Sunday, August 10, 2014

Unrealistic Dreams


On Grand Avenue in Detroit there is a house that spawned some of the greatest music of the 20th century.  In 1959 the garage of that modest house was converted into a studio - the kitchen became the control room.  From 1961 until 1972 there would be over 100 top 10 hits recorded in that studio.  Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye etc.

How did the son of a Detroit grocer start one of the greatest record labels of the 20th century?  First of all Berry Gordy was a great business man.  He also knew how to recognize and develop talent.  Probably, most important, he was a perfectionist.  He knew what he was good at - but he also knew where he needed help.  He found great song writers, choreographers - even a woman who taught his talent the importance of good manners.

This fall my father starts his 40th year as a music teacher at a school less than an hour away from that house.  He has led a high school department that won a Grammy award as one of the top seven high school music programs in the United States.  A student who was a Presidential Scholar (there are only two per state) and scored a perfect 1600 on his SATS selected my dad as his most influential teacher.  The student became an engineering student, but felt that his music teacher influenced him most.

As a child I assumed that my dad somehow lucked out finding the perfect career for himself.  Whenever I saw him teaching it seemed as though he was made for it.  And yet, over the years, I heard stories of him struggling along the way.  How he almost failed a piano class in undergrad - how he almost had to beg for his first teaching job - how he would come home and sleep for several hours in those first few years while he was teaching elementary school classes.

Even though he had great mentors and education at the University of Michigan - it took him some time to come into his own.  He had develop new skills.  Most of all he had to keep moving forward even when things got tough. 

Reflecting on his career and on a place like Motown made me think about how initially their dreams probably seemed unrealistic to the people around them.  In fact they were unrealistic.  The paths that they started out on weren't necessarily how they found their success. 

Not everyone can have the same success of Motown or even what my father has done.  But we certainly can learn lessons from them.  Success comes from a combination of going after our dreams and understanding what the world needs from us.  Motown was successful not just because they had an incredible number of talented young people signed to their label - but because they understood the kinds of songs that people wanted to hear.

The same is true of running.  Success comes from having a strong dream - but then understanding the basic principles that help you to run fast.  Success comes from not being afraid to fail - it comes from listening to mentors, but also finding your own way.  Most importantly I think it comes from having a combination of both confidence and being humble.

Many times when we look at successful people we see their lives as intractably leading to the point that they are at.  But when we look closer we see false starts - even failures.  Their lives may seem inevitable now - but like anything in history they most likely didn't seem that way at the time.  As I start on my next beginning I try to remember that.  I try to feel confidence that I can be successful and the yet be humble enough to know that I can't do it alone.          

Monday, July 28, 2014

Caleb

The first time I met Caleb was at a race.  Actually it was during a race.  It was a winter racing series 10k at a nearby lake.  It was in January or February - so, I wasn't looking to run a personal record - I just wanted to have a nice hard effort.


After the first mile Caleb and I were alone at the front.  In that situation my competitive instincts took over - I no longer cared what month it was - I just wanted to win.  So, I increased the pace a little bit to see if I could get a gap on him.  Unfortunately it didn't work - he stayed step for step with me - although I noticed that his breathing was getting pretty labored.  So I made another little push - but again he stayed with me.  Now I was getting annoyed - this guy, who I didn't even know - was apparently taking this race pretty seriously.  Finally I was able to gap him at around the 4th mile.


It might sound like I'm bragging that I beat him - but really I should have beat him.  I was a D1 collegiate runner - whereas Caleb had not run a step until a few years before we first met in 2012.  Not only was he not a runner - he had weighed close to 250 pounds, was addicted to alcohol and drugs, and was even homeless for awhile.


What I recognized that day - and have seen him demonstrate since then in numerous workouts and races is his tremendous will.  Most people who come to endurance sports after college are unable to push their bodies into the same zone of pain as those of us who competed in college can.  Caleb is the rare exception to that.  I don't think I've been in any workout or race where I felt like I was working harder than Caleb.


Caleb did something very brave this last winter - he told his story to a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald.  In February they did an article on his struggle to overcome his addictions and his accomplishments as a triathlete.  I remember talking to him briefly before the story came out.  He was actually ambivalent about the story coming out - not because he was worried about people knowing about his past - but because he didn't want the focus to be on himself.  I'm glad that he did that interview though - I'm sure there are a lot of people who need to hear that it's possible to overcome those kinds of problems.


I decided to write about Caleb because he has had an incredible string of performances in the last month.  He was second in his age group at a large triathlon in Minneapolis, then he got second at the Omaha triathlon, and then yesterday he won the Cornhusker State Games triathlon.  These are not trivial accomplishments.  He is going up against the best triathletes in the area and beating them.  That's pretty incredible for someone who was a prisoner to drugs and alcohol less than a decade ago.


People like Caleb are very rare.  I can't say that I've met anyone else like him.  I'm proud to call him my friend and fellow triathlete.  He reminds me of why I enjoy endurance sports and competition.  It does something good for the soul.  I can't speak for Caleb, but I know that for myself being an endurance athlete is most important when I feel weak.  When I feel like life is beating me down I can go out on run and feel strong. 


Caleb has survived and endured much more than I ever will need to in my life.  But Caleb does not revel in his accomplishments.  He talks about all the poor decisions he made that led him down his path.  He takes personal responsibility for where he ended up.  We all make bad decisions - luckily for most of us they don't have such terrible consequences.  Caleb is a great reminder that we can take responsibility for the mistakes we make in life without allowing them to define us.  And if we dig deep - we can find a strength that we didn't know was there.  Keep it up Caleb!  You are an inspiration! 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Importance of Play


This morning I heard just a little bit of an interview on NPR of Stuart Brown, a medical doctor, psychiatrist and researcher who specializes in the importance of play for people of all ages.  His main findings are that "play" isn't just goofing around (above is his TED talk).  It's an important part of developing our cognitive and physical abilities so that we're able to take actions that are important to our survival. 

However, play isn't just for kids.  His research has found that adults who don't play are more likely to have rigid thinking - which makes them less able to react to changing environments.  They are also more likely to be depressed and have a pessimistic view of life.  He even found that lack of play in a person's life may be a major indicator of future violent actions.

I love studies like this - mostly because I'm 37 years old and I still like to act pretty childish from time to time.  Yes, I know that I write a blog about running and triathlons - you would think that I have no doubt that these activities are good for me.  Actually though - one of the main reasons that I started this blog was to determine why I still felt that running and competition were so important to me even though I was supposed to be "all grown up."

I sometimes worry - is it all vanity?  Am I trying to fill some hole of self-doubt by continuing to compete way into adulthood?  Shouldn't I have moved on to something else by now to fill my spare time?

So, thank you Dr. Brown - for giving me a well thought out and researched model that makes me feel better about keeping doing what I like to do.
 

 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lessons in Anatomy


For the second time in my life, I find myself in a basement laboratory, spending countless hours dissecting a human body.  This is an experience that I really would have preferred to have only once - but since I have this opportunity I thought I should at least write something about what I've learned.

1) You can get used to anything.  Let me start with the obvious.  Most people probably cannot consider anything more disturbing than spending time with a dead body - especially when you are cutting, picking, and digging in order to find the important functional parts of the body - namely, muscles, nerves, and arteries/veins.

Really, it's like anything that seems daunting initially - you just focus on what you're supposed to be doing and eventually it kind of seems normal.  You even find yourself getting weird looks from people in the cafeteria as you discuss your dissection - forgetting that most people don't talk about such things when they're eating.

2) What we have under our skin cannot be duplicated.  We are not just some kind of fancy robot.  Even with all of the incredible strides that we've made in technology - there is simply no way that we can come close to building something that moves like us, much less, thinks like us. 

Over hundreds of generations our ancestors lived and died.  We are borne of the survivors.  No matter how difficult of a day you had today it doesn't compare to anything that a direct ancestor of yours dealt with 10,000 years ago.  Our bodies were engineered to be active - because the only way to survive throughout most of human history was to be active.  And regardless of whether you're rich or poor we all get to own something priceless - our bodies.

3) What appears to be soft and weak eventually reforms that which appears hard and strong.  When you look at the inside of a skull one of the more interesting things is that there are branching grooves formed by arteries on the bone.  The shapes of all bones are impacted by soft tissue to a certain extent.  Tendons pull on bone - which makes bumps that we call processes, tubercles, and tuberosities. 

Bone is constantly being reformed.  Constant pressure - even by something as soft and small as a blood vessel changes the shape of the bone over time.  This reminds me of why endurance training needs to be so organized and consistent.  As Andy Dufresne knew - anything can be overcome eventually through the power of "pressure and time." 

BIG NEWS - Today I received two e-mails - one from journalist/podcast producer who wants to interview me about my blog.  The other is from a sports related site asking me if I wanted to be included as one of their bloggers.  I will post more info once things become final!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Que Sera, Sera

Are our fates up to us or are they out of our control?  Most people would agree that there are some things we can control and some we can't.  As Tolstoy wrote, "a being uninfluenced by the external world, standing outside of time and independent of cause, is no longer a man. In the same way we can never imagine the action of a man quite devoid of freedom and entirely subject to the law of inevitability."  However, strict determinists would say that "free will" does not actually exist - that all of our actions are dependent on variables completely outside of our control - such as our DNA, where we were born, when we were born, education, who are parents were etc . . .

The last several chapters of "War and Peace" are actually a philosophical discussion by Tolstoy about free will.  In the end he declares that the control that the outside world has on our own actions is similar to the motion of the earth - we do not feel the earth move and yet using math and reason we find that it does move. To claim man has free will feels right - just as claiming that the earth is immobile seems right - because we don't feel the earth moving.  But both conclusions are wrong because if they were correct, they would break laws that we know to be true.   

It's interesting that he ends there.  Obviously there are many moral consequences of that attitude.  For example, can anyone be held "responsible" for committing a crime if free will doesn't exist?  Why make any kind of an "effort" in life if I'm not really responsible for what happens to me?  From what I remember of my philosophy classes, the argument is that eventually you will get hungry or have some other kind of desire.  And in order to be fed or clothed you will need to take some kind of action.  As for criminals - we all want to live in a world that's relatively safe and where there is justice - therefore, even if free will doesn't exist we still need to hold people accountable.

So what's putting me into this rather fatalistic mood?  It appears as though my fall on the bike last Sunday is going to keep me from racing at Kansas.  My shoulder is still so sore that I can't sleep on my left side - so, there's no way I can swim 1.2 miles.  I tried to run on Wednesday and even my hip tightened up.

Luckily I've had a pretty decent spring with my running races - so it's not like all of my competitive eggs were in one basket.  It's a bummer for sure - but with everything that's happened over the last year it's not that big of a deal.

Next week I start a six-week Anatomy refresher - so that I can have a better chance of success in the Fall.  In the end - running and triathlons are hobbies.  In my case, they might be hobbies that border on obsession at times, but I recognize that there are things that are much more important in my life - even more important than whether I become a PA - like my relationships with my family and friends. 

There was a time 3-4 months ago where it seemed like the foundations of my life were crumbling.  I would not want to recreate or go through that again.  However, the whole experience has taught me what is strong in my life - both internally and externally.

Fate seems strongest when either something really good happens or really bad happens.  In both cases we think about how much luck contributes to our condition.  But the same uncontrollable causal elements are acting on us every day - we are just less likely to think about them on a daily basis.  Just as we don't normally think about the movement of the earth as we take the trash out.

So, I'm going to take this time of being injured to see if there are any lessons I can learn.  If nothing else it will remind me to be thankful when I'm healthy again.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Tales of a Reckless Moron

There's a reason why most of the women in my family have a constant ache of worry for my health and personal safety.  I do stupid things sometimes.

When I was in early grade school I had a lot of energy.  There were times when my mother would tell me to "go run around the house."  Apparently I thought this was a great idea.  I would leap out the front door and go sprinting around the outside of our house until I was fatigued enough to reenter civilized society.  One time we were visiting friends of my parents.  I got hyper and my mother, probably slightly embarrassed at how crazy I could get, proposed my normal cure.  I leaped out the front door.  Unfortunately I somehow assumed that this house would have the same relative proportions of our house.  Looking back I probably should have done a lap to scout our the lay of the land.  But I just started running as fast as I could.  One detail that could have been helpful for me to know was that they had a dog house in their back yard.  It was positioned in such a way that when sprinting around the house you couldn't really see it until you had turned the corner - and there it was.  Luckily, all I got was just got a pretty good gash on my cheek (the scar is still there). 

Not long after that I decided it was a good idea to go across the monkey bars at recess when they were wet from a morning rain.  I got a fractured wrist for that one.  Or the time that I dove a little too close to a patch of gravel trying to catch a baseball and ended up with stiches.  Or the time in college I ran out on a pier in Lake Michigan during a winter storm and got swept into the water by a big wave.

The most romantic of these mishaps was probably the time I rented a motor scooter in the Amalfi coast of Italy.  First, let me just say that it is probably the most beautiful place I've ever visited.  After a few hours of riding around the narrow roads overlooking the Mediterranean I started to fantasize that I was Italian.  I had witnessed how nimbly they ride their scooters in the cities of Rome and Florence.  I thought I could do the same thing.  After taking the picture below of Positano - I hurried back to Sorrento where I had rented the scooter.  I didn't want to be late - so I went a little faster than I should have.  Luckily I didn't fall off the cliff into the ocean - but I did take a round-about a little fast and ended up falling and sliding across the pavement - scratching up myself and the scooter in the process.  I hurt my knee and couldn't run for almost a month after that one.


More recently there was the marathon I ran in Drake Well, Pennsylvania.  I actually ran it to prepare for the 2010 Chicago marathon.  (Yes, I know that sounds crazy - just stay with me).  I ended up running faster than planned - because I found myself in 2nd place half way through the race and I got a little competitive.  I won the race (there were only about 200 people in it) and then drove six hours back to Virginia right afterwards.  A week later I couldn't run - I somehow pulled my hamstring and caused some major inflammation.  Not only did it mean I couldn't train properly for Chicago - but I had pain from that injury that lasted for over a year.

There are several other stories that I could go on with - but I think you get the point.  One of my behavior traits seems to be recklessness on a moronic scale - and sometimes I actually have to pay consequences for my ill advised actions.  I guess it's just good I haven't hurt anyone else.

Yesterday I added to the list.  I had a three hour ride planned - I knew there were some thunderstorms coming - but it seemed like they would hold off long enough for me to get my ride in.  Well, it came about 30 minutes too early.  I saw the wall of blackness coming behind me as I rode east.  I think I actually thought I could outride it at some point (which makes absolutely no sense).  Finally, when I was getting pelted with debris (apparently the winds got up to 60 mph) I found sanctuary in a Jimmy Johns.

I called my wife and said "I might need to you to pick me up - but let's wait 20 minutes and see if it lets up."  About 10 minutes later I looked out the window and observed a) there was no lightning or thunder b) the wind and rain didn't seem all that bad anymore.  So, I rode home.  When I was about half way home it got worse.  I was drenched and tired from fighting the wind.  I was crossing a street about a mile from our house - I glanced back to see if there was any traffic - which led me to not see the seam in the road in front of me.  My front wheel caught it - and with the road and my tires being wet I went down hard.  There were two cars behind me - which thankfully stopped in time.  I did the "I think I'm ok" hand wave sign as I gathered my water bottles from the road.

At first it didn't seem too bad.  I landed on my left side - so I got a nice road rash on my left hip, left elbow, and even a bit on my ankle.  I'm most worried about my shoulder though.  The most common injury in cycling is breaking your collar bone.  It doesn't feel like anything is "out of place" - but it's pretty sore.  I can put my arm above my head - but it doesn't feel great.  That's not exactly what you want when you have a half Ironman in less than a week.

(Sigh) When will I learn?.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fragility and Resilience

Last weekend, while we were driving to Boulder, my wife and I listened to an interview of author Kevin Fong, MD by Teri Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air."  Dr. Fong is an anesthesiologist and NASA advisor who wrote a book titled "Extreme Medicine" about how our travels to the North Pole and space during the 20th century have changed our understanding of how the human body works. 

At the end of the interview, she asked him what writing this book and his own experiences had taught him.  I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like "the human body is fragile - and yet in extreme environments it can be very resilient." 

Life is fragile.  I had an awful reminder of that this past week when I found out that two high school classmates died within a matter of days of each other.  It made me think about how although I have had a rough year - but I'm still here.  I have challenges ahead of me - but they aren't insurmountable.  I still have opportunities - all of their opportunities have come to a tragic end.

There are two distinct ways to come to terms with our own mortality.  We can attempt to avoid danger for ourselves and our loved ones - or we can take it as a reminder to live life to the fullest.  To attempt to experience all the world has to offer.  To be kind and compassionate to both ourselves and others - because regardless of who we are as people we all have the same ultimate destiny.  Most of us vacillate between these two perspectives.  We live our lives - but we make sure not to take stupid risks.  We try to help others, but we're also weary of those who take advantage of our kindness.

How does this fit into endurance sports?  It might be a stretch - but training and racing for me has always been partially about the interplay between fragility and resilience.  It's about putting myself in a situation where I can choose to be strong or I can choose to quit.  When people say they are addicted to running - I think what their actually addicted to is how powerful it can feel to choose to continue on when the rational thing to do would be to stop.

It's easy to forget what 99% of our ancestors had to endure in order for us to be here.  For most of human history life was, to quote Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short."  Our genetic code has been passed down to us from countless generations of survivors.  One problem with modern society is that we seem not to know how to react to a lack of a hostile environment.  It appears at times as though we create internal conflict in order to replace external conflict - or we create unnecessary drama because we don't know what to do with the relative peace in which we find ourselves.

Although I enjoy the challenge and competition of running - my best moments as an athlete are when my mind goes into a meditative state.  When I'm not thinking of anything except for the rhythmic motion of my body - the air going in and out of my lungs.  The recently deceased poet and author Maya Angelou had a twitter account.  Her last tweet was "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God."

Much of Maya Angelou's writing was about fragility and resilience as well.  As she said, "I can be changed by what happens to me.  But I refuse to be reduced by it."  I'm not sure that there is a better definition of resiliency than that.

We are of the world - but we can't let the world define us or consume us.  We have to find our own identity and strength within ourselves.  We all have a whisper of the divine within us - we just have to, as Dr. Angelou would say, get quiet enough to hear it.  Many people get to that quiet place through music or art - for me it's through running.  And I guess that's why I keep doing what I'm doing.  It helps me to remember who I really am regardless of what else is going on in my life.  And for that I am truly grateful.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"Pain Purifies"


Author, Haruki Murakami

Although this alliterative phrase sounds like it could have come from the lips of a 17th century Puritan - it's actually a quote from my high school cross country and track coach, Don Sleeman. I think he said it to stop us from complaining about hard workouts.  He said it a lot.

But was he right?  Does pain exist for some loftier purpose other than to merely ensure that we think twice about touching a hot stove?

I bring up this topic because I think many non-runners think that we're just a bunch of masochists.  And to be honest, if you were to come to a gathering of runners it wouldn't be odd to hear many conversations centered on pain - whether regarding injuries or workouts or races.  Many times we are more likely to talk about our failures than our successes because the descriptions of pain are so much more vivid.

Of course, I don't know whether my experience of pain is the same as Joe's - just as I don't know what the color blue looks like to Joe.  There is no objective way to measure pain - we only have our own descriptions of it - and the knowledge that everybody who has ever walked the earth has experienced pain at some time.

One way in which I think my coach was right is that it's very difficult to think about anything else that might be bothering you when you're in real physical pain.  So often we seem to suffer because our brains need something to think about - and what's most likely to focus our attention are the worries of everyday life.  Physical pain strips that all away.  Any insults we've borne through the day - real or imagined - magically disappear.  We are completely focused on the struggle that we're enduring in the moment.

Pain is also one of the strongest connections that we have with others.  In an article about pain - and how living in the age of anesthesia may change how we interact with others - Joanna Bourke quotes 19th century physician Samuel Henry Dickinson "Without suffering there would be no sympathies, and all the finer and more sacred human ties would cease to exist."  Our own experience of pain and our ability to empathize with others' pain is in some ways the basis of morality and kindness to others.  You could go further and argue that pain is the basis for society and culture - and our ability to express pain - both physical and emotional - is what makes us human.

One of my favorite books on running is a memoir by novelist Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  He makes the very Buddhist comment that "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." 

However, my favorite passage is the following:

"Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren't involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It's precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive--or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself."

So pain is part of the experience - but it is not the ultimate goal.

As Christopher McDougall wrote in Born to Run - "running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle--behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love--everything we sentimentally call our 'passions' and 'desires' it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run."

So, to return to my original question - does pain purify?  Pain is not the goal - but it is a signpost that you are headed in the right direction towards your goal.  It simplifies and strips away what's not needed.  It helps us to identify with one another. But many people lose sight of the real goal - they get stuck in pain - they make pain the defining representation of their experience.  The real goal is self knowledge of what your body is capable of doing.  It is to know that the human body is made to run. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Team That's What She Said - The Genesis of this Blog


In the spring of 2007 Kendra and I moved to Baltimore, MD.  We didn't know anybody there - so I went online to find out if there were any running groups in the area.  My search led me to Falls Road Running Store - where I met owner Jim Adams.  He pointed me to a group that had been formed by a University of Maryland runner, Ryan McGrath.  Little did I know what was in store for me.

Ryan is a unique individual.  He is a man of contrasts - it's difficult to pin down exactly how to describe him.  But one thing that's for sure is that he is very committed to his role as Baltimore running impresario.  To understand what I mean you need to go to the team's blogsite

There are a lot of things going on.  First, is a review of results from the previous weekend - including an award called the "Purple Drink Athlete of the Week."  On the right column there is a box that shows races, names, and times for the previous week.  I counted 22 people listed from the previous week - which is probably about average. 

You might have noticed the poll at the top right of the blog.  This is usually something silly (this week is who is your favorite British Harry - Harry Styles from One Direction, Prince Harry, or Harry Potter). 

Then there is a list of birthdays for the current month, upcoming running events, a tool to help you find a group run (based on the day of the week and your location), list of other blogs, quotes, running links, top 10 lists for the group, etc.  And all of these are updated fairly regularly. 

Other than to show you how one man has used his obsessive compulsive disorder to bring good into the world - I wanted to show you why I started this blog.  In 2007 runner blogs in the Baltimore/D.C. area were popping up like worms after the rain.  I would say there were close to a dozen of us who have written blogs at one point or another.  An example of another runner who has kept it up all these years is Jake Klim and his "Red Fox" blog.  Jake lives in DC and runs for Georgetown Running Company - and is an outstanding runner. 

My point is that, although I'm now far away, I still feel like this blog is part of that community.  The running group and the people I met in Baltimore really energized my love of running.  There are many things that I wouldn't have even tried if I hadn't been part of Team That's What She Said - including triathlons. 

Runners are special people.  There's no place I've lived where I haven't been close friends with at least a few of them - but the group in Baltimore is even unique among running groups.  So, thank you Ryan and thank you friends in Baltimore/DC.  For better or worse - you guys are a big reason why I keep writing this blog and keep competing.

Here is what I did last week:

5/5-5/11

Monday - 3000y swim (1 hour)
Tuesday - 56 mile bike (3 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour) Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 min)
Thursday - 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Friday - 3000y swim (1 hour) 6 mile run (45 min)
Saturday - 56 mile bike (3 hours)
Sunday - 17 mile run (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 3 hours Bike: 8 hours Run: 3.5 hours (14.5 hours)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Lincoln Half Marathon

 
 
"The Sower" - The statue on top of the Nebraska State Capital building in Lincoln

My writing on this blog has been pretty heavy on Philosophy recently.  Well, today I'm going to write a good old fashioned race report.

I signed up for Lincoln around New Years.  I didn't quite know how much time I'd have to train at that point.  Unfortunately it's been more than I expected.  So I decided to make the most of it.

The Half Marathon has always been a good distance for me.  My PR is right around 1:10 - which is a little more solid than my marathon PR of 2:32.  Half marathons are great events - they are long enough that you feel like you've really accomplished something - but they generally don't leave you crippled like a marathon can.

Having not run an all-out half for close to four years - I didn't really know what I was capable of.  I just kind of picked a number out of a hat for my goal.  I decided on 1:15.  I also decided to get under 1:15 I needed to focus more on my running (rather than cycling and swimming) - and do some proper half marathon workouts.

The key workout for me in the past has been two mile repeats with two minutes rest.  I build up from two to four repeats over 6-8 weeks.  I also made sure to get in a "proper" long run each week - which for me is 17 miles.

My last 4X2 mile workout went 11:20, 11:01, 10:58, 10:50.  So basically I started off at 5:40 per mile pace and ended in 5:25 per mile pace.  In general, it's good to keep an even pace in workout or maybe get 5-10 seconds per mile faster - but my last one was so much faster than my first - it was hard for me to judge exactly what that meant.  I decided that a pace in the high 5:30's was possible - but part of me wasn't sure - because my best 5 miler of the winter was at 5:38 pace - and it was a pretty hard effort.

The weather this morning was pretty much perfect.  Temps in the low 50's.  There was some wind - but nothing much worse than what we typically have in Nebraska.

I don't care who you are - that first mile is always a mystery.  The excitement of the race can easily make you go out too hard - but you want to get in a good rhythm as well.  I missed the first mile split - so it really was a mystery.  But I felt pretty strong.

I ended up going through two miles at 11:06 - so, I was going slightly faster than planned.  I have to say that the support on the course was awesome.   They had our names printed on our bibs - which I used to think was kind of cheesy - but it does help to hear people yelling out my name.

The course is relatively flat - but it does have some rollers.  It was also just windy enough that I felt like I was fighting through it in a few places.  But overall the conditions were great.

I somehow missed the next two mile splits - so, I was stuck doing some mental arithmetic at mile 5.  I had slowed down a little bit averaging ~5:40 those three miles.  Then there were two welcome downhill, wind at my back miles.  I actually went 5:20 for both of those miles.  The last 4-5 miles were tough.  I was really struggling up some of the hills - my 10th mile was my slowest mile at 5:54.  I was starting to wonder whether I could break 1:14 or not.  I also got passed by three guys in this section.  Getting passed is always a little demoralizing - but instead of feeling defeated you have to try to hang on a bit as they pass and then focus on their rhythm and try to match it.

Unfortunately the third guy who passed me put me into 11th place - there was prize money through 10th place.  I was able to get back to low 5:40 miles in the last two miles and came through in 1:13:35 - over a minute better than my original goal. 

Even though I just missed out on some prize money I can't complain.  The weather was great - the support and organization of the race was great - and I ran faster than I expected.  Thanks to the Lincoln Track Club for putting on such a great race!

The reason I will probably always run is that there is something completely satisfying about a day like today.  I made a plan several months out - I executed the plan - and I reaped the benefits.  That doesn't always happen in life - or in running - but it sure is sweet when it does.

Monday, April 28, 2014

War and Peace


I was watching Jon Stewart the other day - he had on an author who wrote a biography about Gandhi's early life in South Africa.  He mentioned how Gandhi had been influenced by Tolstoy - who also influenced Martin Luther King Jr..  Being in need of a project before I start taking classes again in June - I decided that I'm going to read Tolstoy's "War and Peace."  Of course starting "War and Peace" is very different than finishing "War and Peace" - but so far I like it.

It is set in Russia - in the early 19th century - when Napoleon was taking over Europe.  Like all good literature - from Shakespeare to Seinfeld - it is mainly about morality.  What is "good" behavior vs. "bad" behavior?  Context is everything.  The title of the book is probably also the best example of how morality is judged mostly on the context.  Behavior that would be condemned in peace time is celebrated in war. 

I also watched "The Armstrong Lie" this last weekend.  It's a documentary about Lance Armstrong.  It was originally about his comeback in 2009.  The documentarian was very pro-Lance originally - but his downfall happened before the movie was finished - including his interview with Oprah.  I've been very anti-Lance on this blog for a long time.  Remembering his downfall and starting to read "War and Peace" made me think about what exactly his greatest sins were.

He was known by his admirers for his dogged determination.  First - for overcoming cancer and then for winning seven Tour de France titles.  His main failing seems to be that he saw everyone as either a foe to be overcome or a pawn to be used.  There was no bonds with others that were strong enough to displace his goal of "winning" - however he defined that.  He was at perpetual "war" with the world.

Sometimes I feel the need to apologize for the fact that I still love to compete.  It seems childish in some way.  But again - I guess it's all about context.  With racing I'm able to express that part of me that likes winning - but I would call all of my rivalries - "friendly" rivalries. 

Next week I run the Lincoln Half Marathon.  With so much time on my hands I've actually been training quite a lot.  Some of my key workouts point to me running somewhere around 1:14 - which would be the fastest I've run in about five years for that distance.  The nice thing about running in a big race is that ultimately you are running against yourself.  You are running to beat a goal time - rather than another person.  The best way to accomplish your goal is to think of people around you as friendly adversaries.  My hope is that there is a decent sized group (4-5 guys) trying to run around my pace.  In order to run my best there will be a time in the race where I'll need to compete against them - but afterwards it will be all smiles and telling each other "nice job."

I've found that even in professional life it's good to think of others a friendly adversaries.  You can't be afraid of confrontation or competition - but you have to know when the competition is over - and how to smile and shake your adversary's hand.  Because many times our greatest competitors in life become our best allies.  It's all about context.

Here are my last two weeks of training.

4/14-4/20

Monday - 3000y swim (1 hour) & 4 mi run (30 min)
Tuesday - 47 mile bike (2.5 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour) Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 min)
Thursday - 12 miles 4X2 mi w/ 2 min rest (11:20;11:01; 10:58; 10:50) (1.5 hours)
Friday - 3000y swim (1 hour)
Saturday - 47 mile bike ride (2.5 hours) followed by 4 mile run (30 min)
Sunday - 17 mile run (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 3 hours Bike: 5 hours Run: 4.75 hours (12.75 hours)

4/21-4/27

Monday - 3000y swim (1 hour)
Tuesday - 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour) Afternoon: 8.5 mile run (1 hour)
Thursday - 50 mile bike (2.75 hours) 6 mile run (45 min)
Friday - 2250y swim (45 min) 6 mile run (45 min)
Saturday - 4 mile run (30 min)
Sunday - 36 mile bike (2 hours) 8.5 mile run (1 hour)
Total - Swim: 2.75 hours Bike: 6.75 hours Run: 4.5 hours (14 hours)

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Best Man

I wrote last week that distance running is more about participation than spectating.  There are many reasons for that.  For one, whoever the favorite is coming into a marathon usually wins.  Many times the winner breaks away with 20-30 minutes left in the race.  There's also the fact that there are very few distance runners who are on top long enough to be well known.  Even though it's my sport I sometimes find myself not knowing many of the top runners.

Coming into today it felt like it would be even more about the masses.  As it should have been, the focus was on the bombings from last year.  They allowed an extra 9,000 people into the race this year - many of whom were not able to finish last year.  I had many friends who, although not in their best shape, decided to race anyways because of the importance of this year.

The last American to win Boston was Greg Meyer in 1983.  Greg is from my home state of Michigan.  I actually got to know him a little bit when he was working with my mom - raising money for the University of Michigan.  He even gave me an old couch of his when I moved into a new apartment.  And he gave me an "interview" for this blog when I was training for Boston five years ago.

As most people know - Kenya and Ethiopia have come to dominate distance running in the last 30 years.  Of the last 23 years Kenyans have won 20 Boston Marathons.  It's been a sore subject for many American runners and coaches.  Americans used to be among the best runners.  With his gold medal in 1972, Frank Shorter ushered in the American running boom.  New York didn't even have a marathon until the mid-70's.

The fact that running was becoming more popular with the masses in the late 70's and early 80's seemed to make it even more difficult for the people in charge of the sport to handle that Americans couldn't win our greatest races.  There has been talk about only giving prize money to Americans - a pretty anti-American idea in my opinion.  In the last 10 years that has turned around somewhat.  Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein, Galen Rupp, Jenny Simpson etc have all had success on the world stage.

The American who really led this charge was Meb Keflezighi.  Meb outperformed expectations to get a Silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the marathon.  It was the first marathon medal for the US since Frank Shorter.  More impressive than his running career has been his story.  He and his family immigrated to the US when he was 12 years old from Eritrea.  His family story is truly the American dream.  Many of his eight siblings are doctors, lawyers, and professors.  His parents pushed their children to make the most of the opportunities they had in the US.

Meb has always been one of my favorite runners.  He is confident and yet humble.  He has overcome many injuries and setbacks.  His sponsor Nike dropped him several years ago when it looked like his career was close to being over.  No other major shoe company would pick him up - he ended up being signed for Skechers.  The entire running community felt pity for the once great runner.  How could Meb be sponsored by a shoe company that seemed to belong more on the feet of a shuffle board player than a marathoner?

But he didn't give up.  He redoubled his efforts training and won New York in 2009.  He somehow came out with a 4th place finish at the London Olympics.  There was one thing about Meb - he performs on the big stage.  More importantly - he has passion for what he does.  He hasn't let the ups and downs of a long professional career jade him.  Watch an interview from last November after the New York marathon.


A few months before New York Meb found out he had a partially torn soleus muscle.  He cross trained to maintain his aerobic fitness - but his legs weren't strong enough on race day.  Most pro's who have a bad day in the marathon simply walk off the course and wait for the sag wagon to take them back to the finish.  Why put more stress on your body than you need to when it's not your day?  But Meb doesn't think that way. 

Usually the best runner wins a marathon.  Today the best man won.

 
 
 
AP photo of Meb after the American national anthem played for the Boston marathon champ for the first time in 31 years.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Finish Line

Running is an odd sport in many ways.  The best runners are not famous or rich like in other sports.  It's a sport of participation rather than spectating.  To me - the main thing that differentiates running from most other sports is the finish line.

This is especially true at a major marathon like Boston or New York.  The sense of elation and victory doesn't end when the winner crosses the finish line.  It continues for hours.  Remember the Christian Laettner shot from 20 years ago?  Now imagine that wasn't the end of the game.  Imagine that everybody got to come down from the stands and try their own shot - except that everybody kept making the shot - for hours on end.  That's the kind of energy that exists at a finish line of a major marathon or an Ironman.

I think that's why the bombing last year was such a punch in the gut for so many of us who have run a marathon.  A finish line is in many ways a sacred place.  It's like bombing a church or synagogue.  It's incomprehensible to most of us.  We all feel pain - but we have a choice of what we can do with that pain.  We can lash out at the world.  We can even try to destroy the world.  Or we can try to make something beautiful.  We can reach other to others.  We can show the world that pain can be overcome.  The beauty of humanity is when we are able to take pain and loss and turn it into victory. 

Here is the story of one such person - Jon Blais or Blazeman.  Watch the video below - it tells his story.  Of course we should remember the victims today - but we should also think about the beauty of the finish line - and that nobody can take away that beauty.



Here are the two poems he wrote that are in the video.

"It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love – for your dreams – for the adventure of being alive.
I want to know if you can live with failure – yours and mine – and still shout at the edges of a lake, river, or mountain – “Yes! I am a warrior poet!”
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know whether you can get up after a night of grief and despair – weary and bruised to the bone – and do what needs to be done for someone you love.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and truly like the company you keep in the empty moments of your life.
And still remember me – Blazeman – ALS warrior poet"

"Live - more than your neighbors.
Unleash yourself upon the world and go places.
Go now - giggle - go - laugh - and bark at the moon like the wild dog that you are.
Understand this is not a dress rehearsal.  This is it - your life.
Face your fears and live your dreams.
Take it all in - yes, every chance you get.
Come close - and by all means - whatever you do - get it on film."

Jon Blais (August 30, 1971 - May 27, 2007)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Schopenhauer and Sports as Performance Art


"If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing. But as it is, we take no delight in existence except when we are struggling for something; and then distance and difficulties to be overcome make our goal look as though it would satisfy us." - Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer was a 19th century German philosopher.  His best known work is called "The World as Will and Representation."  In it he states that the basic human desire is not only the basis of ourselves - but of the world in general.  This desire or "Will" is not rational and therefore the world is not rational.  Our own desires are the root of our pain - because we rarely fully obtain that which we desire - and even when we do "every satisfaction lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will."

The conundrum of life is that our desires lead to pain, or if attained, simply to new desires - and yet the answer is not to have no desires - because then life would be meaningless.  For Schopenhauer the best we can do is to lower our expectations for how we will feel when we've accomplished what we desire.  We also have to understand that life is made up of the actions we take to realize our goals - rather than the attainment of those goals - which can feel empty and embarrassingly vain once we attain them.

The other important concept in Schopenhauer's writings are related to the difference between the thing in itself and a representation of that thing.  This is an idea that comes from Plato - with his allegory of the cave.  Schopenhauer thought that music and visual art are important because they allow us to experience a concept (love, loss, joy etc) in a more abstract way then how we experience them in real life.  In art (aka aesthetic contemplation) we no longer simply perceive a thing - but we become immersed in that thing to such an extent that the perceiver and perception become one.  In that moment of aesthetic contemplation, we are actually released from the pain of desire.

He thought that the Dutch still life paintings were some of the greatest art - because they focused on the beauty of everyday objects.  Sports are, in a way, also a representation of concepts that are deeply human.  Competition, physical prowess, determination, struggle - all of these very human concepts are in play with sports.  Many times people ridicule sports "fanatics" because they seem to care about something so deeply that "doesn't really matter."  I think Schopenhauer would say that's the point.  I can't sit in the chair in Van Gogh's painting of his room at Arles - I can't sleep it its bed.  But I can get a sense of the coziness of such a room - and what it would feel like to be in it.


Sports allow us to feel real struggle - without it being a true life or death situation.  Yesterday I ran 17 miles in some miserable weather.  It was in the mid-40's, raining, and windy.  At first it wasn't too bad - but about half-way through it started pouring.  I was soaked to the bone - my legs started to go numb at one point.  And yet I was happy with myself.  I didn't see one other runner the entire 17 miles - Kendra said "Well that's because you were crazy to be running out in that weather!"  She's probably right - but I think why it made me happy is that I got to feel as if I was overcoming some great obstacle for some higher purpose.  That purpose probably doesn't really mean anything to anybody other than me - but that's exactly why it matters.  That run was a struggle - but it was more an aesthetic contemplation of Struggle - and therefore it allowed me to detach from the things in this world that cause me actual suffering.  In running I get to a place that, as Schopenhauer would say, is "pure, will-less, and timeless."  I think if you ask any artist - that's exactly the place that they attempt to obtain when they perform.

Here was my training from last week:

Monday -  4 mile run (30 minutes)
 Tuesday - Morning: 1500y swim (30 minutes)
Afternoon: 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Thursday - 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Friday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Saturday -  56 mile bike (3 hours) followed by 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Sunday - 17 mile run (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 2.5 hours Bike: 5 hours Run: 5 hours (12.5 hours)
   

Monday, April 7, 2014

Who Shows Up


The above picture is of Dick Beardsley (leading the race) and Alberto Salazar in the 1982 Boston marathon.  The book "Duel in the Sun" describes this epic race along with their training - and how their lives were changed afterwards.  The two men ran within a few feet of each other for the entire last 10 miles of the race.  Look up the race on youtube - it is incredibly exciting.  Beardsley was the underdog - but he had focused all of his training on winning Boston.  Salazar was the better runner - but he may have been a little overconfident - as he had raced against the great Henry Rono in a 10k the previous weekend. 

Salazar ended up winning - although he was so severely dehydrated that he was taken to a hospital and given six liters of water intravenously.  His career started a slow and steady decline after this race.  Dick Beardsley never ran as fast either.  Ten years later Beardsley was convicted of forging prescriptions because of a drug habit.

On Saturday I ran a very different race "in the sun."  It was called Run the Runway - a 10k at the Scottsdale airport.  I actually ended up winning the race.  I was happy with my time - but it certainly wasn't fast enough to win most races.  It was a new race and there was no prize money - so none of the local hot shots showed up.

Don't get me wrong - winning a race is still a lot of fun.  And I understand that most people don't ever get to experience what it feels like winning a race.  But it really is mostly about who shows up.  This isn't false modesty - but merely from the experience of getting my butt kicked many more times than I've kicked butt.

The experience started to make me think about how winning is a lot of fun - but that it doesn't really teach us much about ourselves.  If I won every race - how would I ever grow or get better?  It would actually make racing very dull.  Running is after all just about putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible.  If it weren't for the unknown of competition - it wouldn't be worth doing.

The truth is that most distance races, from the Olympics to your local 5k, actually are pretty boring.  There is usually one person who is simply much better than the other runners.  And with distance running - there is no subjectivity - so, the person who is in better shape usually pulls away - unless they make some terrible error in judgment.

The same is true in life.  Whether you are competing for a job or really anything - most times there really is someone who is "best for the job."  Many times we focus on a direction in our lives and then, like a pool ball heading for a pocket, get knocked a different direction by something or someone completely out of nowhere.  In our lives it's also about who shows up. 

We all come to a point where we have to decide whether to view getting knocked sideways as a detour to our ultimate destination, or as a sign from the universe that we need to go a different direction entirely.  This is both what makes life frustrating and interesting.  We are not in complete control of our destiny.  The world has plans for us that we can not possibly predict or even prepare for.

What makes the "duel in the sun" a great race is that both men were so determined to not let the other get in the way of their dream that they put themselves into great peril - and eventually harmed their bodies to the point that they were never the same runners.  But to admit defeat wasn't possible for either of them at the time.  Their struggle that day turned into over a decade of internal struggle for both men.  Salazar is now America's most successful distance running coach.  Beardsley is a motivational speaker and helps others to overcome their addictions.

For me, the lesson to all of this is that pain is the only real teacher.  Every time that we have a difficult experience we need to ask ourselves - what is it that I've learned?  Usually we get caught up in asking the universe "why"?  The answer is usually - "because you can't help others until you've experienced what it means to really struggle."  And in my opinion - that is what we're on this earth to do - help each other to thrive in what is often a cold and lonely world.

We often play the if only this happened (or didn't happen) I would be happy "game."  It is a waste of time.  Our lives played out the only way they could have.  Usually when we play the "if only" game - it's because we have knowledge now that we didn't have at the time that we made a mistake.  We blame ourselves for not knowing something that we could only know because we've had that experience.  In the end we have to learn to be thankful for every experience and person who we've encountered - and although it's hard - be even more thankful for the people and experiences that brought us pain in our lives.  Because they taught us something we needed to learn in order to become who we were destined to be.

Monday -  3000y swim (1 hour)
 Tuesday - 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Thursday - 9 mile run (1 hour)
Friday - 30 mile bike (2 hours)
Saturday -  11 mile run - including 34:11 10k (1.25 hours)
Sunday - 4km swim (1.25 hours)
Total - Swim: 3.25 hours Bike: 4 hours Run: 3 hours (10.25 hours)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Balancing Passion and Control


"If you want to win anything - a race, yourself, your life - you have to go a little berserk." - Dr. George Sheehan

A friend of mine posted a truncated version of the above quote on Facebook and attributed it to the famous marathoner Bill Rodgers.  I did a little searching and found that it was originally a quote from Dr. George Sheehan.  He was one of the greatest writers about the spirit of running. 

I was reminded last weekend about how natural the impulse is to run.  I was in Michigan visiting family.  After dinner my 2 1/2 year old nephew Ryan said, "Let's go run!"  All of us adults took turns running around a pool table with Ryan and his four year old brother Trevor.  It was amazing how much joy they took from that simple act.

When children start competing, especially at longer distances, they start learning that the strategy of simply running as hard as you can until you fall down doesn't work very well.  Even in high school many runners have the tendency to go out too hard in races.  It's always fun to run a race against a bunch of teenagers - usually they go out hard - and you get to spend most of the race passing them back as they fade.

Most of the world records have been set with even pacing or even negative splits (second half faster than the first half of the race).  The ability to control yourself at the beginning of the race becomes very important in being successful at the collegiate level and beyond.  But you also need to know when to strike. 

The same is true even in training.  The best training plan is the one that is focused on being at peak condition at exactly the right time.  Usually this means planning out training for 4-6 months out.  You don't want to train too much too early - or else you'll peak too early.  This is a common mistake for age-groupers.  They think that more is better and end up being in their best shape in August instead of when their race is in October.

Like with many pursuits - being successful in running or triathlon is about taking that initial passion and corralling it a little bit.  But you can't be so controlled that you stifle your passion or training can become very boring.

I like to mix in an unplanned race or two if I feel like my training is getting a little stale.  Next week Kendra and I will be in Phoenix.  We're going to run a 10k on Saturday and swim in an open water event on Sunday.  The 10k isn't all that important of a race - but it will give me a chance to stretch my legs a bit and maybe even compete.  It keeps things fun - especially when I still have a month before my half in Lincoln.

Training this week went pretty well.  I attended my first ever masters swim session.  And I had a pretty strong weekend of training - with a 17 miler on Saturday and 56 mile bike ride on Sunday followed by a four mile run.

Monday -  3000y swim (1 hour)
 Tuesday - 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Thursday - 9 mile run (1 hour)
Friday - 3000y swim (1 hour)  4 mile run (30 min)
Saturday -  17 mile run (2 hours)
Sunday - 56 mile bike ride (3 hours) followed by 4 mile run (30 min)
Total - Swim: 3 hours Bike: 5 hours Run: 4.5 hours (12.5 hours)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Time


"I like to tell people, I don't know exactly what time is - but I can tell them exactly what a second is.  A second is 9,192,631,770 periods of oscillation of an undisturbed cesium atom.  And time?  Well, my definition of time is that it's a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.  But that is a circular definition." - Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, Chief Scientist of the U.S. Naval Observatory's Time Services.  Responsible for keeping time for the world.

Running is all about time.  Most runners get obsessed about time.  They time themselves every day - even though they may have run the same route hundreds of times.  GPS watches have made this obsession even worse with some people.  They glance down at their watch every minute or two to make sure they are running the right pace.  I have rebelled against this a bit.  I almost never use my stop watch unless I'm running an unfamiliar route and I don't know the distance.  Although I do use my watch in the pool and I always use my GPS on my bike - so, I guess I'm only one for three in my rebelliousness against obsessing over time.

Life is to a certain extent all about time as well.  We are defined, if not by our age, then by what period of life we're in.  I can remember how unfair it felt as a child that adults didn't take me seriously just because I happened to be young.  The thoughts that keep us up at night many times are related to time.  "I need to get up early tomorrow morning."  "What's my schedule this week?"  This might seem like an obvious or banal observation - but it is interesting how hard it is to define something which is so central to our experience.

I thought about Dr. Matsakis' definition of time.  Isn't a second really about how we divide up one rotation of earth?  If somehow the earth started spinning slower or faster than wouldn't his definition of a second need to change as well?  But time isn't just about the rotation of the earth - it's also about how long it takes for the earth to rotate around the sun.  There aren't exactly 365 days in a year - which is why we need an extra day every four years.

Dr. Matsakis also talked about the problem of keeping good time the more sensitive his instruments become.  He says that at a certain point of sensitivity that Einstein's theory of relativity states that two clocks kept at different elevations will actually differ slightly in how long a second takes.

Today I ran with my friends in Ann Arbor.  Todd Snyder - who I ran with in high school; Ian Forsythe - the Canadian national record holder for masters (over 40 years old) 10k; and Nick Stanko - another Michigan grad who was pretty close to an Olympic caliber athlete.

Both Todd and Nick are not training much these days - but they still can probably run faster than me if we were in a race.  Ian is training for Boston - where he hopes to run under 2:20.  He ran 2:23 at Chicago last year.  Pretty amazing for a 41 year old.  He is proof that age really can be just a number.  If you are able to keep the passion for training and competition it's incredible what you can accomplish.  Of course he's very talented as well.  His accomplishments were so impressive in high school that his teammates gave him the nickname "The King."

This is not to say that we don't all feel our age in some ways.  I certainly will never get anywhere close to my times for 5k or 10k that I ran in college.  I probably will never beat my PR for a half-marathon or even for a marathon.  I guess that's why I keep finding new challenges.  I escape the inevitable long slow march to slowness by trying something new.

Our experience of time is marked by gaining and losing.  We experience loss our entire lives - even as children we experience loss.  But seeing some of my older relatives this weekend I realized that there is a certain age where it must feel like you only experience loss.  You lose friends and family - you lose the ability to function physically - you lose cognitive skills.  There is a reason why people of a certain age seem to live in the past.  The present is so painful and full of loss - wouldn't anybody want to focus on a time in your life when everything was possible?  When you could still call up a friend or sibling who has since passed away - when you had a successful career - or when your house was full of youngsters - the first time you fell in love - Christmas with your siblings as a child. 

I point this out not to be depressing - but to remind those of us who are still "young" that we won't always be this way.  We must take advantage of our abilities - because eventually we will lose them.  We must tell our friends and family how much we care about them - because eventually they won't be around.  We must be courageous enough to at least attempt to fulfill our dreams - because what is possible now won't always be possible.  Time will strip us of everything.  So, be bold - live life fully.

The slavish way in which we must focus on the present sometimes means we don't have the proper perspective to be courageous enough to live life fully.  A friend recently showed me this quote from Mark Helprin.  I've gone back and forth about whether fate exists or not.  Helprin apparently believes it does exist.  That time is merely how we experience reality.  This quote is from his book "Winter's Tale."

“Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishing frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one is certain.

And yet, there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined, it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given - so we track it, in linear fashion piece by piece. Time however can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was is; everything that ever will be is - and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we image that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but something that is.”  

How much "time" I spent training this week:

Monday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
 Tuesday - 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 9 mile run (1 hour)
Thursday - 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Friday - 4 mile run (30 min)
Saturday -  10 mile progression workout (a little over one hour)
Sunday - 17 miles (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 2 hours Bike: 2 hours Run: 5.25 hours (9.25 hours)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Another year closer to death


Just kidding - kind of.  Remember when you're a kid and you can't wait to get older?  It even extends into your twenties as people seem to take you less seriously only because you're young.  That feeling ends in your mid-thirties - of which I am coming to the end (I turned 37 today).

Don't get me wrong - I have nothing to complain about.  I'm healthy - I don't have any physical limitations.  Age might be just a number - but that number can feel a little scary.  It's hard not to think that forty is just around the corner - then fifty - yikes!  The other disturbing part of getting older is that the time seems to go past even faster.  It's like when you're driving to work in the morning and you can't remember driving there.  I kind of think that way about my mid-thirties.  It feels like I was 32 just yesterday - and yet that was five years ago.

Ok - enough feeling sorry for myself.  I'm going to do something I haven't done on here in awhile.  Write about my training.  Here is what I did over the last week.

Monday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Tuesday - Day off
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 min)
Thursday - 47 mile bike (2.5 hours)
Friday - Morning 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 4 mile run (30 min)
Saturday - 10 miles 3X2 miles w/ 2 min rest (11:08; 11:09; 11:20) (a little over 1 hour)
Sunday - 17 miles (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 3 hours Bike: 4.5 hours Run: 4.25 hours (11.75 hours)

It's a pretty good week for mid-March.  If I was only training for a triathlon than I would put more time into the bike and less into running (probably 6 hours on the bike and only 3 on the run).  But I am focusing on running a good half-marathon at Lincoln in early May. 

I was very happy with my 3X2 mile workout yesterday.  I think I've got a decent shot at a sub 1:15 for the Lincoln half.  I felt pretty strong on my long run today as well.

Ok - time for this old man to rest.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My first published story

A photo I took in 2002 on a train entering Venice.
I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain today when I started thinking about my own trips to Europe.  My mother's brother moved to France in his early twenties to attend law school at the Sorbonne in Paris.  He ended up marrying a French woman and had three children.  So, I have three French cousins.  Therefore I was lucky enough to experience France in a very intimate way at a young age.  I was nine the first time we went - I then went on a longer trip when I was 16.  After undergrad I went on a seven week Eurail trip.  And then in grad school I spent 5 1/2 months in Germany - traveling all over. 

There was even a time when I thought that I wanted to be a travel writer.  After returning to the U.S. I found out about someone who was looking for travel stories from Europe to publish in a book.  I sent one in about a train trip from Munich to Venice.  To my surprise it actually was published.  I even did a little publicity for it at a book festival in Ann Arbor.  Here it is reprinted.  It's a little over the top - but oh well - I guess I'm kind of an over the top type of guy.  You can find the entire book at http://books.google.com/books?id=X4etXqhSQ_cC&pg=PA9&lpg=PA9&dq=anticipation+ben+ingram&source=bl&ots=uhojoNEO8G&sig=8ZrdWD2YnDiogdQThShTETokJiw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0JIfU56tCcq8yAHZhoCADg&ved=0CF8Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=anticipation%20ben%20ingram&f=false

Anticipation
 
Somewhere between Munich and Venice
 
Looking out the train window, I saw the first faint glow of morning light.  It was a light long in coming to one who hadn’t slept all night; a dawning that made me feel as though something had been both accomplished and lost.
I was sitting on a padded seat that folded down from the corridor wall of the train.  I hadn’t slept since Verona.  There were six of us traveling together, and, as we planned the trip at the last minute, two had to find seats elsewhere.
After crossing the Austrian border into Italy, the porter had taken a look at our passports and tickets, and told the four of us who were together that we needed to get on a different train to Verona.  We tried to text the other two while simultaneously finding out which train we needed to get on.  When that didn’t work, we tried the old-fashioned way: opening up compartments, rousing people from their sleep, and being scolded in several tongues.  At this point we could see why Shakespeare set his greatest tragedy in this fair city.  What could we do?  The only possibility was that we had missed them while searching the train.
With only minutes before our train left for Venice, we gave up on our friends.  It may seem harsh, but it was four in the morning, and we had tried our best.  They had a train pass and modern communication.  We would eventually meet up with them.
As we boarded our new train, downtrodden and beaten, a familiar face popped out of a compartment.
“Did you just try to text me?” our friend asked, yawning and rubbing her eyes.  We all looked at each other.  How did she end up on the right train without waking up?  Soon one of us remembered that, like discontented lovers, trains in Europe often split during the night.
There were only two empty seats in the compartment, so I volunteered myself and my girlfriend to sit in the hallway.  I have to confess it wasn’t pure altruism on my part.  We were still new to each other, and I had convinced her to come with us less than 48 hours before our departure.
Most of us were exchange students in Germany, taking advantage of a break between a language class and the start of the semester.  We had stumbled onto the night train after spending the day in a certain southern German city, at that most famous of beer fests.  We decided to take the night train from Munich to Venice after being told there was no way we would find a room during Oktoberfest.  The trick was to drink enough Oktoberfest brew so that a seat on the train was “sleepable” (all the sleeping cars were taken), while not drinking too much to forget about the train.
After the singing and dancing and uncontrolled festivities, I wanted to be alone with my new girlfriend, even if it cost me a little comfort and sleep.  She lay with her head in my lap, and I stroked her hair as I looked out into the darkness.
I have found that travel is at times most enjoyable during the periods of anticipation and memory.  At that moment my head was filled with both.  I thought back to my first visit to Venice, during a seven-week Eurail trip three years earlier.  I traveled mostly with a friend from high school and his girlfriend.  For the Italy portion they had wanted to be alone to appreciate the full romance of the place.  Therefore, I had spent my time in Venice with a friendly guy from Ohio.
As the Italian countryside whisked by our train, I decided that we should find the hostel where I had stayed then.  It wasn’t that impressive, but it was memorable.  We stayed in a large room full of bunk beds.  As we rested in the warm afternoon, a cool breeze and singing of gondoliers floated through the window.
Although Italy had impressed me enough to want to come back, I thought it would be much more powerful when romance was involved, no offense to the guy from Ohio.
To be in Venice is to be lost.  In my book, staying near the train station or taking the water taxi to the San Marco Piazza should be considered poor style.  Every traveler in Venice should have the experience of making a turn that they are certain leads to their destination, only to find the Grand Canal in front of them with no recognizable landmarks in sight.
As I was daydreaming I realized that we were now surrounded by water, which meant we were very close to Venice.  As the sun rose, a golden, shimmering band of light streaked across the lagoon toward the train.  I felt I should go wake the others, but I wanted to appreciate the moment, quiet and peaceful as it was.
Soon they would be up.  Soon we would get to the station.  Soon we would put our packs on our backs, making sure we didn’t leave anything important.  Soon we would climb down the stairs onto the platform, feeling slightly uncomfortable in our public display of grubbiness.  We would try to orient ourselves.  Our lives would soon be about direction and priorities.  “Does anybody need a bathroom?  Something to drink? Eat?” someone would say.  “Let’s just find our hostel first,” another would plead.
But for that moment I wanted to sit and fully appreciate the smell of the sea, the feeling of the chill wind coming through the window, and the anticipation of arriving at a city that has captured the imagination of people for centuries.


Friday, March 7, 2014

The Myth of a Virtual World


Being born in 1977 has given me a unique view of the incredible technology changes in the last 30+ years.  Up until I was in 3rd or 4th grade we had one 14-inch black and white TV with no cable.  I remember visiting some relatives on a trip.  They had the game "Pong" - I remember thinking it was pretty cool.  My first video game system was an Atari 2600 - pretty much the first gaming system ever.

I could go on and on (I didn't have e-mail until I was in college - I didn't have a cell phone until I was in grad school).  So when people hyperventilate about how facebook, twitter, and the internet are dehumanizing everybody and destroying the world - I can remember what it was like before we had any of it.

The Matrix is one of my favorite movies, but it is a great example about how we can exaggerate the problems of the new technological world.  It's a dystopian view of a future where humans have become an energy supply for computers.  As with most dystopian stories it's more about the present than the future.  It was one of many movies during that era that included pale skinned "hackers" who did nothing but sit behind a computer all day.  The main anxiety expressed by theses movies, The Matrix in particular, was that humans would choose to live in a virtual world rather than the "real world."  The revolution depicted in The Matrix movies is really about humans reasserting that "the real" is preferred to "the virtual" even though ironically the humans have to master an incredible amount of technology in order to be victorious.

Why am I confident that we don't need to worry that we'll ever choose "the virtual" over "the real"?  My wife happens to work in the industry of live performances, which given the advances in HD TV and surround sound should have gone the way of the dinosaurs.  But her organization does fairly well - even in the middle of the country.  If you look at Broadway - the trends are even more astounding.  The Book of Mormon has eight performances a week - but if you want a ticket you're looking at a 4-6 month wait.

Running and multi-sport event participation growth has been explosive - even through the recession.  Many of us complain about the crazy cost of races - or how we have to log on to our computers to register for a race in the first five minutes it's open in order to get in.  Road races have somehow become as popular as rock concerts.  Even though that fact is a little disturbing to many of us who just "want to race" without all the insanity - I think it's an overall positive for our society.  We are choosing the real over the virtual.  I think we're realizing that as great as computers are there are some things they just can't simulate. 

Humans interact - it's what we do.  All of these technological advancements help us to interact.  If they don't help us build real connections with other people than they will most likely go away.  If they don't lead to us looking into the eyes of another human - leading us to shaking a hand - or maybe even a hug - these technologies are just instruments.  They are not evil or good on their own - it's all how we use them.

So when I see people giving up facebook for Lent - I kind of laugh.  Why give up interactions with others?  Yes, many people are annoying - but you can just choose to ignore them.  Why push away all of humanity?  You might miss something important.  You might miss the opportunity to make a real connection with another human being, which in the end, may be the only thing that really matters.