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September 30, 2007

Angels Flight

Over the past five days, I’ve spent a great deal of time watching these guys:

Those would be the United States Navy Blue Angels, visiting the Salinas Valley for last weekend’s California International Airshow. My son and I went to see them on Saturday afternoon, and I also had the pleasure of seeing them prior to the airshow – as I’ll explain a bit later.

But first, a confession: I’ve been a Blue Angels fan for almost 20 years now – ever since they were featured in the music video for Van Halen’s “Dreams” [see the end of this post], which was one of the coolest videos of the late 1980s, and far and away the best song in the otherwise regrettable Sammy Hagar era of one of my all-time favorite rock bands. (I know, that’s a pretty lame reason to get hooked on something - but remember, I was a teenager. I also bought an insane amount of Crystal Pepsi just because they used VH’s “Right Now” song in their advertisements. I was pretty much a PR agency’s dream consumer – but we’re getting off subject.)

However, I grew up an Air Force brat, and was fortunate enough to see many shows by the Thunderbirds precision flight team as a kid. So I’ve always had some internal conflict about liking the Blue Angels.

I mean … it’s OK to like the teams from both branches of the military, isn’t it? Isn’t this the equivalent of drinking both Coke and Pepsi – where both are very good and very similar aside from some subtle differences, and you just enjoy whichever one is available to you at the time? Or is it a more serious offense - like a form of military bigamy, or like simultaneously cheering for both the Yankees and Red Sox? I’ve never been really clear on this. And yes, it troubles me sometimes.

(On that note - If anyone from the Air Force or Navy happens to read this and can give me some sort of ruling on the situation, I’d appreciate it. Otherwise, I’ll move on with the post.)

Here’s my favorite picture from the airshow. It’s a bit blurry, but keep in mind that the fighters are flying in excess of 800 mph, and I'm shooting them with a 3” x 2” camera. The fact that this shot captured anything besides vapor trails is a major accomplishment for me.

Anyway, the show was great, and my son had a blast – but that wasn’t my favorite part of the Blue Angels visit. Rather, the best part of Airshow Week for Salinas residents is the three days prior to the show, when the Angels conduct rehearsal flights above the Salinas Valley in preparation for the weekend’s event.

For my group of swimmers who train in an outdoor pool at midday, it made for some pretty impressive distractions from a couple of tough workouts. During backstroke sets, we saw the Angels buzz over the pool in a tight delta formation. While swimming breaststroke or freestyle, our normal breathing patterns allowed us periodic glimpses of solo fighters doing barrel rolls, or pairs doing inversion maneuvers in our visual periphery.

And for me individually, the Angels’ flights actually helped me get through the sessions more easily.

I’ve written before about how I have a tough time keeping up with the rest of my masters group. I’m frequently the last person to finish an interval, thereby getting the least amount of rest before starting the next one. I usually hit the wall just in time to hear the instructions for the following set, and rarely have a chance to catch my breath before pushing off the wall to keep up with the others.

Last Thursday, the situation was different, and worked substantially in my favor. Instead of me hitting the wall just as the next set was announced, here’s what happened several times:

Me: (touching wall, gasping for breath)

Swimmer #1, simultaneously: … next is 2x 300 leaving on the …

Swimmer #2, pointing: Here they come, from over there!

And we’d all pause as the Angels passed overhead in formation, before resuming our next set. Each time, I would stare toward the sky, savoring the few extra seconds of oxygen, thankful for the intermittent disruptions to the relentless grind of the workout.

The funny part is, it was never discussed – nobody ever said, “Let’s wait a few extra seconds so we can see them fly past.” But unanimously, and without hesitation, we all did. I guess if there’s any way for me to describe how captivating these precision flyers are, that’s the best thing I can say: the sight and sound of them just freezes you in your tracks, commanding your attention away from whatever else it is you’re doing – even if it’s a masters swim workout.

Those extra moments of rest were exactly what I needed to keep up with the group, and those sessions during the Angels’ flights were the best swim workouts I’ve had in several weeks.

It’s a crazy consequence of swimming during Airshow Week in Salinas – one I look forward to every September.

**

Van Halen - Dreams:

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September 27, 2007

It's the Thought That Counts

Look what my son bought me!!:




The Anthem Advance off-road racer made by Giant, retail price $6300. It’s a totally sweet, aggressive ride – and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

It’s fantastic news, except for one thing: I’m not really getting it.

My son just finished a “Million Dollar Project” for his 4th grade class, where the teacher asked each of them to describe how they would spend $1 million if they could do anything they wanted with it. They then had to document all of their purchases, and write a balance sheet subtracting the dollar amount of each item, until they were completely out of money. Sounds like a pretty cool project for a 9-year-old, doesn’t it?

So he bought me the mountain bike, which he picked out because he knows I need one - and because, in his words, “It was the most expensive one I could find.” Of course, I nearly ruined the moment by listing a handful of more expensive bikes (that I just happened to know offhand, by coincidence) before my wife smartly jumped in and told me to drop it.

He also bought me a $500 Quintana Roo wetsuit, and set himself up with a $600 Specialized Hotrock mountain bike. You know what? I’m starting to think that watching all of those Xterra triathlons is finally having some effect on the kid.

Here were some of his other big ticket items:
· $100,000 to our church, because that’s what the Bible says (Is this really my son?)
· An RV so that we could go camping without having to sleep in a tent (OK - he’s definitely my son.)
· $100,000 worth of Tiffany jewelry for my wife (Hmm ... now he’s just making me look bad.)
· A $200,000 passenger ticket on Virgin Galactic's first spaceline flight scheduled for next year. (How cool is that? No one will ever accuse this kid of thinking small.)

He also bought dolls and toys for his two younger sisters, and he quickly realized that a million dollars is a lot of money to spend. His list has a huge amount of Legos and Star Wars figures, which caused him to do way more balance sheet subtraction than he ever intended.

He eventually figured out that it’s difficult to spend down exactly to zero, so once he got tired of subtracting, he sunk the remaining $137,820.04 into Walt Disney Company stock. I thought perhaps a lesson in a diversified portfolio was in order, but maybe they’ll teach that when he gets to 5th grade. At any rate, here’s how he justified the stock purchase and concluded his essay:

“Hopefully soon, I’ll have another million dollars to spend.”

Very well said. Maybe he’s got a bit of writer in him as well. Unfortunately, if that’s the case … that first million is going to be awfully hard to come by.

But I sincerely hope he makes it big someday - because I could really use a new mountain bike.

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September 24, 2007

Leaving Las Vegas

Before today’s post, I thought I’d ask … has anybody heard from the Killers? It’s been more than a year since they released their wonderful sophomore album – but then after releasing four singles in rapid succession this spring, they seem to have vanished from the airwaves. They weren’t even at the recent Video Music Awards, despite having three of the coolest videos of the year: “When You Were Young”, “Bones”, and “Read My Mind”.

Anyway, that question crossed my mind while I was running recently. I’m not sure why I think you should know this, except perhaps to reinforce that no topic is too trivial for me to waste time pondering.

**

Business trips to Las Vegas are the ultimate good news/bad news proposition.

The good news is that accommodations at the big name casino hotels are always very nice, there’s plenty of good food to be found, and there’s never a shortage of diversions to occupy your time.

The downside is that, well … it’s Vegas. And I’ve never really been a fan. I’m not a gambler or show watcher or club hopper, and I can stomach about 10 minutes of glitz and glamour before it all becomes annoying or depressing.

But in business circles, sometimes the destination is inevitable - and so it was that I found myself in town attending a Friday/Saturday seminar. After the course on Friday afternoon, I considered all the various ways to take advantage of this rare visit to the desert metropolis.

Fully aware of the city’s famous motto about what happens in Vegas, and with the wife and kids at home hundreds of miles away, I contemplated a night of indulgence and complete anonymity. I thought of what other 30-something, red-blooded American males would do with a free weekend night in Sin City. It seemed only natural to “take in the sights”, so to speak, sow some wild oats, and see what all the fuss was about.

I thought about it for a while … then I laced up my shoes, and went outside for a run.

Thinking I could sightsee and exercise at the same time, I headed down the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard toward the high rise casinos. It took me less than a mile to realize my mistake: the Strip was clearly not designed for runners.

(photo from Vegas Online)

The first decision I had to make was whether to run on the sidewalk (with its hard, unforgiving concrete, and unyielding crowds) or on the side of road facing traffic (with no shoulder, and a constant stream of vehicles).

I ended up doing a little of each – starting on the road, then leaping onto curbs and sidewalks just in time to evade a speeding taxi or massive city bus. Weaving through the crowd, I quickly learned that the city was not only poorly designed for runners, but downright hostile toward them.

In the time it took me to run two miles, I witnessed just about all types of human depravity. I saw barely-dressed women spilling out of their clothes, desperate panhandlers soliciting a quick score, and various people passed out on the sidewalks.

(By the way – since the last time I was here, it seems like there’s almost no way to tell the hookers and strippers apart from the regular Vegas crowd anymore. Everywhere you look, women walk around barely covered in lycra or lingerie, or wearing an outfit that looks like they’re heading to their shift at a gentleman’s club. I kind of miss the days when the prostitutes in Vegas were more obvious – but I guess I’m just old fashioned that way.)

Continuing down the Strip, I was jeered by drunken college kids, inhaled massive quantities of secondhand marijuana, and had to actively avoid smut peddlers trying to stuff flyers in my hands as I passed. All this while stepping on broken glass and cigarette butts, sucking down exhaust fumes, and darting across eight lanes of traffic at each intersection.

In other words, the run was not starting well.

I eventually passed through the Strip and followed Las Vegas Boulevard into the desert, as the last traces of daylight faded around me. With each passing mile, the lights and sounds of the city grew more distant. And the further I ran into the darkness and silence, the more the tensions of the Strip dissolved.

So I kept running. Mile after mile into a cocoon of darkness, until there were no cars or streetlights or convenience stores anywhere in sight. Surrounded by the night, I finally found comfort in the quiet solitude. My stride became smooth and my breathing relaxed, and I pressed onward.

It took almost three hours of running to see the night sky I was accustomed to, full of visible stars and reflected moonlight. My eyes gradually adapted some night vision, and I could discern shadowy outlines of the desert landscape. Occasionally I heard the distinctive sound of critters scurrying through the brush.

I knew that this was the Las Vegas where I most belonged, that most suited my personality: under cover of darkness, pushing myself down an empty road, savoring the environment, leaving the temptations of excess far behind me.

I was at least fifteen miles into the desert by that point, and knew I should probably turn around soon. Part of me wanted to just stay out there and keep the city at bay. But eventually common sense prevailed, and I turned to head back toward the hotel.

Even as the faint glow of the city slowly reappeared before me, each passing mile on the dark road gave me more satisfaction in my endeavor. By the time I saw the lights of the Strip in the distance, I knew I wouldn’t dread my arrival there nearly as much as I did the first time through.

The final two miles on the Strip were the same as the first two: blinding lights, frequent stops, dangerous traffic, and people in every stage of desperation and debauchery. But instead of becoming bitter, I had a somewhat triumphant feeling passing by it all again – triumphant, because I knew I wasn’t a part of it.

I had made a decision that evening. I could have followed the masses and reveled in the surroundings, or followed my heart and set my own course. My desert run felt like an act of defiance against everything around me that I considered objectionable.

(Clearly, this idea of choices has been burning a hole in my brain lately. I thought I got it all out of my system last month, but apparently I was wrong. I apologize if this blog has been sounding like the Trinity Network lately. I should snap out of it soon.)

The clock drew close to midnight - almost six hours after I started out - as I jogged up the concourse and into the lobby of my hotel. Sipping some Gatorade as I walked through the casino, I took in the curious stares of those who bothered to look my way. Upstairs, I took a quick shower in the hotel room and crashed into bed. And by the next day, thankfully, I was on a plane headed back home.

Some folks might say I missed experiencing the best things about the city. I would say I experienced the best things about myself instead. Given another chance, I wouldn’t hesitate to make the same choice again.

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September 19, 2007

A Joyful Sign

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth!
Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
- Psalm 100 (New International Version)

**

Baptisms are mysterious things, in that you never really know whether they’re effective.

At our church, infant baptism is seen primarily as a ceremony of commitment for the child’s parents, and by extension, the entire congregation. The parents vow to teach their child about the Christian faith and pass their spiritual beliefs along. The congregation vows to support the parents towards that goal. Then once the child is older, he will make an independent decision to become a Christian based on what he has learned and on the role models who have influenced him.

However, it’s not a guarantee. The act of baptizing a baby doesn’t bestow any sort of magical protection upon him, and it doesn’t ensure that the child won’t someday stray into trouble or spiritual isolation. That’s why you never know for sure if it really means anything. For all we know, it may be entirely inconsequential.

The best you can do is look for signs.

When our first child was baptized, his grandmother read Psalm 100 during the church ceremony. It seemed to perfectly describe the joy of welcoming a child to the world, gratitude for receiving such a magnificent gift, and the responsibility of raising him to remain a child of God.

Fast forward nine years or so, to a service last month at the same church where this boy was baptized:

Twice per year, our church has a “Youth Sunday” that is organized by the youth ministers. Children of various ages, from the high school group to elementary school kids, participate with the readings and prayers.

And for his scripture reading, my son was assigned Psalm 100.

So almost a decade after we held our baby and declared the psalm as a blessing onto him, my wife and I had the honor of watching our son stand at the same podium and recite it himself. As he read, I couldn’t help but think that this must be some kind of sign that, at least for the time being, the kid is headed down the right path. It’s not a guarantee of anything to come – but in spiritual terms, it’s probably as close to a conclusive affirmation as you can ask for.

This started out as a much longer post. I thought I’d use the baptism as an analogy for my triathlon exploits: something I expose my children to from an early age, then teach and model through my behavior as they grow, and hope that they choose a similar path for themselves when they’re old enough to make up their minds.

But after I typed it, I thought the baptism story stood rather nicely on its own. And just because I can relate anything to triathlon doesn’t mean that I should. Sometimes it’s just better to leave well enough alone.

So that’s how I’m ending for today.

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September 17, 2007

Sons (and Daughters) of Westwood

Two administrative notes to introduce today’s post …

* When I changed the domain name of this blog a few months ago, I abandoned the host site where I had parked a stash of older and/or non-running related articles. It was a site that my wife created while I was waiting to see if this whole blogging thing was going to work out. Anyway, there were a handful of things there that I was reluctant to see disappear into the cyber-ether – so from time to time over the next few months, I’ll post some of those articles here to give them a permanent home. Secondly ...

* Earlier this month, my wife and I took two of our kids to the UCLA-Stanford football game, which was won convincingly by our Bruins. Here is a scene from after the game:

I love this picture for a lot of reasons; I could probably write a whole post about it. But that’s not what I’m doing today.

The excursion was my 6-year-old daughter’s first college football game, but my son’s second. After his first game two years ago, I wrote an article about my Circle of Life-like feelings about UCLA athletics for my old website, which follows below.

I meant to post it immediately after this year’s game, but some other thoughts were more prevalent on my mind, and before I knew it, two weeks slipped away. In hindsight, the timing for this post is good for a couple of reasons: 1) It’s a reminder to me that all of the hopes and aspirations I have for my son are just as applicable to his younger sisters, and, just as importantly, 2) It helps me pretend that UCLA’s horrible showing last Saturday never happened.

The only thing left to do was modify the title of the article: It was originally called Sons of Westwood, after UCLA’s fight song. The new title is above, and the article is below.

**

Sometimes during my childhood when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would lay awake listening to the television in the living room. The house was small enough that I could easily recognize programs by the sounds coming through the wall.

And whenever there was a basketball game on, I would creep out of my bedroom to try and watch it.

My father liked watching UCLA basketball, and frequently let me stay up past my bedtime to watch the games with him. Although their amazing string of national championships had recently ended, UCLA still had very good teams. It seemed like they won every game I saw, so of course they became my favorite team.

Those evenings left a lasting impression on me, even as I grew older and we moved away from southern California. The juvenile pleasure of staying up past my bedtime, the time spent alone with my dad after my sister and mother were in bed, and the inevitable success of my favorite team were an irresistible combination.

After those nights, there was never a time in my life when I didn’t want to go to UCLA. Luckily, about a hundred different things fell into place for me and I was accepted there after high school. And although there were hard times, I wasn’t disappointed for an instant.

I competed in intercollegiate athletics, and developed into a marathon runner. I made a lot of friends, gained an appreciation of diversity, and received professional training for what has become a satisfying career. (There may have been some parties along the way, too – but for some reason I don’t remember them very well.)

As a bonus, I also met the girl who would later become my wife. All in all, I’d say my time at UCLA was well-spent.

In his book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Warren St John examines the roots of his passion for the Alabama Crimson Tide, and comments that our fate as sports fans is largely determined by means beyond our control: where we are born, events we are exposed to, and the passions we observe in those around us – especially our parents.

Occasionally, once your sports loyalties are cast, other pieces of your life fall into place around them.

Some are small things like whom we align ourselves with or hold at arm’s length. In St John’s home state, it’s common for Tide fans and Auburn fans to inspire feelings of mutual hatred, at times escalating to violence, based on nothing more than who they root for and what color they wear.

Others are big decisions like where to attend college or settle a family. Every life experience has a ripple effect on countless others, in ways we sometimes don’t realize until many years later, if ever.

All of which brings us to last weekend. My wife (UCLA ’92) and I (UCLA ’93) took our 7-year-old son to his first college football game, to watch UCLA play on the road against Stanford. The Bruins had lost their last six Bay Area games, so we weren’t exactly brimming with confidence of a victory.

Yet we listened to UCLA’s fight song in the car, sat in the visitors’ student section of the stadium, and practiced the school’s 8-clap cheer. He wore a UCLA cap, and instantly classified people dressed in yellow and blue as sympathizers to the cause.

The Bruins played like dogs for most of the game, but staged a furious comeback in the fourth quarter while our student section worked itself into a frenzy. Our son began chanting along with the crowd, jumping up and down on the bleachers, yelling and exchanging high fives with strangers.

All the while, his parents were right alongside him, acting like complete lunatics.

The noise in the stands was deafening, and when UCLA eventually won the game in overtime, our section of the stadium erupted like a party with 5000 friends. It had to be a pretty impressive scene for a seven year-old.

In the days since, life has been pretty much business as usual for our family. Our son has told people about the game, but not with the reverence that would indicate any sort of life-changing experience for him.

Still, I wonder if we just triggered some chain of future alliances and decisions for him.

Could my father have known that by letting me watch those basketball games, he was influencing who I would cheer for, where I would live, or who I would marry?

I’m certain the he had no way of knowing - otherwise, he would have taken me to a football game at USC, one of his alma maters. Just think: if more of my sleepless nights had been in football season instead of basketball season, I might have picked Tommy Trojan as my mascot over Joe Bruin. How frightening.

It’s clearly pointless to speculate about these things, but intriguing nonetheless. My wife and I don’t know which experiences will shape our son the most profoundly. And we have only a limited amount of time to guide him. Before long he will certainly chart a course for himself, either close to home or far away, in his parents’ footsteps or on a path of his own.

When he does, his mother and I won’t care what direction his life takes him, as long as he’s doing the driving. If he’s content, then we’ll be satisfied that we’ve raised him well.

Just so long as he never cheers for USC.

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September 14, 2007

Another Reason I Miss College

“Smart and beautiful … that’s a dangerous combination.”
- Me, to my wife, about 2 days ago

When I made that remark to my wife, it was in reference to our 6-year-old daughter, an academic smarty-pants (high-level reader, early writer, etc) who has blossomed from "cutie-pie kid" to "beautiful girl" before our very eyes over the last few months. It was a joking commentary about how many guys are intimidated by girls who are exceedingly smart or amazingly attractive – and how such a girl can become very influential upon people.

Then I flipped on the computer today and learned that Shakira has been attending UCLA this semester – and the exact same quote came to mind. It also triggered a couple of other thoughts in my head, namely …

1. Wait … Shakira’s smart? Who knew?
2. She’s at UCLA - that’s my alma mater. Will they publish her phone number in our alumni directory now?
3. If I hear that she’s signing up for the triathlon club, I might have to schedule a trip back to campus for some workouts this fall. And most importantly …
4. Why didn’t this kind of thing ever happen when I was there?

I have to admit, I kind of dismissed Shakira as a mindless pop music tart when she came on the scene a few years ago. In fact, I used her for this analogy of how committing myself to the sport of triathlon was the point when I officially became insane. So it’s odd to think of her partaking in the more respectable disciplines of academia.

(Especially when the official press release contains statements like this: “[Shakira] decided to take a musical rest this summer following her worldwide Oral Fixation tour to focus on social causes.” Talk about conflicting messages.)

But in light of the ongoing train wreck that is Britney Spears, it’s refreshing to see a video hottie making headlines for something besides shaving her head or forgetting to wear underpants. I swear, if you had asked me five years ago who had the brighter future, there’s no way I would have bet on Shakira over Britney. Then again - as I think I’ve mentioned before – I’m an idiot.

And I’m starting to like Shakira a lot more now. I guess I just have a thing for dangerous girls.

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September 11, 2007

Rock 'n' Roll Ride

All right, it’s time for me to lay off the high-minded stuff, and bring things back down to a reasonable altitude for a while.

With that in mind, I’ll tell you about a bike ride I took last Saturday. Actually, since I remembered to bring my camera, I’m going to do equal parts showing and telling. But before we get to the pics, I have a couple of stories to share by way of introduction …
*
First, imagine this scenario: let’s say you’re in a middle-management position somewhere, and often get frustrated by the politics and bureaucracy of department directors and senior administrators. There’s nothing you can do to protest the situation that won’t jeopardize your standing in the company, so you play along as well as you can, and find some healthy outlet (such as your training) to blow off tension.

Now imagine that your senior administrators got an idea to sponsor a company team for a 100-mile bike ride that is a fundraiser for a national nonprofit organization. Aside from the high comedic value of seeing those directors and managers walking around in unflattering cycling apparel, it’s a golden opportunity to inflict physical pain upon your colleagues and supervisors without any fear of retribution. I mean … how quickly would you sign up for that chance?

That’s the situation that presented itself at last weekend’s Best Buddies Hearst Castle Challenge, to raise money for people with intellectual disabilities. Best Buddies is the creation of Anthony Shriver, so the entire Kennedy family pitches in to promote the organization. Their primary fundraisers are two bike rides each year – one in Massachusetts, the other in California.

The West Coast version starts in Carmel Valley and travels south for 93 miles on California’s scenic Highway 1 before finishing at the Hearst Ranch in San Simeon. Here’s the course profile:
Notice all of the hills? Lot of chances to hammer your coworkers. I must say, I found the whole thing to be remarkably therapeutic.

*
The second introductory story is taken from my childhood.

One of the first rock bands I ever fell in love with was Cheap Trick. They wrote catchy, up-tempo rock songs full of smart-alecky lyrics about romance and teen angst. Basically, they were the Fall Out Boy of the early 1980s. They also wrote "I Want You to Want Me", otherwise known as the greatest rock love song of all time.

They were the first band I ever saw in concert, when I was 14 years old. At the show, the crowd was a surreal mixture of scraggly-looking guys just like me, and the largest gathering of beautiful women I had ever seen. As I was rocking along with the band, and watching all of these hotties acting completely uninhibited for two straight hours, I remember thinking, wow - this rock music stuff is pretty darn cool.

(I know that story doesn’t seem to make sense with a cycling report, but you know me better than that. Let’s get to the photos.)

*

(photo from Chateau Julian website)
The ride started here: Chateau Julien Winery in Carmel Valley. My hometown is the site of dozens of prestigious wineries – some with national followings, others that are “boutiques” known only to California oenophiles. Chateau Julien is a larger-label winery located about 6 miles from my house.



Team CSC and T-Mobile were two sponsors of the event, and produced this gathering of pros for a photo op before the event. On stage here are Dave Zabriskie, Axel Merckx, and a bunch of other guys I probably should know but hadn’t heard of.

After the photo op, Merckx went home to get some shut-eye, while Zabriskie actually did the ride with us. You can guess who I’ll be pulling for to win the stage if those two ever end up together in a breakaway someday.



Miles 7-33 of the ride are the Big Sur Marathon course in reverse. This shot is from the first aid station at Rocky Point, which is at mile 16 of the marathon. This view looks south, and you can faintly see the Rocky Creek Bridge through the fog on the right. This bridge is the smaller, underappreciated little brother of the more famous Bixby Bridge further down the road – but for my money, it’s just as beautiful.

Somehow, I got the notion that I’d try to take pictures while riding, with mixed results. This is a shot of Hurricane Point, which is usually described in running circles as a grueling, relentless 2-mile climb. However, seen from the opposite direction, with the perspective of distance … actually, it still looks pretty intimidating.


Approaching the Bixby Creek Bridge. Unlike suspension bridges, the architecture of Bixby is impossible to see when you’re on top of it. It’s almost like the bridge was specifically made for aerial photography. But since I wasn’t in a plane, this is the best I can do.


View from the bridge, which is the halfway point of the Big Sur Marathon.



Point Sur Lighthouse, established 1886. During the marathon, the lighthouse sits at mile 8, and marks the point in the race when the hills officially start getting treacherous.


Remember what I said about returning to an empty bike rack at T2 during my last triathlon? On charity rides, that doesn’t happen. What’s more, it doesn’t faze me one bit - unless it's one of my co-workers ahead of me. Thankfully, I never had to worry about that.

View to the south from aid station #3 (mile 62), near the coastal village of Lucia.


It's crazy - but after 70 miles or so, scenes like this start to become routine: blue ocean, clear sky, spectacular vistas, rugged coastline interspersed with pristine beaches, large waves breaking on rocky outcroppings, yada yada yada.


View from the aid station at Sand Dollar Beach (mile 85), looking north this time.



South of Sand Dollar, the course flattens out a bit, and several of us rode in a pace line for a while. I’m usually terrible at pace line riding, because 99% of my training miles are done solo, and because my aero bars make sudden braking or quick handling difficult. Also because I sometimes sit up and snap pictures when I should be concentrating on the riders ahead of me.


San Simeon Beach, the finish area of the ride. The beach is crescent shaped, and this is the southern half.


Here’s the northern side. Beaches don’t come any more tranquil than this. It was a great place to chill out for a couple of hours and get ready for the post-race barbecue. At least, most of it was great …


Ugh. This is the “executive” portable shower unit I used. Not exactly a high point of the day. But we had to get cleaned up, because there was a serious party ahead.


The post-race party was at a facility humbly named “The Barn” on the 80,000-acre Hearst Ranch. There were nearly 1000 people in attendance. When it comes to parties, the Hearst Family is first-class all the way. I suspect they’ve done this sort of thing before.


This is the martini bar, not to be confused with the margarita bar, or with the two outdoor mixed drink bars, or the indoor ranch bar. By the way, all food and alcohol was free of charge. Have I mentioned that the Hearst Family knows how to throw a good party?


If the party is big enough, there’s no telling who’ll show up. If anyone was wondering whether Andy and Tessa are still together, the answer would appear to be yes.

I didn’t try to hang around them, but I imagine I could have eavesdropped on something like the following:

Him: This party is amazing.

Her: I’m so glad you chose to bring me along.

Him: My heart told me it was the right decision.

In the center of this picture is our “Governator”, Arnold Schwarzenegger, alongside his wife, Maria Shriver. The Kennedys aren’t the most powerful family in America anymore (thanks to the Bushes), but they still have some pretty impressive connections.


Here’s the difference between rich people and the rest of us: If you or I were to host a big party, we might go out and hire some local garage band to liven up the festivities. When the Hearst Family throws a party, they get Cheap Trick.


“Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right, they just seem a little weird … “ Classic stuff.


See those guitar picks on guitarist Rick Nielsen’s mic stand? Back in the day, he threw them into the crowd during concerts, and there would be huge pileups of bodies lunging for them. Remember those beautiful girls I talked about earlier? Some of them would do anything to get a guitar pick – and I mean, anything. I wish I could tell you more.


Guess who’s a big Cheap Trick fan? Rob Lowe! I stood right next to him for about half of the show. We even exchanged some comments between songs, and he seemed like a really friendly guy – so much that I felt kind of bad for secretly taking his picture. But, you know … not so bad to make me refrain from posting it.

Rick Nielsen recognized Rob Lowe in the crowd, and gave him a big handful of guitar picks. Rob handed me a couple before passing them out to the rest of the crowd.


Have you ever wished you could travel back in time? If there were any way I could put these picks in my hand and go back to a Cheap Trick concert in 1984, there’s no telling what kind of fun I could have. Then again, I’m married now … so maybe it’s best that time travel doesn’t exist. But speaking of women …

These two ladies were TOTALLY giving me the eye for about 30 minutes during the show. I’m standing there telling myself: they can’t see my wedding ring, so they must think I’m single. They know I’ve just rode 100 miles, and I must be looking good since I just showered. In other words: I’ve still got it, baby!

It took me much longer than it should have to realize: No, wait - they’re not staring at me. I’m still standing next to Rob Lowe.

Who would have guessed that Carl Lewis was a Cheap Trick fan, too? I feel kind of sad for Carl sometimes – he’s an absolute top 5 Olympic athlete of all time, yet he’s more famously known for his horrific inability to either throw or sing. So it was nice to see the guy having fun for once.


Sorry, these next two pictures are terrible - you'll have to click and enlarge to see what I'm talking about. But I had to post them … because guess who ELSE likes Cheap Trick? Our Governator! He’s barely visible in the background here.

Later, he spoke with Rick Nielsen in the middle of a song. What could these two possibly have to talk about?

“Thank you vor visiting Caleefohrnya. Vill you please play Dream Police?”

*

The rest of my photos all came out too dark to post, but they weren’t nearly as glamorous. A 3-hour bus ride home, picking up my bike in the Chateau Julien parking lot at midnight, and driving home exhausted to conclude a 19-hour day.

But all things considered, there are certainly worse ways to spend a Saturday in California.

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September 7, 2007

The Dog You Feed (Part 3)

One administrative note before finishing this series: thanks to everyone who contributed comments or e-mail in response to the last two posts. When I started, I wasn’t really sure where they would lead me. My primary goal was to throw some ideas out there, and hopefully trigger some sort of thought process beyond typical tri-blog fare. Thankfully it worked – so well, in fact, that much of what I’m going to say here has already been mentioned in comments to the last two posts.

However, it’s about time for me to wrap this thing up, so we can resume the normal frivolity next week. And so …

**

Day in and day out, I like to think that I generally pick the right dog to feed. However, there are times when I find myself wondering.

Although I usually keep my act together, there are days when the line between doing the right thing and feeding my destructive dog feels razor thin. My customarily stable footing sometimes feels like a tightrope - like it might only take one poor decision or lapse of judgment to throw me off balance and drop me into the abyss (not necessarily to the degree of DMX or my convicted swindler acquaintance – my problems are relative small potatoes - but it’s nerve-racking nevertheless).

That’s where my training comes in handy. Like many other endurance athletes, I find that one of the most effective methods of feeding my good dog is to put myself through a solid workout.

Each day I decide to exercise, take another small step towards my goals, to prepare myself for an upcoming challenge, it feels like I’m feeding my good dog. Each workout reinforces the value of discipline, ambition, and determination towards a worthwhile task. There’s also a carryover effect, in that it seems to trigger the right behavior in other areas of my life as well. Strengthening my body is a vehicle by which I empower my will.

(Anecdotally, there’s a whole psychological theory of addiction to support this idea. Most of us know someone who was a former smoker or substance abuser, who now pours the same energy and compulsive behavior traits into something more beneficial – like exercise. But that’s probably all that my two undergraduate psych courses qualify me to explain with any kind of authority. Let's move on ... )

Yet, for others – like my former training partner - workouts and races have the opposite function. Triathlon is a parallel world where personal faults or shortcomings are overlooked or justified. In many cases, the compulsion to train is merely a coping mechanism for something more serious – like willful ignorance of work or family stress, compensation for perceived shortcomings, desperation for peer approval, or something more ominous.

Triathlon should be a fun escape from everyday life. It’s a joyful diversion, and a healthy competitive outlet. But it’s not salvation. And when it’s used to provide asylum in avoidance of personal issues, it can be a destructive dog unto itself.

And that’s the final twist to this extended parable: the notion that we not only have to choose which dog to feed, but also recognize which dog is in fact the good one, and which is destructive. Telling the difference isn’t always as easy as it seems.

So the question is …where is the line that indicates when training goes from being fun to being a cause for concern? And more importantly - have I already crossed it?

I ask myself this question a lot, and I come up with a different answer almost every time.

On one hand, I’m completely hooked on triathlon, and I enjoy the training process. I love how exercising and racing makes me feel. I love the lessons the sport teaches me about myself, and how it helps me relate to others. I love how it shapes my perception of the world.

On the other, a strong case could be made that I’m addicted to having a workout regimen - and being an addict of any manner probably isn’t the healthiest way to thrive. It leaves me just one injury or accident away from being chronically withdrawn or depressed, and fosters an overly inflated sense of importance about every workout or race. It also steals time and energy from the more meaningful and productive things I could be doing.

(To summarize it another way, from my family’s standpoint: when I’m in training mode, I’m a much more enjoyable person to be around - but I’m not around nearly as much as I should be. Call it the triathlete’s version of a Catch-22)

We all have different rationales for our training – and on the surface, it’s impossible for anyone to judge the motivations of another. So the responsibility for identifying and feeding the proper dog lies with the individual. It all comes down to the decisions we make: countless small ones on a daily or hourly basis, which reinforce where our priorities lie, and whether our purposes are noble.

I’m fairly certain that for the vast majority of triathletes, the sport provides them far more benefits than drawbacks. Yet in the back of my mind, I’ll always recognize that some of us dedicate ourselves to the sport for the wrong reasons.

I don’t ever want to fall into that latter category - and that's the daily tightrope I walk. I guess the trick is to know which side of the fence you want to stand on, then be constantly vigilant to prevent drifting towards the wrong side.

Because it’s important that we continually feed the good dog – but in most cases, that’s the easy part. The more challenging imperative is to ensure that our good dogs always remain good.

**

Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here

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September 4, 2007

The Dog You Feed (Part 2)

I’m not sure why I’ve been so brooding and morose over the past couple of weeks. Maybe it’s the prolonged remnants of post-race depression since last month’s ironman. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve struggled to resume a consistent training routine since then, or that I won’t be nearly as prepared as I’d like for my upcoming 50-mile race next month.

Or maybe it’s because one of my former training partners was just sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Most likely, it’s a combination of all of these – but for today, you’re going to hear about my friend and fellow triathlete Jay Zubick. Less than five months ago, I was doing hill workouts with him, and talking about his plans to race at IM Coeur d’Alene. Today he’s sitting in a jail cell, abandoning a wife and four kids, and leaving a wide trail of devastated victims in his wake. It’s a tragic case of what happens when a man chooses the wrong dog to feed.

This story was almost ten years in the making, but I won’t go into all of the case details. The short version is, Jay was a crooked stockbroker who swindled large sums of money from his closest friends, and parents of his children’s closest private school friends. He claimed he was investing their money in stocks, but he was really just putting it directly into his personal account. He falsified interest statements, so the victims paid taxes on money they never made.

When the scheme unraveled, nearly 30 people had collectively lost more than $16 million, most of which remains unaccounted for. People lost their retirement money, college accounts, and health care funds. Jay faced more than 70 felony charges, pled guilty to a handful of them in July, and was sentenced last week.

(If you’re interested, a Monterey Herald recap of the whole story can be found here).

The story sent shockwaves through our athletic community, because as far as we all knew, Jay was one of us. He was on the Big Sur Marathon Board of Directors, and had done several Ironman events over the past few years. He was one of the friendliest guys any of us knew, and we were always happy to see him show up at group workouts.

He clearly had many positive attributes – and yet, deep inside him, a destructive dog was growing so powerful that it would eventually lead to his downfall. Each day of his deceitful scheme, Jay made the decision to keep feeding that destructive dog, disregarding the consequences to the good side of him, or to his loved ones.

At his sentencing hearing, one of the victims alluded to this very fact, telling Jay that over the course of seven years, he had 2,500 chances to come clean and change his ways. Instead, each day, Jay decided to keep stealing from his friends and heaping shame upon his family. In many ways, this sort of crime is much less forgivable than a violent act committed in a moment of high stress and poor judgment. Jay’s deeds were calculated, intentional, and deeply sinister.

When I first started hearing these sordid details last February, I didn’t want to believe them. I wanted it to be a misunderstanding, hoping that somebody must have somehow got some facts wrong. I wanted there to be a reasonable explanation for all of these people who believed their lives were ruined.

I wanted these things, because Jay was one of us. Scandals and crime shouldn’t happen in our utopian world of triathlon – especially not at an amateur level. We’re supposed to be better than that.

Of course, I was mistaken. In reality, triathletes are collectively no better than any of the other athletes who fell from grace so shockingly this summer.

More than any year I can remember, the summer of 2007 was a season of overwhelming immorality in the sporting world. Barry Bonds. NBA referees. Michael Vick. The Tour de France. These were the headline stories, and they all represented what is wrong with sports.

In response, it seemed like many bloggers made a specific point of saying how “pure” the sport of triathlon is in relation to those higher profile sports that were tainted by scandal. They celebrated the integrity of the middle-of-the-pack athletes in major races. And each time I read one of these posts, I grew increasingly irritated.

Because no sport is more or less pure than another. They’re all populated by humans who struggle with the good and evil dogs inside them, with varying degrees of success.

Baseball players aren’t fundamentally corrupt – and any little league or high school game is a simple reminder of all the pleasures the game has to offer. The National Football League has almost 2000 players – almost 99% of whom have never been arrested. And cycling only has the highest number of positive drug tests because they do the most rigid testing. No sport can claim honestly claim moral superiority over another.

There are just as many crooked people in the sport of triathlon as there are in the general population. There are elite athletes who have tested positive, age groupers who cheat by various means, including drugs (slowtwitch.com recently ran a series of columns on this topic), and role models who turn out to be criminals.

In other words, the bad guys are very likely to be one of us. Far too many people, with the exact same interests and goals as you and me, have chosen to feed the wrong dog - and the consequences are universally heartbreaking for everyone involved.

Obviously, I realize that my former training partner isn’t an accurate representation of the larger population of triathletes. But on the other hand, I know his dark side isn’t merely an isolated case.

We all make our own choices in life. We decide which dog to feed. Some choose the good one, some choose the bad. Whether or not we happen to be athletes is really quite irrelevant. And yet, triathletes sometimes claim the ethical high ground even without having rational cause.

Believe it or not, I actually sympathize with those feelings – but it’s not the inherent morality of the sport itself that validates our participation. Rather, it’s the manner by which we approach our daily training regimen that makes us feel like we’re feeding the good dog on a regular basis.

And that’s the topic I’ll explore to conclude this series in my next post.

**

Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 3 here.

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