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July 31, 2008

Cushion My Ride

Admin note: this is a much-delayed product review for a company that contacted me shortly after I pimped myself out to the Nuun and Sport Beans people. I still have one more product (actually, a group of products) to review later this month – but no, it’s not Sport Beans. Should I start a ticker on my sidebar or something to see how long it takes them to contact me? Or should I just perpetuate the rumor I heard a couple of weeks ago that they’re going out of business? Methinks it’s time to ratchet up the pressure.

Anyway, in light of the present topic, it’s worth restating here: I’m always open to test and review free swag; the only catch is you have to be a bit patient with me. My e-mailbox is always open.


Standard practice in health care and research industries dictates that whenever somebody formally presents information, he is obligated to reveal any pertinent disclosures prior to the discussion. For example, if a scientist were to give a lecture about the benefits of Viagra for athletic performance (yes, seriously), he has to disclose beforehand whether he is an employee of Pfizer, or has any financial interests in the company.

Accordingly, before I start telling you about my experience using shoe inserts, here is my disclosure statement: I have no financial interest (or any other kind, for that matter) in the SofSole company. Moreover, in more than 15 years of running, I’ve never had reason to use inserts in my training shoes.

That’s why I tried to disqualify myself when the company contacted me a few months ago to try some of their products. I told the marketing rep that I had never used inserts, and never had serious problems with injuries or foot pain.

Her response surprised me a bit, in that she still wanted me to give them a try. Basically, she seemed awfully determined to give me free stuff, and – as I’ve indicated above - I certainly don’t want to discourage that type of behavior. So I agreed to a trial, but told her it would have to wait a while. This all took place in the spring, in the height of my buildup to Western States, and I was simply too preoccupied to worry about it.

Among the myriad of details I was trying to manage prior to WS was making sure I’d have the right number of shoes in precisely the right condition at exactly the right places on the course. I had my system dialed in almost perfectly, with my best pair primed for the longest stretch of the course, and my older pairs available for shorter sections.

Honestly, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how complicated this thought process is, so just take my word for it: there was a lot to consider. And I wasn’t about to start playing around with testing out new inserts while logging 80 miles per week and carefully calibrating the amount of wear on each of three different pair of shoes.

You already know the next part of this story: they cancelled Western States, and I scrambled to find another 100-miler as a payoff for all of my training.

With six weeks to kill between Western States weekend and my upcoming Headlands 100, I had a dilemma of sorts: I needed to grind out a few hundred more training miles, but didn’t want to break down my race shoes any further than they already were. And that’s when I remembered the inserts.

Shortly after I agreed to test their products, SofSole mailed this box to my house:

I decided to overlook the momentary confusion triggered by the words “specifically for women” on the box. (Actually, my first thought was, They know I’m a boy, right? I make that clear on my blog, don’t I? Maybe I shouldn’t talk about shaving my legs so often. Remember, this was a few weeks before WS, and I wasn’t thinking rationally.)

Inside the box were two pairs of inserts, and two pairs of white socks; they didn’t have black ones like I requested, but considering the price, I guess I couldn’t complain. There was also a handwritten thank you note from the rep, which struck me as very charming, in an old-fashioned proper manners way. (I know it sounds silly, but I was almost as impressed by the note as I was by the free swag. It’s weird, the things that inspire me sometimes.)

The inserts stayed in their boxes until about 3 weeks ago, when I put them into my my most worn-down trail runners. My goal was to extend the lifespan of my two oldest pairs, so I could keep my best pair in the closet for as long as possible before race day.

Predictably, after I took the insoles out of my Montrails, it took me about an hour – and probably 20 different adjustments – to position the inserts in a way that felt comfortable all the way around. But for anyone less neurotic than me (translation: almost everyone), putting the inserts in place probably isn’t that difficult.

On my first run, my foot felt a little crowded in the shoe – especially in the toe box – but gradually, that became less noticeable. The other thing I noticed immediately was the improvement in cushioning over the standard insoles, which made my old trainers significantly more comfortable than they had been previously. I was also a bit worried that I’d have some hot spots or blister issues with new inserts, but none of those ever materialized.

Between the two older pairs of shoes, I’ve logged more than 200 miles over the past three weeks, and the impact on my body wasn’t remarkably different than it felt in my final weeks of buildup for Western States. Whether that’s a testimonial to the effectiveness of the inserts, or just a continuation of the injury-free luck I’ve been enjoying over the past several months is almost impossible to say.

I suppose that from a risk-benefit perspective, the increased cushioning from wearing the inserts might be enough to justify their cost and/or potential downsides - however, there’s definitely a hassle factor involved, especially if your goal is to use the products on a long-term basis in all of your training shoes. It's also important to remember that I’m not remotely qualified to say whether a pair of inserts will help resolve a chronic pain issue, or lower your overall risk of injury with regular use. I’m not even certain that extending the lifespan of a worn-out pair of trail shoes is an indicated use of the product, but in my case, it seemed to work out just fine.

All I can say for sure is that they're quite comfortable, and I feel just as confident wearing the inserts in my shoes as I did beforehand without them. And since they’re already in place, I’ll keep the Sofsoles in the shoes I’m bringing to the Headlands 100 next weekend as a backup pair if I have any difficulty with my first-string shoes.

If nothing else, they helped me through a few solid weeks of training when I needed it the most. At this point, anything that helps me make it to that finish line will easily earn a ringing endorsement.


July 28, 2008

Potomac Heritage Trail (Chasing Waterfalls)

Before I describe where I ran last week, let me describe where I didn’t, because the name is a bit misleading.

If you Google the Potomac Heritage trail, you’ll find several websites devoted to the 700-mile corridor through the basin of the Potomac River, stretching from Pennsylvania to Virginia. Numerous efforts are underway to create one continuous throughway in the area, similar to the Appalachian or Continental Divide trails.

Then there’s the 10-mile stretch starting in the District of Columbia, which, in typical Washington fashion, languishes in neglect and bureaucratic red tape. Because of jurisdictional squabbles, it’s not technically part of the larger preservation effort, so it’s not officially maintained – but it’s still a nice way to get a small dose of nature in the shadow of the nation’s capital. And that’s just what I was looking for on a business trip to DC last week.

From a training perspective, the centerpiece of my week was a 5-hour run in Rock Creek Park, similar to the one I described in this photo essay. The next evening, I was looking for a mellow recovery run to work the soreness out - so I headed for a scenic trail on the banks of the Potomac. I knew it would be a relaxed run in a unique setting … in other words, it was Nikon time!

My run started on the canal towpath through Georgetown, toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge. By the way, that’s not the Washington Monument in the background – it’s a smokestack. You’d be surprised how many people look twice at it, though.

After crossing the Key Bridge, you swoop down to river level, and see this sign for the Potomac Heritage trail. The location is always a decision point for me; from this spot, I can follow the trail as indicated, or turn in the opposite direction and visit Roosevelt Island, another one of my favorite DC trail runs (which I wrote about here). On this night, I chose the river trail, but it’s pretty much a coin flip each time.

The first thing I do on the Heritage trail is pass underneath the bridge I just crossed to get here. The bridge always looks much larger – not to mention a lot prettier – from ground level.

After passing the bridge, the trail parallels a roadway (sorry, I have no idea what highway this is) for about a quarter-mile. Granted, the run isn’t much of an escape from the daily chaos that’s just a few yards away on the left-hand side at this point. However …

If you look to the right from this same section, you enjoy a great view of the Potomac, Georgetown University above, and its historic boathouse across the river. Seeing a collegiate boathouse always strikes a romantic chord in me – it reminds me of my UCLA crew days, which I just realized I’ve never adequately written about. Maybe someday I will.

Heading north from the Key Bridge, the roadway rises high above and eventually disappears from sight (but never really from sound), while the trail remains at water’s edge. It alternates back and forth between sheltered woodlands, and …

Sweeping vistas of the Potomac, which is never more than a stone’s throw away from this trail. In the spring and fall, there are always several crew teams out here, and I’m close enough to hear the sound of the oars hitting the water, and the whisper of the water as the fiberglass shell cuts across it. (Have I mentioned that I miss rowing sometimes?) Unfortunately, summer is the off-season for crew, so I didn’t get to see any on this trip.

The Heritage trail traverses some runoff areas that drain the watershed on higher ground above. There are several small stream crossings like this, and in a few places …

There are even waterfalls! Granted, this isn’t exactly Fantasy Island-caliber stuff, but considering that we’re still inside the Beltway, the scene struck me as fairly impressive.

In my Rock Creek Park post, I commented that it took me less than 10 attempts to get a good self-portrait; on this trip, it took me less than 8. So I guess I'll call that progress. Actually, it would have been even fewer attempts if not for one factor …

Guess who else likes to inhabit humid, marshy waterways when it’s 95 degrees in the middle of July? An awful lot of bugs, that’s who. I know you can’t really see them in this picture, but trust me: they were formidable. I lost a few pictures fighting battles like the one pictured above. One time, I think one of them tried to fly off with my camera.

Further down the trail, another waterfall. Yes, it’s technically more of a runoff stream than a waterfall, but since we’re in DC, it’s probably referred to as a “special needs” waterfall, and it’s subsidized by our tax dollars.

As the trail heads upstream, the footing becomes progressively more challenging. It even becomes too technical to run in many places – although this isn’t one of them. This is another stream crossing, which leads to …

Another waterfall. Well, you know … sort of.

At several points on the trail, people had fishing lines in the water. It kind of surprised me, based on what I’ve read about fish taken from the Potomac. Hopefully there aren’t too many folks who obtain their dinner this way – and hopefully I’ll never be one of them.

Approaching the Chain Bridge four miles upstream, the trail rises back to meet the elevation of the road in the most direct way possible: a rocky stairway carved into a cliff, which then follows a streambed to higher land, but not quite to road level …

Because you still have to walk under the Chain Bridge before you can cross over it. Given that I grew up in Los Angeles, I’m usually surprised to pass underneath bridge spans like this and not see drug paraphernalia or homeless people who’ve taken up residence there. Of course, it wasn’t quite dark yet, so my timing might have been bad (or good, depending on your point of view).

After crossing the Chain Bridge, the return trip is four flat miles along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, which seems like the main running and bicycling thoroughfare between DC and northeast Virginia or northwest Maryland.

I could show you more pictures, but honestly, the entire path looks exactly like this: a wide dirt trail, a stillwater canal to one side, lush greenery all around, and bugs everywhere you look. (You can see the bugs, right? I swear they were huge. I thought of posting a picture of bite marks afterwards, but – fortunately for all of us - good taste prevailed.)

Eventually, the canal reaches its terminus back in Georgetown, where this whole adventure began. From here, it’s less than a mile back to my hotel to cap off a leisurely 10-mile recovery run.

I know that other trail networks are far more extensive, more challenging, or more scenic than those pictured here, but the Heritage trail has typical DC appeal: a small refuge of natural beauty in one of the most unexpected surroundings imaginable. Besides, sometimes I’m not looking for grandeur – I’m just trying to make the work day disappear for a while.

In that regard, this run fits the bill perfectly.


July 24, 2008

Riding Into the Future

Since my son doesn’t have a blog, I’m taking the liberty of posting this on his behalf:

It’s a Specialized Hotrock FS, 24-inch wheel, front suspension, 21-speed mountain bike. It was a gift from Grandma and Grandpa for his tenth birthday.

In a related story – I now have a 10-year-old child. And all of a sudden, I’m starting to feel kind of old.

Truthfully, my son isn’t an avid bike rider. He uses it every now and then to ride around the park, and prefers leisurely cruising to racing or jumping or stunt riding. It’s a nice form of exercise for him on occasion, but there’s no indication that he’s laying down the foundation of a future endurance athlete.

However, to his credit, he prefers to ride on trails instead of roads, and claims that his favorite part of bike riding is seeing pretty areas of nature that are too far to walk to. So perhaps this is a gateway to something that will impact him on a deeper level at some point in the future.

Back to the bike: It’s his first bike with handbrakes, the first with gear shifters, and the first with a water bottle cage. (Predictably, he was most excited about the bottle holder.) It’s a nice transition between the former kid bike he used, and a full-blown grownup mountain bike – much in the same way that turning ten marks a transition between childhood and adolescence.

One other thing about the Hotrock: it’s WAY better than my own ride. I’m still pedaling my college mountain bike: an old-school Specialized Rockhopper with no suspension, with worn-out chainrings and torn-up cables that limit my shifting capacity to only 3 gears. It's fine for getting around the neighborhood, but it probably can't keep up with a 21-speed underneath a solid rider.

Naturally, I couldn’t let this comparison go unnoticed by my newly minted 10-year-old, which led to the following exchange:

Me: Listen, man – you have a better bike than I do now.

Him (smiling): Cool.

Me: Yeah, but here’s the thing: there’s no excuses anymore. If I’m riding faster than you, it’s either because my legs are stronger, or I’m working harder. As soon as you get stronger than me, you’ll be able to beat me.

Him: That could be a while.

Me: You’re darn right.

My son may have the nicest bike in the house, but I’m determined to be the best bike rider in the family for as long as I possibly can. One of these days, he may drop me on a climb, or pull away from me in a sprint - but if he does, he’ll definitely have to earn it.

And if that day ever comes, one thing is absolutely certain: I’m going to feel extremely old.


July 22, 2008

Instant Recipe?

I’ve read enough fitness magazines over the years that almost nothing surprises me anymore. Whether related to running, triathlon, or ultras, most mag articles fall into predictable categories: training tips, weight loss advice, motivational incentives, race reports, “lifestyle” pieces, and so on. After a while, the themes and prose grow commonplace and repetitive.

But every now and then, I read something that causes me to sit up and say, whaaaat??

Such was the case when I read the Starting Lines column in the August 2008 issue of Triathlete. More specifically, it was the following line that almost made me choke on my drink:
If you want to start a profitable business with an instant recipe for success, consider starting a triathlon somewhere.

Maybe it’s not an outlandishly insulting notion at first glance, and perhaps in some parts of the country, that sentiment might even be true. However, it struck a chord with me, because my friend Mike and I had just written a pair of Monterey Herald articles about the enormous difficulty in putting on successful road races.

In the first column, we reminisced about all the races that had folded – 28 by our count - over the years we’ve lived in Monterey County. (I haven’t posted it here, but if you’re interested, contact me and I’ll e-mail it to you.) Then last week, we indulged in a little creative writing exercise to illustrate just why so many races have difficulty sustaining themselves for even a single year, let alone becoming profitable over the long term.

The scary part is, the costs and problems we identify are pretty accurate; we didn’t have to fabricate too much in order to convey the daunting challenge of hosting a race. The political angles were culled from experiences that both of us have had on race committees over the years.

And remember, these are just running races we’re talking about. With a triathlon, you can figure that the costs and red tape are not merely tripled, but increased by a factor of 10. So while it’s not usually my nature to call out a fellow writer, in this case I can’t help but think that the premise of getting rich by creating a hometown triathlon is patently ridiculous.

Anyway … our Herald article is below – and if we’re way off base, feel free to offer a rebuttal afterwards.


Running Life 7/19/08 "Let's Put On a Race"

A few columns ago we lamented the passing of several local races - 28 to be exact. So why is it so hard to maintain a road race, anyway?

For the answer, let’s eavesdrop on the town council of Pancake Flats, as they discuss putting on a local 5K. Maybe we’ll learn a bit about race economics and politics. The Mayor is presiding.

Ms. Mayor: “We'll schedule the 5K for the first Sunday in May in order to show off our city, bring in tourists, and get our families fit and healthy. Let’s try to get 300 people.”

Reverend Shepherd: “But Ms. Mayor, Sunday is the Lord’s day. We don’t want people staying away from Church.”

Ms. Mayor: “Can we do Saturday then, Rabbi Ginsburg?”

Rabbi: “Vell, I von’t run … but it vill be OK. Ve’ll suffer through it.”

Ms. Mayor: “I thought we’d start at the town square and run south on 2nd street and turn around and come back.”

Mrs. Halfpenny: “Then no one will see our businesses on the north side of town! Let’s start at Northside Mall and run to the Town Square instead.”

Ms. Mayor: “If we do that, we’ll need buses to take people back to the start area when the race is over. I’m sure the school district or the transit company will donate them for such a fine cause.”

Mrs. Skinner (Head of the School Board) and Mr. Wheeler (President of the transit company) both speak at the same time: “Hey - times are tough, budgets are restricted, gas is prohibitive, insurance is expensive, we have to pay overtime on Saturday, and you’ll need 8 buses and drivers and the minimum rental is 4 hours. The best we can do is - and this is a bargain - $6,500.”

Mr. Biggs (head of the Town Council): “While we’re talking about money, even though this is a city event, you need to pay the City’s event fee of $500 and the use fee for the Town Square of $500.”

Officer Badge (Chief of Police): “For all those road closures, we’ll need a dozen officers for overtime on Saturday to handle traffic control. That will be $2,000. And don’t forget you’ve got to close the freeway offramps at 2nd street, so you’ll need State Dept. of Transportation permits for $500.”

Mr. Clean (Chief of Sanitation): “Make sure we have enough porta-potties. They’re $50 each and $100 for the disabled ones. You can never have too many potties. I’ll provide 10 of each at the start and finish areas, and 3 at each aid station. There’s also a cleanup fee at the end. Total cost will be about $2,000.”

Ms. Mayor: “Why do we need disabled porta-potties at a race?”

Mr. Clean: “State law, for spectators, and you might have some wheelchair participants. And I almost forgot - we want a Green race don’t we? That costs another $750.”

Ms. Mayor: “Green race?! What makes our race Green?”

Mr. Clean: “We leave no environmental footprint. Just let me worry about that. That’s what you pay me for.”

Mr. Goodfella (union representative): “I’ll make you a deal - we’ll charge you rock bottom for setting up the tables and awards stands and everything you need at the finish line. I can get my guys for $3,000. Set up, take down. No worries.”

Ms. Mayor: “This is getting out of hand. Why can’t we just have some volunteers set up the tables?”

Mr. Goodfella: “It’s a Union town. That’s how you got elected, Ms. Mayor. No one sets up an event without Union workers.”

Ms. Mayor: “How about you Mrs. Brooks - you’re the Pancake Flats running club President. What do the runners want?”

Mrs. Brooks: “We expect the Pancake Flats 5K to have all the usual amenities of other races. The course needs to be USATF certified ($1,800) and sanctioned ($300). We want long sleeve technical-fabric shirts for all participants ($4,500), and finishers medals for everyone ($1100). Awards 5 deep in each 5 year age group for both men and women from under 15 to 85 and over ($3,000) are standard. We need large, highly visible mile markers ($1,000). Rock bands at each mile and at the finish area ($2,500) would be great. We also need chip timing and timing mats at each mile so we can see our splits on the Internet the next day. ($10,000). That’s about it.”

Ms. Mayor: “Is that ALL?”

Mrs. Brooks: “Well, that’s not counting food - coffee at the start, and a buffet at the finish. Not just the usual bananas, gatorade, and power bars – but maybe free beer, bratwurst, pancakes, or sandwiches. Great food gets you a lot more runners for sure. ($3,000)

Ms Mayor: “And I’d like to ask the City Attorney, Mr. Counsel, what do you think?”

Mr. Counsel: “We need race liability. I’d say about $1,000 for race day insurance. Don’t forget medical support and two ambulances and doctors on duty just in case anything happens ($3,000). And we need communication systems to make sure this all works ($2,500).

Ms. Mayor: “Wow. Is there anything I’ve forgotten?”

Mrs. Brooks: “We haven’t mentioned basic race expenses: advertising ($1,000), race bibs ($200), printing of race brochures and entry blanks ($1,500), creating and managing a race website ($1,500), start and finish banners and traffic control signage ($3,000). Most races collect money for charity as well, maybe $10,000 donated to some local causes.”

Ms. Mayor: “I’d like to ask Mr. Balance, our City Treasurer, based on our discussion today to compute what our race entry fee would be to break even.”

Mr. Balance: “Well, we have around $70,000 in expenses and I’m sure we’ve forgotten some so let’s round it to $75,000. We’re expecting 300 runners, so we’ll have to charge $250 for our 5K in order to break even.”

Mrs. Brooks: “That’s CRAZY. No runners will show up at that price. The city of Rolling Hills has a 5K that’s only $25.”

Ms. Mayor: “Yes - but for this one year, our Pancake Flats will have the BEST 5K EVER!”


July 17, 2008

Olympic Lessons

A few quick notes before today’s post …

* First, an update on the fires marching toward Carmel Valley: Firefighters have made significant progress in controlling them. The fire is something like 70% contained – but unfortunately, the active portion is creeping ever closer to a populated area about 4 miles from my street. The immediate vicinity of my house is considered well protected, but the nearby evacuations that were initiated this week are still in place. I guess “cautiously optimistic” is an accurate, if very understated, way to describe the situation.

* On a lighter note - a few days ago my wife was at an outdoor store, and came home with this announcement: “Apparently, Sport Beans are on their way out. I can’t find them anywhere. The guy said they won’t carry them anymore.”

Can anyone else confirm this? Needless to say, this is a disheartening development. I guess this would explain why they never responded to my plea for free samples a few months ago. What a bummer. However, I have been on the receiving end of a couple of other swag items, which I’m very delinquent on reporting about. I’ll rectify this in the near future, I hope.

* Last evening, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were guests on HBO’s Bob Costas Now - a sports version of a political town-hall meeting - on the topic of baseball in America. There was a retrospective look at their careers, and a half-hour interview segment with the two men who are widely regarded as the best to ever play. It was a wonderful segment, and the final exchange struck me as particularly profound.

The men were asked if, during their long rivalry and friendship during their playing days, they concerned themselves with who had the better statistics from one season to the next, or who would hold what records when they retired. I don’t remember the exact wording of their response – and to my eternal shame, I wasn’t watching with TiVo – but Aaron replied with something like this: We didn’t care about the numbers. We wanted to have fun. We both knew we were fortunate to be playing this game. We encouraged each other, because we recognized that our talent and opportunities were a gift, and we wanted to honor that gift by performing as well as possible.

(I looked for a video clip of this online, but I haven’t seen one posted yet. You’ll just have to trust me.)

Read those last four sentences again. Shouldn’t those rules apply to any of us? Running is a gift. Triathlon is a gift. If only we could all recognize and honor that fact. And I’m not usually one to get nostalgic … but I couldn’t help but think that many of today’s professional athletes could certainly take a little advice from Hammerin’ Hank.

OK, enough intro. On with the post …


At long last, it’s time for the topic that was twice postponed over the past week. It’s on the subject of the Olympics, and it’s equal parts flashback and followup.

The flashback element is that this is an old article - one I originally wrote for my former website shortly after the Athens Olympics in 2004. The followup is in response to my recent speculation about Dara Torres, and the possibility that her story might not be entirely legitimate.

I truly want to believe in Torres. I also want to believe in Tyson Gay, Deena Drossin, Ryan Hall, and in the American triathletes competing in Beijing next month (by the way – is there any more complicated and confusing selection procedure than the one used by the US Olympic triathlon team? I actually tried to follow the process for a while, and it made my head spin. I’m just going to tune in this August and cheer for whoever is wearing the Stars and Stripes.)

The problem is that I also believed in Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, and many others. I’ve been disappointed too many times, and I have enough awareness of the scope of the drug problem to know that nothing can be trusted with absolute certainty anymore – and it simply breaks my heart.

Because ever since I was a small child, I’ve been enamored with the Olympics. I remember – even as a 9-year-old - being distraught at the US boycott in 1980, and I fondly recall the euphoria of America’s gold medal avalanche (thanks in no small part to the Soviet boycott) at Los Angeles in 1984. And with the recent blessings of videotape and TiVo, I watched almost every event of the track and field competitions from Atlanta and Sydney and Athens. If I had to rank my top 20 sports memories, it’s quite likely that more than half of them would be from a summer Olympiad (actually, that’s not a bad idea for a post someday - I’ll file it away for later).

Unfortunately, I don’t watch with the eyes of a child anymore – and that’s why I’ve become so emotionally conflicted with the specter of the upcoming games. Four years ago, I thought it might help to watch some events with my kids – and the result is the post that follows.


“Olympic Lessons”

Sometimes, a race is just a race. Other times, it can reveal something of a person’s character – and not just for the athletes, but for those watching them as well. Last month’s Olympic track meet provided one such instance of the latter category.

I figured that watching the meet would be a fantastic opportunity to expose my two older kids to the events, and gauge their respective interest level. My son had just been to a track meet where he raced (well, sort of) in two sprints, and he liked watching the runners race the same distance - 100m - that he ran a couple of weeks earlier. My daughter hasn’t ever really paid attention to any sports, but she sat on my lap to watch a few races, and understood that her Daddy does the same thing (well, sort of) as the runners on TV.

Despite their generally comparable upbringing, my son and daughter are very dissimilar creatures, and view the world quite differently in many ways. Watching the Athens Games together made some of these disparities even more evident.

My 6-year-old son is a pure logician, curious to know how things work, constantly analyzing the structure and mechanics of any item or event. He thinks like a scientist, and occasionally misses the forest for the biochemical composition and root structure of each individual tree.

Watching the 100m race from the elevated camera angle, he spotted the trackside camera moving along the railing beside the runners, and recognized the shots that came from this particular camera as they were interspersed in the broadcast. He wanted to know how they started the camera rolling down the track, and if they adjusted the speed of it to account for faster or slower runners. He also asked if the aerial shots of the stadium came from a blimp or a helicopter. He wondered how the runners know where to place the starting blocks before the start. (I felt bad for not knowing the answers. These are good questions, aren’t they? I really should know these things.)

Later, he asked if anyone had tried banking the curves of the track to make it easier for runners to turn when they are going fast (actually, I knew this one. The answer is yes…indoor tracks are built this way). Basically, he was turning the Olympic track meet into an episode of “Modern Marvels”.

Having just recently discovered the concept of competition, his typical pattern during races was first to ask, “Is that guy winning?” and if the answer was yes, then say, “That’s the one I’m cheering for.” Always a winner, this kid.

By contrast, my 3-year-old daughter is naturally considerate, compassionate, and nurturing - at such a level that it frequently eclipses that of her own parents. She has the same powers of observation as her brother, only for different things.

As she sat in my lap while watching various races, she noticed the many different colors of the runners’ skin, which led to a nice discussion about diversity of cultures and ethnicities. (Incidentally, she seemed more in tune to this than NBC- who somehow didn’t notice that Jeremy Wariner was the first white American to win a sprint medal since 1964. Are we so politically sensitive that we aren’t allowed to mention this? It seems like a great talking point for breaking down racial stereotypes. Sorry, I’m ranting.).

When the runners were introduced before each race, my daughter wanted to learn their names. In a couple of women’s races, she asked if a particularly muscular female was a boy or a girl (and stunningly, she was accurate- one of the women she questioned was later stripped of a medal for steroid use). She asked if any the women who were running were also mommies. She probably didn’t even realize that the runners were racing, but after they finished she often commented, “They look tired.”

Of course, I’m just as susceptible to natural bias as my children are. As the women’s 400m hurdles race unfolded, the TV commentators marveled at the inspirational performance of Greek champion (Fani Halkia), who was carried to victory by a delirious home crowd, and stood atop the podium for one of the most emotional medal ceremonies of the Games. Watching the same race at home, I was thinking to myself, hmmm…here is a woman who currently runs the 400m hurdles faster than she ran the open (no hurdles) 400m one year ago, who has become dramatically faster in her event in an extremely short period of time, and is a teammate of two other Greek runners who had been banned from the competition for steroid use. Are we just supposed to believe that these facts are entirely coincidental?

My cynical mind just couldn’t submit to the apparent splendor of the scene – but to my credit, I kept such thoughts to myself while my daughter admired Halkia’s long blond hair, “Like I have. And like Cinderella has.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this particular Cinderella probably had a higher testosterone level than most princes she knows.

It’s always interesting to discover how different people can view the same event at the same time, and make completely different observations and conclusions about it. Such instances reveal a great deal about the viewer, and the inherent filters through which they see the world. Maybe it’s a bit unusual that these inner discrepancies would bubble to the surface during a track meet; then again, in my house, a track meet could be the backdrop for just about anything.

Besides, the Olympics are clearly a special occasion. I mean … how many other shows can a compulsively analytical boy, a romantic touchy-feely girl, and their overly jaded father all watch together with equal enjoyment? I guess that’s one of the things that makes the Olympic track meet special: it has something for everybody.


July 16, 2008

Maybe I Should Have Just Schmoozed

I’m spending the night away from home tonight – and as is my usual custom when traveling, instead of schmoozing or networking, I headed out for a long run immediately after the close of business.

Almost five hours later, I trudged back to my hotel room, and climbed right into a cool shower to recover from the long, hot, humid workout. Afterward, I planned on sitting down at the computer to plunk out an intro to the Olympic post I mentioned last time – but unfortunately, my whole body ached like crazy, and all I wanted was to lie down and quickly fall asleep.

I knew it would be a good idea to walk some of the soreness out – so after showering, I dressed and walked down to the Trader Joes two blocks away. Then I bought a box of Joe-Joes.

I ate a handful of them while waiting for room service to arrive. And a couple more handfuls after dinner.

And by this time tomorrow, they’ll probably be gone.

Obviously, I’m kind of schizophrenic about this whole self-discipline thing after my brief hiatus from training. And I may have just set some sort of record for the shortest amount of time to cancel out the benefits of a 25-mile run.

Otherwise, I’m still extremely sleepy – so that’s all I’ve got for tonight. The Olympic post will have to wait another day.


July 14, 2008

Ordinary Heroes

"There goes my hero, watch him as he goes -
There goes my hero, he's ordinary."
- Foo Fighters, "My Hero" (click to play)

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I had an Olympics post all ready to roll today, but after writing a long-winded introduction on a separate topic, I decided to just chop the post in half and let the intro stand on its own. So I’m postponing the Olympic story for a couple of days, in favor of expressing some well-deserved gratitude towards a lot of people that I’ve been delinquent in duly recognizing.

On Saturday night, my son and I were walking towards the car after an evening swim meet, and paused to wait for oncoming traffic to pass before crossing the street outside our community center pool. We ended up standing on the corner for well over a minute, watching as a parade of firetrucks went rolling past.

Right now, one of the biggest wildfires in California is less than 8 miles from my house. It’s burning from Big Sur through the Los Padres wilderness area, depositing ash on our doorstep each morning, covering our skies with smoke at all hours of the day, and forcing evacuations from areas where classmates of our children live.

For two nights last week, our family drove to the top of a neighborhood hill to watch the fires burning on a nearby ridgeline; that hilltop has now become an unofficial gathering point for neighbors to assess the progression of the flames. Fortunately, the flames we see are part of a backfire line established as a literal firewall to prevent the progression of wildfires into the inhabited regions of Carmel Valley.

There’s an abandoned airstrip one half-mile from my house which now goes by the name of “Fire Camp”, as it serves as a staging area for firefighters from all over the state who will be honorary residents for however long it takes to fully contain and extinguish the blaze. There are probably more than twenty fire companies who have lent valuable manpower to our little community.

While here, the firefighters put in extremely long hours; on my morning trail runs, I hear the sounds of their caravan in the distance rumbling off for the day shortly after 6AM. They typically stay out for as long as daylight allows, rolling back towards camp just as darkness falls.

It was at this time of evening that our family was leaving the pool on Saturday night – and as we watched one truck after another pass us by, I tried to keep track of the numerous departments on hand to support us. I read logos from Los Angeles County, Escondido, San Diego, Camp Pendleton, Mesa AZ, Orange County, Ventura County, Oceanside … and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. It gave me a great feeling of humility, knowing how many people were sacrificing so much for our safety.

As if on cue, there was a spontaneous outpouring of appreciation from the grateful residents of Carmel Valley for the returning workers. A party at the community center stopped in its tracks while people yelled and cheered and applauded. People walking away from the pool clapped and raised thumbs up in the air to salute the firefighters as they rode back to Fire Camp.

As for my son and I – we just waved and yelled “thank you!” to each truck that passed by. And by about the fourth or fifth one, my eyes started to water.

I know that people use terms like “hero” and “role model” far too liberally in modern times, but for this group of workers, there’s really no other way to describe them. They spend weeks and months away from home, living in frequently inhospitable conditions, putting their lives at risk for people who very seldom recognize their sacrifice. These brave souls weave the blanket of security under which the rest of us sleep, never fully aware of its true cost. But looking these firefighters in the eye at the end of their work day, a hint of that cost is apparent – and that’s what was so moving about the impromptu pep rally.

However, what strikes me most significantly about these men and women isn’t any kind of superhuman attributes – rather, it’s how amazingly regular they are in all other walks of life. They’re folks with jobs and families, they like a good meal and a soft place to sleep, and they feel the strain of a long workday just as much as anybody else.

They’re like us - but then again, they’re not. However, to all the folks who love this place we live in, one thing is certain: they’ll never be forgotten.


July 10, 2008

Alpine Inspiration

"Maybe this is how it's supposed to be ...
Looking forward as we rewind
Looking back is a trap sometimes
Being here is so easy to do - if you want to ..."
- Jack Johnson, "Supposed to Be" (video after post)

I figured it would take something dramatic to snap me out of my Western States blues; fortunately, I didn’t have to wait very long to find it.

Our family spent last week on vacation at our usual stomping ground in the Sierra Nevadas: Lake Alpine, elevation 7300’, population, um … the three dudes who work at the lodge, plus however many folks happen to be at the local campgrounds. It’s our favorite place to escape for a little hakuna matata each summer.

The trip was purposely scheduled immediately following Western States. My original plan was to drink a lot of wine, eat a lot of cookies and burgers, listen to a lot of Jack Johnson music, and take a lot of naps. All this indulgence would be guilt-free, of course, since I had just run 100 miles. It had all the makings of the ultimate post-race recovery program.

Of course, there was one little problem: the 100-mile thing never happened.

Despite the race cancellation, we never thought twice about the vacation plan; the only thing that changed was my demeanor going into the week. Instead of looking forward to unlimited rest & relaxation, all I could think about while packing was, what the heck am I going to do now? Needless to say, I was more than a little bummed out – as you read about in last week’s post.

I had already lost my race, so I was stubbornly determined to not lose my vacation as well. I resolved to kick back and relax just as much on the trip as I had planned on doing all along – sure, it would sabotage my training, but at the time, I didn’t feel like I had anything to train for anyway. It was only as an afterthought that I begrudgingly shoved a pair of trail shoes under my car seat before we headed to the hills.

The first several days went exactly as planned. We spent long hours at the pool or the lake, did some kayaking, and read books while sitting in lounge chairs. Training-wise, I still didn’t know what the heck I was doing, but I honestly didn’t care. In fact, one afternoon on the lake, I discovered the perfect way to make my race-induced worries go away:

If you ever feel the need to clear your head from nagging preoccupations, I recommend taking a handful of 20-foot cliff jumps into a mountain lake. There’s nothing like staring down from a high precipice to push all other concerns aside for a while. I found the whole thing quite gratifying.

Finally, on the last day of our trip, I decided to lace up my shoes and take in some sights around the lake. Perhaps I’d find some inspiration to snap me out of my doldrums.

The trails around Lake Alpine are your garden-variety fare for the Sierras: rocky outcroppings, large trees, technical footing in large doses. In fact …

Sometimes, it’s hard to see exactly where the trail goes. But thankfully, whenever a trail fades away into of a mass of boulders, it’s usually easy to pick up again once you figure out a way to scramble up and over to the other side.

Did I say that I was looking for inspiration on this run? This seemed like an appropriate sign to follow.

These trails may offer you inspiration, but they certainly make you work for it. After leaving the tree line in this picture, my “run” essentially became a long hike up the rocky slope, with small bits of jogging thrown in here and there just so I could still call myself a runner.

The final approach to Inspiration Point is a narrow trail along the spine of the rock formation that stands prominently above the lake.

Once you get there, you can look down into the neighboring valley, and some nearby reservoirs that are connected in a hydroelectric network with Lake Alpine via the Stanislaus River.

Lake Alpine, seen from Inspiration Point. After 90 minutes of running (well … mostly running), this is where I finally took a few minutes to rest, take in the view, and enjoy the vast beauty all around me. The 360-degree vista was simply breathtaking - I wish I had better words to describe it. The whole scene was very, uh …. what’s the word I’m looking for? … inspirational.

A self-photo from the top, in case you didn’t believe me about growing the beard. I thought it was fairly impressive for only 5 days of growth. If I ever get selected for Survivor: Lake Alpine, I think I could get pretty shaggy.

This is what the rocky shelf looks like from lake level. I took this picture following the run, after my wife and son claimed they couldn’t see me standing on top from their fishing boat on the water. I mean, I was even waving my arms and everything. Whatever.

After descending from the point, I passed this scene in the forest, which kind of cracked me up:

You might need to enlarge to see it – but the sign on the left says “bearing tree”, and gives the coordinates of a nearby tree that has been identified as one that has been scraped, debarked, or otherwise marked by bears.

So here’s my question: do you really need that itty bitty sign on the left to tell you that the tree straight ahead has been torn apart by some bear? I don’t think it takes any special detective training to figure that one out.

I was laughing to myself after passing the bearing tree, and for the rest of the run, a very simple, very familiar feeling came over me: it was joy. I just felt happy to be among these trees, these rocks, and these trails. It was like the feeling you get when you stumble across something that was previously lost – when you didn’t quite realize that particular thing was missing, but then become very glad that you found it.

What I almost lost was this basic truth: I absolutely love trail running. Whether it’s in preparation for an epic race, or just to find sanctuary from the crazy world for a couple of hours, it’s an opportunity I’m thankful to have every time I lace up my shoes. And by the end of the run, I had found my inspiration again. All I had to do was follow the signs.

Finally, on a related topic: I’m signing up today for the Headlands Hundred on August 9th. Now that I’ve got all this inspiration again, I figured I should find some place to use it.

Jack Johnson, "Supposed to Be" (click to play):


July 6, 2008

Time to Think

"Stop! Take some time to think, figure out what’s important to you -
You’ve got to make a serious decision."

- Against Me!, "Stop" (Click to play - lyrics advisory)

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I’m back on the grid – and as someone predicted, I’ve snapped out of last week’s lamentations about the whole Western States fiasco.

Predictably, it was on a trail run that a lot of things got sorted out – in fact, I’ve got a whole post in the works about how it happened. I’m holding that one for later this week, though, because I still have a couple of decisions to make regarding my immediate plans that should be settled soon. I’m taking some time to think, to figure out what’s important to me, before I make a serious decision.

Unfortunately, all that leaves us with today are random musings from the holiday weekend. I know not everyone is crazy about ramblings, and if that’s the case for you, just be glad you didn’t read my blog a couple of years ago, when every other post was random nonsense. Feel free to click away now, and check back later in the week for something more substantive. Otherwise, off we go …

* First, the introductory band: Against Me! They’re a great new group. Fun kids. Cool vibe. Great energy. But then there’s the issue of that exclamation point.

I’ve analyzed this before – and I thought the topic had been put to rest for good after when Panic at the Disco finally dropped the silly punctuation from their name. Now, Against Me! comes along and screws everything up all over again. The lesson, of course: I’ll never find peace. It’s simply not possible.

* I love Coldplay. I realize that’s a loaded statement to make, as they’re very much a love ‘em or hate ’em band. And I’m fully aware of the “You know how I know you’re gay?” scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin on this subject. So it’s no wonder that for a guy to say he loves Coldplay is like going to a steakhouse and ordering a salad – even though there’s nothing technically wrong with it, you’re definitely going to trigger several people’s early warning systems.

The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve been crazy about their new single “Viva La Vida” ever since I first heard it … and I find myself feeling strangely protective of it after I saw it recently in a promotional spot for Apple iTunes. All of a sudden, I had flashbacks to a few years ago, when I was crazy for U2’s “Vertigo” for about 3 weeks, before Apple drilled it into monotonous oblivion with those incessant iPod commercials.

To this day, I can’t hear “Vertigo” without seeing those dang iPod ads. It’s like they’ve stolen a piece of U2 from me, and now they’re threatening to take Coldplay as well. I swear, you can have your presidential elections and global warming – it’s issues like this that really matter to me.

* Continuing the musical theme: is it unpatriotic to not like that “Proud to Be an American” song? I know Lee Greenwood was well-intentioned and all, but the song just seems terribly contrived and overwrought to me: it’s like he took every possible musical and lyrical cliché he could find, and crammed them all into one song. (No wonder the American Idol cast sings it every season.) It's played like standard fare every year now - and whenever I hear it, I have a sudden urge to leave the room. Anyway, I guess that’s my own opinion – and now I’ll just hope that the government isn’t tapping my blog like they do my phone lines.

* I can only hope that every sports fan was lucky enough to catch the weekend’s outstanding championship match. Anytime the two greatest competitors in the world go toe to toe, each one performing at the top of his game, and the competition requires extra time to determine who has the guts and stamina to triumph, that contest becomes an instant classic - one that will be talked about for ages to come. It was one of those moments you count yourself thankful simply to have watched.

I’m talking, of course, not of the Wimbledon men’s final, but of the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest, won for the second straight year by the amazing Joey Chestnut. He needed overtime, or extra innings, or sudden death (maybe sudden nausea is a better term), or whatever phrase they use to describe additional time, to knock off the formerly-indomitable Kobayashi.

I keep telling myself that one of these years, I have to keep a running diary of the Hot Dog Contest; if I can do it for spelling bees, I can certainly do it for this event. It’s a story that’s just screams at me for a blog post, so someday I’ll do it. But don’t worry – I’ll warn you in advance, so you’ll know what day to skip the blog if you don’t enjoy graphic tales of heroic gluttons.

* On a more serious sports topic, I have a question: how far are we willing to suspend disbelief in order to see an uplifting story come true? That was the lingering dilemma I took away from the U.S. Olympic swimming trials that concluded last night.

Here's the feel-good story we’re supposed (not merely that - but heavily encouraged, from NBC’s standpoint) to believe: 41-year-old former Olympian Dara Torres comes out of retirement to race the fastest times of her life, breaking American records and making the 2008 team in two events. Through nothing more than natural talent and hard work. Um … does this sound suspicious to anyone?

Actually, it sounds suspicious to everyone. Almost every news organization has run an item like this expressing disbelief that such a thing could happen naturally. Think of it this way: if a 41-year-old track star started doing the same thing in the 100m dash, is there anyone who wouldn’t be skeptical?

To her credit, Torres recognizes the scrutiny that such an accomplishment automatically triggers in the age of performance enhancing drugs. Months before the trials, she was profiled in this ESPN segment that raised the questions many of us were bound to have, and she’s never shied away from conversations about the unlikelihood of her present accomplishments.

She’s been one of the most heavily tested athletes, and has never tested positive. She’s one of the most outspoken advocates for eliminating drug cheaters from Olympic sports. She’s a naturally gifted athlete who has worked tirelessly for months and years to become one of the fastest competitors in the world.

Then again, Marion Jones was all those things, too.

I want to believe. I really do. But you’ll forgive me if I’m reluctant to embrace this fairly tale that’s unfolding before our eyes, which will be continued on the world stage at Beijing later this summer. I’m not telling you what to think; you’re free to believe what you want to about the enigmatic Dara Torres.

However – and returning to the holiday weekend theme – before you decide, here’s something else to ponder: would you feel differently if she weren’t an American, or if NBC weren’t profiling her in such a glowing manner? And if she’s an American but you remain skeptical, does that make you unpatriotic? Finally, on the scale of unpatriotic-ness, would this rate above or below hating that horrid Lee Greenwood song?

See, that’s why we need to pay more attention to the Hot Dog contest: it’s all of the international rivalry, with none of the ethical drama. Come to think of it … do you think it’s too late to make that an Olympic sport?

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