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


"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

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.