to date Shakira for a while, just to see what kind of mindblowing lunacy you can tolerate. But deep down you know Jewel is ultimately the girl you eventually want to settle down with.

And keep this in mind: guys don’t often act rationally. Many of them will go for Shakira, knowing full well that they’re getting in way over their heads, that there’s no way they can stay on this road they’re heading down for the long haul. But the temptation to know what it’s like is simply overpowering.

Which brings me back to standing exhausted in the employee gym.

For the past four weeks, I’ve been working out nearly every day, and frequently twice per day in my new role as a triathlete. Although I’m managing it well so far, I know it has the potential to completely wear me out.

Traditionally, running has been my Jewel: a well-balanced, rational, reliably beautiful activity that I know I want to settle down with for many years to come. It was meant for me, and I was meant for it (sorry, that was easy). I knew I could dedicate myself to it, and still have a lot of energy for all the other things I enjoy. But like many guys, I crave the exotic life every now and then.

So I wandered across the room to hit on the hot Colombian girl with the body paint and the seductive stare – that was the day I signed up for the triathlon. And now all of this extra training makes me feel like I’ve signed on to date Shakira for the next two months.

I’ve lost all of my free time. I’m tired all day long. I mean, I like getting some action as much as the next guy, but sometimes I simply don’t have the energy to go at it twice in one day (um, just to clarify...I’m talking about workouts here). I haven’t seen some of my running partners in weeks. I’m attracted to all sorts of new equipment and techniques that I typically only read about (still talking about workouts). I’m sore in ways that I’m not accustomed to.

The amount of time I’m dedicating to one race is becoming completely irrational. There’s no way I can keep this kind of pace up over the long term.

Yes, it’s crazy. Borderline insanity, in some ways. But you know what? I’m having a blast. I’m starting to feel it’s right. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the perfection that Shakira demands (really, what man can?), but from now until September, I’ll certainly have fun trying.


July 5, 2006

Lazy Day

Just south of the Salinas city limits you’ll find the tiny town of Spreckels, CA. In the late 1800s, Spreckels was created as a company town for the sugar company of the same name, which was one of the biggest sugar producers on the West Coast.

Although the company was sold in the 1980s, the sugar refinery still stands at the base of the Santa Lucia range, and 500 or so residents occupy the former company housing units. Spreckels remains a snapshot of small town America, and a throwback to a simpler time.

Nowadays, Spreckels is known primarily for its Fourth of July celebrations. Every year the town hosts a 10K race and a 1 mile kids’ run as a fundraiser for the local fire department. After the race, there is a barbecue in the park, and a parade down the town’s main thoroughfare. It’s about as small-town America as you’ll find anymore, with something to offer people of all ages.

We considered taking the kids to Spreckels this year, but after thinking it over, our family pretty much blew it off. As much as we like going to events like this, something else our family cherishes is lazy time together, which has been a somewhat precious commodity lately.

Almost every day since school has been out, my wife has had to rush the kids out the door to some activity or another. Whether it’s swim team, swim lessons, church camp, Sunday school, or just running errands, the lazy summer days have been a lot more busy this year. And we’re definitely not parents who overschedule our kids – in fact, we’re very much the opposite, preferring to have free time to go hiking, go for bike rides, or play at the river.

So when we talked about 4th of July plans, and our son said that what he wanted most was to sleep in late and read comic books...well, that sounded pretty darn good to the rest of us, too.

My wife and I both ended up scrapping our workout plans for the morning, and just rested in bed as long as possible. Our 5-year-old daughter entertained herself in her room after she woke up. Our 2-year-old even played along, sleeping until 7:30 instead of her normal 6:45. (Unless you’ve had young kids, you can’t appreciate how rare it is that we all get to sleep in until 7:30. It’s like an eclipse: multiple factors have to be perfectly aligned at precisely the right time, and afterwards, you know it probably won’t happen again for quite a while.)

My son read comic books and built Legos, my wife did some yardwork while the girls played outside, and I watched Italy’s World Cup match on the sofa. In the afternoon, we went swimming, then barbecued some burgers and made s’mores.

Instead of seeing small-town America, we just circled the family's wagons and enjoyed each other's company. Maybe it’s not overtly patriotic or glamorous, but it made for a very satisfying Independence Day.

And honestly, missing the race never really crossed my mind.


July 3, 2006

Return of the Tempo

Before today’s post, I wanted to wrap up a few loose ends related to some recent posts...

* I watched the finish of Portugal’s shootout victory over England on Saturday. I had thought that England’s exit from the tournament would be reason to mercilessly heckle my British friends during our next few runs – but after seeing the heartbreaking fashion that they lost...well, I don’t think I’ll have the heart to do it. I mean, I was bummed for those players after watching it. I just can’t imagine how disappointed real Englanders must feel.

So now I’ll probably pass on a ideal opportunity to sharpen one of my primary talents. You know, sometimes I hate having a conscience.

* I wrote an entire article about devising a cool nickname without thinking of my 5-year-old daughter. She has a toy killer whale that she named Kindkill, because, in her words, “He’s kind, but he'll kill you.” Talk about a cool nickname for an athlete. And she was four years old when she thought of this. Sometimes I reach way too far for creative inspiration, when it’s sitting right under my nose all along.

* People have suggested that Hoot and Ringo might like sharing a cage, since doves are known to be highly social animals, and since they clearly like spending the day talking to each other. We asked the birds’ owner about this, and she said that when she kept them in the same cage, they fought with each other constantly.

Apparently they couldn’t get along together without bickering and dragging each other down, but since they were separated, they’ve each become happy in their own environment, and they seem to respect each other again. Perhaps we should have renamed them Shaq and Kobe.

* Our kids’ bedrooms are down a hallway, and they sleep with their doors shut, so luckily the doves don’t often wake them up in the mornings. Plus, it’s one of those weird type of sounds that isn’t enough to wake you up on its own, but once you are awake it’s impossible to ignore.

* Finally, Robb Runner, I’ve reported you to PETA on suspicion of avicide. (PETA has a Canadian branch, don’t they? Do they ride on horseback like the RCMP, or does that go against their philosophy?) That story about your bird's "unexpected" death seemed a little too convenient.

OK, enough of that. On with the real post…

I wrote to Matt last week about the importance of event-specific training. Namely, to succeed at a particular event, your training must feature workouts that replicate the conditions your body will experience during the race. If you are doing an ultra, practice long, slow runs on hilly terrain. If you are marathon training, run a lot of miles near marathon pace; and so on. The physiological rationale is that the body gradually adapts to specific strains placed upon it.

Unfortunately, the body also tends to forget these accommodations quite rapidly, as I demonstrated over the weekend.

I set out on my 4-mile tempo run course that I do on a regular basis while marathon training. I run it at a speed somewhere between 10K and marathon pace. It’s a difficult workout, but I can usually sustain a steady effort and maintain a strong pace throughout.

This weekend, the workout just destroyed me.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this particular run. It has been three weeks since the Dipsea Race, and since that time I’ve done a lot of biking, swimming, and easy trail running - but nothing excessively strenuous. I certainly haven't been slacking, but I also haven't done any hard running in quite a while.

The first mile of my tempo run felt pretty typical, as I set out at a pace that felt difficult but sustainable. During the second mile, the effort increased a bit, but my pace dropped significantly.

In the third mile, I realized my tank was pretty much out of gas, and in the final mile, instead of pushing hard to the finish, it was all I could do just to keep my legs moving. Several times I felt like walking, but I somehow struggled through it and kept running to the end. My time was the slowest I’ve done for this workout in 2006, by almost 30 seconds.

The obvious take-home lesson is that I need to do more tempo runs again. It also highlights some of the difficulty in transitioning from a pure runner to a triathlete. Even though your overall volume of training remains high, it’s easy to overlook specific workouts that eventually erode the abilities you had as a pure runner.

And I suppose a lot of triathletes - well-adjusted triathletes, less neurotic triathletes - either don’t notice, or don’t lament the fact that their race pace is 15-20 seconds per mile slower than when they were dedicated runners. But it bugs the crap out of this triathlete.

So there’s one more item on my to-do list now, in addition to the miles on the bike and laps in the pool and continuing track workouts and everything else I’m trying to cram into a finite amount of hours.

My mindset is that I won’t compromise my running standards while I’m transforming into a triathlete. I know it may not be realistic, but it will surely keep me driven.

And when it comes to producing results, I think that's the most important factor.

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