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October 30, 2008

Meeting of the Vines

Early last week, my wife dispatched me to our newly-opened (and widely celebrated) local BevMo store to start a gradual stockpiling of good wine for upcoming holiday gatherings. The request came with one very explicit direction: buy only wine that is on sale and has a rating of 90 or above.

So when I came home carrying bottles with ratings of 87 and 88 – or even worse, unrated – I had some explaining to do.

It wasn’t that I completely dismissed her instructions; rather, I felt like I had equally compelling criteria for choosing a wine - namely, I thought it was important to pick some winners. Ultimately, in the spirit of diplomacy, I picked three bottles that met her standards, and three that met mine.


[The lineup: six outstanding Northern California wines. Yes, the bottle on the right is two-thirds empty; good wine doesn’t last very long around our house.]

Predictably, my diplomacy wasn’t enough to avoid triggering an exchange between my curious wife and me, which went something like this:

Her: They’re not all rated 90?

Me: No, but the ones that are lower should be good. They’ve won gold medals at different wine shows.

Her: So what? There are thousands of those little wine competitions. The ratings are more objective.

Me: Sure, but what does a number tell you? I’ve never even heard of the guy who rates them.

Her: It means they’re good!

Me: Yeah … but it’s a different kind of good. I’m more impressed by the competition.

It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized why I was so inherently biased towards contest winners as opposed to high scoring wines. And contrary to what you’re probably thinking, it’s not simply because I’m a runner – more specifically, it’s because I’m a student of the sport of distance running.

Among people who care about such things, one of the most frequent arguments concerning the relative greatness of distance runners is the importance of world records in comparison to gold medals. In other words – is it a greater accomplishment to do something better than anyone in history, or to defeat all of your peers while competing for the most prestigious championships?

If you’re like most people, your first instinct is to think a world record is the more admirable feat – but think of it this way: many world record efforts are nothing more than time trials set under the most ideal conditions imaginable. For every distance above 800 meters, record attempts are typically targeted weeks in advance, with pacers recruited to pull the runner through the first stages of the race before dropping out later on. Even then, attempts are abandoned if weather conditions are not ideal or if the athlete isn’t 100% healthy - it’s basically a speed laboratory where all variables are carefully controlled before the experiment ever begins.

Now compare those conditions to a race like the Olympic 5K. The event is held rain or shine (usually in hot or humid or – in the most recent Olympiad - smoggy extremes) whether the athletes are healthy or not. All of the best runners in the world are there, each one trying to influence the race in his preferred fashion (tactical pacing, surging at particular times, jostling within a large pack, deciding whether to draft or run clear of the fray) in order to win the most prestigious title of their lives. There is a preliminary heat before the finals, making stamina a requirement in addition to speed. The race is a battle; the champion is the one who takes everyone’s greatest effort and proves himself better than all of them.

The most classic example of the record-versus-race debate goes back more than 50 years, to the time of the 4-minute mile barrier. Roger Bannister broke the mark first – with three pacers to help him – in May of 1954, only to have his world record shattered in similar fashion by John Landy just 46 days later. They didn’t race head to head until August of that year, when Bannister outkicked Landy in what is still referred to as the “Mile of the Century”. Bannister’s winning time in the race was significantly slower than Landy’s still-standing world record – but if you asked 100 people in 1954 who the world’s best miler was, 99 of them would have said Bannister. It was hardly even a question.

So … which accomplishment is more impressive? Which one best reflects the spirit of the sport? These are questions that can be bounced back and forth all day; they also bring us back to the aforementioned bottles of wine.

Think of the bottles with 90+ ratings as world record holders: they’ve scored higher than all other competitors in their class. The gold medal winners are the, er, … gold medal winners. They’ve challenged their competitors face to face under uniform circumstances and emerged victorious.

Speaking of face to face showdowns … when it comes to differences of opinion with my wife, I’m about as successful as Charlie Brown trying to kick the football from Lucy’s tee. I’ve mentioned before that my wife is wicked smart – and if you’ve read this blog for more than a week, you already know the word I use most frequently to describe myself (hint: it rhymes with schmidiot). But for the purpose of friendly competition, I’ll go ahead and ask: which bottle of wine would you reach for first? A world record holder or a gold medalist? Or perhaps just the one with the prettiest label?

I suspect I know how this one’s going to play out, but feel free to and weigh in below and confirm it.

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October 27, 2008

A Little Bigger, A Little Better


“Is it getting better … or do you feel the same?”
- U2, “One”
**

Last Friday I showed up for our group’s normally scheduled 6-mile trail run, marking the fourth workout I had attempted since cracking my ribs a few weeks ago. Since a few people have asked, here’s a status report on the injury:

For the first two attempts, I couldn’t take any labored breath without sharp, severe pain, and couldn’t stand completely upright. The first workout was aborted after 10 minutes, the second after 20.

On the third attempt, stabbing pain only accompanied deep breaths, and I could stand generally upright. I stayed out for an hour, moving very slowly and cautiously. Remember the first episode of this season’s Biggest Loser, when all the contestants whimpered and moaned and cried just to make it through an uphill 1-mile hike? That’s exactly what I felt like on my third run.

Which leads us to Friday morning, where a friend and I had the following exchange:

Him: Are you still having a lot of pain?

Me: Not as much. Now it only hurts when I take deep breaths going uphill, or when I feel jostling going downhill. Or anytime I land on my left foot. Other than that, everything’s perfect.


Needless to say, I’m not thrilled with the pace of progress – but I’m optimistic that the situation will continue to gradually resolve. Meanwhile, since I can’t tolerate swimming any better than running, I’ve pretty much abandoned all forms of exercise, as well as any hopes of staying in shape as the holiday season approaches.

As if this wasn’t depressing enough, this morning I suffered the final indignity: I had to fasten my belt on the second buckle hole instead of its customary third slot. I know I’m not a Loser, but one thing is certain: I’m definitely bigger than I used to be.

Thank God it’s the off season.

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October 23, 2008

Ironman vs. 100 (Part 2)

In our last episode, we discussed the training necessary to prepare for an ironman-distance triathlon in relation to a 100-mile ultramarathon. We compared triathlon to rock music, and ultrarunning to reggae. There was also a picture that generated some discussion, but that’s neither here nor there.

So today we’ll talk about the reason for all of that training: race day. In musical terms, think of it as the day your favorite band comes to town to play in concert. Whether you go to several concerts a year, or only attend on rare occasions, the concert is almost guaranteed to be memorable, and will hopefully justify your being a fan for all that time beforehand.

In high school and college, I frequented a lot of concerts. The best rock shows were typically held in smaller venues, where people cram like sardines while screaming and yelling and otherwise acting like complete lunatics, with loud music and darklights and pyrotechnic displays completely overwhelming your senses, when everybody feeds off the energy of everybody else until you start doing things that you never dreamed you’d allow yourself to do in public.

(and, um … before I incriminate myself further, I’d better stop there. Let’s just say that sometimes things got crazy.)

By contrast, the best reggae shows were usually long, slow-paced, mellow affairs. They often took place at large fairgrounds and had names like “Sunsplash” or “Reggaefest”, with several bands playing throughout the day, while people got themselves baked - both on ganja and by soaking up the warm sun. Most attendees were just looking to chill out for a while, taking in all the sights and sounds, with their primary goal simply to make it to the end of the day without ending up in an ambulance.

Short and intense versus long and mellow: does any of that sound familiar? With that in mind, let’s continue our comparison.

RACING

1. Time investment

This is the category where ironman devotees might feel like they’re being kicked in the teeth. After all, one of the reasons the ironman is so compelling is the huge intimidation factor involved with doing an activity that takes the better part of a day and night.

The duration of the ironman-distance race, and the corresponding length of training sessions needed to complete it, is frequently the greatest source of pride (and in more than a few cases, arrogance) when Ironman racers compare themselves to cyclists and runners and shorter-distance triathletes. At Kona, at least one vendor sold shirts saying “You ran a marathon? That’s cute.” Clearly, the duration of the event is the distinction upon which Ironmen and women stake their image and reputation.

And make no mistake, the Ironman is a long event. While the pros typically finish in 9 or 10 hours, most age-groupers are on the course for several hours afterward, fighting their bodies’ overwhelming instincts to cease and desist. As night falls, many athletes are still on the course, trying to beat a certain goal time, or as a last resort, the 17-hour milestone that denotes the end of the event.

Sure, that’s pretty daunting … but at 100-mile races, do you know what they call the 17-hour mark? The 50-mile cutoff.

Almost every single person who lines up at the start line of an ultra knows that he or she is going to pull an all-nighter (and in some insane cases, two) simply to finish the event. Some races see a handful of finishers under 20 hours, but even world-class ultrarunners typically need at least 16 or 17 hours to cover 100 miles. Races with relatively flat profiles generally set a finish cutoff of 30 hours, but more challenging races have cutoffs in excess of 40 hours. In that context, the question of which event is a greater test of endurance is a no-brainer: it’s ultras, hands down.

(I know that the instinctive reaction of IM folks is to say “but if you’re out there that long, you can’t really be racing.” As hard as it is to believe, some ultrarunners actually do straight-up race each other for 20 or more hours at a time. From my experience, the percentages are very similar in the two sports: a select number - probably less than 10% - of athletes are truly competing [responding to an opponent’s move, using surges at strategic times, etc] for overall or age-group spots, while the vast majority are just trying to reach the finish as quickly as possible on their own terms. You can’t use arguments like temperature extremes [e.g. Kona] or difficulty of terrain, either, because there are 100-mile races in all of those conditions, too. Sorry, Ironpeople. On the bright side, nobody is selling “You did an Ironman? That’s cute.” shirts yet - at least, not as far as I know.)

So this sounds like a big victory for ultrarunning, right? Not so fast. Remember, in Part 1, I awarded points based on which sport was a more practical endeavor for regular working schlubs to accomplish. Since the Ironman is a shorter event, that makes it more easily attainable – therefore the point for this round is awarded to triathlon. (That’s Ultra 3, IM 2, if you’re keeping track so far.)


2. Degree of difficulty

This is basically a recycled argument from what I said in Part 1 about the difficulty of training: for many triathletes, there’s one segment that comes less easily than the others, but you can’t avoid dealing with it on race day. For example, it seems like many triathletes dread the swim portion of the IM, even though it’s a disproportionately small percentage of the overall race in terms of duration. It makes sense, though - if you hate swimming, or you’re really slow or inefficient or prone to panic in the open water, the prospect of spending 90 minutes or more on that segment would pose an enormous challenge.

Triathlon also has the potential for mechanical issues on the bike, ranging in severity from minor annoyances to catastrophic problems that necessitate withdrawal from the race. This obviously varies with each person based both on the quality of his bike and his familiarity with making mechanical adjustments. And the pros aren't imune to this problem – as defending champion Chris McCormack can tell you after bike problems sabotaged his race at Kona this month.

By comparison, ultrarunning is pretty tame stuff; as we established earlier, people don’t get into this sport unless they really love trail running. And since we generally don’t have to worry about the soles of our shoes tearing loose, equipment malfunctions are pretty low on our list of worries. Score another point for ultrarunning.


3. Enjoyment

For most folks, this is the primary reason we get into the sport: to enjoy ourselves and have fun. (Healthy living and looking good in a swimsuit are a close second and third. Eating ice cream is probably on that list, too – but I’m getting off the subject.)

Think again of the rock concert/reggaefest analogy that introduced this post. This is one of those questions about which reasonable minds may differ: what type of experience do you prefer? Do you favor the rush of high-intensity, borderline dangerous experiences, or the Zen-like satisfaction of introspection and enlightenment?

I can honestly say that in my ultrarunning experience, I haven’t found anything nearly as exhilarating as bombing downhill on a bike at 45 mph, or getting thrashed in the washing machine at the start of the swim segment, or the panic of transitioning from swim to bike as quickly as possible without making some crucial error than will ruin the rest of your day. In many ways, those are the experiences I live for – even more so than the self-awareness of ultrarunning - so I’m scoring this round in favor of the Ironman; but feel free to overrule this one if you’re keeping score at home.

4. Injury potential

Here’s an experiment for you: ask anyone who’s finished a 100-miler to tell you about their race, then click your stopwatch. I’ll be shocked if you make it 30 seconds before the runner starts describing some kind of injury or another that impacted his or her race performance, and caused lasting problems for weeks or months afterward.

There are several reasons why a 100-miler grinds your body down much worse than an IM. First, as we’ve established, you’re out there for twice as long. Since you’re only doing one activity, the potential for developing soft tissue (muscle, tendon, ligament) injury or other crippling situations such as blistering or chafing is magnified significantly. Medical conditions are both more common and more threatening in 100-mile races than any other event (I’ve written a whole article about this), and the task itself becomes more dangerous as the miles grow longer.

If you’ve done an Ironman, think of the injury risk this way: imagine that your bike segment ended at midnight, and you still had to run your marathon completely in the dark, when your body would normally be sleeping. Now imagine that your run course still has several thousand feet of elevation change, and that it’s exclusively on narrow, rocky, root-strewn trails where slipping could blow out your knee or send you down a steep embankment. Those last 26.2 of the ironman seem pretty tame by comparison – and that’s why 100-milers are the more hazardous event.

But remember, points are awarded here for the relative ease of entry to the sport in question – so in the category, score another point for the Ironman. (And I’m one step closer to thinking those “Ironman? That's Cute.” shirts aren’t such a bad idea.)


Have you noticed that the score is all tied up? Which is fitting, because both the Ironman and 100-milers inspire the highest degree of competition imaginable. If only there were some completely subjective, idiotically intangible criteria by which I could declare a final winner …

(You can probably guess where this is headed … )

5. Sexiness

Remember the picture of Desiree Ficker from yesterday’s post? Of course you do. The crazy part is, that took me about 0.14 seconds to find in a basic image search. And I didn’t have to pick Desiree – I could have just as easily gone with her or her or her. (Or, in the interest of fairness to the ladies, him or him or him.)

Clearly, triathlon is a sport that’s just bursting at the seams with sex appeal. There’s something about seeing hot athletes wearing hot outfits using hot gear that’s unquestionably, … what’s the word I’m looking for? … hot. And while the men and women of ultrarunning are perfectly attractive in their own right, there’s really no question as to which sport has long since brought sexy back.

Whether that’s enough to justify scoring another point in favor of triathlon is really up to you. (It is, however, enough for me to justify including one more Desiree photo above.) It’s another question where people may reasonably differ: do you think of beauty as breathtaking and glamorous, or understated and inspirational? I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Finally, the fact that these events finished in a deadlock wasn’t merely coincidence; these two posts are my extremely long-winded way of saying that both the ironman and a 100-miler are fantastic accomplishments. Training and racing in them will impact your life in wonderful and extraordinary ways that you never imagined. Perhaps above all else, the most important characteristic they share is this: they each need to be experienced in order to be truly appreciated.

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Click here to read Part 1

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October 20, 2008

Ironman vs. 100 (Part 1)

Growing up, I was very much a music junkie. While I developed an extensive knowledge and appreciation for almost all genres, my heart belonged to two specific styles: rock music and reggae.

Rock music was always a part of my identity, and shaped the way I see the world. It was loud and crazy and intense and unpredictable and endlessly fascinating. Along with playing sports and chasing girls, it was the primary thing that made life worth living.

(This was before I became a grownup and discovered things like family and goodwill and spirituality … but to this day, rock music is still a solid top-5 on my list of greatest joys in life. I’d better not tell you exactly where it ranks - but it’s a solid top-5.)

By contrast, reggae spoke to my soul. It was uplifting and gracious and peaceful, and made me appreciate the gifts in my life and the wonder of the world around me. Although the two musical styles are remarkably different, there’s no reason why somebody can’t develop a passion for both; indeed, I’ve spent the better part of forty years doing precisely that.

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing my comparison of ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons.

Between August 2007 and August 2008, I was fortunate (feel free to substitute the word crazy) enough to complete an Ironman distance triathlon and a 100-mile ultramarathon. At points along the way and afterwards, people asked me which one was harder to prepare for, which was tougher to complete, which I enjoyed more, and so on. So this post will hopefully provide a long overdue answer to a lot of those questions.

Triathlon is rock music: it’s vain and flashy and crazy and intense, and it’s loaded with sex appeal. Professional men are like rock stars: all the women want to be with them, and all the guys want to be them. (Best of all, the triathlon attraction crosses genders quite nicely; while I’ve always found rocker chicks to be somewhat scary, I’d jump at the chance to share a few workouts with Desiree Ficker. Yes, this is a cheap excuse to post her picture again.) It’s a hard lifestyle to maintain, but those who successfully do so feel almost immortal – or if not that, at least forever young.

(I’ll set aside my usual cynicism and resist the easy joke about suspected drug use in both groups. No need to thank me.)

Ultrarunning is reggae: much simpler, while simultaneously much more profound. Just as the reggae sound is more complex than it initially appears, so too is ultrarunning more meaningful than the repetitive rhythm of one foot in front of the other all through the night. Those who practice it regularly can readily describe humility and hard times, yet typically manage to keep a positive outlook in the midst of hardship.

So think of the events as two different genres of music – while most people will prefer one style over the other, having an attachment to one doesn’t automatically preclude you from enjoying the other. In fact, the two sports have a lot more things in common than they have differences – and that’s how we’ll base the comparison.

Finally, a few ground rules before we start. First, I’m only comparing the longest distance events – so the discussion here pertains to an ironman-distance tri and a 100-mile ultra. Second, there are actually two separate categories to consider: one that revolves around training regimens, and another about actually participating in the events. Accordingly, I’ll break this analysis into two sections – training and racing – and make this a two-part post. In each subsection, I’ll indicate which event has an advantage, and add up a final tally once we reach the end. (This might be interesting - I honestly have no idea which way the scores will go.)

My goodness, I’m already rambling way too much - why don’t we just get started:

TRAINING

1. Time commitment

I could break this down hour-by-hour and tell you how exactly how much time per week I spent training for each event – at least, I could have if I had ever bothered to keep track of things like that. Unfortunately, I’ve never been one to follow a rigid training program, and I’ve long since given up the compulsion to record every single workout ever completed, so you’ll just have to settle for generalizations here.

The main idea is that either one of these events will completely dominate your free time. They’ll also eat into family time and work schedules and vacation plans and just about every other leisure activity you enjoy. From the time you sign up until you finish the race, one concern will dominate your thoughts: I’m probably not training enough.

If you were to survey the triathletes lined up at the World Championships in Kona earlier this month, I’ll bet 95% of them will tell you that they wished they had trained more in preparation for the race (they’ll also tell you that they would like to be 10 pounds lighter, but that’s a separate post). These are the best athletes in the world – and if they’re not satisfied with their training volume, what makes you think that regular schmucks (in other words, all the rest of us) would be?

Part of this compulsion is simply the nature of people who are drawn to these events, but another major factor is the daunting prospect of the ironman distance, and the need to be proficient at three disciplines. Anytime you go more than a couple of days without doing one of the three, you feel like you’re falling behind or losing fitness. The only way to keep up is to do two workouts per day, or back-to-back workouts that take several hours.

At one point in my IM buildup, I was doing three workouts per day, and it didn’t seem the least bit excessive – it was just what I had to do to keep up the mileage I wanted to complete. At my peak, I was logging approximately 7000 weekly yards in the pool, 180 miles on my bike, and 50 miles running – and all of those numbers felt entirely too low. Even if I had figured out some way to do three-a-days on a regular basis, I probably still wouldn’t feel like I’d done enough training. That’s just the way it goes.

Training for an ultra, the compulsion is similar – especially if you’re somewhat new to the sport and have no idea what is required for success. Visit a few ultra forums, and you’ll see discussion threads about how much weekly mileage is recommended to complete a 100-miler. And no matter how many miles you run, you’ll probably feel like you should be doing more.

There’s a common expression among ultra runners that “if you can run it in a week, you can run it in a day”, meaning that whatever distance your event is, that’s what you should aim for in weekly mileage. However, in my experience, 100 miles per week on hilly trails takes an enormous amount of time, and leaves you completely drained. I settled into an average of about 70 miles per week, with a high of 110 – which sounds like a lot, until you consider that one of my favorite ultrarunners was averaging well over 200 miles per week before Western States this year. Have I mentioned that it never seems like I’m doing enough?

There’s one distinction worth noting on this subject, however: veteran ultrarunners will tell you that once you have a 100 under your belt, you can continue from race to race with very little training in between events. For example, if you’ve got a 100-miler, a 100K, and another 100-miler in a three-month span, your weeks in between events might only feature 15-20 miles of training. All of that training for the first one is like an airplane working to climb to its flight altitude, where it can then level off and cruise for a longer period of time with less fuel consumption.

With IM training, in order to maintain your speed and remain sharp at three disciplines, you’re in climbing mode before every race. It’s a subtle difference, but enough to give a very slight edge in this category to ultrarunning.

2. Fatigue

If you’re like me - meaning you have a family and job that place demands on your time – the only way to do so much high-volume training is to get up VERY early in the morning, and log as many miles as possible before the rest of the world awakes. It doesn’t take an Einstein to guess what happens when you do this for about six months in a row: you’re tired nearly every doggone day of your life. Your body doesn’t really care whether you’re getting up at 4AM to do a 30-mile run, or to squeeze in a 2500-yard swim before work; all it knows is that you really should be sleeping.

Even when you’re able to get some midday or afternoon workouts done, the cumulative effect is the same with IM training or ultra training – so we’ll call this category a draw.

3. Difficulty of training

I’ve found – somewhat to my surprise - that my background in triathlon differs from a lot of amateurs in the sport, in that I was fairly comfortable with all three disciplines from a very early age. As a kid, I was always on a local swim team, rode my bike all over the neighborhood every day, and was always up for a good footrace. (The fact that somebody invented a sport that combines all three of those things was my greatest confirmation to date of the existence of a benevolent God. I’m not exaggerating one bit.)

On the other hand, many triathletes struggle with one discipline or another. I’m always encountering people who were terrific runners but can’t swim, collegiate swimmers who have no power on the bike, or strong cyclists who can’t run a fast mile. Triathletes often say to “train your weakness, race your strength”; in that case, I imagine that a lot of triathletes spend a lot of hours doing training that is either awkward or uncomfortable in the discipline they like the least. That would get pretty old after several months.

Ultrarunners, however, concern themselves with just one thing: running. It’s a pretty good bet that before they sign on to run 100 miles, they usually recognize whether or not running is something they enjoy. Even if they’re not fast, many ultrarunners come to the sport because they’ve discovered that the long miles on the trails offer them much more than simply the physical benefits of a good workout. If you’re doing something that you love, the training doesn’t seem nearly as mundane. Big advantage to the ultrarunners here. However …

4. Injury potential

If you’re only doing one activity, your chances of developing an overuse injury multiply exponentially. I’ve already written an article about this hallmark of most runners, and about how triathletes (the smart ones, anyway) are much less likely to aggravate an injury because they can cross-train to maintain their fitness. So this is a major point in favor of triathletes.

Of course, this refers only to the cumulative, day-to-day injuries that befall most athletes – not the career-ending, life-threatening variety such as getting crushed on your bike by an 18-wheeler, attacked by some sort of predator in the ocean, or any other sort of freak tragedy. I tend to lump those types of incidents into a separate “lightning strike” category, meaning they can happen to anyone at anytime, regardless of what we’re training for. I mean, I cracked three ribs on a boogie board, for crying out loud – should we count that as a tri injury or a running one? Better to just chalk it up to bad karma.

5. Gear and Expenses

No doubt about it, triathlon is a rich man’s (or woman’s) game. It seems like every time you turn around, you need to drop some money (sometimes a lot of it) just to keep on training.

You pay pool dues and insurance fees and buy a wetsuit and goggles and pull buoys and paddles. You drop a few grand on a bike, then upgrade it with so many new components that it barely resembles the thing you saw in the online catalog. You shell out top dollar for cycling shoes and helmets and power meters and aerodynamic hydration systems. Even the most basic tri-outfits seem to cost hundreds of dollars. By the way, this is in addition to all of your basic running gear.

Triathletes are also prime consumers of all sorts of crazy gadgets (speed laces, anyone?) and nutritional supplements. Nobody uses Gatorade or Gu during workouts or eats normal food between sessions – it’s all specially developed formulas and superfoods that promise to help you shave a handful of minutes off of your IM time – perhaps enough to make it from 19th place to 17th in your age group. Yahoo!

So it’s easy to see why ultrarunners think they have a huge advantage in the finance department. However, once you start calculating the costs of several pairs of trail shoes per year, state of the art hot or cold weather clothing, hydration packs, lighting systems, GPS devices, and a lot of those same nutritional expenses … well, it’s STILL a lot cheaper than triathlon. But that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Score another point for ultrarunners.

Those are the major training issues to compare, which brings us to the conclusion of Part 1. At the intermission, our score stands at Ultrarunning 3, Triathlon 1, with one draw. Will ultrarunning gradually pull away and drop its competition in the second half? Will triathlon come back to even the score? Will we have any more silly rock and reggae analogies? All these questions and more will be answered in Part 2.
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Click here to read Part 2
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October 17, 2008

Musical Interlude (and a Survey)

Admin note: this started as a series of random bullets to introduce my tri vs ultra post. Then the items started to take on a life of their own, and – except for the final one – shared a similar theme, so I’m taking a shortcut and letting this post stand alone, and we’ll get back to the other topic next week – I promise.

* At long last, I’ve put the video on my sidebar that I’ve waited months for: "Troublemaker", by Weezer. It was far and away my favorite song of the summer, and the video generated a lot of buzz before it was even filmed.

A few months ago, Weezer announced an open casting call for the video shoot, with the opportunity to participate in several world record-breaking events. The finished product features the world’s Largest Game of Dodgeball, the Most People in a Custard Pie Fight, Most People Riding on a Skateboard, the Largest Air Guitar Ensemble, and Longest Guitar Hero World Tour Marathon. (Yes, Guinness actually keeps records of these things.)

So whether or not you’re a Weezer fan (and you should be), when you watch the video, you have to agree on one thing: those guys definitely know how to have fun.

* The new Rise Against album that I was promoting a couple of weeks ago was released last week … and at first I was a little disappointed. I always dread listening to new recordings from a band whose previous album (in this case, The Sufferer and the Witness) was an absolute masterpiece. My expectation is that all of the new stuff will be just as good, even though that may be somewhat unrealistic. It feels sort of like the unveiling of whatever Van Gogh painted immediately after Starry Night – something that was probably very beautiful, but doesn’t stand out as an instant classic like its predecessor.

I’m aware that I just compared Rise Against to Van Gogh; trust me - in my mind, it makes perfect sense. Anyway, after listening to the new album a few times, I’ve decided that there are at least 7 songs I’ll keep in heavy rotation for a long time – and in the age of single-song downloads, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

* David Archuleta (of American Idol fame) has a new video on VH1. It’s basically what you’d expect: soft-pop hooks, lyrics full of teen angst, lots of glamour shots of the kid strumming his guitar or playing the piano on the dock of a lake. The only thing that’s missing is him staring into the camera afterwards, holding his hands to his chest and saying, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe you liked it so much! Thank you! Oh my gosh!!” with an incredulous look on his face. And no, I’m not linking to the video; this blog has some standards to maintain.

* However, this item deserves some links: this week, Craig e-mailed to ask if I’d do a follow-up post on the apparent comeback of one Britney Jean Spears, fulfilling a wish/prophecy that I offered here almost two years ago. (The inquiry is twice as funny when you remember that the person asking this is a pastor).

Here was my response, as well as a link to Exhibit A in the debate over Britney’s current “Hot or Not” status:

Was I right about Britney? I’m not quite ready to claim victory on that one. She reminds me of an alcoholic uncle who shows up at Thanksgiving one year clean and sober, looking great and talking about turning things around. You hope it’s all true, but you certainly won’t be shocked if three months from now he’s unemployed and back on the bottle. Yes, Brit’s last appearance (at the VMAs, right? Very hip for you to know that) was impressive, but at this point I need a long period of consistency before I’m fully convinced – and even then it will be a nervous optimism at best.

That about sums my feelings up … but you’re welcome to weigh in either way on this.

* And finally … something completely different. A training partner of mine is a transplant from Philadelphia, so after the Phillies earned a trip to the World Series this week, I attached this photo to an e-mail reminder for Friday morning’s run:

Later, it triggered the following exchange between another friend and me:

Friend: What is that?

Me (shocked): It’s the Philly Phanatic! The mascot for the Phillies. He’s awesome.

Friend: Never heard of him.

Me: You should. If there were a Mount Rushmore for sports mascots, the Phanatic would be on it. He’d be up there with the
San Diego Chicken, the Stanford Tree, and …

Friend: And who?

That’s where I drew a blank, and that’s where the audience participation portion of this post begins. There are so many options to choose from – which one should get the honor? I have a West Coast bias, so I thought of Phoenix's Dunking Gorilla, or – based on his dance skills alone – Stomper from the Oakland A’s. I also like those sausage guys that race around in Milwaukee, but are they official mascots? Maybe someone in the Midwest can clarify this. And Mister Met is always good for a few laughs.

It’s way too much for me to contemplate today, and I’ve given you lots of links already. Check them out, then feel free to cast a vote below.

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October 14, 2008

Island Daze (or, Fear and Self-Loathing in Hawaii)

“Loaded like a freight train – flyin’ like an aeroplane –

Feelin’ like a space brain one more time tonight … “
- Guns N’ Roses, “Nightrain”

Starting this post proved much harder than I thought; over the past several days, I’ve been drifting through a narcotic and alcohol induced haze that’s made it difficult to put coherent thoughts together in my head, much less typing them out cleanly on a blank page. I have no idea how Hunter S. Thompson ever did it so successfully.

That’s my way of fair warning that I’m not sure where this is gonna go – but my goal is to give a brief overview of my vacation, as well as an update on my training situation that was very much unexpected.

First, as a point of clarification, the beach views from the previous post were from the island of Kauai, at Poipu Beach on the south shore. Our family last vacationed there eight years (and two fewer kids) ago, and came back with nothing but amazing memories … in some ways, it seemed sad that it took us eight years to go back.

The last time I was there, I spent hours running through sugar fields, across ocean cliffs, and deep into forest trails, saturating my shoes and clothes with enough of Kauai’s infamous red dirt to leave permanent reminders of what an ideal running vacation the island can be. This time, I didn’t have any serious training plans, but I packed my running shoes in hopes of taking one or two mornings to revisit some of those places I recalled so fondly.

My primary goal was to spend a lot of time in the water – either snorkeling, bodysurfing or boogie boarding, or doing some open water swimming to maintain my stroke until I returned home and started racing in the pool again.

Remember my earlier declaration of wanting to swim a one-minute 100-yard freestyle? I wrote that post two days before leaving for vacation, and put it on the shelf to be published here the following week. The next day, I was curious to see just how close I was to this goal, so before my regular workout, I swam an all-out 100 – alone, self-timed, from a push start off the wall – in 1:04. I figured if I could just stay close to that level of fitness and get in one or two days of stroke practice while I was away, I’d return home and successfully break through the one-minute barrier within a few weeks. The pieces of my plan were falling perfectly into place.

Four days later, I found myself in an emergency room in the town of Lihue, after cracking my rib cage in a surfing accident.

My kids and I were using boogie boards in the relatively shallow surf, and everything was going well until I got caught on the top curl of a large wave, then slammed downward as the wave crashed. My chest hit the sand first, and my legs were bent up behind me like a scorpion, with the force of the water driving them further downward. Basically, I was folded in half in the wrong direction; the pain was immediate, and the most severe I’ve felt in a very long time.

(In fact, even as I typed the above paragraph, I stopped to shudder a couple of times. I’m still having some minor flashback problems.)

For a few seconds, as I drifted in the whitewash, I wasn’t able to feel or move my legs, and briefly considered the fact that I might be paralyzed. Needless to say, I was absolutely terrified. Eventually I realized that everything was still intact, but I simply had too much pain to move, and it felt excruciating to breathe – so I just grabbed onto my board and drifted closer to shore on the next couple of waves, until I could place my knees on the sand and crawl onto the beach.

Predictably, within about ten minutes, I went from thinking I was paralyzed, to wondering if I could just walk it off and get back to normal. However, for the rest of the day, I could barely stand upright … and it became obvious that walking it off wasn’t an option. Suddenly, my travel plans included a 30-minute drive across the island for an impromptu visit to the ER.

A chest x-ray showed that none of my ribs had punctured my lungs (hooray!), and I left the ER with a nice combination of meds at my disposal. Between Toradol, Percocet, prescription strength Motrin and Tylenol, I was able to manage the pain well enough to get through the next several days of (somewhat modified) activities. For the remainder of the week, I kept a steady supply of meds on hand, and was continually limping around our beach home and popping pills like Dr House.
You know what else has powerful analgesic properties? Very strong mai tais. They were available in abundant supply in Kauai, and I was sucking them down like a rock star.

(In fact, the whole drugs-and-alcohol theme tied in rather nicely with the book I was reading at the time: Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses. No matter how loaded up I was, I kept telling myself that those guys survived an awful lot more. That’s how bad things had become for me – I was justifying my behavior by comparing myself to Axl and Slash. I should probably write a whole post about this band and book someday; some of the stuff is absolutely mind-boggling.)

My first instinct was write this post as an analogy to the Brady Bunch’s star-crossed trip to Hawaii – you know, the one where Bobby finds the bad luck tiki, Greg gets hurt in a surfing accident, Peter gets visited by a tarantula, and that creepy old guy holds the boys hostage in the cave. But even as I staggered through the remainder of our visit, I couldn’t really consider my accident a huge stroke of misfortune; there were just too many things to appreciate in Kauai.

Our kids had a great time boogie boarding and hiking and kayaking and snorkeling, and all three of them can not only pronounce humuhumunukunukuapua’a (Hawaii’s state fish, above), but they can identify them by their markings, and they saw them prominently, within arm’s reach, while exploring the tropical reefs of Poipu. They played under waterfalls and stood atop high cliffs and swung from ropes and jumped off rocks into a beautiful river. They attended a luau and took walks on the beach and fell in love with shave ice (an island delicacy – do NOT leave Kauai without trying some). In other words, they got to do what everyone wishes their kids could do.

Best of all - thanks to modern pharmaceuticals - I was able to accompany them for almost all of it. And remember, at one point I thought I had become a paraplegic … so to complain about being in pain during all of the above activities seems awfully trivial.

Of course, my training plans are completely on hold. I didn’t even attempt any running until yesterday, where I managed about 15 minutes of shuffling before calling it quits (I still have pain when taking deep breaths). Swimming is obviously off the table until I can raise my arms over my head again – although I might see if I can tolerate some modified activity in the pool, and hopefully work out some soreness that way (besides, it would be a shame to lose my Hawaiian tan so quickly). Obviously, my 100-yard goal is indefinitely postponed – maybe for a month, maybe for a year … we’ll see how it goes.

The other upside is that I’ve got some extra time on my hands, so maybe I can catch up on some of those blog posts I’ve been meaning to write – although I think I’ll wait until my narcotic (well, technically opioid, but that's splitting hairs) prescriptions run out. It may not seem like much, but this post was kind of exhausting.


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October 11, 2008

A Brief Escape

You'll have to forgive me the lackadaisical pattern of publishing posts or returning e-mails lately; my mind has been preoccupied here:


Truth be told, my mind is frequently preoccupied with scenes like the one above; however, this time, my body was right there as well. Our family took advantage of an early autumn school vacation to catch ourselves a little bit of aloha. The week didn't go exactly as planned (which seems to be a theme of mine with major events this year), but it's probably true that even the worst days in the islands are better than most days at home.

I'll begin to catch up with an update post in the next few days, and jump back into normal programming by the end of the week. Thanks for your patience.


(Bonus points if you can identify the beach. No, it's not Kona ... )


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October 7, 2008

Another Crazy (and Mostly Meaningless) Endeavor Involving the Number 100

The last time I swam competitively - at least, the last time I did so in a pool – was as a high school senior.

I was what you’d call a solid member of the team: my times weren’t especially spectacular, but I could usually score a handful of points at dual meets, and every now and then - depending on who else showed up - I would win some races outright. I was very close to qualifying for the state meet in a couple of events, but came up a couple of tenths (in the 50 free) or seconds (in the 100 back) short of earning such a distinction.

For the most part, I don’t recall any of my PRs from those races, or the exact goal times I was aiming for in various events. There was, however, one notable exception to this opaque recollection: I remember that breaking one minute in the 100-yard freestyle was pretty badass.

I was able to accomplish the feat a handful of times – but not very often, and always by a narrow margin. I probably broke a minute less than ten times, and never by more than 2 seconds. I can’t precisely tell you my fastest time - but I definitely haven’t forgotten the feeling of climbing out of the pool and looking over the timer’s shoulder as he left the minute column blank while writing my time down on the card. Some memories just stay with you.

Now, almost 20 years after they transpired, those memories have been triggered with increasing frequency during my afternoon swim workouts over the past few weeks. And there’s a little voice in the back of my head that wonders, with increasing curiosity, if those feelings are something I could capture once again in my compulsive adulthood.

In other words … I’d like to break the one minute mark in the 100-yard freestyle again.

As recently as two months ago, such a thought would have seemed preposterous. All of my swimming over the past several years has been in the context of triathlon training, with emphasis on long sets, energy conservation, and general conditioning. My speed has gradually increased, but not to the point where I’d ever consider myself a fast sprinter. However, a few surprising developments lately made me reevaluate things, and planted the question of what might be possible.

The first surprise was that, beginning in mid-September, I felt like I was just flying through the water during routine workouts. I finished sets ahead of people I normally trailed, and maintained a smooth stroke throughout our typical 2500-yard sessions. At first I figured that everyone else was getting slower – but the clock kept showing split times that were 10 seconds faster per 200 yards, 5 seconds per 100, and 2 or 3 seconds per 50.

(Of course, I immediately double-checked the accuracy of the pool clock with three different watches. Sometimes I’m far too cynical for my own good.)

Periodically, near the end of workouts, our final sets include 50-yard sprints - and on rare occasion, we’ll take an extra few seconds of rest so we can really blast them. Even rarer is when the lifeguard strolls over to watch us with a stopwatch in hand – but that’s just what happened one day a couple of weeks ago.

He sat on a diving block and called out the finish times as six of us crashed into the wall one after the other. I didn’t quite hear him with the water in my ears, so we had this exchange:

Me: What was my time?

Lifeguard: I got you at 29-high.


As in, under 30 seconds. Now, I’m no mathematician ... but I know that 50 yards is half of a hundred, and 30 seconds is half of a minute.

(I’m also aware that doing the second 50 yards in the same amount of time will be about 10 times more difficult than the first 50 – but that’s the kind of math I don’t like thinking about right now.)

Incidentally, this was from a push start off the wall, at the tail end of a workout. My first reaction was, what the heck is going on? That kind of speed was a complete shock to me. I wondered if somebody might ask me to pee in a cup after I got out of the pool – and what’s worse, I wasn’t sure I’d pass. Maybe my most recent box of green tea bags had been inadvertently laced with EPO or something. The whole situation just seemed weird.

It took me far longer than it should have to figure out the real cause of my newfound speed: namely, I was enjoying the benefits of dedicated swim training.

For the nine months prior to September, just about every day I got in the pool, I had already gone for a run that morning, or done some monster workout the day before. In the midst of running up to 90 miles per week, my body was in a chronic state of exhaustion, where my main goal was simply to make it through a swim workout without getting lapped.

After my final race this season, I took a full week of rest, and almost two weeks off from running. Even now, I’m only doing a two or three easy runs per week – which leaves me with more energy available to pour into my swim workouts. (To recap: exhaustion makes you slow; focused training and rest make you fast – let’s file this one under “obvious”.)

So now I’ve got some time to focus on swimming and chasing down my own Ghost of Swim Meets Past, but there’s a limited window of opportunity to catch him. My pool closes for four weeks near the end of the year - and by the time January rolls around, I’ll be back to the grind of high-mileage running, sleep deprivation, and general fatigue that prevented me from being a faster swimmer for the majority of 2008.

All of which leaves about 10 weeks for me to reel in that goofball high school kid from 20 years ago. It sounds like a fairly tall order, but I have a feeling that I’m close enough to knock this one out in that time frame. Whether or not I ever catch him, one thing is certain: it will sure be interesting to try.

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October 3, 2008

Poster Dilemma

Less than 24 hours after Haile Gebrselassie’s mind-boggling world record 2:03:59 marathon performance last Sunday, one of my friends sent me the following e-mail:

You’re going to need a new poster for [my son].





It was a reference to an article I had written for my old website several years ago - after receiving a poster of then-world record holder Paul Tergat – full of philosophical wrangling about the simple act of hanging a poster in my young son’s bedroom. And since I’m somewhat in slacker mode lately when it comes to posting, this seemed like an opportune time to republish the article here on my blog.

If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that blogging didn’t make me crazy; I was pretty far down that road a long time ago. Just in case you were wondering.


**

"Poster Dilemma" October 2003

In April 2002, Khalid Khannouchi set the marathon world record by running 2:05:38 at the London Marathon.

Shortly after that race, at the Big Sur Marathon expo, the folks at the New Balance booth gave away free Khannouchi posters, emblazoned with his race time and the words “world record holder.” I grabbed one as an afterthought, thinking maybe I’d hang it in the back of my closet – someplace I could briefly glance for a small dose of inspiration when I grabbed my running shoes each morning, but would otherwise remain unobtrusive.

The poster never made it to my closet.

As is our custom with every marathon, my kids sat down with me when I came home after the expo and emptied out my goody bag, searching for energy bar samples, stickers, or anything else that catches their eye. My then-four-year-old son asked about the Khannouchi poster, and seemed genuinely impressed when I told him that this was the fastest marathon runner in the world. He asked if he could tape the poster up onto his wall, and I just couldn’t refuse.

Thereafter, almost every night as we got ready for bath time, he talked about the poster, and the runner who was even faster than Daddy, and faster than anyone in the world. He actually learned to pronounce “Khalid Khannouchi” better than most adults, and started recognizing other pictures of Khannouchi from running magazines around the house. Even his two-year-old sister began to talk to the picture of “Anoochi” when playing in her brother’s room. (Some families have Tiger Woods, others have Kobe Bryant; ours has skinny marathoners as role models. Read into that what you will.)

And then this September, Paul Tergat goes and breaks the marathon world record - and our whole bedtime routine is thrown into disarray.

First, a couple points of clarification: Tergat didn’t just break the world record, but smashed through it by almost a full minute - an improvement of the same mind-boggling proportion as Michael Johnson’s demolition of the 200m record at the Atlanta Olympics. Not only that, but the man who came in second place, Sammy Korir, also ran faster than Khannouchi’s previous WR time.

In just one day, the marathoning world got turned on its ear (however unbeknownst, it seems, to mass media – but that’s another story), a Kenyan runner staked his claim as the best endurance runner in history (a strong argument can be made, with Tergat’s multiple world XC championships and medals at world track championships) [**2008 update: in light of his recent feats, I’d still go with Gebrselassie], and now I’m facing a dilemma as to what to do with that Khannouchi poster.

If I leave the poster up, do I sit my son down and explain that Khannouchi isn’t the fastest marathoner in the world anymore? If so, do we now try to get a Paul Tergat poster also, to place on the wall slightly ahead of Khannouchi’s? Should I teach my children Paul Tergat’s name, and pick pictures from magazines so they can identify him? And do we look for a Sammy Korir poster also, to place in the middle of the other two? How long would we keep this process up? If enough people run faster than Khannouchi’s time, we would run out of wall space to hang everyone’s poster. Can we just cross out the inscription on the poster, and correct my kids whenever they talk to the “fastest marathoner”, reminding them that Khannouchi is now only the third fastest? The day-to-day details could get confusingly murky.

On the other hand, it seems downright cold-hearted to take the poster down. Imagine the negative messages would that send my kids: if you are not the best, you don’t command our recognition or respect. Once your achievement has been eclipsed, our admiration for you immediately shifts onto someone else, forgetting all the hard work and perseverance that helped you set the record in the first place.

After all, it’s not like Khannouchi was involved in a sex scandal with an intern; somebody (well, 2 somebodies) just ran faster than he did. If that were the standard for keeping photographs in sight, my house would be filled with pictures of all my speedy training partners instead of me and my wife and kids.

Plus, the poster is now part of the decoration in my son’s room, just as much as the painted giraffe on his wall, or the stuffed rhinoceros on his bed. Removing the poster for such an arbitrary reason would be unfathomable to him.

The simplest solution, of course, is for Khalid to break the world record again. The poster would stay up by itself, without modification, and the distinction would again be quite simple- Khalid Khannouchi, world’s fastest marathon runner. I realize that is a tall order to ask of someone, and may take many months or even years to come to fruition – if it ever does at all.

In the meantime, if anyone knows where I can get a Paul Tergat poster, I might be interested in buying one. I’ll make up my mind what to do with it later.

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