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January 29, 2009

The Marathon and the Mile

Admin note: Although I had previously pledged to focus on the mile for the year, I found it much harder than I imagined to tear myself away from marathon training. For many years, racing the marathon was the end-all and be-all of my running existence – and much of this article is a love letter to the race I was temporarily leaving behind.

Also, remember what I said before about my being a track geek? Well, the nerd coils are burning pretty hot underneath this article as well. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Chasing Roger Banister

Part 3: The Marathon and the Mile

This spring, I find myself at a curious crossroads in my training regimen. My favorite race, April’s Big Sur Marathon, is rapidly approaching, yet my mind is dwelling to my main objective for the year: training to run a five-minute mile this summer.

The close proximity of these dates has triggered a cognitive drift between the two events, which represent bookends in the catalog of classic distance races. Both have a wealth of history, tradition, and drama. Both are fairly well known and appreciated by casual observers, and both offer easily identifiable barometers of one’s ability.

The marathon has the most famous origin of any athletic event. In 490 B.C., the vastly outnumbered Athenian army, after defeating the mighty Persians in a crucial battle at the city of Marathon, dispatched their messenger Pheidippides to carry news of the victory back over 24 miles to Athens. As the legend goes, he arrived at the city, uttered the exclamation “Nike!” (meaning, “victory” – or possibly foreshadowing the rise of an athletic company juggernaut some 2400 years later), and promptly died of exhaustion.

Ever since its inclusion in the modern Olympiad, the marathon has had a remarkably colorful history. For the first three Olympic Games, the distance of the race varied - anywhere from 24.8 miles to 25.4 - based on geographic logistics of the host cities. Prior to the 1908 London Olympics, King Edward VII established the official distance by the least scientific means imaginable: he lengthened the race to the modern-day standard of 26.2 miles so that the royal family would have the luxury of watching the race start in front of their home at Windsor Castle, and the finish in front of the Queen's viewing box at Olympic Stadium. (On a related note: if you’ve ever bonked in the 26th mile of a marathon, feel free to direct your cursing towards the British royal family.)

Marathoners were long considered the rogues and misfits of the running community. Competitors in the early 1900s often took mid-race breaks to indulge in cigarettes and brandy, which was thought to improve their stamina. Through the years, the race has attracted more cheaters than any other sporting event, as would-be tricksters have tried to steal the glory of a victory by cutting the course, hopping on horses or subways, or hiding in the bushes before emerging ahead of the pack in the final miles.

Obviously, the marathon’s checkered history hasn’t limited its popularity, as participation levels have exploded in recent years. As more runners take part in the event, many become focused on benchmark times that have gradually seeped into the popular conscience – of which the most obvious example is the list of qualifying times for the Boston Marathon.

Aside from Boston, however, round numbers offer the most enticing goals. To both participants and observers, running a 2:59:58 seems far superior to a 3:00:05, with vastly more significance than the mere seven seconds would indicate. The hour marks (whether it's 3, 4, or 5) are highly visible milestones that many runners strive for years to attain – as I can attest to from personal experience.

At one point, my marathon PR was 3:03, and for more than a year I was obsessed with the quest to dip under 3 hours. It took several attempts and a few agonizing misses, and I wasn’t content to stop the chase until I finally nailed it. The fact that my eventual breakthrough race was a 2:56 seemed relatively insignificant; I would have been equally satisfied in the result even if it had taken up to three additional minutes.

Similarly, the mile has its own symbolic benchmarks - measured in even minutes instead of hours – and the first-ever four-minute mile is the most classic example.

Think about it: would we celebrate Roger Bannister and remember his name 50 years later if he had run the distance just 7/10ths of a second slower (4:00.1 instead of 3:59.4) that day in 1954? The time still would have been a world record – but it was the round number that had, over the years, acquired a mystique far larger than the simple act of running around the track faster than anyone in history. Even to this day, despite the passage of 50 years and an ever-increasing number of runners who have reached it, the four-minute mile remains one of the most glamorous accomplishments in athletics.

For recreational runners, other minute barriers loom just as large. Many high schoolers frame their entire season around beating a five-minute mile, while older athletes would be thrilled, just for one time, to run a mile under six or seven minutes. Being somewhere between “high school” and “older”, I frequently imagine that I’m capable of a 5-minute mile, although I’ve never actually tried it.

Just as they did for the marathon, the round numbers of the mile entice me like a siren’s song. What’s worse, somehow I already know that if one day I run a 5:03 but never go “under the zeroes”, it would be a haunting conclusion to my season’s toil. The benchmark times are like beacons that continually call us beyond the measures that we would otherwise consider acceptable, and won't let us rest comfortably until we arrive.

Sadly, while the marathon has broadened its appeal in recent years, the one-mile race hovers on the brink of extinction. Almost all major national and international championships today race the “metric mile” of 1500m, which for many reasons is unforgivable (as I’ll describe in a future article). Thankfully, a handful of meets still exist where world-class runners gather to race the mile. These contests are typically the headline events, with sentimental monikers such as the Miracle Mile (in Vancouver), the Dream Mile (Oslo), or the Golden Mile (Rome). Others are named after track and field giants, such as the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon.

Finally, the question I’ve been pondering lately: Is it possible for a runner to excel at both the mile and the marathon?

At the international level, the answer is a definite “no”. Nobody has ever won world championships in both events – although two legendary men have come close. Finland’s Paavo Nurmi won Olympic gold in the 1500m in 1920, and later set a world record for the 20K (13.4 miles). Perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time, Czech Emil Zatopek (at right), set an unprecedented triple by winning golds in the 5K, 10K, and marathon at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. However, the marathon and one-mile “double” has remained unattainable to all who have tried to accomplish it.

It’s not hard to understand why. The two events feature dramatically different physiological and psychological demands; one requires explosive bursts of speed and precise race strategy, while the other rewards a prolonged, calculated effort that gradually builds to maximal exertion. That’s not to say that runners can’t find satisfaction in pursuing both disciplines – just that it’s nearly impossible to simultaneously do well in both.

So it is that I find myself training for the marathon, but thinking about the mile. And since I’ve spent the vast majority of my running years at one end of the distance spectrum, I feel like a relative newcomer to this brave new world of one-mile racing.

Honestly, that’s a huge part of the mile’s appeal. Much of my satisfaction this summer will be in knowing that I took on a new challenge and gave it my best effort, regardless of the result. Unless, of course, the end result is that I run a 5:01 - in which case my only reward will be whole new set of neuroses.

While that’s not exactly what I need, at least it might provide continuing fodder for my writing career.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


January 28, 2009

When Milers Ruled the Earth

Admin note: I've mentioned before that I'm student of the sport of distance running. More accurately, I'm the awkward, pimply nerd sitting in the front row completely enraptured by each day's lesson. If for some reason you didn't believe me before, consider this series - and the following article in particular - Exhibit A in my claim to be one of the biggest track geeks around.


Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 2: When Milers Ruled the Earth

Roger Bannister nearly retired from running in 1952 - two years before he would run the world’s first sub-four-minute mile. That year, he ran in the Olympic 1500m race at Helsinki, and was on schedule to finish his medical studies at Oxford within the next two years. He knew that his matriculation as a physician would prevent him from training well enough to be competitive in the next Olympic cycle.

However, two factors ultimately persuaded him to stay in the sport for two more years. His disappointing - he was the pre-race favorite - 4th place Olympic finish caused many in the British press to question the validity of his training methods, which he could only justify by setting a world record. He also believed that he should accomplish all that he was capable of in his athletic career before he left it for good and focused, in his words, “on my considerable hospital duties.”

At the time, he was 22 years old.

Today it would be anachronistic for world-class athletes to pursue “real jobs”, or to walk away from a sport they dominate at such a young age – but Bannister was very close to doing just that. Truthfully, the idea wasn’t at all unusual in the 1950s.

Bannister’s chief rival was Australian John Landy (at right, after breaking the world record), who was the second man to break the four-minute mile, eclipsing Bannister’s world record just 46 days later. Landy’s competitive career lasted a mere two years longer than Bannister, as he retired after the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

The next great miler was Herb Elliott, another Australian. From 1958 through 1960, he ran 17 sub-4 miles, set 3 world records, and was undefeated in all of his races. After winning the gold medal at Rome in 1960, at age 22, he retired from running and never returned.

In other words, the three greatest milers the world had ever seen only raced competitively for a combined total of eight years.

These men all retired for essentially similar reasons: there simply wasn’t any money to be made by being track stars. Elliott (at right, in the Rome Olympics) in particular had a family to support, and there was never any question as to where his priorities lay. Interviewed years later, he said, “Running is just something I did. It’s a sport. It wasn’t my life. My family is my life.”

This was the age of true amateurism, when athletic competition was a young man’s passion - one to be thoroughly quenched before taking on the normal responsibilities of life. A couple more decades would pass before an athlete could parlay his talent into the financial rewards of prize money and corporate sponsorships.

Ironically, although they could barely make a living, the great milers of the 1950s were amongst the most famous and most recognized athletes in the world.

Most of us are too young to ever remember a time when track and field was a large spectator sport, but for many years it enjoyed enormous popularity. Fifty years ago, the NFL didn’t yet exist, the NBA was a novelty act, and stock cars were still used for running moonshine. Track athletes were second only to baseball players in their ability to draw American interest, and were even more popular internationally.

Perhaps the best illustration I have for this point comes from my own family. After reading my previous article about Bannister’s sub-4 mile, my mom sent me the following e-mail:

I remember that well. My dad used to talk about it [the four-minute mile] all the time. I remember how surprised we were when he did it.

On the surface, the statement’s not too remarkable – but let me break it down a bit. My mom was six years old in 1954, living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father was a middle-aged man with no personal experience as a runner. And yet, one of my grandfather’s favorite topics of discussion with his young daughter was the one-mile world record (not to mention his conviction that a sub-4 would never happen). This ordinary family man in middle America made a regular habit of following results of events that took place overseas – events with no American athletes involved.

I mean … could this ever happen today? It would be like a modern family having dinner conversation about whether Gebreselassie has another world record left in him [2009 update: he did], whether El Guerrouj will finally win Olympic gold [2009 update: he did, too], or when someone will finally defeat Bekele in cross-country [2009 update: we're still waiting]. Sure, these topics may be regular dinner fare at my house - but do normal families ever talk like this? Can anyone reading this even name three world-class 1500m runners?

However, it’s a tough argument to claim that things were better back in Bannister’s day. Despite the decline in popularity of track and field, most developments in the sport over the past five decades have been enormously beneficial.

For athletes, it is now possible to become very wealthy (although, regrettably for runners, not on nearly the same scale as NFL or NBA players) with appearance fees and corporate sponsors, which allows them to stay in the sport throughout their physical primes. From a fan’s standpoint, it’s thrilling to follow the careers of the great distance runners as they mature, establish their dominance as the world’s best, and later fight to hold their place as the newest young lions roar onto the scene. One career overlaps another in a long story arc that evolves in a natural progression.

How much could Bannister, Landy, or Elliott have achieved if they had competed against each other into their late 20s and beyond? We can only speculate. Landy and Bannister, in particular, always inspired the best in each other, traded the world record, and so captivated the world’s attention that their ultimate showdown at the Empire Games in 1954 was dubbed “The Mile of the Century”. I imagine that a sports fan’s greatest disappointment is that these two great champions couldn’t repeatedly race head to head like heavyweight fighters (think of Ali vs Frazier) pushing each other to new levels of greatness.

(Bannister passing Landy in the "Mile of the Century")

Fortunately, back in 1952, Bannister made the fateful decision to postpone retirement by two years to chase after the four-minute mile, and eventually ran into the history books. No matter how fast future men may cover the distance, there will never be a more watershed performance in track than his fateful run at Oxford in 1954 – because it’s virtually certain that the one-mile (or 1500m, for that matter) footrace will never command the world stage in such a manner again.

Perhaps it is fitting then, that the most pivotal moment in our sport’s history belongs to a runner from that golden age of running, when achievements were pursued solely for personal challenge and fulfillment, with the whole world eagerly attentive – for if a similar achievement happened on today’s track landscape, there’s a good chance that it might slip by generally unnoticed.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


January 27, 2009

Sir Roger (and Me)

Administrative note: I need to establish a few ground rules before we jump into this series …

1) First, my intent was to publish these articles exactly as they were written five years ago – but where appropriate, I’ll put 2009 updates in brackets if there’s something new that bears mentioning. Otherwise, think of this series as my ghost of blogging past. On a related note …

2) I didn’t realize it until I started reviewing these – but in several cases, my writing is pretty lame. Go easy on me; I had 5 fewer years of practice under my belt than I do now. And finally …

3) My goal is to crank these out in a once-per-weekday fashion until we’re through the 10-part series – with previous entries found in the new sidebar at right. However, I reserve the right to interrupt the series as events warrant - like if someone uncovers an American Idol sex scandal, or if I come up with some theory as to why Ben Linus is working for Faraday's mother, or if Bruce Springsteen inadvertently tears some girl’s clothes off at halftime of the Super Bowl this weekend. You know … important stuff. We’ll see how it goes.

With that, we’re off!


Chasing Roger Bannister

Part 1: Sir Roger (and Me)

Late in the afternoon of May 6, 1954, 24-year-old Roger Bannister stood in the bleachers of the Iffley Road track at Oxford University, staring at the flagpole.

He had planned to enter the one-mile race that day - but most of the morning and afternoon had seen swirling winds and intermittent rain, and he arrived at the track convinced that he would defer the effort until a later date. However, as he gazed upward just prior to race time, the flag of St George - which for most of the day had stood nearly horizontal - sagged and fluttered against the pole.

At that moment, a curious thought crossed his mind: an Englishman who waits for good weather will never get anything done. Somewhat pessimistically, Bannister laced up his spikes and stepped onto the track.

(The start line: May 6, 1954)

The rest of that afternoon is now legendary. Bannister, paced through three laps by teammates Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, surged ahead and broke free in the final 440 yards, crossing the tape in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, thus becoming the first man to run the mile in less than four minutes. He later recalled that the race “was my moment to do one thing supremely well.”

(Brasher, Bannister, and Chataway)

Over the next 50 years, the one-mile world record would be held by eleven different men, and lowered by nearly 20 more seconds – but that blustery May afternoon at Oxford remains the defining moment in the history of the event. The magnitude of the achievement sent shockwaves through the entire athletic world, and permanently changed the conventional rules of human achievement.

For several decades prior to May 6, 1954, the four-minute mile was considered the “absolute zero” of physical performance: something that could be approached, but never eclipsed. Many sporting and scientific experts – including some of the most esteemed physicians of the day – considered it the outer limit of athletic potential. (In fact, there were published medical opinions about what might happen to the body if pushed at such an unfathomable pace; one particularly disturbing prediction was that the heart tissue would simply explode.)

(The finish - and the start of a new era)

Bannister’s run demonstrated that the true potential of the body is yet unknown, and that the limits imposed upon it are mainly psychological, influenced only marginally by laws of nature and physics. Indeed, Bannister held the world record for only 46 days, and in the 12 months following his watershed run, the sub-4 mile was accomplished by four other runners. Once the so-called “impossible” barrier was broken, the collective mindset amongst elite runners was forever changed – and within a few years, performances that were once inconceivable became prerequisite just to stay competitive in world-class events.

Bannister was one of the last true amateur athletes in an era just before professionalism overran nearly every sport. He was a medical student at the time of his record run, went on to become a distinguished neurologist, and championed many charitable causes throughout his life. His goal was never to become a professional athlete; above all else, he considered a well-rounded man to be the noblest goal one towards which one could strive. In his mind, there was no glory to be found by excelling in one particular interest - especially one as insignificant as athletics - to the exclusion of all others.

Although he describes himself as reclusive and awkward in person, Bannister is remarkably philosophical and idealistic in his writing. In his book The Four-Minute Mile, written the year after his historic run, he speaks passionately about such topics as amateurism, the importance of balancing athletics with other endeavors, over-reliance on coaching, and the purity of competitive racing as opposed to simply making attempts at records. He authored the book when he was 25 years old – and aside from updated introductions to future versions (such as the 40th anniversary edition I own), he has not written about the four-minute mile in all the years since. [2009 update: the above link is to the 50th anniversary edition.]

For many years, Bannister resisted offers of knighthood from the Queen of England, displeased that the honor would be bestowed upon him due to a singular performance. It was only after persistent negotiation that he finally agreed, under the condition that the designation recognize his entire life’s work - his contributions to medicine and science, and his love of philanthropy - in addition to his historic race. To modern day elite athletes, such notions may seem quaint and na├»ve - but for millions of recreational competitors all over the world, they still resonate with ideological clarity.

Sir Roger Bannister is alive and well and living in London in the year 2004 [2009 update – he still is], fifty years since he ran the world’s first four-minute mile. Among all of the influential athletes in my life, he has always been a towering presence.

My objective for this year is to recognize his accomplishment in the most appropriate manner that this idealistic amateur runner can think of. To that end, I plan to commemorate the anniversary by temporarily retiring from my marathon exploits to start training and racing the mile.

I have absolutely no idea how this project will end. Check that – there’s one thing I know for certain: it’s almost 100% legitimately impossible for me to run a four-minute mile. However, the next closest barrier - breaking five minutes - just may be within my reach. I’ll have to turn my distance training upside down, and venture into workouts and zones of discomfort that I’ve never experienced – and if I don’t reach my goal, hopefully I’ll at least collect some interesting stories to tell along the way.

If nothing else, I hope to make the whole process a fitting tribute to a remarkable man.

See previous installments of this series on sidebar at right.


January 26, 2009

Chasing Roger Bannister: The Prequel

Sometime during my elementary school years, my father got the crazy notion to start running.

It might have been a kind of mid-life crisis, or maybe it was a grasp at past glory. Dad was the quintessential 4-sport jock in high school, and perhaps he wanted to recapture the athletic mojo that had long since given way to the burdens of grown-up responsibility. Maybe he just wanted to drop a few pounds or shake up his daily routine a bit. Whatever his motivation (I never really pressed him for a reason), he announced to the family that he was going to start jogging through our neighborhood a few mornings per week.

That’s when an even crazier thing happened: I asked if I could join him.

To this day, I don’t even know what my own motivation was for my impromptu request. I was always an athletic kid, but distance running had never been part of my repertoire - in fact, I pretty much hated it. And yet, some small corner of my brain harbored this romanticized notion of the long-distance runner: the solitary figure persevering against time and distance and fatigue and all manner of weather, as well as any other obstacles that lie ahead. So I woke up early to lace up my shoes and start training with my dad, and to begin my own metamorphosis into the strong, resilient, self-reliant man I was eager to become.

The whole experiment lasted less than two weeks.

Both of us quickly realized that this running thing was a bit more work than we wanted to handle in the early mornings. I lasted just a few runs before I decided I had much better things to do before school – namely, sleeping - and Dad only lasted another handful of days before eventually giving up on the whole idea. Before long, we were both back to our regular routines.

(What’s even more embarrassing in hindsight is just how short our “long distance” mileage was. We had a 1-mile loop through our neighborhood; on those mornings, Dad and I did two laps together, and he did one additional lap without me. No one would have pegged either of us as a future ultrarunner, that’s for sure.)

I can’t exactly say that those mornings were building blocks for any of the experiences I would later enjoy as a distance runner – but my Dad did plant the seed for something I would later become obsessed with. Namely, he told me the story of Roger Bannister.

In particular, he recommended that I read The Four-Minute Mile, Bannister’s autobiography of his brilliant, all-too-brief running career. I checked the book out of the library – and at first, I wasn’t terribly impressed. I enjoyed reading Bannister’s first-hand account of what was arguably the most heroic sporting feat of all time, but much of the other information about his training program or his personal philosophies about athletics and life were pretty much lost on me (remember, I was like 10 or 11 at the time).

It wasn’t until I grew up that I took the full measure of Bannister’s life and exploits – and his story has resonated with me ever since.

This May will mark the 55th anniversary of what many people – myself included – still call the greatest athletic achievement in the history of mankind: Roger Bannister’s breaking the four-minute barrier in the mile. It’s the sporting world’s version of landing a man on the moon: a moment so simultaneously unbelievable and inspirational that it changed all the rules we ever learned about the limits of human accomplishment.

Five years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, I wanted some way to pay tribute to the event that captured my imagination first as a child, and even more strongly as an adult. In the meantime, I had become hooked on marathons – somehow, that feckless young boy had grown into the distance runner he naively aspired to be – so the decision came fairly easily: for one season, I’d train for and race the mile, just like Bannister did.

Well … it wasn’t quite like Bannister did; obviously, I didn’t have any delusions that I could ever approach running a four-minute mile. Five minutes, on the other hand, seemed possibly attainable. Daunting and terrifying, but attainable.

As you can imagine, I wrote about the experience – a whole series of articles (10 in all) that I posted on my long-extinct former website, that I’m going to republish in rapid fashion on this page, starting later this week. They’re equal parts training diary and historical overview of what was once the most glamorous race in the world. They’re also the ultimate, most tangible result of that brief period of time that my father and I ran together. Those mornings didn’t last long, but they were enough to instill something that would eventually lead to one of the most memorable summers of my life.

And if either Dad or I had predicted such a thing back then, we both would have cracked up laughing.

See the remainder of this series on sidebar at right.


January 22, 2009

MyTach GPS Sports Watch Review

At first glance, it may seem disingenuous of me to promote a new GPS device on the market – after all, I’m on record as feeling generally ambivalent about the necessity of GPS gadgetry for distance runners.

However, when I was contacted by a company called AIM to test their MyTach GPS Sports Training Watch, I jumped at the opportunity for a couple of reasons:

1) They’re an Italian company, which makes them paisan to me. And I was taught to never deny a request from the motherland – it’s right up there with “never take sides against the family” in the Italian rulebook.

2) I’ve always been curious as to whether my running would be impacted by using a GPS – and this was a great opportunity to try it.

Oh, one more thing …

3) I love doing product reviews. I’ve mentioned that before, haven’t I?

I received the gadget in the mail just before Christmas, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to use it. For this review, I also enlisted the help of some partners, as I’ll explain shortly.

AIM is headquartered in Milan, Italy – and based on a review of their website, they are primarily known for motorsport (dragsters, motorbikes, Formula 1, etc) applications instead of endurance sports. In fact, some of the data measurements seem more applicable to engine performance than ultrarunning – but that could just be a case of me wanting to keep things simple.

When the MyTach package arrived, my goal was to see if I could charge it up and figure out how to use it without wading through a complicated manual – that’s my little test of any gadget’s user-friendliness. I’d say I figured out about 80% of it on my own – which is a good thing, as the user’s manual (both paper and online) has several strange phrases that obviously lost some clarity when they were spit out of the Italian-to-English Google translator.

Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to customize the screens I wanted and head out the door for some running – and that’s when I solicited my training partners’ input as well.

Obviously, when talking about running GPS devices, the first name on everyone’s mind is Garmin. A few of my friends use the Forerunner 305 and 405 models, and one of my main goals for this review was to see how the MyTach compared – both in form and function – to the more prevalent Garmins.

So basically, I started bugging the crap out of them. Before we’d start a run, I’d ask, “Do you have your satellites yet?” and “What’s your altitude right here?” When we broke into a jog, I’d say “What’s your pace right now?” Every quarter-mile or so, I’d ask “What distance do you have?”, and when we were under tree cover, I’d say “Are you still picking up your signal?” I became quite skilled at turning a 6-mile trail run into a 1-hour quiz show. Finally, after each run, we’d compare all of the cumulative data as well.

Having said that, let’s do some comparisons:

1) Form:

Here’s a picture of the MyTach next to the Forerunner 305 from the top …

(Note that my GPS - on left - reads 0.2 miles longer than the Garmin. More on that to come.)

And one from the side:

(MyTach on left, Forerunner on right)

Size-wise, it’s not dramatically different. However, the MyTach isn’t contoured like the Forerunner, which may be a factor for some people. I’ve worn the MyTach for runs of over three hours, and comfort wasn’t really an issue for me. From website information on both brands, the MyTach is listed as slightly lighter than the 305, but since I don’t own a postage scale, I can’t independently confirm this claim.

2) Function

This part was interesting to me: almost across the board, the MyTach picked up signals quicker than the Forerunner (typically within 5-10 seconds), and kept the signal locked in even under heavy tree cover. On its website, MyTach advertises something called FCHS (Fast Connection High Sensitivity) technology; honestly, I don’t know enough about how satellite science works – does the MyTach use different satellites? Does it have a superior internal antenna or tracking device? – to explain the improvement, but I can tell you that it’s noticeable.

However, it’s not just gathering the signals that’s important – it’s what the device does with them. Which leads us to …

3) Accuracy

If signal tracking was the best surprise from the MyTach, accuracy was the most bothersome. Basically, I don’t know whether the numbers are right.

Distance-wise, in comparison with the Forerunner, my distance readings were generally about 0.1 mile off per every 3 or 4 miles of running. Remember the mileage discrepancy in the previous picture? My friend and I did the exact same route that day; my watch read 6.2 miles, and his read 6.0. Two-tenths per 6 miles isn't huge - but if you’re doing a 3-hour run, it can lead to a large degree of error. Interestingly, the MyTach mileage was always higher – so I chose to believe those numbers instead of the stingy Garmin readings. Call me opportunistic.

The altitude readings between the devices showed a similar discrepancy – in most cases, the MyTach readings were lower than the Forerunner, sometimes by more than 100 feet. One day, I ran to the top of a hill with a signpost marking 1800’ above sea level, and my GPS said 1680’. Again, there might be some scientific explanation for this, and the MyTach readings might actually be the accurate ones – but I don’t know enough about the technology to speculate on this.

I found myself lamenting that the MyTach accuracy might be questionable, because the sheer volume of data it collects is quite impressive. Some of this information is stuff that I either couldn’t decipher (for example, the unit for time stoppage is written as cm – is this a European measure I’m not aware of?) or didn’t understand (what exactly is a variometer, anyway?), but a lot of it seems like it would be extremely cool for data geeks out there. If you select the cycling mode, you also get information about current slope and total height differential – a nice feature for people who like to track cumulative elevation change on a run.

4) Extras

The accessories for the MyTach are very similar to other GPS devices on the market. It comes with a combination USB port/wall-charging dock, and fully charges in about an hour. Battery life with the GPS operating is listed at 9 hours. There is a downloadable software program on the MyTach website that interfaces with Google Earth for mapping your route after a run. The memory storage is “rolling”, meaning it replaces the oldest stuff with new data as it gets full. Its capacity in this regard seems pretty good – I currently have about 10 different runs stored on mine, and none of them have been reset yet. The unit also comes with a handlebar mounting system for bikes, so it would be ideal for a bike/run workout similar to some of the high-end Polar GPS devices.

5) Price

From what I can tell, MyTach is only available for purchase through the company website, where it retails for 195 Euros (currently 253 US dollars) – and this might be its biggest obstacle to breaking into the North American market. That price puts it almost $100 higher than the Garmin Forerunner 305, and nearly as expensive as the Forerunner 405, which has staked its claim as the ultimate next-generation wrist-mounted GPS device.

Overall, the MyTach is different than the Garmins – in some ways better, in other ways worse - but it doesn’t blow them out of the water. I imagine that a significantly lower price point is probably necessary for it to steal some attention and market share away from the industry standard.

See previous product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


January 21, 2009

Speedwork For Losers

Having more or less embraced the rigors of consistent training again this month, it seemed only fitting that I should stop by the track for some speed work. However, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the experience.

And had I known that I’d get teased by two overweight ladies in the process, I would have dreaded it even more.

First, some background: like most distance runners, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with track workouts. Even when my fitness is at its peak, I’ve never known them to be a pleasurable experience.

After all, the very point is to push beyond your comfort zone, running specific distances at the fastest speed you can consistently maintain. Such an effort stimulates your body into producing necessary adaptations that make your next attempt at the same speed incrementally easier. And when those adaptations happen, you push beyond them again, and again, and over and over as many times as you can tolerate over the course of a training cycle.

In other words, the workout’s not for sissies. And occasionally, I suppose I’m guilty of wearing my effort on my sleeve.

That was the case on Monday, as I did a set of 8 x 400m intervals with a one-lap rest between them. The first few were a controlled effort, but as my legs grew heavier and my lungs burned hotter with each passing interval, my breathing became deeper and more audible, and my laboring became more noticeable to other people around the track.

In particular, my efforts caught the attention of a pair of ladies sitting in the first row of bleachers directly in front of my start/finish line. I had briefly noticed them while I was warming up – a pair of “heavy but not yet obese” walkers in their mid-twenties, wearing cotton sweats and chatting their way through a few laps before sitting down to continue their conversation at the end of the home straight.

They remained there as I finished lap after lap, looking and sounding worse with each passing interval. Finally, after my final 400m, I let out a loud gasp and staggered a few steps onto the infield. It was shortly after I leaned onto a tall fence to hold me upright while I kept panting that I heard one of my spectators say this to the other:

“He sounds like one of those people on The Biggest Loser.”

And then they both giggled.

Now … before you think this is turning into an insult-fest between me and two chubby antagonists, I’ll say this: I took the high road. I caught my breath for a few more seconds before glancing in their direction and shuffling into some cool-down laps. At first I took the comment as a simple amusement – but then I was reminded of my favorite TBL moment thus far this season, and I thought there might actually be some truth to their remark.

That moment is in the video clip that follows – it’s trainer Bob’s meltdown with slacker Joelle, as he implores her to, essentially, harden the F up and push through a simple workout. If you don’t like bleeped-out F-bombs, you might want to skip this video. If, on the other hand, you love them like I do, feel free to indulge here (click to play):

That may be the coolest four minutes of TV I’ve seen this year (at least until tonight’s Lost premiere – but that’s a separate post). And you know what? Those ladies at the track were right: I am like one of those people on The Biggest Loser. But it’s not Joelle – it’s Bob.

At least, I’m leaning towards Bob more and more lately. Sure – during the off season, my inner Joelle breaks loose and invades the cookie jar and devours anything in sight while simultaneously hogtying my body to the mattress each morning – but both she and I know that it’s only a temporary reign. And now is the time when I traditionally run her down into submission, and tuck her back into the tiny box in the far recesses of my mind that she’ll occupy for the next seven months or so.

Finally, speaking of time, and so I can paraphrase Bob from the above video … guess how long most of my 400m intervals took!

EIGHTY F**KING SECONDS!! (Clapping my hands slowly now) EIGHTY! F**KING! SECONDS!!

Not that that’s particularly fast or slow – I just like to *almost* swear every now and then. It’s one more little thing that helps me to feel tough. At this point, I'll use whatever motivation I can get.


January 19, 2009


"Free at last! They took your life -
They could not take your pride."
- U2, "Pride (In the Name of Love)"

Two years ago, I described (in this post) how two of my kids, then-aged 8 and 5, sat and watched a YouTube video of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. I marveled at the beauty of the information age, and the way my children could become so easily familiar with a historic moment that I didn’t see in its entirety until I was in college.

(That’s the way it should be, really – in fact, the speech should be required viewing for all Americans. I’d embed it here – but I really like one website I found that features the text along with the video. So your civic duty for today is to click there and contemplate Dr King’s words – I’ll link to the site when we’re done.)

What I never imagined, however, was how my kids would see the hope and idealism of Dr King’s words come to fruition so quickly in their young lifetimes.

Over the next 48 hours, our children will witness what could perhaps be the most historic confluence of occasions this country has ever seen: the national holiday recognizing a man who gave his life for peace and equality, and the inauguration of a President who is the embodiment of that long-elusive dream.

Honestly, I have no idea what kind of leader President Obama will become. What’s indisputable, though, is this: as he stands at the podium delivering his inaugural address, after taking the oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible, with the memorial where Reverend King inspired millions gleaming across the National Mall in the distance, it will represent a watershed moment in the history of this country. Echoes of the past will meet the promise of the future head on, and a new era of hope and possibility – one that many of us never imagined we’d see - will have finally dawned.

So how do you explain all of these ramifications to grade school kids? In all likelihood, you can’t. I guess you just make sure they make note of the occasions, then explain the long, treacherous journey that brought us to this point in small doses as they grow old enough to appreciate them.

For those of us who are old enough to understand, though, the meaning of these two days is undeniable. If MLK were here to see it, one imagines that his heart would soar with pride.

And since we’re on the subject of pride, and Dr King – and since I seem to be featuring a certain band (who happened to play at this weekend's inauguration party) on this blog quite a bit lately - there’s one inevitable choice for today’s video selection: it’s my favorite version of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, recorded live for the 1988 film Rattle and Hum:

Afterwards, go watch Martin Luther King’s speech for yourself, and remember to appreciate the times we're living in today. We still have some work to do, but we're closer now than we've ever been before.


January 15, 2009

Running With The Raven

If you’re a runner and haven’t heard of Robert “The Raven” Kraft, chances are that you might in the near future.

Kraft is perhaps the best-known of a growing club of “streakers” – people who run every single day, for months and years and even decades at a time. Streakers have their own national organization, and several websites maintain “official” listings of the longest ongoing streaks all over the world (The Raven is currently ranked #11).

The Raven is well-known primarily because 1) he has a streak of over 34 years, and 2) he’s quite skilled at self-promotion. He has a fairly information-dense website with his bio, pictures, and numerous press releases documenting his streak. He was the subject of a terrific in-depth profile by ESPN, who will return to film him as he approaches an upcoming landmark this spring (details below).

Perhaps what sets him apart the most, however, is how he welcomes and celebrates anybody who is able to join him on his daily 8-mile run. His website includes an open invitation to join the Raven - and that’s just what my friend Mike did during a recent vacation. Naturally, we turned it into a Monterey Herald article, which follows below.

Honestly, the whole notion of streaking seems ridiculous* to me, on too many levels to go into here. Nevertheless, I have to admit feeling a bit of admiration for The Raven, and the number of people all over the world whom he has influenced in a positive way. Many of us would like to inspire the masses; very few actually go out and do it. The Raven is one of them.

(*and on a similarly ridiculous note: I can't write about anything named "The Raven" without thinking of The Simpsons' brilliant spoof - featuring the immortal line "Quoth the Raven, 'Eat my shorts!'" - from their original Halloween episode in 1990. I'm the first to admit, my maturity level is sorely lacking - but as a childish indulgence, that video follows this post)

Running Life 1/15/09 "Running With The Raven"

On Jan. 1, 1975, 23-year-old Robert "The Raven" Kraft ran eight miles in the sand on Miami's South Beach. He started running because he felt frustrated that his songwriting career was at low ebb; one of his songs had been stolen and made into a fairly large country hit and he received no credit.

A funny thing happened that day; something that happens to a lot of new runners. Kraft was invigorated yet calm. His anger had mellowed, and he felt great satisfaction from those eight miles. Running often grabs you when you most need it.

He made running a habit. Many would call it an obsession. Amazingly, the Raven just completed his 34th year of running on South Beach without missing a day. That's over 12,400 days of running in a row.

Along the way, he's become a bit of a celebrity. He's an icon on Miami Beach, and his fan base extends around the world. People travel from far and wide to run with the Raven. He maintains a list of them — one that now approaches 800 runners, from every state and 54 foreign countries. To date, the Raven has run 99,300 miles, and should pass 100,000 on March 29. When he does, ESPN will be there to cover it.

In a sport where injuries are the norm, the Raven never misses a day to sickness or muscle pain. He runs through all kinds of weather: hurricanes, hail storms, heat and humidity. He's as reliable as the US Postal Service.

He came close to missing a run once, when he was hospitalized for a concussion and needed 17 stitches to close a nasty wound. Luckily, some lifeguard friends smuggled him out of the hospital for his daily run, then returned him after the eight miles were finished.

As you can imagine, Kraft is a creature of habit. He's called the Raven because he always wears Black spandex shorts, black socks, black headband, and one black wristband. He has long black hair, mustache, and beard. He always runs shirtless and has a dark tan.

The Raven's also a bit of a philosopher. He chose eight miles for his run because "seven seemed too short, and nine seemed too long." He runs the same eight miles each day, in loops starting from the 6th Street lifeguard pier. Sometimes he loops in one direction, sometimes the other. He never travels out of Miami; in fact, he doesn't even own a car.

The Raven never does races. He runs for the simple pleasure of how it makes him feel, although he admits that his streak has become an obsession.

Nicknames are a big part of his persona, as Mike and his family found out while running with the Raven on a vacation to South Beach a few weeks ago. During the run, the Raven questions you about your life, and anoints you with a nickname after you have completed the run. Then he inscribes you on "the list."

The day Mike ran there were a dozen runners who earned the nicknames Burke's Law, Chapter 11, The Reverend, Seaside Sparrow, Interrogator, Cooker, Tax Man, Wine Taster, and Unruly Julie. Mike is now known as Just Run, his wife is the Fiction Reader, his son Bryan is Pedicab Man, and Bryan's fiance Melanie is Zot.

It is a pleasure and an honor to run with the Raven. Next time you don't feel like running, take a page out of the Raven's book. We hope that he and you may run evermore.


"The Raven", from The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror (click to play):


January 13, 2009

ProWash Detergent Review

It’s product review time! But before I tell you about the product, you have to indulge me in a little story.

Sometime during her first pregnancy, something very odd, and somewhat life-changing happened to my wife. It was like something out of a superhero comic, like when Peter Parker was bit by the radioactive spider and developed special powers – only the abilities my wife took on weren’t nearly as cool as wall crawling or night vision.

Basically, she acquired a highly advanced sense of smell.

As strange as her superpower seems, it comes in handy fairly often. For example, as soon as we walk into the house, she can tell if our cat has thrown up while we were away. She has the undisputed final say as to the freshness of any item stocked in the fridge. And presumably, if our house ever sprung a gas leak, she’d be able to warn me before I inadvertently blew us to oblivion. It’s reassuring to have a resource like that in your corner.

However, when it comes to my running gear, her gift becomes a major annoyance.

When I come home from a run, I’m not allowed to go anywhere near her. When I hang clothes out to dry, she maintains a 10-foot radius from them at all times. And sometimes, even after I wash my clothes, she can tell that the odors aren’t completely gone.

So you can appreciate my interest in being asked, along with some fellow bloggers, to try a new product geared specifically at cleaning athletic wear. And when the sample of ProWash detergent arrived, we put it to quick use.

ProWash is supposedly formulated to clean the synthetic materials that comprise most running clothes – those garments that are great at wicking moisture, but also retain all the odor-causing bacteria that make your clothes reek long after they’ve aired dry.

ProWash can be used two ways: as the primary detergent for an entire load of laundry, or as a “booster” to the detergent you already use. I did my initial laundry load with just the ProWash, and used it as a supplement thereafter – which, considering the price (see below), would be my recommended method of use.

So how does it work? Honestly, I can’t really tell. I mean … it’s laundry detergent. You wash your clothes with it, and they smell better than when they started. My nose isn’t nearly sophisticated enough to appreciate the difference. That's why I'm deferring to an expert opinion.

My wife tells a different story. She claims that she noticed a difference with the first batch of laundry we did, and that it smelled cleaner than usual after we wash clothes. Perhaps most telling, however, is that she’s instructed me to keep using it. If I’m taking a batch of clothes to the washer, she’ll yell out, “Be sure to put some of that new stuff in there!”

So apparently, to discriminating noses, there’s a big difference. And when it comes to recommending ProWash, that’s probably the best, most informed endorsement I can offer.

ProWash isn’t exactly cheap – the best price I found was three 24-oz pouches for $23 at Amazon.com (where the product has a 4-star average rating). But if you use it as a supplement in small doses, or only with loads of technical fabric clothing, it can probably stretch a long way. (It’s also sold at Walmart, but I couldn’t find a listed price online.) The bottom line is, if you’re battling to get odors out of your running gear – or if your spouse has similar superhero traits as mine – it’s probably worth a try.

See other product reviews on right sidebar. If you'd like a product reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


January 12, 2009

Getting Up Eight

“Fall seven times, get up eight.”
- Japanese proverb

I’ve been laboring a bit over the past couple of weeks to get back into the swing of this training business.

I know that gradually, things will get easier – but for now, I still struggle to drag myself out of bed in the early mornings, I’m reluctant to set aside more than a couple of hours for my weekend runs, and I dread trying to hang with a group of faster runners on a weekly 12-mile trail workout (which, now that I mention it, happens to be tomorrow. Ugh.). Right now, I just need to hang tough and know that my body will figure out the details in due time.

On a related note, I went bike riding with my youngest daughter last weekend.

She turned five last fall, and ever since then, she’s been bugging me on a nearly weekly basis to strip the training wheels off of her bike so she can ride on two wheels, like her brother and sister did when they were five. Last Saturday, she finally got her wish.

My teaching method for riding a two-wheeler is somewhat unorthodox (and in my humble opinion, kind of cool): I strap on a pair of rollerblades, and ride behind the bike, steadying it with one hand under the seat while my daughter pedals. When she starts balancing a little better, I gradually ease my grip until she’s riding without assistance. It’s a pretty decent method of providing just enough correction to avoid multiple knee-scraping crashes.

The process isn’t easy, though. My daughter and I spent the better part of an hour swerving all over the playground, with the bike tipping erratically to either side as she leaned too far in one direction or turned the handlebars excessively in the other. She occasionally got her legs tangled in the pedals, took a few scrapes from the chain, and picked herself off the asphalt far more times than she anticipated.

It was after one such instance, when she got up a little more slowly than usual, that I suggested we take a short break. That’s where we had the following exchanges:

Daughter: This is really hard.

Me: Yeah. It’s like this for everybody. It gets easier, though.

Daughter: [Brother and sister] crashed a lot too, right?

Me: Yup. That’s the way it works – you fall a lot of times, but you just keep trying, and eventually you learn how to do it.

Daughter: OK.

And then, about five seconds later …

Daughter: Dad?

Me: What?

Daughter: Are you ready to try again?

Me: You bet.

I can’t say that she made remarkable progress after that – but by the end of the day, she had a few brief rides without my hand on the seat, and that was enough to keep her encouraged to try again another day.

Resiliency, focus, determination – these qualities are in ample supply with most 5-year-olds; so why is it so hard to find those same characteristics in ourselves after we become adults? My daughter struggled with learning a two-wheeler, but it’s a complete no-brainer that she’s going to hang tough for a while and let her body figure out the details in due time. All I need to do is follow her example for a few weeks, and things will work out fine for me as well.

Sometimes when I’m trying to teach my kids something, I stop and wonder which of us is actually the one who needs the lesson. More often than I’d like to admit, it’s pretty much a coin flip in that regard.


January 7, 2009

State of the Blog 2009

“I want to run – I want to hide –
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside … ”
- U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name”


I’ve had some time to settle into the new page design, so it’s only hospitable to give you a tour of my humble cyber-abode.

It also seems like a good time to talk about potential substantive changes to this blog in addition to the cosmetic ones in the upcoming year – but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s just start the tour:

1. Three (or four) is the magic number

Like just about everybody else who uses Blogger, I was long frustrated with the vertical page layout of most templates – more specifically, with the difficulty in expanding the width of the page to keep more information “above the fold,” in newspaper speak. In fact, that’s the most common remark I’ve received about the current layout – how it uses the width of the page much more effectively.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t take credit for the makeover. If you scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page, you’ll see acknowledgement to Our Blogger Templates, who have several 3- or 4-column templates compatible with Blogger. Best of all, they’re free. So if you’re shopping for a new template, go check them out – especially since the link I just included saves you the trouble of scrolling down my page.

(The transition hasn’t been flawless, though. More on that in a minute.)

2. Where’s Weezer?

One keepsake that didn’t make the move with me is the sidebar video I updated on a regular basis. That section, most recently occupied by Weezer’s “Troublemaker”, held a place of high regard - both in my heart and on the webpage.

However, I realized that videos tend to be popping up more and more frequently in my regular posts lately. It’s a direction I’d like to keep traveling, especially since 1) multimedia becomes more easily accessible every day, and 2) it’s much more effective for me to just show you a video that I’m referring to rather than take 1,000 words to explain it. Trust me - the less I write, the better off we’ll all be.

(And just to make sure you believe me, there’s a new video at the end of this post. Think of it as your reward for making it to the end.)

One more thing on this subject: about three months ago, I started adding labels to each of my posts, which are listed in a sidebar at right. As you can see, the most prevalent label is “music” – even more than running, swimming, or the Western States 100. (I mean ... it's kind of too late for me to change the blog title, right?) I guess what I’m saying is - music’s just a huge part of me, so I’ve decided to embrace it.

3. Dancing with the devil

Yes, there are ads here. Yes, it’s an awkward situation to put myself in.

If it’s any consolation, my mind isn’t completely made up on this subject. I wouldn’t say that my marriage with advertisers is a happy one; I don’t feel satisfied, and I’m often frustrated, and most days I wonder if I’d just be better off without them. On other days, I think that maybe things will work out nicely if I just hang in there a while longer.

Basically, I can’t make up my stinking mind. Have I mentioned before that I'm an idiot?

4. This space for rent

While hosting ads is a moral dilemma of sorts, I have no qualms whatsoever about doing product reviews, which remain on the right sidebar. It’s good for me to test out gear that I wouldn’t otherwise try, good for you to learn whether they’re worth spending money on, and good for the companies who get promoted (assuming, that is, that their products don’t suck). It’s a win-win-win for everybody involved.

Of course, in order for the reviews to be helpful, I have to actually, you know … write them. On that note, I have three different products that I’ll be telling you about in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned for details.

5. Look both ways

See those cool sidebars on either side of the blog? This was where I ran into some trouble installing the new template. Many of the link lists were lost in transition - and what’s more, my blogroll wouldn’t import from Google reader properly.

I ended up putting in the links by hand, which means it’s probably rife with error. If you’re normally on my list, take a look to the left and see if you’re still there, and if the link actually works. If not, let me know.

Heck, as long as we’re at it – let’s go ahead and open this up to anyone who asks. Want a link? Just contact me.

One final sidebar note that’s always worth a reminder: subscription information (e-mail or reader) is at upper right. And if you act within the next five minutes, I’ll even throw in free shipping.

(That’s enough administrative notes for one post, don’t you think? Let’s get on with the fun stuff …)

6. Where the blog has no name

We’ve reached the video portion of the post, which actually ties in rather nicely with the new blog theme. It’s also a continuation of my recent adulation of the greatest band of our (or possibly any – that’s up for debate) generation.

There’s an old saying in Northern Ireland that it’s possible to determine someone’s religion based on the street in Belfast he lives on. You can also guess the person’s salary from his address on that same street (the higher income homes are further up the hill).

Bono took this notion and crafted a song envisioning an area where people aren’t judged by the part of town they inhabit, or the house that they live in, or their chosen manner of worship. A place where nobody is confined to other people’s values or expectations; where anyone can move and act in any way the spirit leads him.

And this is kind of a stretch, but … that’s kind of how I’m feeling about this blog nowadays. It’s always been ostensibly about running – but I often want to spread my wings a bit and try some other topics without having to relate them to my training regime. I enjoy writing about music, my family, my hometown, my favorite books and authors, or whatever current events happen to inspire me in some unexpected way.

For the next six months, there’s no question that my thoughts and writings will focus on the Western States 100 – honestly, there’s really no way they couldn’t. Beyond that, however, I’m reserving the right to tear down the walls of this blog a bit, and explore some new avenues that I haven’t journeyed down before.

Certainly, when I do, you’ll all be welcome to come along with me. In the meantime, here’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”, U2’s opening anthem from The Joshua Tree. The song's idealistic yearning, soaring passion, and infectious rhythm make it one of my favorites that they've ever made:

(I've actually got one more cool story about this video ... but I've held you long enough already. It will have to wait for another day.)


January 5, 2009

The Year of Running Perfectly (Well ... Sort Of)

Sometimes these parallels are right under my nose, and I still manage to miss them.

It didn’t occur to me until after I posted our New Year’s article - and remembered another one we had previously written - just how closely the sometimes fickle dedication of runners mirrors the seemingly capricious devotion of religious disciples all over the world. More specifically, I didn’t realize how much the sport of running is like The Year of Living Biblically.

AJ Jacobs’ fascinating book (subtitled One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible) describes – in both hilarious and insightful fashion – how he spent a year trying to follow every one of the Bible’s instructions for daily living. Not just the easy ones (for example, Don’t marry your wife’s sister) or the famous ones (Thou shalt not steal), but also the ones that are frightening (like handling serpents) or inconvenient (leaving your beard untrimmed) or ridiculous (stealing the egg of a mother bird). He wore clothes of unmixed fibers. He took part in an animal sacrifice. He even stoned an adulterer, in a fairly comical way.

Jacobs ultimately reaches the conclusion that no matter how hard someone tries, it’s impossible to follow an absolutely literal interpretation of the Bible even for one day, let alone for a year. Some of the standards are unattainable (try to make it through a day without coveting something), while others are conflicting (should you take an eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek?). It’s simply beyond our human capacities to follow every rule we’re supposed to.

Instead, each of us – either through our own interpretations, or those identified by religious leaders – selects a particular set of rules that we try to follow as closely as possible. We assign a certain hierarchy to those we feel are most crucial (pretty much everyone agrees that murder is wrong), and disregard those of seemingly lesser importance (is it really a crime to plant a garden of two different seeds?)

Shortly after finishing the book, I recalled a Monterey Herald article we wrote two years ago, facetiously instructing runners how to have the perfect day. It was a list of rules culled from all the usual suspects: fitness magazines, health studies, self-help gurus, and conventional wisdom.

The point of the first article was this: obviously, nobody will ever have a perfect day. You pick the rules that are most important to you – those that will have the most impact on your life - and do the best you can to live by them as frequently as possible. Last week’s article was another reminder that just because you let some of those rules slide, it doesn’t mean you should give up trying.

Running isn’t a religion; then again, in some ways, maybe it is. Either way, one thing is certain: between now and the end of June, I need to start following a lot more rules than I have been lately. I know I won’t be perfect – but from this point forward, I vow to remain dedicated to doing the best I can.

Truthfully, that’s all that any of us can pledge to do.


January 3, 2009

You Can't Be Perfect

For as much as I love running, I’ve never been very good at encouraging others to get started. Rather, I’m often the first to admit that it might not be the right activity for everybody.

This pet philosophy of mine leads to some differences of opinion with my friend Mike, who also happens to be my fellow Monterey Herald columnist. Mike believes that anyone, anywhere, at any age, in any physical condition, can start a running program and enjoy all of the benefits the sport has to offer. He's absolutely passionate about recruiting as many runners as possible to join him, and I'd never try to dissuade him from his cause. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly so optimistic.

I’ve known enough people who have given up running programs to recognize that running might not always be the ideal path to fitness. Some folks may be predisposed to injury or joint pain. Some might like to push their bodies in a different fashion than the repetitive, simplistic manner that is fundamental to running. Some won’t share the emotional connection to the process that many of us feel as strongly as any drug.

My personal opinion about overall health and fitness is that success lies not in what particular activity you choose, but in finding something you love and enjoy; that way, exercise sessions are something you look forward to and will continue for the long term. Whether it's running, swimming, cycling, tennis, aerobics, rollerblading, or countless other options - the specific method doesn't matter nearly as much as the degree and consistency of participation.

However, when New Year’s Day rolls around, and the newspaper looks for an article that speaks to casual readers who have made resolutions to start a running program, I have to put my own suppositions aside for a garden-variety “You can do it!” type of column. This year, we focused less on encouraging people to dramatically change their lives, and more on reassuring them that doing so is neither a short nor easy process.


Running Life 1/1/09 “You Can’t be Perfect”

Wait! Don’t tell us – you are reading this with bleary eyes and a pounding head from last night’s festivities. Or maybe you made a resolution to lose weight and get healthy this year, and you’re already questioning your motivation.

Everybody sabotages their fitness plans from time to time – even your local running columnists. So we’re not going to beat you over the head today about all the reasons you should be running.

Runners certainly aren’t perfect. Many of us will overindulge at New Year’s Eve parties, throwing back drinks and eating dozens of little sausages on toothpicks, finally crashing into the sack in the wee hours of the morning.

So if you chastise yourself for not beginning your training program today, don’t take it too hard. Just start in small doses, a little bit at a time. Even walking a mile is an accomplishment if you haven’t done it for a while. Start with small changes, and they’ll eventually become larger ones. You don’t have to be perfect every day.

Most health experts say that you need sixty minutes of daily activity, but that’s tough for anyone to do. On the inevitable days when you fall short, your long-term success and self-esteem depend entirely on your outlook. Don’t feel bad if you only have time to walk for a twenty minutes instead of an hour, or if you run only two miles when your training plan called for three. Just keep plugging along and don’t quit or lose your focus.

The key to any training program is to simply do something more than you used to. Or – in the case of eating – do something less than usual. Switch from walking one mile to jogging two, or from eating double cheeseburgers to frequenting Subway. Remember, progress happens in little steps on a regular basis.

Bad habits don’t become perfect ones overnight and fitness doesn’t happen immediately. Don’t get discouraged if changes are small at first – just dedicate yourself to achieving them, you’ll gradually make big improvements over the course of the year.

Perhaps by next January 1st, you can join the hundreds of runners who, by the time you are reading this, have already finished the Rio Resolution run and are eating a great post-race breakfast. Even though many of them were up late, they all made the decision to make fitness a priority for the New Year’s holiday.

On a personal note - many of us at this year’s race are wearing shirts in honor of Mickey [omitted], a local running club member who had run every one of the 17 previous Rio Resolution Runs prior to today, and always brought champagne to celebrate with everyone after the run. This year Mickey is recuperating from a very tough operation due to his recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and was unable to attend the race.

Running makes our lives better, but it doesn’t make us invincible. We hope that your 2009 is filled with fitness and health, and many more good days than bad ones. And please join us in thinking good thoughts for Mickey.

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