I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is It Over Yet?

…and by “it” I mean the bitter winter, and by “over” I mean the end of damp, 20 degree days with a 15 mph headwind.

I think I am, officially, completely demoralized by the winter weather. It just isn’t fun. I have survived previous winters. I remember last year wasn’t great, but this year has been downright unpleasant.

I went out late this afternoon to go for a 16-miler. Not many places to go for a full 16 here in the city, so I headed to the lakefront. I got out of the car and regretted it. The flags nearby were starched, being blown by a constant, driving wind. They didn’t droop at all, just rippled and shuddered, perpendicular to their poles.

So, which way to run? I was at the north end of the trail already. I’d planned to do 8 miles south, but that would send me back into the teeth of the wind for the second half. Could have maybe driven to the south end to do the reverse, but that would’ve taken me 20 or 30 minutes to drive down and try to find somewhere to park. I might have driven inland to the North Branch River Trail, but that, too, would’ve required a block of travel time, and that trail wouldn’t be lit after the sun went down in 45 minutes.

I was screwed.

I went back to the car, pulled on my balaclava, and seriously debated whether or not I was gonna make this run. Eventually, I allowed my hatred for the weather to be outweighed by my fear of becoming someone who ditches on their runs like a wimp – but I grabbed a twenty from my wallet so I could pay to get myself home a different way, if necessary.

I did okay the first 6 miles, but it was astonishing how slowly the time went by. It got worse when it got dark. Then I made the regrettable discovery that several long sections of the path were so iced over and torn up that they were basically unrunnable. The piece around the Drake Hotel Curve often falls victim to ice and snow because the lake washes up on the cement there so easily, but the section that runs a full mile north of the curve, all the way up to the little Chess Players Pavilion, was also coated in a thick sheet of ice. Everywhere, large chunks of pavement had been blown loose and strewn about. It kind of looked like the planet Hoth after the Empire had made its way into town. I've never seen it that bad through there before.

Then I got down to the Museum/Soldier Field Campus only to discover that a large section of the path is still closed for the repairs and construction that have been going on for months and months already. That was kind of the last straw. I was tired of the cold. I was tired of the wind. I was tired of the ice. I was tired of the detours. I’d done 8 miles and it felt like I’d been out there for 2 hours.

I walked over to the Field Museum, hailed a taxi and had him deliver me back to my car. I was a little annoyed that the trip cost me my whole $20 (with the tip), but at least it was all over.

I think I could handle the cold air if it wasn’t accompanied so often this season by the brutal, constant winds. And the ice – well, I want to be Brian Sell, not Brian Boitano.

I know I'm venting, but I think I’m ready for the real, actual Spring to arrive, now. Please?

Post Script:
It's now the morning following this post, and Old Man Winter has responded with 22 degrees, 17 mph wind gusts and an inch of fresh lake-effect snow blowing in from the Northeast. Ugh. Right back attcha, big guy! The forecast does promise temps in the 50s by Friday.

Monday, February 23, 2009

This'll Make Alex Trebek Proud

Okay: serious question. Really, I’m serious about this. I want to know. Because it’s a question of etiquette and procedure - and perhaps even metaphysics - that could be on a par with any other threat to the very fabric of the time/space continuum. I need to poll the running world at large (well, at least the four of your that occasionally read this blog). This post is partly inspired by today's post by my blog/ultra buddy, Chris, but it’s a topic that’s been floating around my brain for some time and continues to gurgle up to the surface. So…

How do you rank yourself in the standings of a race? Would you count your finish time among everyone else who finished? Or would you count yourself among everyone who started?

Don’t most race directors flip-flop between those two options? Haven’t you seen some race results list all the “Did Not Finish”s (and even the “Did Not Start”s), and others listing only the finishers? Haven’t you also seen results that even list the distance at which each DNF was recorded? How are we supposed to consider the “finish place” of ourselves and those DNFs?

I mean, if you are the last finisher of a race, then you finished in last place, right? Ah, but what if some of the runners who started the race took a DNF? Didn’t the guy who was the last finisher actually beat all the DNF’ers in the race? Doesn’t that mean that he didn’t actually finish in last place, since he “beat” some other folks who weren’t even able (for whatever noble reason) to finish at all?

If that’s the case, then what if you have a race where a number of people (at least, more than one) log a DNF? Does that mean they all get a “tie” for last place? But what if one person dropped out after 10 miles and another didn’t drop until after 30? Shouldn’t the 30 Mile Guy be “placed” ahead of the 10 Mile Guy? What if they both dropped after 30 miles, but the first guy got to 30 miles in 5 hours and the second guy didn’t get there until 8 hours? How should those guys be “placed”?

What if both guys dropped at 30 miles, and both guys got there in 6 hours, but one of them had a broken foot and the other one didn’t?

Is it just me, or are these questions unanswerable? And is it not possible to assume that any race with more than one DNF in it would become a race with no identifiable “Last Place” finisher? Does that mean we’re all "winners" if we ran that race, being that everyone of us would theoretically have "beaten" someone else?

Shall we not, then, offer a glorious “Thank You” to all the people who drop from a race, as they make all of us champions?

No? Yes?
Does any of this matter?

No! Really! I’m serious!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Forecasting 2009

I’ve been having a hard time nailing down my running goals for 2009. I guess that should be obvious, since it’s practically March already and my “Upcoming Races” list at the top of the page still has little more than an 8K and a bunch of question marks.

There are excuses and actual reasons for that.

A big thing is that my work schedule for the year looks like it’s going to be very full. I’m self-employed and do a lot of short-term, freelance kind of work. Luckily, my calendar has filled up nicely for the year. I’m not getting rich or anything, but the income should be steady, and given the state of things in the world nowadays, I consider my self very fortunate to be able to say that.

But the job requires my physical, hands-on presence, and that means less free time to travel and run marathons and ultras. I’ve already had to cross the Clinton Lake 30, the McNaughton Park 50 (or 100), and the Georgia Marathon off my list for the year, just because of scheduling conflicts. Those are all races I’ve run and enjoyed the last couple of years.

The other big factor has been a general concern that I might have been burning myself out just a tad last year on all the long distance races. I had two bright spots last year with my finish times: I pushed through and broke 4 hours in the marathon for the first time in Madison, Wisconsin on Memorial Day; and I improved my time at the Farmdale 33-miler in October, even though I missed a turn and added a mile or so to my race. Other than that, however, my finish time in every other distance race I ran was markedly slower than in previous years. I just rarely felt like I was able to give a race my very best effort.

I did have a bit of illness and injury to deal with last year, and that affected my performance, especially in the first half of the year, but by December, I started to wonder if maybe I wasn’t just a little burned out. Scaling back in 2009 didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

But am I whimping out? Am I just going soft? Am I slacking off? I don’t know, maybe.

But I know this is true: I really think I have a 3:45 marathon in me somewhere. I’m turning 35 this summer, so, theoretically, I’ll only be getting slower from here on out. If I scale back the quantity of races, I run, and focus on the quality of just one or two of them, I can take a shot at clocking a flat, road marathon in something under 3:50. There’s a new marathon being hosted 45 miles away in Kenosha, Wisconsin in May and, of course, Chicago in October once again. Both are flat courses. Both are close enough to home that they wouldn’t interrupt my work schedule. And both races are five months apart.

However, I also haven’t given up this idea of finishing my first 100-mile. I know this is silly, but I really want me a shiny 100-mile finisher Belt Buckle Award to keep my pants up. The Burning River 100 is run between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio in early August. It’s only about 7 hours away, and I might be able to sneak away for that weekend, long enough to take a crack at it. Unlike my 2 marathons this year, I would go into it with NO time goals. I’d simply be aiming to make each aid station and the finish line before the cutoff times. We’ll see.

I haven’t even signed up for all of these races yet, but it seems like a good plan from where I’m sitting today. If I can clock a strong improvement in the marathon, and maybe bring home that 100-mile belt buckle, then when the year is done, I’ll be able to say I made the right decision.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Moral Judgment of the Sidewalk Pedestrian

I’m going to muddle my genre a little today. And in honor of Peter King, I’ll place it under the heading of "Curious Things That May Interest Only Me" - As if this whole blog didn't fall into that catagory...
I live in a city, and as such, I run in a city. There are excellent parks and paths where I often do my running, but inevitably, I find myself running in a risky and unpredictable locale: The Sidewalk.

Why are sidewalks risky? Why are they unpredictable? Why do they so often drive me to the point that I willfully choose to run in the street where two-ton constructs of plastic and steel come motoring ignorantly toward me? Why? Because on the sidewalk, there are other people.

Your mind may now be casting toward the most famous quote of a particular French existentialist and playwright, but mine has strayed, instead, to an even more esoteric historic figure…

Jean Piaget (pronounced: Pee-ah-jay, with a soft “j”) was a
Swiss philosopher and natural scientist, well known for his work studying children and his theory of cognitive development. In 1932, he published “The Moral Judgment of the Child”, in which he studied the development of a child’s sense of what is “moral”, “just”, and “right”, in large part, by observing children as they played marbles together in a school yard. He considered it a natural environment when he could observe and interview his subjects even though they would not know they were being studied.

So, you see, I don't want to be a whiney-butt. I don't want to rant about the annoying habits of other people. They are, after all, people. And surely they mean well. Their point of view must be considered.

Luckily, it is my opinion that the encounter of Fitness Runner and Walker on a sidewalk provides a neutral environment for study, similar to the one Piaget took advantage of. I believe that the Walker tends to respond to the unexpected presence of a Runner in an honest and unedited way. I am, therefore, inspired by Piaget’s example as I try to briefly evaluate the moral behavior of the Side-Walker in relation to the Everyday Runner. (I may have forgotten a few of the basic rules of proper scientific evaluation – but that’s why I host a blog instead of a laboratory.)

Here goes…

SCENARIO ONE: One Runner, running toward one Walker, moving in opposite directions.

Observed Result: Though the common reaction of the walker is to move to their right, allowing the runner more room to pass, there are also occasion when the walker persists on the same forward trajectory, requiring the runner to swerve around as they pass.

Conclusions Drawn: The dynamics are, perhaps, affected not so much by spatial relationships as by social ones. Not unlike chickens in the hen coop, a pecking order is quickly and instinctively established. A walker who feels equal or inferior to the approaching runner may be likely to give way. Occasionally the walker may determine that they are, in some way, the superior, or perhaps they choose to challenge the runner to establish that superiority. These persons are less likely to give way.

SCENARIO TWO: One Runner, running toward two Walkers, each group moving in opposite directions.

Observed Result: The two Walkers will commonly remain shoulder to shoulder and side by side until the very last moment, even though they have both seen and made eye-contact with the approaching Runner, at which time, the Walker closest to the Runners path will, only briefly, pause and step slightly to the right and behind their walking partner, allowing the Runner to squeeze by. Sometimes neither Walker will give ground at all, forcing the Runner to come to a complete halt or swerve all the way around the duo.

Conclusions Drawn: This scenario is the more interesting to me, personally, because in these cases, the Walkers often seem less involved in the power relationship with the Runner and more so in the one between each other. For one person to slow down and be forced to fall in line behind their fellow is a sign of weakness or subservience. To be forced to be the one of the pair who must give ground to the oncoming Runner places them at the bottom of the three-person power structure, a position to be avoided. If however, each in the pairing holds their ground, it is the Runner who must correct course, leaving the Runner at the bottom of the structure and the walking pair on equal footing (no pun intended). So being rude to the Runner is selected as the most profitable course of action – the rudeness being instinctively seen as a far lesser evil than diminishing oneself in the eyes of a comrade.

SCENARIO THREE: One Runner and one or more Walkers, all moving in the same direction, with the Runner approaching from behind.

Observed Result: If the Runner attempts to be polite and calls ahead to say “excuse me” before he passes by, chaos results. The Walkers come to a full stop, try to turn about to see the source of the voice and spread out on the sidewalk, often forcing the runner to come to a complete stop to avoid running into them and, therefore, producing the opposite effect than he hoped to have by calling out in the first place.

Conclusions Drawn: When the Walkers sense or hear the Runner approaching from behind, the unexpected presence of the Runner will produce unexpected responses from the Walkers. Because it is a stimulus that the Walkers are unaccustomed to and unprepared for, they do not know how to react and their instinct will be to gather more information. Because all of a human’s primary sensory information receptors are on the front of our faces, this means the Walkers must stop and turn around. When a human turns their head while walking, it is also common for the body to drift in the direction of the turned head. And this random change in bodily trajectory often produces the collision which the Runner had hoped to avoid.

Instead, if the Runner approaches silently from behind, the Walkers ahead are far more likely to maintain a predictable forward motion, and the Runner is able to easily navigate around them on the sidewalk. This, occasionally, has the result of startling the Walkers, but only after he has already passed them by. Even though this emotional jolt is unpleasing to some Walkers, it is far gentler than the physical collision frequently caused otherwise. We will simply have to hope that the Universe understands our benevolence and rewards us accordingly.

SCENARIO FOUR: The Runner approaching the Dog Walker, from any direction or angle.

Observed Result: Neither the Dog or its Owner will see or acknowledge the approaching Runner in any way – that is, until the Runner is directly upon them, at which time the Dog will leap at the Runner (in violence or in joy) and the Runner must try not to be tripped or injured by the Dog or its leash. (There are, occasionally, Dog Owners who detect an oncoming Runner and will pull the Dog aside to allow the Runner safe passage. To each of these rare Dog Owners is due a heartfelt “Thank You” from the Runner as he passes.)

Conclusions Drawn: When the Owner takes his or her Dog for a walk, they are, in fact, not taking the Dog for a walk, but rather for a trip out of doors so the Dog may defecate on public property. If necessary, the Owner will then pick up the doggy waste with a plastic bag and carry it around on the sidewalk until they return home. This is an inherently embarrassing activity for the Owner and they do not wish to be seen doing it. Said Owner will therefore try to pretend that they are invisible during this chore and will exercise their invisibility by pretending that they cannot see anyone else who happens to be out on the sidewalk, including the friendly neighborhood Runner.

We may also choose to incorporate the social interaction present in Scenario A, in which case it is clear that anyone who is walking around carrying a bag full of Dog poo, shall feel inherently inferior to a vigorous Runner in the throes of physical exertion. The resentment this breeds may only compound the Dog Owner’s lack of cooperation with the Runner on the sidewalk.

I could go on (you know I could), but I think I’ve made a few worthwhile observations and I’ll quit while I’m ahead. I admit that my sample size is relatively small, being the observational records of one individual (myself) and the anecdotal evidence of a few others, but the anonymity of the interaction and the astonishing consistency of the behavior displayed in each scenario give me confidence that my otherwise pompous assessments are grounded in some fact.

I assure you, I intend to conduct many, many more fact finding excursions and add to the previously gathered evidence. I’ll keep you posted…

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

And I'm Tired Just Watching Him

This is just a testament to the fact that no matter how much you think you do (or how much others think you do), someone else is always doing more, going farther.

I saw this guy on the lakefront here in Chicago late last week:

In case you can't tell, those are two tires he's dragging, tethered to his waist, across an snowy/icy dirt path along the lakefront. I wasn't close enough to see if there was anything inside the tires.

He wasn't running, he was power-walking with trekking poles. I'm not even completely sure what he was training for, though I assume it was a workout for the lower body power muscles. (Maybe it was a final training session for this race, which just started yesterday.) He covered at least 4 or 5 miles like that, because I saw him headed back in the other direction 40 minutes later.

I wonder what happened when he passed the dog play park a mile down the path?