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November 29, 2007

Sorting Day

"Hmmm," said a small voice in his ear. "Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes - and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting ... So where shall I put you?"
- The Sorting Hat (to Harry), from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling

*
So here we are again.

Another year. Another Western States lottery. Another 12 hours of clicking the “refresh” button every 3 minutes waiting to find out whether I finally get to run in this dang race.

All that’s left is for the sorting hat to do its work (And yes, I realize that the sorting hat comparison contradicts my previous description of the Western States lottery as the Goblet of Fire. That’s what’s become of me in the past several days – I'm anxious, scatterbrained, and completely mixed up with my Potter analogies. Can we just get this over with, please?)

First year Hogwarts students wearing the sorting hat feel pretty much helpless as to where their fate will be cast. However, when Harry’s turn came around, he tried to subliminally influence the decision by saying “Not Slytherin!” over and over in his head. Whether or not this gambit actually influenced his placement is uncertain - but Harry made it into Gryffindor like he wanted. Which is all the reason I need to repeat the words “Not Omitted!” about 1000 times starting tomorrow morning.

A friend of mine whose name is also in the hat sent me an e-mail recently where he calculated an approximately 16% chance of entry for each of us. So I can’t exactly say I’m brimming with optimism. The only thing left to do is wait and hope - and keep refreshing that website.

Finally, to the other runners I know whose names are also in the hat: good luck to all of you on Saturday. I sincerely hope your names get selected as well - as long as they’re pulled out sometime after mine.

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November 26, 2007

Mexican Mouse Paradox

(Admin note: As promised, today’s post is 100% nonsense. If you’re looking for something profound, you’ll have to check back another day. It’s completely mindless stuff around here today, complete with a new bubble-gum rock song I’ve been listening to lately [on sidebar].

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge Looney Tunes fan; this post is Exhibit A. I also have a post about Bugs Bunny hopping around [sorry - bad pun] in my head for another day, and this could easily become a series of 4 or 5 posts if I don’t show a little restraint. Today’s post features a couple of “minor” characters who have always been dear to me – and it’s more than a little silly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

**

This mouse should need no introduction:


He’s Speedy Gonzales. The fastest mouse in all Me-hi-co, as anyone will tell you. He’ll even tell you himself.

The little dude moves like lightning. He vanishes and reappears with nothing more than an "Andale!" and a cloud of dust. When he accidentally runs into Sylvester’s mouth, he blasts right through the cat’s tail to freedom. He often supplements his income by dodging bullets in a shooting gallery at the county fair.

(Even more impressive is how he does all of this while keeping his trademark yellow sombrero firmly in place. Actually, he’s not the only Looney Tunes character to defy physics this way – I’ve got a whole post on this topic someday.)

In short, he’s got the speed and stamina that many triathletes dream about - qualities that are especially interesting in comparison to one of his relatives.

[Footnote #1: Unless you own a DVD collection, It’s fairly difficult to see Speedy Gonzales cartoons on TV nowadays. About 10 years ago, Cartoon Network and some other channels decided that he represented a negative stereotype of the Mexican community, and no longer aired his cartoons. There was a resultant backlash led, ironically, by a large number of Mexican-Americans. So now the cartoons are occasionally televised - but far too infrequently, and in very remote time slots. I guess the lesson here is this: don’t speak for somebody you’re not, and don’t try to please everybody. Neither idea ever works.]

Speedy also has a lesser-known, but very intriguing cousin:

His name is Slowpoke Rodriguez. According to his cousin, Slowpoke is the slowest mouse in all Me-hi-co.

As his name implies, Slowpoke moves very slowly everywhere he goes. He always looks and sounds like he’s falling asleep. Yet his metabolism somehow sustains his constantly ravenous appetite.

Since he’s not particularly nimble, Slowpoke has developed other means of defending himself from cartoon predators. He is very skilled at hypnosis, and keeps a cool head in the face of danger. And if either of these strategies fail, there's a failsafe backup plan: he carries a loaded gun.

Slowpoke only appears alongside Speedy in two films – one of which is embedded below this post – but he’s become a favorite character of my 6-year-old daughter, who is also something of a Looney Tunes fanatic (I plead guilty on this one). He was also the inspiration for the following discussion my daughter and I had recently:

Daughter: I like how Slowpoke talks. He talks slow, like Speedy talks fast.

Me: Yeah … they both talk the same way they move.

Daughter: It’s funny how Speedy is the faster runner, since Slowpoke is a lot skinnier.

Me: Good point – I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Daughter: Why do you think Speedy is faster?

Me: You know what? I have no idea. That’s a great question.


I tucked that exchange away for a while, thinking I’d come back with a good answer in the next day or two. But the more I thought about it, the less sense it made – and I concluded that my daughter had stumbled into a whole paradox that continues to confound me.

Think of it this way: Let’s say I described two mice to you, and asked you to guess which one was a triathlete. If I were to characterize Mouse A as:

* Unusually thin
* Always hungry
* Seemingly lethargic all the time, but
* Possessed mental abilities to overcome difficult situations

Wouldn’t you think that was the one? I mean ... those first three items were me for about eight solid weeks before last summer's ironman, and the last item kind of goes with the territory. Furthermore, if I then told you that Mouse B spends most of his time:

* Hanging out at carnivals ...


* Chilling with the senorita mice ...

* Playing in mariachi bands (I tried to find a picture of this, but my screen grabbing skills are terrible. You’ll just have to trust me.), and ...


* Eating an enormous amount of cheese

Wouldn’t the whole exercise seem like a no-brainer? You’d pick Mouse A, right? Well, guess what … Mouse A is Slowpoke!

[Footnote #2: there’s been some speculation that Slowpoke’s affect is attributable to either drunkenness or drug use. There's an urban legend that in an early version of one cartoon, he slips the word “marijuana” into his version of “La Cucaracha”. Don’t ask me how I know these things. Just know that drug use doesn’t automatically preclude his identity as a triathlete – as we know all too well.]

So let's now revisit the original question … just why IS Speedy the faster runner?

Sure, he spends a lot of time running, and I suppose that counts for something. Clearly, he has a passion for the sport. It makes me wonder just how much Speedier he could be if only he had a little bit of self-discipline in other aspects of his life. Besides, don’t you think that that as he grows older, those other lifestyle habits are going to catch up with him?

There are only so many cervezas a guy can run off before the caloric deposits outgain the expenditure of exercise. It seems merely a matter of time before some young, impoverished mouse hungry for nothing but success comes along to challenge Speedy for the “Fastest in All Me-hi-co” title.

Luckily, Speedy doesn’t have to worry, and that’s the beauty of cartoons: the world you know and love will never change. Speedy will always be the fastest. He’ll continue to be divertido and loco and suave, and he’ll never worry about his skills falling victim to the demons of time. Slowpoke will continue to be his lethargic, enigmatic second-fiddle, content to bask in Speedy's reflected glory.

And I’ll always wonder which one would win if they ever toed the line in a triathlon somewhere in Me-hi-co.


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November 20, 2007

Calculated Risks

“If you should ask, then maybe they’d tell you what I would say … “
- U2, “Bad” (on sidebar)


I have a few administrative notes to introduce today’s post … but I feel a little distracted after last night’s
Bachelor debacle - and I find myself wondering if there’s any rule preventing Brad from calling up Sheena one more time. From my living room, she just seemed like the one that got away.

But I’m already digressing. Today’s post is an advance preview of my Monterey Herald column that will run on Thanksgiving Day, which was inspired in part by two bloggers.

When I wrote a brief post on Ryan Shay this month,
Momo asked a very pointed question about what I would decide if I were in the situation of having a known, significant risk of catastrophe from the activity I love the most. I started to reply to her, but my answer quickly became very long-winded and contemplative – I know, this shocks you – and I decided to tinker a bit and turn it into a newspaper column as well.

Writing the article, one of
Michelle's comments to that same post echoed through my head: life isn’t meant to be lived from the sidelines. That pretty much summed up everything I was trying to say, so I had to include it somewhere in the text. (Incidentally, the fact that she said in nine words what took me 900 probably says something about our respective personalities – but I don’t think I want to know what.)

In light of those factors, the above song quote seems fitting, and I found myself humming “Bad” more than a few times while writing this post. The sidebar mp3 might be a nice contemplative accompaniment as you read the subject matter at hand – but really, it just gives me an excuse to play some old school U2, which never feels like a wrong move.

(Also, just for the record, I hate Garth Brooks. His song quote in the article was completely Mike’s idea, over my protests. Feel free to send me hate e-mail about including it, and I’ll be happy to forward it to him.)

Finally – I know the last several entries have drifted into the introspective, brooding regions of this little outpost, and today’s article is similar. But the mood will lighten up around here soon, I promise. In fact, the next post is guaranteed to be 100% non-serious, or I’ll offer a full refund.

But that’s for next time. Today, here’s my Herald column with guest blogger assistance. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and I'll be back next week.


**

Running Life 11/22/07 "Calculated Risks"

“If you knew there was a possibility that something terrible might someday happen, would you stop doing something you loved?”

That question popped into our inbox this month, shortly after marathons made front page news for the worst possible reason: the deaths of competitors at separate events in October and November. Honestly, we’re still not sure what the correct answer should be.

In October, a 35-year-old man collapsed and died during the Chicago Marathon on a day of record heat and humidity in the Midwest. Four weeks later, 28-year old elite runner Ryan Shay suffered heart failure during mile 6 of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he died before the race was finished.

Sadly, deaths in marathons are not unheard of, and shorter races also see their share of tragedy. Furthermore, such events appear unrelated to weather, geographic location or to the victim’s level of fitness. Our local community has even been impacted; two runners have died in the 22-year history of the Big Sur Marathon, and one runner suffered cardiac arrest (and was revived) during a 5K in Salinas this year.

Runner deaths are the shark attack stories of the endurance sports community: although they are exceedingly rare, they absolutely (and justifiably) terrify everybody to the point of rethinking their rationale for doing the activity in the first place.

That was the implied basis of the question in our inbox: Is running dangerous? And if so, why do we continue to do it? Why do we push our bodies to extremes of performance that could someday prove fatal?

All runners engage in a sort of internal decision-making process in response to that question. Like everything else in life, running comes with its share of risks. The question we all answer is whether the benefits we get from running and racing outweigh the potential risk.

With any activity, if the risk/benefit ratio is favorable, the activity appears acceptable. However, we all have different definitions of “favorable” (which helps to explain the existence of sports like BASE jumping or bull riding), and reasonable people will disagree about recommending certain activities.

People might tell us that runners have died in marathons. We’ll reply that nearly all of those people – as was the case in October and November – had preexisting heart conditions that were either undiagnosed or untreated. There is a good chance that those individuals might still have died very early deaths if they were sedentary.

Others might say we’re risking death by training and racing. We’d respond that our odds of dying in a car accident are about 200 times greater, but that doesn’t stop us from driving. In fact, the odds of dying while running are 6 times lower than drowning in the bathtub, and lower than dying from small animal bite. In other words, everything is risky.

Some may recommend that we take up another activity – but to us, that is simply non-negotiable. The physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits we gain from running are far more than we are willing to give up for a vague suggestion of greater security.

Country star Garth Brooks sings, “Yes, my life is better left to chance. I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.” Life wasn’t meant to be lived from the sidelines. We’d rather be in the game, facing all of the risks and all the rewards, than sitting out with fear of catastrophe.

We realize that to some people, that might sound reckless – and that’s why there’s no correct answer to the question posed at the top of the column. The two of us consider the risk of running to be incredibly small. However, if a cardiologist told us we had a heart condition that could kill us if we continued to run, perhaps our answer would be different. But the decision would be a lot harder than you’d think.

All we know for sure, above all else, is how thankful we are for the gifts that running has provided us. We’re thankful for the ability to do the activities we love, to whatever degree we desire, in the beautiful surroundings that we’re lucky enough to call home.

We also understand that nothing is promised, and there’s a slight possibility that each day’s run could be our last. However, if it were all taken away tomorrow, we still wouldn’t do it any other way. We’ve each been fortunate to experience so many wonderful things from running and racing that we would still be forever grateful.

So today, we’re giving thanks for the sport that means so much to us, for the opportunities and experiences it has provided, and for all of the miles in life we’ve covered so far. We can only hope that we’ll continue to be blessed with many more in the future.

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November 16, 2007

Magical Mystery Tour

Q: Where does the fish keep him’s money?
A: In the riverbank!!
- Favorite joke of my 3-year-old daughter

**
Most of us strive to improve ourselves. We like to learn things quickly, then move on to the next task that further expands our expertise.

Athletes spend countless hours practicing skills that will improve their performance. Endurance athletes continually train their bodies to go further or faster than was previously possible.

Everyone tries to get better. It’s part of the human condition.

But what if you don’t want it that way? What if you could slow the development of a natural progression simply because you wanted to delay its inevitable arrival as much as possible? It is permissible to throw a wrench in the learning process?

I sometimes wonder about this in the context of my daughter’s favorite joke.

She’s been telling the riverbank joke since she first learned to talk – as anyone who’s ever had a conversation with her can attest. She still breaks into a fit of laughter after the punch line, the joke carrying just as much amusement each time she tells it.

The mispronunciation – him’s instead of his – has been there since the beginning, also. When we started hearing it on a regular basis, the joke triggered a few exchanges between my wife and I like the following:

Me: It’s funny how she says “him’s.”

Her: Should we tell her the right way to say it?

Me: Nah … she’ll figure it out soon enough on her own. Besides, it's much cuter this way.

There’s a certain charm to the learning process that’s only available one time for any given task. Once it passes, the accomplishment is tossed onto the pile of all those other things accumulated over the course of a lifetime. Adding on your fingers is no longer cute once you can do math in your head. Memorizing a spelling list isn’t impressive once you start writing essays. What was once remarkable becomes routine, and eventually taken for granted.

For endurance athletes, athletic accomplishments often suffer the same fate as childhood milestones: they are celebrated only briefly before giving way to a more ambitious task. Finishing a 5K isn’t such a huge accomplishment after you’ve done a half-marathon. Olympic-distance triathlons don’t seem so daunting once you’ve finished an Ironman. Each achievement becomes a stepping stone for something grander, with its own merit overshadowed by what lies beyond.

There’s a danger in this, of course. We can’t constantly move towards bigger and more challenging tasks without sacrificing a lot of other things to get there. We may become obsessed with a perceived need for accomplishment, and miss the satisfaction that each smaller goal should bring. And even if you eventually do every Ironman or climb every mountain – then what? Life can become a fruitless chase to find happiness from accomplishments of increasingly questionable significance.

On the other hand, the allure of the first-time goal is unmistakable. The apprehension of venturing into unfamiliar terrain, the stumbling trial-and-error nature of progress, and the uncertainty of success are an intoxicating combination. We spend enormous amounts of time focused on the task, and analyzing every step of the journey that gets us there.

(And if you need further evidence - think of how many “first marathon” or “first Ironman” blogs are out there. Can you recall anyone writing something like “This is my 5th marathon, and it’s the scariest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done!” Me neither.)

I’m as guilty of this tendency as anybody else, which is the primary reason my name is in the Western States goblet this month. It’s also the reason I’ll probably look for another 100-miler to do next year if my name isn’t picked in the lottery on December 1st.

I’ve never run 100 miles - but I want to figure out how to do it. I want to experience the magic and mystery of doing something for the first time, and accomplish something that seemed unattainable several years ago.

However, I want to be careful not to disregard all of the training it will take me to get there, or miss out on the pleasure of the learning process – a fact I was reminded of after my daughter and I recently had this conversation:

Her: Hey, Dad … where does the fish keep his money?

Me: Wait … what did you say? I’m not sure I heard that right.

Her: Where does the fish keep his money?

Me: Oh, OK … Where?

Her: In the riverbank!! Isn’t that funny?

As you can guess, the exchange for me was something other than funny. Despite my efforts, it appears that my baby girl is moving on with her life. She knows the right way to say “his”, and next week, she won’t even be a 3-year-old anymore. Just like that, it’s done. But I never want to forget how cute it was for my daughter to say “him’s” during her favorite joke.

Likewise, that’s my informal goal for 2008 – not simply to achieve the 100-mile task, but to remember the process that gets me to the start line. And since I happen to have this space to document it, I’ll try to share as much of the journey as I can along the way.

Because just like that, it may be done. And I never want to forget those feelings once I move on with my life.

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November 14, 2007

Run Rage

A couple of administrative notes before today’s post …

First: a big thank you, and a somewhat curious raised eyebrow, to whoever nominated me for the Best Endurance Blog contest over at raceAthlete. What you clearly lack in taste, you make up in loyalty. If you should ever find yourself cornered by a basilisk, I’ll send my phoenix to assist you in a heartbeat. (Not that I have a phoenix, or that you’ll ever see a basilisk. Nevermind - this is getting too hypothetical.) Be sure to go over there next month and exercise your right to vote for your favorite blog. By the way - I’m Donald, and I approve this message.

Second: occasionally, someone will ask if I’m still doing my Monterey Herald column, since I almost never post those articles here anymore. I’m still writing the column with my friend Mike, but the articles don’t show up here for various reasons. They sometimes have a very local frame of reference, such that anyone outside of the Monterey Peninsula wouldn’t know what we’re talking about. Sometimes they’re very specific to novice runners, and don’t seem to fit the whole tri-blog vibe I’m working on here. And then there are times when I just forget to post them.

I’ll try to post some appropriate articles here more often – and as a show of good faith, I’m posting one today. We wrote this last month after an amusing (in our opinion, anyway) story about spin class rage made its way around some popular sports blogs.

**
Running Life 10/11/07 "Running Rage"

Sometimes, in a busy sports newsroom, professional journalists may dismiss minor stories in favor of reporting more mainstream topics. However, for amateur hacks like the two of us, no subject is too trivial for our column space.

That’s why we noticed a recent story about “spin class rage,” and considered the potential for something similar to happen within our local running community.

But first, some background: Last month, a Wall Street stockbroker was charged with assault after he became enraged during a cycling class at a posh Manhattan health club. During his high-intensity spin class, he apparently became so fed up by a fellow club member’s grunting and moaning, that he picked the offender off his bike and slammed him into a wall.

The attorney for the grunter called the attack "spin rage," and filed a criminal complaint, charging that the attack caused a back injury to his client. He maintains that the grunter was merely enjoying the "euphoric experience" of cycling, and making noises to increase his endorphin high.

Now, this isn’t one of our urban legends. Do you think we could make a story like that up? However, it got us to thinking about what kinds of runners might send us over the edge someday during the midst of a routine Saturday 12-miler through Pebble Beach.

In other words … is there a possibility of hearing about a “run rage” attack someday? And if so, what kind of runner would trigger such a reaction?Honestly, it wouldn’t be a situation like the case in New York. Grunting is somewhat commonplace among a group of hard-working runners – especially during a difficult track workout. And if we were intolerant of moaning, we’d have clobbered some good friends of ours many years ago.

But we can certainly think of plenty of runner behaviors that are annoying – so many, in fact, that we’ve assembled a top-20 list below.However, before getting to the list, we need to emphasize that we would NEVER condone a “run rage” reaction to anybody - even against cyclists. So let’s just call this an “annoyance” list, and hopefully if you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, be on notice that you may be bugging the heck out of your training partners.

Here’s our list, in no particular order, of the most likely targets of “run annoyance”:

· The guy who shows up just as the group is leaving, then asks everyone to wait while he puts his shoes on

· The guy who says it’s going to be an “easy day”, then takes off at 6-minute mile pace.

· The guy who launches a lugie or snot rocket without looking, and nails your ankle while you’re beside him.

· The guy who keeps saying how terrible his training is going, even though he’s running more mileage or more days per week than you.

· The girl wearing an iPod who doesn’t hear you say, “On your left!” as you’re passing, then drifts over and collides with you, and gets upset that you startled her.

· The guy who tells the same story or joke he’s already told several times on previous runs.

· The guy who has to wait up for you at the top of a big climb, then tells you how his injuries are really bothering him today.

· The stats freak who knows the on-base and slugging percentages of every player on the Giants and A’s, and wants to make sure you know them too by the end of the run.

· The guy wearing the GPS who announces every tenth of a mile and 100 feet of elevation change. Not to be confused with …

· The guy not wearing a GPS who keeps asking “How far have we gone now?” or “How high is this spot?”

· The guy who keeps telling you how fast he was 10 years ago, or how the training group where he used to live had all kinds of great runners.

· The guy who pulls off to the side for a “pit stop”, but does his business in plain sight because he’s too lazy to move completely off the road or trail.

· The walkers in lanes 1 and 2 of the track while a group of runners are trying to run interval workouts.

· The guy who speeds up when he hears another runner behind him, to avoid being passed – especially when he learns the other runner is a girl.

· The middle-aged guy in a race who puts on a furious sprint to outlean some little kid at the tape so he can finish in 642nd place instead of 643rd.

· The girl who goes on and on about all the problems associated with her “cycle” while running with a group of guys.

· The guy who speeds up to run in front of you, then breaks wind a few seconds later.

· The guy who blows his nose into his palm while running, then goes around shaking everyone’s hand after the run.

· The guy who never carries fluids, but always asks for a drink from your bottle during long runs.

· The sweaty, smelly guy who tries to chat up every cute girl running on the Monterey Rec Trail.

Do any of these items sound like anyone you know? More importantly, do they sound like YOU? If so, let this be a word of caution for you: other runners notice these things. And they don’t like them. So for all of our sakes, please try to refrain from anything on the list above.

After all, the euphoric experience of running isn’t justification to irritate the crap out of people.

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November 12, 2007

Running with the Hoyas

“Rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond –
Call me what you will ...
Wherever I may roam“

- Metallica, “Wherever I May Roam” (on sidebar)

*
This weekend, I got to sleep in my own bed – which only sounds unusual after I tell you that I’ve spent most of the past two weeks travelling. If you’ve noticed a lot of hits from hotel servers on your site meter lately, well, that would be me.

Needless to say, the travel makes it quite difficult to maintain any semblance of a training program – because I never ship my bike with me, because I have a deathly aversion to stationary bikes, and because I refuse to swim in pools that are either kidney-shaped or 20 feet long. (Remember, I’m a California boy – if it doesn’t take place outdoors, I’m not doing it.)

That’s left me to rely entirely upon running over the past couple of weeks - which would be fine, except that I’m still kind of in burnout mode after last month’s 50-miler. So I had decided that November would be a hibernation month – and as a bonus, it coincides nicely with discount pumpkin pie season at Safeway. Have I mentioned before that I love pumpkin pie? I'm on track to gain at least 10 extra pounds by the end of the month.

You could say I’ve pretty much been a slacker lately. But that doesn’t mean my head isn’t full of posts to write. Who knows – some of them might even be about training.

That brings us to today’s post, which takes place in an area that’s become my home away from home over the past two years: Georgetown, District of Columbia.

I laced up my shoes in the afternoon, and headed along the canal trail towards the Key Bridge. I didn’t have an agenda in mind in regards to time or distance (remember, I’m in slacker mode) - I just wanted to take a look around town. So when a group of eight runners approached me from the opposite direction about five minutes into the run and told me they were headed to the monuments, I was more than happy to tag along.

A few minutes later, one girl and I had the following exchange:

Her: Are you a triathlete?

Me: Yeah! How did you guess?

Her: Compression shorts, shaved legs ... it’s kind of a giveaway.

(See? I’ve written before that having shaved legs is like a secret handshake for triathletes, and a lot of you probably thought I was kidding. I know a lot of things I write seem ridiculous - but every now and then, something actually makes sense. And I was right on this one. So there.)

Her (again): That’s cool – we’re in the Georgetown triathlon club.

This led to a few minutes of discussion about their club and collegiate triathlon events, and some questions about my own workout plans and race experiences. When they heard that I was travelling, another girl started this discussion just as we passed a boathouse on the Potomac:

Her: Are you here for The Nation's Tri?

Me: No – what race is that?

Her: It’s an Olympic distance race here in DC. Swim in the Potomac, bike around Hains Point …

Me: Wait – swim in the Potomac? Didn’t the EPA prohibit that last year?

Her: Yeah … but we got a one-day waiver for the race.

Me: Oh … that’s great.

So I wasn’t exactly sold on The Nation’s Tri – but during the run, I was definitely warming to the tri club. They were all friendly, and didn’t visibly mind a middle-aged dude hitching a ride during their workout.

I liked them even more after we cruised past the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and one of them announced that we’d do two laps of pickups around the reflecting pool.

We ran fast on the straightaways, and rested across the ends. On the second lap around, two characteristics of the reflecting pool became apparent that I hadn’t previously appreciated: namely, it is 1) much longer, and 2) much more narrow than I ever realized. The rest breaks seemed terribly short, and if we had tried a third lap, I might not have hung with the group all the way around.

After the intervals, we regrouped and ran steadily along the eastern shore of the Potomac, past the Watergate Hotel and Kennedy Center, and onto the C&O Canal trail back into Georgetown. We traversed the cobblestone streets around the university, finally coming to rest at the foot of the John Carroll statue on the main campus plaza. I thanked them for their time, shook hands all around, and jogged back to my hotel in the evening darkness.

The run ended up being about 30 minutes and 2 interval laps more than I had intended when I left, but I was thankful for the experience. It demonstrated how easily the sport of triathlon bonds people who wouldn’t otherwise hang out together.

It also reinforced my affection for this home away from home. And while I’ll probably never return here to do The Nation’s Tri, I’d definitely look forward to working out with the college tri club again.

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November 7, 2007

Jedi Triathlete

“The Force is strong with this one…”
Darth Vader (referring to Luke Skywalker), from Episode IV: A New Hope

**
After getting badgered for several months, I finally allowed my 6-year-old daughter to watch Star Wars with her older brother a couple of weeks ago.

The original trilogy has been my son’s favorite for a couple of years, and his little sister was chomping at the bit to see all the things he constantly talks about. Unfortunately for her, I had established a completely arbitrary and logically indefensible rule that kids in our family had to be seven years old before watching Star Wars – because that’s how old I was when I first saw it.

(Trust me, the policy isn’t as mean as it sounds: I conceded my original rule that they also had to wait three years before watching each sequel, like I had to. These kids have things so easy these days.)

Of course, my daughter has matured at a much more accelerated pace than I ever anticipated, and it was clear to us that she was ready to see the movies. So I waived the final six months of her sentencing and let her watch, contingent upon one catch: she had to sit in the chair with me and let me keep my arm around her. (Yes, she’s growing up – but she’s still my little girl.)

It also seemed like a good occasion to revisit an article I wrote for my old website, about how my passion for the original trilogy relates to my life as a modern-day triathlete. I updated it slightly (mainly to justify posting a picture of Desiree Ficker), but it’s otherwise unedited from its original form.

***

Watching the Star Wars trilogy on DVD recently, I’ve had flashbacks to what an absolute freak I was about these movies at the time they were released.

I was seven years old when the first installment came out, and from the opening scene with the underside of the Imperial Star Destroyer flying overhead, I was enthralled. I collected action figures, trading cards, puzzles, games, clothes, and bed sheets- basically, if they slapped the movie logo or any character on it, I bought it.

The trilogy evolved during my formative years, and had such a lasting impact that to this day, I still use its analogies or points of reference in everyday conversation. For example, my relationships with training partners can easily fit within the films' confines.

Think of me as Luke Skywalker. Since the original trilogy is essentially his coming-of-age story, I’ll describe the athletes around me like his cast of supporting characters. Like the movies, some names and faces change somewhat through the years, but the core group remains - with complexities that aren’t apparent at first glance.


Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda

When Episode IV: A New Hope begins, Luke is a simple farmboy with a restless nature. He wanders into the wilderness when his droids escape, and ends up getting pummeled by a group of Tusken Raiders.

Obi-Wan comes to his rescue, and recognizes Luke’s potential to become a Jedi warrior. He tries to provide Luke with the proper training, but Luke is stubbornly resistant, trying to succeed by his own methods.

Whereas Obi-Wan is the patient, traditional instructor, Yoda is the quirky guru whose unorthodox ways are initially hard to believe. He forces Luke to give him piggyback rides, makes him do handstands, and constantly plays guessing games with him. Luke is initially resistant to both methods of instruction – but after repeated defeats and disappointments, finally embraces the discipline and dedication that ultimately maximize his ability.


I’ve been fortunate to train with a few older mentors in our running group – but I wasn’t always open to their way of doing things. I didn’t want to run high mileage. I didn’t want to push myself as often as they did. I clung to my casual training philosophy for several years, and had far more disappointing races than I like to admit.

I think the tendency of many young athletes is to be overly independent, and initially dismissive of the way our predecessors achieved their success. The training they do seems crazy – but then we watch them raise an x-wing fighter out of a swamp, or run a sub-3-hour marathon in their late 50s, and finally start thinking, hmmm…maybe there’s something to all this.

Han Solo

The stereotypical good-looking, macho, arrogant, brash, wisecracking fighter pilot jock – there’s at least one of those in just about any group of triathletes, right?

Han is similar in age to Luke, but with far more natural talent and worldly experience than Luke could ever imagine. Luke sometimes wishes he could be more like Han, but realizes there’s no way he could ever pull it off. Han is always making a play with the ladies, and trash-talking the men, but he’s got the talent to back up his boasting. He frequently gets himself into trouble, but usually manages to show up in time for the crucial battles. You always feel better about your chances with him at your side.

Our running group actually has a couple of guys like this- very fast, very cocky, very cool. Occasionally they get injured and disappear for a while - like Han being held prisoner in the carbonite deep-freeze - but they seem to get healthy and fast just in time for the big races. They make me work harder just so I don’t embarrass myself by comparison. And their excitement at the starting line is contagious, giving me more confidence in my ability to succeed.


Chewbacca

Han Solo’s right-hand Wookiee is a member of one of the most fearsome breeds in the universe, renowned for their sheer strength and ferocious nature. Chewie is the one character who makes Han nervous, because although they are friends, Han knows he is completely overmatched. No one dares irritate a Wookiee, so much so that the recommended strategy when playing one in a chess match is to - in C-3PO’s famous words - let the Wookiee win.

There is one guy in our running group that the rest of us would never EVER try to race against. Over any distance. It just wouldn’t be a contest - even our Han Solo guys can’t compete with him. Whenever he shows up to run the Big Sur Marathon, the rest of us all know that the “top local runner” award is out of the question, and everyone else is competing for second place. What’s more, it’s never even discussed - we all just know.

He's our Chewbacca, with one exception: we don't have to let him win. He does it just fine on his own.

Princess Leia

Invariably, whenever a girl is bold enough to train frequently with an exclusively male group, the thought process of the men is initially something like: Wow…a girl! Then we think, there’s no way she can keep up with us – is there?

Soon we discover that she’s actually pretty talented, and secretly hope that she doesn’t get faster than us. Eventually, the idea of having a girl around becomes pretty attractive, and we think about how cool it would be if our girlfriends or wives were good runners, too. Finally, we come to think of her as a sister, and enjoy having her in our company as we race together. Our group is lucky enough to have just such a girl.

Now think about the relationship between Luke and Leia. It’s pretty much the same, right? Shock and initial attraction eventually giving way to familial bonds and fighting together for a mutual cause.


Remember at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, when Leia kissed Luke tenderly on the cheek to make Han jealous? Sure, with hindsight and the later revelation that they were siblings, that scene seems kind of creepy now - but at the time, that was a lot of sexual tension for a nine-year-old to contemplate. I can still feel my heart racing just remembering it.


Darth Vader

In Episode IV, Darth Vader was the most loathsome villain imaginable: the faceless personification of evil, a remorseless murderer with seemingly unlimited dark power. My younger sister had nightmares about him for months after seeing that first movie.

To Luke, he represented the ultimate challenge: there was no way for the rebellion to succeed except by defeating Darth Vader, and Luke was the only one to do it. It was a battle that Luke inevitably had to wage, but not until he had prepared himself as thoroughly as possible.

Every day of his Jedi training was done with Vader in mind, until their ultimate confrontation in Return of the Jedi. But then we learn the major revelation of that movie, when Vader ultimately saves Luke’s life, and tells him…well, you know the rest.

The identity of my own Darth Vader has changed over the years, but there is always someone to adequately fill the role. Almost every running group has two or more people who are very closely matched in ability, or maybe one is consistently just better than the other. They may train for months on end, each day thinking about a race that looms ahead, when they can challenge each other face-to-face.

Fearing another runner is not necessarily a bad thing if it inspires you to improve. There have been many dark, cold mornings when the only thing that got me out of bed was the thought that one of my main rivals was out there training, too. Eventually you realize that your rivals aren’t really evil, and they frequently become your allies at the most crucial times.


(Incidentally, sometime between 1977 and today, Darth Vader became very “cool.” More Star Wars merchandising has Vader’s image than any other character. It’s a popular Halloween costume every year. Little kids have Darth Vader birthday cakes. College bands play “The Death Star Theme” at football games. He’s actually the main character of the entire series, when you consider the new prequel trilogy. In hindsight, isn’t it kind of amazing that this happened? I think even my sister likes him now.)


Stormtroopers

This is where the analogy takes a bit of a stretch. The Stormtroopers are nameless, faceless foot soldiers of the “dark side”. They are overwhelming in number, and they seem to be present around every turn as the main characters travel the galaxy.

The sight of them is instantly terrifying, for it indicates the nearby presence of the Empire. Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, and Leia are constantly devising new ways to avoid or escape their presence in order to accomplish their tasks.

To a triathlete, Stormtroopers are anything that limits us from getting out the door and training every day. They could be something internal - like injury, lack of motivation, or simple laziness. They could also be external factors like too many time commitments, excess job stress, or negative reinforcement from acquaintances. The only way to progress toward our goals is to avoid all of these potential pitfalls.

Obstacles could even be loved ones - such as when all of my kids are sick, or when the baby wakes up just as I’m trying to sneak out the door in the morning. (Yes, you read that right - I just compared my kids to Stormtroopers. Go ahead and cancel my father of the year nomination now). The point is, we always have to figure out ways around these factors in order to carry on with our training.

And if you buy that analogy, how about this: the scene in Episode IV when Luke and Han put on Stormtrooper uniforms to infiltrate the Death Star must have been something like two skinny runners putting on those sumo-wrestler suits and sneaking into fat camp for a week. In both cases, they become the very thing they fear the most in order to gain secretive access to a foreign, threatening environment. And if they get discovered, they’ll likely be killed. (OK, maybe that’s a bit much … but really, I can go anywhere with this Star Wars stuff.)

**

Childhood is a time when it’s perfectly acceptable to become infatuated with things like rock bands or movies or sports team. But we usually grow out of these affections by the time we become adults, or risk being branded as pitifully juvenile.

I gradually put most of my childhood obsessions to rest, but there has always been a place in my life for the Star Wars movies. If I come across one while I’m flipping the channels at night, the clicker automatically goes down - it’s not even a question. And these are movies that I’ve seen close to 100 times. Is it possible that we don’t ever entirely grow out of some things?

Finally, here’s another idea: maybe our capacity to become inexplicably passionate doesn’t fade - it just loses its direction for certain periods, and latches onto something else at a later time.

My clicker never seems to make it past a triathlon on TV, either. I collect all sorts of crazy workout equipment, and if some toy company ever made action figures of Chris McCormack or Desiree Ficker, I’d probably buy those up, too. I frequently use triathlon terms and analogies in everyday situations, and my perception of the world is influenced by my abnormal interest in the sport. So maybe we never lose the potential to have a consuming interest in irrational things - it’s just the context that changes.

Yesterday it was the Star Wars trilogy, today it is triathlon. Considering all this, I guess the question could reasonably be asked…did I ever really grow up?

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November 3, 2007

Death of a Marathoner

I had a nice, lighthearted post ready to roll today, and then I turned on my computer and saw this news:

Ryan Shay Dies During U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

And now I'm pretty much speechless. This wasn't an undertrained weekend warrior who became dehydrated in the late stages of a race, or a 40-something guy with a latent heart condition; this was a world-class athlete with no previous medical concerns dropping dead in the first 10K of an event during otherwise perfect conditions.

I know I present many more questions than answers on this blog - and today I'm simply on overload. There are countless things in life that don't make any sense - I get that. But this story just pushes the envelope of understanding to the breaking point.

I've always believed that things happen for a reason ... but I'm completely stumped on this one. If anyone can shed any kind of light here, I'd love to hear it.

And obviously, I'm holding the fun post for another day.

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