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June 30, 2008

The Best Laid Plans (Western States Diary)

I had a pretty rough time this weekend.

When the initial news about Western States came down, I tried to put a brave face on it, and keep things in perspective. Cancellation was the right choice. There wasn’t anything anybody could have done to prevent it. I’d move on and find something else to focus my attention on.

Then race weekend came, and it was a whole different story.

On Saturday, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to be running. All day long, I pondered what point I would be on the course at that particular time. When I climbed into bed, the place I really wanted to be was approaching the Rucky Chuck river crossing. Sunday morning, I kept wishing I was in Auburn, squeezing in a short nap before the awards ceremony.

Of course, none of that happened. And the more I thought about it, the more bummed out I became.

To make matters worse, I had to write a Monterey Herald article, explaining to all of my readers - about one dozen at last count, but they’re an inquisitive bunch – precisely why this event I’d spent six months writing about wasn’t even going to happen. It had all the makings of the most anticlimactic ending to a series since The Sopranos.

The article I submitted was basically a reworking of my previous two blog posts, polished up a bit with some Robert Burns and Mick Jagger quotes. I e-mailed it to my editor, along with an apology: I’m sorry this story didn’t have a better ending. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I honestly did feel bad for anyone who might have been reading along about the way everything ended.

Remember – my original intent was to capture the appeal of ultrarunning in general, and the Western States 100 in particular, to an audience that might not otherwise ever learn about it. The guy at the donut shop, the high school kid looking for baseball scores, or the soccer mom at the health club. Now those people probably think that not only are ultrarunners crazy, but their labors are potentially fruitless. And I’m the poster boy for unrequited ambition.

Nevertheless, it seems like a logical stopping point for the series – but as for me, I have no idea what to do next. There are a few upcoming 100-milers I’ve considered, all of which require a significant revision of previously scheduled family plans. I’ve also found out that everyone from this year’s WS race has an automatic entry to the 2009 event, but even that isn’t a certainty for me.

The buildup to this race was difficult, to put things mildly. I was really looking forward to accomplishing the goal, then shutting the training machine down for a while, and making up for lost time in other aspects of my life. The thought of starting the whole process over for next year’s race seems more than a little daunting.

For now, I’m making like Al Gore after the 2000 election: I’m dropping off the grid, growing a beard, gaining a lot of weight (that part was inevitable after fasting for so long to get to race weight), mourning what might have been and contemplating what still might be. Right now, the option that appeals most to me is to do nothing. After feeling sorry for myself all weekend, my motivation to do anything in the near future is nearly nonexistent – it’s like I caught all of the symptoms of post-race depression, without actually doing the race.

However, I’m fairly certain that I’ll snap out of it soon. Hopefully by next week, I’ll come up with some answers for which way to go from here. Until then, here’s my final Monterey Herald article for this year’s series.

**

Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 8: The Best Laid Plans

*
“The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry”
- Robert Burns, from To a Mouse


So, about that last article I wrote – the one where I said that today I hoped to be across the finish line of the Western States 100, resting easily with a sub-24 belt buckle in hand? Remember that one? …

Well, nevermind. It's not happening. For the first time in its 35-year history, the Western States Endurance Run has been canceled.On Wednesday evening, as I was packing my bags to leave, I received the following e-mail:

Dear Western States Runners,
It is with deep regret that we announce that the 35th running of the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run has been cancelled, due to the unprecedented amount of wildfires that have struck northern California in recent days and the health risks associated with these wildfires. We apologize to our runners for any inconvenience this decision has created.

Needless to say, I was stunned. This is the runner’s equivalent of being left at the altar: all that planning, all those hopes and dreams, all vanished with one heartless Dear John letter. And like a jilted fiancee, the only thing I could think to do that evening was make myself a large bowl of ice cream to smother my remorse.

The race was a victim of last weekend’s freak electrical storm that blew across Northern California, leaving hundreds of fires in its wake, further deteriorating what was already a widespread state of emergency. At the beginning of the week, there were more than 800 active wildfires in California - so the initial e-mail from the Western States committee warning that the race was threatened didn’t exactly come as a shock.

However, I tend to be an optimist, so I held out hope that something would be worked out, that weather conditions would settle down, and we would all be that much more grateful to participate in the event because we appreciated the possibility that it almost didn’t happen.

And then they cancelled the race.

Wednesday afternoon and evening were a bit surreal: within the span of a few hours, my emotions went from anticipation, optimism, excitement and joy, to … nothing. It all simply vanished.

Although this is a heartbreaking turn of events for everyone associated with the race, I certainly can’t say I’m upset – because I know that cancellation was probably the right thing to do. I know that the Western States committee exhausted every last possibility to make the race happen, and their decision wasn’t made irrationally.

These wildfires are seriously scary; their destructive power is rapid and unpredictable. There’s absolutely no way to assure the safety of runners, pacers, crew members, volunteers, aid station workers, and spectators across one hundred miles of mountainous terrain under the conditions we’re currently experiencing.

Besides - staging a trail race shouldn’t be anyone’s top priority right now. Not when thousands of Californians are evacuated from their homes, and hundreds have already lost everything they own. Not when every firefighter in the state has worked overtime for the past month, traveling from one hotspot to another to keep the threats reasonably contained. Sure, Western States is prestigious, but under the circumstances, it seems awfully selfish to get worked up over losing the opportunity to run it this summer.

Also, there’s this: remember all that stuff I wrote in my last article, about how the satisfaction is in the journey, and how most of us already have the self-realization of ultrarunners even before we stand on the start line? Well –I know this might sound strange – to a large extent, I actually believe it. Even without Western States happening, I’m quite satisfied with where I’m at right now, and with the trails I’ve covered to get here.

And yet … it all feels so incomplete.

There’s something undeniably uplifting about actually crossing a finish line, and having a tangible accomplishment for all of that hard work. It’s like a validation of everything you believe about yourself – a validation that right now is somewhat lacking. Not having that “100-mile finisher” label on my resume will probably be a source of frustration from time to time, especially at those times when I question precisely why it is I put myself through this crazy training regimen in the first place.

Finally – and least importantly, in light of everything else - I’m also sad for missing out on what promised to be a fantastic experience. Part of me feels like Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound in a rainstorm, lamenting the game that will never be. All I really wanted was to play - and now the opportunity is lost.

I might make up for those last two items by jumping into another 100-mile race somewhere, but for many reasons, that’s not such an easy thing to do. I’m a bit of a rudderless ship right now – but over the next several days I’ll start evaluating my options. One likely scenario is to do nothing, and try my luck at starting this whole process over again next year.

Despite our best laid plans, the things we hope and plan for sometimes don’t materialize. Or as Mick Jagger said more simply, you can’t always get what you want. That’s just the way life goes.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll find a race to complete this journey more rapidly, to more quickly satisfy my 100-mile itch – but it should go without saying now that any plans from this point on should be considered tentative at best. In January of this year, when I started telling people about my race calendar for 2008, I usually prefaced the schedule with the following quote: If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Little did I know how prophetic that would turn out to be.

Read more...

June 26, 2008

Good Grief!

In hindsight, I was a witness. I saw the beginning of the end.

Last weekend, our kids were in a swimming pool with some friends, enjoying the ideal remedy for a freakish heat wave of three straight 105-degree days gripping our area. Normally under these conditions, the air is remarkably calm, to the point where even the leaves on the trees remain perfectly still. But for about 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon, everything changed.

Sitting beside the pool, I felt a hot breeze on my skin, then spotted a huge, dark cloud formation approaching over the hills on the horizon – and I immediately made the same “Whoa, this is serious” face that Obi-Wan Kenobi had when approaching the Death Star for the first time. It was only a few minutes after pulling the kids out of the pool that the electrical storm passed overhead, and we stood on the grass watching the lightning strikes travel further down the valley.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was also watching the demise of this year’s Western States 100.

The storm that passed over our house eventually caused hundreds of fires throughout Northern California, and further deteriorated what was already a widespread state of emergency; at one point, there were more than 800 active wildfires in California. So the initial e-mail from the Western States committee warning that the race was threatened didn’t exactly come as a shock.

However, I tend to be an optimist in these situations, so I held a firm belief that something would be worked out, that weather conditions would settle down, and we would all be that much more grateful to participate in the event because we appreciated the possibility that it might not happen.

And then they cancelled the race.

Believe it or not, my initial reaction was embarrassment. On Wednesday afternoon, I had posted my farewell thoughts before heading to the race - I wrote about how good I felt, how happy I was with my preparation, and how confident I was that I’d have a good outcome. All of which was now completely meaningless.

I briefly considered taking that pre-race post down, but decided to leave it alone. I figured that post in combination with the cancellation notice succinctly illustrated the range of emotions I experienced in just a handful of hours: from anticipation, optimism, excitement and joy, to … nothing.

Although this is a heartbreaking turn of events for everyone associated with the race, I certainly can’t say I’m upset by the cancellation – because I know it was probably the right thing to do. As much as I was looking forward to it, I’m sure that nobody loves Western States more than the race committee. They undoubtedly exhausted every last possibility to make this event happen, and their decision wasn’t made irrationally.

These wildfires are seriously scary: their destructive power is rapid and unpredictable. There’s absolutely no way to assure the safety of runners, pacers, crew members, volunteers, aid station workers, and spectators across one hundred miles of mountainous terrain under the conditions we’re currently experiencing.

I haven’t seen the sun clearly in two days. A few weeks ago, we woke up to ash on our cars and doorsteps, blown from prevailing winds near a local blaze. And – this isn’t an exaggeration - it’s been like this in almost every area of the state this week.

Thousands of Californians are evacuated from their homes right now, and hundreds have already lost everything. Nearly every firefighter in the state has worked overtime for the past month or more, traveling from one hotspot to another to try and keep the threats reasonably contained. In light of these things, it seems a bit selfish to get too worked up over missing out on a trail race, regardless of its stature.

Also, there’s this: remember all that stuff I wrote in my last Monterey Herald article, about how the satisfaction is in the journey, and how most of us already have the self-realization of ultrarunners even before we stand on the start line? Well - strange as it sounds – to a large extent, I actually believe it. Even without Western States happening, I’m quite satisfied with where I’m at right now, and with the trails I’ve covered to get here.

And yet …

There’s something emotionally uplifting about actually crossing a finish line, and having a tangible accomplishment for all of that hard work. It’s like a validation of everything you believe about yourself – and that’s what’s lacking right now. Not having the “100M finisher” label to attach to my resume will undoubtedly be a source of frustration from time to time, especially when I question precisely why it is I put myself through this crazy training regimen.

Finally – and least importantly, in light of everything else - I’m also sad for missing out on what promised to be a fantastic experience. Part of me feels like Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound in a rainstorm, lamenting the game that will never be. All I really wanted was to play - and now the opportunity is lost.

I know I might make up for those last two items by jumping into another race somewhere, but that’s not such an easy thing to do. Right now, I really don’t have any other ultras on my radar, but I’ll evaluate my options (of which the primary one will be to do nothing) in the next few days and keep you posted.

It should go without saying now, but any plans from this point on will be considered tentative at best. Back in January, when I announced my race calendar for 2008, I introduced the post with the following quote: If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

Little did I know how prophetic that would turn out to be.

Read more...

June 25, 2008

Up in Smoke

So, about that previous post I just published ...

Nevermind. It's not happening. For the first time in its 35-year history, the Western States Endurance Run has been canceled.

A few minutes ago, all participants received the following e-mail:

Dear Western States Runners,
It is with deep regret that we announce today that the 35th running of the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run has been cancelled, due to the unprecedented amount of wildfires that have struck northern California in recent days and the health risks that have been associated with these wildfires. The Board of Trustees of the Western States Endurance Run has consulted with many of our local and state race partners, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Placer County Air Pollution Control District, in coming to this decision. We apologize to our runners for any inconvenience this decision has created.

As you can imagine, I'll have more to say about this tomorrow or Friday. For now, I'm looking to for a large bowl of ice cream to smother my remorse.

Read more...

June 24, 2008

Off and Away!

“Congratulations! Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!”
- Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss), from Oh the Places You’ll Go!


At this point, there’s not much left to say.

After months of training - not to mention years of anticipation - I’m finally on my way to the Western States Endurance Run.

I’ve been replying to a lot of “good luck” e-mails from friends this week, and in almost every one of them, I’ve written something like, Thanks – I feel really good about everything.

The most surprising thing to me about this whole training period is how uneventful it’s been. Usually when I’m building up to a major race, there are all kinds of crisis periods due to illness, minor injuries, or the sheer panic of missing workouts due to unforeseen circumstances.

This spring and summer, everything clicked along more or less the way I wanted it to. Sure, I would like to have logged more mileage from week to week, and I’d like to weigh a little less than I do, but I think those feelings are inescapable; I suspect nearly every endurance athlete comes into races wishing he was 10% lighter and had done 10% more training. Otherwise, I have no complaints about how the story has played out so far.

A few weeks ago, my 7-year-old daughter told me she wanted to make me a bracelet to wear during my big race. (This was completely expected, as she’s something of a beading fanatic. I’ve got enough bracelets and necklaces to complement a dozen different outfits – but that’s a separate post someday.) So in addition to all my lightweight fabrics and technical gear, I’ll be sporting this accessory on my journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn:


You know how it sometimes takes me entirely too many words to explain my mindset (like this post for example, which I introduced with “not much left to say …”) or get a particular point across? Well, my daughter basically summed up my approach to this race in two little words. (Sure, she gets high marks for efficiency – but she’d be a terrible blogger.)

My plan is to just run. Not to worry about the course or the heat (or, with increasing prominence, the smoke) or specific split times or any of the other potential pitfalls that may befall me. I’ll just run whenever I can, walk when I can’t run, and – hopefully this won’t be necessary - crawl when I can’t walk. As long as I keep on moving, I’m fairly confident that other considerations like finish times and belt buckles will fall into place.

If you’d like to follow my progress this weekend, use the Western States webcast and click the “Where’s my runner?” icon to search for me by name, or by bib #128. Start time is 5AM on Saturday, and the site is updated based on reports from 20 checkpoints along the way.

When it’s all said and done, I’ll post a brief announcement as soon as possible, but I’m not sure what kind of wi-fi access I’ll have at my disposal, or what kind of condition I’ll be in to attempt typing a post. In other words, the webcast is definitely the fastest way to find out how my race went.

In light of those factors, here’s a final suggestion: If anyone out there sees something definitive (a finish time or … something else I’m not willing to mention) posted on the webcast, feel free to use the comment box below this post to notify others. That way I won’t feel so rushed to drag myself to the blogger dashboard while my body is fighting off a multi-system shutdown.

Thanks again to everyone who has followed along. It’s been a great journey thus far. See you in 100 miles.

“You're off to Great Places! Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting. So ... get on your way!”
- Dr Seuss

Read more...

June 22, 2008

Affirmation (Western States Diary)

“Over and in, last call for sin -
While everyone's lost, the battle is won -
With all these things that I've done.”
- The Killers, “All These Things That I’ve Done”

I don’t know what it is about tapering that makes me turn into Hamlet – but invariably, whenever race week rolls around, I become the most irritatingly melancholy and philosophic guy you’d ever dread to meet.

The combination of forced rest and impending challenge are a natural time for reflection, to contemplate the larger meaning of both the trails that have been traveled as well as the task that remains ahead. For me – for better or for worse, I haven’t quite decided - it also stirs up feelings of second-guessing and remorse over whether the reward of the accomplishment is worth the various costs (in time, effort, mental focus, etc.) of the preparation which precedes it.

Part 7 of my Western States series for the Monterey Herald started off in precisely this fashion – me bemoaning all these things that I’ve done, wondering if there was some crucial component missing from my life that compels me to chase after one crazy goal after another. The Don Quixote analogy I used in my
pacer article seems more appropriate with each passing week: some delusional guy charging faraway windmills, to triumph in some imaginary crusade of no importance to anyone but himself (and even that part is questionable).

But as I was polishing off the article, I had a change of heart. All things considered, the good people of Monterey County probably don’t need to hear about the impact this Western States buildup has had on my family (which, for a newspaper article, felt too intrusive), or hear me lamenting a lifestyle that I’ve enthusiastically pursued for several years now (seemingly hypocritical).

So I quickly changed direction, and wrote one of your standard pre-race countdown articles, trying to maintain an upbeat vibe throughout the entire piece. And since by this time I was about 2 hours from a deadline, I ended up rehashing part of a blog post from last week to conclude the piece. The result is what you see below.

Finally - I hope to have one more post this week before heading off to the race, with my race number and information about athlete tracking and post race follow-up. Assuming that I’m not too jittery to sit for long enough to type, that is.

**

Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 7: Affirmation Bombardment


Western States is right around the corner – by this time next weekend, I’ll be somewhere in the vicinity of Auburn, CA, recovering from the efforts of what promises to be the longest, most difficult effort of my life.

Hopefully, I’ll have a belt buckle in my hand to show for it, but that’s almost a secondary concern. When I initially sat down to map out my goals for this race, the list looked something like this:

1) Survive
2) Finish the 100 miles
3) Earn a sub-24 hour belt buckle

Needless to say, priorities come into sharp focus when preparing for an event like Western States. What’s especially worrying is that from this point on, there’s really nothing more I can do to help attain those goals.

The last week before a major race is always quite nerve-racking. All the training has been done, and the hay is in the barn; any strenuous workout efforts from this point on would simply be counterproductive. These last several days of rest allow the body to recover from the hard training it has endured, and to stockpile energy reserves for the challenge ahead.

So as race weekend draws nearer, the number of miles I run gets progressively smaller. Unfortunately, in that same time frame, the number of hours I spend thinking about the race grows exponentially. And with my normal mechanism of releasing nervous energy – namely, running – eliminated as an option, I inevitably become a bit of a basket case counting down the days and hours until the event starts.

It’s somewhat ironic, in that I’ve always felt that ultrarunning isn’t so much about the races themselves as it is the process to get there. The manner by which the body and mind is gradually built up to attempt something once considered unfathomable is a remarkable transformation to experience. Like many other things in life, there’s as much satisfaction drawn from the journey as there is at the destination.

In fact, by the time we stand on the start line, most of us are already fully aware of the physical ability and psychological resolve we’ve forged within ourselves. Race weekend is simply when we put those qualities on display for the rest of the world to see.

The funny part is that, as a general rule, I don’t give much thought to who might be watching. But over the past several weeks, I’ve realized that there may be more people watching than I ever imagined.

From the beginning, this series has had the working subtitle “A Western States Training Diary”, and for the most part, that’s exactly what it felt like: a place to write my thoughts about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and what I have to do to get there. And like any other diary, I figured that the things I said wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone outside my immediate circle of acquaintances.

At least, that’s what I figured until all of the well-wishes started pouring in.

Recently, and with increasing frequency, I’ve been on the receiving end of e-mails and comments with words of encouragement for Western States. What’s more, many of them are from random people I’ve never met before, or who I hadn’t realized were following my little adventure, either through these Herald articles, or via the Internet.

Several years back, I participated in a high school ministry program. One of the coolest things we did occurred whenever a senior left the group for college; it was something we called “affirmation bombardment”.

The student sat in a chair in front of the whole group – then one at a time, each person in the room told that kid something he (or she) liked about him (or her). The comments typically started with trivial thoughts, like admiring the kid’s haircut - but as the session continued, the sentiments invariably grew more profound, speaking to the person’s personality and character, and his or her ability to succeed in the larger world after leaving the comforting surroundings of home.

It never failed to be an incredibly uplifting scene: some anxious kid preparing for an unimaginable adventure, having his spirits boosted by a group of people who care about him, gaining confidence for the journey ahead. Those nights were my favorite part of the ministry – and they’re a memory I’ve been reminded of with all of this Western States business over the past couple of weeks.

Soliciting encouragement from others was never an intent of this series – but now that it’s happened, I admit that it feels pretty darn cool. With a challenge of this scope, it’s definitely nice to know that a group of people are cheering for you.

So if you’re one of the folks who has unexpectedly dropped me a kind word lately: thanks very much for the affirmation. You’ve boosted my spirits in a hundred tiny doses, and given me increased confidence for the journey ahead. All of these things will definitely come in handy on June 28th.

Read more...

June 19, 2008

The Heart of an Ultrarunner

A couple of administrative notes before today’s post …

*I’ve been tagged twice now to do that “describe your running” thing that’s going around. So that item has moved up about 5 slots on my list of future posts – but needless to say, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it.

*A friend of mine is involved in a filmmaking contest featuring short videos on various aspects of running. I have to admit that before he pointed it out to me, I had no idea that such a competition even existed - but apparently it does, and the stakes are enormous. Remember when I won that blog contest, and the reward was the gold ribbon picture you see on my sidebar? Well, the winner of this contest gets a trip to Beijing. All of a sudden, my victory seems remarkably insignificant.

Anyway, when you get a minute, go to
this website and check out the videos. My friend did the steeplechase video, so we’d appreciate your vote for that one – but honestly, they’re all pretty good.

OK, let’s move along …

**

Although I try not to place additional value on my friendships based on people’s occupations or skills, I’ll admit this much: sometimes, it’s nice to have friends who are physicians.

It’s especially nice if your friend is a prominent cardiologist with advanced training in diagnostic imaging, who just opened a clinic featuring a new multi-million dollar non-contrast time-spatial labeling inversion pulse (I know, I know … I don’t understand all those words, either) magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) machine, and is in need of volunteers for cardiac scans so that he and the clinical staff can get accustomed to instrumentation and calibration of the machine.


As you can imagine, it took me about 0.002 seconds to say “Where do I sign?” after the doctor asked if I was interested in volunteering – and that’s how I found myself getting prepped to undergo a free cardiac MRA earlier this week.

The nurses even shave your chest for you, so that the electrode contact surfaces are clean. I swear, sometimes I wonder how I luck into these things.

The procedure itself was uneventful, with the exception of when the imaging tech had to stop the test and extract me from the machine to shake me awake. (I’ve mentioned before that I have some sleep deprivation issues, haven't I?)

I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as results go - but leading up to the exam, two conflicting scenarios battled back and forth in my mind:

1) My doctor friend would sit down to review the images on the screen, and excitedly exclaim, “Whoa – that heart can definitely run for 100 miles!” Or …

2) He’d sit down and immediately say “Hmm – I think I see something here.”

Obviously, I was pulling for the first scenario over the second. But the official verdict was relatively anticlimactic: he sat down, spent a few minutes clicking the mouse and taking various measurements, and nonchalantly said, “Looks pretty normal.”



A normal heart. I’ve been running my butt off for the past several months so I can be normal. Needless to say, I wasn’t overwhelmingly flattered with the preliminary reading. However, with further discussion, the “normal” label took on greater significance than I initially thought.

It turns out that my friend has recently reviewed several journal articles discussing heart failure among athletes – in particular, the cardiac abnormalities that led to the sudden deaths of high profile athletes such as Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis, and most recently, Ryan Shay.

Many of these athletes shared a specific variety of cardiac abnormality called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is a fancy term for an unusual thickening of the heart wall. While it’s normal for elite athletes to have enlarged heart muscles, with state of the art imaging techniques, this ominous type of cardiomyopathy is more easily distinguished from the relatively benign hypertrophy (muscle thickening) often referred to as “athlete’s heart.”

State of the art imaging techniques, such as my friend’s new MRA. In light of that, “normal” is actually a wonderful diagnosis to hear.

So now I’m reasonably certain that I won’t drop dead during Western States – at least, not from a heart attack. As far as lions, rattlesnakes, heat stroke, dehydration, or a myriad of other things are concerned … I suppose the jury’s still out on those issues.

Finally, in a related story … my friend’s not the only one interested in examining my heart lately. At Western States, I’ll be one of many subjects for a study of cardiac function during prolonged endurance exercise. I’ll have an electrocardiogram to assess the increase in cardiac stress levels, and the depression in cardiac function. The tests will be administered one day before the start, and again after the race.

At the post-race testing area in Auburn, I’m not exactly sure what a “normal” heart would look like – but as long as it’s the heart of a 100-mile finisher, I know that mine will be a happy one.

Read more...

June 14, 2008

New Acquaintances

Western States is right around the corner – which means I’m having trouble putting intact paragraphs together, let alone writing an entirely cohesive post. Accordingly, all I’ve got today are a few loosely organized thoughts related to the upcoming race …


**
Several years back, I participated in a high school ministry program. One of our coolest activities occurred whenever a senior left the group for college; it was something we called “affirmation bombardment”.

The student sat in a chair in front of the whole group – then one at a time, each person told that kid something he (or she) liked about him (or her). It could be something minor, such as having a nice haircut, but usually the sentiments grew more profound, speaking to the person’s personality and character, and his or her ability to succeed in the larger world after leaving the comforting surroundings of home.

It never failed to be an incredibly uplifting scene – watching some anxious kid preparing for an unimaginable adventure, having his spirits boosted by a group of people who care about him, gaining confidence for the journey ahead. Those nights were my favorite part of the ministry – and they’re a memory that’s been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.

Recently, and with increasing frequency, I’ve been on the receiving end of e-mails and comments with well-wishes for Western States. What’s more, several of them are from random people I’ve never known before, who have approached me on the street, or dropped unexpected e-mails to my inbox. I guess I've never fully appreciated how many people were following this little adventure, either through my Monterey Herald articles, or via this blog.

I’m not sure how everybody’s finding me, but I know one thing: it sure feels nice to know that people are cheering for you. So if you’re one of the folks who has encouraged me with a kind word lately: thanks very much for the affirmation. It will definitely come in handy on June 28th.

**

Speaking of people coming out of the woodwork … if you ever want to increase traffic to your website, here’s what you do: find some way to get yourself mentioned on Scott Dunlap's blog. He was gracious enough to promote one of my Western States articles last week, and my hit count shot through the roof like Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator. That dude wields some mighty impressive web muscle – he’s the Original Gangster of running bloggers.

I know there are a lot of newcomers who found me from Dunlap’s site, so for their benefit, I thought I should clarify a few pertinent issues:

1) First – you know I’m not nearly as good as Scott, right? I don’t yo-yo with the frontrunners in trail races, and the only time I see the elite runners is when I’m secretly taking their pictures from a distance. I just figured I should lower that bar of expectation right away. Also …

2) The whole ultrarunning vibe you feel here is prominent now, but after Western States is done, it will go back to competing for recognition against triathlon, spelling bees, reality TV, kid stuff, and whatever other nonsense comes to mind. I’m the first one to admit that it gets pretty silly sometimes. But if you'd still like to stick around, I'd love to have you. On that note …

3) Subscription info is on the right sidebar. And if you sign up within the next 30 minutes, I’ll throw in an extra month of posts at no additional charge. Welcome aboard.

**
This last item relates to something I mentioned in my previous post, about how Western States is consuming my thoughts with nearly every waking minute nowadays. Normally in these circumstances, I do a decent job of maintaining my focus at work, but now that mental compartmentalization is being challenged by, of all things, an interior decorator.

Periodically my company will reassign staff members to different offices based on shifting roles and responsibilities; and occasionally when this happens, the d├ęcor of particular locations will be altered to suit the tastes of the new occupants.

My little corner of middle management recently underwent this sort of makeover - and as a result, this is the painting that greets me every day on the way to my office:


Now … it is just me, or does this lion look strikingly familiar? Does it remind anyone else of the logo for a certain footrace that takes place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the last weekend in June? A footrace that I’m already driving myself crazy thinking about with each passing moment?
I mean … what are the odds that this kind of thing would happen two weeks before my race? There’s got to be some symbolism involved, wouldn’t you say? When the Western States mountain lion shows up unannounced in your place of business, it sure seems like there’s a larger force at work, or some sort of message to be heard – although exactly what that message says, I’m not certain.

I’m also conscious of the fact that after the race is over, when I eventually return to the office, I’ll have to look this lion in the eye and answer for my performance. Furthermore, I’ll most likely be reminded of my participation in Western States for every single day of my employment from this point forward. As if I needed any more pressure.

I’m not sure what story I’ll have to tell once the race is said and done – I just hope it’s one I can be proud of. While the anticipation is killing me, the good news is that I won’t have to wait much longer to find out.

And if you'd like to stick around these parts, you'll find out very shortly thereafter.

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June 11, 2008

Fiddy!

As in, fifty. Five-Oh. 50 yards underwater. 8 lanes across, 8 lanes back.


Remember when I compared this feat to climbing Mount Everest? Admittedly, that analogy was a little overblown – but what’s important is that I finally knocked the bastard off. Even better is that I actually had a witness.

Normally our swim group does two 25-yard underwater lengths at the end of workouts, which typically average about 2500 yards. But on the day that I broke the 50-yard barrier, some unusual circumstances during practice helped embolden me to the task.

On this particular day, only a few of us showed up, and we all got a late start in the pool, so our group workout ended up about 500 yards shorter than usual. Afterward, one of the guys had to leave quickly, and the other wanted to do some drills, so I was left on my own with the underwater laps.

Therefore, I was able to take a longer than normal rest break before the attempt. Regaining my breath while holding onto the wall, I felt a sense of determined assurance suddenly wash over me; in a split second, I simply knew that I was going to do it. The time was now.

I waited a few seconds longer before asking the lifeguard to watch. He likes to monitor us when we do breath holding stunts (I’ve always appreciated him for that), and he knew that I’ve been gradually stretching out my underwater distance. Even so, he seemed a bit surprised when I asked him, Hey, (lifeguard) - can you keep an eye on me? … followed a second later by, I’m going to go up and back.

That’s right … I said it. This wasn’t exactly Babe Ruth calling his shot, but it felt pretty awesome to declare it out loud like that, fully confident that I’d be able to make it happen. All that was left now was to do it.

In the aftermath, I knew that I would write a blog post about the accomplishment – that was a no-brainer. What took me by surprise were the parallels I kept drawing between the underwater 50 and the 100-mile race coming up in a couple of weeks.

(Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been that astonished. My thoughts are consumed by Western States lately – it’s the only thing I can focus on. I think one of my kids had a birthday last month, but that sort of stuff is kind of hazy nowadays.)

So here’s the anatomy of a 50-yard underwater swim, complete with my thought process at key landmarks across 8 lanes in one direction, and 8 lanes back. Afterwards, go ahead and call me an idiot if this doesn’t also sound like the internal dialogue in the course of a 100-miler.

*
Start–5 yards: There’s no way, this is crazy … it’s too far, I won’t make it. This was a stupid idea.

Yards 5-20: Relax … be confident … be brave … get focused … strong strokes … keep good form … smooth movements, conserve energy.

Yards 20-25: Quick touch and go, don’t waste time … stay relaxed … you can do it!

Yards 25-30: Halfway done! … don’t get excited, there’s still a long way to go … keep relaxed, it’s about to get painful …

Yards 30-40: It’s too much, I can’t do it … I need to breathe … this hurts.

Yards 40-45: Oh my God this hurts … keep fighting … give up! … stay focused ... it doesn’t really matter … no fear … don’t give up …

Yards 45-50: I’m dying … I’m going to make it … I’m dying … I’m going to make it … I’m dying … I’m making it … get there get there GET THERE!

Finish: *blank*

Finish (30 seconds later): Everything hurts … I feel great … that was incredible!

*
Seriously … just double all of those numbers, replace “yards” with “miles”, and the psychology of the two feats seems pretty much similar. In other words, the underwater challenge offers all the emotion of an ultra, in less than a minute. No wonder it feels so intense.

Of course, I’m so neurotic that I couldn’t simply enjoy my achievement on its own; after the initial exhilaration, I worried that the extenuating circumstances of the workout made it less than genuine. Then I worried that maybe the swim was a Bob Beamon-like happenstance, never to be duplicated again in future attempts. (I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating here: I can find the downside of anything.)

So this week, after a regular swim workout, I did it again. Just like the first time, it punished my body, but strengthened my spirit - all of which makes me believe that it’s even more like ultras than I thought.

I guess that's why I enjoy it so much.

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June 8, 2008

A Moveable Feast (Western States Diary)

I commented to Craig last week about how there seems to be a “sweet spot” in the relationship between training and blogging. For many of us, training is the stimulant that triggers our creative juices – so when our training volume slows down, it’s hard to come up with things to write about.

For others, the balance is skewed to the opposite extreme: we’re training so much, there are tons of things on our minds from day to day, but we don’t have nearly enough time to write about them. In this second group, lately, would be me.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent almost all of my time either: 1) working, 2) training, or 3) falling asleep in front of a computer or television screen. I’ve got a list of about 20 things I want to write about, but carving out time to do so is getting harder and harder.

A good case in point is the following Monterey Herald article, Part 6 of my Western States series. Normally I finish these things a few days in advance of my deadline, then tinker with them for a couple of days before sending in a polished final version. Last week, I kept putting it off and putting it off, until Thursday rolled around and I finally realized, “Oh, crap – my article’s due tomorrow!”

So what follows is essentially a first draft. Under the circumstances, I’m relatively happy with the way it came out, but deep inside I know that it definitely could have been better had I dedicated a bit more time to the task. Or if I hadn’t been too exhausted to care about it any more.

One final thought in regards to the phase I’m currently in, and in regards to the new song on the sidebar: “Fully Alive” by Flyleaf. This is a band that I could write a whole post about (and maybe, someday, I will – but I’ve learned to stop promising such things), but for the time being, just know this: despite the fatigue, despite the difficulty getting routine tasks done nowadays, I feel more fully alive right now than at any time in recent memory.

I think that goes with the territory of tapering for a huge event. I mean, if you don’t get amped counting down the last few weeks before Western States … somebody might need to check you for a pulse.

**

Journey of 100 Miles: A Western States Training Diary

Part 6: A Moveable Feast

*

“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” ~Voltaire


It’s only human nature that when a guy thinks about running 100 miles, his thoughts initially dwell on all of the worrisome aspects of the task: physical discomfort, potential danger, risk of injury – basically, all the things I’ve written about to this point.

Not everything is unpleasant, however. Ultramarathons features some unique perks that are unlike anything else you’ll find in the sport of running.

For example, you get to eat a lot of food.

Caloric intake (along with hydration) is probably the most important factor in an ultrarunner’s ability to finish the race. Energy stores need to be continually replenished in order to keep the body moving through 100 miles of treacherous terrain.

A general rule of thumb is that each mile of running burns approximately 100 calories. Now multiply that number by 100, then add another 2000 calories to account for the body’s baseline metabolic rate, and that comes out to a minimum of 12,000 calories that a runner expends going up and down the mountains and valleys of the Western States Endurance Run.

So eating during the event isn’t merely an option - it’s a necessity.

At first glance, the prospect of consuming 12,000 calories in 24 hours doesn’t appear incredibly daunting. For example, if I could somehow arrange to have a Jamba Juice shop available every 4 miles or so on the trail, 25 power-sized Strawberries Wild smoothies would have me well on my way.

Although there aren’t any smoothie stands on the course, runners at Western States have plenty of opportunity to fill their fuel tanks between the start in Squaw Valley and the finish line in Auburn. No fewer than 24 aid stations are located at various points of the trail, stocked with all manner of goodies to keep a runner moving.

You know how some high-society types like to hold those progressive dinners, where partygoers travel from one house to another for each course of a luxurious meal? That’s what an ultramarathon is like – except that you have to run 5 or 6 miles between each station, the food is served from paper plates instead of china, the offerings at each location are nearly identical, and there aren’t really any chairs to sit on. (But, you know … other than that, it’s exactly the same.)

The things you find at aid stations of an ultramarathon may surprise you; they’re filled with the types of foods that most runners wouldn’t be caught dead with under normal circumstances. Cookies, brownies, candy, soda, and chips are pretty much standard fare – it sometimes looks more like a kindergartener’s birthday bash than an elite athletic contest.


Aid station snacks fall into three general categories: salty (potato chips, pretzels), sugary for quickly accessible calories (cookies, candy, energy gels), or starchy for prolonged energy (energy bars, boiled potatoes). Cola drinks have the perfectly magic combination of sugar, salt, caffeine, and water – it’s enough to make you think that the creator of Coke must have been an ultrarunner.

My personal favorite ultramarathon snack is another old-school classic: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It has bread for sustained energy, jelly for quick energy, and the peanut butter provides protein to damaged muscles. Not to mention, they taste wonderful. It’s not unusual for me to consume several full PB&J sandwiches during the course of a 50-mile race.

Sometimes, even the runners are surprised by what turns up at aid stations. Last month, during a 62-mile race, a volunteer brought a box of chilled ice cream sandwiches to the aid station at mile 49. I mean … if given enough time, I might be able to think of some things that taste better after running 50 miles on hot, dusty trails than an ice cream sandwich - but it would be a very short list.

See? Running an ultra is starting to sound fun, right? Unfortunately, this moveable feast also has its share of downsides.

Taking in calories on the run is significantly more complicated than it first sounds – because doing so requires you to actively work against 6 million years of evolution (or, depending on your point of view, a few thousand years of intelligent design). In other words, you have to force the body to do something it wasn’t intended to do.

When we exercise, one of the body’s first responses is to divert blood flow towards our arm and leg muscles, and away from our internal organs. This enhances the delivery of oxygen and energy to areas of the body where they are most needed, and moves it away from the stomach.

Therefore, eating while running is what medical professionals call an “off-label” use of the body’s normal physiology. Caloric consumption doesn’t occur the way it was intended to, and the results are sometimes unpredictable. Stomach cramps and/or nausea are two of the most common maladies that befall ultrarunners during the course of an event.

Most people’s response to such conditions would be to stop eating – but that’s like hopping from the frying pan straight into the fire. If caloric intake is inadequate, most runners won’t have enough energy stores to make it to the finish line.

Food intake is crucial – and every ultrarunner knows it. Accordingly, many of us practice food intake during our training runs. In the same manner that we teach our legs to keep moving even when they feel like lead, we train our stomachs to process food with very limited circulation.

(It doesn’t always work: at every ultra, you’ll find runners paralyzed with stomach cramps, or bent over vomiting on the side of the trail. But we’re a determined lot, so most of us just shake it off and keep forging ahead anyway. Clearly, we’re not exactly the most glamorous folks in town.)

The irony, of course, is that when we’re not running, we try to eat as little as possible. Every extra pound of weight on our bodies is a pound that we have to carry for 100 miles on race weekend – and the heavier we are, the more effort it takes to drag our behinds up those mountains, which requires more calories to accomplish. Those are calories we then have to work to replenish to avoid dropping out of the race.

So when I want to enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I have to lace up my running shoes and head out to the trails. Have I mentioned yet that all this training is making me act a bit crazy?

On that note, here’s one final thought: if you should ever see a sluggish-looking guy with dirty legs and sweaty clothes running around carrying a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich, don’t be alarmed. It’s not some homeless man stealing food from a grade-school picnic – it’s probably just a goofy ultrarunner gearing up for a big weekend of eating.

Which, in my case, is now only three weeks away.

(See previous entries of this series on the sidebar at right.)

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June 2, 2008

Great Moments in Spelling: Part V

I’m not sure when somebody officially becomes a TV junkie … but I suspect that one symptom might be when you realize there’s a 2-hour Lost finale on Thursday followed by 6 hours of spelling bee coverage on Friday, and start plotting ways to evict the rest of your family from the house for 24 hours so you can watch all the festivities in peace.

Short of that, the next best thing is TiVo, which became my most valuable possession over the weekend. I’ll leave all of the Lost references aside for now – because that show deserves its own post someday (seriously … what the heck is going on there?) – in order to focus all my attention on the 81st annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, from the Independence Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC.


As you can imagine, this is a long one, so we'll get right to it. Lights, camera, laptop … action!

We pick up the action in Round 5, where 45 spellers remain. All times are from the West Coast broadcast, and all photos are from Reuters and the NSB website.

9:04 AM: As usual, our head pronouncer is Dr Jacques Bailly, who seems in an unusually chipper mood as the festivities get underway. He welcomes the first contestant of the broadcast, the fittingly-named So-Young Chung, with a cheerful “Howdy, So-Young”, and also greets second speller Samia Nawaz by name. Several of the first spellers reply with a “Hi, Dr Bailly”, and the whole morning feels like a big orthographic lovefest.

9:08: Here’s my girl! Before the contest, Momo and I each picked three spellers, with the winner of our wager determined by whoever’s speller advanced the furthest. I’m casting my fate with 13-year-old Tia Thomas of Coarsegold, CA (a one-horse town about 30 minutes from Yosemite National Park), who happens to be a 5-time NSB participant. Momo’s big gun is Matthew Evans, the only other 5-time participant in this year’s group.

It promises to be a clash of the titans in prime time – and as Tia breezes through mcleod (a combination hoe and rake), I feel very confident in my selection.

9:20: Finally - our first 1st Erin Andrews appearance! Holy cow, she looks good. I’d say she’s bringing sexy back to the Bee, only I’m not sure if the Bee ever had sexy to begin with. She introduces a taped segment about the pre-Bee picnic and barbecue – imagine a pre-race pasta feed with carnival games and sing-a-longs, and you get the idea.

Afterward, Andrews marvels at how “calm and collective” these kids are. She’s not actually nervous about covering the Bee, is she? There’s no way she could find these bookish grade-schoolers nearly as threatening as some lecherous college quarterback. Unless she has a thing for good spellers, in which case, um … on second thought, I’d better not say.

9:22 - 9:38: The Canadian Massacre! Seven straight Canadian spellers are bounced from the competition, including 13-year-old Anqi Dong, last year’s 8th place finisher from Saskatchewan, who misses hooley (an Irish party).

I’ve made fun (and at the same time, been paranoid) of the Great White Northern Invasion of our Bee in the past couple of years, but once 14-year-old Grace Tsai trips on cinerea (gray matter of nerve tissue), there are no more Canadians in this year’s competition. And we’re still in the first hour of the telecast!

Future historians might mark these 16 minutes as a very dark period in US-Canadian relations. I’m sure the Maple Leaf Project is already plotting its retaliatory measures for 2009. This is the kind of thing that can escalate.

9:42: The Bee is an absolute buzzsaw right now: 14-year-old Arushi Jauhari misses biedermeier (humdrum, artistically limited), making her the 9th straight contestant eliminated in Round 5.

There’s just no polite way to say it: to this point, the contest has been a bloodbath. Since the start of the broadcast, 13 of the first 21 spellers have been eliminated. So much for the kinder, gentler Jacques Bailly. At this rate, there won’t be any spellers left for prime time.

9:46: 13-year-old Matt Gabriele stops the bleeding by nailing pericope (a passage used for a sermon), and everyone omits a brief sigh of relief. It’s like when a batter breaks up a no-hitter, and the rest of his teammates immediately think, “Hey – this pitcher is hittable after all!” Or maybe that’s just what it’s like to me.

10:04: The prettiest voice of the competition belongs to 12-year-old Sade Dunbar of Jamaica, whose accent is almost melodic as she correctly spells flageolet (a small flute). Sade is also the most polite contestant in the group, capping every one of her questions with please, and her responses with thank you: “Could I have the form of speech please, Dr Bailly? Thank you, Dr Bailly.”

I like Sade a lot. Even though I didn’t pick her, she’s my sentimental favorite now.


10:06: An extended bio of Momo’s other pick, Kavya Shivashenkar, and her precocious 6-year-old sister, Vanya. Apparently Vanya’s an amazing speller also. Don’t ever agree to play Scrabble with the Shivashenkar kids. Kavya breezes through krummholz (a stunted alpine forest) looking poised for a championship run this evening. In fact, she’s beginning to scare me a bit.

11:14: My other pick for the contest is 13-year-old Justin Song, whom I explained to Momo this way: “I have no idea who he is, but he’s from a town called Carmel Valley, so I should cheer for him.” Since then, I’ve discovered two things: 1) Justin’s hometown is in a different part of California than mine (Do any other states have two towns with the same name?), and 2) This kid was a perfect choice for me.

Justin’s laid-back style exudes California mellow: his flat affect, slow speech, and chilled-out surfer drawl make him sound waterlogged from too many hours in the ocean. Or, as my friend described him in an e-mail to me in the middle of the competition: “He’s the Asian Jeff Spicoli.” As Justin correctly spells duroc (a large red hog) to move on to the next round, I’m thinking that my picking this kid was like some kind of eHarmony match.

(By the way, isn’t Duroc the name of Lord Farquaad's kingdom in Shrek? Shockingly, Dr Bailly makes no mention of this.)

11:44: The turning point of the contest: Matthew Evans, Momo’s number one pick, goes down! He looks defeated even before he slowly attempts the spelling of secernent (something that secretes) – and gives the judges a crestfallen look before he hears the cruel “ding” of failure.

Even though this is great news for me, I can’t help feeling devastated for the guy. That’s the thing about this contest – even when you want a kid to go out, it’s still a heartbreaking thing to watch.

(Actually, Momo wrote about this moment much better than I did – go check it out, then come back.)

12:17 PM: More heartbreak: Sade Dunbar, my new favorite Jamaican middle-schooler, misses hidradenitis (inflammation of a sweat gland – what’s up with all the glandular terms this year?), and is the last speller eliminated before the prime time broadcast.

12:19: However, there’s no doubt that our sister act will be in the finals. As Kavya correctly spells allotriophagy (a craving for eating unnatural substances), ESPN gives us a split split-screen shot of Vanya watching and spelling along. Have they mentioned yet that Vanya’s a good speller, too? I think I remember them mentioning that.

Big sister Kavya is looking strong – which means she’s now my biggest threat to carry Momo to victory. It also means we’ll probably see about 30 more shots of her little sister in prime time, where 12 finalists will duke it out over on ABC later tonight.

**

8:00PM: We’re live in prime time! But first we have to sit through some cutesy little opening skit featuring host Tom Bergeron trying to spell a word. Could we just get to the real spellers, please?

8:01: A new twist this year: for the final rounds, the spellers’ families are seated onstage across from the contestants. This seems wrong to me, like the parents are stealing a bit of the spotlight away from the kids. On the plus side, we get to watch Kavya’s adorable sister Vanya for 2 more hours! Did you know she’s a very good speller?

8:08: 14-year old Austin Pineda is seemingly trying to pull to the correct letters for tralatitious (passed along from generation to generation) out of his hair, which he continuously twirls with a single finger throughout his questions, and during his attempt to spell the word. It doesn’t work – one speller down.

8:12: Erin Andrews interviews the Shivashankar sisters. Kavya says she wants to get through the first prime time round to settle her nerves. Vanya just stands there looking adorable – and in case we’ve forgotten, Erin reminds us that Vanya’s an excellent speller, too!

8:28: You know how hockey and baseball players grow those playoff beards, partly out of superstition, and partly to intimidate the competition? I’m thinking that’s what 12-year-old Sidharth Chand is doing by sporting a mustache for the NSB. He probably hasn’t shaved since his regional bee.

Sidharth’s got the goods, too – he aces tautological (marked my meaningless repetition) to cruise into the next round.

8:39: A Tia Thomas profile: She’s read the dictionary 7 times. She can speak German, French, Italian, and Spanish. Her brother likes to wear a Darth Vader mask. It’s doesn’t quite match the Vanya level of cute sibling stories, but it’s OK. Tia looks cool and collected, nailing brankursine (a prickly European herb) to advance.

8:42: I love Rose Sloan! She bursts into a 1,000-watt smile after hearing the word alcarraza (an earthenware jug), which is clearly a word she’s studied before. After each correct spelling, she laughs and jumps for joy. She may not win, but there’s no question which contestant is having the most fun.


8:44: 13-year-old Sameer Mishra’s debut on the national stage is a memorable one, as shocked giggles ripple through Independence Ballroom in reaction to his assigned word. Sameer repeats what he heard with a slow, puzzled tone: “numbnut?” The giggles turn to astonished laughs.

It’s only after Dr Bailly pronounces the word more clearly that Sameer happily announces, “Oh – NUMNAH!”, and then with perfect comedic timing says, “That’s a relief.” He correctly spells the word (a pad placed under a saddle to prevent chafing), and sits back down with a relieved smile.

(Funny sidenote: Based on the definition, what do you suppose a numnah is used for? To prevent numb nuts, of course!)

8:50: Returning from a commercial break, Erin Andrews interviews Sameer, asking what he was thinking when he heard his last word. That’s exactly what a 13-year-old boy needs: to be questioned by the world’s hottest reporter about numbnuts on live national television. Even though I love her, I’m thinking that Andrews might be too sexy for this Bee.

9:04: Duuuuude! Justin Song misses satyagraha (a Gandhian method of achieving reform), and takes a seat alongside his parents onstage. 20 minutes later, a pizza delivery man enters the ballroom asking who ordered the pepperoni with extra cheese.

(OK, I made that last sentence up – but it wouldn’t have shocked me.)

9:13 – 9:31: We’ve established our Murderer’s Row of spellers: for several rounds, Sameer, Kavya, and Sidharth follow one another to the mic, ask a few perfunctory questions, then correctly spell their words without hesitation. Meanwhile, spellers all around them are dropping. Once Rose misses sheitel (a wig worn by married Jewish women), only 5 spellers remain as the tension mounts. Fortunately, my girl Tia is also hanging tough.

9:41: Kavya’s the first to crack: She stumbles on ecrase (crushed or flattened, pertaining to fabrics or leather), which is a terrible mistake for her. On the other hand, in a related story … I win! It’s the agony and the ecstasy of the National Spelling Bee.

Honestly, I’d like to feel happy … but Kavya looks so emotionally ecrase as she sits with her father that I can barely celebrate. She’s obviously disappointed. On the plus side, Vegas oddsmakers have her as the favorite for the 2009 Bee; sister Vanya is listed at 5:1 for the 2011 contest.

9:44: 14-year-old Scott Remer trips over thymele (an ancient Greek altar), and we’re down to our final 3 - including Tia, who carried me to a hard-earned (OK, I didn’t earn it myself … but I was very nervous) victory over Momo. She’s made it this far – why not cheer for her to go all the way? OK, I’ll do it – go Tia!

Meanwhile, we’ve moved onto the championship words – in case you thought they were all easy up to this point.

9:58: AAGH! Tia’s the first to falter in the championship round, looking confused for the first time all night while considering opificer (skilled worker; artisan). She misses the word – and just like that, her 5-year odyssey through the Bee is over. I’m going to miss her next year – and not just because I’ll need someone to topple Kavya again. She seems like a really great girl.

Go well into the world, Tia. Thanks for the memories.

10:05: Sidharth uses perfect French inflection to pronounce introvable (impossible to find), followed immediately by Sameer using an exaggerated phony accent to pronounce esclandre (an incident that causes scandal). In addition to spelling their words correctly, these two are doing an Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison routine on us. God, I love the Bee.

10:07: Sidharth blinks first, missing prosopopoeia (a figure of speech in which an absent person is present), leaving the door open for Sameer to claim victory.

10:08: Sameer correctly spells guerdon (a reward), and wins the title! His guerdon for the victory is $30,000 and set of encyclopedias, plus the opportunity to tell his numbnut story on The Tonight Show one of these days.

Meanwhile, I have to wait a whole year to tell another Bee story – not to mention, at least seven months for a new Lost episode. What the heck am I going to do with my summer?

At least I know the next 4 weeks are spoken for - beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.


(See previous installments in sidebar at right)

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