medication to treat arthritis

Quotes and Quips

Living in a Caboose

An extended vision caboose on static display i...
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When I learned that a high school classmate moved to Israel to live in a caboose after we graduated, I thought that was a pretty weird choice. It was not until years later that I learned it was not a caboose he moved to, but a kibbutz.

It was still a strange choice, mostly because my friend was not Jewish.

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Arts

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Museum in L...
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I’ve just finished reading a new book (2010) by David Lipsky, the title of this post. It’s about a five-day road trip author David Foster Wallace took in 1995 at the behest of Wallace’s publisher Little, Brown to promote his then new novel Infinite Jest, with Lipsky in tow, on assignment from Rolling Stone magazine. Although the article Lipsky was supposed to write was never published, nor do I know if it was even written, we now have instead this full-length glossed transcription of many hours of taped and notated conversation engaged in while traveling and when Wallace returned home to Bloomington, Illinois, where he was then teaching.

Because the original project was scratched, Lipsky was able to prepare this book in its place, in knowledge of the sad irony that Wallace died in September 2008, eight years after the book tour. Wallace died a suicide, apparently the long-time victim of deep depression.

Infinite Jest was Wallace’s magnum opus, a much lauded and challenging masterpiece of over a thousand pages. Although he wrote numerous other works, and was working on another novel at the time of his death, which was complete enough that his publisher plans to release it, Wallace never completed another entire novel in his lifetime.

The funny thing is, I wouldn’t know from personal experience how good or otherwise Infinite Jest is, because despite now knowing a great deal about the man David Foster Wallace, I have yet to read a single word of anything he wrote except the first page of Infinite Jest, which I decided to save for another month, or perhaps another lifetime. But I will add that the transcription of the road trip Lipsky took with Wallace is insightful and often very funny. Wallace was obviously an unending source of original thought.

The real reason I’m writing this review is because I just created this blog in order to audition WordPress, trying to see if I can make it do what I want and need for future work. If I like it, I may even come back and complete this article, particularly if I get around to reading Infinite Jest in the meantime.

Thank you for reading.

Appended on August 7, 2011: I’ve since read Wallace’s collection of short stories Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which except for occasional patches of brilliance I did not care for, largely because of the subject matter, and I’m currently reading the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, one of the most enjoyable and well-written books I’ve encountered in ages.

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Literature

Moby Dick

Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick.

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Never read it, like most people, and have no plans to do so. Placeholder in the literature category.

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Language

Jefferson the Neologist

Painting of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1805)
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In answer to some people who stodgily protested certain Americanisms that had crept into the writing of Jefferson’s founding requirements regarding the University of Virginia, he defended himself by asserting that as new discoveries are made, new words must be invented to name them. Continuing along that line, he said:

And give the word neologism to our language, as a root, and it should give us its fellow substantives, neology, neologist, neologisation; its adjectives neologous, neological, neologistical, its verb neologise, and adverb neologically. Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the work-shop in which new ones are elaborated. When an individual uses a new word, if illformed it is rejected in society, if wellformed, adopted, and after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries. And if, in this process of sound neologisation, our transatlantic brethren shall not choose to accompany us, we may furnish, after the Ionians, a second example of a colonial dialect improving on its primitive. — Thomas Jefferson

  • Spellings, including of unhyphenated words, are Jefferson’s.
  • I’ve added italics.
  • To Jefferson’s list I would zealously add my own neologism: neologistics!
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Quotes and Quips

Take the Money and Run

Crane Paper Company in Dalton produces the pap...
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Wise and experienced persons ones solemnly proclaim, fingers a-wagging, that money and material prosperity do not bring happiness.

Duhh! Everyone knows that, but some who preach this less than profound truth seem to opine from the point of view that most people think that if they only had more money and material prosperity they would be happy, or at least happier than they are now, and that because that belief is false, they should even consider seeking to get rid of what they have. Some people use the term simplify to describe this proposed path to greater happiness.

Guess what? A lack of money and material prosperity doesn’t make a person happy either. The greater truth is: happiness and material prosperity are entirely unrelated.

Therefore, all things considered, I’d rather have money than not have it.

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Arts

The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis — Columbus Museum of Art

Cover of

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We were present at the Columbus Museum of Art on October 7, 2010, for the members only opening of the exhibit “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis.”

If you are unfamiliar with the world of comic book and cartoon art, you may not know who Robert Crumb is, known professionally as R. Crumb. But if you have had any exposure at all to that medium, you will likely know who I’m talking about, because Crumb is among the most admired of all underground comic artists. If you’ve ever seen the one-page comic Keep on Truckin’, which was plastered everywhere starting in 1968, or are familiar with “Fritz the Cat,” then you have seen a miniscule portion of Crumb’s prolific output.

Crumb is not for everybody. Some of his work is vulgar, even frankly pornographic. But above all, Crumb draws well, and his work is usually at least interesting in its meticulous attention to detail, and is at times innovative.

My first conscious exposure to Crumb was by means of the collaborations he did on “American Splendor” with Cleveland comic author Harvey Pekar, who did not draw himself, but simply wrote stories about his own life, and sketched what he wanted with stick figures, leaving the drawing to others.  Crumb was still unknown and living in Cleveland in the mid sixties, when they met and struck up a friendship based on mutual tastes in music. Pekar showed Crumb his ideas for cartoons, and Crumb offered to draw some of them for him, which led to success for Pekar — as successful as underground comic artists get — resulting even in the 2003 movie entitled “American Splendor,” with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar.

Meanwhile, Crumb moved on to San Francisco, other work, including such jobs as popular album covers, and eventual fame in the late sixties scene of hippies and bands and all the rest — although Crumb himself was never a hippie, nor was he much like the people he hung out with and who admired him, which included notables such as Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.

Sometime in the eighties Crumb and his wife, tired of the United States, moved to an unglamorous dwelling in the south of France, where they remain to this day. He’s still hard at work.

Jump forward from the sixties several decades and most of a career, to the present. One day last year, before I was conscious of the name R. Crumb, I was browsing in the art book store at OSU’s Wexner Center and stumbled upon an astonishing work: “The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R.  Crumb” (That’s the exact full title.) As a student of the Bible for now over forty years, I was eager to see what this was about. Expecting to encounter disrespectful, gross distortions created for laughs, I was surprised to see instead a work in Crumb’s polished and unmodified cartooning style that seemed to be a faithful representation of the scriptural text, and including the text itself, though using a modern translation I am not familiar with. I thumbed through just a few pages before moving on, but the experience was memorable, and I wished I had more time to look at the book.

Which brings me to the primary subject of this article. On October 7, the Columbus Museum of art opened an exhibit of not just a sampling, but of all 207 of the original pages of this book, strung at comfortable reading level in a long, snaking sequence through a series of galleries. The originals are roughly 9×12 inches each (an eyeball guesstimate), and extraordinary to look at.

It was then that I learned that every word of Genesis is written on those pages, including the genealogies, looking much like rogues galleries, and that the artist, who says he believes that Genesis is a work of men rather than the word of God, nonetheless spent five years working on the project, giving the greatest care and respect to the subject matter.  It’s the juxtaposition of the sacred text with R. Crumb’s uncompromised and highly distinctive style that make the work special.

Decades ago I lost track of the number of times I’d read through Genesis (and the rest of the Bible, which, in contrast to Mr. Crumb, I do believe is the word of God). It’s fair to say that I know what it says.

I found at this show that it’s possible for someone familiar with the source material to cover the entire exhibit meaningfully, thereby “reading” the whole book of Genesis in about an hour and a half — which is exactly what Suzy and I did — with a short break in the middle to go hear a chorus performing on the grand staircase.

Imagine my amusement when I was jolted to see part of the narrative out of sequence. On one page I saw Rebekah nursing twins, and on the next she was pregnant. These things usually happen in the opposite order. That’s when I discovered that they had hung up two pages in the wrong order: 89, 91, and 90. (The numbers are written in light pencil outside the printing border.)

We finished just in time to hear the last background lecture by the show’s curator, who opened things up at the end for any questions. I asked whether she had been alerted to the incorrect sequence. She replied with considerable surprise that she didn’t know, was grateful to find out about it, and wondered how I knew. I said I knew because I know the Bible, and saw the story was out of sequence, but it was easy enough to verify by looking at the page numbers.

Even though hundreds of people trooped through the showing, few were making it much further than halfway; it was crowded at the front, where an anatomically correct Adam and Eve are seen standing naked, the crowd was desolate by Jacob’s deathbed prophecy, as if to indicate that sampling a few dozen pages was enough for most persons to get the idea. Because it was opening night, and because likely few people were reading in much detail, it’s no surprise that this hadn’t been reported, but if they failed to fix it, I’m sure someone else came along later and set them straight again, so presumably it is fixed by now.

If you live in Columbus, Ohio, be sure to get over to Columbus Museum of Art before January 16, 2011, when the exhibit closes.

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Legacy

Daughters Are Good —
Columbus Half Marathon 2010

Last spring our daughter Cyra-Lea wrote to ask if I’d be willing to pick out and run a half marathon with her this fall. I hadn’t done that sort of running for several years. My last half marathon race was in February, 2004, my last full marathon was in May, 2005, and I haven’t run anything but ultramarathons since then. But how could I say no? Not that I wanted to. I was delighted, and agreed to do it immediately. It would give me an excuse to try to get back to doing some real running.

Cyra-Lea and I have run together in the past. Her longest prior race was ten kilometers — either once or twice; the last time she was seventeen years old. She’s twenty-eight now. Daughters are good!

It wasn’t hard for us to determine that the best choice for a race would be the Nationwide Columbus Marathon and Half Marathon here in town on October 17, 2010 (today), which I had not run myself, but heard only good things about. We visited Cyra-Lea and her husband Eddie over the July 4th weekend, at which time we sat down at the computer and registered, engraving the decision in stone. We also worked out a twelve-week training plan for Cyra-Lea.

Cyra-Lea drove in from Charlestown, Indiana (near Louisville, Kentucky) by herself on Thursday. (Eddie is busy in school, so couldn’t make it.) This gave us the opportunity to visit, drive the course that afternoon; on Friday to go for a walk and then to the expo, avoiding the weekend rush; and to have a relaxing Saturday.

Well — I did three and a half hours of leaf raking, and Cyra-Lea and Suzy spent about seven hours shopping, so it wasn’t physically relaxing, but it wasn’t stressful.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had as much outright fun running a race as I did today. Over the years I’ve grown just a little bit cold toward certain features of mega-races: the large crowds, the high cost (especially when travel is rolled in), the crassly commercial sale of useless, cheesy memorabilia, and the vacuous hype are not my style. On the other hand, I certainly don’t dislike the races themselves, and I advocate any sort of fitness activity that helps people live a healthier life style. But until a few months ago, given my own preference for ultramarathons (always much smaller), I figured my own experience with these races came an end long ago.

Now that I’ve experienced it, I’ll give Columbus Marathon a solid five-star rating in every aspect of it that I witnessed, from the expo to the starting area, availability of parking, number of portajohns, pleasantness of the course (I’m familiar with most of the route that the marathoners run, too), timing, the website, aid stations, music on the course, crowd support, the finish, and food for finishers — all are superb. And all of it is practically in my own back yard.

This morning we were up at 5:00 a.m. sharp. Cyra-Lea was sleeping fitfully in the family room rather than the basement bedroom because as a nurse who works several night shifts a week her fractured sleep patterns are unlike those of most of us.

We had plenty of time to get ourselves out the door, and left by 6:05. It takes less than ten minutes to get downtown. (The start is less than five miles away; I could have walked to and from it, and might have considered if I’d been doing this alone.) The one big question was where I would park. I used to work downtown, and know the area well. We would have to come up Fourth Street, crossing Broad a block east of the race start. Surely it would be open at 6:15. To my relief, it was.

One amusing sight before the race was with some roads closed, the tangle of one-way streets downtown, and some signs up at the ends of some saying STREET CLOSED, watching confused drivers, many from out of town, wander the wrong direction on some of them, fishing around for parking places.

For me it was a no-brainer, as I knew exactly where to go. On Sunday parking meters are free. I used to park on weekends and holidays that I went to the office on a little one-way street called Pearl Alley, just 270 feet from where I used to work (all measurements in this report are according to Google Maps), a quarter mile from the center of Broad and High, the location of our place in the fourth corral, the one for slowpokes. Most parking spaces on the main streets were already taken, but all those in that block on Pearl Alley were still open. So I zipped in and we just sat and chatted in the car for a half hour before heading out to the start, just around the corner and up the street a couple of blocks.

Weather is something that no one can predict before signing up for a race. In mid-October it’s possible to have the most glorious autumn weather imaginable. There is also every possibility for clouds, rain, and high temperatures in the forties. This year the weather could not have been more perfect if I had custom ordered it from a website called Weather-R-Us. It’s has been brightly sunny all day, the temperature while waiting at the start was around 45, but completely comfortable for both of us, and ranged up to about 55 by the end of the race, with a high later in the day of 70.

We found a place to stand in our corral, but shortly after we arrived, Cyra-Lea wanted to visit a portapotty, so I followed, decided it would be stupid not to try it myself as long as I was there, and am glad I did, as it turned out to be a productive decision. After that I was definitely all set, and just wanted to get started.

The beginning is right in front of the Ohio Statehouse, at the corner of Broad and Third Street, a long block up from where we parked. The race began on time (7:30 a.m.), with the starting gun accompanied by fireworks that shot up the side of a bank. I was only a little bit worried when I realized they were shooting up the side of my bank. It was okay, because our deposits are insured.

As is customarily the case in these extravaganzas, we couldn’t budge an inch for several minutes. I don’t know exactly what time it was when we hit the timing mat. I was thinking 7:45, but it was apparently earlier than that. Either that, or we started a little later than I thought.

Music was everywhere on the course, and it was almost all well-played. The band at the start was especially good, as they began the race by playing Born to Run, followed by some song Cyra-Lea identified as being by the Beastie Boys. Throughout the race we were rarely more than a block out of hearing range from a live band, featuring everything from amplified soloists to a military brass band on the west side of the Statehouse on the return.

At this race I had two primary goals. Ideally, I wanted to finish one step behind Cyra-Lea. The second was to run the whole thing without walking. I accomplished the second, but at ten miles got separated from Cyra-Lea and finished before her.

Immediately upon crossing the timing mat, I started my watch. I did click mile splits when I saw the signs, all accompanied by prominent race clocks, but I never looked at my watch until I was done, because it didn’t really matter. The three or four times I paid attention, I estimated my progress by subtracting ten or fifteen minutes from the displayed race time.

I knew this race would be slow. Not an event I had planned on doing myself, for me it marked a comeback from nearly two years of greatly reduced running, though I still did a great deal of walking during that period. And Cyra-Lea, who has inherited my genes, is no speedster either. Therefore, from the beginning I ran slowly, at times more slowly than is generally comfortable for me, in order to keep pace with Cyra-Lea.

Broad, which goes mostly east, but also angles slightly north, is — well — broad, which helped to minimize the problems with crowding in the early stages. We were able to utilize customary strategies so as to get around people: surging through holes, shifting left and right, etc. It wasn’t hard at all despite the number of runners. But maybe that was because most runners were already ahead of us. For the first ten miles Cyra-Lea and I were either side by side or very close together.

The crowd support at this race, encouraged no doubt by the superb weather, was extraordinary. The spectators contributed to the excitement the whole way.

The best sign we saw on the first part of the course said:

RUN BETTER THAN TERELLE PRYOR

The reference is to The Ohio State University Buckeyes football team’s phenom quarterback. Until yesterday the Bucks were rated number one in the country. But last night they were thoroughly trounced by Wisconsin, and were not helped by a handful of poor (in my estimation questionable) runs by Pryor, a versatile athlete who rushes more often than most quarterbacks.

Eventually, we turned north on Parkview, in the swanky part of Bexley, and ran by the governor’s mansion. Governor Ted Strickland was standing on his corner, accompanied by body guards, and cheering. I’d been expecting to see him, so ran close to the curb as we approached — not close enough to high five, as I had hoped, but I did manage to make eye contact and exchange a friendly greeting. It’s likely that many runners, particularly out-of-staters, had no idea who that ordinary-looking man in the brimmed hat and windbreaker was.

Two blocks later we turned south on Drexel, to go 1.36 miles, all downhill, on a wide street with beautiful homes. Suzy was waiting on the corner of Drexel and Main in downtown Bexley, the nearest point on the course to our house (about a mile and a quarter away), a bit past the five-mile point, where we saw her long enough for her to try to snap a picture, but we mostly just waved and cheered and kept moving. We were doing well, and Cyra-Lea was clearly enjoying herself.

Once we got past the shops on Main, the short unattractive segment of the course followed. We turned north on Nelson for less than half a mile, then ran across the south end of Franklin Park.

At the six-mile aid station I was able to pat hands with Cheryl Link, whom I know from Dead Runners Society and Facebook, but had never met in person. Cheryl ran a half marathon herself yesterday, and now, in the spirit of the sport, was out giving generously of her time and effort to help other runners. Volunteer support at this race was extraordinary, for which runners should always be grateful; we couldn’t do it without the volunteers.

The road south of beautiful Franklin Park is narrow, hillier than most places on the course, with a surface that is a bit rough, but after coming up the west side, we were back on Broad doubling back the other way (westerly) a little over a mile, then south and into residential neighborhoods to the southeast of downtown. This took us back to Third Street, a few blocks south of where we started, where we headed south again, over the highway, and then into German Village.

By this time I was leading Cyra-Lea by an average of fifteen to twenty-five yards, and kept looking back over my shoulder, as I slowed, several times to let her catch up, but never stopped running. She took a couple of short walking breaks.

Around mile nine she decided she was pretty much toast, but was determined to keep doing her best. I kept looking back, and even ran backwards up to twenty or thirty yards at a time at least three times, hoping she would push herself to keep as close as possible.

Just after the ten-mile marker I turned to run backwards, searched, and couldn’t find Cyra-Lea. She’d been doing really well, and said she was fine, so I had to make a decision whether to hang back, or press forward. Confident that she would be okay, I picked up the pace with the intent of running as hard as I could, knowing that a negative split was a real possibility given the slowness of the first half. Although I don’t have the exact numbers, I’m sure I was right.

After going around Schiller Park in German Village, we came out to High Street, the main north-south drag through Columbus, another wide street, and a straight shot from the turn for nearly two miles until the turnoff onto Nationwide Boulevard, which encloses a quarter-mile finishing chute in massive chain link fences. I was able to run hard on some downhill segments of High.

The last couple of blocks before that turn is a horribly steep uphill, but once on the straightaway after the turn, it’s a screaming downhill to the end, and I sprinted it in as hard as I could, trying to pass one final big guy, who edged me out. (I have no idea what his start time was.)

The organization after the chute was carried out with the precision of a military operation. In fact, they had soldiers manning some of the food tables.

I stood and waited anxiously for Cyra-Lea, not knowing whether she’d blown up or remained fairly close. In fact, her finishing time was only 5:27 behind mine. I was thrilled when I saw her come through the crowd sooner than I expected, with a finisher’s medal around her neck, upon which she announced, “I did it! I’m a half marathoner.”

There was food in abundance. I took only a bottle of water and a smallish Krispy Kreme. Cyra-Lea grabbed a couple of things to eat later. (I have never eaten or drunk anything during a half marathon ever, so by that time needed water and a shot of sugar.)

We weren’t with anyone, don’t know hardly any runners in Columbus, and were planning on going out for late brunch, so we didn’t hang out to socialize, party, or listen to the band playing in Arch Park. The walk to our car was less than half a mile, and getting out was as easy as could be, since by then everything we had to cross or travel on had opened up, and Sunday morning traffic was light. We got back home by 11:00 a.m., showered, and went out to enjoy a large meal at Bob Evans, a popular and folksy but not fancy Columbus-based family restaurant chain.

The results reporting for Columbus Marathon, supplied externally by a company called MTec Results, is among the best I’ve ever seen. For each runner looked up, a number of statistics are shown in an impressively laid out display, including, in addition to final chip time, also ten kilometer split time, average pace, overall place, gender place, and age group pace, all in three different formats. It also shows how many runners the displayed person passed from ten kilometers to finish in the overall category, and how many passed that runner. From a software point of view, given that with chip timing, runners are running asynchronously, it’s an interestingly tricky problem.

For reference, my half marathon PR is 2:03 and change, run over twelve years ago. When I was running them regularly I typically came in between 2:15 and 2:17. Given that caveat, here’s what the numbers tell me about today’s half marathon. The percentages shown I calculated myself, as I do for every race I run, dividing my place by the total shown.

  • 7925 (3224 men, 4701 women) ran the half marathon
  • Average finish: 2:10:33 (I think that’s fast for an average!)
  • Lynn Newton: 2:43:31 (90.4%)
  • I placed 28 out of 37 runners in the M6569 Age Group (75.7%)
  • I placed 7165 out of 7925 runners overall (90.4%)
  • I placed 3055 out of 3222 Males (94.8%)
  • Cyra-Lea Drummond: 2:48:58
  • She placed 7366 out of 7925 runners overall (92.9%)
  • She placed 4270 out of 4701 Females (90.8%)
  • She placed 917 out of 977 runners in the F2529 Age Group (93.4%)

From those numbers, I can see that after I surged ahead of Cyra-Lea after the ten-mile point, I finished 201 runners ahead of her, by a margin of 5:27. I was delighted that the gap was that small, and given that her own goal was to go sub-3:00, she is pleased as well.

This afternoon we are two tired but happy puppies, having accomplished our mission with pleasure and aplomb.

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Legacy

I Coulda Had a Medal

It was not until August 25, 2010, that I decided to run the 2010 North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) in Cleveland, Ohio. Up until the day before, I assumed that I would not be able to participate, and have done no ultramarathon training at all since 2008.

The year 2010 has marked my return to running, following a period of inactivity resulting mostly from fallout following my move from Arizona to Ohio, the aftershocks of which continue to haunt me. During 2008, I ran less then half the mileage that I averaged the ten previous years. By the end of 2008 I decided to stick to long distance walking, declaring myself thenceforth and evermore to be an Urban Walker; no longer would I run ultramarathons, except perhaps races I could walk.

Life changed dramatically for me in 2009. Gradually I began running again on a regular basis, at first in tiny bits, but ending the year with 650 miles more than in 2008. Beginning on January 1, 2010, I successfully negotiated a 100-day running-and-walking streak, through the ice and snow of dead winter, ending with a forty-mile walk on April 10, followed by eight non-consecutive rest days the remainder of April. On May 1, I began streaking once again, aiming to continue until Labor Day, gradually increasing the ratio of running to walking. Along with the benefits of all this has come the loss of over twenty pounds of slob, which has certainly helped my running, not to mention the general state of my health.

In late spring my daughter invited me to run a half marathon with her this fall — her first. How could I refuse? So we signed up to run the Nationwide Better Health Columbus Half Marathon on October 17, four weeks from now.

Therefore, the type of running that I’ve been doing lately has been focused around increasing the distance I can run continuously. It was just a few years ago that I occasionally knocked off training weeks with mileages in the seventies, and performed feats like running ten no-walking half-marathons in ten days. But I can’t do that any more. So far my biggest running day of 2010 has been when I ran 12.3 non-stop miles on a hot day in late August. I stopped there because I ran out of trail, but I couldn’t have gone too much further.

The last several weeks I’ve experienced recurring pain on the top of my left foot. It’s not bad enough to make me lay off, but it hasn’t gone away, either, and it’s been more than a minor annoyance. I probably should do something about it, but I tend to belong to the “ignore it and maybe it’ll go away” school of medical treatment.

Then, on September 2, at two and half miles into a ten kilometer out and back, disaster struck, when a sharp pain shot through my right Achilles tendon, causing me to pull up short with a howl. I knew immediately that I was injured for real, and that it would be impossible to go on. Unfortunately, there was no way to get back to my car except to limp cautiously at a twenty-four minute per mile pace. The next day was the first day I took off exercising since April 30, just a few days short of my Labor Day goal. I began immediately with stretching and icing my heel.

Starting the next day I ventured forth cautiously on a few very slow, short walks. There was little I could do but accept that I would have to endure an enforced fifteen-day taper heading into a 24-hour race that I had decided to run barely a week before.

On September 11, 2010, I experimented with a cautious run-walk strategy, in which I counted steps in cycles of four, starting with sixteen, but never going higher than eighty: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, … 80-2-3-4 (320 steps total), breathing in two steps, breathing out two steps. It worked so well that I was confident I would be all right on race day, so didn’t run another step until the race, but did walk four, three, two, and two miles the week before race day, and took the last two days completely off.

That is — except that NC24 race director Dan Horvath asked if I could show up in Medina, Ohio, the afternoon before the race to help load the truck they’d rented. Sure, I was happy to do that — until I saw the Ryder truck big enough to move an entire warehouse together with the mass of stuff that had to be hauled out of a basement, up a hill, and loaded onto the truck, including over a hundred cases of water, forty-eight pounds each, almost as much Gatorade, and plenty of other stuff with some heft to it, upon which I began to have visions of my race about to fly out the window. Fortunately, about ten people, including Connie Gardner and Nick Coury, who both had exceptional races, also showed up to help.

Contrary to expectations, the hour and a half of non-stop lifting and carrying worked like a miracle drug, as it helped to flush out the poisons of accumulated lethargy, leaving me exhilarated rather than tired.

Between gimpy feet and having almost no time at all to prepare for the race, I did way better than expected. My elevator speech version of the race is this: I had an outstanding first twelve hours, melted down quickly after that, but did better than last year.

On race morning I timed getting ready about as perfectly as possible. I arrived at Edgewater Park at 7:35 a.m., leaving me time to set up at a leisurely pace, then get over to hear the pre-race briefing, leaving almost no time to waste sitting around getting nervous.

My preference the past several fixed-time races I’ve run has been to operate with a minimalist trackside arrangement, consisting of a camp chair, and a small folding table with a gym bag containing a few things that might be required, most of which I didn’t need at all. The table served mostly as a place to set my trusty Ultimate Direction 26-ounce water bottle, the type with a kicker valve.

While I’m happy to have a little assistance when it’s available, I’ve long been accustomed to running these races without support. Maybe I would run them better if I had one of those spacious and festively decorated canopy tents staffed with a large crew of zealous sponsors, friends, and family who don’t mind sitting outside all night while watching me lumber by and grumble at them them every fifteen minutes or so. But somehow I don’t think it would help enough to make the trouble worth it.

This year the race date was bumped a couple of weeks earlier than last year in order to minimize the possibility of disagreeable weather. The temperature reached the upper seventies, probably hotter in late afternoon on this unshaded asphalt bike path. Easterners consider this to be uncomfortable, or at least a bit too warm to perform optimally, but it never was uncomfortable to this thirty-year Arizona desert man. In the evening the temperature never got below the mid-fifties, if that low. Many male runners ran shirtless all through the night, even when thick black clouds loomed up over the lake and threatened a downpour. I put on my rain slicker when rain appeared to be imminent, but we never got more than a couple of drops. Other than that and a brief experiment with a light jacket, which I shed after one lap, I never changed any item of clothing the whole race.

One thing is certain: in any given setting, weather conditions are shared equally by everyone, for better or for worse.

When the race started, I concentrated on the technique of fixed-time run-walk that worked so well for me the week before. And so it was that I shuffled along about three quarters of every 0.9-mile loop, not doing a walk-only loop until 7:20 PM (the time I finished it), then continuing until twelve hours race time, stopping only to grab something to eat or drink from the aid station table and once for a sixty-second portapotty stop.

Some sights and experiences seen along the way:

In mid-afternoon a drum circle formed in the park to the east of the race village. They must have played for three hours. Most runners were happy about their being there.

In mid-evening some pretty people showed up: a good-looking tall man and his beautiful female companion, dressed as if they were on their way to the Oscars. The man smiled from ear to ear, wore a shiny silver buckle the size of a serving tray, and glad handed every runner who passed by, including me. I’m told they were on their way to a wedding and had just stopped by to cheer someone they knew, but they were there for at least an hour. At least one briefly strapped a race number on over dress clothes, but I never saw either one run.

On one lap late at night I talked with a young woman from New York who had been stung by some inconsiderate insect. I heard her howl when it happened. She told me she had reasoned that God was punishing her because she chose to come to the race rather than observe her Day of Atonement.

Both last year and this year the lone street crossing on the course was manned for several hours during the graveyard shift by an arrogant, potbellied cop, who fouled the air with his six-inch cigar and rude language hurled at drivers who had been stopped to wait for runners; in fairness, I never heard him say anything objectionable to any runner or volunteer. But he behaved exactly the same way last year. I hope he doesn’t come back again. We don’t need to listen to some comic book flatfoot abusing our long-suffering family and crew members coming and going during the night.

At twelve hours I had completed forty-five miles. To be more precise, I finished my fiftieth lap of the 0.90075-mile certified loop, giving me 45.0375 miles, when the race clock said 12:00:07. I saw it turn over to 12:00:00 from a few yards out.

Whereas this mark doesn’t constitute an elite performance, its value may be appreciated better by putting it in contextual perspective. The number is comparable to or better than several 12-hour races I ran when I was five to seven years younger, and in my best ultrarunning shape ever. I’ve recorded three 12-hour all-night races of 43.8087, 45.05, and 43.1873 miles. Also, the 12-hour splits that I have from 72-hour races are: 38.836 (2008) 39.150 (2007), 42.253 (2006), 46.292 (2005, the year I hustled to earn my 1000-mile lifetime mileage jacket), and 45.673 miles in 2004, my PR year. Last year at NC24 (2009), when I was barely breathing, I logged around 39 miles by the twelve-hour mark, and finished with a miserable 60.98 miles, walking the whole race, and sleeping about four hours.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off in the second half. I decided I would walk one lap; then I walked another. Then I just kept walking and never ran another step the rest of the race.

During the first twelve hours I did all the right things. I must have drunk at least eight 26-ounce bottles of water, several cups of Vernor’s ginger ale (a life-giving substance if there ever was one), and quantities of Coke and root beer. I took Succeed! electrolyte capsules no less frequently than hourly, and never felt dehydrated. I ate something at least every other lap, even if it was only a couple of cookies. I started to feel full.

From forty-five to fifty miles, my condition deteriorated rapidly, and from fifty to fifty-two miles I went into a tailspin from which I never recovered.

Eating became a problem. I tried to survive entirely on race food. Unfortunately, I don’t do very well with typical race food. Dried peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, pretzels, noodle soup and potatoes that are microwaved, but are room temperature or colder by the time I get them, get old quickly. Searingly hot food is difficult to consume, but it cools off, and needs to be palatable when it’s consumed to be effective.

It must have been just after 9:00 p.m. when they brought out the pizza, which, unlike any of the other food, was piping hot. There were three kinds: plain (meaning cheese and tomato sauce), vegetable, and vegan, but both the latter two had olives. I don’t like olives, and was in no mood to pick them off, so I went with the plain. Real big mistake. It was not long afterward when I began to feel my first pangs of nausea. It was never extreme, just sufficiently unpleasant to make me not want to start running again — or eating either, and to stop on occasion to lean over the edge of the path, just in case my body chose to spontaneously jettison the evil turbulence inside. Fortunately, I had some antacid, which helped the burning, but the nausea persisted until sunup.

During the later hours I observed that few runners were stopping at the aid station. It occurred to me that the best-fed runners are probably the ones who bring crews that serve them all their own favorite special stuff, from Scott Jurekian hummus and fruit smoothies to greasy hamburgers and fries. Different things work for different runners.

After the race we received a generous hot breakfast of egg burrito, rice, and pancakes, but I was able to swallow only about a third of it, and chucked the rest. On the way home in late afternoon I stopped at a McDonald’s and bought a chocolate shake, ordinarily Something Very Bad for you, but I needed something cool and sweet and soothing. It hit the spot.

However, it was not food that was my downfall during the race, but sleepiness — as it was also last year. I’ve reached the stage in life where it’s not unusual for me to take a ten-minute nap in the afternoon not long after a run. There’s little I can do to fight the urge, and no point in trying.

But it’s different when you’re in a race. I’ve gone a full 24 hours and longer several times without needing to sleep, including every 100-mile trail race I’ve ever done when I didn’t DNF before that time.

At last year’s NC24 I felt drugged, and experienced the same thing this year. On Saturday I went fourteen and a half hours without a single break of any kind, but during the thirteenth hour my eyelids began to droop, and soon I was walking at a 22:00 pace, zig-zagging across the path, occasionally walking off the edge, and wanting nothing more than to lie down and curl up in the grass.

I had caffeine tablets in my pocket pill dispenser, and contemplated taking one. Their effect on me is unpredictable. Sometimes they serve as a wonder drug, charging me into a dynamo; and sometimes they do nothing but make me nauseated. In 2009 my reward for taking one was the dry heaves. Since I was already experiencing that unpleasantness, I had no desire to exacerbate it, so I passed on the caffeine. Would it have helped? I’ll never know.

That left only sleep as an alternative. I still don’t know which is tougher in a 24-hour race: struggling to fight off the mounting sleeplessness, which does sometimes pass, or trying to get moving again after sleeping a short period and awaking to find I’ve locked up tight as a drum, nearly need a cane to prop myself upright, and that I walk like Frankenstein’s monster for the first lap.

This year, as last year, I found that a brief nap in my chair was insufficient to knock the urge out of me. Each time I woke up, I re-evaluated my goals for the race. At twelve hours, I was optimistic that I would reach eighty miles. That hope got cut back to seventy-five, then seventy, and finally I acquiesced to the inevitability that at the very least I would do better than last year. By 6:00 a.m. I realized that I wasn’t having a lot of fun any more, and just wanted the race to be over, so I headed to my car, where I could sit and sleep more comfortably than I had in my trackside chair, with no pillow or support. At 7:30, it was light out, and I was finally no longer sleepy, so I headed out to the track and stuck it out to the end, but still moved glacially because of the stiffness that had set in.

There is absolutely no getting around how incredibly hard these races are to do. There is no faking it if one is unprepared and hopes to go the whole twenty-four hours. The lesson may be: the secret to enjoying the experience is to be in good enough shape that the fun part lasts long enough that you never get to the miserable part, which is certain to arrive if you keep at it long enough.

My prediction proved to be accurate. My total came up to 65.514 miles, ninety-eighth place overall out of 147 runners total. At least I wasn’t even close to dead last. (Ninety-eighth out of 147 puts me exactly in the sixty-sixth percentile.) Plus I really am an old guy now — it’s not just something I joke about — so I can use that as an excuse.

Another state I’ve reached is being able to take home age group hardware by just showing up. USATF championships go deep into the age groups. Unfortunately, one must be a USATF member to get it, and I was too cheap to join. If I had, I would have gotten second place in my age group, with one of the nicer looking medals I’ve seen to accompany the honor. There was in fact, one person in my age group who finished after me, but he isn’t in USATF either. The medals may be only so much bling, but I’ve never gotten an age group medal ever, and after all NC24 is a national championship, not just another race.

I could write more about the good runners who performed well, but I won’t, because this is my report, not theirs. The results are on the race website for all to admire. But I was especially happy to see Nick Coury get third place in the men’s division, earning an opportunity to represent the US on the national team in Switzerland next year. I’ve known Nick since he was eighteen, when he and his two brothers first showed up at Across the Years. As of this year, Nick and his older brother Jamil have taken over management of Across the Years as co-race directors, and I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with them this year once again on the race website, which will be my last year of doing so.

And although I don’t know her well personally, I watched Connie Gardner hammer out a superlative race, winning it with over 141 miles, about three miles short of the record held since 1993 by the great Sue Ellen Trapp. Still no record for Connie, but no one doubts that she is one of the strongest runners currently in the game.

As for me: interestingly, my feet, which had me so worried, caused me no trouble at all. I didn’t even get blisters, although I’ll probably lose a couple of toenails. Sometimes my back also gives out. Not so this race. I’m sore all over, but the truth is, I’m just fine, and will be running again in a couple of days.

Most importantly, I’m happier about what I did the first twelve hours of NC24 than I am disappointed about the second twelve hours; it taught me that I can still run at least a little bit if I really want to.

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Arts

Pale Fire — Vladimir Nabokov

Cover of

Cover of Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov‘s 1963 novel Pale Fire appears on a number of lists purporting to identify the greatest novels of the twentieth century. I wouldn’t dare to attempt a literary analysis of Pale Fire. It’s been a staple of literature classes for over forty years, and countless reviews and scholarly studies have been created for it; also a number of study guides, replete with pseudo-analyses. These are readily found on the Internet.

Recently I wrote an article about the movie Bright Star, about the life of the romantic poet John Keats. Now here I am, writing a reminiscence of a novel titled Pale Fire, about a poem of the same name by a fictional poet John Shade. The title similarity amuses me. Of course, the coincidence has utterly no significance.

For readers unfamiliar with Nabokov’s novel, the basic story goes like this: The main character is a lunatic named Charles Kinbote, who claims to be the deposed and exiled King Charles the Beloved from Zembla, located “far to the north.” He moves in right next to John Shade and his wife Sybil. Shade is a highly respected poet who teaches at a college in Appalachia. Kinbote, a Shakespeare expert, has come there to teach at the same college, and befriends Shade. It becomes clear rather quickly that Shade has only courteously pretended interest in his neighbor, whereas Kinbote is sycophantically obsessed by Shade, who is hard at work on a new lengthy poem, which turns out to be autobiographical, but which Kinbote imagines will be about Zembla and his role there as king. While waiting anxiously for the completed poem, Kinbote makes a pest of himself to the Shades. Sybil Shade refers to Kinbote as “an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macao worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius.” He has not endeared himself to the Shade household.

In the end, on the day Shade completes his poem, another lunatic, a man known as Gradus, appears out of nowhere, and shoots John Shade dead. Kinbote is convinced that the man was a professional but inept assassin whose real target was the escaped King. The police determine he is really an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane who has come to kill a judge who sent him up, but who stupidly kills the wrong man, both in the real part of the story, and in Kinbote’s imagined version of it. Kinbote steals the poem, goes into hiding, and writes the commentary that constitutes the bulk of the book.

I’ve obviously left out a lot, but there is far more to this novel than the story. Most unusual is its structure, which on the surface consists of a Foreword written by Dr. Charles Kinbote, followed by the 999-line poem “Pale Fire” by John Shade, and 250 pages of commentary on the poem, once again by Dr. Charles Kinbote, including an index of about ten pages. Outwardly, the book looks like a scholarly book of literary analysis. However, every word of the Foreword, poem, commentary, and index are fiction written by Vladimir Nabokov, and form a complete and engrossing novel.

Rather than write more about the story, which is obtainable elsewhere, I wish to comment on the copy I had in my possession, which came from the general circulation shelves of the Bexley Library.

After reading every single word on the jacket and in the front-matter before the novel’s text begins (there’s very little), I concluded that I held in my hands an genuine first edition, first impression of one of the great novels in English literature.

  1. The cover says “Pale Fire/ A New Novel by Vladimir Nabokov/ Author of Lolita“.
  2. At the top of the inside front cover flap are the words “First Impression”, and flush right at the same height it says PF/ $5.00. (Might PF stand for “prix fixe”?)
  3. On the copyright page it says “© 1962 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons,” etc. There’s a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number, but no ISBN number, as ISBN numbers were first instituted in 1966. And at the bottom of that few lines of text, separated by some blank space, in small caps, are once again the words “FIRST IMPRESSION“.
  4. The rest, until the back jacket cover is all Nabokov’s work. On the inside back flap is a one-paragraph biography of Nabokov, current to 1962, and on the back cover, only a photo of Nabokov, with no words whatever.

The book is in excellent condition. Of course the library has stuck its own goo on it, such as the cellophane cover over the jacket, and various stickers and stamps. The binding started to come loose from the cover, but it’s been well mended. On about six pages here are the scribblings of a child from a black ball point pen. (Regrettable.)

I’m humbled by the realization of what I’d been permitted to bring home from the library, to treat no differently than if it were a Sunset book on gardening or a collection of Garfield cartoons. (Which, as a respecter of library property, is carefully, regardless of content, but not everyone is so inclined.)

Pale Fire probably doesn’t get checked out very often. This is the sort of item that an unscrupulous person might claim was “lost” and then resell for far more than the cost of a replacement, which would likely be some later edition, not a collector’s item.

I’m no rare books collector, but for very rough comparison I found a resource on the Internet about determining the value of first edition novels that used Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five as an example. At the time it was written, the numbers looked like this, depending on the condition of the book:

Fine / Fine: $1,500
Fine / Near Fine: $1,250
Near Fine / Very Good+: $750
Very Good+ / Very Good: $400
Very Good / Very Good-: $250
Good / Good: $100

It pointed out that the first edition first pressing of Slaughterhouse Five was rather small, so available copies are extremely rare. I can’t say how collectors might value a copy of Pale Fire as compared with a copy of Slaughterhouse Five in the same condition.

I wondered if the library tracks these things, so when I returned it today, I asked a librarian. She said that the Bexley library has no way to take special care of rare books, that the book was probably bought new and has just been on the shelves all this time. Yes, it’s possible that someone could report it missing, pay the replacement cost, and sell it for personal profit.

No, I’m not thinking of doing it myself.

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Arts

Can You Guess How Oold I Am?

Una joven mano es capaz de arrancar una leve s...

Image via Wikipedia

Have you ever noticed how some older people like to tell you their age? It seems I’ve reached that point in life where I’m anxious to tell people my age, sometimes looking for excuses to do so. It’s a pretty sorry state to be in — not being the age I am, but being so anxious to tell others about it, as though there were something special about it.

(Crackly geezer voice.) Let me tell you how ooold I am!

SCENE: Lynn meets a young dude at the track.

Lynn: How ya doin’?

Dude: Not bad. You?

Lynn: Okay. I’m aching, though. Can’t run like I used to, you know.

Dude: I guess I can see why.

Lynn: Yep. Gettin’ too oold I guess.

Dude: Happens to everyone, eh?

Lynn: Yep. Do you have any idea how ooold I am?

Dude: Haven’t a clue.

Lynn: Guess.

Dude: Oh, I couldn’t. Got no idea.

Lynn: Go on, just guess.

Dude: How would I know?

Lynn: Just guess!!

Dude: Seventy-three.

Lynn: I’m sixty-seven years old!

Dude: That’s amazing. I never would have guessed.

Lynn: Yep, and I feel it every day.

Dude: I suppose so. Happens to everyone, eh?

Lynn: Believe it or not, I used to be able to run nine-minute miles!

Dude: Ooh.

Lynn: Can’t do that any more, of course. Doubt that I ever will.

Dude: I suppose not.

Lynn: Training now just to get back in shape, maybe do another ultra or two.

Dude: Groovy.

Lynn: Did I mention how ooold I am?

Dude: I think you may have mentioned it. What was it? Seventy-two?

Lynn: I’m sixty-seven years old!

Dude: That’s amazing. I never would have guessed. Look, I’ve gotta …

Lynn: What did you say you’re training for?

Dude: I didn’t.

Lynn: So what are you training for?

Dude: The Olympic Marathon trials.

Lynn: Cool! Couple of years ahead of schedule, aren’t you?

Dude: But I’ve got a long way to go.

Lynn: What’s your PR?

Dude: 2:14:30

Lynn: Sounds like you’ll make it.

Dude: Sure hope to. Errr, as I started to say …

Lynn: Want a tip from an old-timer?

Dude: Ummm. Oh sure, why not?

Lynn: Don’t go out too fast. I see all these kids jump off the start early and then die early in the race.

Dude: Got it. I’ll try to remember that. Thanks.

Lynn: Take it from me. I’m sixty-seven years old, y’know, and have seen a thing or two in my day.

Dude: Sixty-seven? That’s amazing. I never would have guessed.

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Arts

Metropolis — 2010 Restoration

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Last night we saw the recently restored version of Franz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece silent film Metropolis, the progenitor of almost every later science fiction action film. The venue was one of my favorite places in Columbus, the Wexner Center for the Arts on The Ohio State University campus, in the theater that holds about 600 people. (It’s the same place we saw What’s Up Doc? a few months ago, with director Peter Bogdanovich present in person.) It was a packed house, and I hear it’s sold out for tonight’s showing as well.

This version of the film, of which I had never seen any part, has twenty-five minutes of additional footage over the 2002 version, previously thought to be definitive. The original was two hours and thirty-three minutes, but was cut down to ninety minutes by the first distributors, who were afraid no one would want to see a movie that long. The film now runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, so not it’s 100% complete, but they’ve recovered just about everything. The new version was first shown on February 12, 2010.

The copy with the missing footage, thought to have vacated the planet, was discovered in Argentina (where it was made) in 2008. Work proceeded immediately on cleaning up the missing pieces and merging them into the 2002 edition. It’s not hard to tell what parts are new, because the the print they worked from had deteriorated badly, and the aspect ratio of the screen is narrower than what later became standard. Some of it is so scratched it’s like looking through a room through a curtain of glass beads.  Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to get used to this and to accept it for what it is. This has all been converted to digital format for distribution, of course. The visual quality overall is superb.

Metropolis has everything a movie-goer could ask for: a great plot with revolutionary and eschatological themes; good acting, all stylized with exaggerated and melodramatic facial and physical gestures characteristic of silent films of the day; fabulous cinematography; almost non-stop action; enormous and complex sets; a profusion of special effects that are decades ahead of their time technically, including the flooding of a city as big as New York, the transformation of a robot into a woman, burning a “witch” (actually the robot), and depictions of massive machinery; difficult stunts such as people falling off roofs; a non-stop musical score written for the original film, with Wagnerian leitmotifs, and references to everything from “Dies Irae” to “La Marseillaise”; thousands of extras; endless shots of hundreds of people at a time rushing around in panic at top speed, in tightly packed mobs, like a school of fish (not good for extras with claustrophobia); and of course, epic length.

This is highly recommended viewing for any lover of classic film. I understand it’s been circulating in art theaters across the country. I don’t know if it’s available from places like Netflix, but I gather it is not, so watch for it at a venue near you.

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Arts

Julie & Julia

Julia Child's Kitchen on display at the Nation... Last night we watched Julie & Julia. Yes, we’re behind everyone else. All the movies we watch are borrowed from the library, so we have to wait until they are available. We haven’t rented a movie in nearly three years. The last time it was from Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. Today, as far as I know, neither company even exists any longer.

Julia, as everyone in the world knows by now, is Julia Child as channeled by Meryl Streep, who can do no wrong.

Julie is Julie Powell, which happens to be my mother-in-law’s name. Both the movie Julie and the real life Julie created a blog in which she reported on cooking her way through Julia’s famous book on French cooking, giving herself one year to cook all the recipes. In the movie, at least, she actually did it.

For once I actually liked a movie more than Roger Ebert, whose sometimes overgenerous reviews I always read, even if I read none other. Ebert’s insightful eye did serve to deflate my initial impression, but while he rated the movie with two and a half stars by his system, for reasons he articulates well, and I am impelled to agree with, I nevertheless registered nine stars on IMDB. I don’t go that high very often. And I did it because it was so much fun watching Meryl Streep caricature Julia Child and because I loved watching the two women cook with abandonment and enthusiasm, and maybe because I enjoyed watching a movie about two basically happy marriages where nothing bad happens to spoil the fun. (Well, Julie’s husband gets fed up with her obsession for a day, but that’s easily resolved.)

Perhaps I was just in a mood for a light, popular, romantic tale. I like the movies When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail and thought Julie & Julia has a similar sheen to it. Believe it or not, I did not realize until afterward that Nora Ephron wrote all three. Duh.. I guess you could say she’s an author with a recognizable voice.

I am not a cook, but believe I could be good at it. Yet I don’t want to get into cooking because I have some of the craziest eating habits on the planet, and am best off on a daily basis if I don’t even think about food and stay as far away from it as possible, eating only when absolutely necessary. I can barely eat at all without gaining weight, despite the miles I put in on the road, and if I cooked, I’d give up running and working out so I could do nothing but eat. And that would be Bad. So I’m glad that other people know how to cook and share their skills with people like me. Meanwhile I was content to be a food voyeur.

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Arts

Bright Star

Portrait of John Keats by his friend Charles B...

Image via Wikipedia

Last night we watched the movie Bright Star, about the (short) life of John Keats — or at least about the last part of it.

It’s a good movie. The dialog is captivating, particularly the snippy repartee between Keats’s romantic interest Fanny Brawne and his friend Charles Brown. Fanny and Charles never do learn to get along, consistently despising one another in their mutual possessiveness of Keats.

The costuming is extraordinary. Fanny Brawne was said to be a gifted seamstress who designed and sewed all her own clothes, and at least in the movie, apparently also for her whole family. Some of their attire is edgy and almost bizarre. The movie was nominated for an Oscar and also by at least one other organization for its costuming.

The cinematography, too, is simply astonishing, with a presence bordering on 3-D to the imagery. At the top of Roger Ebert’s review of this film is a picture of Fanny Brawne in a field of blue wildflowers, in a pose vaguely reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World,” but of an entirely different palette. In the film this scene took my breath away. Ebert makes special note of it in his review, describing it with the words: “There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”

The acting is okay, not Oscar caliber. The main character in this portrayal is Fanny Brawne (Kerry Fox, also the best performer), not Keats; the story focuses on their brief, hopeless, and unfulfilled romantic relationship. Keats had no money or steady income as a starving poet, so was never able to marry Fanny or anyone else. He died in Italy at age 25, apparently of tuberculosis, leaving such a formidable legacy of work, largely unrecognized at the time, that he is remembered today as one of the great Romantic poets. Naturally, a great number of Keats quotes creep into the dialog, in greater proportion as the movie progresses. The closing credits roll over Keats (Ben Whitshaw) reading an ode.

Bright Star, I suppose, will appeal primarily to women. The style of the era being what it is, some of the verbiage, including even the quotes of poetry fragments, may seem a bit syrupy to some persons. Romantic era aesthetics focus on experiences that touch the emotions deeply, in contrast to (and in reaction against) the methodical, refined detachment and intelligence of the Enlightenment that preceded it. Matters of deep emotions would certainly include the type of love between members of the opposite sex that we today also label “romantic.” (I’m not sure if that term was used for it before the Romantic period in art, but the reality has been a part of our common experience since the beginning of human existence.)

I don’t think this movie got a lot of publicity when it came out last year, and it’s not the type of thing that is likely to be found on many people’s summer viewing lists. Nonetheless, it is very much worth seeing by those who aren’t afraid of a film designed to stir the heart.Enhanced by Zemanta

Language

Ultrarunning Hyperbole

Sahara Desert

Image via Wikipedia

Certain tainted words occur repeatedly in journalism about ultrarunning, all of which cause noisy alarms to go off in my head whenever I see them. The four most frequent culprits are:

  1. crazy
  2. grueling
  3. test[ing] limits
  4. extreme

Rarely have I ever read an article about ultrarunning by a non-ultrarunner that does not use the word crazy to describe the distance or the mindset of the runner.

I’ve never read an article written by someone who doesn’t do it himself that doesn’t describe the 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley to the Mount Whitney Portal, or a 100-mile mountain trail race, or for that matter a 24-hour race as grueling. It’s as if grueling were an automatic part of the event label: “Next month I’m going to do a grueling 24-hour race, and the month after that, a grueling 100-mile race.” They’re all grueling, right? I don’t know of a single such race that anyone would consider easy.

The knee-jerk response of many runners, when put on the spot with a question about why they runs ultras, having not prepared an answer beforehand, is, “To test my limits,” or words to that effect. Sometimes it’s, “To see what I’m made of.” And guess what? The answer is always flesh, blood, and bone, just like the rest of us, and in the case of ultrarunners who like to talk about their sport, perhaps also a larger than usual intestinal bag of poo.

I can’t remember when I’ve ever run any distance to test my limits. God help me if I ever reach them. Then what? Congratulate myself and die?

And to persons who customarily view a standard marathon as the “ultimate challenge” (which, when you see several thousand persons young and old of all levels of fitness lined up to start, you realize it’s far from being), any distance longer than that must be extreme. (See my article Half Crazy.)

To me, the word extreme brings to mind the world of X Games, the domain of testoserone-fueled backward-hatted, muscle-shirted, tattooed and pierced, foolhardy risk-takers who live on the edge of life and society (and a few of their female counterparts). I’ve always maintained that ultrarunning in general, as tough as it is to do well, is not an extreme sport in that sense of the word. That category of activity, in my view, must include elements of great danger over which people have little control — like jumping out of airplanes and bungee jumping. Also, I don’t care much to watch rock climbers without ropes for the same reason. It’s just stupid to risk one’s life that way.

Which is not to say that there are not certain events in ultrarunning that could be classified as such. The Barkley, which hardly anyone ever finishes, is pretty weird, but at least no one has died doing it yet. So is the Marathon du Sables across the Sahara Desert. Some people think of the Pike’s Peak Marathon as extreme, but I would call that an unusually tough marathon with one big hill, not an extreme event. One day I ran into an old man running down the street wearing a Pike’s Peak Marathon t-shirt. We stopped and talked. He was in his mid-seventies, had run the race eight times, and was planning on continuing to do so as long as he was able. Didn’t strike me as an extremist. He did it because he could and knew how, not to tempt death, which at his age was likely not far away no matter what.

So the next time you hear about some crazy extreme runner finishing a grueling 100-mile race in order to test his limits, don’t believe it.

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Humor

My Grandma

My Grandma Newton

  • had no automobile;
  • had no television;
  • had no radio;
  • had no telephone;
  • had an ice box instead of a refrigerator until 1952;
  • had no modern record player;
  • didn’t own a book except a Bible;
  • didn’t think much of music except hymns;
  • didn’t approve of my father’s choice of profession;
  • didn’t approve of dancing;
  • didn’t approve of alcohol;
  • didn’t approve of card playing;
  • would play Dominoes with me by the hour;
  • never left the house, even to go to church, most of her adult life;
  • basically had no life at all;
  • was probably well-suited for playing Farmville.

It was not until recently that it ever occurred to me that there was anything unusual about her.

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Legacy

Why Boys Fail — Richard Whitmire

Cover of "Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons ... Last week I stumbled across a newly published book displayed on a book stand next to a terminal in the Bexley library: Why Boys Fail, by education reporter Richard Whitmire. Intrigued, I snatched it up and read it in two days.

The book’s main thesis is:

The world is becoming more verbal.
Boys are not.

That’s a direct quote, stated twice: once several chapters in, as a conclusion driven to by the evidence presented, and again in summarizing paragraphs.

The problem boils down to one of a lack of basic literacy, which is increasingly lacking in boys. This reality is obvious to me as I read drivel posted to various lists to which I subscribe, and even moreso on Facebook, Twitter and telephone text messages. To paraphrase a friend: Anyone whose thoughts are limited to a 140-character event horizon doesn’t have much to say.

Recently, a young friend sent me email to which I was obliged to respond, “So what’s with the gansta talk?” His reply, with numerous errors edited out here, said: “It’s just the way I type things out on the computer. I guess it comes from too much texting back forth to people who talk like that as well.”

This is not to say that one needs to deliver essays when a short sentence or two will do. But whatever is written should at least be reasonably correct. Occasional typos and blunders in informal writing happen with everyone, and are forgivable, but when every single sentence is laden with several misspellings, along with punctuation and grammatical errors, it suggests something is fundamentally lacking on the part of the communicator; it also suggests that he may not even care. Unfortunately, the ironic tragedy of ignorance is that ignorant people don’t know they are ignorant, so can’t detect the problem so as to fix it.

Whitmire presents abundant data to demonstrate that in the world of formal education (meaning in schools) and in those arenas of life that follow and surround the receiving of such education, there is a rapidly increasing gender gap.

Today 60% of college students are women. With the layoffs that came as a result of the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, the workforce in the United States is now over half female. Whitmire doesn’t make the point directly, but it seems the days when Dad went to work and Mom stayed home with the kids are behind us.

In Montreal 71% of medical students, 63% of law students, 80% of optometry students, 64% of dentistry students, 56% of management students, and 70% of architecture students are women. The situation is similar elsewhere, indicating a shift to a female based economy in professions and services. While this is in some ways wonderful for women, it suggests that something has been happening for a long time with boys coming up through school age. The numbers are indisputable.

Whitmire presents and debunks the commonest knee-jerk explanations, among them:

  • It’s those @#$! video games! World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto that keeping boys away from more productive activity.
  • Girls mature faster than boys.
  • It’s because of the feminist movement; those women are taking over!
  • Boys will be boys. They love to play, goof off, and delay growing up.
  • If there’s really a problem, it’s happening only among the poor segments of society or among certain ethnic populations.

All baloney as explanations of the waning literacy of young males.

Furthermore, the problem is happening throughout the world. In Australia, also in one or two other countries, authorities have already recognized the problem and have begun to confront it.

The last part of Why Boys Fail is devoted to a number of proposed reactions, which is what I prefer to call them rather than solutions, because none have been tried sufficiently to know they will work.

It’s not my intent here to present the arguments, the evidence, or the proposals. The problem is real. The reasons and solutions are not as obvious. Instead, I’d like to relate my personal experience.

When I was four years old, my mother, the oldest of eight Depression era farm kids, and the only one of her family to be sent to and complete college, obtaining a teaching degree, taught me, the oldest child in the family, how to read from the Dick and Jane series of reading primers. So in those pre-Sesame Street days I became an enthusiastic early reader, already fluently so, and even a hunt-and-peck typist, a fledgling writer, by the time I started kindergarten. My parents also introduced me to the library when I was very young, which I found to be an exciting place. In addition, we were the last family in our area to acquire a television, so that during the summers before we got one, I spent many days reading one book after another.

On page seventeen of the Why Boys Fail I encountered a subheading that caught my eye: “The Wilmette Discovery.”

Glenn “Max” McGee was serving as state superintendent of schools of Illinois when he noticed that interest in reading on the part of his own two sons showed a significant decline when they were in fifth and sixth grades, something he found hard to comprehend. Here I quote:

In 2002 McGee became superintendent of the K-8 Wilmette schools along Chicago’s high-income North Shore, right on the doorstep of Northwestern University. These schools feed into the famed New Trier High School, which rests high on any top ten list of America’s best high schools. McGee sat down to map out a way to accomplish what he describes as making the great schools there even greater. Based on his own family experience, McGee had a hunch: Let’s look at boosting boys’ performance. To the Wilmette educators, this was a radical approach. Who thought the boys had any problems?

So they got to work. It continues, “In Wilmette, … one of the wealthiest and most education-focused school districts in the United States, these inquiries are taken very seriously.” They issued a 107-page report to demonstrate that McGee’s hunch about the boys being in trouble was well founded.

Parents there appeared shocked by the report. Nobody thought this could happen in Wilmette. “We have very high-achieving parents … who serve as strong role models.”

“In Wilmette, nearly everyone eventually goes to college, even the slacker boys.”

Quite true. The reason this interests me is that I went through the Wilmette public schools and New Trier High School myself. New Trier was then and still is today a large and high quality public high school. My graduating class was over 960 people. We were told that 96% of us were headed off to college. No other future was ever discussed or even hinted at for anybody while I was growing up. The few who did not go were largely the troublemakers and the kids in the slow track courses, but I didn’t know many of them.

Our family was not rich; we were barely middle class economically speaking, as my father worked very hard to be the sole breadwinner in the family, making enough money as a classical musician to support a wife and four sons in such a place. The payoff for us boys was an enriched cultural experience that has influenced my viewpoint on education and life in general to this day.

To me education has always been only tangentially related to the formal part of it — attending schools, getting degrees and accreditations, pursuing the so-called American dream of having a family and a house in the suburbs with all the accouterments that go with that style of living. Frankly, when I was in school, I gave almost no thought to those matters, so little that it has caused me difficulties at various times that continue to this very day, as there are many practical subjects, even at my age — past the ordinary age of retirement — about which my understanding is deficient.

Education to me has always been about growing as a person by drinking in knowledge and experience by whatever means I can get it, and synthesizing that in such a way that my perspective on life deepens. And thus, at least for me, it continues to be, as I attempt by whatever means I can to learn more every single day of my life.

Sadly, it appears that this is not going to happen with many young males today.

Persons interested in knowing more about this topic may be

interested in reading Richard Whitmire’s blog.

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Arts

Bone — Jeff Smith

Cover of

Cover of Crown of Horns (Bone, Vol. 9)

Cover of Crown of Horns (Bone, Vol. 9) Exactly one year ago today Suzy and I attended the world premiere of a documentary about comic book artist Jeff Smith, who is from Columbus area, and a graduate of The Ohio Statue University. Smith is famous in the world of comic book art as the creator of Bone, an epic graphic novel. The work has been translated into about fifteen languages, has sold over a million copies, and has been given two or three dozen different awards. I wouldn’t have guessed there are that many awards for comic books.

Though I have long loved good cartooning, as one who has had no interest whatever in comic books since my childhood days of Superman, Batman, and the Disney characters—particularly Scrooge McDuck—Smith and his work was utterly unfamiliar to me. When I saw the documentary, for which Jeff Smith was personally present, and the long line of people, including many adults, who were present to meet him and have him autograph their personal copies of Bone, I knew I had to put it on my reading list.

Bone is published in nine volumes, which I obtained recently from the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I spent about a day per volume reading the nine volumes, a total of 1375 pages, adding up the numbered pages, and finished it two or three days ago.

Anyone prejudiced against comic books might think that the term “graphic novel” to be pretentious, but Bone deserves the designation because it tells a continuous and well-crafted story.

The original comics were drawn and published in black and white, and then combined under one cover, which I have seen. Smith thought he was finished, until a friend told him that he really must republish the series with color added.

What I received from the library in three different trips was all nine volumes, but a total of eleven books. One volume they sent me both the color and the black and white versions, and another they sent me two identical color volumes. Two volumes arrived only in black and white. They are all still sitting on my desk behind me, waiting to be returned. Suzy is in the middle of the last volume herself, so I’m waiting for her to finish.

Smith’s friend was right: the added color is brilliantly done, so much so that I can’t imagine the book without it. Nonetheless, Smith had become a superstar in the world of comics well before the series was completed in black and white.

The story is readable by young readers, but includes much detail it to keep adults entertained. The main characters are the three Bone cousins: Fone Bone, the cheerful nice guy; Phoney Bone, who is driven relentlessly by sheer greed that drives him to perpetrate crazy schemes, but remains strangely likeable nonetheless; and Smiley Bone, about whom Fone Bone says, “He doesn’t have a brain,” though he proves to have a heart and many likeable qualities. Smiley Bone is definitely the Ringo of the group, as the trio would be incomplete without him.

The three are white like Casper the Ghost. Fone Bone is generally seen without clothing but carries a knapsack; Phoney Bone wears a t-shirt with a star on the chest; and Smiley Bone wears a vest and usually can materialize a cigar, which is never smoked or even commented on.

The other characters include a human girl named Thorn, drawn to appear drop dead gorgeous but not at all sexually provocative, appearing to be between sixteen and years old. Her grandmother Gran’ma Ben, who squints, wears a white apron, and has a mouth that both smiles and scowls simultaneously. Gran’ma Ben is as vigorous as Yiannis Kouros, runs many miles a day, races cows, proves to be a dynamic leader, and an invincible warrior. Thorn does not know it at the start, but Gran’ma Ben was a queen. Thorn’s parents, a king and queen, were killed in a war while fleeing from their city of Atheia, which makes Thorn a princess, and one who has special as yet undiscovered powers. At the beginning Gran’ma Ben and Thorn are living together in a tiny cabin in the woods.

There is a supporting cast of hilarious characters: a friendly dragon with floppy ears, a bug of unnamed type named Ted, drawn as a tiny green triangle with four little black legs sticking out of it, packs of rabid monsters called rat creatures who try to kill and eat whatever they can find, two in particular who remind me of Laurel and Hardy, love quiche, and are always bickering with one another, an inn and tavern full of humans men, and gigantic mountain lion named Roque Ja—the “r”should be rolled, but the Bone cousins call him Rock Jaw, evil hooded personages, and a host of others. Numerous new people are introduced in later volumes, some only briefly.

Fone Bone, the main character, the nicest guy, who becomes enamoured of Thorn, carries a backpack, with apparently nothing in it except a copy of his favorite book, Moby Dick, about which he can soliloquize at great length, causing everyone to fall into instant slumber. This becomes one of the running jokes for adults. In one episode Fone Bone and Smiley Bone are a hair’s breadth from being devoured by a pack of slavering, screeching rat creatures, when Smiley dives for Fone Bone’s back pack and begins reading: Call me Ishmael! whereupon the pack of rat monsters is rendered catatonic, frozen in sleep out of instantaneous boredom.

Later on Smiley finds a cub rat monster and cares for it, and it becomes friendly. He names it Bartleby, another nod to Herman Melville.

The story line eventually gets quite involved in intricate plot details in the manner of much fantasy fiction, a genre of which I am not generally a fan. I could care less about a tale of the struggle between mythical forces of good and evil. But story this is so well told with sufficient humorous twists that I couldn’t put it down for the humor, in addition to which it is brilliantly drawn.

Some main characters do die during the course of the story, so it’s not all a barrel of laughs.

There is a bit of pseudo Biblical allegory in the plot, though it’s obviously not intended to mimic the Bible too closely. There are great dragons (good guys) and Mim, the greatest dragon (very bad), and a Time of the End (or the End Times). Thorn is a vaguely messianic figure, who gradually learns her role in life, is abused and suffers for a while as she attempts to seek the Crown of Horns, which sounds much like a Crown of Thorns, and particularly so given her name is Thorn; thus when she accomplishes it, it becomes a sort of “Crown of Thorn’s” as it were. Except the crown is not a crown at all, but a stone wall deep under the earth, and it is not to be worn, but touched. Furthermore, Thorn is trapped in a dead bad monster’s jaws with a giant tooth through her thigh and cannot reach it, but she can touch Fone Bone, who can in turn reach the wall, upon which Good Things happen.

But more remains to be wrapped up after that, as there is an apocalyptic ending, where the floppy eared good dragon appears, calls up a horde of thousands of fellow dragons deep out of the earth who rise up, surround the giant bad dragon Mim, and carry it down into a massive pit within the earth that closes behind them, which is the end of this particular war of good versus evil.

Did you get all that? Were you taking notes? I don’t think I gave too much away that matters.

The ending, which takes a couple more chapters to spin out, is of course happy, and surprisingly mild, as the three Bone cousins get on a wagon and head back to Boneville, from which they were driven because of one of Phoney Bone’s crazy misguided plots a year before, as Phoney is foiled in his attempt to pull yet another dishonest stunt even upon their exit.

Bone is entertaining, well crafted, and very much worth reading by young and old alike; but don’t get started unless you’re okay with plowing through 1375 pages of comic book.

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Arts

House — Tracy Kidder

Cover of

Cover of House

This morning I finished reading House, by literary non-fiction author Tracy Kidder, still most famous for his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Soul of a New Machine, written a couple of years before House.

The book was published in 1985. I bought it around the time it was on the shelves in bookstores as a new publication, except I got it through membership in the Paperback Book Club. It was an impulse purchase, acquired not out of deep interest in the subject matter, but because I admired the earlier book, and I enjoy the literary non-fiction genre. With fiction a reader might get an exciting story and beautiful language, but with literary non-fiction he gets all that, if the author is good, plus he might also learn something practical or interesting.

When House arrived, I put it on my shelf, intending to read it, but never cracked the cover until a few days ago. The pages of the book already have a weathered look, and the binding let go of several signatures early on. It was a twenty-five-year-old virgin book.

House is about the building of a new twelve-room house for the Jonathan and Judith Souweine family in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1983. The Souweines were an energetic and intelligent Jewish couple. I say “were” because as I learned from querying the Internet about the book’s principals, Jonathan Souweine died on April 9, 2009, at age sixty-one. The couple had been sweethearts since high school. “We’ve always been married,” as Jonathan said during construction of their house. He was a successful lawyer and one-time politician who ran for district attorney, but lost, so left politics. Judith is still living (in the same house as far as I know), is a brilliant woman with a PhD in psychology, has done extensive work in education, and has pursued many useful avenues of service to humanity. She is still highly active in many projects.

The story of the building of this house is told much like a novel. The main characters are not, as a reader might presuppose, the Souweines, nor even the architect Bill Rawn, but the construction crew. The tale is told largely from their hands-on perspective, since they were the ones who actually did the work of building it. Their company, Apple Corps, was a cooperative consisting of four extremely gifted and dedicated carpenters—Jim Lowe (the boss and greater among equals), himself a literature reading son of a successful lawyer, Richard the workaholic, Ned the master craftsman, and Alex the philosopher, who went to Dartmouth and is as well-read as Jim. Collectively they embrace far more culture, taste, humor, and even formal education than one might typically expect to find in a construction crew. They are as different from one another as can be, yet get along together splendidly, brothers sharing a common view about the need to do a job the right way, taking time to fix and redo details no one else would ever see, until they meet their own exacting standards, usually at their own expense. As a result, their company, Apple Corps, made only $3,000 profit over and above the cost of materials and labor, which they dole out to themselves at the equal rate of fourteen dollars per hour—all against the approximately $150,000 total cost of the house, a great deal in 1983 money. The men were disappointed with the bottom line, but absolutely no one disagreed—builders, clients, the architect, the neighbors, and critics who come to look—that above all the house had been magnificently built. The work took five and a half months to accomplish.

An epilogue notes that the company went on to hire two or three younger, talented carpenters, and soon had more work than they could handle from clients who appreciated their work and were willing to pay for it. I don’t know how long the company survived, but would be surprised if any form of it is still in operation today.

I have no idea where any of these men are today or what they are doing. I think they were all young enough to still be in the work force today. A quick search indicates that Jim Locke wrote a book in 1988 called The Apple Corps Guide to the Well-Built House. I don’t know anything about the rest.

By 1985, in time to mention it at the end of the book, the house received an award from an association of architects in Boston, where William Rawn Associates is headquartered, for being a “house of distinction.” Rawn came from a wealthy banking family, eschewed the family fortune, but was a scary good student. He went first to Yale, then Harvard Law, and after practicing law for only two years, became an artist, to his family’s dismay, selling his drawings at high class galleries, and earning enough to send himself—without family money—to architecture school at MIT. Although he was already forty years old, the Souweine house was his very first project as a professional architect, designed when William Rawn “Associates” consisted only of William Rawn. Today it is one of the most distinguished of architectural firms. The company’s projects have included much in the way of prominent public spaces, especially theaters and university projects, including the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, an amazing building from what I see of it. There’s also an outdoor theater at Lincoln Center built by the company.

There is an excellent and beautiful collection of their many impressive projects on the company’s Web site. I highly recommend a visit.

Regrettably, an hour’s searching proved futile in coming up with any image whatsoever of the Souweine house. I can’t even ascertain an address in hopes of getting a look using Google Maps Street View. Because the house was featured in Kidder’s book, it may have been the Souweines’ desire to low profile their exposure, despite being high profile activists themselves, though at the time it was built, resources such as the Web did not exist, and few people, even wealthy ones, had computers. I’d love to see pictures of this house, at least of the outside, but also of the stairway, of which much is said.

After the initial design, Bill Rawn, a long time personal friend of he Souweines, became a supporting cast member, dropping in once and a while to see how things are going, and serving as a catalyst to demonstrate how in the world of building construction, there is always at least minor friction between architects and builders.

Builders are like software engineers. Regardless of what clients demand and marketeers promise, what the customers actually get in the end is whatever the engineers give them. They can either like it or sue.

Accordingly, the tension and release of the story flow in House has to little to do with the details of house construction, about which a novice can nonetheless learn much, but is about the individual personalities in the drama and the dynamics between them. Aesthetic principles aside, a lot of money was involved, also a building schedule that started in late April 1983 and lasted until the following mid-October; each person had his own interests and priorities in a project where much was at stake for all concerned. On many occasions there were heated words, particularly between Jim Locke and Jonathan Souweine, but in the end the clients loved their house, and agreed it was superbly designed and built. Despite some differences, everyone parted best of friends in the end.

Tracy Kidder has a wonderful ability to play the role of fly on the wall. The extensive detail he presents as direct quotes implies that he was personally on site for much of the building, and also for business meetings, and in the individual homes of the four contractors. Yet he never once mentions himself or even hints at his presence. The reader is led to conclude that he must have been there, unless he just made stuff up. But the dialog recorded has a strong ring of truth to it. When Kidder reports that Jim’s face turns red and he worries he may have overstepped his bounds with a snide comment, but that Jonathan comes back with a retort that indicates he took it well, was that fabricated? It is reported as being the way things really happened, and I am led to believe that it was. A silent observer had to be there to record it.

I could say much more about House but won’t. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I recommend it.

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Legacy

Subtle Is the Lord — A Reflection

Cover of "Subtle Is the Lord: The Science...Cover via Amazon Albert Einstein is such an iconic personage that Time magazine named him Person of the Century in 2000. Despite this, few people can explain what it was this singularly independent, rumpled man did to earn the world’s approbation.

Countless biographies have been written about Albert Einstein. From among them I chose to read Abraham Pais‘s Subtle Is the Lord, touted as the “best” of the scientific biographies, meaning that after a short introduction it plunges headlong into the physics and math that are the substance and language of Einstein’s lifework. Subtle Is the Lord was published in 1982, twenty-seven years after Einstein’s death. Pais died in 2000.

Abraham Pais was himself a physicist and science historian, and a colleague of Albert Einstein at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study. Throughout Einstein’s life, although all his scientific papers are wholly his own, he worked with numerous assistants and collaborators because it is standard practice in the world of scientific research for scientists to bounce ideas off one another. Evidence of this practice can be seen in the number of years that Nobel Prizes have been awarded to multiple recipients in a single category for work done in tandem. Pais never collaborated himself with Einstein on any specific project, but was nonetheless a friend who had many conversations with him, usually about physics.

As a reader, it would seem pointless to expend one’s life’s currency learning about the lives of famous men without attempting to understand the basis of what it was that made them special. For instance, were someone to publish a biography of NFL quarterback Brett Favre that glossed over the admiration-inspiring accounts of how many games he started in succession, the championships he helped to win, his Super Bowl appearances, the records he set, the dramatic finishes he spearheaded, and why he won the Most Valuable Player award three times consecutively, favoring instead the backstory regarding Favre’s childhood and family, his schooling, how much money he has made, and what he likes to do in his spare time, such a volume would be panned by critics as weak and inconsequential.

For that reason, a difficult task presents itself to writers who hope to present a comprehensive portrait of Albert Einstein the man, but who wish to skirt over the science because it makes for tough sledding. To do so is liable to result in a superficial exercise in hero worship. The problem is that Einstein’s work is difficult to understand and difficult to explain.

“Albert Einstein was a great man!”

“How great was he?”

Very great!”

“Oooh. But what made him so great?”

“He was a scientist!

“Whoa! Ummm. That still doesn’t answer my question. Why is he so highly regarded?”

“Because the whole Worldwide Community of Smartest Guys Anywhere (WC of SGA) got together and canonized him in 1919.”

“Ah. Well then, that’s good enough for me.”

Many people admire scientists merely for being scientists, and idolize famous people just for being famous. Einstein was both.

In 1919, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington captured photographic images and data from a solar eclipse, verifying that light bends and that space is warped. Shortly afterward, the WC of SGA announced to the world that Einstein had devised a theory about how the universe works that overturned the explanations of some of the most revered scientists they had heard about and believed for centuries—Copernicus and Newton—and that what Einstein said would change everything about physics—but not to worry because for the time being the universe is still safe.

At that time—which happened to coincide with the end of World War I— a newspaper reported that there were only twelve men in the world who understood general relativity. Nobody ventured to identify precisely which twelve. Another anecdote reports the number as being three. Someone asked Eddington if it was true that only three people understood relativity at that time, to which he quipped that he could not think who the third person might be.

Regardless of the precise numerical truth of the claim, at the time even few experienced physicists could read Einstein’s papers with full comprehension. While the concepts can be explained with illustrations both verbal and pictorial, and evidence of their truthfulness can be collected experimentally, the core of general relativity is pure math of a high order, which at first was all the WC of SGA had to evaluate it by.

The world reacted by saying, “Oooo yeah!” making Einstein, who was already quite famous, an instant world celebrity, a status he retained for the rest of his life. Later everybody bought Einstein tee shirts and pictures, because Einstein was allegedly smart and undeniably funny looking, and later still Time magazine anointed him Man of the Century, but today most people still can’t explain general relativity, or any of the other work that Einstein did.

Personally, I dwell among the unwashed multitudes who lack sufficient physics and math training to absorb most of the hard stuff. (But I’m working on that.) Biographies and summaries have been written that include explanations for non-technical readers, but Subtle Is the Lord is not one of them. Fortunately, Pais provided a roadmap in the form of italicized section headers in the table of contents. A reader navigating only those sections and skipping the rest can read a purely biographical account of Einstein’s life. That’s the good news. The bad news is that to do so results in reading only about a quarter of the book and missing much of importance, and getting mainly the sort of material that can be obtained from a reliable encyclopedia.

I do not recommend that readers of any level of expertise eliminate the scientific material entirely. At 552 pages, well over half the book consists of equation-laden writing that might appear intimidating to many. My method was to plow through this text as well, as quickly as I could, ignoring only the parts that were quite obviously out of my reach, mainly the mathematics, and dwelling on the commentary.

There is a great advantage to this tactic. The text connecting many technical points is imbued with history, consisting of Pais’s explanations of how Einstein progressed from one point to the next, refining or rejecting earlier ideas, including his reasons for doing so, and commenting on exchanges Einstein had with collaborators, thereby presenting a fascinating portrait of the process and hard work that accompanies scientific research and discovery.

Contrary to notions that are popularly believed, most scientists, even Einstein, do not experience Archimedean Eureka! moments where great universal truths suddenly loom up fully formed as though by divine revelation. Einstein’s theory of general relativity was the product of a decade of follow-up work from a paper published in 1905, a period that included much work on other topics as well. Of particular interest is the concluding work that Einstein did during November 1915, as he zigged and zagged toward the completion of his theory.

Thereafter, what remained to be done was to gather empirical evidence that the theory was true. It seemed quite certain, at least to Einstein, also to many scientists, although its ideas were contrary to intuition and previous understanding. Because of World War I, politics, and bad weather, it took another four years to gather the solar eclipse data that made all the SGAs jump and shout.

It is obvious that Abraham Pais is more of a scientist than he is a writer, and not merely because of the depth of scientific coverage that he presents.

Dr. Pais frequently injects himself into the story, even in parts where he was not directly involved, for instance, in comments following the model: “Einstein said such and such, but later physicists produced evidence to the contrary, and I believe it’s not true because of so and so.”

Given the author’s two-pronged attempt to provide both scientific and purely biographical accounts, the book’s organization seems chaotic, and sometimes the seams show. Pais says things like, “Previously I explained blabbety blab, and will now skip ahead to blah blah blah and will return later to doodly doodly.” A more literary-minded writer would not provide as much explanation—or in this case perhaps I should say apologia—regarding his method of writing, but such is not surprising coming from a scientist whose custom is to follow the timeless IMRAD standard format for scientific paper writing: which requires presenting basic sections subtitled Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion that expose every fact possible for the analysis of peers, holding no cards under the table. The net result is a book that is undoubtedly authentic, but not literary.

The widely held myth that Einstein did not like and was not good at math in school comes from the same school as the tale that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then fessed up to his father. Einstein was not a runaway prodigy, but despite disliking rote learning and certain teaching methods he encountered as a student, he always did very, very well in both math and science. He taught himself calculus between ages twelve and fifteen, a subject rarely taught to persons that young.

Einstein’s elevated vision made him a non-conformist—some say a rebel. He was a non-joiner, unable to subscribe to any prescribed philosophy or regimen in toto. As a boy, he was shocked upon seeing a military parade, with its row after row of seemingly lobotomized robot soldiers, purged of individuality, goose-stepping by in demonstration of their ardent loyalty to they knew not what. Revulsed, his immediate reaction, at age fifteen, was to leave his family behind and move to Switzerland, eventually renouncing his German citizenship and becoming a permanent citizen of Switzerland so he would never be forced to join the military. Einstein became an outspoken pacifist.

With regard to religion, Einstein retained his identity as a Jew his whole life, and was even offered the presidency of the newly formed nation of Israel when its first president Chaim Weizmann died, an offer he turned down with some embarrassment. Einstein had been a zealous observer of Judaism very briefly as a young boy, then backed off and became non-observing. While Einstein’s final views are a matter of dispute, Einstein himself maintained that he was not an atheist, but in later life declared that he did not believe in a personal God. It appears that he was just confused, or likely undecided, as he was also about many questions scientific questions to which he pursued answers; and being, as Pais described him, “The freest man I ever knew,” he was unable to swallow and digest any precooked package of fast-food doctrinal religious pap, including that of atheism, rejecting all such as mindless solutions for persons who prefer not to think things through.

A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.

The source I collected this quote from called is Matz’s Law, which happens to be ironic to me for personal reasons, but I do not know the ultimate origin.

It must be difficult to write about the life of a man who earned his reputation from spending the most productive hours of his life sitting and staring into space, blinking and breathing, and writing an occasional note. He didn’t live in big houses, didn’t drive fancy cars (in fact, I believe he didn’t drive at all), didn’t wear expensive suits, and didn’t party. He was not a warrior, not an adventurer, and not a sportsman. He loved music, played the violin rather well and also a bit of piano, and advocated living a simple life.

The most physical activity Einstein ever engaged in was going for long walks, when he came up with some of his best ideas. Much that I have learned has been on long walks, too. Regrettably, much that I have since forgotten has also been that which I learned on long walks. I used to take a notebook, but using one requires that I interrupt my run, or at least walk more slowly. Today I take a smartphone, which is a little easier to manage. I wonder if Einstein carried a notebook on his walks?

In most other respects, Einstein led an ordinary life. His celebrity status made him in demand, so he graciously spent some time traveling, making appearances, and lecturing, and he got involved in various causes outside of science, but he did not seek the publicity.

When he died Einstein was still working on a unified field theory, a “theory of everything,” as he called it, and wasn’t making much progress. Today, fifty-five years later, they still aren’t making much progress on that one. As I understand it, there may be no reason to presume that a correct explanation of how the universe works needs to be boiled down to a single theory, but work on a unified theory has nonetheless resulted in other valuable research in physics.

One thing is certain, one that scientists themselves know best of anyone, is that theories are not facts, nor are they intended to be regarded as such. A theory is not necessarily all right or all wrong. A theory merely proposes a framework of explanation regarding observations of events that have been seen to happen. Some phenomena are known and understood better than others, and the explanations for them have moved from the realm of theory to that of principle or law. In the field of science, particularly in atomic and cosmological physics, much has been observed that has been explained by various theories that are difficult or impossible to test for correctness. For instance, the Big Bang theory is one utterly untestable explanation that has been proposed regarding the origins of the physical universe, a description that relies on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and one that is compatible with the belief that a Designer and Creator started it all rolling. Exactly how He may have done it is beside the point. Exploring questions regarding such matters will no doubt keep mankind occupied for as long as he continues to occupy this planet.

He has even put eternity in their heart; yet mankind will never find out the work that the true God has made from start to finish. – Ecclesiastes 3:11

If anyone thinks he knows something, he does not yet know it as he should know it. – 1 Corinthians 8:2

Arts

My Buddy Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A friend approached me one evening, an older (but not ancient) woman, wanting to know if she correctly understood what she had heard — that I had at one time been a professional photographer in New York City.

Having no idea where she might have acquired such misinformation, I assured her that like most persons who own a digital camera I’m an enthusiastic taker of snapshots, but among the thousands, aside from a few cases when the subject, lighting, and the spasm of my trigger finger coincided serendipitously, there are no masterpieces among them; that my ignorance of the technicalities of photography approaches the profound; and that no one has ever paid me a nickel for taking a photograph, nor have I ever attempted or hoped to receive compensation for doing so. In short: No, I am not now, and never was a professional photographer in any sense of the word.

To keep the conversation rolling, and because I intuited to some degree what she may have heard inklings about, I added that my artistic career was limited to curtailed attempts to compose music, during part of which efforts I did indeed live in New York, but that was a very long time ago—the late sixties and early seventies. I added that it was not utter failure to be any good at it that brought that phase of my life to an end, but the need to remove myself from an unhealthy and destructive environment. Most people of my age and older are well aware or can imagine that the popular music scene in New York City in the sixties was eminently life threatening — physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually — to anyone who got caught up in the thinking and conduct of that mad era. Having no reasonable alternative that would allow me to stay in the business, I simply got out.

The friend, who seemingly understood what I said, then added the question: “Was Mozart around there at that time, too?”

Mozart? Working in New York in the sixties? She thought perhaps I might have known him? Briefly words failed me. Finally, I was able to choke out the reply: “No, my dear. Mozart died in 1791. He was a contemporary of George Washington and the other Founding Fathers of the United States. That was two hundred years before my time. I’m a contemporary of Bob Dylan, not Mozart.” “Oh!” she replied, apparently unfazed by the time gaffe, probably unfamiliar with the name Bob Dylan, but disappointed to realize that I had not rubbed shoulders with the particular celebrity I had named.

I love this dear lady, who was only trying to be friendly, and attribute her parochial naïvety to a deliberately self-inflicted withdrawal from contact with worldly society to a degree and for reasons that seem appropriate to her. Still, I have to wonder how one’s Weltanschauung can become so discombobulated that a person’s recognition of essential historical figures is skewed by centuries. The episode constitutes yet another demonstration of how easily a fundamentally ignorant person, by a simple misstatement can lead others to think, “If you don’t know that, what do you know?”

Lemme see … did the apostle Paul ever appear before Bill Clinton? Maybe I’ll check that out on Wikipedia.

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Legacy

Festivus 50K 2009

On Saturday, December 12, I ran the Festivus 50K for the second time. The race is an out and back, mostly on the Olentangy River bike path, starting at its northern extremity in Worthington, Ohio, through the streets of downtown Columbus, where there’s currently a lot of construction and opportunities for persons unfamiliar with the course to get lost, and back onto the bike path for a little piece before reaching the turnaround. The part from north of The Ohio Statue University is the best part of the course. South of OSU — yuck.

Near the end of the North Coast 24-hour race in Cleveland last October I resolved that I would not enter another ultramarathon until I lose twenty-five pounds. Festivus was the exception I had in mind all along because: it’s free, a no fee no tee event where you provide your own support and record and email your finishing time to the race director if you care to have it listed; it’s run on the bike path where I train three Saturdays out of four; in contrast to the previous two Sunday races, it was even scheduled for a Saturday, my usual long run day; I try to do a marathon or longer long run or walk once a month, and needed one for December. With January and February staring me in the face, I don’t know if the weather will permit me to get one in either month. So I did the race.

Last year I finished in last place by a whopping margin of three hours and seven minutes, partly because I walked the whole thing, as my last training run for Across the Years, where I walked for three days, and partly because I missed the turnaround point (the marker had been removed), so walked an extra mile or so. Otherwise I would have saved an hour to an hour and a half and been last by only an hour and a half.

Before every race I go through a period of thinking: “I don’t really have to do this. It’s gonna be long. It’s gonna be hard. I don’t have anything to prove to myself or anyone else. No one is forcing me to do this.”

The feeling is strongest when I get out of bed on race morning and check the weather. It’s early. It’s dark. I’m not a morning runner, though I’ve always been cranked and ready to go by the start of any race I’ve ever been in.  There’s too much to think about, going umpteen times over my checklist. I hate taping and Bag Balming my feet, but know I’ll regret it if I compromise on any part of my proven routine. It’ll be cold out there. I’ll be alone all day long—but that’s never stopped me from doing a training run.

Happily, I’ve never DNSed any race. If I say I’ll be there, I will be. By the time I was dressed and ready to leave, I was anxious to get started.

I left the house at 7:45 to make the start time, set for 8:30. True to the forecast, there was nary a cloud in the sky, nor would there be all day long. The prediction was for a high of 35, which is warmer than it had been earlier in the week, and turned out to be an underestimate. More good news. I can handle that temperature.

I turned on the car radio, tuned permanently to WOSU, the NPR station at The Ohio State University, which broadcasts mostly classical music when it’s not airing the usual NPR news and information programs. Some music perfect for the day was on—a baroque trumpet concerto, the sound as sweet and bright as peppermint. Just as I was starting to get into it the sound cut off. Oops, I forgot—the radio in my 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis will play for two minutes or less, then cut off for the rest of the day. I don’t know why, though it seems to be temperature related. The only likely solution is to replace the radio, which I’m unwilling to do, even though there are several years of life left on the car.

Whoop! Suddenly the radio came back on, which usually doesn’t happen. By this time some other cheerful noise was playing. Being in a jovial mood, I began to whistle along.  Oops, I forgot—the blower fan for the heater in my car doesn’t work, so when I whistled, I suddenly found myself fogging the windows with whistle steam. Dang! While trying to wipe off the windows with a rag so I could see, the radio cut out again. A guy can’t even manifest being in a good mood these days.

I arrived twenty minutes early and saw a dozen or so runners standing where the start would be. Aha! I thought—a crowd of early arrivers. Looks like there’ll be a pretty good number. I fumbled with my gear and my camera inside the car before getting out, realized upon stepping out of the car that I’d need to take off my gloves to work the camera, said nuts with that, tossed the camera in the trunk, turned around, and all the runners were gone. They turned out to be some running club assembling for their Saturday morning workout. I looked around and didn’t see anyone at first who might be doing Festivus. I did have the right date, time, and place, right? I did. Within a minute or two runners started crawling out of their cars, mingling and making preparations.

There were reportedly forty to forty-five runners at the start. Some said they wouldn’t be going the whole distance. After two years of living here, I still don’t know many runners in Columbus, but I did get to talk to a few people, including familiar ones.

Festivus is informal to the max. Race Director Dan Distelhorst hoped everyone looked at the route on the Web site, or at least just knew what it was, since he wasn’t planning on describing it. One woman, possibly from a team of four people who drove in from Cincinnati and finished together, asked: If you’ve never seen the course is it possible to get fouled up? I was too quick to speak up and said it couldn’t be easier. I hope she didn’t get lost, because there are in fact some tricks it would help to know about, particularly getting through all the construction downtown, and also a couple of places on the bike path itself that could be confusing.

True to the forecast, it turned out to be gorgeous, with an official high of 41, and no wind to speak of—for one who was adequately dressed. I talked to one runner before the race who was worried he might be overdressed. He was standing there in shorts and a sweatshirt, while I stood by in running underliners, long johns and tights on the bottom, long john shirt, a North Face technical shirt, a hoodless sweatshirt, and my Across the Years 1000-mile jacket on top, a beanie and full head cover, and a pair of running gloves covered by down filled gloves. On my back was my 100-ounce Camelbak Mule, filled only halfway, which turned out to be a mistake. The other runner voiced the maxim: “Dress for the end of the race, not the beginning!” Fine. In my case by the time I got back to my car with no heater it would be pitch dark, or close to it, and cold again, so I was prepared.

Finally we took off. The official weather report said the low temperature was sixteen degrees Saturday, though it didn’t seem quite that cold to me.  But it was bright and windless, with prospects for a nice day. As we took off, I overheard one lady complain to another about being cold. The other replied: “It should get better in about twenty degrees.”

By one hundred feet from the start I was in last place. The other runners were out of sight by two hundred yards, and I never saw any of them again until I encountered them as they were returning, which began just north of OSU, nine or ten miles from the start, when I still had many miles to the turnaround. Unlike last year, this time at least I recognized most people coming back, or they recognized and acknowledge me, as friendly greetings were exchanged. I had the good fortune to be seen running rather than walking on most of those occasions.

People have asked me what I think about when I run long distances. The answer could fill an entire essay. One thing that occupied my mind on this day was what I’ve most recently been reading: a book that discusses social changes in the United States in 1800, the year Thomas Jefferson was elected President and the whole nature of the government changed, with consequences that remain down to today.

As I got near to OSU, I saw many geese and a few ducks—hundreds of them—all in the water, and every single one absolutely motionless. Usually they’re swimming around, at least slowly, bobbing for food, honking and quacking and doing all the goosely, duckly things that geese and ducks do. It was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds.” They were just there. Some had their heads tucked in, apparently sleeping or maybe just trying to keep warm. I guess I would turn motionless pretty quickly myself if I were sitting naked in the middle of a body of water that was near freezing. I’m living my third cold season in Ohio; this was a strange, eerie but peaceful scene of a type I’ve never seen before.

I always take a good look whenever I pass by the Mausoleum—errr, make that the enormous OSU football stadium. It’s hard to imagine that venerable shrine ever being replaced. It’s been in operation for 87 years and is ideally located. Where would they put a new one? Putting an updated building on the same spot would probably be perfect, but where would they play during the years a new one was being rebuilt?

Living near The Ohio State University is one of the things I like best about living in Columbus; knowing it would be was one of the drawing points for me. I have no formal connection to the school whatever, only an emotional one.  While growing up our family lived less than a mile from another Big Ten university football stadium, Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium. My father taught at Northwestern a number of years. Later I spent six years as a student at University of Illinois, and even though I left school as a sixties radical, I loved campus life. Even when I lived for seven months in Buffalo, I sensed a connection with SUNY, as one of my band’s musicians played in a new music ensemble there, and I even played two concerts there myself. In Phoenix, we had Arizona State University, where my wife got both a bachelors and masters degree, and my daughter got her RN/BSN.  Despite this, the nature of the city is such that I never felt any special attachment to or special interest in that school the whole time I lived in Arizona.

I’ve digressed; but these tangents are among the things I reflected on during this particular long outing on the road.

I felt great the whole race. At the turnaround I felt invincible, as though I’d barely started. I wore no watch (another thing of mine that’s broken), so used the clock on my cell phone as a timer. When I checked my time at the turnaround, it said I’d done the outbound part in 4:17, just as the third runner was about to finish. I was sure I could finish in under nine hours, and maybe even grind out a negative split.

That didn’t quite happen, but this time out I avoided the usual death march. My first sign of tiring came around twenty miles, the traditional location of the “wall.” But I was well equipped with gels and the like, so I kept feeding myself, and my energy level revived.  Unfortunately, I ran out of water, which didn’t help.  Normally I don’t drink much (less than I should) in colder weather, and I just underestimated my needs, trying to cut back on weight carried.

Soon thereafter I stopped at the solar air compressor station in the wetlands just north of OSU, where bicyclists can get free air in their tires. I juggled some of my gear around, shed my full head cover and outer gloves, and stuffed them into my Camelbak, as it was the warmest part of the day and I was actually a bit too warm, which may have contributed to my slowing down. It got cooler later, but never uncomfortable since I worked hard to keep moving quickly as my decrepit body would allow.

When I got to the bridge that crosses the Olentangy River for the last time, which Google Maps tells me is 1.03 miles from the start/end, I started running without letup, and to my amazement, managed to run it all the way in. I rarely can do that. When I arrived there was just enough light left to see. I brought my headlamp, but obviously didn’t want to make a stop to dig it out and put it on for the short bit that I would need it. Last year I could have used it, as I walked well over an hour in the dark.

My finishing time was 9:06. My 50K PR is 5:49, three hours and seventeen minutes faster, but that was ten years ago, and that was then and this is now. Given that I finished an hour and fifteen minutes faster than last year, only in part due to the extra mile or so that I traveled last year, and ended feeling strong, I’m pleased with the result, and confident that the hard work I’ve been doing lately to get back into shape has started to pay off.

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Humor

The Real Inventor of the Internet

Cropped version of Thomas Jefferson, painted b...

Image via Wikipedia

An urban legend that circulated in 2000, one that persists today as a standing joke, was that Al Gore, then running for the office President of the United States, made the wild claim to have “invented the Internet.” Although Gore made no such claim, he did frequently talk about the increasingly greater role he played, starting in the late 1970s, in promoting government support of high-speed telecommunication systems. Gore’s part in this is little known to the populace at large, but in this work Gore distinguished himself more than any other high profile government official is likely to be able to claim.

Less known than Gore’s part is that played by none other than Thomas Jefferson, two hundred years before Mr. Gore.

By 1779, while the American Revolution was going full tilt, Thomas Jefferson, then a representative in Virginia’s House of Delegates, submitted two proposals to the Virginia legislature. One was “A Bill for Establishing Cross Posts,” intended to promote “the more general diffusion of public intelligence among the citizens of this commonwealth.” He also introduced “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” with similar, but slightly different purposes. Implementation of either arrangement would require the state to invest in some infrastructure, at a time when funds among the states in the newly nascent nation were in severely limited supply.

General information, the type of communication that takes place between family, friends, and business people, could be handled by a well-designed postal system. But the purpose of cross posts was intended for the high-speed exchange of higher priority intelligence such as military data.

These plans were at first tabled by the Virginia Senate. Shortly afterward, by the end of 1779, Jefferson found himself unexpectedly elected governor. Discreetly, he refrained from using his greater authority to force adoption of his plan, reasoning that it had been the voted-on decision of the duly constituted legislature to reject the idea.

In 1780 the dynamics of the ongoing war changed. Communications between George Washington and Jefferson became unpredictable. Washington himself emphasized the value of establishing an efficient system of transmitting military intelligence as quickly as possible. As things were, it took over a month for decision makers to get word regarding the movement of soldiers, the outcomes of confrontations, and the needs for supplies. As a result, Jefferson’s idea for establishing cross posts was revived and enacted.

Cross posts were mail route roads branching off the main north-south trunk road through Virginia, a sort of interstate highway of its day, connecting it with other American States. These roads created a flexible network, and constituted state-of-the-art communications technology.

Military intelligence was not to be carried by ordinary postal service. A special team of horses and riders were provided, along with a system of instructions for carriers, by means of which communiques were to be carried and handed off, with timed and dated receipts being required. These receipts were analyzed and used to predict delivery times with increasingly improved accuracy, or such was the theory.

Unfortunately for the war effort at that time, success of the system depended on couriers who were good at what they did, dedicated to the cause, and willing to shoulder their responsibilities seriously. Not all lived up to those standards, so the system didn’t work as well as Jefferson had hoped. (Neither did a lot of things Jefferson thought up!)

Today the components that drive the modern Internet are well known. Messages are transmitted by means of data packets over networks of electronically connected devices such as routers, computers and cell phones, using a seven-layer stack of protocols. In Jefferson’s day the same general objectives were accomplished by means of good roads, fast horses, and a system of rules for controlling the flow of messages.

Therefore, to anyone who cracks jokes regarding Al Gore’s role in inventing the Internet, I will retort: No, it was really Thomas Jefferson who invented the Internet.

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Legacy

North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run 2009


The North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) in Cleveland, Ohio made a spectacular debut in its first edition on October 3–4, 2009. As host to the USA Track and Field/American Ultrarunning Association national championship, it drew a total of 107 runners: 82 men and 24 women. That the venue provides a fast course for racing is evident in that the race attracted many of the best runners in the US, and that 41 of those runners ended their day on the road with more than 100 miles, a figure that I personally regard as outstanding.

The race is so named because Edgewater Park, in which it was run, is on the edge of Lake Erie, with virtually the entire US Great Lakes system lying to the north, west, and east. The park features a looped walking path, USA Track and Field certified to be 0.90075 miles long, with an asphalt surface in perfect condition, and only one moderately tight turn, a concern to faster runners at times they are running at top speed, which in a 24-hour race is not often.

A primary concern in selecting a venue is to find one that lacks hills. It should be as flat as possible—ideally, as flat as a standard high school track. But this is rarely possible, except on actual tracks, which are sometimes available, but which presents other problems. Therefore, close is considered good enough.

The path at Edgewater Park is about as flat as any runner in an event of this type could hope for. All such courses tend to have a “better” direction for running, even though on a loop the cumulative rises and falls cancel each other out. NC24 was run in the clockwise direction. The start is by the ramada on the west end, next to a large parking lot, just off a sandy beach. There is s slight rise on the northwest corner, a slighter but longer one across the north segment, followed mostly by gradual descents, with one shorter but steeper drop in the southwest corner just before returning to the start.

Having had the privilege of participating in discussions with the race organizers for this race since the beginning, I’m aware of the great care that went into selecting the location. The day before the race, we arrived at Edgewater Park to take a look, when I also took a few photographs of the course, and also compared the lower park immediately to the west, which the organizers also considered using. While the lower course is prettier in some ways, with a much nicer ramada, the path has some difficult turns, snakes around too much, and even has one place where runners would have had to cross over a segment of grass. It was immediately apparent to me that the organizers made the right choice to use the other one.

How It All Came About

At the end of 2008, for various personal reasons, I nearly withdrew from ultrarunning entirely. I still walk long distances faithfully, and was able to average around fifty miles a week in training most of the summer, despite fighting off a problem with plantar fasciitis. The condition required aggressive treatment with two cortisone shots and a careful but quick return to longer distances, but without any running. It was when I started to add running back into the mix last June that the problem began. My goal in training was simply to get to the starting line feeling healthy and ready to go 24 hours continuously.

Despite my intent to focus on other pursuits, including my job, I became involved in discussions about presenting a 24-hour race way back in September, 2008. While out walking on my favorite training paths, exploring an area near where I live, but previously unknown to me, I discovered a little area that I thought would be nearly ideal for a 24-hour race. Though I still knew very few runners in Columbus, I did know a couple, and through a fortuitous and timely contact with Dan Fox, who lived then in Cleveland, I connected with some local runners and pitched the idea of creating a 24-hour race here. Though there was some interest, and a couple of other possible sites were suggested, there was not enough critical mass available to get the project rolling, particularly inasmuch as I was not willing to be the one to do all the work myself.

Word got back to Dan Fox through his friend, Columbus ultrarunner Rita Barnes, who attended my local discussion. It turned out that similar efforts were being proposed by some runners in Cleveland, including Dan Horvath, Joe Jurczyk, Connie Gardner, Debra Horn, and some others. Discussions were still in the larval stage. These are people who regret the loss of the 24-hour race at Olander Park in Sylvania, Ohio, near Toledo, about 125 miles west of Cleveland, which many US runners remember as being one of the best races of its kind, but which folded when the race director would no longer work on it.

One factor that influenced the effort to put on the race was the experience of Cleveland ultrarunning legend Connie Gardner, who came within forty meters of setting a new American 24-hour record last year at the Ultracentric race in Texas. As the story came to me, she quit from exhaustion after being told she had the record. Later, upon re-measuring the course, they found it to be short, denying her the record. That had to be a crushing disappointment to Connie, and I have no doubt it has haunted her ever since.

Before long, the informal chat that went on among the Cleveland runners became more focused. I was invited—may have invited myself—to continue participating in the discussions. I made it clear that I was unable to accept any responsibility as an organizer, but based on my years of working with Across the Years, might have some stories, observations, and suggestions gleaned from my experience that might be useful. And so it was that I came to be a peripheral participant in the planning for the race, never really doing anything myself other than shooting off my mouth, remaining appropriately neutral as an outsider about decisions made, but keeping myself informed about the progress.

Originally, I did not intend or expect to run the race myself, but as things developed, I saw that because it was within reasonably short driving distance (about two and a half hours), it might be practical to consider. At the time I was working at a highly stressful job, which had detracted significantly from almost all the other things I wanted and needed to do at the time, particularly from giving attention to matters of personal health and fitness. In fact, the situation was spiraling out of control. However, I no longer have that job (at this writing I’m unemployed), so at least I have had freedom to train more. The main questions were whether I could get back in shape adequate so as not to embarrass myself at a race, and whether we could budget it. Both of those factors worked out favorably, so I locked the event in my schedule and began to plan—just like the old days.

In the end, other than my performance at the race, everything went as smoothly as I could ever have hoped for, and we had a rewarding and refreshing three days of vacation away from the turmoil that constitutes our current life situation.

Preparations and Gear

Making preparations to leave seemed simpler than usual for this race. One possible reason is that now that I have spent 31 24-hour days looping around a track, I’ve learned to be self-sustaining during the race itself. I don’t need and for the most part prefer not to have a crew, except I do appreciate it when Suzy is on site and will do me the occasional favor of refilling my water bottle or digging something out of my bag for me. But I would rather see her helping out the race as a volunteer than devoting exclusive effort just to me, because once I’m rolling, I don’t need it.

Therefore, for this race I took a minimalistic approach. Some runners show up to these races with elaborate tents, crews, and shelves of equipment and special foods. From experience I know that I have no need of a tent for only 24 hours. So I determined that I would make do with a gym bag containing plenty of warm clothes in case it got wet or cold, a Craftsman hard plastic toolbox I use in which to put stuff like bottles of electrolyte, ginger, caffeine, lubricants, tape, scissors, and so forth, and a collapsible camping table and chair. This is, in fact, added up to far more than I had available at the FANS race in 2004, where all the gear I did have sitting in a gym bag on a chair got thoroughly soaked by a thunderstorm, and was not useful to me.

I’ve see some runners burn far too much time fussing around with shoe changes, re-taping, changing clothes, napping, and just about everything they can think of other than actually moving forward. I’ve made all those mistakes myself. At Across the Years last year, which was my last race, I went 72 hours without changing any clothing except outer layers of sweatshirts and coats, depending on the temperature. I tend to wear more than most runners because I get cold easily, but at that race I never even took off my shoes except to get in my sleeping bag. Yes, I stunk badly enough to be a candidate for burial at the end, but I’d saved a lot of trouble and time.

Therefore, even though I brought extra clothing to NC24, I dressed in the morning in what I intended to wear for the duration of the race, and that’s exactly what I was still wearing at the end.

Travel

Suzy lined up a couple of errands she wanted to run to stores in the Cleveland area the day before the race, so we left home at 7:15 a.m. on Friday morning (October 2). We had been watching the weather forecast all week. It poured rain all day long, with a couple of brief respites late in the afternoon and evening.

Our first stop was at Edgewater Park, where I was able first to locate and padlock the two portapotties at Dan Horvath’s request, and then walk the path slowly, taking photographs, including several that were off the course, from the nearby pier.

My first impressions were: the ramadas are funky; the whole park looks less than inviting on a soaking wet day; there are a few pretty views; the degree of rise and fall on the course would not be a problem for me, therefore even less so for any of the runners seeking to deliver superior performances; and the closeness to the lake is a pleasure to the eyes. I grew up four blocks from a beautiful beach on Lake Michigan, and also lived in Maine for a while, just a few yards from the Atlantic ocean, and love to see waterfront. We were also entertained by the presence of geese and gulls in abundance.

We headed next to where we would be staying, and returned in time for a pre-race meal at Porcelli’s Bistro in downtown Cleveland. Far more runners showed up than were expected—I estimate about forty—requiring the restaurant personnel to hustle hard to take care of us, and taking a little longer than normal to get everything ordered and served. The staff did an outstanding job, and the food was delicious. They probably didn’t make much money from alcohol from this group, but I’m sure they were happy to have the spike in business.

I had hoped to be in bed around 8:30. Even with the delay I was able to pull the covers up around my nose at exactly 9:35, had the alarm set for 5:35 a.m., and slept like a baby until 4:15, but continued to rest quietly until the alarm went off.

My morning preparations, which I now have down to a science, went quickly. We arrived at the park by 7:25, in time to find a choice location to set up my aid station, though in truth there is so much available space that there is room for every person participating to stake out a large and comfortable personal estate, with no limitations on size.

One of the greatest pleasures of any of these races, because the number of runners is small, so that in time you get to know a lot of them, is to meet new people—in this case, I especially enjoyed pre-race socialization with Stuart Kern from Maryland, and Columbus runners Kathy Wolf and Mike Keller, with whom I’d exchanged several rounds of email, but had never met in person. Also, I was at least able to touch palms with ultrarunning’s current rock star Scott Jurek on his way in. We had exchanged email a few times in 2007 when he signed up to come to Across the Years, but he was unable to make the race, so we never met.

The Race Progresses

Following a brief pre-race informational meeting, the race began precisely at 9:00 a.m. as 107 runners set out on their journeys. The skies were gray and threatening most of the day, and it even sprinkled just a few drops barely a minute or two before the start—possibly our Creator’s way of warning us that if we really want to do this, we’re on our own. It never did rain during the race, and temperatures remained in the range of roughly 60 during the day to 50 at night. By about 8:30 p.m. the clouds even broke, and we were treated to the sight of this season’s Harvest Moon, accompanied by an extraordinary shimmering glow. Whenever the moon was out, the light was bright enough to cast shadows. While a very few runners wore headlamps for night running, I can’t imagine what they thought they needed them for, as between the moon and surrounding lights there was plenty of light to run by all night long.

The conversation between runners at every long distance race I have been a part of goes through a series of distinct phases:

Here We Go: Silly quips, mostly about how long the race is. “Are we almost done?” “Only 23:55 to go!” This lasts between one and five minutes, long enough for people to have to start breathing hard, and realize what they have gotten themselves into, when they would rather save their breath for something more intelligent.

Races We’ve Done: “So, I did Leanhorse two years ago.” “Well I did Comrades this year.” “That’s great. I ran Hardrock.” “I ran the Hardrock course in 1926.” “And I ran Hardrock in 1925 while carrying a piano on my back.” A little intimidating oneupmanship can sometimes be leveraged to a strategic advantage, even at this stage of the race.

The Strategy and Gear Phase: “How often do you plan to walk?” “Are you going to go straight through or sleep some?” “What are you drinking?” “Do you tape your feet?” “I think I may have forgotten to screw my head on right.”

The Serious Phase: “Grunt.” “Shut up and leave me alone.” “Maybe if I just put my finger down my throat I’ll feel better.” (Been there, done that.)

The Reduced Expectations and Rationalizations Phase: “Well, I was really hoping to break Kouros’ record, but short of that, I’ll be happy just to stay out here a while and avoid getting injured.”

The Late Night Phase: “Where’s my Mommy???!!!”

The Race Phase: Except for the leaders, most people really have no idea where they are in the standings until sometime near the end, when they might take a look to see if there is someone nearby they can overtake, or someone just behind who is a threat. The last part of a fixed-time race, from about thirty minutes out, increasing in intensity until the very last second, is when the runners still on the course put forth their hardest effort, when little conversation takes place, because too much heavy breathing precludes it.

Lynn’s Race

Lynn did not race. I lost count of my laps after four, and never had the slightest clue how far I’d gone or where I was in the standings, other than being certain it was way far down the list, until I got back to a computer after the race.

I’ve been working on a method of walking that looks a lot like slow running, the sort real old guys do, or runners who are completely depleted, except I do it when I’m fresh, and on purpose. It requires leaning forward, letting my arm swing determine the cadence, and just relaxing. Once in a while I start to slump over, like someone who is utterly exhausted, but if I remind myself: This is not running! This is walking!—I can take immediate steps to straighten up, relax, and concentrate only on my turnover and avoiding dragging my right foot, something I’ve always done, but can do less if I concentrate. Unfortunately, I don’t have this technique down to where I can continue this motion hour after hour, but when I do it, I can sustain about a 14:00 walking pace, as contrasted with about a 17:00 pace if I just walk along normally. (And a lot slower later in the race.)

I’ve never had any kind of speed, but at times have been able to demonstrate fair endurance. My goal at the start of the race was to maintain forward motion, and not to take any breaks other than at the portapotty and whatever brief moments are necessary to stop at the aid station to pick something up, or at my table to grab my water bottle, take a couple of big gulps, and put it down again. In the past I have almost gotten through an entire 24-hour race without any sort of breaks—but not quite—and at three 100-mile trail races I got beyond 24 hours, once to 28 hours before having to drop, without needing to stop and sit except for rapid maintenance, and without extreme problems of sleepiness.

But at NC24 it was not to be. I felt perfectly fine for a long time, but by about twelve hours, I started to drag, and decided to take a caffeine tablet. When I use these in training (infrequently), they prove either to be a miracle drug, or they will have only marginal effect, and may irritate my stomach. At least I know that I was faithful about drinking, taking electrolyte, and eating, as I would grab something to eat almost every lap, making sure to get variety in my choices—fruit, pretzels, M&Ms, soup, sandwiches, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and cookies all come to mind as being on the menu for the day.

And so it was that at NC24 I went 14:30 without a single rest stop, but by the last lap before breaking, I was sure that if I tried to go another without a rest I would have taken a dive in the grass somewhere along the way.

I don’t know what my problem was other than I’ve just lost too much of the fitness I once possessed, which wasn’t exactly world class to begin with.

Reluctantly, I plopped myself in my chair, shut my eyes, and slept uncomfortably for a while. I brought no blanket or tent, so all I had to keep me warm was a large bath towel.

When I awoke, I promptly rolled to my left and experienced about five minutes of dry heaves. Fortunately, nothing came up. Strangely, this is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a person with an upset stomach. I felt much better after that, and got up to start walking again, but was still sleepy.

Two slow laps later I went down a second time, then walked two more laps and went down a third time, that time for quite a while.

After that I was all right once again, and continued on without further breaks until the end of the race. But this period of distress lasted the entire graveyard segment of the race, from 11:30 p.m. until 5:00 a.m.

From then until the end was just a matter of getting it done. I enjoyed watching other runners, particularly the leaders, who were running with such focus that I didn’t dare to utter more than a word or two as they flew by. Sometimes I think I’d like to punch out the lights of the next person who says “Good job!” or “Looking good!” or the one I really hate: “Hang in there!” I got that last one less than two hours into the race. Did I already look like I was on my last legs and just needed to keep clinging for another twenty-two hours? I certainly didn’t think so.

We were able to get credit for a final partial lap. White lines painted on the path were pre-certified as lying exactly in 100-yard increments from the start. At the end of the race a signal sounded, everyone still on the course stopped where they were, and threw down a stick they had been given about a half hour before the end with their number on it. Afterwards, a volunteer came by, picked up and recorded the sticks and gave credit up to the last 100-yard segment completed, tacking that total on to the number of laps run times 0.90075 miles.

I had misunderstood the segments to be a tenth of a mile. I ran rather than walking the last two or three minutes of the race. When I passed one marker with 30 seconds to go, thinking I could not get another tenth of a mile in 30 seconds, I pulled up and walked a bit more, but when the horn sounded I was not very far from the next mark, and realized that if I’d run it I could have made it past one more mark. That’s when I realized they were not a tenth of a mile apart.

My total official mileage was 60.98045 miles, which I can comfortably round up to 61 miles for the purposes of conversation. If I had logged the extra 100 yards, most of which I did in fact actually run, it would have brought me to 61.03727 miles, which I would rather be able to round down so as not to be guilty of exaggerating my already meager accomplishment.

This figure constitutes a personal worst for me at 24 hours by a margin of 15.33 miles. Here is a list of my distances for all the 24-hour races I have run.

Race Date Miles
Across the Years 12/31/99 81.52
Olander Park 09/15/01 83.72
FANS 06/05/04 82.82
San Francisco 24-Hour 10/20/07 76.31
North Coast 24-Hour 10/03/09 60.98

Everybody Else

Although not everything went as expected during the race (“That’s why they play the game,” as Chris Behrman likes to say), there were some outstanding performances. Following are a few comments and anecdotes about various runners that I know, listed in finish order.

At the pre-race dinner we sat at the same table with Phil McCarthy from New York and five or six other people. Phil and the others talked about running; he sounded completely prepared. Should we call this listening session the McCarthy Hearings? Phil ran steadily the whole race, always alone, because no one else could run that fast, winning it and the national championship with 151.52 miles, along with a cash prize of $900.

John Geesler, from Johnsville, NY, is the Across the Years poster boy. We particularly like one shot from last year, when John stayed on the course despite being injured, and spent some time doing laps with Gavin Wrublik.

John has had some great days, and a couple of bad ones. His race at NC24 was superb, where he ran hard at the very end to come from behind and take second place by a tenth of a mile in the last lap, with a total of 139.41 miles.

Dan Rose, from Washington, DC, is the one John beat. Dan finished third with 139.28 miles.

For me the highlight of the race was watching Jill Perry from Manilus, NY run the best looking race I’ve personally witnessed, winning the women’s race, championship, and prize money, with an outstanding 136.33 miles. Her running was smooth as glass the whole way. She told me after the race she had to take a break to tend to some physical problems, and also threw up once. Jill is a beautiful and shapely lady. Imagine my surprise when I learned she is also the mother of five children! Now I’m really impressed. A little research turned up that Jill has some sort of sponsorship deal with DryMax socks.

Cleveland area runner Debra Horn, who was on the 2009 U.S. Women’s 24-Hour Run National Team, which won the silver medal at the World Championships, turned in a remarkable third place finish of 128.93 miles, behind Anna Piskorska of Blandon, PA, whom I did not get to meet.

John Geesler’s friend David Putney, who did well at Across the Years in 2007, finished NC24 with 124.68 miles.

One of the great performances of the day was by Dave James. His 100-mile split was an almost unbelievable 13:06:52, but then he backed off and finished the race with 119.80 miles. His pace for 100 miles was 7:52.12. That’s thirty seconds per mile faster for 100 consecutive miles than I have ever run any single mile in my whole life.

At times we could hear Dave coming up behind and requesting the inside lane, which I’m sure most runners were willing to yield. On one occasion, going around the sharp turn, where there is sand to the right and also a drop, he tried to squeeze by on my right, but since I don’t wear my hearing aids when I run, I didn’t hear him coming on that occasion. I’m not deaf—I just didn’t realize he was nearly on top of me, and he almost wound up doing a head-first into the sand.

I guess the lessons we can learn from that experience is that the only proper way to pass, as on a highway, is on the outside, unless a runner is already well over to the left; and just because someone requests the left lane does not guarantee he will get it.

I mentioned Connie Gardner earlier, who also did a lot to help with creating the race. There was no opportunity for me to say hello to her beforehand. Once it started, Connie showed fierce concentration, and I didn’t want to interrupt her focus, but after a few hours I happened to be just behind her when she was walking a few steps and regrouping, so I used that opportunity just to introduce myself. She looked at me with a look that said: “So what?” Bad timing. I said I knew she was obsessed at the moment and asked her how it was going. She said it was going all right, but I had seen that although she was running well by most people’s standards, she seemed to me to be struggling. By the end of the race she had 116.20 miles—certainly not the record she had hoped for, but I admire Connie above all for not quitting just because she wasn’t going to set a record.

In general, I tend to respect runners who show by their action that they recognize that in a fixed-time race there is no such thing as a DNF, and for better or worse, once you have logged one lap, you’re in it until the end, and whatever your total is, that’s how it will be shown in history. I imagine that for some runners that’s harder to manage psychologically than a DNF.

I recognized Frederick Davis from Cleveland, because he ran the 72-hour race at Across the Years in 2002. When I said hello, his first words to me were, “You’ve put on some weight!” Busted. Frederick is about six feet and 140 pounds himself. He wanted to know if I’d been injured or just quit. It was helpful that he offered a menu of options. Right then wasn’t a good time to expound on my life history and present circumstances, so I gave some weak excuse.

Ray Krolewicz from South Carolina may have run the most ultramarathons of anyone in the last thirty years, and he used to win an awful lot of them, too. He finished this one with 105.39 miles.

Dan Fox recently moved his photography business to Seattle. As one of the people who sparked the creation of this race, I’m glad he was able to return to run it. He ran most of the way with Rita Barnes, getting 101.79 miles, and Rita got 100.88 miles.

In fact, five runners got 100.88 miles indicating that all probably decided to go for 100 and quit. Good for them, but it seems to me if any had taken the trouble to run even a partial extra lap at the end, he would have bumped up his place in the standings by that many people. It is supposed to be a race, after all.

Don Winkley, who has run Across the Years numerous times, is one of the great runners of very long distances, including several finishes across the US and France, and a finish at the 205-mile Volunteer State trek across Tennessee last summer. Don is now 71, and finished NC24 less than half a mile under 100 miles. I saw him hauling butt at the end, too, so know he was going for it.

Leo Lightner, age 81, and from the Cleveland area, had an as yet unratified national age group record at 82.72 miles. Someone else set an age group record as well, but I didn’t catch who it was.

Scott Jurek is ultrarunning’s current rock star, and a legendary Nice Guy. He had an un-Jureklike day, quitting at 65.75 miles. As we were leaving I ran into him and encouraged him not to give up on doing a 24-hour race, since this is the third time that I know of where he has been entered but has not been able to perform up to his enviable potential. He laughed and said he wouldn’t give up, but needed to do one when he wasn’t tired. He ran another race not long ago (I forgot which one he said), and is still recovering from it.

Mark Godale, the current US record holder for 24 hours, came out of the chute like he was possessed. I learned later that he came not to run a full 24-hour race, but was shooting for a particular time at 100K in order to qualify for the National Team. I don’t know what his goal was, but by 57.65 miles he realized he was not going to get it, so stopped for the day.

Technically, therefore, I beat Mark Godale in a 24-hour race! And with a little more effort that was probably within my power to produce, I might have been able to beat Scott Jurek as well, because that’s how the game is played. In the end it’s not about how fast you ran at the beginning before blowing up and melting down, but about how many miles you log in 24 hours. So I beat. Sorry. 🙂 (But they know that.)

This report would not be complete without mentioning that US National Team doctor Andy Lovy showed up with six of his medical students, leaving him freer to run himself than he usually is at Across the Years, where he is a fixture, and along with John Geesler (and me), is a 1000-mile jacket owner. Andy, who is now 74, got 38.73 miles.

And So …

In January I thought my ultrarunning days were over. And maybe they are, but at least I managed to pull one more race experience out of the hat. When it was over I was a little stiff the rest of Sunday, but slept well and was able to spend seven hours on my feet visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Monday before driving back to Columbus. My plantar fasciitis did not flare up, and my blisters and other foot problems were so minor as to be insignificant.

There is something powerfully attractive about ultrarunning that draws me to it. With each race it remains to be seen whether I will ever do another, but I remain interested in the sport, so I suppose that as long as there are opportunities for me in it I will continue to return.

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Legacy

Rubber Baby Buffer Dumpers

English: Flag of the city of Columbus, Ohio, U...

Image via Wikipedia

Can you say “rubber baby buffer dumpers” ten times real fast?

It is not without reason that this blog has not been updated regularly for the last year. I apologize to all zero readers who have missed it.

Once an author being interviewed on NPR mused that the truly great authors, a group from which he excluded himself, seem unashamed about baring their souls. He said they write for God. So it is that I’ve had much on my mind of late, but have been reluctant to share it in a public place. I have been writing as much as ever — for God — but have been unwilling to publish.

Meanwhile, my mental buffers are as full as a hair-choked drain. How’s that for a disturbing mixed metaphor? Now you know why I haven’t been sharing stuff. It’s time to dump just a few things so I can move on.

There have been changes to my once mundane but stable life. Persons who know me are aware that I moved from Phoenix, Arizona to Columbus, Ohio in mid-November, 2007. The overriding impetus that caused me to trade a happy life in my beloved Phoenix for Columbus was economic need; so I risked my future for one reason: to accept a promising job for which I had been recruited. The move was not the result of being driven by some irrational urge to live in Ohio, which thought had never crossed my mind.

Current economic conditions being what they are, that job lasted only sixteen months. As jobs go, while rewarding in some ways, and certainly challenging, in others it was a disappointment and not what I had hoped for. In my adult life I’ve held five primary jobs. In terms of satisfaction, benefits, and pleasure in doing, I cannot rate my most recent one as being among the top four.

Nonetheless, here I am, still in Ohio. This in itself is not a bad thing. Ohio, and Columbus in particular, has rewarded me with experiences I would not have wanted to miss.

Inevitably, I’m impelled to make comparisons between life in Columbus and Phoenix, but have discerned that allowing the analysis to move me to conclude whether it has all been worth it is an exercise of little value to me or anyone else. Phoenix was then, Ohio is now and where my future will be, and there are good and bad points to both. Above all, it is my goal to remain where I am for the rest of my days in this life. Whether that is possible remains to be seen.

So hello to Columbus, with its river trails, Whetstone Park, Wexner Center, The Ohio State University, Franklin Park Conservatory, Bexley Library, Columbus Zoo, Germantown, Short North, and as yet untapped advantages. For better or worse, you now belong to me.

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Legacy

Real Men Love Work

Author’s Note: I wrote this piece in February 2002, but never got around to publishing it. It seems particularly appropriate in these times of economic crisis to do so now.

Some people work for pleasure, others for money. It’s a fact of today’s life that most adults—men and women alike—must work outside their homes to earn money, whether they want to or not.

Some of what they take in pays for necessities such as food, clothing, housing, and transportation. If there is some left, a portion is put away for needs that are considered important but not essential to immediate survival, such as education or retirement. Inevitably, no matter how little a person makes, some portion goes for non-essential “frivolity”: trips to the movies, dinner out, or a new video game for the kids.

Work itself is important, not merely the material benefits we recoup from doing it. Mankind is designed to carry on life in the context of an economy; in a utopian sense, each citizen works for the benefit of all. To isolate oneself from human society, to live the life of the idle rich or the terminally lazy seems unnatural. Each of us is given a gift of life by our Creator, something none of us asked for. As soon as we are able, we are taught to be productive, to do things that ultimately benefit others, and that bring rewards in turn to the doer. In this way we all learn to validate the reason for our existence, proving ourselves worthy of the free gift.

Men, more than women, tend to become preoccupied by their work outside the home. To many people, a man little is more important than the work he does for a living, regardless of whether he gets paid well for it, and in some cases, even if he is not getting paid at all. For such a man, his lifework becomes the mark of Who He Is, his legacy to be passed on to his family and posterity. It even becomes a label by which he is introduced to strangers: “This is Mr. Wiggenbottom, the CEO of Questionable Opportunities, Inc.” “I’d like you to meet Dr. Wheezenhack, who is a history professor at Noaccount U.” To be successful in work is considered by many to be successful in life, to be a successful man. To have the work taken away from a man is to have everything taken away: his identity, his purpose, and his life.

Many pursuits do not pay well. Aside from the need to make adequate provision for sustenance, making money is not the primary objective of many men. The idea is to make enough to allow one to continue doing the work he values.

Teachers who love to teach rarely do it for the money, because teachers usually make far less than good ones deserve. But they, like everyone else, have to make enough to live or else find other jobs. Those who teach well speak of the satisfaction of influencing students for good. Others accept the lower pay because of the free time they have when school is out.

Most musicians I’ve known have found the satisfaction of making music sufficient all by itself. All they want is to continue doing it. If they can support themselves or even become rich without compromising their art, then all the better. But to become proficient in music requires time and effort, and these needs usually preclude the possibility of holding another job. If a musician skimps on this groundwork, he doesn’t develop sufficiently to become an artist. Furthermore, playing musical instruments requires the development of extremely intricate motor skills, cultivated through constant, long practice from youth onward. If ignored for even a little while, these skills degenerate quickly, to the point they fall below a level that is useful for professional or artistic work.

Scientists, mathematicians, and creative artists become uncommonly absorbed by their work. Endless hours spent in deep intellectual isolation lead them to their keenest revelations, notions that may in turn be transformed into output: a theory, a proof, a drama, or a song. Such flashes rarely occur in a distracted state, or in a work span fraught with interruptions. Paul McCartney, one of the most publicly sought-after persons on the planet, and a man known for his strong work ethic, said in an interview:

To be a songwriter, and to do my kind of work, you’ve got to be doing nothing. You’ve got to have a lot of time to yourself, which in most people’s lingo is doing nothing. You’re not working, you’re not working out, you’re just sort of sitting around. What a great job definition! Mine only requires a guitar and doing nothing. And I find that when I am doing nothing my favourite way of doing nothing is to make some music out of it. But you have to have some space for stuff to come into your brain. If you’re sitting in the office all day thinking about business things it is not as conducive as having some time to yourself.

Today, few people have the luxury of circumstances that Paul McCartney has to be able to do such work.

A form of work above all others is the self-sacrificing sort that is required to serve our Creator with a whole heart. Many of my closest associates openly declare that the work of teaching Scriptural truths to others is of such surpassing value, with the highest possible yield in personal satisfaction, that even family heads with a need to provide for others in addition to themselves willingly put it ahead of all other forms of work, in some cases accepting even menial jobs by which to make their livings, in order to make sufficient time to pursue spiritual goals.

Regardless of the sort of work that we engage in, whether by choice or out of necessity, it remains true that work itself is noble, and that there is no shame in any job that needs doing, no matter how lowly.

All that your hand finds to do, do with all your might, for there is no work nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the Grave, where you are going.—Ecclesiastes 9:10

Legacy

Life in Skool

Flixton Junior School. A good school is the st...

Now that school is back in session I'm hearing stories from parents of school age children about meeting their kids' teachers.

News from the Land of Educationville is not good. Children of parents who neglect to take a personal hand in the education of their progeny have little hope for any sort of meaningful future, and may as well resign themselves to being ignorant and stupid the rest of their lives. The tragic irony with ignorant people is that they don’t know they are ignorant, so rarely do anything to improve.

In 1994 we had an experience with a different twist from what we’ve been hearing. My wife and daughter and I attended a preview orientation for sixth graders going into junior high school. On that night we all happened to be wearing dress clothes. I wore a business suit, and Suzy and Cyra-Lea wore dresses. To their credit, most others in attendance at least remembered to wear underwear, over fifty percent of them on the inside. Judging from appearances, we were the only persons present who knew all the letters of the alphabet and could count above ten—except for the principal, who was exceptionally cool. The day our son graduated from grade school we dropped by his office to leave him a gift to show our gratitude for putting up so patiently with our recalcitrant genius: a fifth of whiskey.

At the orientation the very first potentate, a very large man who was probably a football lineman in school, got up and immediately began speaking exuberantly about discipline, running down the list of sanctions against rule infractions: detentions for this, suspensions for that, expulsions for certain forms of miscreant behavior, executions by hanging for still others. People were taking notes and asking, “Excuse me, but was that two days of detention for throwing a sandwich at a teacher and three for dumping a soft drink on his head, or the other way around?” They didn’t realize there would be no quiz at the end.

This was not what we had come to hear.

When the time for questions finally arrived, our daughter, who was eleven years old, broke the ice with the first query, saying: “This was all fascinating, but could you tell us a little about the educational programs and opportunities that exist for students at the school?” The principal, who knew her, was laughing his butt off in the background, while the friendly Gestapo just stared at her with his mouth open. He couldn’t give her a straight answer, and we left without one, other than his assurance that if she was as good a girl as she seemed to be and worked hard she’d make out just fine. She was and she did and she did.

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Language

Self Improvement

Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher and scien...

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One day in 1972, while browsing in a book store in Manhattan, I stumbled across a 246-page, cartoon filled self-help pocket book with the eyebrow-raising title How to Develop Your Thinking Ability—A guide to sound decisions by Kenneth S. Keyes, Jr., which I purchased on impulse for a whopping $2.45.

Given that the publisher is McGraw-Hill, and that the original copyright is 1950, I should have anticipated that the quality of the contents might be somewhat better than one of today’s functional counterparts, which might bear a title such as Thinking Clearly — For Dummies, and present anything but; but I was quite unprepared for what I encountered.

Far from being a compilation of naïve aphorisms bolsterd by lame observations, the book is actually an introductory text to the topic of general semantics (not to be confused with the related but different field of plain old semantics), and comes with an Appendix showing how to teach children the Tools for Thinking, another labeled “For Further Study,” listing bibliographic references to fifteen fundamental source texts on the topic of general semantics, and an Index. For a good overview of the topic see The Institute of General Semantics Web site.

After reading through the book quickly, I immediately returned to the beginning and read it again, making marginal notes. The experience was life changing, as it opened my eyes to a whole field of study with which I was previously unfamiliar, and at the same time immediately served to make me more open-minded and objective in how I relate to other people.

The simple tools for thinking as outlined by Mr. Keyes may be summarized as follows, as paraphrased loosely from the first Appendix:

  1. So Far As I Know: Our knowledge of every matter, no matter how deep, is incomplete, and is subject to amplification that could change our viewpoint.
  2. Up to a Point: There are very few absolutes in this universe.
  3. To Me: However convinced we may be of the rightness of our viewpoint, it is ours alone; all others have their own as well.
  4. The What Index: No two objects are ever absolutely identical, though similarities exist.
  5. The When Index: The same object will be different at different times. Temporal context is important.
  6. The Where Index: Environmental factors change reality.

As happens with newfound interests, I wanted to know more, whereupon I set out to explore more advanced literature on the topic of general semantics as listed in the Appendix.

This led me first to People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment by Wendell Johnson, a speech pathologist who was himself a lifetime severe stutterer. I still remember a paragraph in which Dr. Johnson substituted the nonsense word “blab” for every word in a paragraph of Nazi propaganda extolling the virtues of the Fatherland whose meaning was undefinable—sort of like text typically produced by business marketing departments today. All that was left was articles, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs, so it came out looking like:

The blab blab of blab blab in the blab blab blab blab will blab blab blab blab blab blab and blab blab through blab and blab blab.

Following that I read Language in Thought and Action by Samuel Hayakawa, an English professor who taught general semantics, and who was for one term a US Senator from California; I found his book to be quite readable.

Thereafter I was led to check out from the library Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics by Alfred Korzybski, an exceedingly arcane presentation that is generally considered to be the original foundation text on the topic. It didn’t take me long to give up on this one, as it required considerably more background in mathematics than I have to understand. By this time my attention was being drawn toward other topics. It was sufficient for me to learn that the field of general semantics had an origin, that the field is one of true science, and that all roads lead from Korzybski.

The effect of this research was to cause me from that time onward to listen more carefully and analytically to what others write or say.

For who has despised the day of small things?
—Zechariah 4:10

Life is just one damned thing after another.
—Elbert Hubbard

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Legacy

Mr. Sniff

My seventh grade assistant principal’s name was Mr. Sniff. The man was as ludicrous as his name.

As an underling administrator, Mr. Sniff’s primary duty was to render discipline to recalcitrant students, inevitably boys who wreaked havoc and disturbed the peace with activities like setting off cherry bombs in waste paper baskets and swearing at teachers, in a Father Knows Best era, when saying “hell” could get a child expelled and branded for life as a foulmouthed troublemaker.

Mr. Sniff was not kind, not good humored, not even pleasant looking. Students found endless riotous occasions to make sport of him because of his name.

One day Mr. Sniff was the faculty member assigned to monitor a library period. A plot, propagated in whispers around the room, was fomented that at precisely 2:03 p.m., everyone would make a loud SSSCHHHHNUFFF, which we were certain would evoke a good yuk from all persons present—perhaps even from Mr. Sniff himself.

Alas, this stunt went awry when the students got to giggling so much as the anticipated moment approached that the requisite silence beforehand needed to maximize the impact of the synchronized community snotsuck was disturbed. Ten seconds before the appointed time, Mr. Sniff stomped his foot, clapped his hands, and burst into scolding the class for being noisy, blah blah blah, heard it all before, yada yada yada yada. When the second hand hit straight up, the few who were not terrified by Mr. Sniff’s rant, daring to snort despite it (including moi), were drowned out by his blustering phillipic. I’m sure he never heard it, being so wrapped up in the din of his own effusiveness. None of us got a chance to laugh about it, being under the gun.

Poor Mr. Sniff, who seemed about forty, but acted much older, met an untimely demise. During Christmas vacation that year he went to South America on vacation, where he rented a hotel room with sticky shutters. Upon putting his shoulder to them in order to heave them open, he went through the second floor window and fell to his death on the street below.

While the event in itself was inarguably a terrible and tragic episode (remember—the bell tolls for thee, yada yada yada), most of the students I knew had a hard time stifling a snicker when they first heard about it, because it seemed to be the sort of ending that was so much in character with the man that it might have been prophesied. To their credit, few of my peers were so disrespectful as to discuss it in flippant terms afterward, and he was soon forgotten.

Thereafter I made it a goal not to become the sort of person about whom, when I die, children will laugh.

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Arts

Elliott Carter at One Hundred

Elliott Carter

Cover of Elliott Carter

On December 8, 2008 Elliott Carter celebrated his one-hundredth birthday, in good health and spirits. He still works several hours and goes for walks daily.

This milestone was observed along with a flurry of accolades and honorary concerts, including a world premiere in New York performed by Daniel Barenboim and James Levine, both Carter champions from the musical establishment. Amidst the celebrations, Carter performances are given standing ovations, but for decades most people have found Carter’s uncompromisingly modern music baffling, and most flat out dislike it. Carter himself does not care, and is unwaveringly dedicated to writing the music he believes in and hears. In an interview with Carter, Levine and Barenboim, given the day before the big occasion, Carter expressed his longing to get back home soon to the apartment in Greenwich Village he has lived in since the forties, so he could get back to work on his latest composition project. I’m certain that his dedication to a regular routine, and leading a fairly simple live, despite being wealthy since birth, have contributed to his longevity.

Being a Carter fan is sort of like being a Cubs fan. It’s fashionable to love the Cubbies if you’re from somewhere else and hop on the bandwagon when they’re doing well. But if you’ve been following the team’s travails since 1948 and even lived in Chicago for a long time back then like I did, you can lay a legitimate claim to being a fan.

Similarly, if you bought the Walden Quartet recording of Carter’s monumental first String Quartet, listened to it a couple hundred times, often with the score, knew and were even friends with members of the Walden Quartet, have a record and CD collection glutted with Carter recordings, have even had a composition lesson with the great man himself, and have been a relentless admirer since about 1958—like me—then you can lay a legitimate claim to being a Carter fan.

Soon Mr. Carter will slide into relative obscurity again, and doubtless will die not too long afterward, as he can’t have much time left actuarially speaking, while most new converts who have recently started listening to Elliott Carter’s music will realize it ain’t easy sledding, will slow down, and then stop, or go back to the mind-numbing execrations of Phillip Glass, and will eventually return to hating Carter’s music again.

Color me cynical.

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Legacy

My Last Race

Geesler and Gavin

Geesler and Gavin

Introduction

This, my longest race report ever, is the story of my last race—Across the Years 2008. Whether the title means “last ever” or simply “most recent” you will have to read to find out.

Were I to list the ten most rewarding things I have done in my life, involvement with Across the Years would be among them. It started when I first discovered the race in progress and met Paul Bonnett on December 31, 1998; then trained for and ran the 24-hour race in 1999, even writing a 300-page book “Running Through the Millennium” about my experience. In the years that followed I increased distance and improved performances, peaking in 2004, when I reached my all-time PR of 188.12 miles, and concurrently became deeply involved—at my own invitation—in the presentation of the event as webmaster, records keeper, historian, advocate, and enthusiastic spokesman.

This race was my tenth consecutive time at ATY, the last eight all 72-hour efforts, as I couldn’t dream of not being there to run it on a day when the race was going on. Being a part of the race organizing committee has been my way of assuring that the race continues to get better, and that I had a place in it.

It gives me an overwhelming sense of pride to have been a part of creating something of genuine quality. If, when talking about ATY to others, I tend toward hyperbole, it is because I believe that of its type ATY is the best in the world, and will continue to get better with each edition.

Backdrop Happenings

Because I now live in Ohio—and so does my wife, which was not true at this time last year, as she remained in Phoenix until August, selling our house—I had to deal with getting to this run as most people do, no longer able to bring a carload of stuff the day before, sleep in my own bed the night before, and have my wife come out to haul my aching butt home on New Year’s day. I almost decided last spring not to run this year. At the same time I was also battling depression over making adjustments to living in this new place, worrying over how long it would take before Suzy would be able to join me, and whether my decision to move to Columbus had been all wrong from the start.

In the end, it was Suzy who convinced me that I should go, confident that the technicalities would work out just fine. Once I made a firm decision to continue, I never wavered from it.

Training for the race was another matter. I’ve since learned that I can run and walk comfortably for hours with temperatures in the lower twenties, as long as it’s not also wet or icy. But until June I had no viable indoor alternative either for long runs or midweek training, as I had during the hot weather in Phoenix, where a stop at Bally’s for an hour or so after work was as much a part of my day as brushing my teeth.

In June I joined Athletic Club of Columbus, which I’ve dubbed Fancy Dan’s Sweat Emporium. While the club itself is lovely, with many amenities, and a seven minute walk from work, for all its great expense (a perk from work that I don’t pay for myself), it’s really more like a country club in the heart of downtown. As a workout facility per se, it’s a pretty poor excuse for a gym. Frankly, bargain basement Bally’s was an order of magnitude better, and I miss it.

In addition, my job presently inflicts chaos on the rest of my life such that I have been unable to form a routine where I can exercise regularly. I get out most Saturday afternoons for a longish run, at least ten miles, usually longer, nine times in 2008 further than a marathon, including one exuberant late November walk of forty miles, and a 50K race three weeks later, just two weeks before ATY. In 2008 my total mileage for the year added up to 1063.93 miles, slightly less than half of my average of 2130.87 for each of the preceding ten years (1998-2007). When I consider that both the current president and president elect of the United States both insist on making time to work out daily, it makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong.

Run? Did I say run? Hah! Well, that’s another problem. Between age, rapidly becoming a GBF (Great Big Fatso—I’ve gained about fifteen pounds since arriving in Ohio in November, 2007), and a loss of enthusiasm for breathing heavily, my running has gradually become mostly walking. Two months ago I finally made a big decision: Beginning January 1, 2009, I would officially dub myself an Urban Walker, having learned to enjoy cruising through the neighborhoods of Columbus last spring and summer, becoming familiar with my new place of residence, and looking for locations I might like to live.

Even so, I will sometimes refer to myself as a runner, or at least a mostly-walker, as I never want to shut the door on the possibility of running if the urge strikes, me, as it still does once in a while.

Go West, Old Man

Having lived in Phoenix for almost thirty years, we have many dear friends there, none closer than our non-running friends Nathan and Sheryl, who have been like family to us. I made arrangements with them to be picked up at the airport on Sunday, be hauled out to Nardini Manor while I set up my gear, stay with them that night, be dropped off before 8:00am on race day, be picked up at the end of the race, and to be taken to the airport at 4:30am on January 2nd. Major problem solved there.

Pre-Race

We left my tent and related camping gear in Phoenix with Paul Bonnett, who delivered it to Rodger Wrublik, who in turn stored it for me at Nardini Manor, and left it in my favorite spot, ready for me to set up.

After erecting the tent and organizing the gear, my first order of business was to inspect the improved digs, while greeting all my old friends who were pouring in. As I explained to my friend who brought me there, when you’re an ultrarunner you get to hug a lot of women.

Rodger has widened the track, cleared out the oleanders on the south side, opened up the dogleg, created a climate controlled timing booth, and a second computer area for displaying the leaderboard, handling the webcam, and gathering and printing messages for runners, so as to leave the computers in the timing booth dedicated to that activity.

All the changes brought operational improvements. My personal favorite, one I thought at first I would not like, was moving the timing area close to the entrance of the tent, which now makes it possible for runners who go into the tent not to have to worry which way they were running when they left the track.

The only problem with the changes I noted was that the leaderboard seemed to be crashed much of the time, although I believe it was working fine across the Internet, as long as we didn’t drop our net connection, and that the leaderboard was a bit hard to read, being projected on a screen fairly far to the left of the track, and partially obscured by the computer area tent and a tree. Because the page necessarily displays a lot of data, it has to be shown in a smallish type face. Despite wearing glasses, I have decent vision at distance, and was able to read it adequately, but had to stop and stare at it for a few seconds if I wanted to study it or find someone in particular. I’m sure anyone with vision problems must have found it difficult to read at all. But the overwhelming advantage is that we now have a real, dynamically updated leaderboard that displays also on the Internet. Hooray for that, and for Dave Combs, who wrote that particular piece of software.

Another change of note is in connection with sanitary conditions at the race. Last year a nasty form of flu spread among runners and others in attendance, and many got quite sick. It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but when you have 110 runners and volunteers running around for days being grungy and stinky, and using portapotties and not taking showers, you have a scenario for disaster.

This year runners were reminded always to use the hand sanitizers provided in the portapotties. Food service volunteers served everything wearing latex gloves, and rather than having community banquet bowls that people dipped their hands into, all food was served in little cups and individually measured portions. It made for more paper and doubtless greater expense, but improved the conditions greatly. It’s wonderful to see that even in this area Across the Years takes steps to do things the best way possible.

Race Day

I was in bed by 7:15pm Sunday night. With my body still on Ohio time, this was not too early, and remarkably, I slept like a rock for ten and a half hours, probably thanks in part to indulging in a glass of fine shiraz with my dinner of talapia with mixed brown and white rice, a luxury I have only once before allowed myself before any race. In addition, I slept eight hours the night before, and nine and a half the night before that, so was well rested at the start.

It was chillier than predicted on race morning, though at no time was it as bad as last year.

Due, I suppose, to temporary pre-race nerves, I briefly lost my mind twice in a row.

The first was when I could not locate my Bag Balm. Upon giving up, I asked ATY nurse Chris O’Loughlin whether he thought I could get along without it. I’ve become lackadaisical about following sensible workout practices recently. But Chris warned me not to do anything to upset my usual routine or it would bite me in the end. My feet were already pre-taped, and I had on brand new Injinji socks (the kind like gloves, with little sleeves for each toe), so I took them off, applied Andy Lovy’s special blister formula that Chris gave me to both feet, and laboriously replaced my socks—a job made especially difficult for me because of recent back problems.

At the end of the race, I had not changed either my socks or my shoes even once, and had no sign of a blister anywhere. I’m sure I’ve never gotten to the end of such a long race with my feet in such good shape.

When I returned to my tent, which I searched through twice for the Bag Balm, there it was, sitting in exactly the place it was supposed to be. Why I did not see it I will never know.

At 8:30am Paul Bonnett called the prerace meeting to order, and as he started naming people who have had something to do with presenting the race, I heard my name called, and some minor cheering (aw, shucks), but was not present to acknowledge it, as I was once again in my tent, turning it upside down again, this time looking for my transponder, starting to get desperate. I finally found it the third time through, sitting face down in the bottom of a workout bag. I had been looking for the yellow flash of chip cover. By this time it was 8:50am, and I had nothing more to do but stand around, making nervous jokes with everyone else, waiting for the race to start.

Day 1

I took the first lap so easy that I stopped to take pictures. This silver anniversary event needed to be recorded for posterity.

My plan was to allow myself to run if I felt like it, but to walk almost the entire time. In this I followed the example of numerous other regular walkers: Eric Poulsen, Bill Dickey, and especially Ulli “the Walker” Kamm, who has been walking 100-mile races for forty years, and to whom I talked at length during the race. Ulli finished the race at age 61, with over 204 miles, his fourth 200-mile-plus finish in four tries. He wryly claims never to have run a step in his life except once when he tripped. So I figured if I just followed him I’d be fine. This proved to be a bit more difficult than it might seem at first.

My first day was quite good, the day I made my greatest progress. I didn’t stop for anything, sitting down for the first time (except for one potty break in the afternoon), at 10:30pm. I had entertained ideas of continuing without a break all the way through the night. I always think that, and have come very close to doing exactly that in other races, such as at FANS 24-hour in 2005 when I rested only 12 minutes at 4:00am, but did not sleep. At Leanhorse 100 in 2007, the only sitting or “resting” I did was at the turnaround, and that was only to change my socks. When I finally fell apart at 96 miles, it was 28 hours into the race, and sleepiness had never been an issue.

But this race, passing by the entrance to the tent every five or six minutes, I had to sleep, so I went in and took a nap. My split times indicate that the lap time was an hour and forty-one minutes, which includes time for the lap itself, and also fussing around in the tent with clothing and gear. Often I sleep sitting in a chair with a sweatshirt between my head and shoulder for a pillow, in order to avoid having to lose time getting undressed and dressed again, which is exactly what I did on this occasion. Believe me, it’s not hard to do, and it also makes waking up and getting moving again much easier.

Sometime after 2:30am, I took a second nap about the same length. The splits data is missing for that period of time for reasons I have not as yet heard. This time I laid down on top of the sleeping bag and under a blanket, with my shoes off. That rest sufficed to get me through most of the remaining part of the first 24-hour period, though my splits indicate I had a 48-minute lap starting at 6:18am.

Initially, I hoped to get 78 miles for the first day, which was unrealistic, but later I was certain that over 70 was in the bag. If I had not stopped to sleep, I doubtless would have made that. Instead, I adjusted my goal down to 60 miles, and technically made it. At 8:58:31am I completed a lap with 59.962 miles, with about a minute and a half left to go another four hundreths of a mile, which is only a couple hundred feet. I’m certain that I covered at least double that before the second day started.

The temperature dropped to near freezing the first night, colder than predicted, but somehow it seemed not nearly as bad as last year, when it caused some people to pack up and leave early.

Day 2

Second days are always hardest. My strategy for running 72-hour races has been to run a 24-hour race the first day, followed by a recovery run, followed by another 24-hour race, where I give everything I have left. The splits for most 72-hour runners I’ve looked at indicate this is the pattern almost everyone follows, whether intentional or otherwise.

The entire second 24-hour period I was plagued by an unceasing desire to sleep. It pretty much ruined any possibility of a good performance I might have yet entertained. It would be difficult to tell from the split data exactly when I went down, but I’m certain that I fell asleep and woke up again no less than eight times this day, and perhaps as many as ten. While the sleep itself is pleasant, it’s the waking up and starting to move again that is difficult, often exacerbated by having to warm up again upon stepping outside. Nothing I tried could shake it—including drugs (caffeine), or even actual sleep, as my splits show a parade of sluggish laps followed by breaks of anywhere from twenty minutes to 2:23. Even that long rest was followed not long afterward with one more short nap before I finally broke the cycle. At least the night hours were considerably milder than the first night, with a low above forty degrees.

I had wanted to get 50 miles on the second day, but convinced myself to be satisfied if I could finish it over 100 miles. This much I did accomplish, with a 48-hour split of 101.594, a second day total of 41.632 miles.

Day 3

When the third day dawned I somehow felt much better, and was optimistic that 150 miles was still within my power if I could just keep at it.

The third day at Across the Years is a study in contrasts as some of the faster 24-hour runners with aspirations to win their race show up, and find the track to be an obstacle course littered with the carcasses of nearly catatonic 72-hour runners who can’t remember the last time they had a shower or the names of their children, or which planet they come from.

There was only one reason I didn’t get to 150 miles: I didn’t want to badly enough. As I thought through the history of my own performances on this course, looking also to the future, I realized that my best years are behind me, that although I’m no elite runner, I’ve done well, have learned and shared a lot with others, and have nothing at all to be embarrassed about regarding my own record, and nothing more to prove to myself or others.

So on I plodded, doing nothing spectacular, and nothing foolish, enjoying the show unfolding around me, chatting with friends both old and new.

The onset of nighttime at ATY, particularly on the third day, as the new year approaches, evokes a gradually increasing sense of celebration. Darkness settles in, and suddenly balloons and decorations appear in preparation for the mini-party at midnight. Perhaps if all New Year’s Eve parties were as short and restrained as ours, the number of road fatalities that occur each year on this night would drop dramatically.

The ambiance at ATY must be experienced in person to be appreciated. I’ve never found words adequate to describe the visual impression left upon me by the corridor from the driveway past the curve to the aid station, with its special lighting at night. There are lights along the path. The gazebo is lit decoratively. There are lights coming from the big tent, and some from tents in the yard. The big displays that show crossings and the leaderboard are like drive-in movie screens, and there are lights coming from the aid station, timing booth and computer tent. Each object pops out against an otherwise black background, provoking a surrealistic sensation that one has stepped into another world. I described it to someone as like being inside a jukebox or a pinball machine, who in turn said: “It’s almost like reality!”

When midnight arrives, among those who are inclined, hats go on, a big hurrah goes up, the champagne (or sparkling cider) goes down, the horns go toot, everyone goes around the track for a single lap in unity, and fireworks go off, as volunteers in the open fields surrounding the Manor attempt to light them without blowing themselves up.

The next time they pass through the timing gate is when the real race begins, the last nine hours of do or die.

At least that’s when it begins for some people. Not for me on this year, because that’s when I decided that rather than pushing for 150 miles I would just go to sleep. Lap 410, begun at 12:08:44am, was over five hours and twenty-two minutes long. I awoke from a too warm sleeping bag to find that the temperature in the big tent, which this year fluctuated from too warm to marginally warm enough, had dropped, and found myself shivering violently in the cold, as I fumbled around desperately for first my headlamp, then my clothing.

But that rest set me up for the hours before dawn, although I did take another short break of twenty-eight minutes at about 6:30am. After that it was time to kick to the finish.

It gets light in Arizona a little after 7:00am this time of year. We don’t see the sun for a while at the Manor because of the mountains to the east. Mike Melton suggested maybe next year Rodger ought to work on blowing a hole through those mountains so we can get another fifteen minutes of sunshine. I told him I’d pass on the suggestion. Hey, Rodger has me convinced he can do anything, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him find a way to do it.

The end of any fixed time race is always the most fun, as exhausted runners come in, find they don’t have enough in them to squeeze in another lap, so take a place near the finish to cheer in those who remain, while others, spurred on by the cheering and the advancing clock, reach deep inside to pull out just one more, ending performances that have already been extraordinary in a sprint, amid enthusiastic cheering.

I finished my own last lap with 3:55 to go. A sub-4:00 lap is far from impossible for me when I’m fresh, but the last two hours of the race, pain in my back left me slumped forward and almost unable to stand at all, just as it had done at Leanhorse a year and a half ago. Despite this, my last three or four laps were among my fastest in the race, as I exerted myself to kick my mileage up to the next whole number. And so I called it quits at 438 laps: 219.0 kilometers, 136.080 miles—a personal “worst” by 6.21 miles.

Afterward

Despite my aching back, I finished the race with no physical problems at all. Not only did I have nary a sign of a blister, I avoided the chafing that often comes on other unmentionable body parts. Maybe that just means that I didn’t work hard enough. I wore the same pair of socks the whole race, and old shoes that must have had 800 miles on them at the start of the race. I no longer track shoe mileage, and just wear what I’ve got until they’re ready to fall off my feet. Over the years I’ve become less of a gear freak and more like some of the old timers who used to do it the hard way—and they liked it that way. I haven’t quite become like Bill Dickey, who walks in what looks like a pair of Bermuda shorts, a white shirt, and a golf visor, but I also know that wearing cool shirts that say Patagonia and Montrail across the front, along with expensive shades, vests, and double water bottles, in imitation of some of the more idolized trail runners does not make one a fast runner.

Anyhow, almost every piece of casual clothing I own now has “Across the Years” written on it somewhere, and I need to wear that stuff out before getting more.

People

In 2008, 119 people logged laps at Across the Years. As usual, ATY 2008 was less about races and records than about the individual stories of those who ran. I’ve told my tale here, and a few others will contribute their own on the lists or on their blogs, if they are inclined.

Some people who stood out in my own mind were these:

  • John Geesler, who ran well for a while, then suffered a heel spur and was able only to limp the last couple of days, but never gave up. Also, John was universally admired for doing several laps with seven-year-old Gavin Wrublik, encouraging him, but never pushing him. (The truth is, in John’s state at the time, Gavin could have run rings around him in a flat out sprint.)
  • Christopher O’Loughlin, the ATY nurse, who customarily takes a lot of time dealing with other people’s comfort issues, had to push very hard at the end, but on his last lap, completed enough mileage to earn a 1000-mile jacket, with seconds to spare.
  • The young runners: Aaron Doman, age 13, who got 100 miles in three days, Gavin Wrublik, age 7, who got an amazing 50.642 miles in three days; Gavin’s five-year-old nephew Cayden, who got 17.088 miles in three days (and I think did not start until the second day); and Ethan Pence, age 11, who got 40.078 in 24 hours. To those I should add Catherine Cuda, age 16, already a national USATF junior record holder for 100k, and who has run every year except one since she was ten, completed 50 miles in 11:14:03, then went on to add to that, for a total of 69.283 miles for the race before succumbing to blisters and sitting out the end.
  • Ulli Kamm preached to me about the virtues of distance walking, and has made a born again believer out of me. He said that as long as he can walk 100 miles, he doesn’t care if some ignoramus regards him as a wimp for walking. He also talked about putting one’s accomplishments in perspective. He said: “One might think, ‘Oh, I got only 130 miles, I’m not very good.’ But how many people do you know who can walk 130 miles?” Thanks, Ulli, I needed that.
  • Heike Pawzik from Germany, a one-time (and maybe current) world record holder has an ebullient sense of humor, and received one of the two special Zombierunner awards. She doesn’t speak much English, but has fun trying. I speak enough enough German to hold a conversation with someone who knows at least a little English. I told her: “Mein Deutsch ist ganz schlect!” (My German is very bad.) She responded with the delightful amalgam: “Ach! Mein Englisch ist even schlecter!” The afternoon of the first day she ran up from behind and said to me: “I am seeing—so many beautiful young woman—they talk—to you” Well, I do get around. (Maybe they know something? Where were they all when I was a young and single musician?)
  • Christian Griffith from the Ultra List was excited about ATY for months, but sent his beautiful family off to Flagstaff for some skiing while he ran. When they returned the third day, he left to go hang out with his wife, but then felt guilty leaving the race before it was done, with the best part yet to come, as he was yet to experience, so turned around and came back. I’m looking forward to reading his summary.
  • Jamie Huneycutt, whom I knew only from her ATY biography, ran the 48-hour race, passed me about a million times, and every single time told me I was looking good. What? Was I wearing a mirror on my behind? Jamie won the women’s 48-hour race with an outstanding 160.003 miles.
  • Matthew Watts reminds me of a locomotive when he runs. He must be about six feet four (and his wife Ann over six feet herself), and being primarily a mountain runner, runs with an unusually aggressive arm swing and a huge stride, at least two times the length of most typical ultrarunners who look like Peter Rabbit hippety-hopping down the bunny trail in teeny little steps. It’s an awesome thing to behold when he’s headed straight toward you, as on turnaround laps. Matt finished the first day with 117.128 miles, meaning that Wendell Doman had to push hard until twenty-two hours and forty minutes into the race before finally overtaking him for the win.
  • I am continually impressed with the abilities of 21-year-old Nick Coury, a speedy runner who finished fifth at Hardrock last summer. I admired his maturity for pulling out and switching to volunteer mode with his mother when, even though he had the lead in the 24-hour on the first day, sensed something might not be just right, so stopped at 55.613 miles only 11:16 into the race rather than ruin himself for training ahead.

There are many other tales to be told, some of them even better, and in singling out these, I don’t mean to exclude anyone.

The Future

Last June I made a decision that the 2008 race would be my last time at Across the Years, both as a runner and as a volunteer organizer. My reasoning behind this decision falls far outside the scope of this report. As much as it pains me to do so, I’ve concluded it’s time for me to move on to other things. My biggest regret will be leaving behind the many people I have come to regard as friends, and may not be seeing again, particularly co-core committee members Paul and Rodger and Frank and Dave.

My career at Across the Years ends with a total of 1491.413 miles. If I had realized I was that close to 1500 miles, I surely would have sacrificed a bit of sleep the last night to get it. Of that total, 3090 laps, 1545 kilometers, 960.02 miles has been run on the track at Nardini Manor. I remain the only person to have run every day of every running event ever held at Nardini Manor, which includes at least three all-night 12-hour runs. That streak will finally be broken the next time there is a run.

I was, I believe, the fourth person to cross the 1000-mile lifetime mileage threshold, or possibly the third, within an hour or so one way or the other of Martina Hausman in the 2005 race.

As I reckon it, my ATY mileage leaves me in fourth position on the lifetime mileage list: behind the unreachable Harold Sieglaff (2426.22 miles); and the unstoppable Martina (the Terminator) Hausmann (now at 1847.031, still 579.19 miles behind Harold, and likely needing three more races to catch him); and now 18.31 miles behind John Geesler, who skipped (or in this case limped) ahead of me despite his bad foot; but about six miles ahead of David Upah, who barely needed only to show up and run an hour or so to stay ahead of me, but he didn’t come this year, so I remain locked in at fourth for this year.

Whether ATY 2008 becomes my last ultramarathon race ever remains to be seen, but at this writing I have no plans to do another. It is remotely possible that I may take one more crack at Leanhorse 100, if I can swing the training and the logistics. I loved everything about that race, except for the part where I collapsed by the side of the road four miles from the finish, leaving me with unfinished business in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and motivation to return. Zombierunner Don Lundell confirmed that I have a standing invitation to call upon him to accompany me once again in that effort, an offer that is difficult to pass up.

Also, there have been rumblings here in Ohio recently of starting a new 24-hour race. I myself found an ideal location, and know of two others that would be good, so pitched the idea to some local runners last September. Meanwhile, there is also a group near Cleveland that has been talking about having one up that direction, and although plans are still in the larval stage, there is some interest. I could be persuaded to do a 24-hour race if it was not too far away and if it was at a time of year when I wouldn’t freeze my keister off at night.

But the 2008 race will almost certainly be my last Across the Years, as I feel I have done all I can do there, and it’s time to move on. It was not an easy decision to make, but is a carefully reasoned one. No one does the same thing his whole life. Even Shakespeare did more than just write plays and Beethoven more than write music. For me it is time to take up new pursuits that have begged for my attention. To quote one of my favorite twentieth century artists who was also known for making a change in his career path:

“I just had to let it go.”—John Lennon, 1980

Legacy

My Last Race

Geesler and Gavin

Geesler and Gavin

Introduction

This, my longest race report ever, is the story of my last race—Across the Years 2008. Whether the title means “last ever” or simply “most recent” you will have to read to find out.

Were I to list the ten most rewarding things I have done in my life, involvement with Across the Years would be among them. It started when I first discovered the race in progress and met Paul Bonnett on December 31, 1998; then trained for and ran the 24-hour race in 1999, even writing a 300-page book “Running Through the Millennium” about my experience. In the years that followed I increased distance and improved performances, peaking in 2004, when I reached my all-time PR of 188.12 miles, and concurrently became deeply involved—at my own invitation—in the presentation of the event as webmaster, records keeper, historian, advocate, and enthusiastic spokesman.

This race was my tenth consecutive time at ATY, the last eight all 72-hour efforts, as I couldn’t dream of not being there to run it on a day when the race was going on. Being a part of the race organizing committee has been my way of assuring that the race continues to get better, and that I had a place in it.

It gives me an overwhelming sense of pride to have been a part of creating something of genuine quality. If, when talking about ATY to others, I tend toward hyperbole, it is because I believe that of its type ATY is the best in the world, and will continue to get better with each edition.

Backdrop Happenings

Because I now live in Ohio—and so does my wife, which was not true at this time last year, as she remained in Phoenix until August, selling our house—I had to deal with getting to this run as most people do, no longer able to bring a carload of stuff the day before, sleep in my own bed the night before, and have my wife come out to haul my aching butt home on New Year’s day. I almost decided last spring not to run this year. At the same time I was also battling depression over making adjustments to living in this new place, worrying over how long it would take before Suzy would be able to join me, and whether my decision to move to Columbus had been all wrong from the start.

In the end, it was Suzy who convinced me that I should go, confident that the technicalities would work out just fine. Once I made a firm decision to continue, I never wavered from it.

Training for the race was another matter. I’ve since learned that I can run and walk comfortably for hours with temperatures in the lower twenties, as long as it’s not also wet or icy. But until June I had no viable indoor alternative either for long runs or midweek training, as I had during the hot weather in Phoenix, where a stop at Bally’s for an hour or so after work was as much a part of my day as brushing my teeth.

In June I joined Athletic Club of Columbus, which I’ve dubbed Fancy Dan’s Sweat Emporium. While the club itself is lovely, with many amenities, and a seven minute walk from work, for all its great expense (a perk from work that I don’t pay for myself), it’s really more like a country club in the heart of downtown. As a workout facility per se, it’s a pretty poor excuse for a gym. Frankly, bargain basement Bally’s was an order of magnitude better, and I miss it.

In addition, my job presently inflicts chaos on the rest of my life such that I have been unable to form a routine where I can exercise regularly. I get out most Saturday afternoons for a longish run, at least ten miles, usually longer, nine times in 2008 further than a marathon, including one exuberant late November walk of forty miles, and a 50K race three weeks later, just two weeks before ATY. In 2008 my total mileage for the year added up to 1063.93 miles, slightly less than half of my average of 2130.87 for each of the preceding ten years (1998-2007). When I consider that both the current president and president elect of the United States both insist on making time to work out daily, it makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong.

Run? Did I say run? Hah! Well, that’s another problem. Between age, rapidly becoming a GBF (Great Big Fatso—I’ve gained about fifteen pounds since arriving in Ohio in November, 2007), and a loss of enthusiasm for breathing heavily, my running has gradually become mostly walking. Two months ago I finally made a big decision: Beginning January 1, 2009, I would officially dub myself an Urban Walker, having learned to enjoy cruising through the neighborhoods of Columbus last spring and summer, becoming familiar with my new place of residence, and looking for locations I might like to live.

Even so, I will sometimes refer to myself as a runner, or at least a mostly-walker, as I never want to shut the door on the possibility of running if the urge strikes, me, as it still does once in a while.

Go West, Old Man

Having lived in Phoenix for almost thirty years, we have many dear friends there, none closer than our non-running friends Nathan and Sheryl, who have been like family to us. I made arrangements with them to be picked up at the airport on Sunday, be hauled out to Nardini Manor while I set up my gear, stay with them that night, be dropped off before 8:00am on race day, be picked up at the end of the race, and to be taken to the airport at 4:30am on January 2nd. Major problem solved there.

Pre-Race

We left my tent and related camping gear in Phoenix with Paul Bonnett, who delivered it to Rodger Wrublik, who in turn stored it for me at Nardini Manor, and left it in my favorite spot, ready for me to set up.

After erecting the tent and organizing the gear, my first order of business was to inspect the improved digs, while greeting all my old friends who were pouring in. As I explained to my friend who brought me there, when you’re an ultrarunner you get to hug a lot of women.

Rodger has widened the track, cleared out the oleanders on the south side, opened up the dogleg, created a climate controlled timing booth, and a second computer area for displaying the leaderboard, handling the webcam, and gathering and printing messages for runners, so as to leave the computers in the timing booth dedicated to that activity.

All the changes brought operational improvements. My personal favorite, one I thought at first I would not like, was moving the timing area close to the entrance of the tent, which now makes it possible for runners who go into the tent not to have to worry which way they were running when they left the track.

The only problem with the changes I noted was that the leaderboard seemed to be crashed much of the time, although I believe it was working fine across the Internet, as long as we didn’t drop our net connection, and that the leaderboard was a bit hard to read, being projected on a screen fairly far to the left of the track, and partially obscured by the computer area tent and a tree. Because the page necessarily displays a lot of data, it has to be shown in a smallish type face. Despite wearing glasses, I have decent vision at distance, and was able to read it adequately, but had to stop and stare at it for a few seconds if I wanted to study it or find someone in particular. I’m sure anyone with vision problems must have found it difficult to read at all. But the overwhelming advantage is that we now have a real, dynamically updated leaderboard that displays also on the Internet. Hooray for that, and for Dave Combs, who wrote that particular piece of software.

Another change of note is in connection with sanitary conditions at the race. Last year a nasty form of flu spread among runners and others in attendance, and many got quite sick. It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but when you have 110 runners and volunteers running around for days being grungy and stinky, and using portapotties and not taking showers, you have a scenario for disaster.

This year runners were reminded always to use the hand sanitizers provided in the portapotties. Food service volunteers served everything wearing latex gloves, and rather than having community banquet bowls that people dipped their hands into, all food was served in little cups and individually measured portions. It made for more paper and doubtless greater expense, but improved the conditions greatly. It’s wonderful to see that even in this area Across the Years takes steps to do things the best way possible.

Race Day

I was in bed by 7:15pm Sunday night. With my body still on Ohio time, this was not too early, and remarkably, I slept like a rock for ten and a half hours, probably thanks in part to indulging in a glass of fine shiraz with my dinner of talapia with mixed brown and white rice, a luxury I have only once before allowed myself before any race. In addition, I slept eight hours the night before, and nine and a half the night before that, so was well rested at the start.

It was chillier than predicted on race morning, though at no time was it as bad as last year.

Due, I suppose, to temporary pre-race nerves, I briefly lost my mind twice in a row.

The first was when I could not locate my Bag Balm. Upon giving up, I asked ATY nurse Chris O’Loughlin whether he thought I could get along without it. I’ve become lackadaisical about following sensible workout practices recently. But Chris warned me not to do anything to upset my usual routine or it would bite me in the end. My feet were already pre-taped, and I had on brand new Injinji socks (the kind like gloves, with little sleeves for each toe), so I took them off, applied Andy Lovy’s special blister formula that Chris gave me to both feet, and laboriously replaced my socks—a job made especially difficult for me because of recent back problems.

At the end of the race, I had not changed either my socks or my shoes even once, and had no sign of a blister anywhere. I’m sure I’ve never gotten to the end of such a long race with my feet in such good shape.

When I returned to my tent, which I searched through twice for the Bag Balm, there it was, sitting in exactly the place it was supposed to be. Why I did not see it I will never know.

At 8:30am Paul Bonnett called the prerace meeting to order, and as he started naming people who have had something to do with presenting the race, I heard my name called, and some minor cheering (aw, shucks), but was not present to acknowledge it, as I was once again in my tent, turning it upside down again, this time looking for my transponder, starting to get desperate. I finally found it the third time through, sitting face down in the bottom of a workout bag. I had been looking for the yellow flash of chip cover. By this time it was 8:50am, and I had nothing more to do but stand around, making nervous jokes with everyone else, waiting for the race to start.

Day 1

I took the first lap so easy that I stopped to take pictures. This silver anniversary event needed to be recorded for posterity.

My plan was to allow myself to run if I felt like it, but to walk almost the entire time. In this I followed the example of numerous other regular walkers: Eric Poulsen, Bill Dickey, and especially Ulli “the Walker” Kamm, who has been walking 100-mile races for forty years, and to whom I talked at length during the race. Ulli finished the race at age 61, with over 204 miles, his fourth 200-mile-plus finish in four tries. He wryly claims never to have run a step in his life except once when he tripped. So I figured if I just followed him I’d be fine. This proved to be a bit more difficult than it might seem at first.

My first day was quite good, the day I made my greatest progress. I didn’t stop for anything, sitting down for the first time (except for one potty break in the afternoon), at 10:30pm. I had entertained ideas of continuing without a break all the way through the night. I always think that, and have come very close to doing exactly that in other races, such as at FANS 24-hour in 2005 when I rested only 12 minutes at 4:00am, but did not sleep. At Leanhorse 100 in 2007, the only sitting or “resting” I did was at the turnaround, and that was only to change my socks. When I finally fell apart at 96 miles, it was 28 hours into the race, and sleepiness had never been an issue.

But this race, passing by the entrance to the tent every five or six minutes, I had to sleep, so I went in and took a nap. My split times indicate that the lap time was an hour and forty-one minutes, which includes time for the lap itself, and also fussing around in the tent with clothing and gear. Often I sleep sitting in a chair with a sweatshirt between my head and shoulder for a pillow, in order to avoid having to lose time getting undressed and dressed again, which is exactly what I did on this occasion. Believe me, it’s not hard to do, and it also makes waking up and getting moving again much easier.

Sometime after 2:30am, I took a second nap about the same length. The splits data is missing for that period of time for reasons I have not as yet heard. This time I laid down on top of the sleeping bag and under a blanket, with my shoes off. That rest sufficed to get me through most of the remaining part of the first 24-hour period, though my splits indicate I had a 48-minute lap starting at 6:18am.

Initially, I hoped to get 78 miles for the first day, which was unrealistic, but later I was certain that over 70 was in the bag. If I had not stopped to sleep, I doubtless would have made that. Instead, I adjusted my goal down to 60 miles, and technically made it. At 8:58:31am I completed a lap with 59.962 miles, with about a minute and a half left to go another four hundreths of a mile, which is only a couple hundred feet. I’m certain that I covered at least double that before the second day started.

The temperature dropped to near freezing the first night, colder than predicted, but somehow it seemed not nearly as bad as last year, when it caused some people to pack up and leave early.

Day 2

Second days are always hardest. My strategy for running 72-hour races has been to run a 24-hour race the first day, followed by a recovery run, followed by another 24-hour race, where I give everything I have left. The splits for most 72-hour runners I’ve looked at indicate this is the pattern almost everyone follows, whether intentional or otherwise.

The entire second 24-hour period I was plagued by an unceasing desire to sleep. It pretty much ruined any possibility of a good performance I might have yet entertained. It would be difficult to tell from the split data exactly when I went down, but I’m certain that I fell asleep and woke up again no less than eight times this day, and perhaps as many as ten. While the sleep itself is pleasant, it’s the waking up and starting to move again that is difficult, often exacerbated by having to warm up again upon stepping outside. Nothing I tried could shake it—including drugs (caffeine), or even actual sleep, as my splits show a parade of sluggish laps followed by breaks of anywhere from twenty minutes to 2:23. Even that long rest was followed not long afterward with one more short nap before I finally broke the cycle. At least the night hours were considerably milder than the first night, with a low above forty degrees.

I had wanted to get 50 miles on the second day, but convinced myself to be satisfied if I could finish it over 100 miles. This much I did accomplish, with a 48-hour split of 101.594, a second day total of 41.632 miles.

Day 3

When the third day dawned I somehow felt much better, and was optimistic that 150 miles was still within my power if I could just keep at it.

The third day at Across the Years is a study in contrasts as some of the faster 24-hour runners with aspirations to win their race show up, and find the track to be an obstacle course littered with the carcasses of nearly catatonic 72-hour runners who can’t remember the last time they had a shower or the names of their children, or which planet they come from.

There was only one reason I didn’t get to 150 miles: I didn’t want to badly enough. As I thought through the history of my own performances on this course, looking also to the future, I realized that my best years are behind me, that although I’m no elite runner, I’ve done well, have learned and shared a lot with others, and have nothing at all to be embarrassed about regarding my own record, and nothing more to prove to myself or others.

So on I plodded, doing nothing spectacular, and nothing foolish, enjoying the show unfolding around me, chatting with friends both old and new.

The onset of nighttime at ATY, particularly on the third day, as the new year approaches, evokes a gradually increasing sense of celebration. Darkness settles in, and suddenly balloons and decorations appear in preparation for the mini-party at midnight. Perhaps if all New Year’s Eve parties were as short and restrained as ours, the number of road fatalities that occur each year on this night would drop dramatically.

The ambiance at ATY must be experienced in person to be appreciated. I’ve never found words adequate to describe the visual impression left upon me by the corridor from the driveway past the curve to the aid station, with its special lighting at night. There are lights along the path. The gazebo is lit decoratively. There are lights coming from the big tent, and some from tents in the yard. The big displays that show crossings and the leaderboard are like drive-in movie screens, and there are lights coming from the aid station, timing booth and computer tent. Each object pops out against an otherwise black background, provoking a surrealistic sensation that one has stepped into another world. I described it to someone as like being inside a jukebox or a pinball machine, who in turn said: “It’s almost like reality!”

When midnight arrives, among those who are inclined, hats go on, a big hurrah goes up, the champagne (or sparkling cider) goes down, the horns go toot, everyone goes around the track for a single lap in unity, and fireworks go off, as volunteers in the open fields surrounding the Manor attempt to light them without blowing themselves up.

The next time they pass through the timing gate is when the real race begins, the last nine hours of do or die.

At least that’s when it begins for some people. Not for me on this year, because that’s when I decided that rather than pushing for 150 miles I would just go to sleep. Lap 410, begun at 12:08:44am, was over five hours and twenty-two minutes long. I awoke from a too warm sleeping bag to find that the temperature in the big tent, which this year fluctuated from too warm to marginally warm enough, had dropped, and found myself shivering violently in the cold, as I fumbled around desperately for first my headlamp, then my clothing.

But that rest set me up for the hours before dawn, although I did take another short break of twenty-eight minutes at about 6:30am. After that it was time to kick to the finish.

It gets light in Arizona a little after 7:00am this time of year. We don’t see the sun for a while at the Manor because of the mountains to the east. Mike Melton suggested maybe next year Rodger ought to work on blowing a hole through those mountains so we can get another fifteen minutes of sunshine. I told him I’d pass on the suggestion. Hey, Rodger has me convinced he can do anything, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him find a way to do it.

The end of any fixed time race is always the most fun, as exhausted runners come in, find they don’t have enough in them to squeeze in another lap, so take a place near the finish to cheer in those who remain, while others, spurred on by the cheering and the advancing clock, reach deep inside to pull out just one more, ending performances that have already been extraordinary in a sprint, amid enthusiastic cheering.

I finished my own last lap with 3:55 to go. A sub-4:00 lap is far from impossible for me when I’m fresh, but the last two hours of the race, pain in my back left me slumped forward and almost unable to stand at all, just as it had done at Leanhorse a year and a half ago. Despite this, my last three or four laps were among my fastest in the race, as I exerted myself to kick my mileage up to the next whole number. And so I called it quits at 438 laps: 219.0 kilometers, 136.080 miles—a personal “worst” by 6.21 miles.

Afterward

Despite my aching back, I finished the race with no physical problems at all. Not only did I have nary a sign of a blister, I avoided the chafing that often comes on other unmentionable body parts. Maybe that just means that I didn’t work hard enough. I wore the same pair of socks the whole race, and old shoes that must have had 800 miles on them at the start of the race. I no longer track shoe mileage, and just wear what I’ve got until they’re ready to fall off my feet. Over the years I’ve become less of a gear freak and more like some of the old timers who used to do it the hard way—and they liked it that way. I haven’t quite become like Bill Dickey, who walks in what looks like a pair of Bermuda shorts, a white shirt, and a golf visor, but I also know that wearing cool shirts that say Patagonia and Montrail across the front, along with expensive shades, vests, and double water bottles, in imitation of some of the more idolized trail runners does not make one a fast runner.

Anyhow, almost every piece of casual clothing I own now has “Across the Years” written on it somewhere, and I need to wear that stuff out before getting more.

People

In 2008, 119 people logged laps at Across the Years. As usual, ATY 2008 was less about races and records than about the individual stories of those who ran. I’ve told my tale here, and a few others will contribute their own on the lists or on their blogs, if they are inclined.

Some people who stood out in my own mind were these:

  • John Geesler, who ran well for a while, then suffered a heel spur and was able only to limp the last couple of days, but never gave up. Also, John was universally admired for doing several laps with seven-year-old Gavin Wrublik, encouraging him, but never pushing him. (The truth is, in John’s state at the time, Gavin could have run rings around him in a flat out sprint.)
  • Christopher O’Loughlin, the ATY nurse, who customarily takes a lot of time dealing with other people’s comfort issues, had to push very hard at the end, but on his last lap, completed enough mileage to earn a 1000-mile jacket, with seconds to spare.
  • The young runners: Aaron Doman, age 13, who got 100 miles in three days, Gavin Wrublik, age 7, who got an amazing 50.642 miles in three days; Gavin’s five-year-old nephew Cayden, who got 17.088 miles in three days (and I think did not start until the second day); and Ethan Pence, age 11, who got 40.078 in 24 hours. To those I should add Catherine Cuda, age 16, already a national USATF junior record holder for 100k, and who has run every year except one since she was ten, completed 50 miles in 11:14:03, then went on to add to that, for a total of 69.283 miles for the race before succumbing to blisters and sitting out the end.
  • Ulli Kamm preached to me about the virtues of distance walking, and has made a born again believer out of me. He said that as long as he can walk 100 miles, he doesn’t care if some ignoramus regards him as a wimp for walking. He also talked about putting one’s accomplishments in perspective. He said: “One might think, ‘Oh, I got only 130 miles, I’m not very good.’ But how many people do you know who can walk 130 miles?” Thanks, Ulli, I needed that.
  • Heike Pawzik from Germany, a one-time (and maybe current) world record holder has an ebullient sense of humor, and received one of the two special Zombierunner awards. She doesn’t speak much English, but has fun trying. I speak enough enough German to hold a conversation with someone who knows at least a little English. I told her: “Mein Deutsch ist ganz schlect!” (My German is very bad.) She responded with the delightful amalgam: “Ach! Mein Englisch ist even schlecter!” The afternoon of the first day she ran up from behind and said to me: “I am seeing—so many beautiful young woman—they talk—to you” Well, I do get around. (Maybe they know something? Where were they all when I was a young and single musician?)
  • Christian Griffith from the Ultra List was excited about ATY for months, but sent his beautiful family off to Flagstaff for some skiing while he ran. When they returned the third day, he left to go hang out with his wife, but then felt guilty leaving the race before it was done, with the best part yet to come, as he was yet to experience, so turned around and came back. I’m looking forward to reading his summary.
  • Jamie Huneycutt, whom I knew only from her ATY biography, ran the 48-hour race, passed me about a million times, and every single time told me I was looking good. What? Was I wearing a mirror on my behind? Jamie won the women’s 48-hour race with an outstanding 160.003 miles.
  • Matthew Watts reminds me of a locomotive when he runs. He must be about six feet four (and his wife Ann over six feet herself), and being primarily a mountain runner, runs with an unusually aggressive arm swing and a huge stride, at least two times the length of most typical ultrarunners who look like Peter Rabbit hippety-hopping down the bunny trail in teeny little steps. It’s an awesome thing to behold when he’s headed straight toward you, as on turnaround laps. Matt finished the first day with 117.128 miles, meaning that Wendell Doman had to push hard until twenty-two hours and forty minutes into the race before finally overtaking him for the win.
  • I am continually impressed with the abilities of 21-year-old Nick Coury, a speedy runner who finished fifth at Hardrock last summer. I admired his maturity for pulling out and switching to volunteer mode with his mother when, even though he had the lead in the 24-hour on the first day, sensed something might not be just right, so stopped at 55.613 miles only 11:16 into the race rather than ruin himself for training ahead.

There are many other tales to be told, some of them even better, and in singling out these, I don’t mean to exclude anyone.

The Future

Last June I made a decision that the 2008 race would be my last time at Across the Years, both as a runner and as a volunteer organizer. My reasoning behind this decision falls far outside the scope of this report. As much as it pains me to do so, I’ve concluded it’s time for me to move on to other things. My biggest regret will be leaving behind the many people I have come to regard as friends, and may not be seeing again, particularly co-core committee members Paul and Rodger and Frank and Dave.

My career at Across the Years ends with a total of 1491.413 miles. If I had realized I was that close to 1500 miles, I surely would have sacrificed a bit of sleep the last night to get it. Of that total, 3090 laps, 1545 kilometers, 960.02 miles has been run on the track at Nardini Manor. I remain the only person to have run every day of every running event ever held at Nardini Manor, which includes at least three all-night 12-hour runs. That streak will finally be broken the next time there is a run.

I was, I believe, the fourth person to cross the 1000-mile lifetime mileage threshold, or possibly the third, within an hour or so one way or the other of Martina Hausman in the 2005 race.

As I reckon it, my ATY mileage leaves me in fourth position on the lifetime mileage list: behind the unreachable Harold Sieglaff (2426.22 miles); and the unstoppable Martina (the Terminator) Hausmann (now at 1847.031, still 579.19 miles behind Harold, and likely needing three more races to catch him); and now 18.31 miles behind John Geesler, who skipped (or in this case limped) ahead of me despite his bad foot; but about six miles ahead of David Upah, who barely needed only to show up and run an hour or so to stay ahead of me, but he didn’t come this year, so I remain locked in at fourth for this year.

Whether ATY 2008 becomes my last ultramarathon race ever remains to be seen, but at this writing I have no plans to do another. It is remotely possible that I may take one more crack at Leanhorse 100, if I can swing the training and the logistics. I loved everything about that race, except for the part where I collapsed by the side of the road four miles from the finish, leaving me with unfinished business in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and motivation to return. Zombierunner Don Lundell confirmed that I have a standing invitation to call upon him to accompany me once again in that effort, an offer that is difficult to pass up.

Also, there have been rumblings here in Ohio recently of starting a new 24-hour race. I myself found an ideal location, and know of two others that would be good, so pitched the idea to some local runners last September. Meanwhile, there is also a group near Cleveland that has been talking about having one up that direction, and although plans are still in the larval stage, there is some interest. I could be persuaded to do a 24-hour race if it was not too far away and if it was at a time of year when I wouldn’t freeze my keister off at night.

But the 2008 race will almost certainly be my last Across the Years, as I feel I have done all I can do there, and it’s time to move on. It was not an easy decision to make, but is a carefully reasoned one. No one does the same thing his whole life. Even Shakespeare did more than just write plays and Beethoven more than write music. For me it is time to take up new pursuits that have begged for my attention. To quote one of my favorite twentieth century artists who was also known for making a change in his career path:

“I just had to let it go.”—John Lennon, 1980

Humor

Nuggets

As I prepare to move in a few days into our new house in the Berwick community of Columbus, these thoughts cross my mind.

Long ago I attended a church service on Communion Sunday, when they pass around bread and wine. Next to me was a lady I never saw before, one who struck me as uncomfortable about being there. As the sauce came by our way, the sanctuary was solemnly quiet except for the organist’s pianissimo ramblings, when I heard the lady whisper to her boyfriend in the quietest voice imaginable: “I wish they were passing out coffee and donuts.”

Continuing in a religious mode, here’s a quote from a little known Bible book:

“Your two breasts are like watermelons from the garden of Uncle Remus.” (Song of the South 1:8)

Speaking of quotes, according to one authority: “It’s a violation of copyright law to lift snippets of text out from somewhere if it’s not properly attributed.”—(Anonymous)

One of my favorite musical collaborations is the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Suzy calls them the Flying Wallendas.

At dinner Suzy made a comment about “The Chicago Art Institute”. I replied: “It’s called The Art Institute of Chicago.” She said, “People know what I mean.” I said, “Some people know what you mean better than others.”

A year or so ago I took my car to be washed. The Hispanic attendant checking off options asked:

“Djew won hog watts?”

“Huh?”

“Djew won hog watts?”

“Hog watts?? … Ooooh!! No thank you, I don’t want hot wax.”

Much e-mail list repartee reminds me of shortstops taking infield practice, diving for ground balls just out of reach, firing them back as fast as they can. Often they miss, but they do kick up a lot of dust in the process.

Have you ever noticed how apples have so many subtly different flavors, but a banana is always a banana?

I’m not the least bit standoffish, and have many friends. My problem is a limited tolerance for socialization.

The company I work for has a reputation for being a bunch of intellectuals. Therefore, I’m working on becoming a late-blooming intellectual. Gotta keep up appearances.

Legacy

Life at Fancy Dan’s

The drought is over. Today, for the first time, I walked into Fancy Dan’s Hotsy Totsy Downtown Athletic Club, more commonly known as the Athletic Club of Columbus (ACC), as a fully sanctified, card-carrying member. Finally — I can begin to get a piece of my life back. Given that by last Saturday afternoon I mused over the notion of diving off the Henderson bridge as I passed over it, I’d say the relief arrived none too soon.

It’s an eight-minute walk from the front of my office building to the front door of Fancy Dan’s, including a stop at my car, and less than six minutes walk returning to my car, by which time commuter traffic had subsided. This is good news, in that FD’s is less out of my way in both time and distance than a trip to Bally’s after work ever was in Phoenix; Bally’s was eight or ten minutes drive out of my way, which I considered insignificant, compared to my commute of twenty-eight miles each way.

The biggest difference now is that I have to walk it. This is a good thing—not a bad thing. How could one rightly complain about walking a few minutes to a place where he will be exercising on a treadmill? I’m more than happy to make that walk. I’m planning on recording the distance in my log from now on, as I used to record my warmup and cool down laps at Bally’s. I just measured the trek on Google maps by the shortest possible route as 0.334 miles. We’ll see how I feel about it the first time the weather turns lousy, which around here should happen within the hour.

Upon arriving I announced myself as the new guy to the friendly lady at the front desk, whereupon she explained what was where, which I already sort of knew from previous visits as a guest. She added that there are “quarter lockers” in the back, but that I could rent a locker, and someone upstairs could help me with that.

Ummm … quarter lockers? Yes, you just put in a quarter, take out the key, and when you’re done, you turn the key and even get your quarter back. Well, that’s a heckuva deal! But you see … ummm … I dropped off my wallet in the car before coming over, and didn’t have a quarter. No problemo! She loaned me a quarter on the spot, which I gratefully returned on my way out.

It beats me why they have lock mechanisms that require a quarter if you get the quarter back.

Fancy Dan’s does indeed feature a swanky locker room, although the appearance of naked state senators and lawyers strolling about in it is no different from that of naked folk of humbler station from Bally’s.

The lockers have dark wood doors, and almost all have brass nameplates with their renters’ names engraved on them. They must have different rates, because some of them are full length, adequate for hanging suits and overcoats, while others are … ummm … half length, I guess. I saw a man standing at one that had a whole roll-out system with little drawers and shelves with talcs and liquids and probably an underwear drawer and a mirror and for all I know a wet bar and an altar.

I’m afraid the “quarter lockers,” which I had to inquire about to find, are not so classy. They do have the attractive wood doors, but are barely big enough to fit my gym bag, which I had to scrunch to cram in. This will be a problem on any day when there’s inclement or cold weather, which we have 363 days a year in Columbus. I suppose I could check my overcoat downstairs in the check room, where there’s a coat check lady who would like to receive tips in return for putting coats on and off of hangers, and protecting them from marauding bands of Hell’s Angels that may pass through.

As for the workout itself: I started by running three miles on a treadmill, in a cramped corner of a fifth floor room, in a space with not much of a view, running underneath a TV with no sound, tuned to the news that showed banner headlines telling me repeatedly for half an hour that Hulk Hogan’s son wants to get out of jail. I hope they let him out so I don’t have to see that headline again tomorrow.

I’m determined to get used to the treadmill, because it’s my only option for getting in reasonably consistent weekday workouts. Today was the first time I ran that far under 11:00 miles in months. I hope to improve on that mark considerably in the coming weeks.

After that, I hit the weights for the third time since I’ve been in Ohio, the first being the fourth day I was here, the second in mid-April. Though I spent only twenty minutes, it all felt very good, as I gazed out the west window at the Ohio Statehouse kiddy corner from the stately brick club while doing arm curls.

The workout area is distributed between the fourth and fifth floors, with the free weights and a few treadmills on the fifth floor, and a cardio room with nicer treadmills and other machines on the fourth, where the locker rooms are located. There are also handball courts, a pool, a basketball court, and other as yet undiscovered features. The basketball court has a steeply banked track circling it above, but it’s totally unacceptable for any type of serious running—and about 20 laps to a mile. I may try a two-miler on it some day just for yucks.

Fancy Dan’s may be ritzy in some ways, but as a gym it’s only so-so. The workout space is certainly adequate, and was almost deserted. I think downtowners favor early morning and long lunch breaks, then escape to home at 5:00 p.m., whereas I am unreformably a late afternoon exerciser.

The equipment in the weight room is mostly old, standard Nautilus stuff, and neither fancy nor well-organized. Fortunately, with free weights the only requirement is that they be heavy and have handles. What’s there gets the job done. Tomorrow I will try one of the downstairs treadmills, which appear to be loaded with dials and programs. And of course, there are the usual ellipticators and stairstep and bicycle machines as well. I’m glad to have this place to go to, but quite honestly, as a gym, it’s not as nice as the Bally’s I used to go to, and vastly inferior to the one a little further away, in Scottsdale. Yet Bally’s markets an economy level service.

One thing that makes this place different is being able to step out of the weight room and into a lounge where you can sit in an easy chair and watch a wide-screen TV, while a guy in a cute little uniform brings you single malt scotch, or other libations of choice, which you can charge to your account.

Very nice. I won’t be doing that any time in the next several years.

In conclusion, it’s great to be back. I think I can make this work.

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Humor

MANLY Sports

There have been far too many sissy sports allowed into the Olympics, and personally, I’m weary of it. I say it’s time to beef up the agenda a bit with a few more MANLY sports. Here are some suggestions.

  • Hitting other MEN in the face as hard as you can until they fall unconscious. Oh wait, they already have that sport.
  • Throwing truck tires over a building—an activity popular in the deep south among MEN named Bubba.
  • Murdering animals—a perennial favorite of MANLY MEN who live in wooded areas.
  • Drinking so much so fast you throw up—quite popular with the college crowd.
  • Projectile gas-passing.
  • Crashing cars.
  • Finally, for the more intellectually inclined MANLY MEN: marathon cussing.
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Humor

The Power of Negative Thinking

Dilbert

Dilbert

Some time ago there was a Dilbert strip wherein, when charged with having a bad attitude, Dilbert responds: “My attitude is proof that I am thinking clearly.”

In one of the conference rooms at the now defunct Motorola Computer Group there was a plaque with a quote from CEO Bob Galvin that said: “Come to work with a healthy spirit of discontent.” Sometimes when people would ask me how I was that day, I’d respond: “My spirit of discontent has the flu.”

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Legacy

How to Tell the Difference

On a long walk though Columbus, as I headed up Neil Street, I saw an earnest looking young man sitting on the front steps of his Victorian home. He was holding something close and rocking back and forth rhythmically. As I observed him on approach, I guessed he was either religious or autistic. The effect and resulting behavior in some cases is much the same, making it hard to tell the difference.

As I passed by he gazed nervously at me, while flipping rapidly without reading through a largish floppy well-worn book with a black cover, and gilt edges, whereupon I concluded my first guess was correct.

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Legacy

On Civility

Social Security card

Today I visited the local Social Security office in order to offer proof in person that I had been born. My life has just entered a new phase, as I have formally enrolled for Medicare. Perhaps I should also be buying up stock in Depends adult undergarments, as the leading edge of the baby boomer generation is about to hit traditional retirement age.

The Federal Building is one block up the street from where I work. What I expected would be a fifteen-minute round trip took an hour and ten.

First, I experienced the humiliating need to pass through a security checkpoint every bit as rigorous as at an airport, except I did not have to remove my shoes. The bottleneck was tended to by four unsmiling drones, all well-practiced in the arts of avoiding eye contact and mumbling canned answers. For me to exert the effort to speak a friendly word toward any of them would have been pointless and possibly viewed as hostile and suspect. The guards are worse than robots because beneath the storm trooper gear are human souls, lobotomized by careers in aggravating innocent people.

The older I get the more I believe in the value of politeness and civility. My attitude is much the product of theocratic training, I am sure, tempered by many years of contact with people who seem helpless in their quest to do anything more than merely to endure with resignation the circumstances of their tragic, grief-stricken lives.

While I cannot make anyone else’s life better, at least I can avoid making it worse. Whenever I have contact with other people, no matter to whom and no matter where—the old man taking my five-dollar bills at the parking lot at six o’clock on a miserable winter morning, the checkout lady and bagger at the grocery store, and especially the functionaries in a government office—I always am aware of myself making a deliberate effort to look each person in the eye, look for a name badge and address that person by name if possible, to speak clearly, to be friendly, to behave as non-antagonistically as possible, and to say a sincere thank-you as we part company, possibly never to meet again. I even thanked and shook the hand of the policeman who issued me a moving violation on my last day as an Arizona citizen for being kind and helpful in dealing with me after I almost got killed when I spun out going down a mountain road pulling a trailer. I’m sure that men in his line of work are not used to that sort of response.

Whoever it is, and wherever it is, I make every effort to disarm and to diffuse any possibility of confrontation, to convey the message from the outset: I’m sorry if you’ve had a bad day today, but I am not your next Big Problem. I will not be your enemy today. I am here to get your help, am grateful to have it, and when we’re done, I’ll say so, and be on my way. Furthermore, I do this in all sincerity, because I have learned that if you give people half a chance they will respond in kind.

Life is hard. Everywhere I see evidence of beaten humanity who have manifestly lived their whole lives unguided by meaningful standards of behavior.

Walking into the Social Security office was a shock. I expected a short line and to be in and out, like at a bank. Instead I encountered another personalityless and grossly overweight armed security person crushing his obviously uncomfortable chair at the entrance, a man whose only job seemed to be to monitor people coming and going, with nothing else to do other than be prepared to handle some elderly retiree who “goes postal,” a real possibility in a government office. (An actual US Post Office is one floor below.) Do you suppose he ever gets a chance to shoot recalcitrant Medicare recipients with that gun?

He told me to take a number and sit down. He suggested that pressing number four on the keypad to the machine that spit out the numbers might be a good choice. So I did, upon which I received a faded A-54 from a thermal printer.

When I registered on the phone last week I spoke with a kindly man who led me to believe this business would be a matter of waiting no more than five minutes. It was more like forty minutes, during which I had occasion to observe the sea of agonized flesh around me, and was reminded of Jesus’ words about feeling pity for the crowds that followed him because they were skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.

With the exception of one youthful, attractive, smiling couple, the man wearing a tie, the remaining population in the waiting room suggested that perhaps someone had dredged the Olentangy River and brought in whatever bottom-dwellers they found.

There were the usual complement of specimens from one- to two-hundred pounds overweight. There was a fat woman with tight clothing whose midriff hung comically out of her clothing. She was toting a toddler who had only one vocabulary word—an ear-splitting: “AAAAH!” shrieked repeatedly in a style reminiscent of Sam Kinison. There were the ones with their hats on sideways who spoke in plosive one-syllable words only they can understand. “Yo! Do! Ho dey?” And there were the ancient ones, barely walking with the aid of canes, various body parts not functioning or missing altogether. There was one very black man accompanied by two women wearing religious garb that covered them from head to toe, leaving only their eyes showing out. One enormously fat man in his mid-twenties with glazed, baggy eyes wished everyone in the room a happy Mother’s Day on his way out the door as an older woman led him out of the room by the hand. I hope he’s been taking his meds.

Even the people in the booths behind the counter were typical of what I have come to expect in government offices—drones with utterly no apparent life. One woman called out numbers. She wore black horn-rimmed glasses, had hair that drooped down both sides of her face and curved under her chin, exposing only a narrow swath of her homeliness, which bore an expression that suggested someone had just planted a fresh pile of something extruded from the rear end of a dog on the desk right next to her, as she called out “B-ONE-EIGHTY-NINE!” three times before deciding that B-one-eighty-nine had left the building.

To be expected were the signs forbidding objectionable behavior, necessary because some people do these things at home and elsewhere, but that spitting on the floor and urinating in the corner is not acceptable in this dignified establishment.

I was fortunate to be called by a thoughtful woman who worked efficiently, was not unpleasant, and answered my clearly articulated questions. I believe I left her relieved that she did not have to confront yet another nut case today.

The appearance of the average Joe on the street these days has nothing to do with religion per se. But people don’t get to look the way so many do today without a lot of practice. As I thought about it, I was reminded of what the prophet Malachi predicted about our day:

And YOU people will again certainly see [the distinction] between a righteous one and a wicked one, between one serving God and one who has not served him.”—Malachi 3:18

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Humor

Two Running Vignettes

Part One

Most every Saturday of my life that I can arrange it, I spend the morning teaching others about the Bible, and then devote the afternoon or more engaged in long runs of varying dimension. At least that was my habit for the last twelve years before I moved to Columbus. While I’ve made significant forward progress the last month, things here have not been entirely rosy on the running front.

One factor that has not helped is no longer having membership in a club with a short track or even treadmills I can run on. One benefit from my job that has supposed to have been forthcoming since before I left Arizona is membership in Athletic Club of Columbus (ACC), just a short walk from my office, which would certainly solve my midweek training crisis overnight. For a variety of disappointing reasons I won’t go into here, it just hasn’t materialized. As a result of that, along with the winter weather, my running program has collapsed and crashed almost completely. I’ve gained two pounds a month since November, and until a couple of weeks ago, have run only on the weekend, often on only one day, and when the weather permitted it. I’m in terrible shape.

Poor me. Poor fat, slow, aging, angry and frustrated me.

So today was a Saturday. I had sort of hoped to do a twenty-mile run, but because of a quirk of scheduling, I had to go into the office to do some work—pretty much working for free, in fact, because yesterday and today the snappy, efficient little firm I work for moved its offices from the fourth and tenth and twelfth floors to the entire ninth floor of the building we inhabit. The construction workers have been banging away below me since January. We’ve been anticipating this move eagerly for a long time, and it has finally happened.

So I had moving tasks to accomplish today, and waited until our office manager phoned so I would know the stuff I needed had been carried in by the movers. My expectation was to go in, get things done, make myself useful for a while, head somewhere for at least a short run, and finally travel far to the north of town for some necessary shopping.

My commute is fairly short—about ten to twelve minutes from engine on to engine off—and I figured on a Saturday morning, it would be a breeze.

Imagine my surprise when I got off the I-70 at Fourth Street and found myself immediately in bumper to bumper gridlock, a mile and a quarter from where I would be able to park. And what do you suppose was causing the delay? When I arrived at the first intersection and looked west, there they were—hordes upon hordes of runners lumbering thickly south on High Street. The density of the crowd suggested the race was still young and I was somewhere not far from its origin, though I still do not know what race it was. (When I lived in Phoenix I at least knew about every race, certainly every one bigger than a tiny 5K and every ultra.) It was not until twenty minutes later, when I had advanced the six blocks to Rich Street, that I realized the runners were running westward on that street, crossing Fourth, the street I was on, then turning south on High. Therefore, the police were on duty, and letting through just a few cars at a time, conducting traffic as the runners would wish for to, holding it back until there were suitable breaks, but as yet there weren’t many.

After crossing Rich, I managed to move quickly for a few blocks, figuring I was done with it, until I got to Spring Street, and what did my wondering eyes behold? Walkers, lots of them, all of them pretty slow, many of them elderly, headed eastward. I supposed they were part of the same race, and that these participants were far behind the others we had waited for, and that they were going to turn south and then double back on Rich before long, but the fact that I did not see one person actually running in this pack made me wonder if walkers were dispatched separately.

Eventually I managed to find my way to a parking spot (fortunately free on a Saturday), and got to the office close to a half hour later than anticipated.

The experience was enough to make me appreciate why it’s necessary to have reasonable cutoff times in urban road races. Slower runners and walkers would like to be able to have all the time in the world to run their races, but the logistics of needing to put police out there to stop traffic, and the inconvenience and irritation to those who don’t care a whit about the race and just need to get somewhere at a certain time, and also the impact on businesses along the route, cannot be ignored.

Years ago I read a quote from a Chicago journalist who took up running himself for a while, but later apostatized. In the article he said, speaking to self-absorbed running zealots so impressed by their newfound sport that it’s all they can talk about: “You probably think that others are as interested in your obsession as you are. They aren’t.”

It was interesting to be on the spectator side of that scenario for once. I certainly wasn’t upset about it, and frankly, the thought occurred to me immediately that I’d have rather been out there running with them than stuck in traffic waiting for them, even though I’m not much interested in that kind of race any more—the ones where I run down a street and finish 12,423rd out of 14,021 runners—although depending on how things go the rest of this year, I just might plan on running the Columbus Marathon, which also runs through the downtown area.

However, today it happened to be cold and intermittently rainy, not a nice day for a run. Not only that, the forecast is for worse to come, with lots of rain and temperatures around freezing the next few nights. What else is new? It’s Columbus.

But wait, there’s more …

Part 2

Being at work is no problem for me. I genuinely like all my colleagues and my job, and there was important work to be done by means of which, for once, we would be benefiting ourselves, moving into fancy and comfortable new digs. But when I finished what I had to do I really needed to get out of there, so I did.

In Phoenix I logged well over 10,000 miles on a 155-yard track at a Bally’s gym near my house. When I moved to Columbus, I learned there are two Bally’s in town, one very near where I stayed the first four weeks I was here. I went to it on November 14th, my first day at work. I was shocked at how disgusting the premises was—on an awful, busy street, less than a third the size of the gym I’d frequented, stinking, filthy, dangerous looking, and smack in back of an establishment with a sign that said ADULT 24 HOURS in two foot letters. After lasting only two miles on a treadmill and ten minutes on the weights, while worrying about the safety of my gear in the locker, I concluded my tenure as a Bally’s gym rat was over. I have not been back.

The other Bally’s is in the far northeast corner of the city, and I’d been warned that there, too, was probably not a good part of town. Since receiving that warning, I’ve gotten to know the city much better, and while I had never been to that exact locale, I tended to doubt that it is a rough area.

Furthermore, I stumbled across my Bally’s card last week, thinking I had shredded it. Knowing that it is due to expire very soon. I asked my record-keeping wife if she knew when. Yes—April 17, next Thursday.

So with the funky weather and disrupted schedule today, and needing to head north on errands anyhow, I figured I’d try to locate that Bally’s to give it one more fling. After all, how bad could it be? A couple of miles on a treadmill and a few minutes of weights would be better than nothing.

It was not difficult to find the gym. It is indeed in a vast area of typical urban/suburban commercial properties that stretches for miles, but in a perfectly safe and tidy neighborhood, unlike the one in southeast Columbus, in which I lived four of the most miserable weeks of my existence, and would not recommend to anyone.

That’s when the surprise came. As I approached the building and saw not only the familiar logo and blue and red and gold paint job, I saw also the very same architectural structure used by two of the Bally’s back in Phoenix, including the one I used to attend—a two story layout, with the main gym floor upstairs. Suddenly I felt like a ten-year-old boy seeing the McDonald’s Golden Arches after crossing Antarctica on a dogsled.

Could it possibly be?? Don’t tell me—is this gym structured the same as the one I inhabited for so many years, and does it even have—my heart almost skipped a beat—does it even have—an INDOOR TRACK?

Yes indeed, it most certainly does, and is pretty much like the one I used to run on! As I stepped onto it I just couldn’t believe it.

The external architecture of the building is almost identical to the ones in Phoenix. The internal layout is somewhat different in specifics, but in general is the same. I had no trouble finding anything. The locker rooms, pool, main office, and child care center are downstairs. The main room is upstairs. (They also have an elevator, but I never once saw the inside of it in Phoenix.) It seemed darker at this one, despite several more and larger windows, but I think that’s because Phoenix is usually sunny and cheerful, whereas Columbus is dark, gloomy, and dismal most of the time, as it was today.

The organization of the Columbus Bally’s upstairs is substantially different from my old gym. The stairway comes up to the middle of a side rather than to a corner. There is an aisle straight through to the other side. The machines and weights are older and well used, but certainly functional.

But the track itself is essentially identical—that is, it’s like it was before they remodeled in Phoenix two or three years ago, which included resurfacing the track. (I think I wore it out.) This track has a stripe down the center, and also some words painted on it in two places that suggest walkers and slower joggers [sic] should use the inside lane. The direction policy is the same as Phoenix’s—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday counterclockwise, all other days clockwise—a policy that is much different from a standard high school 400-meter track, which is always run counterclockwise, with the inside lane reserved for speedsters.

When I arrived I just stood there and gaped at it for a couple of minutes, not believing what I was seeing. I walked three laps, then ran three miles, reliving the memories, following which I did my first weight session since I was in Phoenix. It felt sooo gooood! But I could stay only about an hour because of my errands.

Tomorrow it is going to be miserably cold and rainy, and I am going back to do a twenty-miler. It will be my last, because my membership will expire next Thursday. This club is much too far away for me to visit regularly, so I will not be renewing my membership. By strange coincidence, though, it is 0.65 miles closer to a house Suzy and I were interested in than my house in Phoenix is to the Bally’s I went to there. (2.60 miles versus 3.25 miles.) And while it is true that I would not have been able to get up to this club in Columbus very often over the past several months, I am absolutely certain that I would have gone a few times when I simply did not go out on a weekend because the weather in Columbus is so dog bad all winter long and prevented me.

As for now—my hope of salvation for my running program remains that anticipated membership in Athletic Club of Columbus.

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Humor

Coping with Incompetent Authority

IOWA CITY, IA - FEBRUARY 01:  A University of ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

As a freshman at University of Illinois, I took Hawksa boring required course. The instructor was an insufferable moron, a graduate liberal arts student.

Early in the semester there was a big snow storm. It was an early morning class, and I arrived a few minutes late, briefly interrupting the class by my entrance, as I made my way to my seat, still covered with snow and slush—an admittedly impertinent thing to do, regardless of the circumstances. I’ve always been intolerant of tardiness myself.

Mr. Hawks waited for me to get settled, then asked, in a trembling voice reminiscent of Paul Linde: “Difficult journey, Mr. Newton?”

My response: “Not nearly as tedious as the destination, Mr. Prahlhans.” He never dared to question me again.

As a graduate student I had an extremely beautiful and conservative (even for those days) graduate assistant instructor named Ms. Bello for my second semester Italian class who was at least as concerned about student attendance as she was about teaching Italian. She was in truth quite a nice lady, and I liked her, but I grew weary of her inquiring about absences, because my attitude at the time had become that class was somewhere I went when I had nothing more important to do. In those days I was a habitual class cutter, as my time and energy became more and more consumed by what I hoped would become my life work, and therefore gave less attention to academics. (I still managed to get excellent grades.) One day after I had cut class the time before, she asked me, as was her routine, where I had been. I responded with feigned embarrassment that I had been in jail because because a party at my apartment had gotten out of hand. (Yes, it was a boldfaced lie, one calculated to intimidate. I’ve never been in jail for any reason.) Poor Ms. Bello was simply unprepared to respond to such an excuse. It was the last time she ever questioned anyone in the class about attendance.

Another time Ms. Bello stuck her foot in her mouth occurred when just before class one day she asked a fellow music student an organ major: “How’s your organ?” Before she even realized what she’d said, he responded: “Hangin’ right in there.” Ms. Bello nearly had to cancel class she was so embarrassed.

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Humor

Drivel

Here are some thoughts I’ve wanted to express for a long time.

  • Yesterday I thought of a great mnemonic device, but I forgot what it was. I’m fully aware of the irony of this situation. Or maybe I was just looking for a way to use “irony” in a sentence.
  • Have you ever noticed? There are two holes in every doughnut — one on each side.
  • Whenever the Net goes down I look nervously out the window to see if there’s a mushroom cloud.
  • A simple life is not an easy life. I’m far too lazy to lead a simple life.
  • The principle lesson to be derived from so-called secular humanism is this: You get what you pay for, so don’t drink the Kool Aid until you know what’s in it.
  • Give a doofus a powerful authoring tool and what will he produce? A document that veritably shouts: “I am a doofus!”, often in a riotous array of  fonts and file formats.
  • Searching a newspaper for a job as a Web developer is exactly as useful as looking for a future marriage mate in a bar.
  • It’s funny how when you’re digging for treasure you find a lot more worms.

Over and out.

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Arts

Famous Last Words

Dad conducting
Dad
conducting

On the morning my father died, he woke up and told my mother that he didn’t feel well and needed to get to the hospital right away. It did not take long to get him to where he could be made comfortable, but there was nothing that could be done. His life systems were shutting down. People were called, and a couple of friends managed to get by in time. According to my mother, the last words she remembers him saying, acknowledging the presence of some who had arrived, were: “I love it when pretty women come to visit me.” Moments later he lapsed into a coma, and died shortly thereafter.

Note: The picture is an oil painting of my father made in the 1950s, taken from a professional black and white photograph. The likeness is excellent. It hung above the fireplace in our home for many years.

Legacy

On TV

Family watching television, c. 1958

Image via Wikipedia

We often hear people say dismissively: “Yeah, most of what’s on TV these days is junk, not worth watching.” The point-of-view seems to imply that the ones saying it have actually watched “most of what’s on TV these days'” so as to make a proper evaluation, which says much about the speaker’s use of time than the media content he is so quick to denigrate.

I wouldn’t know whether such things are true or not. Although I do not presently have a television, I do watch some TV when I get a chance—but always what I choose to watch, as contrasted with mindlessly flipping through channels. Therefore, regardless of what generalized platitudes may be uttered regarding the overall quality of television programming, most of what I watch on TV is not junk, and is worth watching.

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Humor

Newbie Is as Newbie Does

A diagram showing the key Unix and Unix-like o...

Image via Wikipedia

No one rises to an opportunity to make fun of newbies more quickly than someone, usually young and male, who was himself a newbie just last week and now knows everything. These people like to be alert to opportunities to respond to sincere questions asked on lists with handy and clever little phrases like “RTFM” and “google foo” and other cute quips known by self-appointed cognoscenti.

Once I asked a question about some technical matter on a Linux list, and received such a reply from a subscriber I had never seen before. On follow-through posts he chided me to consult such and such a professor at ASU and some other resource he felt certain everyone ought to know. Despite being a Unix user since 1984, and having taught Linux briefly at a university, I did not know the reference, nor the answer to my question. In the course of things the fellow revealed he was a second year student at ASU. My response to him was: “Oooooh! A stuuuuudent!! No wonder you’re so quick to assign me homework!” It was the last time I saw any trace of him on the list.

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Humor

Life’s Great Ironies

Did you know that

M O T H E R   I N   L A W

is an anagram for

W O M A N     H I T L E R

That charming coincidence certainly applied well to my first one.
To her daughter too, come to think of it.

Humor

Adena Mounds

Adena Mound (Ross County, Ohio)

Image via Wikipedia

So—yesterday I drove up to Highbanks Park, in the north end of the city, and because I’ve been sick for two weeks straight, opted not to do a long run, but wanted at least a token excursion to get some fresh air and bestir my heartbeat, so I walked trails for an hour and ten minutes, this time taking the northern loopy trail that I couldn’t go on the last time I was there because the old feller volunteer at the nature center said it was closed because there had been snow and then a thaw with temperatures in the forties, so was too muddy.

There were no signs up yesterday saying don’t go, so I went, and passed by a dozen or so other brave people while I was out. The route on the map is a bit confusing, but not hard to follow once you’re on it. It’s possible to make a complete looping out-and-back and cover everything, despite the appearance of a black widow’s nest layout on the map.

It turned out to be only marginally passable, ranging from mildly sloshy to suck-your-shoes-off muddy. In fact, there were a couple of places I wondered how I was going to get around without having to wade through mud up to my shoe tops. Nonetheless, I managed to find sufficient roots and tree branches to hang onto, passing by on the edges of the trail, and didn’t get too terribly filthy.

On the way back I encountered a man wearing up-to-the-knees riding boots. He seemed proud to demonstrate with alacrity his willingness to stomp straight through the the middle of the schloppyfest routes through the mud. His presumed wife had to walk around it. The expression on his face as he went by said: “I’m havin’ fun, dude. Sorry about you!” Boys will be boys.

On the trip I encountered something labeled “Adena Mound.” Sure enough, there was this anomalous lump in the landscape, one-hundred feet or so across at the base, rising perhaps ten feet at its peak. I didn’t think too much about it, except that there is a second place in the same park also called “Adena Mound,” which I encountered my first time at the park. So — How can you have two landmarks with the same name? I wondered.

My theory was that back in olden days of yore there was a local farmer named Adena who had a knack for discovering mounds. So like, one evening after chores back in 1870 or so, Chester Adena and his wife Cindy Lou would go out exploring the woods in the area, and it would be like: “Oh say! What have we here? I do believe I’ve found a mound, Cindy Lou!” “And I believe you are quite right about that, Mr. Adena!” Cindy Lou would reply with loyal enthusiasm. So they’d put up a marker and call it Adena Mound, and thus they are all called to this day, somehow preserved and not flattened for highways and shopping malls out of respect for Chester Adena, who became such a well-known farmer philanthropist that they eventually named the tiny village of Adena, Ohio, in the far east of the state, after him to honor his memory.

Of course, I realized this was just a theory, and knew it was possible I could be wrong.

Imagine my surprise when I looked up Adena Mound in the Ultimate Authority of All Human Knowledge (the Wikipedia) and discovered that the Adena were a people who inhabited the area around 1000 BC, long, long before the possibility of any European contact (which fact no doubt helped them to live longer, happier lives), and that these people were known for — you guessed it — building mounds! (They didn’t have Second Life and social networking services in those days to keep them entertained.) And these mounds seem to have served as burial structures, ceremonial sites, historical markers and possibly gathering places.

Well shut my mouth! A person could learn something wandering around in these parts.

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Legacy

Across the Years 2007

On Wednesday, January 2, 2008, I returned to my hole in the wall in Columbus, Ohio, from my ninth annual running of Across the Years, my seventh consecutive year in the 72-hour race, where the question most commonly asked by friends both new and old was:

“Why, oh why Ohio?”

It’s a reasonable question for anyone who has ever spent time in both places, but I don’t yet have a satisfying answer regarding why I recently left Arizona to live in Ohio, so it will have to be the subject of another blog entry.

At Across the Years I double as one of the organizers in the months before the race itself, leaving me free to run the race mostly without distraction come race day.

The organizers of Across the Years endeavor to put on an event that is at least the best in its class — perhaps even one that will be regarded by others as one of the best races in the world.

This year featured the best field ever, with runners from twenty-eight states in the US, and from Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and France coming together to spend the end of 2007 with a fete of running, many of them past or present holders of world and national records, and with the setting of new records in mind.

Others have itemized and extolled the many features and virtues of Across the Years, which gets better each year, so it’s not necessary for me to repeat all that here. Anyone wanting to know more about it needs only to spend an hour or so exploring the web site, with its pictures, videos, results with splits, statistics, history, FAQ, and other features to get the idea.

It is during the race itself that people can experience it best. At the race site runners, volunteers, and observers alike are easily swallowed up by the spirit of the event, quickly losing their sense of date and time, as for a while the race become their whole world. I find every single year that I must let myself down gently after the race, as it takes a couple of days to get my mind off it and return to normal life.

For those unable to join us, we offer the best webcast in the world of ultrarunning, with live results updated every twelve seconds, a program to send messages to runners that are printed and delivered to labeled mailboxes, a webcam, pictures posted during the race, live news reports, and for the first time this year, a dozen videos created by Jamil Coury during the race and posted on YouTube. If you wonder what makes ATY different from other races, I invite you to view Jamil’s New Year’s Celebration video. When was the last time you saw something like that at an ultra?

The webcast is a feature enjoyed largely by observers. For instance, I myself have never actually seen the webcam in operation, because I’m always busy running. It serves the purpose of making the race more of a spectator sport, something quite rare in the world of ultrarunning. The organizers have received an overwhelming number of enthusiastic and appreciative messages from persons who followed the race for hours at a time, sometimes getting up multiple times in the middle of the night to track how far their favorite runners had progressed.

The ATY Greetings Package has become a runaway hit among runners and visitors alike. I have become adamant about reminding people that it is not an email system, and bears only some resemblance to email. As I have illustrated to others: You can call a wrench a hammer—if you intend to use it to pound in nails. But you may be disappointed with the results. However, if you have another job in mind, such as holding and twisting a nut, that misnamed hammer might be just the thing you’re looking for. Similarly, the ATY Greetings Package, which I call “I Can’t Believe It Isn’t Email,” suits well the purpose for which it was designed.

It was with the idea of promoting the use of this service that at the prerace meeting on the second day that Paul quizzed those in attendance: “Who knows what’s better than email?” In response, someone piped up: “Female!” I would be hard pressed to argue the point.

The race progressed as usual. At 9:00 AM each day a new batch of runners started running around the 500-meter dirt track. I’m the only person who can say he has run every day of every race ever held at Nardini Manor, so you might say I know every inch of that track. The surface was in lovely condition at the start, but by the second day it got beat up and hard. No one seemed to mind.

Because my attention has been consumed by moving the last few months, my running has dropped of radically. I arrived at the race basically untrained for it, having run 76.3 miles at the San Francisco 24-Hour in late October, and no long run except one of twenty-six miles on November 24th, single runs of fifteen and ten before and after that, and almost no other running at all.

The race brought my year’s total running mileage up to 1912 miles, less by several hundred miles than any year since 1998, and far short of what I have run in recent years, always in the 2200-2400 mile range.

Consequently, I arrived with a multi-tiered set of goals for the race:

  • 325 KM (201.95 Miles) — my originally stated goal, unfazed by there being no hope of reaching it;
  • 170 Miles — realistic if I had an exceptional outing;
  • 150 Miles — pretty good if I could do it, but not great;
  • 120 Miles — the mileage below which I would experience total humiliation.

In the end I ran 154.100 miles, and took it easy after reaching 150. I could have reached 160 if I had chosen to go for it, but decided not to. I ran hard the last three laps in order to chink up the number of whole miles one more notch. That brought my lifetime total miles at Across the Years up to 1355.33, where I remain in fourth place all time behind Harold Sieglaff, and Martina Hausmann, who surged far ahead of David Upah this year, now in third place.

Happily, I never experienced any significant physical problems: no blisters, no unexpected aches, and most importantly, NO RUNNER’S LEAN, which destroyed both of my last two ATY races.

Sometimes I have little problem with sleep deprivation; at others it bothers me badly. My sleep strategy was to stay out on the track as long as I could, but if I needed to sleep, then do it. Normally I’m one of the runners who can be found out there banging out laps at 3:00 AM while other much faster runners are in their tents sawing logs.

Sometimes it’s easier to fight sleep and revive, perhaps with the aid of caffeine, than to rest, then have to deal with getting stiff, waking up, and going back out into the cold in putrid wet clothing and aching feet. But the desire to sleep can be inexorable. In 2007 it haunted me relentlessly.

After analyzing my splits I concluded that I slept a total of about twelve hours during the race, which is more than usual for me. I have gotten by on as little as four hours for the whole race.

In my experience, the single most challenging difficulty to cope with at Across the Years is the cold at night. Winter in the southwest desert is not extreme, but the dry air drives temperatures down at night. Add to that being physically exhausted, sleepy, clammy, filthy, and starting to ache by the first night, and the occasional hallucinations, and you have conditions that are impossible to ignore, even beneath several layers of clothing.

ATY 2007 experienced unseasonably cold weather at night, with official high temperatures the 29th of December through January 1st of 55/31, 59/30, 63/33, and 70/46. The last night was comfortable through the early evening hours, but as the night wore on, it, too, became uncomfortable. About 10:00 PM on the third night, gusty winds arrived, sometimes impaling the balloons that were being put up for the New Year’s celebration on the barbs atop the chain link fences.

People

The story of Across the Years is invariably one of the people involved, which we call the ATY Family, so it would be appropriate to mention various runners by name along with memories of my encounters with them this race.

  • Race founder Harold Sieglaff was notable by his absence his year. Paul Bonnett carried Harold’s chip and number around the track with him on the one-lap “togetherness&quit; lap for runners, families, and friends at midnight, January 1st. With 2426.22 miles, Harold still maintains a lead of 810.95 miles in lifetime mileage over second place Martina Hausmann, and will likely remain the only 2000-mile jacket holder for several years to come. If an annual standard marathon awarded 2000-mile jackets, you would have to run seventy-eight of them to get one.
  • The inimitable Ray Krolewicz was full of stories, including about how he won a marathon in 1985 and arrived home to find his house burned down, but his family safe. He was also able to tell me that one kilometer is equal to 0.62137119 miles (to eight decimal places), and was able to calculate quickly in his head exactly how many kilometers I needed to have 150 miles. It made sense to me to watch the lap count and KM display on the board rather than the miles, since the course at Nardini Manor is a 500-meter track, and the mileage increases by the odd 0.31 miles per lap — frustrating when you have just passed a new mile plus a low decimal, because it takes four laps for the mileage integer to increment by one, whereas you add a new kilometer every other lap.
  • Pete Stringer beat me by 1.5 miles despite spending most of the third day in his sleeping bag with flu. Pete is 66, and his two-day performance might have netted him fifth place overall in the 48-hour race.
  • Daniel Larson was magnificent with his long, flowing hair and some of the most impressive leg muscles I’ve seen. Daniel won the 24-hour race in 2005, and was among those who were running fast at the beginning but did not go out beyond his ability, which some others may have done. In the wee hours of the morning I encountered Daniel at the aid station, when he seemed to be the only one out there not engaged in a death march, and I told him I was glad to see there was someone still interested in running this race. Daniel was not sure he agreed.
  • Very late the second night we were astonished to see someone go blazing by with the speed of a Bill Rogers, then again, then again and again, for eight or ten laps. It took a few laps for me to realize that it was Nick Coury, the middle brother between Jamil and Nate, all of whom are excellent runners. After the race, Nick, who is 20, rattled off a 1:21 lap (which maps to about a 1:04 or less 400), and Nate, who is 17, followed with a 1:27. The Courys, obvious examples of fine parenting, were all there as volunteers this year.
  • John Geesler is one of the swellest guys in the game. He has had some spectacularly good outings, but he has also encountered some rough spots. I admire John for never stopping. I’ve never seen him inside the big tent except for before and after the race. He’s there to run or walk, not lie around resting and wondering how to save his race. Late on the third night I encountered John going so slowly that even I was passing him. He said: “Only reason I’m doin’ this is cuz I got nothin’ else to do. … Just the sheer joy of it.” Despite his low moments, John got 250 miles in the 72-hour, second only to Tony Mangan, which most years is good enough to win it.
  • Tony Mangan from Ireland came fully pumped and ready to go for all he could get. That he fell short of his original goal I will attribute to likely being a problem with the cold weather. But Tony won the race, with over 273 miles.
  • Pretty Carrie Sauter was a first timer in the 72-hour race, crewed by her husband Craig and friend Harry. When I first saw this delicate lady, not knowing her except through email, I wondered if she knew what she was getting into and is tough enough for a race of this type. Carrie ran courageously, smiling the whole time. She kept talking about how blessed she felt to be included in the race, and in the process nailed down an outstanding performance of 203 miles.
  • Jim O’Neil and Sue Norwood arrived a couple of days early, and remained quite visible around Nardini Manor, helping out where they could before the race. Jim and Sue are primarily trail people — Sue hiked the entire Appalachian Trail two years ago, with Jim crewing — and ATY was their first attempt at a 24-hour race. Appropriately, they got exactly the same mileage running on two different days. Jim and Sue are true friends of ultrarunning, and a joy to know.
  • Pam Reed, one of the most famous ultrarunners in the world, quit the 24-hour race after twenty hours with 94 miles. I never did get to ask her what went wrong, but she had written earlier to switch from the 48-hour race, where she had hoped to set a record, to the 24-hour, saying that she’d had a tough year.
  • Marshall Ulrich, one of the world’s most accomplished adventure racers, showed up to do the 72-hour race as a tune-up before his upcoming transcontinental race, ran 56 miles, and packed up and went home. Apparently it wasn’t his day. I was sad that I did not have a chance to meet him.
  • Glen Turner, also planning a transcontinental, experienced no such lapse. Glen finished the 72-hour with 235 miles, for third place behind Tony and John.
  • Paul DeWitt, who showed up with ambitions to break the American 24-hour record, found that he was unable to overcome a hamstring injury that has been plaguing him, so dropped with 66 miles, but reported many positive thoughts about his experience at ATY and his quest for the record in the race report on his blog, and will aim to be back.
  • Tracy Thomas, last year’s 72-hour women’s race winner and course record holder, has been fighting an IT band injury all year, and left after 50 hours and 175 miles — a fine performance by most standards, but not to someone who in other circumstances could win the race.
  • Aaron Goldman, who at 75 years of age is eleven years older than me on the dark end of the scale, made me laugh out loud very late one night as we were lumbering together down the east stretch, when he said: “There’s no way to stereotype ultrarunners!” No kidding. As usual, Aaron beat me by ten miles, despite a mondo case of runner’s lean so severe I wondered how he could stand up at all. Year after year Aaron continues to provide hope to me, and something to reach for at next year’s race.
  • Don Winkley had no qualms about loading all his running gear in his 1981 De Lorean, driving it 1150 miles from Corpus Christie TX, and parking it for three days in an unpaved rocky parking lot.
  • Gavin Wrublik, age 6, got into the act this year when he asked his father to give him a transponder and a 72-hour bib, then went out and started knocking down laps. His 7.767 miles makes him the youngest participant in Across the Years ever. And if I know the family, I daresay it will not be his last time.
  • Aaron Doman, age 12, got 50 miles, looking good the whole time. I told his father Wendell that he looks like a real runner. Wendell responded: “He is a real runner!”
  • Ethan Pence, age 11, ran 35 miles and had a very strong finish, while both his parents also did well in their own races.
  • Alene Nitzky, the co-race director of ATY in 2003, is running well again after battling health problems, putting herself through nursing school, and moving to Colorado. She had an outstanding 48-hour run.
  • Friends of ultrarunning ZombieRunners Don Lundell and Gillian Robinson put up commendable numbers. Don, the master of pacing, always gets his 100 miles (103 this year); Gillian got 126 miles in her first 48-hour race despite little training due to the demands of their flourishing business.
  • Christopher O’Loughlin, who has served the race as nurse since before I became associated with it, and who just said no to a life threatening illness, is back among us and got 100 miles this year.
  • David Ammons has used his ATY runs to raise money each year for the National Parkinson Foundation — close to $75,000 in seven years — and meantime this year belted out an admirable 104 miles.
  • “Energetic Rick” Cheever, age 25 and a triathlete, back for the third time, stepped up from the 24-hour to the 72-hour race as a result of a last-minute cancellation, battled hard for three days with the support of an excellent and attentive crew.
  • Debbie Richmeier may have been the dark horse performer of the race, with her total of 167 miles to win the women’s 48-hour race. Debbie won the 48-hour also in 2000, and told me she believes she can still get 180 miles and would love to try.
  • Dave Combs, the race timer, has now worked with us the last three years, and helped me out immeasurably by stepping in to perform tasks I was simply unable to get to because of my move, and in the process brought his own fresh ideas particularly to the presentation of the results listings, which are now better than ever.

In the end, six runners got over 220 miles in the 72-hour race, and nine over 200 miles. In the 24-hour race two runners (Daniel Larson and Dave Putney) got over 130 miles, while 12 received 100-mile buckles. Ron Vertrees finally received his jacket for accumulating over 1000 miles lifetime, and well beyond.

Across the Years remains an event that is fun but extremely challenging, even dangerous — not something to be undertaken frivolously. People can and do get injured or sick from running it, and one person has died. As I read the email filtering in on the Ultra list from people who were there this year, I am learning that an unusual number — including yours truly — experienced diarrhea, vomiting, and other unpleasant sideeffects following the race. But for the serious ultrarunner looking for a race in which to reach his ultimate potential, I can recommend no better than Across the Years.

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Legacy

My Gym

I’ve been away from my blog. The following Piece was written in late October, 2007, about two weeks before I moved to Columbus, Ohio, about which I will more to say at another time.

I invite you to view some pictures of the Bally’s indoor track I run at on my Web site. Allow time for the index page to load the thumbnails. From there you can click any one or scroll through them.


Sometimes a seemingly small event will have life-changing consequences, but we are unaware of it at the time.

On December 26th, 1994, I was on vacation, enjoying a year end break. The previous June I had rediscovered “jogging.” At first I could barely run at all. By the end of the year I could run an hour and fifteen minutes without breaking to walk or cursing the day I was born. That was already a longer distance than I had run on any regular basis years before, during my first personal running boom, which began in 1977.

Prior to June 1994 I had also been struggling with weight. One day my wife tactfully pointed out that I wasn’t looking as trim as I once did. She was right. By late December my weight had come down from a high of 220 to something still over 200. Like a thousand trombone players at the bottom of the ocean, it was “a good start.”

Suzy has had a gym membership since before I knew her. I never paid much attention; she would just go do whatever she did. I hadn’t been inside a gym since I was in college. It never occurred to me to do such a thing. At the time, Suzy went to US Swim and Fitness, which was later bought and renamed Bally’s. USSF offered a plan where family members of existing customers could get free three-month trial memberships. Suzy suggested that I go with her the morning of that fateful day of December 26—it was the day after a holiday for many people—and afterward we could do other stuff we had planned.

I had no interest in the aerobics class she was in, but thought I’d try out the other resources. Somehow, I had never run on a treadmill in my life. But all the treadmills were full that day, since the day after that particular holiday gyms are typically jammed with people vowing to work off the consequences of their seasonal abuses.

But I discovered to my surprise that this gym had an indoor track. There was a sign posted that said it was 155 yards on the center white line, about 11.4 laps to a mile—not exactly a round number, but at least it one by which to measure activity from run to run.

To my surprise, I enjoyed loping four miles around that track, which on that day was crowded, then tried out some of the machines. In my college days we had only benches and free weights.

I had so much fun that I resolved to come back the next day—and the next, and the next. And I ran longer — and longer, and longer — often longer than a marathon, and on occasion as far as 42 miles in a single day.

I’ve been going to that gym five or six days a week ever since, without any breaks in training. In the process I became first a runner, then a runner who participates in races with “K” in them, then a half marathoner, then a marathoner, and in 1999 an ultramarathoner.

Over the years I did a great deal of training on that indoor track, with nearly the equivalent of three trips across the US in officially logged mileage, and at least another thousand in miscellaneous runs and walks of oddball distances that were not noted in my logs.

As I reflect back on it all, I recognize wistfully that going to that gym on that day became one of the three or four most significant turning points in my life, as it marked the time of my transition from overweight couch potato to healthy athlete in training.

Few people are as blessed as I have been with an opportunity to regain a measure of youthful vitality, along with the self-discipline to make it happen, after years of unhealthy neglect. When I started back, I was significantly overweight, with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, potentially a walking stroke or heart attack who might not be alive today if I hadn’t taken the advice of my doctor to bring it under control. It is by far the commoner experience for people to drift from youth to premature death without a struggle.

It is having an appreciation of that reality that has led me to be adamant about exercise, particularly running. It’s a priority in my life of equal stature with eating, sleeping, working, maintaining spirituality, and good relations with others. It’s not optional, not ever. My insistence on making room for it has sometimes—though rarely—caused persons close to me, mostly persons who do little or nothing to care for their own physical health other than just to hope for the best, to wonder why I regard it as so important, and why I can’t, for instance, just go to dinner with them at some exorbitant restaurant for gluttons after some affair in which I’ve done nothing but sit all day, until I have first gotten in a run. Runners understand. Others do not.

The time is rapidly approaching for me to say goodbye to the track at Bally’s, and to the many people I have met and who know me there, as I am preparing to uproot the life I have cultivated for nearly thirty years to move across the country to Columbus, Ohio and a largely uncertain future. Therefore, yesterday, to create a photo memoir for my own pleasure, by means of which to recall the place where I have worked so hard for so many hours, I took my digital camera to Bally’s at a low volume hour and discreetly took some pictures from which I created a slide show.

I’m getting older, I’m slowing down, a bit of the weight I lost (53 pounds at max) has returned, so has a bit of the cholesterol and the blood pressure, but I’m fighting it. I’m determined that I will never, ever go back to the way I was in 1994, not even in my new life in Columbus.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

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Legacy

San Francisco One-Day Race

Geezer in San Francisco

Geezer in San Francisco

This race report lacks literary merit. Besides being endocrine depleted, I’m too busy to make it any better. But some people are hoping to see some sort of a report from the San Francisco 24-hour race, put on by Wendall Doman and Sarah Spelt of Pacific Coast Trail Runs, so this is my public record.

Among my running goals for 2007 was to do a 24-hour race, and attempt to set a lifetime PR therein.

When setting that goal I had no idea that my life would soon be uprooted, that after nearly thirty years of living in Phoenix I would find myself at year end moving to another state far away and to another life. Such disruptions tend to put a dent in endeavors of lesser importance such as running. And so it came to be. But I’m not unhappy.

We arrived in San Francisco after a thirteen-hour drive, the last ninety minutes of which was the ten miles across the Bay Bridge, and from there to our motel in the last block of Lombard before Presidio, within walking distance of Crissy Field. We had just enough time to get delicious dinner at the Curbstone restaurant up the street, get my gear laid out, and get to bed. The hotel was cheap, but admirably clean and comfortable, with a great bed.

I slept exceptionally well for nine hours, probably because I was not stressed about the race, ready to accept whatever happened.

Getting up and out went as smoothly as possible. I settled for the coffee, orange juice, muffins, and fruit from the motel office for a pre-race meal, and we arrived at Crissy Field at 8:00 a.m. sharp.

For this race I made changes to my usual footwear arrangement. I taped the balls of my feet as always, but not my toes, and overlaid women’s half height nylons, but with the toe end cut open. Then I added Injinji socks, worn for the first time in a race (I’d done a long run in them), gaiters, and my shoes (Asics 2120s), but without the prescription orthotics I’ve worn since 1996. This combination worked for me, as I had absolutely no trouble with blisters or any other sort of foot problem the whole race — a good thing, since I’m still missing two toenails, and the skin on the balls of my feet is still new and tender from my last race.

The park does not allow tents (I wouldn’t have brought one for just a 24-hour) or personal tables, so setup amounted to joining a string of camp chairs heaped with bags. This worked just fine. I didn’t plan on sitting down the whole race, though I wound up doing so anyhow.

I’d looked closely at the course using Google Maps, but it became clear only when I finally got a chance to look at it first hand. Being right on the ocean front, practically at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the path surrounding a beautiful lagoon, the setting couldn’t have been more beautiful, particularly with the cool and cloudless weather we enjoyed. The temperature ranged between 60 in the afternoon and 52 at night.

Part of the course is on asphalt (Mason Street), the rest on well-packed dirt. At a distance of 1.0174 miles, a loop matches closely the distance at Olander Park in Sylvania, Ohio, another 24-hour course around a lake, and the one used in the Sri Chinmoy 6- and 10-day races in Queens, New York, both courses that many runners think are ideal in both length and ambiance, even if dirt would have been easier on the legs than the asphalt.

It’s always fun before a race to renew old acquaintances and connect a few new faces to names. Having spent now a total of 24 full 24-hour days of my life circling around various tracks, I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the people who participate in this mode of the sport. There were plenty of old friends to see. I also had the pleasure of being visited by subscribers to the Ultra List who were not running. In the evening I joined Karen Guenther for a few laps, mistakenly thinking she had come by to visit, but she was in the race. Karen showed up at 7:00 PM, ran 50 miles, then went home to shower work before heading off to a full day of work on Sunday morning.

My goals were as follows:

  • Plan A: PR (83.28-plus miles, set at Olander in 2001)
  • Plan B: 90 miles (89 laps would have done it)
  • Plan C: 90++ miles (meaning 91 or more)

In the end I came up short on all of them. C’est la vie.

I ran consistently for the first few hours, walking some every loop, according to my usual custom, with lap times in the 13 – 14 minute range. The day was beautiful, I felt good, and had no desire to hurry.

Soon we were not alone, as thousands of people assembled at the west end of Crissy Field to do a charity walk for juvenile diabetes research. They took off walking east on Mason Street, apparently having been told to leave the coned inside lane free because there was another race going on, but with thousands of people including kids and dogs, before long it got a bit crowded. Most people could see the runners wearing numbers heading toward them, and had the courtesy to keep out of our way. But some people took to congregating in the two tight turns at the west end, in the three feet or so between the cone and the edge of the course. In most cases they were just oblivious to the fact that something else was going on.

During the afternoon the dirt straight on the north side between the lagoon and the bay front was occupied by large numbers of people, including many runners, some of them blazingly fast. A few going our direction (clockwise) did get in the way a bit, strolling at museum pace inside the cones, but it wasn’t inconvenient. Besides, we all live on the same planet and we have to share it.

It was amusing to be asked by three different walkers what charity our race was supporting. It’s hard to say anything more than, “None!” when you’re in motion, going the opposite direction, but I paused for about twenty seconds to chat with one puzzled couple, who couldn’t imagine why anyone would do such a thing without some sort of ulterior mission to accomplish.

Charity runs and walks are, of course, a completely different genre of activity from what ultrarunners engage in — which observation is not meant in any way to denigrate the efforts of those who present and participate in health and fitness events. (I do have a bit more of a problem with those who try to mix them by bringing large teams of slow people who run in groups and gum up a marathon that is being run for the sake of the running.)

People who run 24-hour events are not typically the sort who sign up for a fun run with teams from their workplaces, but trained athletes, albeit sometimes old, slow, fat ones, with experience running long distances, some with national and world records under their belts or in view. In other words, ultramarathons are real races. We run them because we like to run and to explore the outer limits of our physical endurance. Just because we’re running 24 hours straight without some cause to provoke us doesn’t mean that we’re self-absorbed lunatics.

By shortly after noon most of the charity walkers had left, and the crowding problem diminished dramatically, as we had only the local citizenry out for a Saturday afternoon in the park to dodge.

Nighttime came. It was dark on the north side; I could have run without my flashlight, but didn’t. (A few runners did.)

Before long the ranks thinned out as some people retreated to their chairs. As I discussed with a couple of people both during and after the race: this was supposed to be a 24-hour race, right? So WHERE DID EVERYONE GO? From midnight until almost sunrise it looked like there was never more than a half dozen people out there at any time grinding out laps. I was one of them, slow as could be, averaging about a 20-minute pace by this time, the tortoise gradually catching up with but never quite catching most of the snoozing hares.

At some very late hour someone passed me and asked: “Have you been watching the meteor shower?” Ummm. No, I wasn’t aware that there was one. “Oh yeah, I’ve lots of them.” I tried running for ten seconds with my head cocked to watch the sky. That doesn’t work for me any better than trying to run landing on my toes, so I never saw a meteor. I could probably run in a rain shower and not notice the drops.

I’ve gotten better at going through the night in recent races. No such luck this race. Other than a quick potty break around mile 23, and twice for about three minutes each to empty some pebbles out of my shoes after the gaiters came loose, the first time I sat down was after 58 miles, dozing lightly for around 20 minutes. Then I took a second 20-minute break at 63 miles, which held me until dawn, when I sat down for less than ten minutes

Before long we were invaded again. The Nike Women’s Marathon and Half Marathon started nearby, and all 40,000 ladies (by one estimation) came streaming west on Mason Street like a column of ants. I’ve never seen so many women in one place, at least not without men chasing them.

Before the race started they set up a small cheering squad on Mason Street that I called the hooters, a sort of Wellesley West as it were, whose incessant whooping and hollering at the top of their lungs could be heard a half mile away for two hours straight.

Our little San Francsisco 24-Hour race could not compete with this, but Wendell and Sarah had it covered. Shortly before the Nike race started they rerouted us so that from then until the end of the race we did out and backs along the dirt path only. I would have liked to run alongside all the ladies myself, but I guess it would have been hopelessly crowded.

Modern marathons sure do alter one’s perception of what a “race” is. What exactly is a race these days, when so many people start and some walking competitors stop by the side of the road to take photos of all their friends? Isn’t that more like a shopping expedition?

Even ultralister Deb Clem, who was in the women’s race, took time to run a third of a mile over to where our race was going on and say Hi, and pass around hugs to all the people she knows before returning. Presumably this had some impact on her race time.

At exactly 23:00:00 I crossed the lap start, leaving one hour to get three more miles without having to suffer too badly to get them. Four was out of the question by then. I wasn’t hurting at all, felt just fine, and could have gone for hours longer. I did start running just a little bit in order to be sure I didn’t shave it too close. My splits show 18:33, 16:33, and 17:19 for my last three laps, with nearly seven minutes left to stand and watch the final finishers come in.

When it was all over I had accumulated 75 laps, for a total of 76.3 miles. Even though this was a personal worst for me at 24 hours, and about seven miles short of my Plan C goal, it still placed me 27th out of fifty runners who logged laps (the 54th percentile), the first time I did not finish at least in the top half in a fixed-time race, but at least still a mid-pack placement.

So what happened? I was never hurting. I ate and drank plenty, some of both almost every lap, and I kept my electrolytes balanced. But by the time I got to around 40 miles I lost the urge to battle. I was perfectly content to be out there walking, and could have gone for hours longer. Instead, except for the last three laps, I walked most of the second half of the race.

Do I care? Not at all. Recently, with a move barely three weeks away, it’s seemed like I’ve been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I’ve been running, and I’m in good health, but running has not been a top priority focus lately.

It’s going to be interesting seeing how I manage to work in training for Across the Years, which is now 66 days away.

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Arts

The Consummate Word

P. G. Wodehouse, Bolton's friend and collaborator

Image via Wikipedia

P.G. Wodehouse.

What he said.

How he said it.

Awesome!

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Humor

My Bus Trip

Flaming bus

Flaming bus

“I haven’t been on a bus since I was a child,” I told Ursula, the pleasant, businesslike clerk behind the counter at the Greyhound Station at 720 W. Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, Kentucky. “What’s the process?”

There was no one in line, and getting situated was easy. “That wasn’t too painful, was it?” she inquired as I parted, relieved I did not need to submit to a strip and cavity search.

I had arrived well over two hours early for my bus trip from Louisville to Indianapolis, but didn’t mind, because I cherish my travel time for the opportunity it provides for reading.

Normally, I would have rented a car or flown, but Indy is only a couple of hours drive from my daughter’s home, and the cheapest one-way car rental available was $115 from airport to airport, plus an expensive cab ride, an expense I would have to foot myself, even though I was traveling on business.

For a little inconvenience and $28.50 for so short a ride, the bus seemed like a reasonable alternative. At least, I reasoned, there would be no cancellations, and my arrival would likely be on time — not necessarily the case when flying. I wondered what happens when there is an accident or a problem with the bus, but convinced that these things are as rare as plane crashes, I put question the out of my mind.

The first thing I noticed was a long line of miserable people looking like the condemned waiting to be admitted to hell, but really only waiting to be let aboard an open seating bus to somewhere most people don’t want to be. From this I ascertained that I would have to watch for a line beginning to form at door five, my door, so I would be among the first and could have my choice of seats — an amenity I’ve earned by being so early.

The people who inhabit a bus station are not ones who have come straight from the opera or Wallace Stevens discussion group. They are mostly either outright poor or well disguised as such, sporting a variety of weird beard and tattoo configurations, wearing torn blue jeans or hip hop attire. Three quarters are obese, tubes of Pringles and half-consumed sugar drinks in their laps, at 7:30 a.m., cigarette packs visible in their shirt pockets or purses.

The second thing I learned was that the hard steel mesh seats in the waiting room are more uncomfortable by an order of magnitude than in any fast food restaurant I’ve ever been in, probably to discourage vagrant bums from sleeping on them. I was never comfortable the whole time I sat there.

A half hour before departure, two women and a young man got in line in rapid succession, so in anticipation of a rush, I elected to do the same. In the twenty minutes I stood there, only one more person got in the line.

Eventually a man picked up the microphone to a sound system that reverberated throughout the building’s waiting room, saying something that sounded like: “MMERJW LEENR RLJJ VMMAN WOFADEF GEFB ZZMK LLM NTSNT RT,” out of which I was able to determine that persons going to Indianapolis were to line up on the right side of door five, whereupon, being already on the right side of door five, everyone else immediately picked up and moved three steps to the left to be on the left side of door five. In my scramble to get my cell phone put away and bags in order, I lost two places in line, leaving me behind a tall, bearded, pony-tailed man with a wife who could crush concrete by standing on it, not yet in line herself, as it was her job to carry all their luggage. The man queried hopefully: “This is the bus to Bloomington, right?” No, it’s the bus to Indianapolis. Oh. Suddenly I was fifth in line.

The director of boarding stood at least six feet four inches tall in his rumpled and ill-fitting uniform, being certainly no less than 350 pounds, looking like an example of what happens to NFL linemen named Bubba when they can no longer play and discover they also have no intelligence and no life skills. We filed by him to get on the bus. Bubba waved a wand over me, which beeped, so he asked me if I had change in my pocket, which question I had to ask him to repeat because I could not understand him through his football player’s dialect.

I answered that I did not have any change in my pocket, which was apparently good enough to convince him that I am not a terrorist. He went on, asking “Ticket?” Huh? Oh yeah. I handed him the envelope. “Take it out of the envelope please.” Oh, sure.

“I haven’t been on a bus since I was a child,” I felt obliged to explain once again, “so I don’t know the routine.” “Mmmm hmmm,” was his rumbling reply.

At least it looked as though I would get a good seat, fourth on a bus that had SEATING CAP. 55 painted near the door. Five minutes before departure we were joined by two more people, who were the last, making a total of six people plus the driver, on this “express service” ride to Indianapolis, due to pull in the station at 11:59 a.m., just in time to call it still morning.

“So this is what it’s like to travel when you’re poor!” I thought to myself as we inched out of the station. It wasn’t really that bad. I enjoy cross country driving, and now someone else would do the driving at a nominal cost, while I had opportunity to read, look out the window, and even had all the room I needed to stretch out, open my laptop, and work in privacy if I wanted. “Almost like having my own limo!” I surmised.

One thing proved to be annoying. The bus made a heck of a lot of rumbly noise. “Is this the way they all are?” I wondered. Doesn’t sound too healthy to me. Must be okay, though. Every airplane gets a thorough checkup from a diligent and competent technical crew before it takes off. How much less could Greyhound care about the welfare of its passengers than the airlines?

While turning my butt into a waffle in the steel mesh seats, I finished the superb John Updike novel I was reading, then began a collection of his short stories. The first was dreadfully dull. After twenty-five minutes I opted to pull out my laptop and make a thoughtful list. Despite the absence of people, I still had to lay my seat back in order to have enough space to lift the screen up. In two window frames I opened files named PRO and CON, in which I could itemize thoughts in connection with a potentially life changing decision I have been researching for several weeks, while the bus bumped along noisily.

Too noisily. Before long the vibration got to be such that my computer bounced up and down to the degree it was getting difficult to type and read. My fondness for bus travel was beginning to diminish.

Forty minutes out of Louisville, the noise in the bus became extreme. Soon I concluded not all was right with the bus. The sound changed from a hmhmhmhmhmhmhmhmhm to a sickening scrape coming from just behind and below me. The driver slowed the bus. This was not a good sign.

Next we were grinding along in the appropriately named breakdown lane. Less than a minute later, 150 yards from exit 41, we stopped. An ominous odor emanated from the vehicle. The driver ran around to look underneath, and came running back. “EVERYONE OFF THE BUS! NOW! GET OFF, GET OFF! RIGHT NOW!” he urged subtly. A woman in the back had to be awakened. Not to be rushed and seeing no imminent crisis, I put my laptop away carefully and exited, joining my busmates standing twenty-five yards up the road.

There was smoke coming from under the bus. The driver grabbed an extinguisher, hollered that someone should call 911 (sorry, not on my phone), and proceeded to empty the extinguisher on the bus engine, causing large clouds of white smoke to rise from the bus and drift across the highway, which must have been amusing to oncoming drivers. And here I thought it was supposed to be a non-smoking bus.

Not to be perturbed, standing in ankle high grass with my Tumi shoulder bag, a good eight yards off the edge of the highway, and being that it was a lovely morning and I had nothing else to do, I pulled out my book and began reading a second Updike short story, more boring than the first, while the driver looked at his bus in dismay as though this was all his fault and he would have to pay for the damage to the bus himself.

After emerging from a phone conference he told us that the problem was that the universal joint blew. A mechanic and a new bus were on the way, but would not be there for about an hour.

Disappointed, but in reasonable spirits, four of the other bus passengers took off at different times in pairs for the exit, where there was a truck stop with a bathroom and a source to replenish their supplies of Pringles and soda, which had apparently been on the verge of running short.

The police pulled up, but didn’t stay long. They left some “accident” forms to be filled out by two witnesses and turned in. The bus driver evidently perceived from the fact that I was reading a book and therefore literate that I might also be the sort of person who is able to fill out a form. And besides I was standing right there, so he elected me as a witness, and I obediently did my best to fill it out. Did I witness the accident? Umm, well it wasn’t exactly an accident. No, I was not injured, merely inconvenienced, as I was expected at work at the Convention Center in Indy before long.

The bus driver told me: “This is amazing. That’s the first time I’ve had a breakdown.” Then after a long pause, he added quietly: “This year. First time I’ve had a breakdown this year.” How comforting.

I responded, desperate to be sure everyone around me would be aware: “I wouldn’t know how often these things happen. I haven’t been on a bus since I was a child,” wanting to distance myself from the experience and remain a dispassionate observer. And then I added: “I believe it will be the last time.”

Before long it was deemed safe for us to re-enter the bus to wait, this time with the passengers bunched closer together.

The man across the aisle remarked: “For such a religious state as Indiana, I find it surprising to see all the ads for adult book stores along the highway. There’s one almost every mile.” A true statement. From the seat in front of me a young, nondescript woman wearing pedal pusher pants, sunglasses, and her hair pulled back in a bun, answered, “We aren’t in Indiana. We’re still in Louisville,” while dropping chips from a Pringles can down her throat, stretched out on her back, legs splayed apart in a pose reminiscent of the birthing position (similar to the one often used for conception), her feet up on the glass window. We had in fact left Louisville and Kentucky simultaneously five minutes out of the station, as we crossed the Ohio river headed north. The young lady’s comprehension of geography boggled my mind. As if being still in Kentucky would cause everyone to say, “Oh, well no wonder.”

Then she popped up and asked if she could use my cell phone. I hesitated briefly. “Umm, the account is actually my daughter’s and I don’t use it to call anyone except on Verizon.” “Oh, my grandma is on, Verizon, has been for years!” She said it with sufficient spontaneity that I believed her. And besides, how could I resist helping out a fellow traveler in an emergency? So I handed the phone over to her, with which she made a mercifully short phone call.

An hour and a half after we stopped, another bus pulled up, this one far from empty — filled, in fact, with far more bodies with vacant faces seemingly unsympathetic to the idea of crowding the bus a little more than with vacant seats. I completed the rest of my journey next to a woman who grunted when I wished her good afternoon, then rolled over to sleep the rest of the way to Indianapolis, and across from Chatty Cathy the geography maven.

On the way off the bus she said, “Do we get our money back? I want my money back!” I responded, “They should at least offer to give you another free can of Pringles.”

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