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November 29, 2008

The Marathon Bug

On the Monterey Peninsula, most runners’ race calendars are anchored around two premier events: the Big Sur Half-Marathon On Monterey Bay each November, and the Big Sur International Marathon at the end of April.

While most local marathon runners typically do both events, only a small percentage of half-marathon runners go on to do the marathon the following spring. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; for many people, a half-marathon represents the longest distance, and the largest time commitment, that they are compelled to complete. And that’s absolutely fine.

Each year, however, a certain number of half-marathon participants get filled with wide-eyed ambition, and start thinking about continuing down the road towards distance running’s holy grail. The following Monterey Herald article was written for them.

**
Running Life “The Marathon Bug”

Let’s say you’re one of the thousands of runners who finished your first half-marathon this fall. By now, your body is reasonably well recovered, and you’ve got a great sense of accomplishment from running 13 miles.

Maybe you look adoringly at your finisher’s medal – and perhaps, every so often, you squint your left eye closed so that the word “half” is obscured. Maybe you find yourself wondering what it would take to get a medal like that. Sometimes you talk yourself out of it, but the idea lingers, and preoccupies your thoughts with each passing day.

If this is you – congratulations! You’ve caught the Marathon Bug. Chances are, it probably won’t go away. The only question now is what to do about it. How do you make the leap from 13.1 to 26.2?

The answer isn’t as hard as you may think. In fact, you can probably have yourself ready for a marathon by next spring. You’ve already got a foundation, and there’s plenty of time to build upon it.

Your first, most important step is to commit yourself NOW to reaching the goal. Go online and register for the race. Your motivation to train will be much greater after you’ve officially signed up. Where your money goes, your body is likely to follow.

Between now and springtime, you’ll gradually progress your training towards your marathon goal. At first, you don’t have to change the number of days, or the number of miles you ran to train for the half. The most important adjustment is to reserve one day per week for a marathon-specific training run.

Starting in January, your overall mileage will gradually build, as the length of your training runs increase. Long runs should increase by 1 or 2 miles every other week, and marathon pace workouts can be anywhere from 5 to 12 miles. Many runners will raise their mid-week mileage as well, but this is depends on how your body responds to the longer weekend runs.

Your longest run should be three weeks before the race, and should be at least 22 miles. Let’s say you’re training for our hometown race – the Big Sur Marathon at the end of April. Working backwards, your long runs in March should be 18 to 20 miles, in February should be 16 to 18, and in January should be 14 to 16. If you ran a recent half-marathon, and you keep training through December, starting a 14-mile long run in January shouldn’t be too intimidating.

Finally, don’t hesitate to enlist some help. Find someone who runs marathons and pester them for advice. Visit websites and read the blogs of experienced runners, and absorb their knowledge like a sponge.

Yes, the road to 26.2 is hard sometimes, but the rewards are worth it. If you thought the sense of accomplishment from running 13 miles was great, the pride of a marathon finish will blow you away. And it’s available to anyone who wants to make the leap.

Don’t be afraid to take a bold step and scratch that Marathon Bug. Chances are, it will never go away unless you do.

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November 25, 2008

All That I Requested

“I'm walking through the desert-
And I am not frightened although it's hot -
I have all that I requested –
And I do not want what I haven't got”
- Sinead O’Connor, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (click to play)

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As far as celebrities go, Sinead O’Connor was the musical equivalent of a shooting star.

She rocketed to fame on the success of her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, featuring the ubiquitous “Nothing Compares 2 U” (written – in case the title wasn’t a giveaway – by Prince, at the height of his songwriting powers). She spent several months as the media's darling du jour before a few well-publicized and poorly considered public appearances (such as ripping up a picture of the Pope on live TV, refusing to perform after the National Anthem, etc.) brought her time in the spotlight to a turbulent, fiery end.

As for the album – it was the most poignant collection of songs many people had ever seen. The tracks are equal parts stark and passionate, vulnerable and strong, desperate and hopeful. They're the soundtrack of a lost romantic soul clamoring for peace and acceptance in her relationships, as well as her overall place in the world.

They are also the songs that my wife and I fell in love to.

Sinead’s hushed, passionate voice played in the background during countless long nights that my then-girlfriend and I spent together, talking into the wee hours, exchanging hopes and vulnerabilities on the long road to joining our lives together. When we didn’t feel like talking, we’d just lay in the dark and listen to the songs that spoke directly to our hearts. At that time in our lives, we were the center of each other’s world, and there was honestly nothing else I wanted other than the girl and the life that I already had.

Eighteen years later, I feel almost exactly the same way.

I don’t know why memories of the album’s title song came back to me recently – except perhaps that as Thanksgiving draws near, I’m thinking about the blessings I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over the past two decades. Nowadays, it extends beyond just my wife – to my expanded family, and the beautiful place I live, and all the activities I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy.

When I listen to Sinead's remarkable voice today, I'm reminded to find meaning in the quiet moments, and comfort in the storms of life. My circumstances (not to mention my wife's) are certainly different than they used to be; life is more complex, more challenging, but at the same time, more fulfilled. It remains as desperate and hopeful as it did long ago – but with each passing day, more often than not, I find myself at peace with the way everything has played out.

For all of those things, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I have all that I requested – and I do not want what I haven’t got.

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November 23, 2008

Play-Doh Running

Suffice it to say, the post I had originally intended for Saturday never materialized – so it will be postponed until another day. In the meantime, I’ve found myself coming to grips with the passage of time quite frequently lately.

I mentioned a while back that my youngest daughter was soon to turn 5; that day has now come and gone, and our family has a freshly minted 5-year-old in our midst. It’s quite likely that she’ll forever and always remain the baby of our family, so watching her skip off to elementary school this year feels like a chapter of our epic parental adventure has come to a close.

I’m generally not nostalgic for having infants and toddlers around the house, and I don’t lament the progression of our children’s development. However, I realize that some routines and experiences that were once commonplace will become increasingly rare over the months and years to come, before disappearing forever. That’s not inherently a good thing or a bad one; it’s just the way things go.


For instance, it’s now almost hard for me to remember a certain peculiar habit I followed nearly every morning before lacing up my running shoes. Thankfully, I wrote most of the details down a few years ago – and the result is the post that follows below.

**

My running shoes usually occupy the bottom shelves of a utility cabinet in our dining area. A few shelves higher on the same cabinet is the storage area for our children’s Play-Doh containers and accessories. Surrounding the containers are leftover bits of dough that linger on the cabinet before eventually falling towards the floor.

Consequently, I’ve acquired an odd habit early in the morning before I go running: as I sit on our steps, preparing to lace up my shoes, the first thing I do is turn them upside down to empty out stray clods of Play-Doh.

Recently I’ve wondered if my daily runs would be any different if I just left the Play-Doh in my shoes; in many ways, the multi-purpose toy serves the same purposes for kids that running does for adults.


Play-Doh has been around for almost 50 years, primarily because it is an ideal interactive toy. It appeals to kids of all ages (and think about it- hasn’t every kid you’ve ever known had some? It must be the most ubiquitous toy ever), and has countless practical applications. It stimulates a child’s creativity, as well as his emotional and physical growth.

For babies, it exposes them to a unique texture, and helps develop their grasp. It teaches them basic colors, and how certain colors can be mixed to make other colors. (Of course, the lesson that everyone remembers best is that all colors crammed together for long enough eventually make brown.)

Toddlers use Play-Doh to develop fine motor skills, and to experience how objects can be manipulated to change their form. Older kids use it in a more scientific context – either to learn how it’s made, what causes it to dry out and harden, or why water can rehabilitate a partially-parched clump.

Play-Doh has therapeutic properties as well. In fact, there’s a whole subset of child psychology called “clay therapy” which utilizes the material to help draw out aspects of a child’s personality that otherwise stay unrevealed.

Now compare the wide-ranging functions of Play-Doh to those that grown-ups reap from the sport of running. While the most obvious gains are to our physical well-being, our sport provides numerous creative and emotional benefits as well.

For example, most of the ideas for articles I write are hatched in the midst of a run somewhere. The physical exertion and endorphin surge somehow open a creative reservoir that is inaccessible at other times of the day. It’s a common phenomenon, as many people have stories of some business or relationship problem that was finally figured out while running.

Running exposes us to our physical surroundings, and instills an acute awareness of their impact on us. Rolling hills and sloping sand dunes become much more impressive structures when you’re struggling up the sides of them - and running at the feet of majestic redwood trees, or along a mountain trail, is enough to ingrain a sense of humility in almost any of us.

Finally, running also displays qualities of people that aren’t otherwise obvious in their daily lives. Whether it’s the competitive nature of a shy middle-aged woman, the focused discipline of a marathon runner, or the perseverance and determination of an ultrarunner, running is the means by which these traits are developed and later revealed.

Author Robert Fulghum once contemplated what the world would be like if, instead of bombing enemy countries, we dropped packs of Crayola crayons instead. He envisioned creating a generation that was too busy developing their creative and artistic talents to cultivate hatred. The scenario could just as easily pertain to dropping Play-Doh - or for that matter, to developing a generation of runners.

(Incidentally, this story also plays into my father’s theory of how to topple Communist nations: instead of isolating them, we should just open the floodgates and give them the full capitalistic, decadent American experience. Once they start playing GameBoys, eating French fries and Krispy Kremes, buying iPods and watching Beyonce videos, they’ll get addicted, and overthrow their dictators to acquire more. It’s not a bad idea, really. But I digress…)

After all, newcomers often comment about what a nice group of people runners typically are – so it’s not too far-fetched to suppose that the world might be a better place if more people were runners. It seems that when people have some activity that brings them satisfaction, humility and joy on a regular basis, they’ll be less inclined to foster the petty grievances that grow into bitterness or insecurity.

In light of all these things, I’ve started leaving the Play-Doh in my shoes when I head out the door for my morning run. I’m hoping that it helps me to appreciate the world around me, and reminds me that childhood is never too far behind me. As I head out the door, the Play-Doh is a silent reminder of the possibilities that lie before me with each morning’s run, and with the rest of the day that follows.

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November 20, 2008

Sunrise Revisited

Admin note: things have been kind of crazy around here lately. I had planned a full-length post for Friday, but I'm way behind - so let's aim for Saturday and see how that goes. Come to think of it ... Saturday's a more appropriate day, anyway. I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, here's a snapshot from a few mornings ago.

**

It's been awfully tough for me to get out of bed lately. In the middle of my self-imposed off-season, and as the mornings get colder and darker with each passing day, I spend far more sunrises tucked inside my bed than out on the trails. But every now and then, I rally myself out the door and into the hills.

This was my view from the top of a Carmel Valley ridge line on Tuesday morning:


It's not necessarily anything to take your breath away - but it's always enough to make me glad that I made it out of bed. Whenever I'm standing atop some hill after a long climb while most of the world is stirring from their slumber, I ask myself why I can't do this everyday.

Soon enough, there will come a time when that's my normal routine. For now, I'm content to revisit those hilltop sunrises and those feelings of satisfaction in small amounts - just to remind myself that they are still there.

**update** I won't have a post by Saturday, either. It's not happening.

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November 19, 2008

The Story of (Someone Else's) Success

Having role models can be a mixed blessing sometimes.

We’re all familiar with the positive aspects of focusing attention on those we admire. Whether it’s the company CEO, or a famous athlete, or simply an upstanding family person who seems to have his or her life in balance, those types of people are sources of inspiration and encouragement about what might be possible in our own lives.

Athletes tend to latch onto role models more frequently than the population at large. High school athletes make scholarship decisions based on which coaching guru they want to instruct them. Rookie professionals look to seasoned veterans for tips on how to succeed in the big leagues. Novice marathoners or triathletes seek advice and mentoring from hired coaches or experienced members of their training club. It’s basic human nature that in order to improve ourselves, we need to learn from those who are better than us.

Occasionally, however, consideration of someone else’s abilities or accomplishments is enough to make a person feel woefully inadequate. Sure, an African-American can be elected President, and a cancer survivor can win the Tour de France, and a college dropout can become the world’s richest man - but the amount of toil and commitment and (to some extent) good fortune that is required for somebody else to duplicate those achievements seems entirely too staggering to comprehend. Sometimes it’s easier to just let the great people do what they do, while the rest of us remain content with our own meager attempts to emulate them.

The reason all this comes to mind is because Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out this week.

It’s no secret around these parts that I’m completely in the tank for Gladwell. This isn’t a recent development - as the following paragraphs from a post I wrote in May of 2006 shortly after reading his then-current book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking should make perfectly clear:

**

Now, I just happen to have this thing about Malcolm Gladwell. He’s a brilliant writer with razor sharp insight, and has a way of writing about all manner of esoteric subjects in a way that reads like an espionage thriller. He can tell you about a syphilis epidemic in Baltimore, or an Ivy League admissions policy, or a retrospective analysis of the “Pepsi Challenge” taste tests in a style that’s not merely interesting – he actually makes you wonder why you didn’t realize these topics were so darn compelling a long time ago.

Over the past two years he has become my favorite author. I’ve also learned that he’s a passionate, knowledgeable sports fan, a runner, and – to top it all off – he even has a blog. It’s probably a good thing I don’t actually know him, or else I’d be in danger of developing some kind of man-crush on him.

**

The new book is called Outliers: The Story of Success, and it deals – ironically enough, in the context of this post – with the factors that determine individual success. He looks at conventional beliefs about how great people succeed in life - whether it's gifted physical ability, innate genius, privileged socioeconomic origins, or just good-old fashioned hard work – and analyzes the relative validity of such theories in modern-day society. He discusses the underlying reasons why successful people excel, and what the rest of us can learn from them.

(On a completely random side note: be sure to check out the link above - if not to buy the book, at least to see Gladwell's fantastic Sideshow Bob hairdo. I swear, if growing my hair like that would make me an author, I'd do it in a heartbeat. You think I'm kidding.)

Obviously, this new book has jumped straight to the top of my current reading list – but in some ways, I’m almost reluctant to read it. Whenever I read anything written by Gladwell – either from his New Yorker articles or his books – I’m completely astonished at his writing ability. I marvel at the way he strings words together, and at how he finds the most interesting angles to any subject matter he tackles. He makes me think about everyday situations in ways that are both unconventional, and unexpectedly insightful.

I try to emulate his style a little bit in my own writing – which is somewhat akin to a Pee Wee hoops player saying he emulates LeBron James. Maybe I can do a crossover dribble or sink a long-range jump shot every now and then - but I can’t soar above the rim, and I can’t carry a team on my back night after night, and I can’t make it all look nearly as effortless as the superstars do. Reading Gladwell’s stuff makes me want to be a better writer; at the same time, it makes me realize that I’ll never be a great writer.

In that respect, I’ve learned to enjoy his works for the achievements they are, and take the good feelings along with the bad. After all, those mixed emotions are just part of the tradeoff with having such accomplished role models.

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November 16, 2008

Lost and (Partially) Found

Admin note: Although autumn is easily my favorite season of the year, it always brings a bit of the doldrums as far as my competitive side is concerned. This year, my off-season from racing coincides with recuperation from injury, and training has dropped way down the ladder of priorities for a couple of months.

Accordingly, some of the posts you see around here in the near future may be a bit of a departure from your garden-variety athletic blog. I’ve got a couple other ideas up my sleeve for the weeks to come; for today, here’s a snapshot of one of those parenting moments that seem all too fleeting. Sometimes I just like to get these things in print so I’ll remember that they actually happened.

**

Like most other people, I believe that I was born with my fair share of marbles. But somehow, somewhere on the journey from adolescence to adulthood, I started to misplace them.

I can’t really track the condition to one specific episode, or any particular series of events – although I suspect that having kids played some role in the matter. All I know is that very often, in the course of my day to day activities, I feel like I’ve completely lost my marbles.

I’ve told some variation of this goofy little story to my kids – most often when they’re in the middle of a game of marbles - enough times that the oldest two have become sick of it; it’s just one more silly thing their idiot father does to try and get cheap laughs. My youngest daughter, however, hasn’t quite seen through the fog yet – which makes for some interesting conversations, many of which go something like this:

Me: What are you guys doing?

7-year-old: We’re playing marbles.

Me: Cool.

4-year-old: Yeah – and look at all the pretty marbles I have! (She proceeds to show me all her favorites)

Me: These are great. You know, I used to have a lot of marbles, but then I lost them.

7-year-old: Uh-huh.

4-year-old: Really?

10-year-old: Don’t listen to him. He’s making a joke.

Me: No, I’m serious – I lost my marbles a long time ago.

4-year-old: Where did they go?

Me: I have no idea. But I wish I knew – I’d try to get some of them back.

10-year-old: STOP LISTENING TO HIM!!

It won’t win me any Father of the Year awards to say this … but honestly, that kind of conversation never gets old. I’ll be 70 years old someday, playing marbles with my grandkids, and I’ll probably say something like “Hey - Did your Dad ever tell you about how I lost my marbles? You should ask him sometime – he’d love to talk about it.”

One day last week, a package was waiting for me when I came home from work: a gift from my 4-year-old daughter. It was a piece of construction paper folded up, with something slightly heavy taking up space inside the creases. When I unfolded it, I found the paper had been decorated with a handful of her favorite stickers:


Off to the side of the above picture are the items that rolled out of the paper once it was unfolded:


That’s right … four colorful marbles. It immediately triggered the following exchange:

Me: Wow! Marbles!

4-year-old: Yeah – they’re for you, since you lost yours. I gave you some of mine.

Me: Thank you, sweetie. I love them.

4-year-old: You’re welcome.


So now I have four more marbles than I used to have, courtesy of my youngest daughter. It’s not nearly enough to bring me up to a full supply, but they’re plenty sufficient to keep me happy. The trade-off is a pretty good one, actually; the experience of little moments like this over the course of many years is definitely worth sacrificing a portion of my sanity.

And if I continue to lose my marbles as I creep into old age, I’ll know which kid I can ask to help me replace them.

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November 12, 2008

An Uphill Push

My four-year-old daughter – who is soon to become my five-year-old daughter – has become quite the little ballerina this year. She takes regular lessons, and prances about the house showing off plies and piques and tendu stretches (with her flexible little body, she can touch her toes to the back of her head – it makes me wince just to watch sometimes). It’s all very cute, and might make for an interesting post someday.

But today’s story isn’t about my four-year-old – it’s about her 10-year-old brother, who looks forward to his sister’s ballet lessons just as much as she does.

That’s because when my wife drives our daughter to her late-afternoon ballet lessons in Salinas, she drops my son off with me, and we unload two mountain bikes from our cars. (My middle child, to her dismay, has to go and watch the ballet lesson. Don’t feel bad for her, though – other days of the week are juggled around her schedule. By the way ... isn't parenting fun?) My son and I then spend the remainder of the day riding the trails and enjoying some precious one-on-one time.

Over the course of several months, he’s developed into a somewhat decent rider: our five-mile rides have stretched out to eight or nine; our cruising speed has become noticeably faster; and our once-maddeningly frequent rest breaks have become much less common.

The most noticeable change is how our short, gentle hills have become steeper, more challenging climbs. His improved climbing skills offer a two-fold benefit for my son: it gives us access to about 10 times as many trails as before, and it increases his chances of encountering some “real” mountain bikers using the same trails, most of whom never fail to shout some encouragement to a 10-year-old kid working his way up a large hill. (It also has an obvious health benefit, but I’m not going to ruin his fun by reminding him that he’s exercising.)

Nevertheless, there are numerous climbs that are still too steep for him to climb all at once. In most cases, we’ll stop for a brief rest, then resume the climb from the same spot. However, on some slopes, he’s forced to dismount and walk his bike up the steepest portions, which for obvious reasons has become his least favorite part of bike riding.

In these moments, I know the activity isn’t fun for him, and I try to think of ways to keep him from getting discouraged. I tell him that I had to walk a lot of hills when I first started riding, and that there are still some hills I’d have to walk even if I was trying my hardest (although, in my defense, my mountain bike only has four usable gears – but that’s another story), and that even the best riders have to get off and walk sometimes. Later, as we drive home after each ride, I find myself hoping that he either remembers the fun parts more than the difficult ones, or understands that the hard stretches are what make the good ones possible. I’m never really sure if the lessons sink in, though.

That’s why I was glad to find an outstanding video from the New York Times: a profile of Dave Wiens, the defending champion of the Leadville 100 MTB Race. The video (and its companion print article) describes Wiens’s training and race strategy in preparation for facing a certain 7-time Tour De France winner who decided to drop in on the 2008 Leadville race.

(Armstrong and Wiens)

The entire video is time well-spent (but, sadly, is not embeddable – I’ll link to it below) – but the revelation that immediately captured my attention comes briefly at the 3:07 mark, and again from 3:15-3:22. It was impressive enough for me to call my son over to the computer, and start the following exchange:

Me: You know who that is, right?

Son: Is it Lance Armstrong?

Me: Yeah. See what he’s doing?

Son: Pushing his bike up the hill.

Me: Yup. This is in the middle of a race. And these are two of the best riders in the world. I told you it happens to everybody.

Son: Whoa.

I didn’t bother explaining that this particular scene probably took place at an elevation close to 12,000’, or that it was something like 80 miles into one of the most demanding off-road cycling events imaginable. For that matter, I didn’t even tell him that Armstrong lost the race, as Wiens pulled away with about 15 miles to go to claim the victory. In this case, the details are superfluous; the important thing was that my son saw Lance Armstrong pushing his bike up a hill.

I honestly don’t know if this little pearl of insight made any impression upon my son, or reassured him about his own struggles on the bike, or encouraged him to approach our major climbs with a different mindset - all I know is that he wants to go riding again this week. I figure that as long as we keep doing one ride after another, and one hill after another, the larger lessons will eventually fall into place.

(See the New York Times video on Dave Wiens here)


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November 10, 2008

Drinking Outside the Box (Body Bottle Review)

Before today's post, here's an example of how old and out of touch I'm getting: I didn't even know there were Cheetah Girls, so I couldn't be appropriately shocked when nude pictures of one surfaced this week. And, in a related question ... what the heck's going on over at Disney? First Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana), then Vanessa Hudgens (the girl from High School Musical), and now this; it seems that the Disney company has some serious issues with its attractive female stars' ability to keep their clothes on in public. Not to mention - wasn't Britney Spears once a Mouseketeer?

The whole scandal makes two points very clear: 1) Shocking as it may seem, I may be slipping a bit with my pop culture awareness, and 2) I totally need to watch the Disney Channel more often.

OK, enough nonsense - here's today's post:

**

At the beginning of October, I was contacted to do a review of a product called the Body Bottle, and readily agreed to try it out on a few runs. Unfortunately, that happened to be the week that I went out of commission due to injury – but I’ve finally been able to run consistently enough to get a feel for the product and put together a review.

Honestly, I’d never heard of the product before – and when I started asking around, I couldn’t find anyone else who had heard of it either. So let’s do this review in a question and answer format, starting with the very basics:

Q: What is it?

A: The Body Bottle is a 10-oz bottle that attaches to your arm with a strap, similar to the way many people wear iPods or mp3 players. It is “ambidextrous”, so you can wear it on either arm – or, if you have two bottles, on both arms.




The bottle sticks to the arm strap via Velcro, so when you want to take a drink, you rip the attachment loose. The Velcro is very secure; it took me more muscle than I thought I’d need to tear the bottle loose. This is good, though – the last thing you want is for the bottle to keep slipping off the arm strap.


The whole “bottle on the arm” concept is clearly a result of somebody thinking outside the box to address a specific need; the question is whether or not you really want to leave the box you’re in when it comes to hydration systems - as I’ll explain a bit later.

Q: Can I still wear my iPod?

A: The easy answer is to wear your iPod on the other arm. There’s also an additional Velcro attachment on the front side of the Body Bottle that allows you to stack your iPod on top of a bottle if necessary. However, since 1) I only had one Body Bottle, and 2) I never run with a music player, I didn’t try this out.

Q: Isn’t it awkward – or heavy - to carry water on your arm?

A: Yes – and no. Like everything else, it takes some getting used to, and different people’s preferences may vary. According to the website, the product was created as an alternative for runners who thought that backpack or waist-mounted fluid systems were uncomfortable, and don’t want to occupy their hands with a hand-held bottle.

Since the bottle only holds 10 ounces of fluid, it’s not as heavy as you might imagine. However, this is also a potential drawback if you need to carry a large volume of water on a long run. The Body Bottle does feel awkward in the same way that using a hand-held bottle for the first time does - but since I eventually became comfortable enough with a hand-held bottle to carry one for 100 miles, I’d say that getting used to the Body Bottle is just a matter of time as well.

The arm strap is one-size-fits-all, and stayed in place quite comfortably for a short run. I suspect that for multi-hour runs, chafing might become an issue - although this is just a hunch that I’ve been unable to verify (have I mentioned that I’ve been injured lately?).


Q: When would I use it?

A: So, let’s say the Body Bottle is not uncomfortable, and it’s not too awkward to use after a while. The most important question that remains is whether it’s better than what you’re currently using. In my case - since I’m primarily into long trail runs (that require more fluids) right now, and since I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve been using - the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see the benefit of using one.

Here’s an example: this summer, as I was preparing for the Western States 100, my main concern was how to keep cool and hydrated during the fierce midday heat. The solution I planned on was to temporarily carry a third bottle to go along with the one on my waist and the one on my hand – I would fill this bottle with water, and squirt it over my face and head at regular intervals to lower my surface temperature a bit. However, I don’t like running with two hand-held bottles (like I said, comfort is an individual thing), and I was worried about remembering which bottle held water, and which held sports drink. The last thing I wanted was to squirt Gatorade in my face in 100 degree heat.

In that situation, wearing a Body Bottle for a few hours might be the perfect solution: it keeps one hand free, and is easily distinguishable from the 20-oz bottles. I imagine the bottle would also come in handy if you’re running a relatively short distance, and want to carry a small amount of fluid just to keep your mouth from getting dry. Or - in the most obvious case – if you’re in that target demographic of people who don’t like waist, back, or hand-mounted bottles, this is something you should definitely try.


Q: Anything else I should know?

A: Well … judging from a photo on the company website, apparently the Body Bottle is very patriotic. That must be worth something.

Also, if you’re interested in buying one, contact me first, because I have a handful of discount coupons that came with my bottle. I’ll gladly mail them out so someone can save a few bucks.

**
See other product reviews on right sidebar. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, e-mail me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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November 5, 2008

A Crazy (but Possibly Effective) Pre-Race Warmup

A couple of administrative notes before today’s post …

1) I know that everyone is probably suffering from post-election burnout this week, but there’s another important contest going on right now that you should know about. Remember the raceAthlete Best Blog competition for which I shamelessly pandered last November? Well, it’s happening again, and it’s up to you to pick the winner.

The good news, as far as readers of this blog are concerned, is that I’m not in this year’s contest, so I won’t bother you about voting nearly as much as I did last fall. I figured that in the spirit of the Miss America Contest and the National Spelling Bee (which, of course, I hold in the highest possible regard), a previous champion should be automatically retired from future competition. However, I did help select the list of finalists, and I can tell you there are some very good blogs to choose from - so head over to the contest this week to see the list, discover some new talent, and vote for your favorite.

2) I’m finally, gradually, working my way back into running after the unfortunate rib-cracking episode four weeks ago. The pain has gone from “intense and debilitating” to “achy and bothersome”, so I’m considering that to be progress. I also got back into the pool this week, which was as refreshing for my spirit as it was restorative for my body. I only managed to finish half of a workout at half speed – but at this point, I’ll take whatever I can get.

One major obstacle remains in my way, however: this whole process of getting back in shape wouldn’t be nearly as difficult if Safeway wasn’t selling pumpkin pies for four dollars this month. Or if my car didn’t mysteriously sputter to a stop in front of the Safeway store every time I drive past. Have I mentioned before how glad I am that this is the offseason?


**
As far as today’s post is concerned, it’s somewhat related to an entry earlier this week, on the topic of race preparedness. The Big Sur Half Marathon and 5K is this weekend (obviously, I won’t be there), so a lot of folks in these parts are busy tending to last-minute details and psyching themselves up for some fast running along the coast.

Everybody has different ways of mentally preparing for races, and occasionally they’ll seek recommendations from articles or advice from training partners. The question has been posed to me a couple of times, and I usually give a garden-variety answer about how racing is for testing yourself, pushing outside your comfort zone, giving your best effort, yada yada yada. I never feel like I have anything truly groundbreaking to say on the subject.

Then I thought of the Maori and Aborigines.

More accurately, I thought of the video at the end of this post, from a recent Rugby League World Cup pre-game ceremony. It features a New Zealand team’s Haka dance followed by the Australian "Dreamtime" team’s Aboriginal war dance.


Hakas were originally performed by Maori warriors prior to battle, and are absolutely mesmerizing in their intensity and aggression. The dance also made headlines on the Monterey Peninsula last year when a local high school football team was forbidden from performing it before games. The team had several players of Samoan descent who taught the ritual to their teammates as a form of cultural awareness (on a football field!); unfortunately, the grunting, shouting, and suggestive hand gestures were deemed offensive by opposing schools, and the school board eventually outlawed the pre-game routine. So much for culture.

The Aussie Aboriginal dance is a more extensive production, with warriors in full body paint, native clothing - what little there is of it - and props in the form of spears. (Needless to say, this would never be permitted at a high school football game in Monterey.) Honestly, it's not so much a dance as it is choreographed marching and shrieking - but it’s no less intimidating than the Haka which precedes it.

The video below is almost four minutes long, culminating in a face-to-face standoff between the teams that prompts the announcer to note, “Those spears were getting awfully close!” (And then, in a completely random analysis, his counterpart compares the whole show to seeing Billy Idol. I didn't even know that guy was still alive, let alone that he's a celebrity in the Southern Hemisphere. How bizarre.) Afterward, it almost seems anticlimactic when the teams separate and get ready to play the actual match. As far as pregame warm-ups go, this one definitely gives you your money’s worth.

It also gave me an idea for a novel approach to pre-race preparation. I mean ... those guys look like they're ready to run through a brick wall; there's got to be some benefit for recreational athletes who employ a similar routine, don't you think?

Before your next race, try adopting a bit of Maori or Aussie customs to psych yourself up. Practice chanting and grunting while you’re driving to the race, then do some stomps and arm swings – which will also help warm up your body - in the parking lot before you make your way to the starting line. Sure, you’ll look like a maniac, but there’s no question that you’ll feel ready to go to battle.

Which, if you’re really racing hard, is exactly the way you should feel.

(click to play)

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November 4, 2008

Yes We Can

Quote of the Day:

"While we breathe, we hope."
- President-Elect Barack Obama

One of the last phrases from Barack Obama's acceptance speech seems remarkably applicable to ultrarunners - as well as to all other Americans. There are obviously enormous challenges that lie ahead, but the immensity of the tasks should never discourage us from trying.

Sometimes it all seems so simple. And hope is a wonderful thing.

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November 3, 2008

Racing the Big Sur Half-Marathon

Admin note: unless you’re racing the Big Sur Half-Marathon next weekend (or planning to at some point in the future), feel free to disregard this post. It’s an article I wrote for my Monterey Herald column, with advice on how to race 13.1 miles along the Monterey Bay. A few people have asked me for tips recently, and I’m posting the article here so that I can link to it from another website. Regular programming will resume with the next post.

**

“Racing the Big Sur Half-Marathon”


The Big Sur Half-Marathon on Monterey Bay is this Sunday, so you should be in tapering mode by now. Cut back on your mileage and get as much rest as possible in the days before the race.

If you are a novice runner, your approach to the Half should be very simple. Start easy and don’t get excited into running the early miles too fast. Keep a steady pace that you can maintain for the duration. Take walking breaks if you need them, but keep moving forward, and draw energy from the crowds and your fellow runners during the final miles.

Most importantly, just have fun out there and celebrate your ability to run.

This week’s advice is for runners with some race experience who are trying to get faster, striving for a personal best time or an age-group award. The rules are significantly different for these runners.

Have the eye of the tiger: Racing isn’t always fun! There’s great satisfaction afterward but the race itself should be a battle. Psych yourself up to fight adversity and discomfort for the duration of the race. Be mentally ready and don’t feel intimidated.

Wear fast shoes: The relatively flat course and smooth roads are ideal for using racing flats or lightweight trainers. Lighter shoes make you faster. If you use more than one pair in training, run in your lightest pair on race day.

However, do not buy a pair of racing shoes next week and race in them if they are not broken in – or you’re destined for a morning of blisters and leg aches.

Warm up: If you are going fast from the gun, you need to warm your body up first. Run an easy mile before the race, then do three or four short sprints. Time your warmup so that you can jump in the starting chute about 5 minutes before race time. Don’t be afraid to start closer to the front of the pack than you think you belong.

Hitch a ride: Not in a car, but in the slipstream of your competitors. Drafting off fellow runners is perfectly legal and saves significant energy if running into a headwind, which is common when heading up Ocean View Boulevard in Pacific Grove.

Pick runners who are going at a similar pace, and tuck in behind them for as long as you can tolerate. In a group of 3 or 4 runners, it’s proper etiquette for each person to take turns “pulling”, but if you’re sneaky you can usually get your competitors to do most of the work.

Be uncomfortable: If you are truly racing, it should hurt! If you feel comfortable, you probably aren’t pushing hard enough. Races are for going beyond your comfort zone and giving your best effort. Remember: eye of the tiger!

Use “keys” to speed up: Your natural tendency will be to slow down, so use landmarks as periodic reminders to speed up. Mile markers, corners, or minor hills can all be used as “keys” to slightly accelerate the pace.

Push the envelope (but not too far): This is the hardest part of racing. You have to keep the needle at the absolute fastest speed you can maintain, but not so fast that you bonk in the last miles. Finding the optimal pace requires trial and error, and a lot of discomfort.

That’s exactly what races are for. You can have a leisurely scenic run along the coastline any day. Race day is for testing your limits. Remember that when the pace seems too hard.

Halfway done isn’t halfway out: The course is roughly out and back, but the first mile around El Estero Lake makes it asymmetrical. If you start looking for the turnaround point at mile 6.5, you’ll have a long time to wait, since the actual turnaround is closer to mile 8. But once you get there, remind yourself to…

Lower the hammer: After the turnaround, the course is almost entirely downhill or flat, and your race is more than halfway over. This is the time to crank your speed up another notch, and gut it out for as long as possible (have we already said that racing hurts?).

Have no friends: Think of everyone around you as a competitor. Get mean. Be aggressive. Breathe fire. Even if you are racing with training partners, during the race you should be enemies. There’s no shame in outsprinting someone right into the finishing chute – even if that person happens to be your friend. Give no gifts!

Fight for your place: Once you reach the rec trail before Fisherman’s Wharf, the game is on. Try to improve your position as much as possible. Whenever you get passed, try to keep up with that person, and draft them if they continue to pull ahead of you. Try to pass them back further down the road.

Don’t get complacent to run behind people either. Reel in as many people as possible. The last person you pass might be the place that earns you an age group medal. Some people let up a bit just before the finish line, so a well-timed kick can sometimes gain you an additional place or two.

Even if you are not interested in your overall finishing place, employing these positional tactics will help you continue to run hard when you would otherwise feel like easing off.


Obviously, racing requires an entirely different mindset than running just to complete the distance. It’s definitely not for everybody. When you put so much of yourself on the line, the disappointment when you fail to reach your goals can be miserable, but the exhilaration when you succeed is sublime.

Whether you are going for an age group award, a personal record, or just trying to go the distance, I hope everyone has an enjoyable and satisfying race.

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November 1, 2008

Always a Fan (In This Case, a Phan)

I should preface today’s post with a couple of disclaimers …

First, this is mostly about baseball, which I know isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I’m a casual fan of the sport – but more importantly, I’m a fan of great sporting moments, regardless of the venue.

Second: I have absolutely no connection with the city of Philadelphia, or any attachment to its long-suffering sports franchises. I’ve never lived there, and never visited; the closest I come to any association with the town is having a friend who is a recent Philly transplant.

Despite all that, there’s one thing I can say with certainty: the video clip below contains the most meaningful two minutes of television I’ve enjoyed in quite a while. It’s the final pitch of last week’s World Series – and it touches on just about everything I love about sports.

The Phillies were one strike away from willing the Series in front of their home fans, ending a 26-year championship drought in the 4 major sports for the city with the most notoriously passionate (and frequently vicious - but that’s another story) fan base in America.

The pitcher’s name is Brad Lidge, a closer whose legacy until this moment was permanently defined by a towering home run he gave up as a Houston Astro in the 2005 playoffs – a moon shot by Albert Pujols of the Cardinals that won the game for St Louis, and by most accounts, sent Lidge’s career into a tailspin. He struggled through the following two seasons, but his collapse of confidence was so complete that he was traded away to Philadelphia at the end of last year.

Throughout the 2008 season, Lidge had regained his form and pitched perfectly – in the most literal sense. He converted every save opportunity he faced, and the Phillies were undefeated in games they led after eight innings. And yet, with a Tampa Bay runner on base in the bottom of the ninth and the Phillies leading by a single run, the old ghosts were getting ready to reappear. Giving up a home run would have not only lost the game and rendered his perfect season meaningless, but potentially devastated both the pitcher and the city, and forced the Phillies to fight for survival in two more road games.

In other words, it was nervous time – and 40,000 anxious fans were feeling it.

It’s no mystery how this story ends: Lidge winds up and throws strike three on a nasty curveball, closing the game and winning the Series. And as much as I like the buildup to that moment, it’s the aftermath that always makes my eyes feel like there’s a lot of dust in the room.



As soon as strike three lands in his mitt, catcher Carlos Ruiz pumps his fist like an ecstatic Little Leaguer, and immediately sprints to the mound to celebrate with his pitcher. Lidge, meanwhile, has jumped in the air, then fallen to his knees, with arms raised to the sky in triumph and relief, as three years of frustration and disappointment turn to unbridled joy and redemption. He has about three seconds to enjoy the moment for himself before he’s tackled and mobbed by his teammates, who have all run to the mound to celebrate the ultimate accomplishment in sports.

(I’m more than a little biased here … because I’ve been in a victory dogpile like the one the Phillies enjoyed, and it’s an experience you never forget. It doesn’t matter if you’re eight years old, or 18, or 38 – the emotions you feel at a time like that are burned on your brain forever. In the days after the game, the Phillies will have a parade, and they’ll be celebrated all over town, and they’ll probably even go to the White House – but I can almost guarantee that those first seconds in that postgame dogpile will be their favorite memory of winning the World Series.)

The next 90 seconds of the clip are your garden-variety craziness that follows a team championship: fireworks in the sky, 40,000 fans going crazy in the stands, grown men crying and hugging each other on the field. In the middle of it all, the camera briefly cuts (at the 1:04 mark in this clip) to a 7-foot tall green fuzzy creature in a jersey: the Phillie Phanatic, waving a team flag and celebrating in all his goofy splendor right alongside the players.

The whole scene is ridiculous and hilarious and emotional and inspirational – and it’s precisely the reason why I’m such a sports nut. With every sport and every season and every championship, there are stories to be told, lessons to be learned, and memories to cherish. In fact, it almost never matters to me who wins (perhaps because all of San Francisco’s teams are currently terrible) as much as I enjoy viewing such triumphs through the larger prism of human experience.

Finally … I’m fully aware that sporting events are quite insignificant in the grander scheme of things - especially as we’re about to elect a new President, and countless people struggle just to make it through each day, and our country is in shambles in about 100 different ways. I could (and have, come to think of it) also list all sorts of reasons to be cynical about professional athletics in modern society. However, if it weren’t for distractions like sports, all we’d have left would be the serious stuff – and in my book, a life like that doesn’t seem very enjoyable at all.

That’s why I’m grateful to the 2008 Phillies, and why I’ll constantly look forward to having another team to celebrate.

**update 11/4/08: Fox Sports has pulled this video offline. I have no idea why. So much for my joie de vivre.

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