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August 31, 2006

The Power of Two

Before today’s post, a couple of thoughts came to me while I was stretching in the gym and watching music videos after this morning’s track workout:

1) Apparently Justin Timberlake claims that he’s bringing sexy back. Which struck me as odd, since I didn’t realize sexy ever went out. I don’t recall anyone ever complaining, “You know, people just don’t respond to sexy things like they used to.” Then…

2) As if reading my mind, the very next video was Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm.” And, um … wow. That girl just keeps bringing it.

Watching Beyonce and thinking of Justin, I wanted to paraphrase LL Cool J’s famous line: Don’t call it a comeback – sexy’s been here for years. Her name is Beyonce.

OK, that’s out of my system. Thanks for your patience. On with the post…

I’ve written before (like here and here) about my love-hate relationship with doing tempo runs.

When I’m targeting a specific race, there’s no better way to build my fitness than to spend 20-25 minutes dancing on the periphery of my lactic acid threshold. Done consistently, this run gradually increases my body’s tolerance to running at higher speeds, which in turn makes my race pace over a half-marathon or marathon feel easier by comparison.

It all makes perfect physiological sense. Unfortunately, it also hurts like mad.

My routine tempo run is a gently rolling 4-mile route through the one-road village of Carmel Valley. In all the years I’ve lived here, I had always done the run by myself. It wasn’t for lack of trying to find partners – but let’s just say it’s not easy to recruit someone to a workout that makes you feel like throwing up if you’re inadequately prepared. People are surprisingly sensible sometimes.

Then two weeks ago, I had myself a taker.

One of the newer guys in our running group is a formerly blazing-fast 10K runner who is working his way back into shape for a possible marathon attempt next spring. We also happen to live in the same neighborhood – so it’s convenient for us to get together in the early mornings.

At least, that’s what I told him. I didn’t mention the possible throwing up part.

10 days ago, as we did our warmup jog to the start line, he asked how fast I typically do this workout. I replied – truthfully – that it usually takes me around 26 minutes, give or take 30 seconds either way. An average of 6:30 miles, with the first few miles faster and the last (mostly uphill) mile slower.

We took off from the line, running stride for stride at a pace that seemed slightly harder than usual, but not unbearable. As we hit the one-mile mark, I looked at my watch, saw the 5:46 split, and said “Whoa – we’re way too fast.”

I eased off the pace and settled into a comfortable rhythm (at least, as comfortable as you can get on a tempo run) before struggling through the final mile. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch to read 25:13.

Wait … what?

It was my best time of the year – including when I was peaking for the Big Sur Marathon last spring. There’s no way I should be running PR times lately, given how I’ve been dragging myself through two workouts per day for the past several weeks.

Thinking of it later that day, it seemed like a fluke thing that this great workout just popped out of me one day. Obviously I was happy with the time, although I didn’t think I’d be able to duplicate the effort. But in the meantime, I could think of myself as a faster runner – which is always nice.

So I was a bit reluctant to meet up with him this past Monday to do the same workout again. If my time was slower, that would confirm my fluke theory, and my suspicion that I wasn’t as fast as it appeared last week.

I also knew that we ran the first mile way too fast last week. This Monday, we purposely took the first mile a little slower – and still hit the split in 5:57.

For the rest of the run I felt fairly strong, and maintained a steady effort all the way to the finish. My final time was 25:15 – only two seconds slower than last week, at an effort that felt much more controlled. How about that.

While my training has certainly played a role in the faster times, the more obvious factor was that I had someone accompany me on these runs. Of course I already knew that training with somebody else makes you go faster, but these workouts illustrated just how dramatic the difference can be.

Here’s the strange part: the new guy wasn’t pushing me on these runs. Each week, he hung beside me for about 10 minutes before falling back to a slower pace. So it’s not like I was drafting him or straining to keep pace with him (although given his credentials, it won’t be long before he catches up).

Yet merely knowing he was on the same road at the same time, and doing the same workout, was enough to make me raise my game. It speaks to the power of having good running partners, and having some accountability for doing quality workouts.

It doesn't make me enjoy these tempo runs any better, though. Thank goodness I'm tapering next week.


August 28, 2006

Super Mario Runners

(Administrative note: This turned into a somewhat strange post, and much longer than I thought it would be - although that shouldn't really surprise anyone by now. If you're looking for something more tangibly related to running, well ... have you checked out Complete Running yet? I hear they're doing some cool things over there. Otherwise, read on...)

For his eighth birthday, my son received a Game Boy Advance.

Actually, I should clarify that statement a bit to say that the package he unwrapped had his name on it. As far as who has spent the most time with the Game Boy, it’s pretty close between my son and me. But I’m sure he’ll probably catch up one of these days.

Seriously - I’m hooked on this thing. It’s one of the best presents I’ve - I mean he’s - ever received. (So much so, that I’m currently revising my own birthday list for this fall. Right now I’d definitely pick a Game Boy over a GPS. You think I’m kidding.)

My son and I spend a lot of time trading the game back and forth with a shared purpose: traveling through the seven kingdoms of the Mushroom World to free all the princesses and reclaim the magic wands that were captured by the evil king Bowser.

The object of our infatuation is Super Mario Brothers 4 – an updated version of the game that altered the video game landscape more than 15 years ago.

Prior to the original Mario Brothers, most video games were about scoring the most points, reaching the final destination the fastest, or shooting the most aliens/asteroids/bad guys, etc.

The premise of Super Mario Brothers is quite different: it’s designed as an Odyssean journey, with new adventures awaiting around every turn. Each of the seven kingdoms is divided into multiple levels, with each level requiring a different set of skills to advance through it. The levels become progressively more challenging, but in conquering the earlier levels you acquire the skills to handle the more difficult ones.

Some relics of traditional video games remain. Mario can collect gold coins along his journeys, worth 100 points each. There is a timer on the screen, counting down the time remaining to complete each level. But these are secondary concerns; it’s not necessary to score any points to complete a level, and the clock is almost never a factor in Mario’s success.

Additionally, when Mario exhausts his 5 allotted “lives”, a player can continue the game with the push of a button. You can play for as long as you desire, and when you want to take a break, you simply save your progress, and pick up from that point next time.

Eventually you’ll make it through all seven kingdoms (and right now we're in #3), but the point of the game isn’t to make it to the finish. In fact, the adventure is so lengthy that many players never complete it. Rather, the fun lies in experiencing each new challenge that is encountered at successive levels, and testing your ability at whatever stage of the journey you find yourself.

(You can see where all this is heading, right? … )

In these regards, the game is an awful lot like running. It presents different challenges to different people. Some people are more skilled and progress further than others. But regardless of our abilities, we all get the same satisfaction and enjoyment out of the activity.

Runners acquire skills from smaller tasks and apply them to larger ones. Very few people are prepared to run a marathon as their first race. 10Ks grow into half-marathons, marathons evolve into ultras, and 50 miles turns into 100 (and beyond). The levels are progressively more challenging, but it’s in doing the easier tasks that we develop the ability and resolve to take on the larger ones.

You can try to collect accomplishments in our sport, but in the grand scheme of things they really don’t matter. Mario can rescue the princesses with zero gold coins or 500 – very few players really keep track. In running, it’s great if you’re someone who accumulates medals or age group victories, but that doesn’t mean that others don’t get the same satisfaction from their efforts.

Similarly, you can worry about the time on the clock, but in many races – especially as the distances get longer - that’s a secondary concern. Does someone who finishes a 50K in 8 hours take away something less from the race than someone else who ran it in 6? In Mario’s world, as in ultras, you don’t get extra credit for rushing to the finish – you only have to make the cutoff time.

Above all else, the main point is to enjoy the process, because the journey is never really over. We can run as far as we want on any given day, only stopping when we decide to. The next time we lace up our shoes (whether it’s the next day or several months later), we continue our own adventure with all those previous experiences saved into memory. Do we really want there to be an end point? Or would we rather continually discover and explore new worlds as we travel along?

The game reminds me of running in another way, in that my son and I make a nice team. I’m good at figuring out the best path through each level, and he remembers the special tricks that Mario can use along the way. We have a lot of conversations like the following:

Me: I almost know my way through here. You stay on the floating log until the flying fish sails over your head, then you jump onto the spinning stick and land on the drain pipe. I just need to figure out how to get past the hatchet-throwing turtle.

Him: Did you get a magic flower from the mushroom house?

Me: No – I bumped the mystery box and got a raccoon suit, but I still get eaten by the fire-breathing plants.

Him: That’s because the raccoon suit only lets you knock bricks over with your tail. Get the flower suit, then you can throw fireballs at the turtles and plants, and swim through the quicksand.

Me: Cool. Then I just have to defeat the pipe-smoking warthog.

Him: Yeah … he’s tough.

Sometimes my wife thinks we’re speaking another language. But honestly, it all makes perfect sense if you know the game.

Playing the game with my son is a lot like having a good training partner: our strengths complement each other's weaknesses, we trade ideas to help each other get better, and we encourage each other to continue the journey.

Best of all, we enjoy each other’s company. No, we’re not getting exercise when we’re playing, and there are certainly more productive tasks we could be doing, but here’s the thing: we’re having fun. And he’s a kid. And – like everything else in life - as long as we maintain a reasonable balance, I’m not inclined to change anything.

Especially when there are still four more princesses out there for us to rescue.


August 25, 2006

A Post About Nothing

Before I sat down to write this post, I had almost nothing to say.

48 hours between posts is usually enough time for one of the nebulous concepts bouncing around in my head to distinguish itself more prominently. Even when I don’t know for sure what I’m going to say, I at least have a pretty good idea what the topic of the next post will be.

The time I spend running is typically when I’ll play around with sentence structure and phrasing, so that when I finally sit down to write, my fingers can barely keep up with my thought process. It’s been a fairly reliable system, until this week.

On Wednesday night, I had no clue what to write about, but I figured something would come to me on Thursday. Unfortunately, neither the hour I spent on the track in the morning nor the time in the pool at lunch brought me any closer to a tangible idea.

I resigned myself to skipping today’s post altogether. So instead of opening my laptop last night, I flipped open my son’s Game Boy Advance – one of his birthday presents from last month.

Two hours later, I was still playing.

Then while running along darkened trails this morning, the idea came to me as clear as the rising daylight. By the time the sun was up, I knew what the next topic would be.

However, I have to get to work now, and I don’t have time to write the post. So you’ll have to wait until Monday. (In journalism, this is called a teaser).

Yes, it has something to do with the Game Boy. But for now, that’s all I’m gonna say.

On an unrelated note, I’m headed to the ocean after work today for another open-water swim.

Remember how some people told me that my yellow swim cap might attract sharks? And how I said that next time I would wear the old pink cap I had leftover from a previous triathlon? Well, I pulled out the pink cap last night … and it has a hole in it.

Which means I’ll be braving the waters in my sharkbait cap again tonight. So if you hear of any shark attacks on the news tomorrow, you can say you knew me before I got famous.

Also, on the plus side – I mean, if I DO get attacked – is that at least it would give me something interesting to write about.


August 23, 2006

Back to School

Without question, the best athletic facilities in Monterey County belong to Hartnell Community College.

I’ve been running on their all-weather track for years. It’s ideal in several ways: conveniently close to my workplace, centrally located for my running partners, and accessible at all hours of the day (well, almost. We usually have to climb over the fence for our 5:30 AM workouts. Nobody from Hartnell security reads this, right?). Best of all, it’s available at absolutely no cost.

For the past few months, I’ve been using their Olympic-size outdoor pool for my swim workouts. It’s 50 meters long by 25 yards wide. We swim the long course without lane lines on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and short course on the other days.

During the summer, the swim program is organized by the local masters club, but once school starts, oversight of the pool returns to the college. The fall semester started this past Monday – three weeks before my triathlon.

I didn’t want to skip the last three weeks of swim training before the race. I’ve also decided that I’d like to continue swimming for cross-training throughout the year (because we can do that in California – lucky us) once the triathlon is finished.

So I utilized my only option to continue using the pool: I walked across campus to the registrar’s office, and enrolled in a 1.5-unit class – P.E. 134, Swim Fitness. I paid $43 to the cashier, and just like that, I became a student again. Hey, everybody … I’m goin’ to college!

Walking back to my car, I got a few “Hey”s and “Whassup”s from some of my fellow students, which led me to wonder: would I actually fit in here? Could I really pass as a student?

In a flash, I had another thought: how many people get a second chance at living the college life? Suddenly this new fitness endeavor seemed like my ticket to a lot of collateral benefits.

I considered all the ways my life might change now that I’m back on campus:

1. Chillin’: As an undergraduate at UCLA, I spent a lot of time in the student coffee house or the main outdoor plaza, just watching the girls go by (whoops … I meant world. Watching the world go by.). It’s a habit I reluctantly gave up once I acquired some of those so-called “important” things like a job and a family and hobbies. But hanging out in the courtyard yesterday, I realized that people watching was an activity for which I wouldn’t mind polishing my skills a bit.

2. Study groups: In every college movie, there’s one very cute, very smart girl who helps some dopey guy through a difficult class. Remember Tommy Lee's tutor at the University of Nebraska last summer? How do I go about requesting something like that for myself? I think a little individual attention while I’m in the pool might be just what I need to survive such rigorous coursework.

3. Partying: I wasn’t a fraternity guy in college, which at the time seemed like a mature, responsible decision. But part of me (that little guy with the devil’s horns) thinks I might have missed being a part of something special. You know, things like being publicly hazed, learning to drink from a gravity bong while standing on my head, or waking up on a stranger’s front lawn with somebody else’s underwear on – such moments must be precious.

I need to do some investigating on this one, but I’m wondering if there’s a nearby fraternity like the one in Old School that recruits folks of any age. That way, if I ever get the urge to run naked and drunk down the middle of the street at 2AM, I’ll have somebody to share the experience with. After all, you can’t put a price tag on those kind of memories.

4. Drugs: The only time I ever saw illegal drugs in person was at an undergrad party. Do college students nowadays get a discount on marijuana or ecstasy? Would I be assigned a drug dealer in addition to a career counselor? I thought I could look into this, and report my findings here, in the spirit of journalistic curiosity. (Then again, I just finished a whole series on drug use – that’s probably enough for the next year or so. Let’s move on.)

5. Speaking of discounts: Will my student ID get me cheaper meals or movie tickets anywhere in town? If so, I’m all over it. I mean, every couple bucks I save is like an extra GU packet or bottle of Gatorade. This class could potentially pay for itself after a couple of months.

Obviously, this swimming thing has opened a whole new realm of possibilities that I never imagined during all those years I was cluelessly running laps around the campus track. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this plan years ago.

However, there is one point of concern now that I’ve enrolled in a college class: getting grades.

I’m not quite sure how this works for elective classes yet. Am I going to be graded on my swimming now? Is there a final exam? Do I get credit for effort or improvement? Will the grading be done on a curve? Is there a pass/fail option? Should I tell the coach that I’ve already been running in the mornings when I’m swimming at lunch, so he can consider that in my evaluation? Do I get extra credit for also knowing how to bike and run?

I never had to worry about having my performance evaluated when I was merely a runner, and before I re-entered college. It’s enough to make a guy pretty nervous.

Thank goodness there’s a back to school mixer this weekend – because I just might need to blow off a little steam.


August 21, 2006

Fractured Fairy Tales

I can’t overemphasize what a nice outlet blogging has been for me.

After all, it’s not like I started this blog and then became a quirky, neurotic, running-obsessed oddball. Those elements of my personality have always been present – but prior to Running & Rambling, they just manifested in other ways.

Exhibit A: Last night I found a spiral notebook belonging to my 5-year-old daughter. It’s about 4 inches high, covered in fuzzy purple felt, with a crowned-shaped mirror above the word “Princess.” The notebook has served as my daughter’s doodle and art book for the past few years.

This particular daughter is the budding artist in the family; she constantly makes paintings and pictures that end up all over the walls of our house, my office, and even her grandparents’ house. We have a designated craft table for her, and when she was younger I used to sit there beside her doodling my own sketches and stories while she colored.

I hadn’t seen the notebook for several months before last night, so I started flipping through it to see what she had drawn and I had written. The stories are very short (remember, it’s a 4-inch page), but they give a glimpse of the future blogger at a formative stage.

Also, based on the content of my writings, I could tell what book or TV program I had been exposed to at that time. For example, here is one story I came across:

“Will you accept this rose?” asked the princess.

“Of course I will,” he replied, “but I’ll have to skip the champagne. I was hoping to go for a long run tomorrow, and I have to get up early. Plus, I sometimes get migraines if I’m dehydrated, so I’m trying to limit my alcohol intake. And would it be OK if we just hang out at home for our next date? I’m kind of worn out from ramping up my mileage this week.”

The princess considered this and said, “Um ... Can I have my rose back?”

Obviously that was during a season of The Bachelorette. Another time, after reading a book of princess stories, I jotted this down:

From across the table, their eyes met, and they both knew it was meant to be this way; for them to meet in this exact place at this precise moment. He wanted everything she had to offer, and she had been long awaiting his arrival.

As their bodies drew closer, everyone around them faded from view. The time they shared seemed frozen, as if God intended this instant to linger longer than all others. But despite their mutual infatuation, they both knew it couldn’t last.

He reached for her … then took the Gatorade cup from her hand, and shouted “Thanks!” before continuing down the road.

And one more - after watching Shrek, sometime during a marathon training period:

“Attention! I have an announcement to make!” shouted the king.

“In a dragon-guarded castle in a faraway land, the princess awaits your arrival. Take heed - the journey before you is long and treacherous.

“A route map and course elevation guide were provided in your goody bag. Each mile will be marked, and a volunteer will shout your split times as you pass. Aid stations every 3 miles will provide Gatorade and GU, and Vaseline will be available during the final 10K. The winner will be the first person to rescue the princess, regardless of chip time.

“Friends of the princess will be available at the castle to provide massages to all participants.”

And so on and so on. But now instead of jotting down mindless stories in my daughter’s sketch book, I have this blog to accommodate such ramblings.

No longer limited by a 4-inch page, I can write as much nonsense as I want. And my daughter’s probably happy that I’m not taking up so much of her notebook space. In those regards, the blog has been beneficial to each of our respective interests.

On the other hand, the question of whether anyone outside our family is better off for such a development is certainly debatable.


August 18, 2006

See Me Rollin'

One administrative note before today’s post: After my last post, a couple of people mentioned that my yellow swim cap might actually attract sharks, which is obviously a situation I’d like to avoid. Apparently they forgot to mention that little fact on Mythbusters. So next time out, I’ll be wearing the pink cap that I’d shamefully buried in my sock drawer - you know, unless someone tells me that pink attracts orcas or something.

It’s also a good reminder of what I’ve said multiple times in this space: sometimes I’m a complete idiot.

On with today’s post…

“They see me rollin’ … they hatin’ …
Patrollin’, they tryin’ to catch me ridin’ dirty …”

- Chamillionaire, “Ridin’”

(Before July, I thought those lyrics referred to Chamillionaire’s experience with racial profiling while driving his pimped-out SUV. But recently, another thought occurred to me … do you think Chamillionaire is a Tour de France fan?

And yes, I heard that song on my newly reformatted rap/rock radio station. They’re still tormenting me with that.)

In the summer of 1998, I decided to train for my first triathlon.

I was on a limited budget, so instead of investing in a tri-bike, I bought a pair of slick tires and aero bars, and gave my Specialized RockHopper an extreme makeover.

I did hundreds of training miles on that bike, until a friend decided to upgrade his own racing bike. He knew about my bike, and asked if I wanted to use his old tri-bike (which he called the Green Machine - see below) for the race.

He and I are roughly the same height. The bike weighed about half as much as my RockHopper. And it was free. It took me about 2 seconds to accept the offer.

The bike was already about 15 years old at that time, but still had the stiff frame and smooth machinery that was top-of-the-line material in the 1980s. And at that year’s triathlon, I rode the thing like I stole it. The bike segment was undoubtedly my favorite portion of the race, and I nearly matched the pace that my friend posted on his new mack-daddy ride over the Olympic distance course.

After the triathlon, my friend told me to keep the bike (and wouldn’t take any money for it – now that’s a friend), and the Green Machine became mine. It typically hibernates for the winter, but when the weather gets warm and I’m training for another tri, I’ll log several hundred miles on it over the course of a few months. Last October I did a very hilly 100-mile ride from Carmel Valley to Hearst Castle (picture below) like it was a ride through the park.

However, the Green Machine is starting to show its age. While the bike itself hasn’t become much slower, the world of bicycle technology has continually advanced, to the point that any $800 road bike today has a much lighter frame and more superior components than I can compete with. (Although I still hold my own pretty well – more on that in a second).

So if you’re somebody who uses the term “bike porn” for pictures like these, think of the Green Machine as Vanessa Del Rio. Back in the day, there wasn’t anything as well-built or immediately exciting. She had the best geometry around, and set the standard for high performance. Nowadays she’s got about a million miles on her and looks totally overworked and outdated, but under the right circumstances she can still deliver the goods.

Today there are models who are much younger, better-looking, and come augmented with expensive components to make your ride even more exhilarating. And sure, I could go out and get myself a Jenna Jameson, but sometimes I don’t see the point – especially when I’ve got a model that gets me to the same, um, finishing point anyway. Yes, Jenna would probably get me there a little faster, but I’m not shooting for an age-group win or an Ironman slot – so isn’t it OK to take a few extra minutes to enjoy the ride? Sometimes the experience is about more than just speed, right?

Each summer, I tell my wife that this might be the last year before I upgrade to something lighter and faster. I’ve been saying that for almost nine years now. I’ve done several more triathlons since that first one. So I guess you could say that my needs have been met – and that’s really all that any guy can ask for.

Finally, about the name: I didn’t pick it. My friend called it the Green Machine for years before it became mine. I never gave any thought to naming my bike like a lot of cyclists and triathletes do. Perhaps since I always thought it would be a temporary companion, I purposely didn’t name it, to avoid becoming too attached – you know, kind of like finding a stray puppy. So even though I sometimes called it the Green Machine, I just always considered it “my bike.”

Then this past weekend I went for a ride with a group of guys riding Kestrels, Trek Madones, Cannondales, and similar high-end bikes. I felt incredibly strong, easily chasing down any riders who went off the front, and lowering the hammer to pull away on every major climb. As we regrouped at the top of a hill, one rider looked my bike over, and came up with this:

“It’s big, green, ugly as hell, and can rip our legs off. You should call it Shrek.”

I thought it was a fantastic idea. And seeing as how I’ve watched that movie about 100 times, it’s amazing that I didn’t think of it first. So even though I’m not into naming things, I’m actually going to think that one over.


August 16, 2006

Shark Bait?

"Takin' on the jellies ... awesome."
- Crush (to Marlin), from Finding Nemo

Conventional wisdom says you should never swim in the ocean alone. Yet I frequently do solo open water swims in Monterey Bay.

It’s not that I’m purposely irresponsible. I just don’t see the paranoia about this particular aspect of training.

It’s also a matter of convenience. I only know about three people who would take me seriously if I were to say, “Hey, I’m planning an ocean swim this week – want to join me?” When we try to coordinate days of the week, or particular times of day, pairing up with somebody never seems to work. It’s easier and faster to simply go it alone.

The thing is, I don’t consider it a particularly high-risk behavior. In many ways, open water swimming seems just as safe, if not safer, than the other two triathlon disciplines. But I’ve never had people tell me not to ride or run alone. So what gives?

In the spirit of due diligence, I’ll examine the main reasons people use the buddy system, and give my justification for ignoring them.

Reason #1: Someone knows where you are

Here’s what I do in Monterey: I head about 200 yards away from the shore, then turn and swim parallel to the beach. I’m never more than a quarter-mile from the sand. I wear a bright yellow swim cap, which catches the eye of observers on the beach.

I know this, because when I breathe to the side facing the beach, I frequently see someone doing the “one hand shading the eyes with the other hand pointed out toward me” stance while talking to a companion. Sure, they’re probably saying something like “Wow – look at that idiot swimming alone!”, but at least I know I’m noticed.

On the other hand, I can’t count the number of times when I’ve been on some remote trail, many miles away from anything resembling civilization. In those situations, if I were to break an ankle or have a heart attack, I might lie there for days before anyone discovered me.

In either case (swimming or running), once you venture into the wilderness, the only guarantee that you’ll return safely is your own self-reliance. Perhaps this is a foolhardy notion, but at least I’m consistent in my recklessness.

I realize, however, that those spectators from the beach can’t do much for me from the shore. Which leads me to…

Reason #2: You can get help if needed

People say the buddy system allows one swimmer to get help if the other is in trouble. This premise assumes a lot of factors that may not actually transpire.

Being in a group of ocean swimmers isn’t exactly like a social jog through the park. Everyone swims at different speeds. Very few people swim in a straight line. It’s nearly impossible to communicate above the noise of the wind and waves when everyone is wearing swim caps. Foggy goggles and choppy ocean swells often eliminate your peripheral vision. (Put it this way – there’s a reason every tri course is lined with kayakers. Is there any other sport that employs people merely to ensure that the participants stay in bounds?)

In these situations, each swimmer is practically on his or her own anyway. The best you can do is to have a designated turn-around point where you count heads to make sure no one is missing. But if someone starts choking and drops from the group, it could be 15 or 20 minutes before anyone notices and starts looking for him.

That’s assuming the group would even decide to look. I’ve been in groups where we count heads at the turnaround and come up a couple people short. Somebody usually concludes that those people must have turned back early, and thankfully, that’s always been the case.

My point is that merely having other bodies in the water doesn’t necessarily make you safer. Besides, if I had a medical emergency in the ocean, it’s not like my partner could do CPR on me out there. But could he help me with…

Reason #3: Predator attack

This is the thought that strikes fear into the hearts of novice swimmers everywhere. Nobody likes to picture getting attacked and devoured (on that thought – I loved Deene's comment on my last post, quoting Gil from “Finding Nemo” and saying that I would now be known as Sharkbait. It takes skill to trash talk someone by using a pop cultural reference that’s precisely topical. I wish I had thought of it first.)

Anyway, the potential for attack comes in two varieties: the “rip your limbs off and kill you immediately” method (like a Great White shark), and the “injure or paralyze you just enough that you’ll die a slow death before scavengers pick you apart” technique (like jellyfish). Granted, both of those ways sound pretty unpleasant. But think of them in running terms, and see if they still horrify you.

• Great White attack. This is a legitimate fear in some ocean regions, especially on the Northern California coast. But do you know how many shark attacks have been documented in the entire history of Monterey Bay? Exactly one. I know this statistic because my son and I saw it on Mythbusters – and those dudes wouldn’t lie.

Anyway, the Great White in the ocean is like the mountain lion in the hills: yes, it’s out there. Yes, it could kill you in a flash. But it doesn’t want anything to do with you, and would rather remain unseen.

The odds of you being attacked are a much lower magnitude than being struck by lightning. Sure, it could happen. But are you so terrified of lions that you avoid running on trails?

• Jellyfish sting. Unless you’re swimming in Australia, you’ll never find a jellyfish that can kill you with its sting. The real danger is suffering mild muscle paralysis, which can lead to drowning, so swimmers are advised to exit the water if they ever get stung.

Although I’ve seen several jellyfish in the ocean, I’ve never been stung – or if I have been, the wetsuit protected me from it. But if I do get stung, I’m close enough to shore that I could make it out of the water to get assistance.

Think of jellyfish as the rattlesnakes of the ocean. Your odds of being stung or bitten are roughly the same. Attacks usually happen by accident – stepping on a snake, or swimming into a jelly. The proper response to both incidents is to get antivenin as soon as possible. You should know these things, but you shouldn’t avoid the activity for fear of them.

In the end, what it comes down to is your willingness to take a calculated gamble. There is inherent risk of harm in running and cycling (I haven’t even mentioned getting hit by a truck yet) just as with ocean swimming. If you run or cycle alone, you knowingly diminish your chance of having help available should you need it.

Yet if you love trail running, you’ll take those odds to do something you enjoy. Ocean swimming is no different, and that’s why I usually don’t have any qualms about going solo.

(Finally, on a related note…if my body should wash up on the beach someday, would someone kindly submit this post along with my nomination for the Darwin awards? I’d appreciate it.)


August 14, 2006

Mine! Mine!

(Administrative note: With my triathlon less than 4 weeks away, the next several posts will have a more noticeable tri-vibe than in previous weeks. Reader discretion advised.)

Friday evening found me at Wharf #2 of the Monterey Harbor, pulling on my wetsuit before heading out for an open-water swim. It was a nice evening by Monterey standards, with an overcast sky, air temperature in the high 60s, and a relatively warm water temperature of 62 degrees.

(Before you ask…yes, I was alone. More on this in another post.)

It had been quite a while since my last open-water swim, so I wasn’t sure how my stroke would feel. I started off fairly easy, and was pleasantly surprised to find that everything felt much smoother than anticipated. All that yardage in the pool must be paying off.

I maintained an every-third-stroke breathing pattern, stayed relaxed in response to the unpredictable swells and chop, and kept a steady course toward the faraway building I was sighting (one advantage of swimming in Monterey Bay is the curvature of the coastline, allowing swimmers to see land in the distance on three sides). Everything was going, well…swimmingly.

Seals are plentiful in the bay, and I’ve become accustomed to seeing their dark, rounded heads poking above the waves to stare at me as I turn my head to breathe. Sometimes when they are especially playful, they’ll criss-cross underneath my path, or swim parallel to me, keeping their head above water to keep tabs on my progress.

When I first started swimming in this ocean, it was somewhat unnerving to encounter various sea animals dashing in and out of my field of vision. Over time, though, I’ve learned to relax in the presence of the creatures that dwell in these coastal waters.

On the other hand, creatures of the air torment me incessantly.

Such was the case on Friday, when approximately 30 minutes into the swim, I noticed a gray seagull swooping down to within a couple feet of my head. He seemed to coordinate his descents so that he could see my face from close range whenever I turned to breathe.

There’s a back story involved here. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that I have some, um…issues with birds. A checkered history, to put it mildly. (If you really want the long story, I wrote about it here.) So a hovering, possibly aggressive seagull directly overhead nearly put me into panic mode.

He stayed close above, repeatedly diving toward me for nearly a full minute before flying off toward a group gathered just offshore. I had a brief respite before the return of a different, white-and-black seagull, who also dropped in to get a look at me, coming nearly close enough to touch at times.

I was perplexed as to what could be causing such behavior. In my weary state, I envisioned a conversation amongst the nearby group of birds:

Bird leader: Hey – that looks like a wounded seal. Maybe there’s some scavenger fish nearby. Someone go check it out.

Gray seagull: I’m on it.

Bird leader (as gray returns): Well? Do we have a meal?

Gray: Nah…it’s some dude. Trying to swim, I think.

Leader: Really? That can’t be. Nothing swims like that. Is he wounded? Maybe there’s some scavenger fish anyway. Someone else check (white seagull departs).

White seagull (returning): No scavengers. It’s a dude. He looks bad, though. Let’s check on him later.

Luckily, it was only another 15 minutes before I was safely on shore, and the birds decided to go try their luck elsewhere.

I’m not exactly sure what being harassed by waterfowl says about my swimming prowess. Maybe I should be flattered to be mistaken for any type of seal – even a wounded one. Maybe I need to consult Stronger for some tips on my form. Or maybe I just presented a strange curiosity that the seagulls found interesting on an otherwise routine evening surf patrol.

All I know for sure is that they managed to make my relaxed evening swim significantly more nerve-racking than I intended. And they certainly haven’t made me grow any fonder of birds.


August 11, 2006

Go All-In

“Shove me in the shallow water, before I get too deep”
–Edie Brickell, “What I Am”

If you’re a regular visitor here, you’ve been subjected to five straight drug articles.

If you’re not a regular visitor, perhaps you stumbled here after doing a Google search for “celebrity breast augmentation” or “Amsterdam hookers” or “female Viagra”. In that case, um…you know this blog is mostly about running, right? I don’t want be mistaken for TMZ.com or The Smoking Gun or some online sex shop (find your own link).

Either way, the drug series got a little heavy-handed, and very long-winded. And as I told Rob, I think I peaked too early by talking about artificial breasts in the first installment – after that, the bar for stimulating interest was set pretty high, and I may have overreached a bit while trying to keep your attention.

Next time, I’ll know to build momentum gradually, and save the sex talk for later in the series. Obviously I still have a lot of things to learn about writing.

At any rate, it’s time to shift gears. I’m taking the easy way out, by posting our Herald article from last week.

I first wrote about the World Series of Poker in 1993, thinking it was a flash in the pop cultural pan; a mindlessly amusing diversion that would soon go the way of Joe Millionaire or the Macarena.

Instead, televised poker continues to be a huge draw, and thousands of new players appear out of the woodwork every year. Likewise, the throwaway article I wrote three years ago turned out to have some legs – I’ve tinkered with it and republished it twice since then, including in last week’s Monterey Herald.

Here’s the version that appeared last week:

Running Life 8/3/06 “Go All-In”

Without a doubt, poker is hot.

High-stakes tournaments are televised year-round on various networks, and it seems like everyone wants to try their luck and live like The Gambler. Heck, even the Monterey Herald now has a regular poker column to teach a novice player how to work his short stack into a huge pile. We’re pretty sure those are poker terms.

As we write this column, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) is underway in Las Vegas, with $12 million awaiting the winner of the main event. The WSOP is televised on ESPN, and it’s a unique glance into the world of high-stakes gambling that the vast majority of us are too poor (the entry fee to the main event is $10,000) or too terrified to enter.

The contestants make for fascinating viewing - it's the biggest collection of geeks and oddballs this side of a Star Trek convention. Harvard PhDs compete with uneducated laborers, mathematic whiz kids stare down vice peddlers, and fresh-off-the-boat immigrants play alongside old-school Texas oilmen.

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

The main event of the WSOP is one of the most ruthless varieties of poker, called No-limit Texas Hold 'Em.

Since this is a column about running, we’ll pose two questions: 1) Can poker legitimately be called a sport, or its players be considered athletes? And more specifically, 2) Are there any lessons that runners and other recreational athletes can learn by watching?

The answers may surprise you.

Actually, question #1 is easy: no one would dare call card players athletes. Even casual observers can take one look and tell that these folks aren't the smoothie-after-a-workout types.

However, question #2 is more complex. No-limit hold ‘em does have some parallels to running. One dramatic similarity is the most exciting aspect of the game, when players decide to "go all-in".

In the no-limit game, anyone can wager their entire stack of chips on any given hand. If you have a higher chip count, you can go all-in against a lower stack to intimidate him off a hand, further building your pile. If you go all-in with the low stack and lose the hand, you're out of the tournament.

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

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

Think of going all-in as running a race. It represents a time to push all of your chips onto the table, reveal your cards, and see who comes out on top.

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

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

Obviously, the fear of losing is the most nerve-racking aspect of going all-in for professional card players. In no-limit poker, any given hand could result in sudden elimination.

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

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

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

Don’t be afraid if racing gives you a major-league case of the jitters. That’s the nature of competition. For gamblers, this is the "juice" that draws them to the table - the panicky tension, the drama of exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows based on the fall of the cards.

Runners become hooked on racing in search of the same thrill. In fact, many coaches say that if you aren't terrified before a race, you aren't properly prepared for it.

So maybe runners and poker players have more in common than it first appears. Running also brings together people from disparate backgrounds. Some of us are oddballs. And although there aren't quite as many fat guys in our group, we know plenty of runners with B.O. issues.

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


August 9, 2006

Color Me Sadd

OK – let’s bring things to a close. All this talk about drugs is just bumming me out. So I’ll use today’s post for some final thoughts before we shift gears.

The funny thing is, I feel like I’ve written extensively about the subject, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of angles to be considered. Like I said right off the top, the scope of this problem is enormous.

Yesterday I said that the way we look at sports has been changed. In many ways, it strikes right to the heart of our belief system: is it better to have full awareness of the corruption and dishonesty that produces memorable athletic performances, or to remain ignorant and celebrate the accomplishments as if they were legitimate?

Nothing can be taken at face value anymore. With all individual (as opposed to team) sports, any dominant victory or unexpected performance immediately and automatically casts suspicion – justified or not - on the athlete. Instead of appreciating such heroic moments, we’re forced to wonder whether the feats were attained honestly, and whether they will be overturned in the following weeks.

There will never again be another moment of pure admiration regarding an individual athletic accomplishment. Even if a “clean” athlete somehow manages to break a world record, he will be presumed guilty based on the sins of his predecessors.

Consider the case of Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell, who now stands as the sole 100m world record holder after the disqualification of Justin Gatlin. Before Powell had the record, it belonged to Tim Montgomery, who also tested positive. Are we as fans really supposed to believe that a clean sprinter could beat the best times of two world-class sprinters who also used drugs? It’s a notion that stretches the imagination.

Who was the last clean runner to set the 100m world record? Maurice Greene, or someone from the 1990s? Or do we have to go back further, to Carl Lewis or beyond? It’s become a parlor game. Powell may very well be clean, but there’s no way we’ll ever know for sure. Although he has never been implicated in any wrongdoing, he has an inevitable guilt by association with other sprinters that will always cast suspicion.

As spectators, we’ve somehow collectively decided whether or not to trust an athlete based on his nationality, his upbringing, or the image he has cultivated during his time in the spotlight, rather than evidence that appears contrary. Thousands of San Francisco Giants fans will still tell you they think Barry Bonds is an innocent victim of overzealous persecution. If Floyd Landis were French, would so many Americans try to give him the benefit of the doubt?

I'm one of the biggest Lance Armstrong fans you'll ever find, but if you ask me whether or not he used drugs, I'll tell you honestly that I have no idea. I like to think he didn't. It goes back to that belief system: sometimes it’s just easier to believe that our favorite athletes got where they are through honesty, hard-work, and God-given talent – because any alternative scenario is too depressing to consider.

I remember when I was young, watching the Olympics and the Tour de France with a sense of wonder and awe. Perhaps it was childhood naiveté, but when I watched those events, there was always an underlying premise that Olympic dreams were available to anyone with the right ability and the dedication to work towards greatness.

Undoubtedly, my generation will be the last to grow up with this mindset. Because when athletes like Gatlin and Landis test positive, that idealism is replaced with this hard reality: the athletes at the top are all cheating. If you aren’t using something, you’ll just get beat by somebody who does. There’s absolutely no reason for any kid to think he has an honest shot at being the best without doing something illicit along the way.

I suppose that’s the lingering affect the drug stories have on me: they no longer surprise me, they don’t make me angry, and – somewhat surprisingly - they don’t make me less interested in athletics.

They just make me sad for the state of these sports, sorry that there’s no getting around the problems, and disappointed for the kids who’ll never know the way things used to be.


August 8, 2006

Chemical Games

I’ve tackled some of the primary questions most people ask about drugs. What I haven’t done is say what I think should be done about the situation. That’s not an oversight – it’s an admission that I have absolutely no idea what the best solution might be.

One school of thought says that we should legalize everything for competition. If you want to use HGH or EPO, go right ahead. If you want to roll the dice and risk your long-term health, we won’t tell you otherwise.

Surprisingly, there is a lot of support for this idea amongst some high-level athletes. However misguided it may be, many top athletes would risk personal harm to gain a competitive advantage – to a disturbing degree. Several years ago, Sports Illustrated did a survey of US Olympic athletes, and asked them this: If you knew that taking a drug would ensure that you win a gold medal, but it was also guaranteed to kill you within five years, would you do it?

A shockingly high number – more than 50% - said yes. Death or Glory. Or in this case, both.

Clearly it’s not much of a moral dilemma for these athletes to use drugs, as long as the reward is large enough (a gold medal) and certain enough (guaranteed). In all likelihood, these same athletes would also turn to performance enhancing drugs if they suspected that any of their competitors were doing so.

You can see how this would quickly spiral into a situation where everybody’s juicing, because nobody would want to be stuck with the knife at a gun fight (from yesterday’s post).

So it’s not too difficult to envision a future competition where all the athletes are on some drug or another. One sport – bodybuilding – has gone down this road, to the point where they hold two separate competitions: there’s a Mr Universe for drug users, and a “Mr Clean Universe” for anyone else. (I don’t think the rules stipulate that Mr Clean has to be bald and wear a white T-shirt, but that would be a nice touch.).

In fact, many people will tell you this “everybody’s juiced” situation is exactly what we have in track/running/cycling today. The only difference with bodybuilding is that they don’t ask us to pretend otherwise.

What if our sports formally adopted such a policy? Instead of merely having the best athletic ability, competitors would also strive to have the most potent pharmacological cocktail on board before their peak races. They would be dependent on chemists and lab geeks to achieve their success. Imagine every sprinter’s posse with one skinny, bespectacled guy in a short-sleeve plaid shirt with a pocket protector roaming around trying to look cool with the rest of the group.

Such a situation could be hilariously ironic. Think about it – who got teased and beat up more in high school than the kids in chemistry club? And weren’t the jocks usually the ones doing most of the bullying? And now those two groups would be forced to pair off in oddball symbiotic relationships on par with Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley.

The chemists would actually have the upper hand in these partnerships. They would be too valuable to the sprinter to be fired – because the chemist could then go and tell everybody else what particular designer drugs the sprinter was on. And the sprinter knows he won’t succeed without the help of a good chemist.

I actually see the chemistry guys reveling in this: they could do all kinds of trash talking with the sprinters*. Between events at track meets, they can congregate on the infield to make fun of their athletes, draw formulas in the dirt and trade periodic table jokes. They might even encounter some kind of chemistry groupies wanting to make “covalent bonds” with them after the meets.

(*Some examples of chemist-sprinter trash talk…
• Ring the bell – I’m taking you back to school!
• Don’t piss me off – or I’ll go all ionic on your ass.
• Dude, you’re looking heavy – what’s your atomic weight?
• I’ll crush you faster than I did Sister Diane’s 11th grade lab final.
• I own you, bitch – like Scandium owns 21 electrons.
And that took me about 30 seconds. These could get really funny.)

Over time, the chemists would get the same rock star treatment the athletes get. Some of the better ones would sign “exclusive rights” contracts with companies like Nike and become millionaires. Scores of little kids will dream of a career in chemistry, and of growing up to compete at the “Chemical Games,” where the torch is an enormous Bunsen burner. The best chemistry students coming out of grad school could be drafted by professional teams and awarded lucrative signing bonuses. If you’re a career chemist, I don’t really see the downside to all of this.

Realistically, we know this isn’t going to happen. I suppose that’s probably for the good. Sports have an inherently noble premise – that athletes are testing the limits of their bodies through nothing more than hard work and determination. And despite my jaded outlook, it’s a premise I’m completely in favor of defending.

Yes, the tests are light years behind the cheaters, but that doesn’t mean we should stop the effort. It’s just going to take a very long time before the priority (and money) given to testing is equal to the money that changes hands among the top athletes and corporations in every sport.

Until then, our sports will continue to have an anemic system of testing (one time per year for a baseball player? Oh please.), and they’ll continue to profess that they’re doing everything in their power to rid sports of doping. All of the top-level athletes will emphatically assert that they are completely clean, and fans will believe what they want to believe about each athlete based on his/her carefully crafted image.

None of us will ever know for sure, because the way we look at sports has been fundamentally, irrevocably changed.

That’s the biggest tragedy of this whole saga. In my next post, I’ll examine this angle further, and hopefully wrap this series up.


August 7, 2006

Moral Relativism

Coincidentally, before I sat down to post part 3 of this drug series today, I saw Matt Lauer's interview with Floyd Landis. It was just painful to watch.

Lauer opened with his fastball, then repeatedly asked different variations of the same question: why should we believe you? Landis couldn't give a single straightforward answer and looked completely unconvincing. Heck, I felt myself squirming for Landis - I can't even imagine how defeated and ashamed he must feel. I actually felt bad for the guy.

On the other hand, maybe he's just getting the treatment he deserves.

I'm cutting the intro short, though - because this section is already over 1000 words long. I swear, sometimes I'm too analytical for my own good. Let's just move on to the next question...

Q: Would you ever use performance enhancing drugs?

A: This is the issue that prompts everyone to get on a pedestal and preach about the morality of athletics. Always play fair, don’t break the rules, don’t cheat, yada, yada, yada. But unless you’re Craig (an actual preacher), I’m not listening.

For obvious reasons, the most high-profile steroid stories revolve around each sport’s biggest stars. But for every superstar who may be juicing, there are thousands of younger (sadly, even down to high-schoolers), less talented athletes who confront the same question. Except in these cases, the outcomes of their decisions don’t simply pad the record books, but dramatically influence their livelihood in their chosen sport.

Imagine you’re a 29-year-old minor league baseball player making $25K per year and batting .240. You hit the weight room every day and train like a maniac, but your strength has seemingly plateaued.

You’ve played professional baseball for 10 years but never been called up to the majors. You don’t have any other significant career options that can support your wife and baby after you retire, because you’ve spent every waking minute working on your game. You know that if you don’t get called up before age 30, you probably never will be.

You also know teammates who started juicing and saw dramatic improvements in their performance. You realize that if you use the same types of low-potency steroids that many major leaguers use, you can maintain a higher intensity level in your training, and your strength will noticeably increase.

It doesn’t take much. A handful of those 350-ft fly outs would become 375-ft home runs. Send just one more ball per week into the bleachers, and your batting average could climb to .270. That would probably be enough for a call-up to the big team. And a salary increase to $300K. All with relatively low long-term health risk if done carefully.

Finally, you start seeing those aforementioned teammates - who may have less natural talent than you - getting called up to the majors. There is a trainer hanging around the locker room every day who has told you that he can easily hook you up - all you have to do is ask.

Are you telling me that you wouldn’t have that conversation with him some day? That you wouldn’t give steroids some serious consideration?

The closer you get to breaking through, the more tempting it is to bend the rules. If you’re a national-caliber 10K runner, a mere 45 seconds can determine the difference between missing the Olympic trials, and actually making the team.

Many sub-elite runners toil in obscurity and poverty for years, waiting for one breakthrough race on the national stage that will land them a shoe contract or an invitation to join a sponsored training group. Some runners get tantalizingly close: all it takes is a few seconds per mile over a 5K to make that kind of leap. But if it never comes, they have nothing to fall back on.

Now think of those elite athletes again. If you are a sprinter, what is the margin of victory in a major championship race? In many cases, it’s less than a tenth of a second.

If you could build your strength up enough to run one tenth of a second faster, that translates into significant tangible gain. You could win the 100m instead of finishing fourth. With prize money, sponsor bonuses, and appearance fees for future races, it’s literally a million-dollar decision.

But don’t worry, you won’t have to make your decision alone. Many young athletes are surrounded by like-minded individuals in similar circumstances. This circle of influence can be tremendously powerful, but not always in a beneficial manner.

This time, instead of a baseball player, think of yourself as a 23-year-old sprinter. You’ve never made the 100m finals of a major track meet. You’ve heard for years that the guys who are beating you (again, by a mere tenth of a second) are on the juice. Your longtime coach (who also happens to be your father figure since you never knew your own) has told you that your best chance of making a final is to level the playing field, to use the same weapons the faster runners are using. Otherwise, you’re constantly bringing a knife to a gun fight.

He tells you it’s safe. He tells you its effective. He explains that it's almost impossible to get caught. He tells you your teammates have done it. He tells you it’s the only way. And hey, if you just want to try it, he’s got some in his trunk right now.

I’ll ask again…can you honestly say you wouldn’t be tempted by this?

I’m absolutely certain that every single elite athlete faces this question at some point in their development. What I can’t imagine, though, is how I would respond if I were in that situation.

It’s easy to say, “These are the rules, don’t break them.” It’s much harder to consider all of the factors at play in making such a decision. As much as we like to believe in absolutes, all of us implement our own moral relativism in decisions about our careers and daily activities.

Are you reading this blog at work? Have you ever snuck out early or straggled in late so you could have a longer workout? Have you ever peed in a public area? Sure, these are trite examples, but the point is that nobody follows all the rules, and everybody creates an internal justification for those rules or laws they choose to violate.

For almost all of us, sports are merely a healthy outlet for our physical energy and competitive drive. Recreational athletes regard organized competitions as bastions of honesty and fair play. We wouldn’t think of cutting a corner in a road race, and we wouldn’t dream of contaminating our bodies in hopes of gaining an edge on our competitors.

But for a relative handful of athletes, the stakes are different. If we depended on our 5K time or our overall finishing place in order to support our families or to extend our careers for a couple more years, perhaps our moral compass would skew a few degrees off-center.

So OK, you have your principles. You don’t break the rules. Maybe you would be the one to draw a line in the sand and make the agonizing, career-limiting decision to say no to these ubiquitous temptations to cheat. And in the final analysis, maybe I would, too.

But the decision would be a lot harder than you think.


August 4, 2006

Shades of Grey

First, the bad news: That whole breast business from the previous post wasn't really the main theme of this series - it was just an analogy to illustrate the point I was trying to make. But apparently the breast speculation was much more enticing than the discussion about doping, so I've made a mental note that the topic of celebrity breast augmentation could be further explored in this space at some point down the road. After all, this is a full service blog.

However, if you've come back today looking for more boob refernces, I'll save you some time and tell you there aren't any in this post. But I do mention Dutch hookers and shrunken testicles. Intrigued? Then read on to Part 2...

Q: Can’t we just ban all performance enhancing drugs?

A: This is the primary reason why I’ve never had strong feelings against the use of performance enhancing drugs: because it’s impossible to draw a consistent line between what substances should be legal and what shouldn’t be.

We have three major professional sports leagues in America (no, I don't count hockey anymore) along with the NCAA for collegiate athletics, and none of those four organizations have the same list of banned substances. If you're a 19-year-old playing single A baseball, you have a different list than a 19-year-old playing baseball for his college team.

If we're considering Olympic or international sports, who decides what is legal? The host country of the event? What if there is a track meet in Amsterdam – can athletes load up on ecstasy before the event and solicit a prostitute afterwards without any legal repercussions? (And in that case, what’s more dangerous to the athlete’s health – temporarily heightened sensation with sleep alteration, or an STD from the local brothel?)

For American sports, do we just ban drugs that are illegal? Then the government would have to keep up with rapidly changing, highly creative laboratories. That technology gap I mentioned yesterday would come into play again – except in this case, the guys with the slide rules and graph paper also have to deal with bureaucratic red tape and institutional inertia to implement any changes. The bad guys will always be light years ahead of the game. As soon as the Feds outlaw one group of drugs (like anabolic steroids), athletes can turn to something else that isn’t regulated (like HGH).

Plus, some of the most potent drugs are perfectly legal. For instance, EPO is a common blood-boosting medication provided to many cancer patients. Modafinil is the main ingredient in prescription anti-narcolepsy medication. And it’s certainly not against the law to own testosterone-boosting pills – in fact, there is a billion-dollar industry built around it, as testosterone is the primary ingredient in the rapidly developing field of “female vitality” (think Viagra for women) medications. Talk about enhancing performance.

So legality can’t be our litmus test. Do we ban drugs that are harmful? That becomes a personal liberty issue, just like alcohol prohibition in the early 1900s. If someone wants to destroy his kidneys, shrivel his nuts, lose his hair, and have a back full of acne while experiencing constant rage and paranoia, that’s his Constitutional right (if not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind). Major league baseball didn’t care that Mickey Mantle drank himself to an untimely death, and effectively looked the other way during the cocaine epidemic in that was rampant in the sport in the late 1980s.

Besides, it’s possible for any high school kid to walk into his neighborhood GNC store or surf the Internet and stock up on hundreds of products that are just as harmful as steroids over the long term. Think about Mark McGwire and androstenedione – Big Mac is pretty much considered a villain now, but that particular product was available over-the-counter at the time he used it. The farthest he had to travel for his juice was the local shopping center. If these drugs are so hazardous, how come they are easier for a teenager to buy than a pack of cigarettes or some sleazy skin magazine? Should players be punished for using a supplement they bought at the mall?

Finally, who determines what drugs are performance enhancing? Andro has since been put on the banned list – but what about creatine? Or Sudafed? Or the painkillers that many runners pop like candy? (Remember the commercial where a woman made it to the finish line of a 5K only because of all the Alleve she took? She even handed them out to other runners during the race. Could they make a similar commercial like that today with a bunch of women injecting testosterone into each other's backsides? I promise not to skip through that one on my TiVo.) How about caffeine pills or antacid tablets? All of those products provide a clear performance benefit, but are harmful if taken in high doses over a long period of time. How many of you ultra runners out there would like to have your Tylenol, NoDoz or Tums prohibited during your next 100-miler?

I once ran the Boston Marathon while suffering from a hellacious bout of the flu. If it wasn’t for the megadoses of Sudafed and Advil I took before and during the race, there’s no way I would have finished (or even started, for that matter). If the USOC had taken a urine sample afterwards, I would have failed, because most cold medications are on the banned substance list. While I obviously wasn’t trying to win the race, I definitely benefited from the performance enhancing properties of those meds. (Um...nobody from the BAA reads this, right? Because there’s no way I’m giving my medal back.)

To further complicate things, why are we merely focused on things that go into our bodies? What about all of the equipment changes that have revolutionized nearly every sport? Is it safe - for the server or the recipient - to swing a racket that sends a tennis ball 130 mph? If you are a blood doper riding a bike that is capable of going downhill at 80mph, are you more likely to suffer from kidney failure, or a career-ending spinal injury in a crash?

How about oxygen-deprivation tents that can boost someone’s red blood cell count over a period of months, just as effectively as blood doping? Why is doping wrong but living in a $30,000 high-elevation tent acceptable? At that point, we’re merely splitting hairs based on the method of blood cell production.

The point I’m making (over and over) is that banning various substances is a very slippery slope, without much consistency or logic driving it. You can’t simply have a blanket zero-tolerance policy. Even assuming - which we can’t - that these drugs could consistently be detected, there will never be agreement on where to draw the line.

As for this post, I’m drawing the line here. To be continued next time.


August 3, 2006

Suspicious Mind

Imagine me sitting here wearing suspenders and giant eyeglasses, speaking in a raspy voice – I’m in Larry King mode.

Me: Thousand Oaks, hello. What’s your question?

Thousand Oaks: I was wondering what your take is on the whole drug situation in sports.

Me: Oy vey. Pull up a chair.

I’ve been terribly reluctant to tackle the whole drug issue, for a few reasons:

1. It’s simply exhausting in scope. Asking someone to address the drug issue is like asking Anderson Cooper “So how are things in the South since Hurricane Katrina?” It’s just an enormous story that constantly evolves from one week to the next, with countless angles and thousands more stories than can ever be told.

2. Far better writers have written much more eloquently about this issue in magazines and Internet columns. Believe me - there are a lot of sportswriters I admire, and nearly every one of them has analyzed the drug issue from one aspect or another. In other words, if you want to read drug stories, you can probably find 10,000 good ones from Google in about 0.034 seconds.

3. On many levels, I don’t know how I feel about using performance enhancing drugs. It’s fashionable to take a moral stand against them, but the boundaries can become very blurred. I think equally good arguments can be made either way.

Honestly, I planned on staying out of the whole mess. But then Floyd Landis happened. And Justin Gatlin happened. And it just felt like a good time to say something.

So I started typing. And typing. Before I looked up, I had 1500 words down. And I was just getting rolling.

Now instead of one post, this is going to be a series – maybe three, maybe five, who knows. (I reserve the right to interrupt the series if any Beyonce-related musings spring to mind. You know how this blog works.) There’s no way I’ll cover every facet of the issue here, but hopefully I’ll put some observations on the table and highlight a point you hadn’t considered before.

Here’s the format I’ll use: Each post will start with a common question, after which I’ll discuss why the answers aren’t as obvious as you’d think. If you want to post follow-up questions here, feel free to do so – that could easily lead to another post.

Enough preamble. Like the Black-Eyed Peas say, Leeeeeet’s get it started!

Q: How many top athletes use drugs?

A: There’s no way of knowing. My runner friends and I often speculate about which athletes are “using” in the same manner that college guys muse about which actresses have fake breasts. For every case that is overwhelmingly certain (like Barry Bonds or Pamela Anderson), there are scores of people who appear enhanced but may just be naturally gifted (Lance Armstrong, Lindsay Lohan, Deena Kastor, Tyra Banks, Bernard Lagat, Courtney Cox…I could go on and on. In fact, this could be a whole separate post, comparing famous athletes to famous breasts. I’m filing that thought away for later.)

Unfortunately, there will NEVER be any way of knowing for sure which athletes are using drugs. If you think Hollywood plastic surgeons are secretive, try uncovering information on a BALCO-type lab (there are probably hundreds out there) without any tips to help you.

Rigorous testing doesn’t clarify the matter. Sure, Marion Jones can say she’s never tested positive, but anyone with basic laboratory knowledge understands what a low threshold that is. For every drug that can be specifically tested, there are probably ten other drugs that can mask the presence of that first drug. The technology gap is enormous – the testers are like a handful of guys with slide rules and graph paper trying to keep pace with Microsoft and Intel.

So clean test results are pretty much useless. On the other hand, what else can an athlete do besides take test after test after test and pass them all? In Every Second Counts, Lance Armstrong describes in painstaking detail how the testers knock on his door at all hours of the day and night, any day of the year. He’s the most frequently drug-tested athlete ever, and he’s never tested positive. Why shouldn’t we believe him?

The main reason guys like Landis and Gatlin get caught is because they or their “handlers” do something foolish, like getting greedy or forgetting to cover their tracks. It doesn’t mean they are they only guys out there using – it just means they were the only ones who screwed up enough to get caught.

Let me put it this way: among high-profile professional athletes, there is nobody – NOBODY – whose name I would be surprised to hear as a drug user. Especially with runners. Any sprinter or distance runner at the world-class level could be Demi Moore (fake, but impressive) or Teri Hatcher (real, and spectacular). Cyclists and triathletes are fair game, too. To think otherwise is simply ignorant.

It’s just part of the landscape of sports now: if you are the best at something, or if you do something unexpected, you automatically come under suspicion.

And we’ll leave it at that for today. Look for Part 2 tomorrow.


August 2, 2006

My Josie

“Yeah my girlfriend…
she’s so smart and independent, I don’t think she needs me –
quite half as much as I know I need her-
I wonder why there’s not another guy that she prefers-
And when I feel like giving up like my world is falling down…-
I see her pretty face, and it takes me away to a better place and –
I know that everything, know that everything, know that everything, everything’s gonna be fine.”

Blink-182, “Josie”

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked in comments or e-mails is whether my wife reads this blog.

The query typically isn’t asked in the context of “Wow, you’re a talented writer - she should be proud to have you around.” Rather, it always seems to have an unstated implication like “Dude - you have some strange issues. You could get into big trouble if she knew the things you write about.”

You know, like the way I’m enthralled by Beyonce videos, or how I’ve said training for a triathlon is very much like having an affair, or why I feel compelled to stay up past midnight watching seven recorded hours of the National Spelling Bee. Things like that.

The answer is yes, she’s very aware of everything that goes on here. Truthfully, there’s no way on Earth I could do something like this without her knowing about it. She’s wicked smart. And I’m not good at being sneaky. So there’s not very much that gets past her.

Thankfully, she’s about the most understanding and supportive person I’ve ever known. She always goes along for the ride, even when she sees me travel down one crazy path or another.

I figure it must be something like watching your kids play on the high bars at the playground: you realize you can’t keep them away, and you know there’s a decent chance that things could turn out badly. So you just stay close by and provide help if they ask for it, and figure if they fall and hurt themselves at least you’ll be there to help pick them up and comfort them afterwards.

She had every right to ask for a refund after we got married, because in many ways – athletic and otherwise - I barely resemble the guy who stood at the altar with her. When I trained for my first marathon in college, it was basically a lark. She had no indication that for the next dozen years she’d have to put up with me traveling to several marathons a year, running up and down the sides of faraway mountains, or waking up in the dark every weekend to train for ultras.

Yet that’s the course we’ve charted: me coming up with some wild idea, her keeping me grounded and realistic. It’s very much a give-and-take thing, except, um…well, I’m usually the one doing most of the taking. But I absolutely need her to keep me under control – because if she gave me enough rope to do all the things I imagine, there’s no question I would end up hanging myself. And then you wouldn’t have this blog to read.

Which brings us back to the question at hand. This girl has known me for about 15 years now, and like I said, very little escapes her. So do you think there’s any way she didn’t already know that I was a brooding, obsessive/compulsive, idiosyncratically scatterbrained idiot before I launched this blog? Me neither. But she puts up with me anyway, which seems increasingly amazing as the years roll by.

They say that behind every good man, there is a woman. Sure, that’s true - but any woman can support a good man. It’s the woman who supports a bizarrely flawed man who really deserves special recognition.

I think about that every year at the end of July, as we celebrate our anniversary. I consider myself very lucky. And I know that everything’s gonna be fine.

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