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February 28, 2008

Reconnecting

My sister almost never calls me. I can’t really be critical, though - because I rarely call her either.

We’re less than 4 years apart in age, but seem countless miles apart in life. She’s taken some hard knocks that I’ve had the good fortune and/or good sense (most likely, a combination of both) to avoid. She still lived at home during the divorce of our parents, and took it very personally. She dropped in and out of college a few times, and started down various career paths that never panned out. She began having kids at an early age, and now has the fates of four little ones riding on her tutelage and guidance (not that kids are hard knocks - just a lot of stress and work).

She’s also battled obesity ever since high school - although “battle” probably isn’t the most appropriate term, since it implies some sort of balanced fight. Unfortunately, this particular war is very one-sided: obesity has taken command of her life as mercilessly and unrelentingly as General Sherman took control of the South.

There was a time, many years ago, when I tried to guide her in healthier living, but nothing really seemed to take. Eventually, I sensed enough ambivalence and resentment that I finally left her to her own consequences. She's had some health issues and anger issues and sometimes barely resembles the fun, happy kid sister I grew up with.

Over the years, it’s become harder and harder for me to relate to her. We live in separate states now, and have seen each other only a handful of times in the past decade. We talk on birthdays and holidays, but otherwise tend to stay out of each others’ lives. We’re not quite estranged … we’re just very much apart.

But she’s my sister, and I love her - so I occasionally worry about her, and frequently wonder if she’s healthy and happy. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to hear from her earlier this week.

She called me in the middle of the day, and we soon had this conversation:

Me: So what’s up?

Her: Oh, nothing … just that I saw a picture of you in my new doctor’s office.

Me: Um … what? Really?

Her: Yeah – he’s a runner, and did the Marine Corps Marathon one of the same years you did.

Me: Yeah, but … I still don’t get it.

Apparently her doctor has one of those photomosaic-style posters that was made sometime after the 1995 Marine Corps Marathon. Thousands of thumbnail images of runners from that race combine to form the image of the Iwo Jima Memorial, which stands at the finish line of the race.

My sister noted the year, remembered that I had done the same race (coincidentally, this was about the time when I was bugging her the most about exercise), then searched the poster for about 15 minutes until she found my little thumbnail.

I’m not sure what part is the most surprising: the fact that there’s a photomosaic poster from that race (I had no idea these even existed), or that my sister remembered I had done Marine Corps the same year, or that she took the time to look through thousands of thumbnails until she saw a teeny tiny picture of me. All I know is that it was good to get a surprise call from her, for no reason other than to share a brief laugh together.

I’m also uncertain as to whether there’s any significance in the timing of her call. She was in a doctor’s office (this isn’t entirely happenstance – she has more doctors than any 30-something person should), looking at a picture of me running, and possibly remembering all the different ways I used to bother her.

And who knows – maybe something registered that hadn’t before. Maybe a seed that was haltingly planted years ago finally began to sprout. Maybe some of her health issues will finally, slowly, mercifully start to turn around. Maybe she’s a small step closer to being happy and healthy.

Or maybe she was simply calling to say hi - and I guess that would be OK, too.

Because my sister almost never calls me. But yesterday, thanks to an old running picture, she did. It was a nice little moment – and under the circumstances, I’m happy to leave it at that.

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February 25, 2008

The Blogger Who Came In From the Cold*

*a shout out to any old-school espionage fans out there

First, a confession: last week when I reported I was going the slacker route, I had an ulterior reason besides my standard one of just being lazy; I also knew that I’d be dropping off of the cyber-grid for several days.

(In a related story - I'm way behind on returning e-mails and visiting other blogs, and apparently I've been tagged not once, but twice. The lesson, of course: I can never leave my computer again.)

It seems hard to believe, but there are still some places in this world that don’t have e-mail or Internet access – even some places in California. One of them looks something like this:

The Sierra Nevada Mountains of Calaveras County – a favorite destination of our family for several years.

Despite my recent springtime serenades, the fact is that my kids periodically get the itch for some wintertime fun - snowball fights, snowmen, sledding, and all those other things they see in televised Christmas specials. So this trip is a nice compromise: we travel for a half-day to enter a snowy wonderland, have our cold-weather fun, then return to the warm climate of home a few days later. If winter were a restaurant, this trip is like ordering from the drive-through window. Which is just the way I like it.

We timed the trip perfectly, as it ended up snowing almost six inches during the days we were there. This was the view from our cabin:


Although, truth be told, this is the view I enjoyed the most:

This picture was taken from the big easy chair where I spent most of my days sitting under a blanket, curled up with a book, drifting in and out of sleep. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time.

Of course, we did a lot of outdoor activities, and most of my hours were spent with snow shovel in hand, as lead engineer for the sledding slope. We eventually got around to building a snowman:

And decided to give him a funky hairdo – you know, seeing as how we’re still in California and all.

I also made this igloo:

For a kid who was born and raised in Los Angeles, I’ve got some crazy igloo skills. The inside of this was big enough for all three kids to play in, and tall enough for my daughter to stand up:

See? There’s another kid picture for you. I think she’s got her father’s feet.

All things considered, it was a great little vacation. The only downside was that I didn’t get any training done while I was there. (Unless you count building the igloo, which made me sweat like crazy during its construction. I must have burned a lot of calories building that thing – although probably not as many as I consumed in lemon bars over three days.) I packed my running gear with me, but there’s something about 30 degree weather with ice and snow on the ground that made me a little reluctant to lace up the old running shoes. I’ll have to get some tips on this from Stronger someday.

But that’s a problem for next winter. In the meantime, I’m hoping a high mileage week with a few midday swims will whip me back into shape relatively quickly – because pretty soon, I’ll be counting down the weeks until my first races in April and May.

Slacking time is over, and winter’s almost officially in my rearview mirror – which means it’s time for me to get serious again.

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February 20, 2008

Runner Watching

"Well I'm just people watching -
The other people watching me -
And we're all people watching -
The other people watching we."
- Jack Johnson, "People Watching" (click to play)

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In last week’s Monterey Herald column, we took a fairly common observation – the fact that everyone’s running form is slightly different – and had some fun with it. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is one of my favorite styles of writing – lighthearted, creative, and (thankfully, from my editor's standpoint) generally unoffensive.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it. And to answer the inevitable question you’ll have afterwards - I tend to think of myself as an ostrich: big, awkward looking and clumsy, yet somehow able to get limbs and trunk moving sufficiently well to gain a decent head of steam every now and then.

It may not be the sexiest bird in town, but it gets the job done. It’s a compromise I can definitely live with.

**

Running Life 2/14/08 “Runner Watching”

Most runners become amazingly adept at recognizing their friends from a long distance away by their unique running styles. Even in the dark, a distinctive posture or tilt of the head or arm swing gives everyone away. Running styles become your own personal signature, almost like a fingerprint.

Some runners are regal and elegant, and others are blue collar and industrious. Some prance like fillies, others plod like Clydesdales. If you watch from a distance, you’ll see all styles and types.

One of the great things about running is that nearly any method is acceptable. We’re not figure skaters or gymnasts, so style points don’t count. However, while any form is OK for recreational runners, only a highly efficient style will suffice for the competitive racers.

Running style is largely influenced by your body type and biomechanics. Virtually everyone has some quirk created by bone structure, core strength and symmetry, muscle imbalances, foot alignment, and other minor abnormalities we all live with.

All of these traits are helpful in playing a little game that’s similar to bird watching; trying to spot as many different running species you can find. We’ve helped you get started, by developing a beginner’s field guide to indigenous runners of the Monterey Peninsula:

The Happy Hummingbird: Characterized by short choppy steps and boundless energy, this runner bounces from tree to bush with optimism and flair. They are a joy to watch. These carefree runners often drift back and forth across the trail, wandering wherever the spirit leads them, travelling nearly everywhere but along a straight line.

The Cowering Crow: Unfortunately, you see these depressing runners all the time. They frown. They groan. They sneer. They grunt. They look like they’d rather be doing anything but running. Typically they are fitness or weight loss runners who really don’t enjoy running, but are just going through the motions because they know they should. This is the species of runner that non-runners spot while driving in their car, and think to themselves, “THAT’S why I’m not a runner!”

The Prancing Peacock: This is typically a female of the species who dresses to impress and to strut her stuff. Easily identifiable by ornamental clothing, this chickadee is often seen with colorful tights or running shorts accompanied by skimpy tops. Her bright tail feathering is often adorned with words such as “Pink,” “Juicy,” or “Abercrombie and Fitch”.

The Bare-Chested Bird of Prey: Easily identifiable on the trails by a shirtless look even on cold days. Typically, the male of the species strips down to impress any potential mates who may be nearby. (Not surprisingly, these runners are typically “available”). A commonly observed ritual sees the male flex his muscles around a prancing peacock, while chirping his “How you doin’ honey?” mating call.

The Wing-Flapping Vulture: This runner is easily identified by aggressive behavior and flapping arms. Often found running very fast with arms rotating in strange directions, this style often comes with head bobbing as well. Phoebe from Friends was the best pop-culture example of this species. Running close to this bird is not only embarrassing, but can frequently be dangerous as well.

The Delirious Dodo: You see this runner avoiding the safer trails and running paths in favor of routes through crowded traffic areas. They cross streets unexpectedly, run in the same direction as approaching cars, and drift across bike lanes on the recreation trail. In the darkness they wear dark colors with no reflective gear. It is no wonder that natural selection has made them an endangered species.

The Beast of Burden: This strange, Type A bird insists on trying to do two workouts at the same time. They are easily identified by running while carrying weights on their arms or tied to their legs. Sadly, this unusual behavior usually ruins both the joy and freedom of the running experience, while simultaneously lessening the effectiveness of their strength work.

The Red-Breasted Novice: This sorry creature is easy to spot in the final miles of a marathon with his distinctive red spots on the breast, caused by blood from chafed nipples without protection. His appearance often triggers shock and disgust amongst first-time bird watchers. The Red Breaster frequently has a distinctive cry of intense pain that sounds like the whippoorwill, which they repeat continuously during the last few miles of their race.

The Soaring Golden Eagle: These magnificent members of the species look like they were born to run. They move elegantly and magnificently with perfect posture, and their speed appears effortless. They glide over the ground and look like they could run forever. You’ll typically find these birds localized in the lead pack of any major marathon.

Now that you have your beginner’s guide, you’re fully equipped to take on your new hobby. Feel free to keep this column with you in your car to make field identification easier. Just remember to not judge the different varieties too harshly.

Like we said before, any running style is a good one – just so long as you’re not a Dodo.

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February 18, 2008

In Bloom

"Weather changes moods -
Spring is here again ...

And he don't know what it means ..."
- Nirvana, "In Bloom"

I’m shifting into slacker mode for the next few days: one “quickie” post now, a regular one on Wednesday, then I’m calling it a week.

For today, you’ll have to humor me a bit more on this springtime weather thing – because I really can’t fathom how we’ve been so lucky here lately, when most of the country is enduring blizzards and sub-freezing temperatures.

(I realize this could trigger another rash of “You suck” and “I hate you, it’s freezing here lately” comments and e-mails, but really, I don’t mind. Feel free to sound off – I won’t take it personally.)

I know it’s technically winter – but I can’t seem to convince myself that it’s not actually spring. And I’m not the only one having trouble; it seems as if the neighborhood trees have decided that we’re all ready to get our springtime groove on once again.

More and more, I find myself believing the trees. They make a convincing argument - especially when this is what I see outside my grocery store …


And this is a cherry tree outside of an elementary school …

And this is the parking lot of a church on Carmel Valley Road:

I know what the calendar says, and I know what the groundhog said - but I’m even more familiar with these trees. I run past them nearly every day, so many times that I can almost hear their whispers in the breeze. And lately, they’re assuring me that winter’s merely a fading memory.

Of course, it’s quite likely that we’re mistaken, and our area's in for a few more serious cold spells before the first official day of spring. In the meantime, the trees and I will just count our blessings, thankful that we’re included among the lucky ones.

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February 14, 2008

Let's Talk About Sex

Administrative note: A version of this article appeared in the Monterey Herald in November of 2005. I made some minor revisions and additions here, but the vast majority of the current post ran as scripted below. Hopefully after reading it, you’ll appreciate my recent disbelief about how my snot rocket article got yanked, but THIS one somehow lived to see the light of newsprint.

And if you’re anything like me, this article might also make you wonder exactly why it is that I haven’t been fired yet.

**

“Let’s talk about sex, baby –
Let’s talk about you and me –
Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.”

– Salt ‘n’ Pepa, “Let’s Talk about Sex”


It’s perhaps one of the most contentious questions ever asked: does sex affect your athletic performance? For as long as people have played games, there has been disagreement as to whether those other kinds of “games” are a help or a hindrance.


During the 4th century BC, Plato described the training regimen of Ikkos of Tarentum leading up to the ancient Olympic Games. Ikkos was a legendary athlete who was known to consume large quantities of cheese and goat meat, and often coated himself in olive oil to make his rippled body gleam. He also gave up sex during his peak training buildup (not that surprising, really, considering that olive oil thing), and went on to win the Olympic Pentathlon. Plato’s account is considered the first documented endorsement of abstinence before competition.

However, famed historian Pliny the Elder turned the argument on its head in his best-selling (or whatever they called something that was popular back then) treatise Natural History, released in AD 77. Pliny’s statement that “Athletes when sluggish are revitalized by love-making” was like an Emancipation Proclamation for horny athletes everywhere.

The battle has raged ever since. While most studies show that getting busy causes no tangible difference in athletic performance, athletes in all sports have weighed in on both sides. When it comes to shagging, it seems that everyone has something to say.

American track star Marty Liquori was one of the first runners to promote abstinence before races, saying that he liked to be “angry and aggressive” to race a fast mile. He explained that, "If you've had sex the night before, you'll be in a satisfied state and feel like smoking a cigarette."

Victor Plata, a member of the U.S. Olympic triathlon team, took the angry and aggressive approach to the extreme - Plata says he went 233 days without tapping, becoming “completely monastic” before the 2004 Athens Olympics.

However, in Olympic competition, it’s very likely that both Liquori and Plata were defeated by competitors who got their freak on just before the event. Among athletes, the Olympic Village is one of the most sexually vigorous gatherings imaginable. Whenever thousands of hardbodies with boundless energy and excess time on their hands gather together, the results are highly predictable.

At the Albertville Winter Games, condom machines in the athletes’ village reportedly had to be refilled every two hours. In Sydney, the organizers’ original order of 70,000 condoms was drained so quickly that they had to order 20,000 more - and the supply was still exhausted three days before the end of competition.

Breaux Greer, an American javelin thrower at the Sydney Games, reported that "There’s a LOT of sex going on. You get people who are in shape, and testosterone’s up, and everybody’s attracted to everybody." Such thoughts give new meaning to the concept of international diplomacy.

And yet, athletes continue to have differences of opinion on the effects of bedroom tapering. British sprinter Linford Christie habitually refrained, saying that a romp the night before a race made his legs feel like lead. On the other hand, the great Bob Beamon reported that he got some action on the eve of his record-shattering long jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Christie won one Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters, but Beamon set a world record that stood for 23 years. Draw your own conclusions.



Noted baseball sage Casey Stengel had an interesting take on the matter. Stengel liked to say that being with a woman never hurt a baseball player – it was the staying up all night to look for a woman that did him in. So presumably, if a willing partner just happened to be lying in the same bed, Stengel would give his players the green light.

Finally, Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo claimed that the key to his success in winning the 2002 World Cup was getting his groove on just before each match. He also says that to save his strength, he let his wife do most of the work. The lesson here is…actually, I’m not really sure there is a lesson here – I just thought it was a great story.

So the professionals are clearly undecided. But what about recreational athletes? Does boinking more frequently make us better competitors? Or conversely, does being a runner help you have a great sex life? None of us is trying to set any world records, but if a little extra bumping and grinding would help our race results, that would be good news indeed.

First - to set the record straight - I make no claim to be an authority in this field. Although I know a lot about training, I don’t pretend to have expertise in knocking boots. I can, however, give you some opinions and anecdotes from local runners, and allow you to make your own decisions.

For instance, one of my running partners is a respected physician who says he always thinks about sex while running, and likewise thinks about running whenever he’s exercising horizontally. He insists that it makes both his running and his sex life better. However, I’m keeping his identity anonymous so that he remains “respected.”

One of our local marathon runners also happens to be an instructor of human sexuality at CSU –Monterey Bay. She says the safest and most effective method for increasing your sex drive is proper diet and exercise. Running develops an enhanced cardiovascular system, with increased blood flow to ALL parts of the body. Therefore, running may affect your sex drive as much as boffing affects your running performance.

Additionally, consider a series of recent studies – some funded by Pfizer Inc., makers of Viagra - which indicate that regular sexual activity boosts levels of testosterone, one of the prime hormonal agents responsible for athletic performance in both men and women. Researchers found that sustained testosterone levels rose markedly when participants of either gender began having sex regularly.

(2008 addendum: now that I think of it … maybe Floyd Landis didn’t cheat after all. Maybe he just got a TON of French hospitality the night before that crucial mountain stage. How come no one else thought of this defense?)

Sex and running … running and sex. No matter what your personal preferences for pre-race competition may be, these topics will inevitably continue to be joined at the hip (so to speak) for countless years to come.

So what about my own personal experience? Are you wondering how often I get sprung, and what it does for my running? Honestly, I’d love to tell you. I’m always willing to share my knowledge, and I’ve said many times that there are no secrets in running.

Unfortunately, my wife DOES keep some secrets. And on this particular subject, that’s all I’m allowed to say.

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February 10, 2008

Six Topics In Search of a Theme

Admin note: I originally intended for this post to be a brief follow-up on the previous GPS article – but then several more items came to mind over the weekend that also seemed worth mentioning, and the whole thing turned into a typically random hodge-podge. I grappled with some kind of unifying theme to tie them all together, but that got way too hard – so I just came up with a clever title instead. I’m very much a “path of least resistance” guy.

Anyway, we’ll just jump right into things. Starting with …


1. This is what it looked like in Carmel Valley this weekend: 78 degrees and sunny. Um … tell me what month it is again?

I’m the first to admit that life in California isn’t all wine and roses. We have overcrowding in our cities, chronic economic problems, water issues, immigration concerns, and an education system that appears permanently disabled. Not to mention, Arnold Schwarzenegger is our Governor.

But then we’ll have a weekend of 80-degree days in mid-February, and I’m reminded of why I love living here. I know it’s a silly notion – but sometimes all it takes is a beautiful day to make everything seem right in the world, at least temporarily.

(Besides, we Californians really deserved this nice weather. We’ve had to deal with more than two weeks of rain and below-average temps. It even got to the point where I noticed my tan fading. What a horrifying ordeal for all of us. In fact, I can’t even talk about it anymore … let’s just move on.)

2. Our family took advantage of the nice weather by making another trek to the waterfall, and guess who else was there?...

This banana slug!

I explained to my kids the whole story of the slug’s slimy, mouth-numbing, toxic, possibly parasitic ooze that I had learned over the past few weeks – and to my bewilderment (and their credit), they all declined my suggestion to kiss one.

So I was forced to take matters into my own, uh, lips:

You know what? It wasn’t so bad. A slight tingling feeling, followed by a momentary sense of “Wait, how come my lips are stuck together?” as the slime briefly congealed. All in all, it wasn’t as creepy as I thought. In fact, it’s probably not the worst first kiss I’ve ever had - but that’s another story.

Following my example, my 4-year-old daughter also decided to kiss the slug, but the other two kids stuck to their guns and refrained. I’m not sure whether to be prouder of my youngest for being adventurous, or the others for being rational. Right now - assuming we don’t contract some weird infection in the next few days – I think I’m siding with the little one.

3. Briefly, on the subject of Lost – don’t worry, no spoilers – a few people have asked, so here’s my guess: Claire, Desmond, and Sayid. And that’s all I’m going to say. I guess we’ll partially find something out this Thursday.

4. For each of the last two weeks, I logged about 70 miles (you know … give or take a few tenths), of running, almost exclusively on trails. This week was scheduled to be a cutback week – and after skipping today’s run, I already feel like a basket case. By the end of the week I’ll likely be twitching and stuttering and longingly pressing my nose against the window whenever I drive past the open spaces I normally frequent. I know it sounds odd, but that’s actually a good sign. It means my body’s finally accepted the fact that we’re in full-on training mode again.

5. In honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I’m dusting off the old “Sex and Running” article I mentioned in my snot rocket intro, and I hope to post it here on Thursday. It won’t be the most romantic thing you read all week, but it might give you some extra justification (as if you needed any) for getting a little affectionate later on. Remember, I’m here to help.

6. Finally, on the topic of last week’s GPS article, here’s the follow-up story …

After that article came out, a lot of local runners seized upon the idea of the Beta factor – i.e., awarding extra mileage for any given run based on its degree of difficulty. I admit that the whole concept took me by surprise as well.

Some of us started referencing Beta in everyday conversation. We’d discuss the approximate Beta value of one trail in comparison to another, and we sent e-mails with sentences like “the run is 24 miles, but considering the Beta, we can call it 28.” Obviously, we thought it was one of the greatest things we’d ever heard.

Then last Tuesday, our running group included Jon, the guy to whom we attributed the Beta factor in the article. Early in the run, the following exchange took place:

Andrew: That Beta factor thing is awesome – so what computer program did you use to come up with it?

Jon: None – I actually made the whole thing up.

Needless to say, we were shattered. It turns out that our Beta infatuation was completely misguided, and our running routes are just as long as we always thought they were, if not (thanks to GPS) shorter.

The funny thing is, it’s a plausible enough idea to be believed. But I hate to think that any of the dozen or so people who read my newspaper articles have been misinformed. Thank goodness I’m classified as a “columnist” instead of a “reporter” – which allows me some wiggle room to twist the facts under the guise of creative writing.

The whole story is also a nice reminder that I probably have no business representing myself as a serious newspaper writer – a fact that should become even more abundantly clear on Thursday.

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February 8, 2008

GPS Depression

Unlike most of my training partners, I haven’t yet given in to the siren call of GPS devices. However, my friend Mike and I have enough vicarious experience to write an entire Herald article about them, which follows below.

The article is fairly straightforward - but one tidbit toward the end triggered a lot of discussion and a somewhat funny follow-up story, which I’ll share next week. I’ll leave it up to you to guess which part I’m referring to.

Otherwise, here’s the article from last month. As for the new sidebar video, we’ve gone from the sublime (Ladysmith Black Mambazo) to the ridiculous: ladies and gentlemen … Sum 41. You can blame Canada.

**

Running Life 1/24/08 “GPS Depression”


GPS devices have become increasingly common among runners over the past couple of years, and we train with many people who use them on a regular basis.

The devices are supposed to take the guesswork out of gathering information from each day’s run – but many times, they can create just as many questions as answers.

Here’s a typical conversation after our group completes the usual Friday morning route – and keep in mind that we’ve all run the EXACT same course:

While we’re stretching in the parking lot, Dave starts by asking, "Just how long was that run?"

Andrew looks at his GPS device and says, "I’ve got 6.78 miles with 1,142 feet of elevation change."

Jim looks at his GPS and says, "Mine says 6.62 miles with 988 feet of elevation change, with an average pace of 6.33 minutes per mile."

Jon, our resident scientist, will say, "Mine calculates it to 6.8417834290876 miles with 1,045 feet of elevation, an average pace of 6:45 per mile, average temperature of 38.6 degrees, and our correlation coefficient speed of inertia had a Beta factor of 1.23.”

(Or, at least, it sounds something like that – sometimes we don’t catch all the details.)

That’s about when Dave yells, "HEY - I just wanted to know if we’ve been gone more than an hour! I have to get to work!"

It’s easy to see how the advanced technology can cause us to lose the forest for the trees. It’s also been known to cause cases of GPS-related paranoia and/or depression among long-time runners.

Think of it this way: what if somebody from your college called to tell you that after reviewing your transcript, they realized that you were actually 6 units short of graduation. You didn’t really complete the work you thought you had, and they were revoking your diploma as a consequence. You’d freak out, right?

That’s sort of what runners feel like when using GPS devices for the first time. Suddenly, all of our runs become shorter than we always assumed, and our mileage totals don’t add up to the same numbers we’re accustomed to.

For example, the distance of our regular Friday run was historically agreed to be 7.5 miles. We have years of training logs attesting to the fact that we ran 7.5 miles every Friday. So you can imagine our horror when the first GPS readings from this run registered 6.7 miles.

The situation becomes even more nightmarish, as the GPS almost NEVER says a run is longer than we thought – only shorter. Our 13-mile Tuesday run is actually 12.7. Our 7-mile Wednesday run is merely 6.3. Worst of all, our crucial 20-mile marathon training workout may not even be 19 miles.

After all these years of running, we discovered that we owe a lot of mileage to make our training logs accurate. When we thought we were 50 mile-per-week runners, we were actually only hitting the mid-40s. When we were proud to log 80 miles per week, it might have only been 74. It’s enough to drive runners towards antidepressants.

Some of the discrepancy can be chalked up to innocent confusion over certain distances. Before GPS, we’d drive road routes in our car to measure the mileage, or guess at trail distances based on our pace, and come out with close estimates. Then we’d do some rounding. 6.84 would round up to 7, and 5.06 rounded down to 5. We figured that over a long period of time, the occasional overestimates and underestimates would cancel each other out – and it made the math much simpler that way.

However, the short GPS readings can also be attributed to real live, honest-to-goodness scientific inaccuracy. GPS devices come with some inherent technical limitations based on their mode of operation. They can intermittently lose their satellite signal - particularly on routes through canyons or with a lot of tree cover - and need some lag time to recover. The distance you run while the antenna is searching is “uncredited”, and doesn’t count toward your overall mileage.

(While training routes seem to always be short by GPS, it’s interesting to hear GPS users claim, “the course was long” after doing a race. Over any course with lots of turns or curves, it’s very easy to measure a few tenths of a mile long if you’re not taking all of the tangents. Sometimes you just can’t please a GPS’r.)

Thankfully, we’ve also become familiar with the Beta factor, which seems to be just the anti-depressant we’ve been looking for. After one morning run measured remarkably short and caused much consternation among the group, Jon – remember, he’s our scientist - plugged his GPS into a computer running analysis program and calculated a Beta factor of 1.23 for on our 6.8 mile run.

What the heck does this mean? Well, taking into account all the hills along with our speed, those 6.8 miles could be multiplied by 1.23 to arrive at an actual “training value” of 8.4 miles. As you can imagine, we love the Beta factor!

Of course, we still face the same training log dilemma. Do we record 6.8 miles, or 7.5 miles, or 8.4 miles with an asterisk? It all seemed a lot easier when we just wrote “one hour run.”

Actually, there’s nothing that prevents us from going back to the way things used to be. Some people will swear by GPS and never go without it – but the real joy of running is in the experience, not in the numbers. It’s something that all of us - whether we embrace the new technology or not – should always keep in mind.

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February 5, 2008

Swimming, Waiting, Wishing

Today’s post is relatively short, so I'll start by throwing in a somewhat unrelated story: an actual conversation between my 6-year-old daughter and me from about 3 weeks ago, as we were listening to the radio outside our house:


Me: Hey, [daughter] - come here!

Daughter: What?

Me (turning up radio): Listen to this …

Daughter (mouth open, eyes getting wide): That’s Jack Johnson! Is this a new song?

Me: Yeah – he’s got a new album coming out next month.

Daughter: Cool! We’re going to buy it, right?

Me: You bet … just as soon as it comes out.


Happily, that time is now. Jack Johnson’s new album comes out today, and there probably aren’t any two people more excited about it than me and my 6-year-old daughter. Have I mentioned before how much I like her? I thought so.

OK, thanks for indulging me. Here’s the real post …

**

Over the past several weeks, I’ve written a great deal about running. So much, in fact, that it might cause one to forget that I’m actually a triathlete.

At least, that’s the way I see it, in a philosophical manner of speaking. To paraphrase Plato, my true Form is a triathlete; the ultrarunner evolving before you on this blog is merely one of several outward manifestations of the Form’s essence. Socrates would describe my race schedule to the right as a momentary portrayal of my true Form under various circumstances.

Trust me - I could spend another 300 words going all Socratic on you, explaining theories of actualization and the allegory of the cave – but it will be a lot easier for both of us if you just take my word for it: I think of myself as a triathlete. And from time to time, I’ll try to remind you of that, if for no other reason than to keep myself honest.

For example, I’m still swimming on a regular basis – usually twice per week, and occasionally more. I’ve found it to be a perfect complement to high mileage running, and without the pressure of a race looming ahead, there’s no urgency to reach a certain number of yards or hit specific interval times. In other words, it’s all of the fun, with none of the stress. You can see why I’m reluctant to give it up.

Until recently, I thought that my swimming was simply a nice diversion from all the trail miles I’ve been logging. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that I’m actually getting academic credit for it. Not only that, but I happen to be scoring fairly well.

Quite a while ago (in this post), I explained how I had to enroll as a student at our local community college in order to use the outdoor pool facilities, which are far and away the best in town. I made some jokes about revisiting college life, possibly joining a fraternity, and worrying about whether or not I’d be graded for the activity. It turns out that I was only half kidding.

When I was registering online for the spring semester swim class, my eye was drawn to the “check my transcript” link on the menu bar. Of course, curiosity led me to click the link, where I saw the following screen:


Apparently, somebody thinks that I’m a straight-A swimmer. They've obviously never seen me trying to do flipturns with paddles and a pull buoy.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve maintained a 4.0 average - probably because it’s never happened. But now, almost 15 years after getting my diploma, I’m on the honor roll. It makes me wonder if I shouldn’t have chosen a different major way back then. Is it possible to earn a degree in triathlon?

I’m fully aware that these swimming grades are absolutely no reflection of my talent as a triathlete. In all likelihood, I’m getting credit and high marks just for showing up. But I think I’ll check my transcript more often in the future, just to feel a virtual pat on the back every now and then. One should never underestimate the value of positive reinforcement, no matter how meaningless or insignificant. Anything that helps the winter workouts click by is always a welcome sight.

On that note …. “Spring Semester” has a sweet ring to it, doesn’t it? It’s a nice reminder that there won’t be too many more weeks until the days are longer, the air is warmer, and my daughter and I are singing Jack Johnson tunes together under sunny summer skies.

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