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June 28, 2007

Summer Break

“Slow down, everyone – you’re moving too fast –
Frames can’t catch you if you’re moving like that … “

- Jack Johnson, “Inaudible Melodies”

I need to slow down. With my Ironman about five weeks away, I’ve been training like a lunatic, and trying to cram every other part of my life around the margins.

So I’m stepping back a bit to take a little hiatus, which coincides with a few upcoming days when I’ll be without Internet access. It actually works out nicely, in that I’ll have a chance to catch up on some reading (more on that below), and keep working my way through Season 1 of Lost (yes, I’m still working on that one).

Make no mistake – everything’s good. Just busy. And I won’t be gone for long.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few random thoughts that have been bouncing around my head lately, but I never got around to writing about. Any one of these topics could have been a full post – but to spare both you and me some time, I’ll try to keep them to brief bullet points. Starting with …

The Internet highlight of my past week was reading blogs and race reports from two of the biggest events of the year: the Western States 100 and Ironman Cour D’Alene (and in one case, IM Switzerland). I was going to write a whole post about how exciting it was to follow the exploits of these athletes - but then I figured that if you can’t get inspired by reading the words of people like Momo, TriJack, Eric, Jodi, and Benny … I’m not sure what else I can tell you. Except that maybe you’ve picked the wrong hobby or something.

Remember the Carmel Valley runner I talked about who let me accompany him on a nighttime trail run during his preparation for Western States? Well, after he finished the race, I contacted him to ask if I could write an article about him for my Monterey Herald column.

He wrote back to me and said that he had just finished giving an interview to a professional reporter from Sacramento, who had been commissioned by the Monterey Herald to write this article about him and another local runner which appears in today’s Herald.

In other words, I got scooped by my own paper. And it’s probably the best example I can offer to illustrate the difference between a freelance writer and a professional reporter. When it comes to sportswriting, I’m the Rodney Dangerfield of the Monterey Peninsula.

Like a kid counting the days to Christmas, I’m looking forward to next month’s release of the 7th Harry Potter book on an hourly basis. If I knew how to put one of those countdown clocks on my blog, it wouldn’t be for my Ironman, it would be for this book.

Seriously - I can’t overestimate how excited I am to discover how the whole story wraps up. Where are all of the horcruxes? What secret is Aunt Petunia keeping? And what the heck’s the deal with Snape? I’m so anxious about all of this that I’ve been going back through previous books of the series in hopes of glimpsing some clue I hadn’t noticed before, and refreshing my memory of the multiple storylines that have yet to play out in the final episode.

On the other hand, I’ve spent so many runs contemplating so many questions related to this series, that it’s interwoven into the fabric of my experience. So what happens once I finally know all the answers? What will I think about then? Will I enjoy my running any less than usual? I can’t help but wonder if I’ll feel some sort of letdown once the whole thing is ultimately finished.

(Have I mentioned yet that I can find the downside to anything? I've come to think of it as a gift. Let’s just move on … )

When I get back into the swing of posting, I owe you a post about my daughter and Brer Rabbit. I’ve also got some thoughts about Bugs Bunny – and yes, both of these posts will relate to triathlon. I know it sounds strange – but trust me on this one.

(This last point got a little carried away, and probably could have been its own post. But since I’ve already written the previous stuff, I’m throwing it all in at no extra charge. Don’t say I didn’t leave you with a lot to think about.)

For the first time in eight years, I may have to spend the Fourth of July without watching Takeru Kobayashi at the Coney Island Hot Dog eating contest – and I’m almost disappointed beyond words.

Kobayashi is considered the Lance Armstrong of competitive eating (including the suspicion of drug use – in this case, whispers of performance enhancing stomach relaxers. I know, you think I’m kidding – but even I couldn’t make up something this silly.) He has dominated the Coney Island contest for the better part of a decade, but this year, he is scheduled to face his most formidable challenger in years: American Joey Chestnut, who just broke the hot dog eating world record.

Recently, Kobayashi has hinted that he may back out of the competition, citing a jaw injury that has limited his training. Which raises a couple of questions:

First off …am I to understand that these guys actually train for this stuff? I mean ... do they keep blogs and write event reports and read workout articles and hire coaches and attend clinics too? I'm sensing that the Hot Dog Contest is just the tip of the competitive eating iceberg. So the next time you see an overweight dude piling it up high at the Hometown Buffet, think twice about being overly critical – for all you know, that guy might be in serious training.

Second: Kobayashi is supposedly the Lance Armstrong of his sport. But does anyone seriously think that Lance would have backed away from his biggest challenge due to a training injury?

Remember Lance’s final year at the Tour de France, when Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis were up and coming riders earning a lot of media attention and poised to become cycling’s next big superstars? Instead of shying away from the pressure, Lance showed up in the best shape of his life, seized control of the race in its early stages, and kept laying the smack down on every major stage en route to his seventh victory.

Then he retired … and THAT’S the way a superstar leaves his sport.

So if Kobayashi decides to skip the contest instead of going after his seventh straight title, it would highlight the primary difference (at least, the major one not related to body mass or cardiovascular fitness) between competitive eating and world class cycling. Because when a title is at stake and a legacy is on the line, true champions show up.

And if he doesn’t … well, I guess I’ll just have to attend a barbecue somewhere or find some fireworks to watch instead. But my holiday won’t be nearly as satisfying.

I guess what I’m saying is, July looks to get off to a somewhat unusual start: a potentially lackluster Hot Dog contest, a Tour de France without Lance or Floyd, and me vacating cyberspace for a little while.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for optimism. I’ll keep rolling along with my training, clicking off the workouts and counting down the minutes until my Ironman approaches and until the new Harry Potter book is released (but, you know … not necessarily in that order). Then before you know it, I’ll be back here wasting your time with stories of workouts and wizards and rabbits, along with any other random nonsense that crosses my mind.

Or, as I prefer to call it: business as usual.


June 22, 2007

Pale People

On any given weekday, it’s easy to find an open lane at the Hartnell College pool in Salinas. The 50-meter by 25-yard outdoor pool offers almost 20 lanes to choose from, so the odds of having to share with anyone are exceedingly slim.

Unfortunately, last Monday wasn’t any given weekday.

It was the first day of Swim Fitness 1.1, a summer session class offered by the Physical Education department for novice swimmers to brush up on their skills under the supervision of a dedicated instructor. Somehow, the class was scheduled at the same time of day that the masters swimmers usually meet for their daily workouts – and inevitably, at high noon, the two worlds collided.

I’m used to hopping into an open lane next to 4 or 5 other masters swimmers to do whatever group workout is scheduled for the day. We typically occupy the same section of lanes each day, and it’s usually all I can do to keep up with the others through a workout of 2500-3000 yards.

At the pool, it’s easy to tell who the regular swimmers are, because swimming outdoors year-round under the California sun tends to keep our skin a little darker than usual. It’s also pretty easy to pick out the masters swimmers, because … well, I guess just because they look fast, or have at least some semblance of a swimmer’s build.

But on Monday, instead of looking to my left and right and seeing the well-toned physiques of speedy masters, I saw the simultaneously amusing and frightening shapes of newbies. Glancing around under water with my goggles, all I could think of was a whispering horror-movie voice reverberating in my head:

“I see pale people …”

I was surrounded by pale people. And tubby people, and wrinkly people. People with baggy suits, and people with overly revealing suits. (And for some reason, the flabbiest people seemed to have the skimpiest swimsuits. Let’s just say I saw some things I wish I could un-see.)

Predictably, most of these people weren’t really swimming. There were snorkel/mask/fin guys and water noodle women and bob-up-and-downers and various other types of “splash around but don’t really go anywhere” people.

Most horrific of all was that I didn’t get a lane to myself for the workout. Six of the lanes had to be doubled up, so I spent the better part of 40 minutes dodging the breaststroke kicks and yellowed toenails of some elderly guy while still trying to keep pace with the masters group. Needless to say, it didn’t go well – although I was fortunate enough to escape any broken ribs or bruised thighs.

Thankfully, by the end of the session the lifeguards had recognized the problem, and spoke with the instructor of the class. By the next day, there were 5 lanes reserved for the masters group. But that single workout was all I needed to appreciate the situation our group normally enjoys, and to be thankful that I don’t have to battle for lane space on a regular basis like so many other swimmers I read about.

It was also a nice dose of perspective about my relative ability as a swimmer. Since I’m usually trailing the masters group, I consider myself a fairly subpar swimmer. So in that regard, it was kind of nice to have a day when being the slowest masters swimmer also meant being the sixth fastest among 30 people in the pool.

I mean … sixth best out of 30 will always feel a lot better than sixth best out of six, right? So I guess as far as my swimming ability is concerned, I’m pretty satisfied with the way things are going.

Now if could only get these images of pale, flabby people in speedos and thongs out of my head, everything would be just fine.


June 18, 2007

The Itch

(Admin note: I'm growing frustrated with Bloglines and other publishing sites when it comes to post layouts, fonts, photo placement, etc. So I'm just going to publish the short introductions to new posts for a while. I'm sorry - I know it requires another mouse click to come and read the whole post, which has always been a pet peeve of mine. I'll try to get back to normal operations soon. In the meantime, here's today's post ... )


Apparently, I’m a little dim. At least that’s what I learned on my nighttime trail run last week. More about that in a minute - but first, I should explain how I got into the situation in the first place.

Despite my ongoing and unyielding passion for triathlon, I’ve never fully let go of one other goal that’s been bouncing around my head for many years: the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which will be contested again this weekend in the Sierra Nevadas of Northern California. It’s an itch that I’m determined to scratch.

I applied for the 2007 race, but wasn’t accepted in the lottery process. (Yes, the rejection hurt. Yes, I felt like a shunned contestant on The Bachelor. And yes, I wrote a post about it. I’m very predictable that way.) That lottery draw was the trigger that caused me to give my full attention to triathlon for this year – but if the coin had flipped another way, I would have spent the whole spring telling you about 6-hour trail runs instead of 70-mile bike rides.

And one of these years, I will. In fact, thanks to the “two-time loser” registration policy, I’m assured of participating in Western States no later than 2009. So the race has never strayed too far out of my consciousness – and that’s what brought me out to a late night trail run last Tuesday.

One of my fellow Carmel Valley runners happens to be a veteran of several Western States runs, and is always happy to provide me information and advice about the race. He broke 24 hours at his last visit there, and was lucky enough to have fate smile upon him again, as his name was pulled in the lottery for this weekend’s race. (Yes, that would be the same fate that kicked me in the teeth. Honestly, I didn’t really question the outcome - I figured there were countless things I’ve probably done to justify it. I trust Karma with an Earl Hickey-like obedience.)

So when I heard that he was planning some evening trail runs, I figured I’d abuse his generosity a little bit more, and invited myself along. I tucked the kids into bed, then met him and his pacers in a parking lot near the trailhead just as the last traces of light disappeared beyond the horizon.

That’s where we had the following conversation …

Him: Let me see your headlamp.

Me (handing it over): It’s the brightest one I have.

Him: Only 4 LEDs? That’s pretty dim. It probably won’t be enough for the race.

Me: Oh … OK.

Obviously, it wasn’t the most optimistic feedback I could have heard before heading into the darkness, but I was really just there to soak up the atmosphere of a runner and his crew preparing for one of the most difficult challenges in running.

The two other runners with us would both be accompanying our friend at Western States, but neither had participated in the event before. The evening run was essentially an extended coaching session, and an opportunity to practice race-night logistics such as what kind of lighting to use, what positions to run in relative to one another, and what sorts of gear and supplies would be needed.

Since I didn’t have much to contribute in any of these regards, I spent most of the run hanging back far enough that I wouldn’t interfere with their light testing, but close enough that I could overhear most of the discussions. As I drifted behind, and became enveloped in my own meager cone of 4-LED light, I couldn’t help but contemplate Western States, and my own feelings about watching the race come and go again without me there.

I wasn’t really feeling much intimidation or anxiety - because if there’s one thing Ironman training has taught me, it’s that with proper preparation and dedication, I can accomplish almost anything I set my mind to. It wasn’t uncertainty - because I’ve long since passed the point where running through the night or running for 30 hours seems unfathomable. It wasn’t even envy – because as much as I’d love to be going to Squaw Valley this weekend, I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had (and those soon to come) this year for anything.

More than anything, it was an itch. Something that I know I’ll have to give my attention to at some point, but for the time being, I can probably ignore, and carry on just fine. However, it’s still an itch – which means that sometime in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to have to scratch it.

But before I do, I need to go shopping for a brighter headlamp.


June 17, 2007


This isn't a real post - but in honor of Father's Day, I wanted to share a brief conversation between my 3-year-old daughter, 6-year-old daughter, and 8-year-old son from yesterday afternoon.

One of the things I love about being a father are the countless opportunities I have to play the role of comedian whenever my kids innocently deliver a good straight line. I feel like Barry Bonds in batting practice sometimes, smashing the softball pitches they serve up deep into the bleachers. (And not unlike Bonds, I probably take waaaayyy too much pride in this ability than is healthy. I never said I was a perfect father - just an entertaining one.)

Anyway, here's the situation: my two daughters were looking at animal pictures together in the living room, while my son was curled up on the sofa with his nose in his own book. And the conversation went like this:

6-year-old: Ooooh, look! It's a tri-antula. That's a giant, hairy spider.

3-year-old: Wow ... a tri-anchla.

8-year-old (looking up): No, that's not right ... it's a tarantula.

6-year-old: Dad?

Me: He's right. It's pronounced "tarantula".

6-year-old: Then what's a tri-antula?

(I mean ... how could I pass on a setup like that? )

Me: It's a spider that can swim, bike, and run.

And with that, I left the room. My daughters were a little bit wide-eyed, but I figured my son could straighten everything out.

Like I said, I'll never claim to be a perfect father. But Happy Father's Day to all the other imperfect ones out there.


June 13, 2007

Instant Karma, Slow Nirvana

A couple of posts ago, I argued that everyone is in training for something. All of the small actions and decisions we made in the past, and continue today, impact the people we will become tomorrow.

To coincide with my daughter’s birthday, I used the example of a birthday cake my wife made to illustrate the point, and I thought the idea had run its course. But as it turns out, I wrote that post a little too early – because over the past three days, two more examples have hit me square in the face, which speak to the same premise.

So consider these next two topics as a collective “Part 2” of the training analogy post. Actually, it's probably better that I didn't include these ideas before - otherwise, it would have been yet another 2000-word post for you to slog through, and I'm trying to get out of the habit of doing that.

Anyway, One of the examples is related to triathlon, and the other isn’t – which, if you’ve read this blog for any period of time, is exactly what you should come to expect. As usual, I’ll start with the rambling topic first, but if you just want the tri stuff, feel free to scroll down below the asterisks.

On Monday morning, I saw Green Day’s new video for Working Class Hero, their cover of the classic John Lennon song that is part of the Instant Karma Campaign to Save Darfur. If you do nothing else to appease me today, click on the song link after you’re done reading (or before – but be sure to come back) and watch the video in its entirety. I won’t be overly dramatic and claim it’s the most powerful five minutes of television I’ve ever watched – but it’s certainly the most meaningful five minutes I’ve seen on MTV in quite a while.

Green Day started testing the waters of social commentary with their revolutionary American Idiot album in 2005, but prior that point, they were generally regarded as merely a talented punk band with little “meaningful” cultural significance.

After all, this was the band whose major label debut begins with the lines, “I declare I don’t care no more – I’m burning up and out and growing bored – in my smoked out boring room.” That same album featured a hit single called Longview, whose subject matter was … um, a word I’m not going to say, for fear of getting a bunch of hits from perverted Google searches (Hint: it’s a routine thing most guys do.) Oh, and I forgot to mention the name of this landmark album: Dookie.

Needless to say, this wasn’t a group of guys you’d expect to find as the centerpiece of an Amnesty International relief effort. Yet almost 15 years since they burst on the scene, that’s exactly what they’ve become.

The evolution occurred in small steps. Their maturation process through the years was barely perceptible, while they kept their hard musical edge and maintained their core fan base. And now they’re hitting that fan base over the head to call attention to a global crisis.

I suspect that many Green Day aficionados are probably having conversations similar to this exchange between a friend and I during a recent run:

Me: That new Green Day video’s pretty intense, huh?

Him: Yeah … so what’s the deal with Sudan again?

Me: I’m not sure – some sort of genocide or something.

Him: Oh … that sucks.

Clearly, we’re not the most well-informed runners, but we’re both Green Day fans – and maybe that’s the point. Maybe the cause that Green Day has been training for all these years is to help make ignorant slackers like me more aware of what’s going on in the world.

The problem in Darfur is obviously far greater than one band or one CD compilation can resolve. But if just a few people start talking about it, those people might talk to others, and gradually an increased awareness will develop. And that’s probably the best, first baby step towards some sort of resolution. All from the band who brought you Dookie.


Finally, on an almost completely unrelated note – I did three workouts on Tuesday.

These weren’t the garden variety “just cranking out the miles” workouts, either: I worked a hilly 12-mile trail run in the morning, and swam 3000 yards of pyramid sets in the afternoon, before going on an interesting trail run that night which will be the topic of my next post. By the way, this all came on the heels of a monster bike ride on Monday. You could say I had a rather busy 36 hours.

While my compulsion for training has been fairly well-documented on this blog, you can rest assured that I’m not going to start doing three-a-days on a regular basis between now and my Ironman in August. So in that regard, Tuesday was an aberration.

But here’s the thing: when I was coordinating that schedule ahead of time, I didn’t hesitate for a minute to think that it would be a problem. I’ve been doing twice-daily workouts for so many weeks now, and my body has become so accustomed to functioning at a baseline level of exhaustion, that an additional hour of running after my kids were tucked in didn’t seem like that big of a stretch.

I certainly understand how casual observers might hear that I did three workouts on the same day, and think I’ve gone completely over the edge. But after the accumulation of one hard training day after another, and the gradual adaptation to two workouts stacked together on a regular basis, contemplating a day like Tuesday isn’t such a leap.

I can’t argue that it was a rational decision, but maybe that’s the point of Ironman training: breaking down your senses in small doses over a long period of time, to the point where taking on a seemingly insane challenge doesn’t really seem that crazy.

That’s why I’ll maintain the strenuous volume of training as often as possible between now and August. And when people start telling me I’ve lost my mind, that’s when I’ll know I’m truly ready.


June 10, 2007

Dipsea Didn't

Last Sunday saw the 97th running of the Dipsea Race - a demanding, highly challenging 7.1 mile trail race across the hills and through the forests of Marin County, CA. Year after year, this historic event draws the best trail runners from Northern California and beyond to compete on the rugged trails from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach.

And for the first time in 10 years, I wasn’t there with them.

I made the decision about two months ago, but for one reason or another, I never really got around to making a formal announcement or explanation here. It was a difficult choice; if you happened to read any of my posts from last year’s event, you know how much I’ve loved and enjoyed this race through the years.

At the beginning of 2007, I still planned on doing the Dipsea – but I fell into a situation where financial considerations made me reevaluate my goals for the year, and prioritize the events that were my primary focus.

It was really just a case of bad timing. Over the course of a few weeks in February and March, here’s a sample of the expenses I racked up: I paid almost $300 to race at Wildflower and $100 to race at Bug Sur, after having already paid another $300 to race at Vineman later this year. You may recall that I also bought a new bike, and spent a lot of money on cycling accessories or gear that added up much more quickly than I imagined.

Unfortunately, it was right around this time that my Dipsea application arrived in the mail. Since the race sells out so quickly, I had about one week to decide whether or not to enter. But even under those circumstances, in most years I probably would have forked over the money to do the Dipsea race again.

Oddly enough, it was a small event that set things into motion - when I learned that the Dipsea raised its entry fee. Not by a staggering amount, but enough to make me take notice. It now costs nearly as much to do the Dipsea 7.1 mile race as it does to enter the Firetrails 50-mile race I plan on doing this October as my Western States qualifier. And that’s what triggered my prioritization of races.

I love the Dipsea. All those things I said about it last year are still 100% true. I still have long-term plans to race there in the future and make my way into the top 100 or higher. I’d love to race alongside my kids there someday as well, and pass along the joys and challenges I’ve learned on that course.

But for the time being, I’ve got other fish to fry. I’m completely hooked on triathlons, to the point where I got just as much satisfaction from my 50-mile bike ride on Saturday as I would have had racing in Marin County on Sunday. I still have the ultramarathon bug, with Western States at the top of my wish list for next June. There are countless other races that I’d love to consider at some point or another – certainly more than I’ll ever have time to complete.

Remember the final episode of The Bachelor, when Andy told Bevin “I love you” about three separate times, but still ended up dumping her for Tessa anyway? I guess that’s the same way I love the Dipsea Race: it will always occupy a special piece of my heart, but right now I’m choosing to follow my passion in another direction.

(The next couple paragraphs could be a whole separate post, but I’ll try to restrain myself and keep it to a short rant … )

In some ways, I feel guilty for complaining about financial concerns here. When it comes being blessed with resources and a certain standard of living, I’m far luckier than most people. Given that so many people are uncertain about where the next meal or next change of clothes is coming from, my griping about the cost of races and workout equipment seems ridiculously superficial. Clearly, the 50 bucks that I would have paid for the race wouldn’t have broken me.

On the other hand, I sometimes feel like the financial aspect of endurance sports is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Sure, it’s wonderful to have a passion and chase your dreams – but those dreams come at a cost. And there comes a point of diminishing returns, where investing more time and spending more money on the next great task is increasingly difficult to justify when balanced against things like family time and professional responsibilities. In my case, another weekend in Marin County certainly would have been fun, but in combination with all the other things I've got cooking this year, it just seemed a little excessive.

(There, I'm done. That wasn’t too bad, was it? Sometimes I surprise myself.)

There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll line up in Mill Valley again one of these years and resume my relationship with the Dipsea Race. That’s the advantage I have over The Bachelor – it’s always there for me to return to when I want a break from my other love interests. Until then, I’ll keep pursuing those other goals, and be thankful for all the times we’ve spent together.


June 7, 2007


(Admin. note: despite what I say in the last paragraphs, my wife approved this post prior to publication.)

Every one of us – whether we realize it or not – is in training for something.

Around these parts of the blogosphere, when we speak of training, we’re usually referring to exercising and racing. We detail our workouts, discuss what races we’ve done, and what accomplishments we hope to achieve in the months and years ahead.

With endurance sports, the most successful training regimens consist of gradual progression. One workout builds upon another. A first 10K leads to a marathon; swim lessons lead to a sprint triathlon. Shorter distance races turn into ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons – but these accomplishments would be impossible without the building blocks that precede them.

Many aspects of life follow a similar progression. Grade school leads to high school and eventually to college. Professional skills and experience are developed on smaller projects, and later rewarded with promotions and increased responsibilities. Newlyweds adopt a cat to prepare for someday having a child (a situation that causes actual parents to simply laugh and shake their heads - but nevertheless, it’s pretty common).

All of which is a long introduction for this picture:

It’s a birthday cake that my wife made for our formerly 5-year-old daughter’s birthday party last week. It’s a replica of one of our daughter’s favorite experiences ever: Splash Mountain at Disneyland - complete with Brer Bear, Brer Fox, and Brer Rabbit - characters with whom our daughter happens to be fascinated (more on this in another post).

I’ve written before about how my wife makes the best birthday cakes in town, and how I always feel compelled to do a major workout before any of our kids’ parties, because I know the temptation of indulging will be too much to overcome. Luckily, I was able to roll about 70 miles on my bike on the morning of the party – because I probably consumed about 60 miles worth of cake that afternoon. (Throw in a few slices of pizza, and I’d be surprised if I broke even, calorie-wise. But you know what? … I don’t care. It’s my kid’s birthday - I’m celebrating.)

My wife has always been creative in the realm of cake design, but she started with much simpler schemes. As our children have grown, the creations gradually evolved to reflect her skill and confidence: 2-dimensional dump trucks and puppy dogs led to 3-D trains, ladybugs, and, sharks. And now she’s able to crank out this Ironman-caliber Splash Mountain.

But her talents didn’t develop overnight. All of those other cakes she’s done over the years were the building blocks – the 10Ks and half-IM events that gave her the courage to attempt something as bold as recreating an amusement park ride for her daughter’s sixth birthday.

(On a similar note … this cake wasn’t created overnight, either. It was at least a three-day project that included a couple of structural/design changes, many hours of brainstorming, and several trips to the local market for just the right ingredients. You think I’m kidding with this endurance sports analogy, but seriously – I got tired just watching her.)

If there were some kind of PhD program in cake baking, my wife has certainly earned it by now. The ironic thing is, she’s going to hate that I’m even writing about this – because she’ll feel a burden of expectation to match that accomplishment the next time, and the time after that, and on and on in the years to come. And really ... what ultramarathon or Ironman finisher can’t identify with those feelings?

So to avoid irritating her any further, I guess it’s time for me to stop talking about it.


June 4, 2007

Great Moments in Spelling (Part IV)

Welcome to the 80th Scripps National Spelling Bee! 286 spellers from all over the country – and around the world – have converged upon Independence Hall of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, in Carmel Valley, CA, I’ve converged onto a big recliner, armed with a laptop and a tall Diet Pepsi, to take in all six hours of coverage on ESPN and ABC. It’s the night that spelling fans all over the country dream of. I mean … how many other events provide such comprehensive coverage? NBC only gives the Ironman a 2-hour TV slot, and even the longest Tour de France stages only command three hours of airtime on Versus. When it comes to giving the fans what they want, the NSB is second to none.

As usual, I kept a running diary of the proceedings. And as you should expect by now, it’s a long one – so let’s skip any further introduction and just get right to it. All times listed are the PDT broadcast times - and all pictures are courtesy of Reuters.

7:03 AM: This morning’s hosts are Chris McKendry and Paul Loeffler. Loeffler was a Bee finalist in 1990 and did a pretty solid job with his commentary in last year’s telecast.

Unfortunately, Loeffler’s not off to a roaring start: at the top of the show, he tells us that prior experience is a huge factor at the Bee, as 26 of the final 59 spellers are returning competitors. So … doesn’t that mean that 33 of the finalists aren’t returners? Good thing this isn’t the Math Bee, or we’d need to find a new host.

Then again, maybe he’s just nervous about being replaced by Mike and Mike tonight.

7:04: A couple of posts ago, you thought I was kidding about placing bets on the Spelling Bee - all of you except Momo, that is. She’s my kind of girl: a 6th grade spelling bee champ who offered me a wager before this year’s NSB. I took 4-time finalist Samir Patel, and gave her the pick of the field.

Just before our contest begins, Samir’s the only contestant to be interviewed; the announcers identify him as the heavy favorite in today’s Bee. Watching at home, I’m completely confident that I’m in good hands with Samir. Even if he doesn’t win the trophy, one thing is certain: Momo is going down.

And we’re underway! We pick up the action in Round 5.

7:05: The first word of the round, difficile, goes to 14-year-old Grace Pyo. It’s a French derivative, and a typical snapshot of how silly things can get at the NSB.

My daughters have a book called Fancy Nancy, about a girl who likes to dress up and do everything in a fancy way. For example, she loves the word “fuchsia”, because it’s a fancy way of saying “purple.”

Well … do you know what the definition of difficile is? It’s “difficult”. A fancy way of saying difficult. And Grace doesn’t realize it, and leaves out an F. In other words, she was tripped up by a Fancy Nancy word.

7:28: The Canadians are coming!! ESPN reports that 20 Canadian kids have entered this year’s Bee, an increase from 14 last year. Last year’s runner-up was Canadian; one of these years, some Canuck kid is going to break all the way through and take our trophy home. (I know, I discussed this last year – but I still think it would feel strange if our NSB trophy ever spent an entire year on the wrong side of the border. And yes, I'm aware that this is exactly how Canadians will feel if the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup this week.)

Did you ever have a neighbor who is polite, friendly, and well liked by everybody, but keeps to himself a little too often, to the point of occasional suspicion? Maybe he’s got some big project going on in his garage, but he never lets anyone see it, so you start wondering what the heck he’s working on in there. After several months, your curiosity runs wild, and you start imagining all manner of threatening scenarios that might be brewing right on the other side of the fence.

I’m starting to think of Canada as that strange neighbor. Sure, they all appear charming and humble on the surface – but there must be some sort of Manhattan Project going on up there, with the goal of dominating America’s National Spelling Bee. Every year, they send more kids who progress further into the competition. It’s like they’ve dedicated an entire generation to establishing intellectual superiority over us – let’s call it the Maple Leaf Project - and they’re making excellent progress.

Then again, maybe they just have a lot of smart kids who study hard and enjoy the competition. But I still think my secret project theory is worth mentioning.

(The Canadians: "Just smile and wave, boys ... just smile and wave ...")

7:42: Claire Zhang looks confused after hearing the ding that indicates she misspelled the word burelage (a pattern of lines or dots on security paper). Her confusion is well-founded: as she is escorted offstage, the judges review the tape and realize that she did, in fact, spell the word correctly. Claire rejoins the competition and gets some high fives upon returning to her chair.

Most professional sports leagues are pitifully behind the times in embracing the use of instant replay to enhance the competition. The NFL and NBA both grapple with the proper situations to use it, and Major League Baseball stubbornly refuses to implement it at all. But the NSB has effectively employed instant replay for years. You tell me – which is the more progressive organization?

8:22: The definition of strigil is “a metal instrument to scrape the skin used by ancient Greeks after athletic exercises.” How funny - nowadays, triathletes use sharp metal instruments to scrape their legs before their events. Last month, the strigil I used came from underneath my wife’s bathroom sink, and had an attractive pink plastic handle so I could use it in the shower. I didn’t realize I was carrying out a 4000-year-old Greek tradition, though.

8:28: 13-year-old Kate Weir, the New Zealand national bee champ, has been giving the judges fits all day long. Her Kiwi accent is incredibly thick, leading to the following difficulties:

She pronounces the letter G as “jay” - which is the exact same way she says the letter J. She pronounces her A’s as E’s, her E’s as I’s, and her I’s as A’s

And here is the word she receives : jardinière.

The judges are silent for a full five minutes after she spells the word (meaning a decorative ceramic pot), conferring with each other, and completely baffled as to what letters the girl actually said. They listen to replays, which only confuse them more. They can’t ask her to respell the word, or to write it down, or give her another word, because any of those decisions would violate the rules of competition.

Finally, Head Judge Mary Brooks leans into the mic, initiating the following exchange:

Judge: “Could you repeat the first letter that you said for that word?”

Kate: “Jay”

Judge: “Tell us another word that starts with that letter.”

Kate: “Jay-raffe”


(Ladies and Gentlemen, Judge Mary Brooks! That’s why she earns the big bucks.)

9:06: AAAARRRGGGHH!!!! Samir Patel (at left) chokes on clevis (a connection or fastener for fitting parts), and is out of the competition. The crowd lets out a stunned gasp, and he receives a standing ovation from the other spellers while walking offstage. It’s an impressive, touching sight – and yet, I can’t summon any sympathy for the kid. Because right now, even though she’s 1000 miles away, all I can hear is the sound of Momo laughing.

It’s simply a terrible turn of events for me - I mean, for Samir. No, actually … I mean for me. My head is spinning. Pause the TiVo. I need a minute alone.

(Ten minutes later … )

10:07-10:30: OK, I’m back. The rest of the morning session passes by in a blur: spellers come and go, some return to their seats, some are escorted offstage. Meanwhile, I’ve completely lost my focus – the Bee’s just not the same without Samir. And I’ve got more than three hours left to watch. I feel like I’ve lost my pacer near the halfway point of an ultramarathon, and now I’m uncertain whether I want to continue alone.

Luckily, there’s an aid station just ahead: the midday break at the conclusion of round 6. I’m going to pour some water over my head, take in some calories, and try to come back strong in prime time.

8:00 PM: Prime time coverage begins – and Robin Roberts is in the house. The NSB has officially gone big time. 15 spellers remain to duke it out under the hot lights.

8:09: 13-year-old Evan O’Dorney (at right) of Danville, CA, looks poised and confident as he correctly spells rascacio (a type of scorpion fish). I like this O’Dorney kid – he looks like he could go all the way. Hmmm … do you think it’s too late to e-mail Momo back?

8:11: Our first “up close and personal” profile of the night, of 12-year-old Tia Thomas, whose parents make the point of telling us that “she’s not a nerd”. Then we hear Tia say her favorite word is pneumoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, after which our new co-host, ex-NFL player Mike Golic, explains to us that the word means “an inhalation of a fine quartz dust.” Um … could we just get on with the Bee, please? Apparently it’s all too much for Tia, who misspells zacate (a forage of grassy plants), and exits stage left.

8:16: In my Wildflower recap, I said that some days you’re the hammer, and some days you’re the nail – and right now, the Bee is swinging a huge hammer. Since the prime time broadcast has started, 3 of the first 4 kids have misspelled their words. ABC has two hours allocated to this show – but at this pace, they’ll be wrapping things up in 30 minutes. Hey … if that happens, do you think they’ll show a rerun of Lost? All of a sudden, I’m not really sure what I’m cheering for.

At least the Bee is punishing the Canadian and American kids equally: after 13-year-old Cody Wang of Calgary trips over apozem (a boiled medicinal preparation), only two Canucks remain. The Maple Leaf Project may need to wait another year – because America’s not giving up this Bee easily.

8:31: Another “up close” piece features Kavya Shivashankar, who was Momo’s choice to win the NSB. It’s a savvy pick, as the profile highlights Kavya’s dedication to her studies, her caring nature, and her passions for dancing and music, in addition to spelling. Apparently though, Kavya never found time to read The Da Vinci Code, because she misspells the word cilice (an undergarment of rough material worn as penance).

8:38: Claire Zhang misspells urgrund (a primal cause).
8:45: 13-year-old Nithya Vijayakumar misses pelorus (a navigational instrument).
8:58: 14-year-old Amy Chyao misses grognard (an old soldier).

And the Bee keeps swinging that hammer.

9:12: Nate Gartke is playing the “easy-going, non-threatening Canadian” role to perfection. With every turn, he saunters up to the mic in an almost bashful manner, spells his word correctly, then gives a big smile and friendly wave to the crowd while returning to his chair. Clearly, he’s been very well-coached by the Maple Leaf Project. As he rolls through abseil (a type of mountaineering descent) and rognon (a small rounded rock mass), I’m starting to get worried all over again.

(Evan and Nate)

9:20: Connor Spencer misspells cachalot (a sperm whale), immediately followed by Matthew Evans misspelling fauchard (a long-handled medieval weapon). The pressure has been ratcheted up so much, and the words have become so difficult at this point, I don’t think it’s accurate to say the Bee’s using a hammer anymore – it seems like sometime around 9:15, it switched to a fauchard. Kids are dropping left and right.

9:51: All but one, that is. Evan O’Dorney is in the zone: his face is expressionless, his voice is unwavering, and he’s cool under pressure as he rattles off schuhplattler (a Bavarian courtship dance) and laquear (a recessed panel). And once Isabel Jacobsen misspells cyanophycean (a blue-green alga), Evan is the last kid standing to defend the Stars and Stripes. We’re down to the final two – Nate and Evan - at the start of Round 10.

10:06: The kids trade correct answers for two rounds, before Nate is the first to falter, stumbling on coryza (an inflammatory respiratory disease) in Round 12. Canadian to a fault, he shrugs his shoulders and keeps a smile on his face as he sits down with his parents, and watches Evan step to center stage.

10:07: Evan correctly spells serrefine (a small surgical forceps), and claims the 2007 National Spelling Bee title!

After defeating 285 other competitors (not to mention vanquishing the Maple Leaf Project for yet another year), you’d think Evan would be ecstatic. Instead, he barely cracks a smile while lifting the trophy. This kid's exhausted. Whoever says the Spelling Bee isn’t an endurance sport is simply out of his mind.

10:09: You know how right after you finish a tough marathon, the first thought that goes through your mind is “I’m never doing this again.”? Apparently the NSB has the same affect on these kids – because during the post-Bee interview, a clearly dazed Evan states that he’s never really enjoyed spelling.

You can forgive the champion for being a bit delirious. And like the marathon runner who eventually returns to the roads, it’s a good bet that he’ll probably look over his spelling lists from time to time in the future. He’s not eligible to enter the NSB anymore, but the event will undoubtedly occupy a special place in his heart, and he’ll probably maintain his interest in the Bee for many years to come.

Likewise, I’ll do the same. But right now, I'm off to get some sleep. Six hours of blogging is enough to wear a guy out.

Read previous editions of this series on sidebar at right


June 1, 2007

Bee Bullets

Today's post is a brief one, as I'm fairly sleep deprived after staying up late into the night watching 6 hours of Spelling Bee coverage. I've got some random bullets for now, then I'll spend some time this weekend preparing a full report to post here by Monday.

For reasons I'd rather not discuss, I had to go to work yesterday. Apparently, when you hold an administrative position at my company, "watching the preliminary rounds of the National Spelling Bee" doesn't qualify as a medical condition, family emergency, or holiday (although I could make a pretty strong case for that last one) that justifies taking the day off work. It's inexplicable to me, honestly.

So after I got home, we gathered the family in front of the TV to watch the Bee while eating dinner. Typically, we only have dinner in front of the TV when there's a UCLA game on, or during the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions - so the NSB enters pretty select company with this distinction.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself, so that's all I'll say about the Bee today. Except to mention that with each passing year, I'm growing a little more terrified of Canadians.

And just for kicks, a few other random pop culture thoughts that occurred to me during my last few runs ...

Reluctantly, I have to agree with Angie and a few others in being very disappointed with the new Linkin Park CD. Three strong songs, two so-so ones, and not much else to speak of.

So much for them being the rock band of the decade. I guess we can open up the nominations for this title now - I could probably make good arguments for Green Day or the Foo Fighters, or even Fall Out Boy, but that would be an entirely different post, and honestly, I'm too tired to think about it right now.


I finally pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, scheduled for delivery to my house on July 21st. Which wouldn't be unusual, except that my son already pre-ordered a copy for himself that he's going to pick up at midnight at one of the release parties a local bookstore is holding that same night. I don't know when a family officially reaches "houseful of dorks" status, but I'd think that watching the National Spelling Bee together, and ordering multiple copies of the same Harry Potter book has to inch us dangerously close to that boundary.

Yes, I'm a Harry Potter freak, along with my wife and son. And yes, you're going to hear more about this in the next couple of months. I've already said how I go crazy for spelling bees, but in that context, I meant just everyday, run of the mill crazy. When it comes to this series of books and movies, I go completely off the wall, Britney Spears crazy. Just wait ... you'll see.

And finally ...


I got sick of hearing friends (and reading websites) rave about "Lost", the ratings gorilla on ABC, and finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. So I watched the "Questions Answered" recap show and the season finale on the ABC website, and all I can say is ... wow.

I found it completely mesmerizing. So now, as if I'm not busy enough trying to train for an Ironman, I've got to somehow find time to watch 3 seasons worth of Lost DVDs before the next TV season starts. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts as to who is in the coffin, or whether the people on the boat are good or evil, or ideas on the time machine or purgatory theories, my e-mail box is always open.

As is my brain, much too often than it should be. But for today, it's time to hit the off switch. Look for the NSB report soon.

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