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January 31, 2008

Dances With Cows

A couple of random notes before tackling today’s photos - and then remember, there's an audience participation exercise at the end of it all ….

First: In regards to the previous post, several people – including my wife – asked if I or my kids kissed any of the banana slugs. Apparently it’s a some kind of rite of passage among outdoor enthusiasts and/or crazy UCSC college students. What nobody seems to agree on is what precisely happens (aside from the obvious result of being grossed out) if you kiss a banana slug. I seem to remember hearing that the slug’s toxins caused temporary paralysis of the lips or tongue, but others think you just get a mouthful of slime. If anyone has personal experience that might settle this discussion, that would be fantastic.

(If only we knew an outdoor enthusiast who goes to college in Santa Cruz. Can somebody get Addy to come weigh in on this?)

Either way, the answer to the question was “no”, but that’s not to say I’m completely excluding the idea for another day - because now I’m intrigued. I just have to figure out which kid I can talk into trying it first.

Second: On the day that I took the following pictures, it was raining – just as it was the previous day, and the one before that, and … you get the idea. Anyway, while I was mentally framing the photos, one recurring thought I had was how much more beautiful the landscape looks after a good rain. From there, it was a short mental leap to the classic Ladysmith Black Mambazo song, “Beautiful Rain”, which then bounced around in my head the entire afternoon.

I hoped to find a video of that song for my sidebar – only to realize that the song came and went long before the advent of YouTube. So I’m doing the next best thing: I put the song in an mp3 below that you can click and listen to while reading. And just because I’m feeling generous, on the sidebar you’ll find one of the high points in the history of children’s television: LBM singing the alphabet song on Sesame Street. The next time anyone tells you that TV is an educational or cultural vacuum, feel free to cite this video as a sharp rebuttal.

All right, enough intro. On with the post …

**

Undoubtedly, my race schedule this year will take me through some beautiful geographic areas that I haven’t visited before – so lately, it’s occurred to me that I’d like to try and capture some images of those journeys whenever possible.

The problem, as I’ve explained before, is that I usually don’t run with a camera. We only have one digital camera in the family, and I’m reluctant to take it on the trails and risk getting it muddy, sweaty, or broken from a fall.

Several weeks ago, I thought my problem was solved, from a most surprising source: my employer.

Last year was my 10th anniversary working for this company, and I recently received one of those “Since we can’t give you a raise or promotion, please select an item from this catalog to show you how much we appreciate you, employee #2056!” mailings that larger corporations are fond of. One of the items was a small digital camera - and I figured since the CEO was picking up the tab, it was at least worth a shot.

The camera arrived, but I have to say I’m disappointed. It’s difficult to use, the owner’s manual is one of those indecipherable rebuses, and the picture quality is terrible. Coincidentally, it’s made by the same company that produces my son’s Smart Globe, and something called the Barbie Little Learner Laptop – so technologically speaking, I guess my “award” is just one notch above a Fisher-Price Talking Click Camera. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

But the camera has two things going for it: 1) It fits inside my solo camelpack, and 2) If it gets grimy with sweat or mud, it’s no big loss. So I thought I’d give it a try on a recent trail run, and post some pictures here for review.

(Now’s the time to cue the music)


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I gave the camera a test spin at Toro County Park, a 4700-acre open space located on the main thoroughfare between Monterey and Salinas. The predominant features of the park (besides the landscape) are herds of cattle that roam and graze among the grassy hills and oak-strewn valleys.



The rain had stopped just prior to my run, and the sunlight was doing amazing things through the clouds and trees. If you enlarge this picture, the rays streaming through this tree make the whole scene look kind of artsy, like a mother and child in repose. Except, you know ... in this case the mother and child are cows.



I also managed to catch this cool rainbow. All in all, it’s not a bad way to start a run.



Just a few minutes into the run, the trail passes below one of my favorite trees in Monterey County. In the summer and fall, this tree displays about 100 brilliant shades of green, yellow, red, and orange. In the winter, it reminds me of the Whomping Willow at Hogwarts, with its branches reaching down to the ground to pluck me into its limbs if I don’t pass underneath quickly enough.



After a couple of short climbs, vistas like this are fairly common: rolling hills, small cliffs, lush vegetation. The town of Salinas is barely visible in the background – but by this point, I’ve pretty much forgotten all about it.



John Steinbeck was probably standing somewhere close to this very spot when he famously described this area as the “Pastures of Heaven”. I can’t really phrase it any better than that, so I won’t even try.



Nearly every time I run here, something like this happens: cows settle in wherever they see fit, even if it’s directly across the path I’m trying to follow. If several of them are gathered at once (as in the first picture), I have to tiptoe and dance my way around them to follow the trail to the other side. Once, the cows were bunched together so tightly that I had to tap them on the backside in order to weave through.



The cows never seem to mind my presence; in fact, I can usually walk right up and say how-do-you-do.





Many open spaces in Monterey County have scenes like this: old pioneer stables, corrals, or farm houses, echoes of an earlier time. They’re a nice reminder of the way of life that once existed here, and I always find myself thankful that they’ve been left relatively undisturbed in the ensuing decades.



Heading back toward my starting point, the path takes me down a ridgeline with views like this on either side. I frequently do this run at midday – and when I’m passing through this kind of scenery, sometimes it's extremely difficult to drag myself back to the office for the afternoon.



Inevitably though, I end up back at my car, and all that’s left is to say goodbye to the cows. It’s never a heartbreaking farewell, though – because I know I’ll see them again soon.


**
(OK, audience participation time!! Obviously, I’m not blown away by my freebie camera. If anyone has recommendations for a camera that is 1) small, 2) cheap, and 3) takes decent pictures, I’d love to hear them. Comment or e-mail me with your suggestions.)

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January 28, 2008

The Waterfall

(Administrative note: this week’s blog entries will be photo essays, with some audience feedback solicited at the conclusion of the second post. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to do anything crazy like voting in an on-line popularity contest – I’m done with that sort of thing. Until then, just sit back and take in some pictures from the weekend.)

**

All things considered, perhaps the place should have a different name.

The land formation known as the waterfall at Garland Ranch is actually just a steep outcropping of rocks that remain dry for the vast majority of the year. Visitors frequently see the name on a trail map, and hike to the spot expecting something majestic or tropical, only to find that it’s not quite as spectacular as they imagined.

Each year, the rock formation spends more than ten months completely dry – but after several heavy rains fall on the land basin above it, and the ground slowly grows more saturated, sometime during the mid-winter I’ll inevitably initiate the following conversation at home:

Me: Hey, guess what? The waterfall’s running again.

Kids: Cool! Let’s go see it!


And so it was that my kids and I took advantage of a lull between storms, and hiked to the waterfall last Saturday afternoon.

The waterfall trail is part of our running group’s regular Friday morning route, so I’m fortunate to pass by the rock formation at least once per week. Lately, the trail is still dark when we pass through the canyon, so it was especially nice to enjoy it in the daylight this time around - and of course, when I’m hiking with the kids, the pace is slow enough for me to snap a few pictures along the way.

But first, before we get to the waterfall: remember my last photo post from Garland, when I reported that the Carmel River was so low that you could walk across it in several places without getting your feet wet?

Obviously, we’re not having that problem anymore. Now, on with the hike …


On Fridays, we descend this trail as our standard approach to the waterfall. The single track is fairly narrow and technical before giving way to a series of stairs and bridges. After crossing this bridge, we round a curve and see the following:

See the stream of water at the center? That’s Carmel Valley’s world-famous, 6-weeks-per-year waterfall. If you weren’t actually looking for it, you might miss the whole thing.


This is a view of a lower bridge from the bridge pictured above; just to give you a sense of how much elevation is lost as we descend through the waterfall canyon.


A close-up shot of the waterfall: basically, it’s just a steady trickle of water flowing down the face of the rocks before dripping into a shallow ravine below. Like I said, it’s not exactly Fantasy Island back here. However …


Whenever I look at the top of the waterfall from the base, the lush greenery atop steep cliffs reminds me of a scene out of Lost – then again, just about everything I see lately is reminding me of this Thursday’s Lost season premiere. To say I’m looking forward to it would be putting it quite mildly.


On the other side of the ravine is an embankment that my kids love climbing up. My daughter calls this area Big Thunder Mountain – which makes me think that we might have visited Disneyland a few times too many. Anyway - at the top of the embankment is a cave they like to explore …


We’re 99% certain that bats live inside here. Thankfully, none of the kids has verified this with an actual bat encounter – at least, not yet. On the other hand, we were more than happy to come across these little dudes …


Banana slugs! This was the largest of three different ones that we saw. For my kids, this was the highlight of the day - not the beautiful trails, or the half hour playing around the waterfall – but watching these banana slugs. Talk about simple pleasures. Speaking of my kids …


Sometimes people will ask me why I never include pictures of my children in this blog – so this photo is to appease them. See my kiddos back there? Aren’t they cute? They look a lot like their mother, wouldn’t you say? Oh, wait … you probably can’t answer that either.

Eventually it’s time to go, and we walk down the canyon away from the waterfall:

This is a picture from the lower bridge, looking up at the higher one. When we run through this canyon, we cruise past all this scenery in less than a couple of minutes. Sometimes I find myself wanting to slow down and soak it all in – which, of course, is somewhat problematic when you’re with a group of runners.

That’s why it’s extra nice to bring the kids out here from time to time: I get to share with them the places I run, and they get to remind me how to appreciate it all through the eyes of a child.

And if we happen to spot some banana slugs along the way, the day can’t get much better.

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January 24, 2008

Trail (and Tri) Tag

(Kind of an alliterative title, huh? It was an accident, I promise.)

OK, it’s about time I get around to doing this, so it’s not weighing on my conscience anymore.

Here’s the tag Mark sent me:

1. My most memorable moment on the trails in 2007.
2. The best new trail I discovered in 2007.
3. My best performance of 2007.
4. I don't know how I previously survived without...
5. The person I would most like to meet on the trails in 2008.
6. The race I am most excited about for 2008.

And just to keep things interesting, I’ve giving myself an additional challenge …

7. Keep it all under 1000 words. Ready … Go!

Most Memorable Moment: One morning, a friend and I took off on one of those “We know there’s a trail there, but we have no idea where it goes” exploratory runs, starting before sunrise on a Sunday morning. We ended up running for almost two hours through a beautiful wilderness area that borders a dam on the upper reaches of the Carmel River.

On our way back, we inadvertently crossed the property line of two angry dogs – one German Shepherd and one Rottweiler mix – who charged at us, baring their teeth and barking like crazy. We froze in our tracks, and had a brief staredown with the dogs, but they weren’t settling down at all, and I knew it was going to end badly for us.

That’s when the dogs’ owner came out of his trailer wearing nothing but flip-flops, boxers, and a bathrobe.

Thankfully, he called off the dogs, and only gave us a mild lecture about being on private property before pointing us in the direction of civilization and politely recommending that we leave – which we did, gladly (and with the dogs growling and snarling at us all the way). And before you ask: no, we never went back. But it sure was a beautiful run.

Incidentally, that also doubles as my “Most memorable conversation with a redneck standing outside in his underwear” for 2007 … in case you were wondering.

Best New Trail: Instead of singling out one specific trail, I’m going the gestalt route on this one, and extolling the collective. That’s because the best “new trail” experience I’ve had this winter is visiting all of my familiar trails under the cover of darkness.

Most years, I spend countless mornings running on trails for nine months - but after the time changes and the winter sun starts rising later, I log most of my miles on roads until the spring. This year, I felt more reluctant than ever to leave the trails behind, and had a light-bulb moment of sorts, realizing that I didn’t have to return to the roads – especially since I don’t have a spring marathon on the calendar. So I decided to stock up on some lights, and just kept hitting the trails.

Running the trails in the dark makes you appreciate them in a different manner. Think of it this way: let’s say you had a co-worker who, for years and years, you only saw during the day, whose friendship you enjoyed and whom you flirted with a lot with before finally asking her out. Then she shows up for your first date wearing knee-high boots and a little black dress – and you realize that she’s way more interesting, enticing, and potentially dangerous after the sun goes down.

That’s sort of how it feels when you see your favorite trails in the dark for the first time. Then after multiple early mornings together – just like spending several late nights with your date – you develop a more intimate familiarity with something you used to know only superficially. There’s a whole new set of rules to be learned. As far as the trails are concerned, thoughts like “Whoa - I didn’t realize that rock was there”, or “That root was a lot higher than I thought” seem to come up quite frequently lately. I’ve taken some lumps, but overall I’m really happy with the decision to advance the relationship.

(In a related story – I’ve tripped and fallen on the trails more often this year than ever before. But that’s probably a different post altogether.)

Best Performance: I’m assuming this should be something related to racing - which is a shame, because some of the things I celebrate the most have nothing to do with athletics. For example, I really enjoyed the night I secretly took pictures of Rob Lowe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andy Baldwin, and Carl Lewis, and I’m especially proud of the way I’ve learned to use the triple-speed advance function on our TiVo and land within one second of the program resuming after commercial breaks.

Since I have to pick an athletic endeavor … there’s no question it would be Vineman. Doing an ironman was – to use a phrase du jour – on my bucket list for many years, and in 2007 I finally got to cross it off. But trust me, I tell just as many people about that TiVo thing as I do the ironman (and strangely, they're sometimes equally impressed by both).

I Don’t Know How I Previously Survived Without: eBay! This shouldn’t surprise anyone who read my blog last month. If you didn’t, here are a couple of CliffsNotes: 1) I couldn’t afford to be a triathlete or ultrarunner without buying my gear there, and 2) I haven’t paid retail price for a pair of shoes in over three years. Enough said.

Person I’d Most Like to Meet: the obvious answer is to list all the bloggers I hope to meet at any of my upcoming races – and while that’s true, it feels like taking the easy way out of this question.

Because you know who I’m really hoping to meet most of all? Whoever the guy is who gives out the finishers’ belt buckles at Western States. I want to shake his hand at the awards ceremony at Placer High School as he’s giving me a buckle of my own.

On that note …

Race I’m Most Excited About: Come on now. I don’t even have to say it, right? I didn’t think so.

That’s a good thing, because I’m close to my word limit - which means it’s time to stop.

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January 21, 2008

Tag Procrastination

I’m delinquent in responding to Mark's tag from a few weeks ago – a situation that I’ll remedy today. But before I get to that, I’ve got a few random notes to share, starting with a follow-up from the previous post:

Thanks to everyone who commented or e-mailed on my censored snot rocket article. One of my friends e-mailed it to our local running group, so it ended up getting seen by quite a few people after all. What’s even better is that many people had additional observations or suggestions for future study. Among them:

* Apparently, my cycling and swimming (?) brethren felt somewhat left out by the tutorial. As far as the swimmers are concerned - can we all agree to keep it out of the lap pool? My pool conveniently has an overflow gutter, but I know a lot of pools don't, in which case ... ugh. I'm not sure what to tell you. If it's in the water, you're swimming in it, and if it's on the deck, everybody else is walking on it. It's a lose-lose situation; I have no idea what to recommend here.

From the bike, blowing snot rockets is obviously a more complicated maneuver, being heavily dependent upon factors such as bicycle velocity, prevailing wind direction (and speed), slipstream aerodynamics, and maintaining your balance while leaning outside the bike’s center of gravity. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be attempted - but the learning curve isn’t quite as steep as it is with runners. Maybe they can start including some rocket tips on the Spinervals DVD series or something.

* I heard from two separate sources that the process is also called an “Okie blow” in certain areas of the country … and I sensed that those folks may have been offended that I didn’t give Okies proper recognition for their unique contribution to society. Apparently the ability to blow a rocket is a source of regional pride in some parts – who knew?

* People with mustaches or beards have a much higher degree of difficulty and potential for post-ejection residue buildup in their facial hair. See – this is a huge consideration, and I hadn’t even considered it. This is why I’d be a lousy investigative journalist.

On that note, we’ll put the snot rocket topic to bed for a while. A couple of other thoughts before the next post:

1) Does everybody know about Pandora Radio? If you’re a music lover who is frustrated with the limited station options, stale song repetition, or endless commercial interruptions of modern-day radio, you’ll go crazy with this site. You just type in the name of a band or song you like, and custom-build your own Internet radio station form there, based on feedback you can give at anytime.

I’ve been hooked on Pandora for the past month or so, and it’s become the most reliable way to get my daily emo/punk/alt rock fix. (I think it works equally well across other genres like jazz, blues, or classic rock, but I haven’t checked these out yet.) I’ve found a lot of great groups I didn’t know about before, such as Tragedy Andy, Default, and Rufio - as well as the band currently playing on my sidebar, who have become one of my favorites.

2) I know that American Idol is barely underway, but I think I’ve already decided who I’m cheering for: the girl from Oregon who lives in a log cabin, rides and trains horses, practices mixed martial arts and cage fighting, and sang “Amazing Grace” for her audition. She could bail you out of a bar room fight on Saturday night, then sing hymns with you in church the next morning. Oh, one more thing – she’s drop dead gorgeous. Regardless of whether she progresses any further in the contest, you have to be impressed by that kind of skill set.

For the record, my wife is apparently cheering for the extremely good-looking, remarkably stylish dude with dreadlocks who sang Uncle Kracker’s “Follow Me” – at least, that’s what I gathered by her saying “Wow!” about 10 times during the three minutes he was on screen. So we’re less than one week along, and our loyalties have already been cast. I think this TV writers strike is making us desperate for compelling story lines. Thank God it's only two weeks until season 4 of Lost begins.

Anyway, it’s too early to start handicapping the AI contest, so we’ll see what the next few weeks have in store.

**
Gosh, that’s almost 700 words already. You know what? I'm changing my mind - let’s make this one a quickie, and stop here. The tag post has already waited 3 weeks – another day or two won’t ruin it.

Just think of it as my lame little way of building suspense.

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January 17, 2008

Snot Rocket Science

I had originally planned on using this space to introduce my most recent Monterey Herald column, but an unusual thing happened during the article’s transformation from Word document to newsprint: the whole thing got canned by my editor.

My editor is a great guy. He’s enthusiastic about promoting participatory sports like running, cycling, and triathlon alongside traditional reporting on the major spectator sports. I mean … how many newspapers even have a running or cycling columnist? He’s a runner himself, and has done the Big Sur Marathon a couple of times. And he always gives me free reign to write about whatever I feel like.

This is the first time in three years that an article has been pulled based on content, and here’s the funny part: the article is about blowing your nose.

In the past, I’ve used my (admittedly, thinly guised) column about running to discuss such topics as migrant labor, gangster rap, reality TV, local criminal cases, and sex among athletes (which - now that I’m trying to link to it – I realize was lost when I shut my old website down. I’ll have to republish it here sometime.). So it’s kind of surprising that the column which ultimately got pulled was a story about boogers. On the other hand … maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that my column was censored; maybe the only surprise was that it took three years to happen.

I didn’t take the decision personally – in fact, I knew this column might have pushed the envelope of “mainstream journalism” just a bit. (I even included a disclaimer at the beginning – but whatever.) There are no hard feelings. My editor has to answer to a different audience than I do, and I’ll live to write another day.

Thankfully, I’ve got the Internet to fall back on, where the bar for things like common standards of decency and good journalistic taste are set remarkably low. With that, I give you - using my best Access Hollywood voice here –
the article the Monterey Herald DIDN’T want you to see!!

***

Running Life 1/17/08 “Snot Rocket Science”

(Warning: the following column contains graphic descriptions of an unflattering body function. Make sure you’ve finished breakfast before reading.)

During the winter months, there’s an easy way to spot the novices in a crowd of runners: they’re the ones carrying Kleenex.

The rest of us, after enough training miles, eventually become skilled in the delicate practice of clearing our nasal passages using nothing more than one finger and a well-timed blast of air. Today, I’m going to explain how it’s done.

That’s right … I’m talking about snot rockets.

Runners certainly didn’t invent the process of ejecting snot directly onto the ground, but – like everything else we do – we’ve trained ourselves to do it very efficiently. In the wintertime, the combination of cold temperatures and lingering congestion force many runners to become experts in the technique.

The act is also known as “farmer blowing”, but this moniker doesn’t accurately reflect the amount of skill and risk that are involved in the procedure. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s fairly complicated nevertheless … so let’s just call it snot rocket science.

Yes, there is risk involved, and several factors to consider in order to launch these gooey projectiles safely. So follow this advice, and no one gets hurt.

The first lesson in snot rocketry is timing. You can’t just run out the front door and start blasting. The human nostril is a complex mechanism, with narrow parameters of operational efficiency. The machinery needs proper lubrication to perform effectively, a process that can take several minutes after the start of your run. If you try to launch from a dry chamber, you’re bound to just push the payload down onto your cheek.

You also have to wait until your snot reaches the proper critical mass for expulsion. The test is to exhale gently through your nose, and if you feel substantive thickness and pressure on the rim of your nostril, you know that all systems are go.

However, before launching, you need to carefully check your surroundings. A typical rocket travels downward with a posterior and lateral trajectory – think of a cone-shaped distribution range - so you shouldn’t be alongside or in front of other runners when you let fly. Proper etiquette dictates that a runner move well off to the side of a group, to ensure that his/her fellow runners remain out of the blast line. Be sure to check your blind spot over your shoulder as well to avoid any friendly fire incidents.

Another consideration if you’re running in a public place is to check that there aren’t any impressionable children – or anyone else who might be offended – around when you blow. Rocket launching is similar to swearing: generally OK for grown-ups to do under certain circumstances, but not something you want kids to go around mimicking without understanding the ramifications.

Once you’ve determined the proper launch time and assured your positioning, it’s time to pay attention to technique. There’s nothing more embarrassing than coming home with a giant booger on your shoulder or thigh because of a sloppy misfire.

(Before proceeding further, here’s one final disclaimer: Please note that the following instructions pertain to unilateral (one-sided) launching. The method of discharging both nostrils simultaneously – sometimes referred to as a Double Texan – is a highly risky maneuver to be attempted only by experienced practitioners.)

It isn’t as simple as turning your head and blowing. The recommended technique for single-nostril blasting is to rotate your shoulders and hips slightly to the “involved” side, leaning partially forward from the waist. Inhale slowly while placing the pad of your index or middle finger beside the opposite nostril. Gently press the nostril shut while you forcefully exhale, expulsing the contents of the full nostril onto the ground.

Some runners prefer the European variation of hand positioning, where the pad of the thumb is placed upon the opposite nostril, with the remaining fingers extended above the blast line. While this is an acceptable alternative, the gesture is sometimes viewed as more offensive in nature, and the finger-on-nose technique is generally recognized as the gold standard.

Once the projectile has launched, there’s probably some cleanup work to be done. Even if you have a clean shoot, most rockets will leave some splatter residue when they exit the blast chamber. After a successful launch, check to see if you need to wipe any such debris from the base of your nose or the margins of your upper lip.

Pay attention when wiping, however, and be certain to maintain adequate separation of wiping surfaces. Many runners use the tips of their gloves or the sleeve of their shirt to wipe sweat off their foreheads while running. When clearing away rocket residue, use a different section of your garments, and then – this is the important part – remember which parts of your clothing you’re using to wipe sweat, and which you’re using to wipe snot. You’ll feel like an idiot – not to mention look pretty gross - if you remove the stuff from your nose only to smear it around on your forehead a few minutes later.

Who knew there was so much to learn about blowing your nose? It’s not called snot rocket science for nothing. The good news is that most runners become proficient in the technique after a handful of practice sessions.

And once they do, they don’t have to worry about bringing Kleenex on their training runs ever again.

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January 15, 2008

Tickling God

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.“
- Origin unknown

*
That seems like as good a note as any to introduce my 2008 race schedule. Normally I’m pretty successful in accomplishing the tasks I want to get done - but I fully recognize that I’m always just one mishap or injury or catastrophe from any of this coming to pass.

Before we get to the schedule, allow me to review the ground rules:

First, I don’t race that often. Between work and family time and home projects and my annual 2-month hibernation from training, the number of weekends that I’m able to escape for a race can usually be counted on one hand. Not to mention, these endurance events get increasingly cost prohibitive each year – so the thought of entering races as training runs makes even less sense to me than it used to.

Second, I employ a single-minded focus in preparation for major events. I know some people (like this guy) who can hop from ultras to triathlons to marathons and shorter distance races and do fairly well across the board – but I’m not one of those people. I love having an eclectic resume, but I prefer to build all of my training around one type of event, then shift gears and move on to the next one.

It’s like the way jazz musician Wynton Marsalis is skilled in about 10 different genres of music, but never mixes them all on one album. He’ll record an entire blues CD, then move on to classical, then Dixieland, then big band, etc. Just think of me as the Wynton Marsalis of endurance sports, except, you know ... with about 100 times less talent.

Accordingly, my 2008 calendar is essentially split into two distinct seasons: the first half, built around preparing myself for my anchor race in June – which I might have mentioned here once or twice already - and the remainder of the year, when I’ll become a full-time triathlete again.

Here’s a quick overview of the races on my sidebar calendar:

Diablo 50M, April 12th: My first foray into ultramarathons for the spring, on a course that is generally recognized as one of the toughest 50-milers around. The run features 13,000’ of climbing (by comparison, the very hilly Firetrails 50M race I did last fall has just under 8000’), and the winning times from last year are over 9 hours (my Firetrails time was 8:45, and 34 people beat me). If you look at the names on last year's results list, those people aren’t chumps – they’re top-shelf talent who were simply slowed by the relentless climbs and tough terrain that surround the highest point of elevation in the Bay Area.

This will be a perfect tune-up race to test my hill climbing, and since the course runs so slowly, I won’t bother with any silly concerns about trying to PR – a mistake that was nearly critical in my 50M race last fall. In fact, I need to be especially conservative, because three weeks later I’ve got ….

Miwok 100K, May 3rd: This race was almost as difficult to get into as Western States – the online registration sold out in about 20 minutes. Miwok’s always been popular, and over the past year it’s been featured in a couple of magazine profiles proclaiming the beauty and difficulty (9500’ of climbing) of this course that traverses Marin County, the fertile crescent of trail running and mountain biking in the United States. It’s probably the best race simulation I can ask for before the big one …

Western States 100M, June 28-29: I know you can’t see this from home – but it was exciting for me just to type that out. I don’t really need to say anything else here – I’ll have plenty more to write about this race as we go along. Good golly.

Assuming I survive States, starting in July I’ll switch my focus to …

Big Kahuna 70.3 Triathlon, Sept 7: This was one of the most enjoyable races I’ve ever done in my life (and my race report from 2006 is at right). It’s tough to explain: it wasn’t the most challenging, or most rewarding, or most competitive event I’ve ever done – but from start to finish, I had an absolute blast. I can’t think of a better venue to return to the sport of triathlon after running my tail off on the trails of Northern California for the first half of the year.

That’s it – that’s the list. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ll note that one race is conspicuous by its absence. This will be the first time in over a dozen years that I won’t be running my hometown race, the Big Sur Marathon – and as you can imagine, I’ve got some additional thoughts on this topic that I’ll elaborate upon here shortly.

For now, though, we’ll stop here, and not let the list of what’s going to be (unless, of course, God has something different in mind) get overshadowed by what’s missing. It’s not the biggest race list you’ll ever see, but there’s certainly enough to keep me occupied from now until the fall. It’s also enough to fill me with worry almost every night, and to motivate me to drag myself out the door for training nearly every morning.

In other words, it feels just about perfect.

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January 11, 2008

Now a Triathlete

In the previous post, I described how I was once a runner who came into possession of a somewhat valuable book, but have since become a triathlete who is more concerned with getting a significant bang for his buck.

My new toy from OneTri arrived this week. But first, indulge me in a brief background story of how it came to pass.

A little over a year ago, I received an e-mail from a guy named Jerry who was starting a new triathlon-related business, and wanted to discuss a sponsorship with me.

Now, I’ve never been sponsored for anything, except for my Catholic confirmation about 25 years ago – which, as any of my remaining Catholic family members will quickly tell you, didn’t end very well. So the idea of someone sponsoring me in pursuit of something I actually enjoyed sounded pretty nice.

The agreement wasn’t anything flashy – basically, he asked if I’d put his logo on my sidebar, in exchange for discounted merchandise. Since I had plenty of room on my sidebar (note to any other companies out there: I still do!), it seemed like an easy enough request to fulfill.

For one reason or another, I never really took him up on the reciprocal offer. And then this crazy Once a Runner thing happened like $250 falling out of the sky, and I figured it was a great opportunity to address a glaring need in my tri-gear inventory.

So I contacted Jerry again, and he assured me that our deal was still on. That’s when I ordered this:


It’s my new Zoot Z1 wetsuit. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: it’s my new Z1 WetZOOT. Seriously – it says so right here. I still have to get used to that.

The suit (sorry – I mean zoot) retails for almost $450, and OneTri had already discounted it to $314 on their website. Then Jerry hooked me up with another discount on top of that - I won’t tell you how much, but let’s just say that you probably couldn’t buy dinner with my outstanding balance after putting down that initial two-fifty.

It’s far and away the best deal I’ve received in a long time, so as you can guess, I’m a big OneTri fan right now. I know you have a lot of choices when it comes to buying tri-gear online, but do Jerry and me a favor and add OneTri to your list of bookmarked sites the next time you’re shopping around.

Now, as far as the wetZoot goes ….

This is the first tri-specific suit I’ve ever owned. Somehow I managed to muddle through my first decade as a triathlete either borrowing suits from friends, or using my surfing wetsuit (along with an insane amount of Bodyglide – I could tell you horror stories). So maybe the arrival of this wetZoot signifies my arrival as a completely self-sufficient triathlete, or something symbolic like that. Then again, maybe it just feels cool to finally have one of my own.

I didn’t get around to trying the zoot on until after our kids were asleep, so I spent a few minutes squirming into it in the living room while my wife and I were catching up on TV. Once I finally put it on, we had the following exchange:

Me: So what do you think?

Her: (staring, pensive)

Me: What?

Her: It makes you look kind of hot.

And that comment alone was enough to justify the purchase.

The zoot hasn’t seen one drop of water yet, and it’s already paying dividends that I can’t put a dollar amount on. Now I’m trying to come up with more excuses to put it on at night – I figure I can only get away with “double-checking the fit” about 2 or 3 more times before she starts to get suspicious.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait several months before I learn if the zoot performs as well in the water as it does in the living room. But I figure I’ll get a whole lot of action out of it (still talking about the water) for several years to come. Plus, I won’t have to badger my friends anymore, and I’ll probably save an awful lot of money on Bodyglide.

All of which makes for a pretty good outcome, when you consider that the whole thing started with the sale of a used paperback book.

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January 8, 2008

Once a Book Owner

A couple of administrative notes before today’s post …


First, I got tagged again (this time by Mark) to write about memorable moments from 2007. Since it took me almost a month to respond to the tag I did two weeks ago, it should go without saying that you’d better not hold your breath waiting for this one – but I’ll get to it eventually.

It got me to thinking, though – shouldn’t there be some sort of policy like they have for jury duty, where you don’t have to answer a tag if you’ve done one in the previous 12 months? Maybe one of the lawyers out there can draft something up for us.

Second – and I’m almost too embarrassed to report this – I screwed up some words in the Rolling Stones lyrics that introduced the previous post. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how seriously I take the accuracy of song lyrics - I feel like a pastor who forgot the words to the Our Father. I've already fixed the mistake - but this was incredibly sloppy work on my part, and completely inexcusable. One week into 2008, and I’m already having a Britney Spears moment. Somebody call Dr Phil.

OK, time to move on. Here’s the post …

**

"What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles, Miles of Trials. How could they be expected to understand that?""
- from Once a Runner, by John L. Parker


Even before I read it, I felt like I knew all about Once a Runner.

John Parker’s 1978 novel about fictional miler Quenton Cassidy has struck an emotional chord with runners ever since its first publication. It was groundbreaking in the way it accurately captured the competitive running experience – likely because the author was a collegiate runner himself. His physical descriptions of extreme exertion, as well as all of the complex psychological forces at work in the mind of a runner, are portrayed in vivid detail throughout the story.

Through the years, the book has remained a topic of discussion among countless training groups, and it was in this manner that I heard about many of the scenes and plot twists prior to the day about 15 years ago when I walked into my local running store in Chapel Hill, NC, and paid $9.95 for my own copy to read.

I paged through it in a couple of weeks, and found it fairly enjoyable; Cassidy was a character with whom I could identify on many levels, and I recalled some of the memorable scenes and phrases - such as the introductory quote above - during several of my own training runs that followed. But I can’t really say it was a life-changing experience on any significant level.

Afterward, I placed it on my bookshelf, and went on about my business. In the years that followed, I’d occasionally see or hear something to remind me of the story, but I never thought much of it beyond that. Never, that is, until last month, when one of my training partners started this exchange:

Him: Hey, do you still have your copy of Once a Runner?

Me: Yeah, it’s on my bookshelf at home. Do you want to borrow it?

Him: No – I’m trying to find my old copy so that I can sell it. They’re going for about 300 bucks on eBay right now.

Me: What? Really? How come?


When I returned home that morning, I did some checking, and my friend was exactly right. Apparently, over the past decade, several factors I had never imagined happening conspired to make my 10-dollar book a highly sought-after collectible item.

The first was that, after six editions, publication of the book stopped in 1999, making copies scarce – and perhaps as a result, Once a Runner took on an almost folkloric mystique. Those who had read the book would enrapture newcomers with the story, like apostles spreading the gospel of Quenton Cassidy one runner at a time.

Parker himself unwittingly helped the cult-like phenomena develop, as he made like J.D. Salinger after the novel’s release. During nearly 30 years of silence, he became known as the guy who caught literary lightning in a bottle. His seclusion and resistance to write any follow-up works made his admirers even more fervent in their adoration of his singular novel.

This fall, the often-rumored and long-awaited event finally happened: Parker released a follow-up novel, titled Again to Carthage. Before long, a new generation of fans started hearing about the reclusive genius who wrote the best running novel of all time, and set out to find copies of the first work.

The only problem is, there aren’t many to be found. It’s the perfect storm of frenzied interest and scarce commodities – and it’s why used books are selling online for hundreds of dollars.

Amid such hysteria, the simple fact most commonly overlooked is this: the book’s not that great. It's certainly decent, but not good enough to justify such overzealous devotion. So when I heard that the one-inch thick space holder gathering dust on my bookshelf was worth a lot of money, I didn’t hesitate to start a listing on eBay. A few days later, I received a deposit of 250 dollars into my PayPal account.

Such a move might sound like sacrilege to devotees of the book, but for me, it was a no-brainer. The list of books that I go back and read more than once is extremely short, and certainly doesn’t include Once a Runner. And I’ve never bought into the notion that books are for displaying on shelves – I feel like they are meant to be read, and shared, and read again. I frequently loan out running books to training partners, and don’t really care if I ever see them again. So the idea that someone would pay me a lot of money to permanently borrow a book sounded pretty enticing.

Besides … did I mention that I got 250 bucks? That’s a pretty good chunk of dough – especially for something that I paid 10 dollars for and then largely forgot about. I took my newfound income shopping online at OneTri, and came away with something that I’ll use a lot more often than the 15-year old book used to purchase it (and that’s all I’m saying for now - but when it arrives, I’ll let you know).

Finally, if anyone out there is looking for this book with the impression that it’s some sort of sacred text, let me assure you that you’re not missing anything monumental by not reading it. Wait a few months or years until some publishing company recognizes the demand (in fact, as more book owners are realizing the opportunity, the market has already stabilized a bit - as of today, most used copies are selling for closer to $200) and starts mass producing copies again, then go pay normal retail price for it like I did. I’m sure you have better ways to spend that kind of money.

In the meantime, if you want to experience the feelings and emotions of running , here’s The Secret: go outside and start the unprofound process of wearing down, molecule by molecule, the tough rubber on the bottom of your training shoes. In doing so, I expect that most of you will be able to understand.

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January 4, 2008

Sympathy for the Slacker


“Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints –
As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer, ‘cause I’m in need of some restraint.”

- The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

*
I don’t necessarily mind being a role model to someone – as long as he or she sees the bad along with the good. That was the intent of this week’s Monterey Herald column, co-written by my friend Mike.

As I indicated before, the column is generally targeted toward newbie runners, whose ranks tend to swell at this time of year. And – for reasons I’ll never fully understand – seeing my picture in the paper twice per month occasionally makes people think that I’m some kind of authority figure or role model in regards to training.

The problem, of course, is that I’m frequently guilty of some of the worst habits imaginable. I blow off workouts, spend way too much time watching TV - not to mention blogging - and can make a stack of cookies disappear faster than my favorite character on Sesame Street (who, in newly introduced “healthy habits” segments last year, has been seen eating vegetables so that he doesn’t set a bad example. Am I the only one who thinks that we’re needlessly sucking the joy out of being a kid nowadays? It’s not like Cookie Monster is Public Enemy #1 when it comes to childhood obesity. But that’s a whole separate post.).

To some extent, these are issues that all of us face on a regular basis. Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints, so too is every triathlete a slacker in certain ways, at certain times. And that’s the point of our column: you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be good more often than you’re bad.

***
Running Life 1/3/08 "Having a Bad Day"

Wait! Don’t tell us – you made a resolution to lose weight and get healthy this year. Now it’s less than one week into 2008 and you’re already struggling and having second thoughts.

Everybody sabotages their fitness plans from time to time – even your local running columnists. So we’re not going to beat you over the head this week about all the reasons you should be running.

Instead, we’re going to take you through a typical day, and show you just how many opportunities there are to screw things up. Remember the Daniel Powter song called “You Had a Bad Day”? Here’s a small sampling of the ways you can neglect your fitness plan during the course of 24 hours:

*
Last night, you ambitiously set your alarm 30 minutes early in order to exercise before your work day. But when the alarm goes off, the bed feels so warm and comfortable that you hit the snooze button to linger a bit longer. 10 minutes later, you do the same thing again. And later on, once more. So much for morning exercise.

As you shower, you tell yourself that you’ll compensate by hitting the gym at lunchtime, so you pack a duffel bag with workout clothes and figure you’re still right on track for fitness.

You’re running a bit behind, and you really aren’t too hungry, so you hurry out the door without eating breakfast. But you’re not fully alert yet, so you swing by Starbucks for a little pick-me-up. You received a gift card for Christmas, so it’s not like you’re spending real money.

You order a grande caramel macchiato and a big cranberry muffin. It’s fine, because you skipped breakfast – and now you’re at the top of your game.

Arriving at work, you park as close as possible to the building and take the elevator up to the 2nd floor. You stow your duffel bag and sit down at your computer and catch up on e-mail. 90 minutes later, your office neighbor comes by with some leftover Christmas cookies that his spouse made. (He’s getting rid of them because he resolved to eat healthier in 2008.)

You smell the cookies and realize how hungry you are. So you grab a few cookies, which is OK because they’re little ones, and because you didn’t eat breakfast. You eat one of them now, and put the others on your desk to save for the afternoon. 10 minutes later, those are gone as well.

At 11:30 your coworkers stop by to invite you out to lunch with them. You stare at your duffel bag for about 2 seconds before agreeing. It’s OK, because you might be able to quit work a bit early and go for a quick run before going home.

You go to your favorite restaurant and order a large meal, since you’re still catching up from breakfast. It’s OK to eat big though, because you’ve started a fitness program, and you’ll burn all those calories off soon enough.

During meetings and phone calls after lunch, you gradually feel your energy level wavering. At 3:00 it seems like a good time to visit your coworker who always keeps a bowl of Reese’s mini Peanut Butter cups at his desk. It’s OK, because those are your favorite candy.

You talk to him a bit and idly eat 3 minis, then decide to grab a couple more as you head back to your desk, which is OK, since they’re minis. You sit back down with renewed energy, a smile on your face, and a bit of chocolate on your cheek.

You finish the work day make it all the way to your car before you realize that you left the duffel bag in your office. At this point, it’s a total hassle to go back inside to get it, since you’d have to wait for the elevator, then say goodnight to everyone all over again. Besides, you figure that traffic is crazy, so you don’t really have any extra time to work out. It’s OK, because you’ll have three chances to exercise tomorrow.

On your way home, you call your family, and decide that it would be a lot easier to go out for pizza instead of cooking dinner tonight – so you meet them at the pizza parlor.

You have 3 pieces of pepperoni pizza, 2 pieces of garlic bread and a glass of red wine. It’s OK, because garlic and wine are good for your heart, and because you’re going to skip the spumoni dessert.

At home you spend two hours sitting on the couch, catching up on TV and reviewing the newspaper and magazine articles about exercise that you’ve been collecting.

As you climb into bed, you try to get a little loving from your spouse, but she complains that you smell like garlic. So you go into the kitchen and have a big bowl of ice cream. It’s OK, because ice cream is your comfort food – and besides, you’re going to set your alarm early tomorrow to start exercising.

*
So you had a bad day. These things happen to all of us. The trick is to make sure it doesn’t become a cycle that repeats itself day after day.

Bad days don’t become perfect ones overnight, and fitness doesn’t happen immediately. Changes are small, and gradual, and usually happen one at a time. But if you dedicate yourself to achieving them, you’ll gradually make big improvements over the course of the year.

We hope that your 2008 is filled with many more good days than bad ones.

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January 1, 2008

Regarding Linus

“What if I say I’m not like the others –
What if I say I’m not just another … “
- Foo Fighters, “The Pretender” (on sidebar)

*
In the fall of 1965, cartoonist Charles Schulz agreed to create an animated Christmas special featuring the characters from his Peanuts comic strip. At several points during the process, he nearly abandoned the task.

Schulz had several items of concern during the creative process. It was the first animated special he had attempted, and he was apprehensive about how his characters would transition from their customary comic strip stills into dynamic animation. He struggled to match the children available for voice work with each individual character. He had a shoestring budget which resulted in disjointed production and substandard sound mixing.

But mostly, he was concerned that his primary message would be neglected.

The video clip from my Christmas Eve post was the most contentious point between Schulz and the CBS executives in charge of the project. Schulz was adamant that no Christmas special would be complete without a Biblical reference to the birth of Jesus; the networks feared that such an overt religious gesture would anger viewers.

Schulz stubbornly stood his ground, even when threatened with cancellation of the program. The network eventually conceded the point, and prepared for a storm of criticism, figuring they’d cut their losses on what they presumed would be a one-time presentation.

Of course, Linus’s monologue was widely praised by both critics and viewers, and stands today as the centerpiece of one of the most beloved Christmas specials of all time. It’s a moment of lasting significance that distinguished A Charlie Brown Christmas from the rapidly growing crowd of simplistic holiday fare. It also marks the point at which Charles Schulz definitively found his voice.

Unfortunately, finding a voice is never as easy as it appears, and creating lasting significance among the commonplace is even more elusive. These are some of the considerations I’ve been pondering lately in regards to this blog.

Those of us who participate in this medium come to it for a wide variety of reasons. We may want a place to document our progression through training programs (or through life in general), a forum to express our viewpoint or feelings about our circumstances, or merely an outlet to unload whatever thoughts are cluttering our heads.

However varied they may be, most of our reasons tend to be relatively self-serving. We’re each the master of our own microuniverse, free to write or rant or ramble about absolutely anything, and to do so on our own terms. Whether or not anyone actually cares is a secondary concern.

The irony is that despite our varied intentions, many of us end up sounding dreadfully similar. After all, there are only so many ways to describe the miles we run or laps we swim or roads we ride on – and the more endurance blogs you surf through, the harder those reports are to distinguish.

(On a somewhat related note - it’s probably no coincidence that I love folks like Stronger and Craig and Susanna: people who bring a unique perspective to this strange little community of ours, and share their stories in a way that is more insightful than simple mileage and workout sessions.)

So my ambition for the upcoming year is to make like Charles Schulz. I want to provide something beyond reporting about my training for upcoming races. I want to offer occasional moments of importance, and hopefully establish some greater meaning that stands out from this otherwise trivial existence. I want to find my voice.

The hard part is that I’m not sure exactly what that means. It’s quite likely that I already have a voice – one of an idiot who completely overanalyzes things. And I can’t simply switch personas and try to be someone I’m not (in other words, don’t worry - you’ll still find plenty of ridiculous stuff around here). I guess all I’m really committing myself to is doing the same things I’m already doing, but with a higher purpose in mind.

I’m challenging myself to grow: to find more significance in my everyday observations, to willingly profess the values and ideals I believe in, and to somehow, in some small way, improve the lives of those with whom I cross paths.

It seems like an ambitious standard to maintain – and that’s why today seems like the right day to proclaim it.

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