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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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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The Consummate Word

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

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P.G. Wodehouse.

What he said.

How he said it.


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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 I 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 the question 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’d earned by being so early.

The people who inhabit a bus station are not ones who have come straight from the opera or a 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 with 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 and said something that sounded like: “MMERJW LEENR RLJJ VMMAN WOFADEF GEFB ZZMK LLM NTSNT RT,” from 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 whose wife who could crush concrete by standing on it and who was 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 by 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 still call it 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 venerable 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 reenter 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 belonging to persons who were 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 surly young 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 wondered: “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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What Is Jogging?

Members of the Air Force Academy football team...

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Louis Armstrong allegedly said once, when asked what jazz is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. In a roughly similar way, I’ve found that there are three types of people in this world who run: runners, joggers, and those who don’t know the difference. The attempt to define the terms is the subject of recurrent discussionions on running lists.

Few people can remember the very first time they heard a word that is a part of their fundamental vocabulary. Curiously, I remember well the very first time I heard the term “jogging“. It was early fall of 1954, when I was eleven years old. Some readers may be surprised to learn that it goes back that far.

At the time I was a Boy Scout, showing early signs of loving an activity that has become dear to me. Those of us from Troop 2 who had signed up for the adventure made a twenty-mile out and back hike on the Black Hawk Trail in western Illinois.

To quality for this hike we were required to read a book of two-hundred pages about Chief Black Hawk and write a book report on it, which I duly did, though some kids (not from our troop) were caught trying to cut the corners, and were therefore not permitted to go. Shame on them! Honor meant more in those days than it does today.

While on the course we were to spot and identify by type as many numbered trees as possible … there were about twenty of them to search for. My hiking partner was the smartest kid in the troop, a boy named Tom Gardner, who knew all the trees and knew enough to carry a field guide, so even though we finished last (a sign of things to come), we (Tom) correctly labeled all but one of the trees. They told us beforehand that no one had ever gotten them all.

We must have been about five miles down the road when — What did our wondering eyes behold? — A uniformed phalanx of Scouts running past us. (Our sternly militaristic troop was not required to wear uniforms for this hike, but instead wore garb more appropriate for the activity.)

What in Sam Hill were those nutty boys doing!!?? Didn’t they realize this was a twenty-mile hike?

An adult counselor who passed us by explained: Those boys are jogging! (None of them looked too happy about it, either, as I do remember well.) So — What’s jogging? we anxiously inquired. He explained: The boys were alternately walking fifty steps and running fifty steps. We were told this technique was derived from military training. You run a little and walk a little. In the end you get where you’re going a lot faster than if you just walked, and less tired than if you just ran, which none of those eleven- to thirteen-year-olds could do in any way, shape, or form.

Can you think of a more mind-numbingly boring way to spend a day in the woods than counting your steps as you go? I can’t.

I don’t know how long they kept it up or what they did about the tree identification requirement, or whether they stopped to run the compass course and correctly identify one of three or four marked trees starting from the statue of Chief Black Hawk at the turnaround point, also one of the requirements to get the finisher’s medal. (I kid you not — there was one, which my mother kept for decades.) But I never saw anyone running on the return trip, and my guess is that we had seen a case of would-be manly little boys being abused by their pretend military commanders, subjecting them to way more physical stress than their likely untrained prepubescent bodies were ready to handle on that day.

By the time we returned, it was dinner time. How relieved we were to find that on this outing the tasks of setting up tents and cooking had been accomplished by the scoutmasters and volunteer assistants while we were out wearing out our soles and building up our souls. The other Scouts had already eaten and were sitting around the campfire singing John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmitt and doing other little scoutly things that little Scouts do, but it was all we could do to drag our weary derriers into camp, gulp down some food, and hit the sleeping bags. It was the only time I can recall that I ever slept on the ground when it actually felt soft. The next morning I learned that was because the spot of ground where they placed my sleeping bag was over what had recently been a latrine, so the dirt was soft.

And so it was that the idea of “jogging” came into my consciousness, with its notion of a little bit of running alternating with a little bit of walking. Today, 53 years later, judging from the discussions I’ve seen among the erudite and deeply experienced readership of the Internet’s primary running lists, most people still don’t know what it is, but most people have sort of vague notion about it. Now you know.

Today word “jogger”, which must have appeared on the scene somewhat after “jog” and “jogging”, can have two meanings:

  • A person who is at this moment jogging, regardless of whether he has ever done it in his life before, or will ever do it again. “Look Mommy, there’s a jogger!” The child knows it is so, because he sees the person in question jogging. He may in fact be running for his life from a bear. This an accepted use of the word.
  • A person who habitually or regularly jogs, regardless of whether their present state is tearing up Heartbreak Hill or quiescent. “Say Bud — I hear you’re a jogger!” The inquirer isn’t sure because Bud is at this moment sitting in his Barcalounger quaffing a beer, with a bag of Cheeze Doodles in his lap, and therefore, even though he may indeed be a jogger, he is not now jogging, nor does he show evidence of being a jogger.

It’s from the latter form that derivative expressions have grown, for instance: jogging suit and jogging trail. No one has ever seen a suit or a trail jog. These references are obviously to clothing and terrain appropriate to the jogosphere.

But you knew that, right? Why is it then, that so few runners are able to agree on what jogging is?

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From the Snake Oil Department

Tonight my wife brought home one of those ladies magazines full of self-improvement schemes targeted at desperate women of the type who are not in the habit of thinking things through clearly.

The titles on the cover featured articles designed to help women lose “winter toxins” (toxins??? name one), another about how to make a “yummy slimming treat” which appeared to me to be a banana cream pie (I think the secret must be to make it and then give it to someone else to eat, who will then become fatter than you), and another article on how to “Drop one pound every day!” Last I heard, that accomplishment would require about a 3500-calorie deficit per day for the duration. It would be tough to do for someone who requires about half that total that on a daily basis.

Inside was an article under the title “Too busy to exercise?” (I reply to anyone making such a claim that the president of the United States is not too busy to exercise — so what’s your excuse?)

There’s a picture of an apparently “busy” lady lacing up a new pair of sneakers, Earth Shoes, said to “give wearers major health and beauty benefits.” (Beauty too? From sneakers? Oh my, how impressive. Eleanor Roosevelt, may she rest in peace, could have used a pair in her day.)

It goes on to say: “Women (apparently not men as well) are able to reduce cellulite, build calorie-burning muscle mass and alleviate back pain, all as they go about their busy days.” Amazing. I’m sure you’re itching to know how this is accomplished so you can get a pair, and be done with this arduous business of having to run for miles every day.

Okay, I’ll tell you then.

The secret is the shoe’s “negative sole.” (I know there’s a pun itching to be given birth in there, but I’ll resist.) “The shoe’s heel rests lower than the toe box to simulate walking uphill at a 3.7-degree incline. The advantage: double[1] the butt and thigh toning (I’m sure they checked the figures), plus a 25 percent greater calorie burn compared with walking on a flat surface — but without the huffing and puffing of climbing a mountain.” Well thank goodness for that. You wouldn’t want to get all huffy puffy and tired from exercise, would you? What’s the point of that?

If you believe that, then I’d like to talk to you about buying a bridge I recently acquired and am willing to pass on for a bargain.

Interestingly, this so-called “negative sole” performs exactly the opposite function as the $385 custom podiatrist prescribed orthotics both my wife and I have worn daily in our shoes since 1996, which are designed to raise the heel a bit in order to take strain off the achilles tendon.

In an unrelated sidebar on the same page, under a title that says “Smile file” is this quip: “There’s one thing that’s really great about waking up early, and it’s not jogging or greeting the day — it’s just that that’s when they make doughnuts.”

I’m not making this up. Perhaps the lady who wrote that can “tone” her butt and thighs wearing the Earth Shoes in an early morning walk to the doughnut store to pick up a dozen to eat before leaving for work?

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Do-Tasks and Not-Do-Tasks

Law of Similarity

Image via Wikipedia

There are two kinds of tasks: Do-Tasks and Not-Do-Tasks.

Most of the big life goals we set out to accomplish are achieved by Doing a sometimes complex array of tasks, often in some logical order. For instance, say I want to run an ultramarathon: I know I must train for it, so a Do-Running task goes on the top of the list. Secondary activities are added related to the acquisition of skills and knowledge, pursuant to my desire to get through the experience with only modest suffering: Hydration-Learning, Fuel-Intake-Learning, Blister-Prevention-Learning, and a host of others that if ignored will come back to bite me in the patootie and cause me to fail.

Along the way overhead tasks are added such as Right-Gear-Buying, Registration-Sending, and Plane-Ticket-Buying. (Do I sound like a COBOL programmer?)

It’s easy for me to recognize when I’m progressing, because Do-Tasks are accomplished by an act of will. All I have to do is pick something off the Do-list and just go … do it.

Do-Tasks can be planned for and scheduled. “Whoop! It’s 4:00pm. Time to stop Do-Working and switch to Do-Running.” And when I’m running I can say to myself with confidence and satisfaction: “I’m making progress! I’m working on the Do-Running task, the biggest part of the plan.” As long as I keep running, keep doing, I’m making that progress.

Duh. But …

Some objectives are pursued via Not-Do-Tasks. These jobs can be harder than Do-Tasks. For instance, to save more money, I begin by Not-Spending. But when does one actually begin such a thing?

The example I’m inclined to discuss is the challenge of Weight-Losing! The simplest and most direct technique for Do-Weight-Losing is another example of Not-Doing: Not-Eating!

Since most of us are lazy by nature, and eating takes at least some effort, it would seem to be an easy thing to simply allow ourselves to become negligent about it. Not-Eating is not a Do-List task. It’s what fills the spaces between acts of Do-Eating. I’m Not-Eating right now — as most people are most of the time, so theoretically I should be losing weight, shouldn’t I? But I know I’m not, because whenever I step on my scale the number it shouts at me is bigger than the last one. And it’s been going on like that since mid-October.

Because Not-Eating is a Not-Do-Task, it is not something I can schedule and plan and then begin. To the contrary, the very act of making a beginning requires that Do-Eating precedes it, which is what I’m trying to avoid. It seems to work much better if I inadvertently happen to discover: “Whoa! What’s this? I’m Not-Eating! Well then, let’s see just how long I can keep this up!” But Do-Eating begins almost as automatically as blinking, breathing, and sleeping, as I’ve learned from passing through the kitchen only to suddenly discover myself to be chewing and swallowing upon emerging from the other side. We should have a built-in alarm somewhere that prevents that, but some of us do not, so it takes concentration, like walking on a tightrope.

Contrastingly, I have no corresponding objection that Do-Running must be preceded by Not-Running. In fact, it seems that Do-Running is so necessarily bookended by Not-Running that runners often write down the time that defines the beginning and ending period of Do-Running. Worse yet, during the heat of an intense training period, Not-Running is sometimes logged positively as Do-Resting.

Many poor souls try in vain to lose weight by performing Do-Tasks: Do-Diet-Planning, Do-Calorie-Counting, Do-Health-Food-Shopping, but in the end the task includes Do-Eating, and that’s where they trip up. It reminds me of a rip-off diet book my wife was suckered into buying called: “Eat More — Weigh Less.” The first part worked great, and she really got into it. It was that second part that was a killer.

We would do better if we could just leave out that part, but after all the Do-Diet-Planning … -Shopping phases, it doesn’t make sense to skip the Do-Eating part — which is why diets usually fail. Whereas it is during periods of Not-Eating — intentional or otherwise — that progress is made toward Do-Weight-Losing.

And can someone tell me why my head is aching with thoughts about Gestalt psychology right now? I’m in a forest, but I don’t seem to be seeing any trees.

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Neglected Pianos

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I hear about neglected pianos, upon which I go on a bit of a rampage. As the owner of a Steinway model K, which I bought brand new from the dealer, an instrument I have always tuned and cared for myself, the idea of a piano sitting in a garage for longer than a couple of days, essentially outdoors and subject to the elements, eventually becoming a storage unit, rankles my sensibilities.

I long ago lost track of the number of times, upon being told by someone: “We have a piano! Of course it hasn’t been tuned in ten years” (or maybe never), responding without hesitation: “You used to have a piano. You now have a Gesinch.” For those who don’t know, which is everyone, because I made the word up myself over thirty years ago, a Gesinch is a pseudo-German word meaning roughly: “A large, clutzy, useless item that gets in your way.” The prototypical example was an enormous recliner I bought in about 1973 to put in our tiny apartment’s living room in Riverdale Bronx, New York, where there was not enough room to fully recline it without dragging it out from the wall (it took two people to move it), upon which the foot end would stick out well past the middle of the room. Buying it was one of my Worst Ideas Ever.

A neglected piano is a Gesinch. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who acquire pianos, often with the intent of learning how to use them (or for their children to do so), an enthusiasm that dies down in a few weeks as persons soon discover: “Say — this piano playing stuff is a Really Hard Thing!” Upon which the piano becomes an indoor storage unit. A piano must be maintained whether it is played or not, or it quickly falls into a state of disrepair beyond which it can no longer be recovered to full functionality. It’s not sufficient to strip and refinish the surface of an instrument that is old or has been neglected. If the soundboard is cracked (usually because of temperature and humidity changes), the instrument will be beyond restoration to its optimum condition and may be worthless. The odds that a piano stored in a garage for a full year will not have a cracked soundboard are infinitesimal. The piano action — the internal mechanism that starts with the surface of the keys the player presses and ends with the tip of the hammer that strikes the strings — is a complicated mechanical device, with between 80-120 pieces per key, depending on the maker. Think of it as being like an automobile with 88 carburetors. The entire 88-key mechanism slides out as a unit. (I’ve done it several times; it makes my heart go pit-a-pat when I do so.) This mechanism needs periodic maintenance, too, though most people simply neglect their pianos when they are new until entropy causes them to rot and no longer be worthy of anything more than finding some hapless friends or relatives to help load it into a truck so it can be hauled off to a dump. Imagine buying a new car and never once changing the oil or doing any of the standard maintenance tasks to keep it in running condition. It’s an apt comparison, but that’s what people do with pianos.

It’s true that pianos can be “restored”, but only to a certain degree. I’ve played on vintage Steinways at the local dealer’s store and elsewhere — instruments said to be 100 years or more old. The cabinetry on these display instruments is invariably superb, but every one I’ve ever touched frankly feels and sounds crummy. These instruments make fine parlor pianos for those who have the space and want to display a piano in their home more than actually use it, and if continuously maintained, they’re quite adequate instruments for most modestly skilled players, but for the expense involved, anyone who wants a good piano would be better off to get something newer and maybe a little plainer, and be resolved to take proper care of it.

For some persons an electric keyboard of some sort might be a preferable option. The sound is not as good, any more than a CD recording is as good as a live band, and neither is the feel. Their longevity is nowhere near that of a well-maintained good quality piano, but they never go out of tune, and they require little or no maintenance until they just flat out break. By comparison: My Steinway is now 22 years old, in near perfect condition, and should serve me the rest of my natural life. My Korg 76-key electric keyboard is 1988 vintage, does not conform to the most recent MIDI standard, has keys that stick, with their internal mechanism inaccessible by me, has a lousy sound, is close to useless, and needs to be replaced.

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Places in My Life

Given an infinite universe, coincidences abound. From the Small World department … Follow this link to a Google map of a block in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.

You will see a block long building between 8th and 9th Avenues to the east and west, and 15th and 16th Streets on the north and south.

When I moved to New York City my first apartment was at 320 West 15th Street, the second building west of 8th Avenue, on the south side of 15th Street.

It was a spartan apartment in a tough and unattractive area, undoubtedly the lousiest hole in the wall I ever lived in my whole life, but I was 24 when I moved in, a semi-employed funky musician, and hadn’t earned the right to live anywhere better.

I never knew what business that big building across the street was in, but it had an enormous truck dock that spanned most of the block, directly across the street from me. Gargantuan trucks would pull up to it 24 hours a day, squeaking their brakes, jamming their gears, racing their engines, and someimes blasting their foghorn tooters. The street was narrow, so drivers would often pull up onto the sidewalk to get enough swing room to back their trailers in. I lived on the second floor in the front of the building; when those trucks pulled up, if I had been standing out on the fire escape, I could have whacked their pollution spewing smokestacks with a stick. Sleeping in that apartment took some getting used to.

So … guess what that big building is used for today?

Are you ready for this? I just learned this today:

“Step out of New York’s 14th Street subway stop, turn up Eighth Avenue, and there, in the heart of Chelsea – amid the traffic, delis, pizzerias, and restaurants – is Google’s largest software engineering center outside of Mountain View,” reports Information Week. Google opened their new NY offices 5 months ago and already has around 500 employees who work on print ads, Google Finance, Google Spreadsheets, Checkout and more. …

Yep, Google’s biggest office outside headquarters is a rock throw from where I lived for exactly one year. The building’s main entrance is on the 9th Avenue side.

When I left there I moved uptown to 52 W. 71st Street — which by another incredible coincidence happened to be right around the corner from the Dakota Apartments where John and Yoko Lennon settled, but not until a few months after I moved from that neighborhood. Lennon used to visit the coffee shop across the street from my former apartment to read the paper in the afternoon when he was in town because it was quiet and the owner would stick him in a booth at the back where he wouldn’t be bothered. Had I continued to live there much longer I might have run into him, because he would do this frequently, and usually without bodyguards. Here’s a map of that address.

The Dakota Apartments are that squarish building in the upper right, at the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, one of the main entries to the park.

Today Google is my favorite high tech business; for several years, up until about when I moved out of my 71st Street apartment, my life pretty much revolved around the Beatles. Therefore I find the dual coincidence of proximities interesting. Which is not to say that it means anything.

It seems like greatness follows me around but never quite catches up.

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

John Lennon / Paul McCartney

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I’ve Seen the Future

Geezer finishes 50k

Geezer finishes 50k

Yesterday (February 10, 2007) I ran the Pemberton 50K at McDowell Mountain Park northeast of Fountain Hills Arizona, together with a total of five longtime fellow members of the Dead Runners Society, a highly social online running club that has been in existence since the early nineties: four from out of state, two local, plus a local lurker who served as a volunteer.

People who know me are aware that I work hard at ultrarunning despite having no discernible talent for it. Often my reports are about failures or DNFs.

At Pemberton 50K I ran my heart out, and had what must be described as a good race relative to my present condition — in the sense that I kept hammering from beginning to end without letup.

One benefit of low expectations is you don’t have to rise very high to meet them. For all the effort I wound up with a finishing time of 7:25:50, a personal worst by 48 minutes over the previous time that I ran the race three years ago.

I was not Dead Last nor even Last Dead, but I had to haul serious butt to keep in front of the two people remaining on the course I knew to be barely a minute or so behind me.

I should start by pointing that I did not train for this race at all. My single longest run in 2007 has been 10.75 miles, run on the indoor track at Bally’s gym.

Because it has become my passion for the last eight years to reserve my best effort each year for Across the Years, January is inevitably a month of recovery, as I take inventory, rest and recover, fix what is broken, and gradually get back to where I can run regularly and passably again, before ramping up for the next year’s plans. Running an ultra in early February has become an unreasonable proposition for me, but I made an exception this year because of the other five Dead Runners who were planning on running, and I wanted to connect and enjoy the experience with them all.

Under the circumstances, I knew that covering the distance would not be an obstacle for me. I’d gone nearly 160 miles at ATY six weeks earlier. The question was whether I was ready to run again on trails and to push as hard for a respectable time as my body would allow.

It was an utterly beautiful day for running, with a starting temperature in the low fifties, bright but cloudy skies, and an official high of 77, which did not become a factor for those inclined to be affected by such a mild warmth who were still out on the course until after noon, and only barely at that point.

An advantage I have over some others who were running is that I live locally, train frequently on Pemberton Trail, and have logged every one of the 52 loops that I have now run on it, plus several short (Tonto) loops and also extended loops including side trails. Therefore, I’ve developed a keen sense of strategy on how to approach this run.

Although the aid stations are placed close to equidistantly on the course, the nature of the terrain is such that when run in the clockwise direction (race direction for PT50K), the first third is by far the toughest and slowest, even on fresh legs, the second is not quite as hard, and the final third is quite easy, providing occasion for anyone who is inclined and able to run like the wind. Negative aid station splits are not only possible, but normal, as Cathy Morgan’s race report, listing her aid station splits, demonstrated with empirical data. From this I calculated that she ran 35.88% of her total race time time from the start to the first aid station, 33.80% from the first to the second aid station, and only 29.86% of the time running the third section, even though most people slow down the further they get. The only reasonable explanation is that the three segments vary that much in difficulty.

Because I know what to do, the beginning of a race at Pemberton Trail reminds me of the alleged Big Bang, as those who don’t know better go tearing off at an insane clip, while I deliberately lay back to get my legs warmed up, walking much of the first part, at least until I cross the base of the Tonto Tank intersection about twelve minutes out. By the time I climb up onto the high, rocky ridge and have a view, I see many runners fanned out before me, while I am already by this time close to last and running nearly or actually alone. I’m confident that if I don’t overdo it, I will do relatively well on the jeep trail eight miles ahead.

For a while on the ridge I ran in close proximity to Dead Runners Jane Colman and Ironwoman Cathy Morgan. We jockeyed positions for a while. Eventually we separated. There was one other person, a man close to my age, back at our end of the race. I never got his name, but later learned he is from Sacramento, had run Jed Smith 50K last weekend, and is planning on running two east coast marathons next weekend.

My first goal of the day was to get the best time I was capable of for that day. A secondary but important goal was not to finish Dead Last. While I was running among friends, it was nonetheless a race, albeit one to avoid being in last place.

One thing I did quite well this race was to manage my turnovers at the aid stations in record time. I lived the entire race on water, Hammer Gel, and Clif Shot Blocks — my new favorite race food, which I carried in a baggie in my hand — plus some Coke at the aid stations on the second lap. I never took any significant time at the stations, even at the headquarters. I think I drank and took a sufficient number of electrolyte tabs on a more-or-less regular schedule, and did not use any Advil or caffeine tabs to get me through.

I wasn’t inclined to look back often, particularly at the beginning, because I didn’t want to get into an “Ohmigosh, I’d better pick it up!” panic mode. Whatever would happen would happen, as I concentrated on running what was the best possible outing for myself.

It took me longer than usual to feel thoroughly warmed up and in a mood to run, but was starting to feel normal by the first aid station. I replenished my water supply and headed off immediately, but spent some time juggling gear as I’d made the mistake of tucking my Succeed caps in an inaccessible place. I moved them to a front pocket where I could grab them readily, re-hitched my UD bottle belt, and was off again, now behind Cathy.

Less than five minutes out of the aid station, on a section that was not particularly tricky, I caught a toe and took a dive onto both knees and hands. It hurt a bunch, and broke the skin on my right hand and right knee, leaving scrapes elsewhere. The effects were pretty visible, as thereafter whenever I saw someone he or she would say “Did you take a fall?” Or from those who know me: “Did you fall down again?” But I had not fallen on that trail for over two years, as I’ve actually gotten much better about picking up my feet and don’t shuffle nearly as much as I used to.

At first both of my palms felt like they were on fire, so I walked for a couple of minutes while the pain subsided. It was not a factor in the race, other than losing maybe a minute or two from the recovery walk.

After a while I passed Cathy when she headed off the trail, apparently to inspect a tree; I stayed ahead for the rest of the lap. I didn’t know how far back Jane was.

When we hit the jeep road, I told Cathy, who was then right behind me, that this was the place I’d been telling everyone that a person could run hard if inclined. Sure enough, I ran all the way to the aid station, about 15 minutes from the turn onto the jeep road, where I first hit the portapotty, which I urgently needed by that time, losing about three minutes taking care of nature’s business.

By the time I vacated the booth, Jimmy Wrublik had already grabbed my stuff, refilled my water bottle, and had it waiting for me. Cathy was waiting to use the portapotty. By getting there first, I actually got a couple minutes advantage, as she wound up losing a couple more minutes waiting for me.

Just as I turned to take off running again, Jane came into the aid station with the other man who was running with or near her. I managed to run pretty much the whole way back to the end of the loop from there, walking only three or four 50-foot uphill pieces on the single track section.

Just as I crossed the road, where there is a trail marker saying it is 1.5 miles to the trailhead, Paul DeWitt came blazing past me, as he had already lapped me, on his way to winning and setting a new course record of 3:11.NN. (That’s an astonishing 6:12 pace, calculated as 3:11:00 and in knowledge that the course is actually about 0.3 miles short of a full 50K.) My stopwatch said 3:02 at the time.

My lap split, which I forgot to punch on my watch, but memorized when I saw the clock, was 3:21:50.

Ebullient DRS supporter Kevin Smith, crewing for his Dead Runner wife Sally, omnipresent at all DRS gatherings (and at one time a pretty good runner himself) was there to take pictures and offer enthusiastic encouragement and assistance, as I lumbered right through the stop, getting only a water refill, and dumping my now mostly empty Hammer Gel flask, which I never did recover. He ran ahead on the trail a piece to take more pictures.

I believed that by running hard the last third of the lap I put a significant gap between me and both Cathy and Jane. I was now running quite alone. Because I don’t like looking over my shoulder, which takes energy, and accomplishes nothing, I continued to assume I would stay ahead of the three people I knew to be in back of me, and had locked in a final finishing position of fourth from last.

The road that goes up to the rocky ridge is a switchback. Upon getting on top of it, I was able to look down to the road below, and still saw no sign of anyone else, so figured I had a comfortable lead. Because I know both Cathy and Jane are tough as nails, I was positive neither one would have dropped after a single lap, so they were back there somewhere. I just didn’t know how far.

I ran less on that ridge than the first time, having already fallen once, and because I had the same experience as Cathy wrote about in her own report: after catching a couple of toes I concluded that I didn’t want to fall again on this day, so played it conservatively, but continued to walk hard hard more than run.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when barely 20 yards from the aid station, Cathy pulled up beside me, took close to zero time refueling, and forged ahead! Whoa! I hadn’t expected that.

As both an Ironwoman and a Clydesdale, Cathy is an incredibly strong woman. When I headed off to the second station, I watched her build a lead on me as she climbed inexorably up the still mostly uphill terrain, until eventually she was out of sight. There wasn’t a thing I could do to catch up. I never saw her again until the end of the race. Her report says that she finished in 7:12, 13 minutes ahead of me.

Way to go Cathy! Excellent second lap.

So I still was not in last place, but by this time I had begun to experience some pain in my lower right back, and stopped every ten minutes or so to bend over and stretch it out for just a few seconds. I’m guessing that falling during the second lap probably helped to wrench my spine into a pretzel, and I was now suffering the consequences.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when around two thirds of the way to the next aid station, two very cute and cheerful young women in their early twenties pulled up beside me wearing race numbers. Say what?? I asked: “Do you mean to say you’ve been behind me all this time?” “Wellll … yeah.” The chatty one said they walked all the way to the first aid station on the first lap because it looked real hard and dangerous, and they didn’t want to trip on the rocks. Then they took a long break somewhere. So they were way back there, but then decided to get moving. And off they went. They remained in sight for another twenty minutes or so, alternately trotting and walking, visibly gabbing all the while, and eventually disappeared. They saw me and jumped up and down and waved to me from across the parking lot as I was headed to my car later on — telling me they thought I was awesome. Hmmm. What irony.

Ah, sweet youth.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when minutes after I met the young sweeties, yet another couple pulled up and said hello! Sigh. This was getting ridiculous. When I said that I certainly had not expected to be passed by anyone else at this point in the race, they explained they were not in the race; they were just out doing a loop for fun and wanted to say hello and wish me well. Whew! That was much different. What a relief.

Before long I hit the jeep road again, and as it turns out, I did have the legs to run it all the way to the aid station, which by virtue of taking an extra five or six minutes to get to this time, seemed to have been moved.

IMAGINE MY SURPRISE — when not long after turning down the jeep road, what should my wondering eyes behold?: “Hi Lynn.” It was Jane. Whaaat? I thought she was at least two or three minutes behind me, probably more. Actually, I had stopped to irrigate a bush shortly before the turn, so gave up a bit of that gap on Jane and the man of unknown name who was still behind us both, but not by much.

From this point on it became in my mind a race between me and a woman my own age plus two months who didn’t know a race was on. Being basically uncompetitive in my heart, I’m inclined to yield readily to someone putting forth an admirably superior effort. Perhaps I’m way too polite when it comes to racing.

But on this day I wanted to do my best, so after jockeying positions for a couple of minutes, I relaxed, worked on my running form (because it helped my back to concentrate on running upright), and breathing, told myself that walking was not an option right now despite my aching back, and pressed on.

Again I got through the final aid station swiftly, and as I shoved off, I saw Jane and Mr. Anonymous coming in. So I ran and ran and ran all the way past Cedar Tank by the 158th Street exit (a couple of steady miles), and onto the single track section that leads back to the finish. This time I had to walk a little more frequently over the lumps on the single track section, but I refused to give in and just walk it in. I really didn’t need to, and was actually doing fine, so why stop now? I could rest at the end

For the rest of the race I refused to turn around and look behind me. Every so often I imagined I heard footsteps behind me (but probably didn’t), and pressed on.

Cathy reported being 0.1 miles from the finish. There really is a sign there with that distance marked on it, as it’s an intersection to another trail called the Scenic Trail — which it is, but it’s way tougher than anything on Pemberton, as it goes through a sandy wash, and then steeply up to the top of a mountain ridge on very single track trail — narrow enough to hide nearby snakes, which I have almost clobbered a couple of times when running it.

When you see that sign you can also see the edge of the ramada, and you know you’re done. I put it into what was left of high gear, and went sailing in. The Dead Runners who had finished before me were all congregated at a table in the ramada, waiting for the remaining two of us to come rumbling in. When they spotted me, wild cheering ensued, so I picked up the speed a little more, stood up straight, and sucked in my gut for the sake of a good finish picture, as Kevin was there waiting with his camera. My final time was 7:25:50, as noted above.

The first thing I said over the line was that Jane had to be at most a minute behind me, and sure enough it was no more than that when she came flying across the finish, looking outstandingly strong. She won her age group award! (I’m told there was one other lady in the group, but she dropped.)

Way to go Jane!

Way to go Dead Runners!

The last one across was Mr. Anonymous, barely thirty seconds later, and that ended the race, as we were assured they knew there was no one left out on the course.

Following DRS group pictures, I headed over to the ramada to get some delicious chili, of which there was still a bit, hot enough to eat, but my body was in too much of a turmoil to eat more than half of what I took. It was 7:00pm before I could tolerate a meal.

After goodbyes were said, the other Dead Runners headed off for showers and to reconvene for dinner. I hung back for a little while to chat with Woofie (locally well known ultrarunner Anthony Humpage) and two-time ATY runner Erin Richards, who had succeeded in locking herself out of her car, and was waiting for a service truck.

Last night, rather than hanging out at home and resting, we went to Herberger theater to see a production of “Souvenir” — must-see theater, if you are interested in such things. Almost every Saturday of my life I do a long run of some description, and because my wife and I attend many music and theatrical performances, I’m usually galumphing by the time I get there. I’m sure at some time or other some wife has observed about me to her husband: “Oh look honey — there’s that poor old man who limps!

I’ve arrived at the point in life where I’m experiencing diminishing returns for the same amount of effort. I work at running just as hard as I always have, maybe harder, but seemingly every race I get slower, as at age 63 I’m beginning to fall inexorably off the bell curve that measures who even tries to participate in such events. The evidence has let me to this conclusion:

I’ve seen the future —

and everything I see is in SLOW MOTION!

But that doesn’t mean that I’m planning on giving up. This year I’m already committed to attempting to complete Leanhorse 100, also Wendell and Sarah’s San Francisco 24-hour, and if we can get it together, Across the Years for a ninth time.

You must never give up! — Richard Nixon

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Do I Have to Empty the Bit Buckets?

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There was a maintenance man named Bill where I worked at Four Phase Systems in about 1985 who was a nice fellow, but one of the dumbest guys I’ve ever encountered. He was one of those guys for whom carrying a ladder was risky business, and whose hiney crack hung out of his pants every time he bent over.

One time I was running a big test in our lab with at least twenty plain text terminals scrolling text endlessly up the screen. Bill came in to replace a light bulb, one of his more complicated assignments, and one that often sent people running for cover.

When finally he had completed the task, Bill stood in the middle of the lab watching the meaningless display of dancing text, absorbed in thought. Finally, he came over to me and asked: “I’ve always wondered — where do the words go when they roll off the top?”

I’m not making this up. I should have told him that they fall into the bit bucket in the back of the terminal. I’m sure if I had said that, he might have wondered if it would become his job to empty these periodically.

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A Thought on Literary Precision

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Compare the consequences of a lack of a single punctuation mark in English and in software. Imagine what would happen if high school students were not permitted to graduate for failing to insert a quotation mark in an essay.

I’ve heard the likely apocryphal story of how the lack of a semicolon in a controller program’s source code has led to rocket ships and their passengers falling from the sky to flaming, screaming death.

The lack of a closing quotation mark in a program’s source file recently caused the company I work for not to get money from clients who had signed up for things they are supposed to pay for, resulting in most of a day’s work on the part of a couple of engineers to rectify everything.

They’re not going to fire the programmer who made the mistake for the booboo. It was just one of those embarrassing little things that happen sometimes with software. But the experience illustrates that in software, precision is of the utmost importance.

While I don’t wish either flaming death or failure to advance in school on persons who make silly writing mistakes, I do wish that in this age of electronic communication people would take greater care with their written correspondence.

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. — Oscar Wilde

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Mechanical Aids in Races

Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles

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The use of mechanical aids to assist a runner in moving forward is against the rules in most ultramarathons. For instance, a runner will be disqualified for getting a lift in a car, riding a bicycle, or hopping along on a pogo stick.

Some fools classify trekking poles as mechanical aids. Remind me again — exactly how many moving parts does a trekking pole have? Is it therefore also illegal to use the branch of a fallen tree as a walking stick? If so, is it illegal to grab rocks and branches with one’s hands while climbing up a steep slope?

But it’s not my purpose in this article to argue in favor of trekking poles. Rather, I would like to consider for a moment a new device that has entered the scene: the iPod (and similar devices).

Should the iPod be declared an illegal mechanical device? It has two buttons and a spinning disk drive, which makes it considerably more complex than a trekking pole, and could be classified as a drug delivery system, in that playing good music is known to stimulate the production of endorphins and adrenalin which propel a runner forward.

When I first started running with my 80GB iPod, after decades of running without any such assistance, I started by listening to the podcast of a talk show. While the content was fascinating, I definitely ran slower than usual. But when the show was over and I switched to some of my favorite music my pace picked up considerably.

Think of the possibilities: You could sabotage someone else’s race by erasing all the good music on his iPod and substituting podcasts of Fox network news (a.k.a. McOpinion), bringing the listener way down. You’d be able to beat him walking on your hands. But some people would probably think that would be cheating.

Maybe the only solution is to ban iPods entirely.

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The Paradox of Censorship

Censorship imposed on one sector of society by another is an act of the first group’s taking away freedoms that belong to the second group, regardless of the first group’s intent.

Censorship is perpetrated by persons, organizations, committees who have seen, heard, read information they don’t like or approve of, and so set a standard for others. While anyone is free to share an opinion, including cautionary warnings, I resent anyone else making such a decision in my behalf, deciding what it is that they know about that I should not. I’m capable of making such decisions for myself, and I believe the standard I set for myself will likely be higher than the one being set for me by self-appointed watchdogs.

The overriding point is that someone else has seen something and has decided that I (and others) should not.

The tradeoff for freedom of access is the risk of exposing oneself to that which may be overwhelmingly difficult to avoid influencing us negatively. If censors prevent (for instance) child pornography from appearing on the Internet, which they try but are unable to do, then I will never see it; this is fine in itself, because I hope never to have that horrible experience. If such material is present — and it is — there is always a chance one might stumble across some in complete innocence.

The world would be a much better place if people would behave themselves and not propagate information that is repugnant; but laws that limit free choice by individuals are untenable, repugnant in their own way. In contrast, if I apply sieves (literal or abstract) to my own environment, whether by leaving the TV off, not going to the movies, being discreetly selective about what I choose to read, avoiding likely trouble spots, enabling restrictive options in Google searches, adding powerful filters to my incoming email so that spam and messages from known jerks are blasted automatically to the iconoclastic infindebulum, all of which I actually do, it’s my choice and right and even my moral obligation to do so. Just because badness exists does not mean that I must encounter and experience it first hand. But I cannot exercise my moral prerogative or righteous indignation toward what is bad if someone else has prevented me from doing so.

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Failed Diets

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Some diet plans, notably Weighwatchers, depend on logging everything that is eaten, playing on the theory that if you have to log it, you may eat less.

One reason some people fail miserably in all attempts to control weight is because they become obsessed with food, and in the process realize they’re hungry, and wind up eating, often what they shouldn’t.

People “get religion” about some new diet plan. In their new-found zeal to implement it, they plan virtually bite by bite all the things they will be eating for some prescribed period of time into the future — exactly this for breakfast, that for lunch, whatever for dinner, swearing off this comfort food and that junk food, resolving to snack only on sand, etc. Then they head to the store to stock up on all that stuff, sometimes inhaling a package of Little Debbies or Cheetos, enjoying “one last fling” while running the cart up and down the aisle, the surest sign that their project is doomed already.

It doesn’t take long for people who are thinking day and night about what and when they are going to eat to fall off the wagon.

My contrasting belief has long been that successful dieting is more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do.

Sure, the excuse that’s used is: “You’ve gotta eat something!” which is true, but if once in a while a person can just skip it, just forget about eating entirely, when trying to lose weight, he’ll probably be better off than if trying to make frustratingly small portions, weighing them and going to all the trouble of figuring out the calories and writing them on a chart

We eat so impulsively and so thoughtlessly sometimes that it’s hard to avoid popping something yummy into our mouths just because the idea to do so occurs to us. Maybe an effective part of a solution is, when we catch ourselves doing that, to say: “Whoa! Not this time.”

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A friend once told me: “The more I repeat things the more good things happen.” He spoke of living his life according to an orderly daily routine.

Most lives progress in cycles with controlled variations, from which emanate all that becomes one’s productivity, that by means of which we will make our mark, and for which others will remember us.

For me it’s early morning work, running before dinner, study, research or evening projects, and reading before bed during the week; taking care of business, chores, long runs, music, theater, movies or just relaxing at home on the weekends.

Saturday afternoons in February are good times. I’ve recovered from my annual year end extravaganza. There are no immediate races to train for. (2007 is an exception.) I’m just beginning to map out a training plan for the still new year. Saturday afternoons in February in recent years have become a time for intense, well-balanced workouts.

Usually I limit the run to a half marathon or fifteen miles at most at the gym, but with some extra exertion, and follow that with a half hour to an hour of strength training, stretching on a matt on the aerobics floor, and sometimes a bit of swimming and sitting in the hot tub. It’s always relatively quiet at Bally’s, with fewer people that I know and talk to regularly than during the week. The people who are there work hard. There are the sounds of clanking weights and whirring machines in a familiar ambience, one in which I have spent many, many contemplative hours while working out.

Afterward there is the feeling of overwhelming but pleasurable exhaustion, the satisfaction of time well spent. I lumber slowly to the car to drive the ten minutes home, possibly to a short nap before dinner and possibly going out to a theater or opera production, which happens about every other week between February and early May.

Then comes Sunday and a new cycle begins.

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Boredom Yet Again

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Time for a rant: About being bored on the track—speaking as one who has spent a total of twenty-three 24-hour days and nights circling various tracks and short, flat pieces of road. The topic comes up often.

Persons who say that they are bored, as distinguished from those who fear they may be if they tried it, are rare. They generally make the claim for one of a few reasons:

  1. They have no clue. They may even say it in an egotistical, bostful, even hostile way so as to imply a mental deficiency on the part of one who does enjoy the experience, thereby dismissing and implicitly putting themselves above the likes of Yiannis Kouros.

    Such persons seem to need to be entertained. Their minds are blank. While the entertainment value of beautiful scenery is not to be denied, viewing it is still a “push” experience, whereas thinking is entirely interactive. Those who prefer to avoid it or don’t know how to do it will likely be bored.

    Persons with blank minds rarely contemplate much that is important: they don’t think about problems; they don’t think about their spouses or families; they don’t think about art or music or beauty; they don’t seek to understand truth; they never give any thought to God.

    To quote a source that a few people respect:

    … whatever things are true, whatever things are of serious concern, whatever things are righteous, whatever things are chaste, whatever things are lovable, whatever things are well spoken of, whatever virtue there is and whatever praiseworthy thing there is, continue considering these things. — Phillipians 4:8

    Time spent running provides plenty of opportunity to reflect on such matters; the thought process, sometimes called meditation, is educational and upbuilding. At the other end of the process, after a run, the person who does it is better off than he was before he started. He may even be smarter and wiser.

  2. They would rather be doing something else.

    When I train for months, and sometimes a whole year, to participate in a track race, once I am there and in motion, I am doing exactly what I have chosen to do, and want to do more than anything else at that particular time.

    How can a person possibly be bored when he is doing exactly what he wants to do? And if he doesn’t want to do it, given that running for hours at a time on a track is not exactly easy, then why not quit and go do something else? Better yet, don’t even show up so someone else who wants to do it can have his place.

  3. They aren’t running hard enough. Are you bored while running? Try kicking it up a notch or two. I guarantee you it will engage your attention.

Most ultrarunners learn when they actually try it, being generally brighter than the average cross section of society, that the actual experience of fixed time track running is not boring at all, but rewarding in ways a person cannot know until he has had the experience.

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Such a Lonely Word

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We recently heard a Bible talk that touched on honesty. It included exhortation to students to avoid looking at someone else’s paper during tests.

My high school (attended 1957-1961) prided itself on what it called the “honor system,” something they began to prepare us for as early as seventh grade. Students were trusted not to cheat and were required to monitor each other. It was not unusual for a teacher to leave the room with instructions for students to leave their papers face down on the desk when the bell rang, and then not return.

The way it worked: at the top of every test I ever took at that school we were obliged to write the words: “I pledge my word of honor that I know of no cheating on this test.” Then we would sign it. Our way of reporting cheating was to cross out the signature, which invariably led to some sort of clandestine follow-through.

In those days it worked well. During the four years I was a student there it came up in my classes only a couple of times. I never once saw anyone else cheat, nor was I ever remotely tempted to do so myself, even if I wasn’t doing well, preferring the consequences of a bad grade to the humiliation and loss of self-respect that cheating and/or getting caught at it would inevitably bring. The code was strongly inculcated in school culture. I certainly knew no one in my own circle of friends who would have ever cheated on a test. It was never even a topic of conversation among us.

Times have changed. Today schools need armed professional security guards and metal detectors.

“We trust we have an honest conscience, as we wish to conduct ourselves honestly in all things. — Hebrews 13:18

“Honesty is such a lonely word” — Billy Joel

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Snobs in Wilmette?

The summer of 1952, when I was between third and fourth grades, my family moved from a blue collar neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where the men were policemen and plumbers, to the upscale suburb Wilmette, where most of the fathers were businessmen who did things none of us kids understood, some of them probably illegal.

We moved there because we could afford it (barely), and because my parents now had four sons who needed to be educated, and the conditions there, especially the schools, were excellent. Overall, it really was a wonderful place to grow up and be from. At the same time, I had been given a sense of values that led me to understand from my earliest years that no person is better than another just because of the sort of work he does for a living, where he lives or comes from.

One day in school my teacher decided to go around the class, asking each child to tell the rest what his father did for a living. Maybe the teacher was just curious herself. In those Dick and Jane days all mothers were housewives. The ones who were not (I did not know any) worked because they were poor and were ashamed to admit it.

Most would say, “My father works for Rumptydump Bank in Chicago,” or “He sells insurance,” or “Daddy is a doctor,” and a few said, “I don’t know,” which usually meant they were businessmen. My own father’s occupation as a successful professional musician was considered highly unusual and mysterious, but worthy of respect because he was often written about in the local paper. Some children confused musician with magician, and two excited little girls wanted to know if he could do tricks like pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing ladies in half. His biggest trick was continuing to support us in this community.

One of the last to report was a girl named Geri, who proudly announced, “My father is a janitor!”

There is nothing shameful about what a man does for a living as long as it is honorable work. We all believe that, right? Then why did a hush suddenly come over that classroom? The apparent embarrassment the other students felt was palpable. Of course, no one dared to utter a word or a gasp or a giggle in response.

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What Is Economy?

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Recently I mentioned to a friend that it was difficult to communicate with some persons I need to keep in touch with because they either do not use computers, or do so infrequently. Sending them email is next to useless, and other means of contacting them is way too slow. He suggested that I have little patience with and feel sorry for those who refuse to keep up with technology. That was far from what I said or feel, but it led to an interesting discussion.

My friend lamented the pros and cons of technological advancements, describing them as being like making two steps forward and one and a half back. The essence of what I said in reply follows.

It’s really more like tacking, to draw on a sailing analogy — like zigging and zagging. I’m not aware of many outright backward steps. The ultimate result is forward progress, in some sense of the term, and it’s usually for the common good.

Mankind is by nature an explorer and a learner. We also have ability to share our knowledge. We are social creatures, meaning that being made in the image of the God of love, we intuitively help one another. It’s built into our biological firmware to do so.

The term “economy” is wontedly associated with commerce and money, therefore implicitly with materialism, greed, and selfishness, concepts that rankle the sensibilities of persons with sensitive consciences. They may as a result condemn industry for its intrinsically base motives.

I don’t think that way myself for a second.

Economy is at its core about people helping one another. I do for you, and you do for me; the result will be that we’ll both be better off. It’s more … umm … “economical” for us to have that sort of relationship.

When God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he created what? — an economy — in the form of a family. God is recorded as having said at the time: “It is not good for the man to continue by himself. I am going to make a helper for him, as a complement of him.” (Genesis 2:18)

Later God had the Congregator Solomon record this thought: “Every man should eat and indeed drink and see good for all his hard work. It is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:13) Working hard and getting results is good and has God’s blessing.

Each one of mankind who is able to do so is obliged to participate in contributing to the work of mankind to the best of his ability. The apostle Paul warned those who lazily refuse to hold up their end with this admonition: “We used to give you this order: ‘If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.'” — 2 Thessalonians 3:10

In Eden, at least for a while, Adam pursued his calling while Eve fulfilled her complementary role. They worked both independently and together as one, and were mutually benefitted by the arrangement. It’s conceivable that from time to time, as evening approached, Adam might have said to his beloved partner, the most beautiful woman in the world: “While you’re preparing a fire, I’ll go gather vegetables for dinner from the garden. When I get back we can make something to eat.” And so it went. That’s how economy works. It has nothing to do with money.

Unfortunately for us all, before long their business failed, but the principles of economic cooperation they first enacted remain.

Today’s world economy is structured from individuals, teams, companies, and cooperating governments at various levels, ostensibly, though not always in practice, working together to oil the wheels.

People whose motive in starting a business is simply making money earn little respect from me compared with those who nurture their passions and talents to produce something extraordinary that others can benefit from. Not that the exchange of valuable commodities or services is unimportant; if no one wants the left-handed weasel traps some entrepreneur offers, he gets nothing in return. Economy stops; everyone shifts gears and moves on to other pursuits.

As a convenience, men have created money — to measure, regulate, and standardize the exchange of that which is perceived to be of value. Ordinarily, if I need a bag of carrots from the grocery store, I don’t write a few lines of computer code for the farmer who grew them. The way it works is far more complicated and flexible than that. Countless individuals get involved in the process, with money or its equivalent changing hands on many levels. Underneath it all, that’s basically what’s happening: A farmer grows carrots and sends them to market, and he gets paid for them. I want carrots, so I go to a grocery store with money and get them. I get most of my money from writing computer code. In the end neither one of us knows the other is alive, but we have worked to benefit one another.

A few years ago the Internet came along and changed everything — absolutely everything — far more than any previous advances in communication and transportation ever have, even more than automobiles or airplanes or telephones, or television, and even more than computers all by themselves. For better or worse, the global village that Marshall McLuhan predicted decades ago has become one of the most pervasive realities of our age. All around the world electronic devices are now persistently connected. When those devices started talking to each other, so did the people who ran them, and things really started to happen — and it’s barely gotten started. The emergence of social networks is just the beginning.

Well, not quite everything has changed. Admittedly, we who live in the US tend to have parochial views about the rest of the world. Yes, there are still billions of poor people in the world who are starving, totally uneducated, and so helpless in the face of their own desperate circumstances that their only prospect in life is to hang in there until they die. Most of them will never have the opportunity to make worthy use of the lives God gave them. I’ve never met one, but I’m led to believe they’re out there.

But for those who live within reach of the cyber-sphere and its periphery, the reality is that we’re more in what I refer to as the “I Love Lucy” era of the Internet. It’s barely gotten rolling. A few visionaries are just now starting to figure out what we can do with all this newfound power.

The entire world economy and our way of doing things has shifted, but even the wisest visionaries still have little clue just where it’s headed, even in the next five years. They didn’t predict the state we are in today five years previously. I doubt anyone could do any better regarding what’s just ahead. Mankind now has the tools and ability to grow world knowledge and understanding at an exponential pace, but none of us individually has the ability to absorb more than a tiny fraction. What it all leads to, as the rate of change approaches the asymptotic, will understandably become increasingly hard to predict, and even more so to control.

There’s no universal law dictating that anyone has to go along for the ride. Everyone has freedom of choice. It’s still entirely possible for someone to live a contentedly happy and healthy life paying little or no attention to what goes on around him. No one is obliged to own telephones or televisions or automobiles, or to read books or even to acquire indoor plumbing. That stuff all costs money — lots of it — and makes life correspondingly complicated, and we are taught by allegedly wise men to believe that a so-called simple life is a better life, are we not?

It’s not always easy, though, to avoid those things. And it’s definitely often not advantageous, including for persons who must interact with those who remain isolated.

People who grouse about technology are usually those who have been left behind, have left themselves behind, or who have misused it or refused to put forth any effort to confront it. Most of such persons would grouse about something else in the absence of technology.

How am I supposed to be of assistance these days to someone who has no telephone or means of transportation? He has made himself helpless, but is it my obligation to adjust to that person’s ways? I think not. In such cases there’s an unbridgeable disparity that obliges us to live in different worlds.

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When I Almost Died

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In February, 1972, my first wife and I, who at the time were living in the Riverdale area of Bronx, New York, planned a week’s vacation to visit our parents in Wilmette, Illinois. (Our families lived four blocks apart.)

I remember taking a cab to the airport and feeling wonderful that morning and excited about the trip. The plane was crowded. My wife took the window seat. I sat in the middle. On the aisle was a cheerful man at least seventy years of age.

Normally, I keep to myself on airplanes so I can get some serious reading done. On this occasion, I struck up an animated and pleasant conversation with the man on the aisle. I no longer remember a single word of what we discussed, only that it was a thoroughly enjoyable encounter, and that we talked most of the trip.

Airplane seats are close together. If you talk to someone next to you, you must either look ahead and not face your conversation partner or turn your head to talk, in which case you are in closer proximity to that person’s face than the unwritten protocols for granting private space would normally dictate. (When is the last time you carried on an extended conversation with stranger, your noses barely a foot and a half apart?)

My parents met us at O’Hare airport. While in the process of disembarking and picking up luggage, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling particularly well. My chest and nose had filled, my throat was raw, and my breathing was labored. My parents drove us to the house I grew up in, where we would stay. It was about a forty-minute drive.

In my entire life, I have never become so sick so rapidly as I did during the duration of that drive. I barely realized I was getting sick as I was leaving the plane; by the time I arrived home, although an old friend I hadn’t seen in years dropped by for a visit, it was all I could do to sit up in the living room and be pleasant for a few minutes before I had to excuse myself. Simply crawling up the stairs to get to bed required the greatest effort.

What had formerly been my old bedroom had been turned into a guest room with twin beds. I took the one nearest the bathroom and fell into it, while my wife wondered what on earth was going on with me and why I couldn’t make a bit more effort to be more sociable.

The reason I was not behaving sociably was because I was rapidly getting so sick that, in retrospect, I sincerely believe I came close to dying that night —  and no one but me knew it.

Somehow I remember counting: Over the next two days, I left that bed only to crawl quite literally on my hands and knees the ten or twelve feet from my bed to the toilet to vomit — thirteen times. How is it even possible to retch that many times in such a short span?

If I had been in my right mind, I should have asked to be taken to nearby Evanston Hospital, where they probably would have slapped an IV on me because I was losing fluids. But I had fever, and all my thoughts were incoherent during that period, as all I could think of for hours at a time was how I was going to take my next breath.

My wife and family carried on, doing whatever they were doing, I guess figuring that I was being a spoilsport, unable to eat or drink anything whatever, or to leave my bed or even to sit upright even for a minute for three full days.

Part of the reason we made the trip was because my brother Dale was giving his senior cello recital at the University of Illinois, where I, too, had been a music student, and we earnestly desired to go down and hear it. And I wanted to show my wife the campus while we were there, all my old stomping grounds, and look up some of the people I knew while I was there. I had been gone only four years, and had been there for six, so there were still plenty of faculty and some graduate students around who had been my friends.

We were scheduled to travel to Urbana on the fourth day of our vacation. I wanted nothing more than to hear my brother’s recital. He had become an outstanding cellist, and I hadn’t heard him play since our wedding two and a half years earlier (when I didn’t exactly pay a lot of attention).

But when the time came, I didn’t want to go because I was just too sick. It was February, the weather was cold, rainy, and dismal, and while I was better than I had been the previous two days, I still couldn’t even sit upright indoors.

But my mother insisted that I go, because after all that was why I came all the way from New York. The deal was they would put pillows and blankets in the back seat, and I could recline the whole trip, but for better or worse, I was going to that recital. I resisted, but my mother would not take no for an answer.

It was probably premature for me to do that, but also good for me to force myself to move around and do things, as unpleasant as it was. By the time we got to Urbana, I was able to be up and perambulate.

I remember little about the trip other than visiting the mobile home Dale lived in on the edge of town; that the recital went well; that he played a Bach unaccompanied suite among other things; that his teacher Peter Farrell praised him to the skies; that we ate at my favorite old haunt, the House of Chin, where I ran into my least favorite teacher, the “composer” Herbert Brun; that we made the rounds the next day to say hello to whomever we could find, which just happened to include the girl friend who preceded my wife (and who remained a friend that I corresponded with periodically until she died just a couple of years ago); and that my wife seemed utterly bored by it all.

It took a full month to recover from that case of flu or pneumonia, or whatever it was, which I now regard as the sickest I have ever been in my life, so bad that I believe my life was in danger, but none of us even recognized it, including me. I could not have been much sicker and still be here to relate the tale today.

Which brings me back to the airplane. We know today that the closely confined space of an airplane cabin is a place to catch germs from other people. Given that I was healthy as could be when I left the house that morning, for years I assumed that I caught whatever it was from the kindly gentleman with whom I conversed. Later I wondered if perhaps it was the other way around, that I had something brewing.

What I will never know is if that man got sick, too, but I’m rather sure that if he did, given that I was not yet thirty, while he was at least seventy, I doubt that he lived through the weekend. Did I kill him? I will never know.

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Posted in Legacy, Stories | Comments Off on When I Almost Died

A Family Affair

As a runner who is deeply involved in the organization and presentation of Across the Years, yet who also manages to run the 72-hour race each year, mostly undistracted by official responsibilities other than to answer an occasional question, I enjoy a unique insider’s perspective on the race.

It has been my pleasure to to participate in this most wonderful of multiday races each year since 1999 — the first year (the year of the six-day millennium run) as a 24-hour runner, the next as a 48-hour runner, and for the last six years as a 72-hour runner. The race has become the core of my running program, the event around which all other running that I do is built.

Especially since moving to Nardini Manor, the race has increased in quality by an order of magnitude each of the past four years to the point that it’s hard to imagine how we could make it much better. But raising the bar is what ATY does, so I’m sure next time will be even better.

The most essential factor making the race a high-quality operation is its volunteers, with its team of key operatives, some of them specialists on a professional level in what they help out with, each of whom recognizes that ATY is far from just another race, but something quite special. So everyone works extra hard to make the experience memorable for all persons who attend — runners, spectators, and the volunteers themselves.

Outstanding among them are host Rodger Wrublik, a hard-working man of unparalleled generosity, who has allowed the race to invade his personal space for the past four years, and race director Paul Bonnett, a people person who understands ultrarunners and responds to their needs well.

Then there is Nardini Manor itself, with its setting in the quiet countryside outside Phoenix, its comfortable custom made track, the attractiveness of the premises, documented by the nearly 4,000 pictures now on our web site, and the convenient big tent that is heated at night, giving runners and crew a welcome refuge from the sometimes bone chilling cold of desert winter nights.

We also have the benefit of the best in chip-based timing equipment, operated for the past two years primarily by omnipresent ultrarace volunteer Dave Combs, a computer professional who is able to handle technical problems deftly, and who tested and made many useful suggestions and contributions to the web projects I implemented during the year.

My own small part in the preparations has been to provide the web site, including the registration system, biographies, webcast features visible on race day such as the current results program (Dave Combs wrote the part that uploads the latest to the web site every few seconds); the popular greetings package that people think is email but isn’t; database design and maintenance; statistical reports; a suite of administrative programs to use during the race by the folks behind the computers, including one by means of which to upload, register, and caption pictures during the race; the Runners Manual; and the FAQ. In addition I’ve served as part-time publicist, advocate, de facto historian, and unwanted opinion renderer.

The truth is no one ever asked me to do any of this, nor was a request made for a volunteer to do any of it. I just invited myself to the party several years ago, and started doing things that I thought might prove to be useful, and never quit. So I still feel like a bit of an outsider.

When race day comes, I step aside from all that, whereupon my role changes to that of runner, while the others continue the really hard work of making things go smoothly during the race itself.

We were more pressed for time than usual completing preparations this year. Some plans had to be deferred to another time, but in the end the essentials came together.

The biggest technical problem was with Rodger’s new razzle dazzle webcam, which due to failure to make a proper satellite connection, never did get working, leaving a hole in the middle of the web site’s front page for part of the race. Finally, on the afternoon of the second day, they hooked up the old webcam we used last year, with pictures allegedly not as good as the new one, but at least it filled the need for the remainder of the race.

The 2006 edition will be known as the year of the ATY Family. The race has numerous participants who return faithfully year after year. These include runners who are far from being in the elite category. Elite and big name runners are as welcome as anyone else to sign up for the race, but it is current official ATY protocol not to cater to or attempt to attract them, certainly not in preference to the roster of loyal supporters that return annually. Forty runners have run the race between five and fourteen times. Race founder Harold Sieglaff has done it 23 times. Needless to say, there will always be a place for Harold as long as he wishes to continue running.

After last year’s race the organizers realized we had a megahit on our hands. If the race was to have open enrollment as in the past, it would sell out in minutes, with many of our old friends being left behind. Not good.

Therefore, at a committee meeting some parameters were set by means of which we defined a list of runners we called the ATY Family. We extended advance private invitations to them in May to register for the race. The response was overwhelming and immediate. By the time general registration opened, there were only five race spots still available. Within ten minutes of opening we detected fifteen people hitting the web site attempting to get those spots. Prudently, we also arranged for a waiting list, and before long we had to stop taking additions to that as well.

As race day approached cancellations enabled a few more new ones to participate. A quick visual check indicates about 20 new ones of 105 total runners, with at least four of those being relatives of veteran runners.

The next race we intend to switch to a lottery system to choose runners. No matter what happens, some people will be left out because there are stringent limits to the number of people that available resources will support.

Enough of the overview. This is where this report becomes highly Lynn-centric.

As I have done the past three years, I set a goal of 325 kilometers, nearly 202 miles, mainly because I want the 200-mile buckle offered the last three years. My PR from 2004 is 188.275 miles, so 200 has seemed to be in reach. But I arrived at race day this year fat as a horse, with my running having fallen off dramatically since November, even though I was in the best shape I’ve been in for years from mid-September to mid-October.

Yes, I have been running; but I experimented with some new training advice involving reduced mileage that simply hasn’t worked for me. By race day I was certainly rested, but to the degree that I’d gained a significant amount of weight in a short span — over fifteen pounds since late September! — and I’d lost some fitness.

A week before the race I hammered out a detailed race plan, with daily goals, divided into into six-hour segments of 30%, 27%, 23%, and 20% of the projected day’s total, calculating the average pace per segment. One must, of course, run faster than the average for each segment in order to account for breaks, including sleeping, which are hard to predict the need for, but inevitable. In a 72-hour race, only the hardiest can rightly consider doing it without sleep. I’ve gotten as little as three or four hours, but can by no means go sleepless the whole race.

The day before ATY is to me like Christmas Eve is to some people. For me the fun starts on December 28th. It’s an occasion to get to the race site early, set up my stuff, and especially to greet people as they arrive, while getting into the spirit of things.

If there is one thing that ATY does well, it is to communicate with its runners — before, during, and even after the race. As webmaster I answer myself countless questions people send in during the year. I also compose and send most of the pre-race bulk mail, and of course I know most repeating runners to some degree already. By the time race day arrives, I know almost everyone on a first name basis, even those I have not yet met, so naturally I get around to lots of people at least to say hello in the few hours I’m there.

Dave Combs had everything under control in the timing tent, so there were no web-related problems for me to check out from there. Most of what I needed to do yet that day would better be accomplished from home, so I left by 2:30 p.m.

Late Thursday afternoon I zeroed out critical database tables, made the first official entry in the online news blog, uploaded my own pictures I’d taken that afternoon, and finally enabled the race day front page of the web site with all the critical new webcast features enabled. By then it was time for dinner and to bed promptly at 8:15 p.m.

I slept well most of the night, and got up at 5:30 a.m. It’s difficult for me to stay in bed that long on any occasion, but somehow I managed.

The only change I made to my usual race morning routine was to eat a big bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, stoking my energy reserves early. It proved to be a good move.

That hour or so between arriving and the start of the race is always a nervous time. There is much to do. When I arrived the tent was not yet warmed up. It was a bit uncomfortable until Rodger arrived and fired up the propane heaters.

I had become just another runner going about my preparations. I checked in at the registration desk, picking up my goodie bag with the shirts I hadn’t seen myself yet. Very nice! This year we lost Patagonia as a sponsor, but picked up The North Face, which supplied us with stuff that is every bit as good as the gear from Patagonia we gave out the previous two years. Besides, I like The North Face’s groovy red logo better than Patagonia’s. Personally, I’m happy about the switch, and hope we are able to continue with them.

Next it was back to my tent, followed by the impatient fumbling around with things, making sure everything was put in exactly the right place so I could find it later, dragging the right stuff outside to be at my personal aid station just across from the tent entrance, greeting more people, making jokes and small talk, and waiting for Paul to call the prerace briefing to order.

This year’s prerace formalities included a moment of silence in honor of Mark Witkes, who ran the 72-hour race in 2001, and who died near the end of Tucson Marathon on December 8th. The 2006 race was dedicated to his memory. His experience serves as a sobering reminder that engaging in our sport is not without risk or consequences, and that we should by all means enjoy ourselves, but also be careful to show due respect for the life God has given to each of us.

We were off at precisely 9:00 a.m.

My objective was to start out uncomfortably slowly, moreso than I had ever done, with an initial goal of 77 laps (38.5K) in the first six hours. I completed the 77th lap in 5:59:01, as close to on schedule as I could hope to be, but in retrospect I believe it was still too fast. If so, it also means that 325 kilometers was out of range for me this year, but that’s the speed I needed to go to make it.

The beginning of the race each year there is much chatter on the track, as the banter bounces back and forth. It seems to follow a sort of curve. Initially there’s small talk, jokes and introductions between people who have not yet met but will be spending from one to three days in close proximity. Newly acquainted runners usually start by comparing notes on the races they have run. “Oh yeah, I did the Death and Transfiguration 10,000-mile last year. Great race. I’m thinking of doing a double next year.” It’s not considered inappropriate strategy to impress or terrify your fellow competitors, as long as you tell the truth.

The first hours of each day’s race are for me another occasion to meet people. At ATY we wear bibs with our names in big letters. These are not needed for official reasons, because the chip timing system keeps track of our progress. At ATY the bibs serve a social purpose — they are signs that call out: “This is who I am. Please say hello!” In other races wearing one’s bib on the back is an instant sign of a newbie, but at ATY it’s generally understood that we wear our bibs on our butts so people coming up behind us or that we pass can see who we are. This year Paul made no announcement suggesting we do so, but the practice was almost universally followed. I guess it’s become a part of the culture.

Most satisfying to me was the large number of people who took the initiative to say hello to me, many of whom expressed generous gratitude for features of the web site. It was gratifying to have our work so lavishly and warmly commended, and a thrill to know that ATY participants genuinely love the race. By afternoon of each day I recognized, knew the name of, and had personally said at least a few words to all but a very few participants.

Within two hours things become quiet as the magnitude of the job ahead sets in, and people start to separate. By late at night one hears the sort of hushed and intimate talk reserved for people dying of cancer. As the sun rises and race end approaches, the sounds revert to jubilation and impending success.

The degree to which I am able cope with sleeplessness varies on a race by race basis. Sometimes I get away with almost none. At other times I’m obliged to stop and sleep. If I had been in the 24-hour race, I probably could and would have fought it off, but with three days of labor ahead of me, the wise thing to do was to accept it and get some sleep when my path began to lead me into bushes and fences.

My splits indicate that on the first day, I had a 26-minute lap at 6:00 p.m. I’m sure I didn’t sleep then. Thereafter, I was off for 56 minutes at midnight, again for 42 minutes at 1:45 a.m., and again for 54 minutes at 3:00 a.m., so about 2.5 hours of actual sleeping for the day, including time to settle down, adjust clothing and whatever, potty stop, and of course time around the track for each of those laps.

By mid-morning on the second day I knew I was significantly behind in my race plan, which meant first of all that I was already sure I would not make my 325 kilometer goal, and that from that time on there wasn’t much point in trying to keep up with the race plan, but that I should just continue to do the best I could. I was not feeling bad at all, just a little frustrated over having arrived at race day less than optimally ready.

Local super-runner Dan Brenden, who is among the kindest of men, and who usually runs ATY as a training run between Grand Slam races and runs across the African desert, saw me the second morning, and apparently sensed that I may have been suffering some distress, so offered to walk a lap with me. We talked about comparing our expectations with our actual performances at any given race. The discussion continued by email after the race. I’ve taken the liberty of quoting and paraphrasing part of what he said here, which contains a valuable lesson for all ultrarunners:

Prior to a run runners set their expectations. During the run if they find that they will not be able to satisfy those expectations we engage in negative thinking about ourselves. We do not deserve this negative thinking and should be praising ourselves not belittling our performance.

The source of the problem is not in our performance but rather in our expectations. Our expectation setting process is faulty leading to error riddled expectations. I believe expectations are a combination of a variety of factors including past performance times, anticipation of our training outcomes, how we feel the day we set the expectations and other factors that are individual and some of which we are not aware…. We blame ourselves when our performance does not meet our expectations. Wherein often it is the case, because we have accomplished something, we then store it in our mind as average when we should continue to look upon it as astounding.

Running is so much more than an experiment of matching some extraneous time value with a superfluous distance measurement. If running was only a matching game we would all stay home and do the Sunday crossword puzzle…. The greatest runners are not those who finish the fastest or go the furthest but those who give the run their whole body and soul and teach the rest of us not only what it means to be an ultra runner but more importantly how to live our lives.

Nice stuff, eh?

Dan may have thought I was suffering more emotional trauma than I actually was, but fortified by the kind encouragement, I continued to reflect periodically on what he said. While I did not make my goal, neither did I start the race thinking I had a realistic chance to do so. To have gone over 200 miles would have put me in the range of champions and record holders. Sometimes I can do fairly well, but I’m not that kind of runner and know it.

Sometime during the first day I told Paul Bonnett that one thing is absolutely assured: In a 72-hour-race there will be some period of time for every every runner when he (or she) will feel like garbage, when he begins to question his sanity, wondering whether it is reasonable to continue. But these periods are part of the challenge, and they pass. At ATY 2006, I never felt bitterly discouraged or remotely like giving up. I believed that I would surely do better than last year, when my performance was greatly diminished by physical problems I began to experience by about 100 miles. And prevail I did. This year my 100-mile split was six hours behind last year’s, but I beat my total distance by 17 miles. In total mileage my race ranked fifth among my six tries.

This race I confronted the problem of better nutrition. The year of my PR I ate like a Conehead, and enjoyed the food immensely. It was my determination to avoid the Bad Stuff entirely — that grab and gulp section of the aid station table with heaps of cookies, chips, candy and other sugary treats that normally I would be unable to resist, but during the race did not interest me in the least. M&M’s are normally a great downfall for me, but to my credit I never consumed a single M! Sometime during mid-race I did treat myself to about a half dozen cookies with a white frosted covering, and one single Oreo.

For hydration I brought my own concoction — two gallons of water with maltodextrin and Crystal Light mixed in. When I did not drink that, I stuck entirely to plain water at the aid station, except for one cup of Coke. I maintained my hydration and electrolytes admirably, and never sensed any problem with an imbalance.

I didn’t eat much of the little food I’d brought for myself. Instead I stuck mainly to hot cooked foods from the aid station whenever I could get them: pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, cups of soup, the catered meals that were sent in: chicken cordon bleu, lasagna, pizza, and burritos; also oatmeal, scrambled eggs, and whatever stick-to-the-ribs delights I could get my hands on. That way I felt like I was actually eating something nutritious rather than just snacking.

Sometime during the first day someone commented he might like to take a shower before the next day. I reminded him that the the shower stalls at ATY are outdoor and sort of communal, though it’s certainly possible for a person to maintain adequate privacy. The guy I was with commented, “The last thing I think about wanting to see when I’m here is a naked woman.” I replied: “That is, of course, until you happen to actually see one!” — which semi-happened the morning of the third day as two of us guys ran by a lady runner who shall remain discreetly anonymous, and who quipped, “Well boys, I guess you get to see a show today!” as she pulled her top off to change into something more comfortable.

A tool new to me at ATY this year was my 80 gigabyte iPod, which I acquired last September. I’ve been running for many years without a music player, but a year ago I bought my wife a 40 gigabyte player for her to walk with, on the supposition that I would try it myself, and if I liked it I’d want one for myself. So I tried it and liked it, and when the new 80GB players came out for not much more than the 40GB machines, I bought one. As a one-time musician I have about 650 music CDs (and as many vinyl records), almost all of which are now on my iPod, with 18 gigabytes left over.

I saved the iPod for late night use, which performed perfectly, so I was able to tool around the track while listening to Handel, Mozart, Keith Jarrett, Elliott Carter, the Beatles, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Randy Newman, Stockhausen, Verdi, Kronos String Quartet, Bach, Rameau, a couple of Bible books, and Stravinsky. An edifying way to pass the time while freezing one’s butt off at night.

On the second night I was passed by a runner I didn’t recognize at first, running in a white heat, then again and again. Suddenly I realized it was Rodger Wrublik. At first I figured he was out to do a few laps for fun, though he has said repeatedly that he does not like running on his own track. Since I had put him and Paul Bonnett and Dave Combs in the race database for administrative reasons, he reasoned that he might as well slap on a chip and get in a long run. He wound up running 65 miles in 11 hours that night, while at the same time handling chores like picking up and stomping down trash. The third night he ran again, and by 4:45 a.m. he had acquired 100 miles. That accumulation was in roughly 22:45 of actual running time. Meanwhile, in other hours he managed to handle problems as the race host.

Rodger will be running the HURT 100 in Hawaii next weekend. How nice that he could get a sub-23:00 100-miler in a couple of weeks before as a tune-up. The man continues to amaze me with his vast stores of energy and abilities.

The weather was unseasonably cold at ATY this year, with temperatures dipping to near freezing. The nights were brutal, enough to drive a greater number than usual runners into the tent at night. A few dropped out early, apparently victims of the cold. As a winter race with 13 hours of darkness, the nights are never easy at ATY. Personally, I always hope for unseasonably warm temperatures during the day, just so the nights don’t get too cold. This year I was well prepared for it, and though I could sense it, it didn’t impact me negatively this year. In 2002, when we were still camping out on the soccer fields of a high school track in Queen Creek, the cold almost caused me to quit outright.

My favorite sight at Across the Years is one that I experience repeatedly at night, in former years while traveling in the counterclockwise direction, but this year while running clockwise.

Runners pass slightly uphill in front of the house and over the driveway, then through a portal of bushes that leads into the main treed area, which Rodger calls the forest, with the timing tent on the left (moved from previous years, with vastly superior effectiveness), the gazebo, yard, and main corridor lined with runners’ personal aid stations. Late at night, with reduced light and sensory perceptions altered by hours of running, the sight acquires an indescribable visual appearance. This year there was a bit of white light leakage from the projector used to display laps that did not directly hit the screen. Some hit bushes and trees, framing an arch overhead. The sight running down that lit corridor toward the aid station is surreal, as I get the impression of being lost in space and time, losing all context of where I am, what I’m doing, and why. For those few moments each lap, I’m just there, as my whole world seems to be focused on just that moment, and there is nothing else that matters. It’s my favorite visual impression the race, and is one I am quite sure is incapable of being captured by a camera.

The sensation is increased in the hours leading up to midnight on New Year’s Eve, as party decorations begin to appear around the track, tables with sparkling cider are set up, the music and bonfire are stoked up to higher levels, and visitors appear, sometimes dressed in holiday party attire or formal wear, as they mingle around the bonfire, enjoying conversation, sipping wine or cider, and watching runners go by. This is something you simply will not see at any other race.

As it happens, this year and last I missed seeing everything that happens around midnight, as I was sound asleep in my tent, in the middle of my longest break of the race, a lap of six hours and twelve minutes. I was briefly awakened by the sounds of celebration and fireworks, but was not inclined to get up to witness it.

Traditionally, I experience a third day surge of energy, usually in the wee hours of the morning, but this time and one other year, in the afternoon hours of December 31st. On Sunday, for about an hour and a half in the early afternoon, I began running once again. It felt exhilarating to do so. My philosophy of strategy is that there are enough periods during this race when I don’t feel good at all, that I should go ahead and get my miles when I feel like running, rather than follow some arbitrary race plan. But 1:00 p.m. was too early for the surge to start, as I still had nearly 20 hours of race left, and I wound up paying for it.

The ailment that took me out of the race last year was “ultrarunner’s lean”, tentatively diagnosed by Andy Lovy as an exhausted left iliopsoas completely lacking in potassium and therefore unable to fire so as to hold me up straight, causing me to lean to the right, ultimately resulting in great back pain because of consequent inability to run or walk in that position.

All through 2006 I did exercises to strengthen those muscles on both sides. It might have done some good, but not enough. Fortunately, the problem attacked much later in my race than last year, and with less devastating consequences. It was when I began feeling uncomfortable from the leaning that I headed off to my tent for my longest break of the race, hoping that some outright rest might help.

It didn’t. For two solid hours in the early morning hours of January 1st I virtually channeled my walking, concentrating on nothing else but trying to maintain good form so as to make good progress and minimize the pain. Finally I told Andy Lovy about it. He had sent me an electronic truckload of material on the problem early in the year, much of which I put on the web site. What I had overlooked in his analysis was that there is also a possible solution: potassium glutamate, which is available in health food stores without prescription, and which they had in the medical area.

Say what? How come I didn’t know about that? I rushed to the tent to get some, took a capsule that I was told would last ten to twelve hours, and in ten minutes I was walking upright again. Whether I was experiencing the effects of faith healing, believing that this would solve my problem, I do not know. The benefits lasted barely two hours. I asked if taking more would be harmful or beneficial, and was told it might be neither, so I did, and it may have helped a little, but was far from the solution I was looking for.

I was not alone in suffering from ultrarunner’s lean. Tracy Thomas, who was on her way to setting the women’s course record, began to manifest signs of it as well, though she was leaning in the opposite direction. Mistakenly thinking I had become the big expert, I trotted up beside her and told her confidently that there was a solution to the problem. “What?” she inquired with notable skepticism. I told her with great authority what I had learned about potassium glutamate, as though I had known it all my life, and demonstrated by holding my arms out and walking ahead of her a couple of steps.

Tracy’s pointed response was: “You only think you’re standing up straight.” Ha! The Emperor had no clothes and was now revealed. This realization, while humbling, made me laugh out loud, as I replied: “I think that’s how it works!”

That episode signaled the end of my ideas of salvaging my race with potassium glutamate. From then until the end, I tendered no further hope that any miracle substance would improve the situation, and all that was left was to grit it out. Fortunately, by then I had only a few hours to go.

For the record, as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on the question of what causes runner’s lean and what can be done about it. I have no idea, and am back to square one.

When I crossed the mat at 8:52:20 on January 1st, I had run 512 laps, 256 kilometers, a good 8-bit hacker’s number. My last lap brought me to 159.071 miles. I could have run one more lap in the time remaining, two with great effort if I had been able to run (which I could not do), but at 0.31 miles per lap it would have taken three more laps to squeak over 160 miles, which I greatly wanted, but it was not to be.

Instead I rushed to my tent to pick up my camera and return to take finishing pictures for the web site.

And so the race was over, with John Geesler and Tracy Thomas winning the 72-hour race, Hans Bauer and Julie Aistars the 48-hour race, and Wendell Doman and Terri Handy the 24-hour race. Complete results are on the web site at

My humble 159.071 miles was good for 16th out of 35, so still into the top half, but with the caveat that the rankings in these races are skewed by runners who do not run the race seriously, but run for some arbitrary sub-goal and then stop. I have personal mixed feelings about these performances, but that’s a topic for another discussion, and in any case, they are allowed under present race rules.

The food at the postrace luncheon, which my wife arranged for, but not until late the first day of the race, included enchiladas, burritos, chili, salad, and other items of taste and substance — not what most people in the world would be eating at 10:00 a.m. on New Year’s morning. I suppose a lot were consuming Alka Seltzer. But multiday runners are not most people.

Paul Bonnett conducted the awards presentation with his usual aplomb. Several primary contributors to the race were warmly acknowledged with sustained standing ovations by the tired runners and others present.

We sat at a table with Tony Mangan from Ireland, who finished the 72-hour barely 4.5 miles in back of John. Hans Bauer, winner of the 48-hour was also there. It was interesting to hear the conversation between Tony and John, who came over to compare war stories.

John blamed himself for not making 300 miles, which was his goal, and thought he could have made it if he’d just tried a little harder. He said that he never slept during the race. He laid down once, but couldn’t fall asleep, so got up and kept running. Someone said: “I hope you’re not driving anywhere from here!” Without missing a beat, John replied: “I’m flying the plane! All those people will be waiting for me.” Right.

Because I’d had some sleep during the night I was not as sleepy on the ride home as usual (my wife always drives me home), and was able to take care of a few tasks at home before showering and getting a few hours sleep. It was Wednesday before I got all my stuff pulled in from the car and put away.

As of several days after the race I have thus far have avoided any negative consequences from my ravaged endocrine system. My feet survived quite well, with only one blister that I didn’t even know about until I got home. It was of no consequence during the race. But for three days I almost couldn’t get my feet in my shoes for the swelling.

But the news was not all good: on Sunday, five days after the race, my lower left leg swelled up so enormously and painfully that I feared I might have sustained a stress fracture. A Monday visit to the DO and x-ray suggests that it is not broken, and merely a case of leg edema. Tomorrow I will take sonogram test to search for blood clots.

Across the Years 2006 is now in the books. No plans whatever have been made as yet regarding future ATY races, but if there is one, which is likely, I will be there.

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Half Crazy

Most distance runners have been asked by non-runners: “How far is that marathon you’ll be running?” We all have our own saucy answers. I’m sure somewhere there’s a smart aleck who replies: “It’s just a standard marathon.” “Ummm … Oh! Great!”

One day a man at the gym asked me as I whizzed by him: “How did you do in that marathon?” “Which one?” “Ummm … the last one.” “Oh that — 188 miles.” “Errr … ummm … Great!” I told him the truth but gave him no comprehensible information. I didn’t have time to stop and explain.

Jim Puckett has dubbed the marathon the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, an oddball distance that does not relate in round numbers by any standard scale, and therefore has come to be regarded as its own unit of measure. But like helpless Americans who can’t compute things in metric or who ask “How much is that in real money?” when faced with foreign (non-US) currency, non-runners who accept the marathon unit still find it hard to deal with.

But we runners are attached to the word “marathon” because of its connotations of being the Ultimate Challenge, and most runners, particularly those who are strongly testosterone fueled, like to believe they are capable of rising to and conquering that Ultimate Challenge, regarding it as nothing less even when there are 30,000 other people doing it with them on the same day and in the same place, hundreds of whom have conquered that Ultimate Challenge dozens of times before, many of them ten or more times in the past year. Face it — what we really like is to be able to walk around in public with t-shirts that say “Marathon” on them, and hope non-runners notice.

Even ultrarunners use the word “marathon” to describe their races in a comparative way. We run, not marathons, but ULTRAmarathons. Among ourselves we just refer to them as “ultras.” And a few, finding ultras to be insufficiently superlative, run super-ultramarathons.

Whazzat? Does it mean we use the distance of a marathon as a standard unit of measure and go some multiple of that?

Nope. Not on yer life. Well … sometimes, but rarely.

An ultramarathon is an event with all the connotations of a standard marathon — still the Ultimate Challenge — but on a grander scale, sometimes much grander.

“How much grander?” you ask. Well, to ultrarunners it means anywhere from 18.4% grander on up to whatever you can think of, including running all the way around the world, except across the oceans, as fast as you can. Given the earth’s equatorial circumference as 24901.55 miles, and that the distances across the oceans are generally compensated for by zig-zagging across continents, a trans-world run would amount to 949.76 times the Ultimate Challenge — a mighty improvement on Ultimacy if I do say so myself.

But get this … and herein lies the real inspiration for this essay: Runners are so possessed by the word “marathon” that they even use it to describe events that don’t qualify to bear the appellative.

So we also have half marathons, which of course are not marathons at all, but exactly half the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, or put another way, Half of the Ultimate Challenge. Hmmm.

With such a description, one may still claim to be conquering the Ultimate Challenge, but — almost parenthetically — only half of it. How many runners do you know who like to tell people that they love to run races that are 13 miles, 192 yards, 18 inches long? Who would even think to do such a thing? If there is a distance that is even stupider than the Stupidest Distance Known to Man, it’s half that distance.

Not only do people line up by the thousands to run that distance every weekend — they keep world records for that distance, competed for by runners of the highest stature such as Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. And they call them marathons. Ummm … half-marathons, that is.

Half craziness doesn’t stop there. It extends into the ultra world as well. Recently I downloaded an application for the Lean Horse 100-mile race, and noted that in the race’s panoply of offerings they include — not a 50-mile race, but — yes, you guessed it: a Half-Hundred! Wooo!!!

I love it. I’m still giggling over the discovery. First time I’ve seen it, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

“So how far is that hundred-mile race you’re running next August?” “Ummm. It’s fifty miles.” Classic. (I myself am planning on running the whole hundred. Well … probably walking half of it, but that’s a hypocrisy of a different color.)

In my several years of multiday running I have often thought about what a great experience it would be to compete in a six-day race. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, now that it’s 46 hours until the start of my sixth consecutive 72-hour outing at Across the Years, wondering if I’ll ever have an opportunity to run a six-day race.

Hey, I know! In 2007 we’ll bill the 72-hour race at Across the Years as — yep — Half a Six-Day! Perfect.

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Chips Off the Workbench

Welcome to my verbal webcam. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, as I’ve been busy with work and the upcoming race Across the Years. Meanwhile, here are a few thoughts that pass through my eccentric mind.

  • When people ask me why I run so much at my age I tell them I’m hoping to be the fittest person in the cemetery. (Wisecrack originally attributed to ultrarunner Walt Stack.)
  • Have you ever noticed that the spelling of subtle is subtle?
  • My daughter lives in a town in southern Indiana that’s so small the mayor has to double as the village idiot.
  • It’s a good thing God didn’t supply bananas as manna to the Israelites. Then all the Moabites would have made fun of them, saying: “Na-na, na-na, nah, nah, you eat banana manna!”
  • The only people I’ve ever known to eschew so-called “higher education” (a slippery term to begin with, but that’s another thread), are those who don’t have any. I’ve never known anyone to learn something and then regret knowing it, except maybe a few who know hardly anything. Might there be a cause and effect relationship there?
  • There was a man who had three garages full of nothing but truckloads of sand and rock. Would you call him materialistic? Most people would say no; sand and rock has limited value. But why does he have three garages full of trucks?
  • It is not a Law of God that I Must Go To The Kitchen to get something to eat just because the idea crosses my mind.
  • Every trail runner knows knows: M&Ms that get carried in a waist pack on a warm day are no longer M&Ms; they become transformed to MNMNMNMMNMMNMNMNMs.
  • This morning, while thinking about Mozart, I reached over and pressed the play button on iTunes, which picked up in the middle of my own composition “What Good Is a Trombone Player?” (a theater piece for trombone, tape, and girl), which sounds uncannily like a herd of frightened cattle being led to slaughter. It made for an interesting segue.
  • There are programmers and there are programmers. I fall into the first category.
  • Novice computer users think they need fancy, expensive software to edit simple plain text, such as e-mail messages. Some users never get beyond using the mouse to cut and paste and the backspace key to delete. Not knowing how to edit a plain text document without a tool like Word is like not knowing how to brush your teeth without an electric toothbrush. Having a software tool like Emacs (or Word) and still not knowing how to edit a plain text document (it happens) is like having an electric toothbrush and an electric razor but still not knowing how to brush your teeth or how to shave.
  • The news is so boring these days. High gas prices. Cannibals. More people washed out to sea in tsunamis. Z-z-z-z.
  • People use the expression “trophy wife.” I think of a trophy as something shiny, representing a conquest, but of little intrinsic value. Once I introduced myself to a friend of my wife with, “Hi, my name is Lynn. I’m Suzy’s trophy husband.”
  • Suzy and Cyra-Lea went with a group of twenty of our friends to see the musical Cats, which I detest. Suzy said that I wouldn’t have liked the production anyhow because they didn’t have a real orchestra. The music was canned. I replied: “I’m sorry to tell you this: not only that — those weren’t even real cats!”
  • I’m amused by US political officials who respond to the aggressive behavior of belligerent nations with threats to “take steps,” while no actual action is taken. “Okay Buster, you’d better cut that out or you’ll be sorry! I’m counting to 29,748,572,184,723,793,750,871,711,772,938,767,359,841,087,239,487,171 and if you haven’t stopped by then, you’re going to be in Big Trouble. I’ll be forced to take the Next Step! Wooooo!
  • Once a friend told me: “I’ve been thinking of getting into web design. I’ve got this neat site with lots of colors and fonts, a link to pictures of my dog, and get this: The title even blinks! It’s so cool! I could probably even make some money doing it for others who have no clue how easy it is!”
  • The same friend once sat himself down on our couch with my guitar and launched (uninvited) into a rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” followed by “Puff the Magic Dragon.” When he was done he said, “You’re probably wondering where I got all this talent.” Ummm … no, the question had not crossed my mind. A few months later he said, “So I’ve been thinking of going pro.” I had to respond: “Pro what?” He was an exterminator by trade. I wasn’t sure I wanted him in the house, because I didn’t know where he’d been or what he brought with him. (And now you know where all the flowers went!)
  • I know someone whose teenage son stays in his room all day, watching the 24-hour Wickedness Channel.
  • Try to keep him away from any tools more complicated than a wheelbarrow, or he’ll hurt himself.
  • Isn’t making a smoking section in a restaurant like making a peeing section in a swimming pool or a farting section in church?
  • It should be obvious that diets don’t work. Have you ever noticed that only fat people count calories?
  • After reading Raymond Chandler I start thinking like his characters talk. At the gym, upon seeing a pretty lady in tights, I thought: “Da goil has a derriere like a light bulb wid a crease in it! It gives a whole new meaning to da toim: da bottom line.”
  • Which reminds me … Y’know how some women have, like … watermelons? And some have cantaloupes, and others have grapefruits and some have oranges? Well this one had Mrs. Fields cookies with M&Ms in the middle.
  • When someone sends email saying “Here, run this .EXE file”, it’s like saying, “Turn around, grab your ankles, and trust me.”
  • The middle finger of the left hand, sometime used by crass persons to make rude gestures, on the home row of a QWERTY keyboard is on the letter ‘D’, which in many email clients, including mine, is mapped to a ‘delete’ command. So whenever I receive undesirable mail I just give ’em the finger.
  • People who know me recognize me as a fluent reader. There is one word that I cannot pronounce no matter how hard I practice, and I have practiced it many times: microscopist. So I hope I never have to read or discuss that subject with someone. But I happen to have a friend who is a professor of biology and an electron microscopist, so the likelihood that I can avoid it is small.
  • When I lived in New York I lived near a cheese store and would stop in about noon almost every Saturday to get some. Being adventurous I would try some weird stuff. One day I brought home a quarter pound of cheese so strong it looked like it was sweating. It took a month to consume.
  • I’ve never been the sort of person to fritter my money away on necessities.
  • Some people are afraid of challenging music because they think anything interesting must come from the Devil. Perhaps they should stock their libraries with recordings of gnats blinking and breathing.
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The Dumbing Down of Holidays

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 26:  Shoppers check out in...

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Modern American society has dumbed down so-called holidays. The word “holiday” is derived from and sounds like an Old English expression “holy day,” a day set aside for religious observance, for worship of and paying tribute to God. These days few people are willing to be thought of as devoting anything whatsoever to God. To do so might be thought to be hopelessly sentimental or superstitious.

The most prominent example is Christmas, an unscriptural holiday to begin with, an occasion it never occurred to the original “Christ” of Christmas that his followers should observe. It was added by renegade imitators under the influence of the form Roman religion of the day. Nonetheless, there are millions of people who think of it as a “Christian” holiday. Yet many see the hypocrisy of the practices, that put it in contrast with the principles of Bible-based Christianity, so rather than rejecting the holiday itself, they reject Christianity.

Today many people are proud to declare themselves non-Christians who nonetheless celebrate Christmas at least to some degree — sometimes whole hog. Why? They can’t help it and don’t have the fortitude to live according to their real beliefs, so they just go along with it. To make sure people don’t get the wrong impression, they avoid where possible referring to the day by its original name, except with a disdainful tone of voice, though when cornered, they might refer to it in writing as Xmas, being sure to take Christ out of it.

Nowadays people have turned the original holidays into opportunities to have family time — something many scrupulously avoid the rest of the year. That becomes their excuse for consenting to go along with a tradition of which they do not personally approve. We have not yet reached the level where people are castigated for expressing a desire to be with their families. (But how many really want to do so?)

In the US the most innocuous, least offensive holiday is Thanksgiving, having only vague associations with non-Christian religious practices, and being more-or-less an expression of secular nationalism. For some Thanksgiving has become an excuse to engage in non-stop football watching on a couch, while engaging in spectacular feats of gluttony.

To me the dumbest dumbing down of them all has been with the number of people who now refer to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day, nicknaming it after the stupidest of birds, because of the traditional dinner fare consumed on that day, thereby removing any trace of an indication that they might actually use the occasion to reflect on what they have and have accomplished and be thankful for it.

To be thankful means to be full of thanks; in essence being thankful means giving thanks. But to whom is a person who has no relationship whatever with his Creator going to give that thanks and credit? To no one else. So he might as well quietly enjoy what gratefulness he feels, keep his mouth shut, and congratulate himself for his own cleverness in managing to acquire any sort of good he has happened to accomplish in his life.

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Streisand Does Phoenix

Barbra Streisand

Cover of Barbra Streisand

When Suzy and I have told people we went to hear Barbra Streisand in concert Thursday night (November 16th) the almost universal reaction has been a discreet, “Well, Barbra Streisand is not my cup of tea, but I’m glad you had fun.” Internally their reaction is roughly the same as if we had said we’d attended a public hanging.

Fortunately for Babs’ career, there are quite a few people for whom she still is their cup of tea, even their choice of thirty-year-old single-malt, judging from the number of people willing to pay between $150 and $500 (and more) per ticket to experience the occasion. Given that Barbra Streisand concerts have become sufficiently rare that they have taken on the status of historical occasions, we opted to splurge and go. To heck with the mortgage payment.

The venue was the US Airways Center basketball arena — not the best setting for musical enjoyment, unless that music is electronically amplified to perversely unnatural proportions. You wouldn’t want to go there to hear Gustav Leonhardt play a concert of Frescobaldi Canzonas on the clavichord. And if you happen to be sitting in one of those seats of a width appropriate for a high school cheerleader but are between two great big fatsos, your concert experience will not be an entirely pleasant one. But for music that consists of mostly amplified noise, the arena works passably well.

From where we sat — in the next to last row of the upper level, as far away as possible, but in the dead center, such that if a perpendicular were extended from the front plane of the stage it would split the seats between me and the lady on my left — Barbra was recognizable only with the aid of binoculars. This was compensated for by showing her closeups on enormous video monitors on either side of the stage, which meant that we paid $300 to fight unbelievable traffic to get to uncomfortable seats where we heard electronic renditions of Barbara Streisand singing while watching her on TV. Knowing that she was really down there in person, that speck walking back and forth on the stage, made it all worth it, I suppose.

It’s an honored tradition for popular music concerts to start late, so no one bothers to come to them on time. The scheduled start time was 7:30, but not a note of music was heard until shortly after 8:00, which is unforgivable. Some people made sacrifices to be there, and had to get up early to go to work the next day. Despite this, the last two people to arrive in our row did not arrive until 8:20, requiring everyone to stand up and let them squeeze by in the dark while the music was playing, because, of course, their seats were in the very middle of the row. Thanks.

As I looked around I noted the constituency of the audience: almost no young people at all, and an average age of around fifty, but not quite the white-haired set. I guess that would mean it’s mainly baby boomers. In the world of live music performances the rule tends to be: the older the music, the older the audience. Dress was strictly informal without being gross, of the type worn by sports crowds. To my surprise, the house was only about 80% sold out by my estimation.

Our section was graced with what were inarguably the two single loudest hooters in the joint, fans who waited on the edge of their chairs for the slightest sign of recognition of a newly started song to make a scene at the top of their lungs. If I’d been performing, I would have appreciated the devotion, but hated the rude interruptions.

“Meeeeem — ‘rieeees …”


So we’d paid $300 to witness a recreation of Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour? Sorry, but my classical music background simply cannot accept that low level of vociferous hick culture.

The concert itself was good and undeniably enjoyable, but far from the greatest I’ve ever heard. It was merely Barbra singing — which is exactly what one would hope for, and certainly what I came to hear — mostly songs everyone present had heard many times before as long as forty years ago. My personal concert-going preference is to hear new work from artists I respect, given that we have the much better original recordings of most of this material, but I suppose that was a bit much to expect, as superstar comeback tours are almost by definition hit parade revues.

Barbra still looks great for a woman who was discouraged by her mother from going into show business because she’s “not pretty.” (Jewish mother syndrome noted.) Her hair is quite long and dyed light these days, and she wore attractive and ungaudy but somewhat low cut evening dresses. She complained just before intermission about the high heels hurting her feet, so in the second half she just kicked them off and did the rest of the show without them. It’s her show, so nobody could blame her. High heels should be outlawed for women anyhow. But that’s another rant. (They should be outlawed for men, too, for somewhat different reasons. Yet another rant.)

A full size orchestra was present, playing from a sunken split pit (or more precisely on the floor surrounded by a raised stage), strings and piano on the left, everyone else on the right, with a runway separating them. The vigorous conductor stood on the left, so could be seen by musicians on both sides. There were at least eighty musicians, and I am told that they constitute a touring orchestra rather than a pick-up group able to play the show in one or two rehearsals. (There is nothing particularly difficult about the arrangements.) It is commendable that the same group travels with the show. It’s extraordinarily expensive to carry that many musicians, with their travel expenses rather than hiring locals, but it adds to the quality of the performance when players who know the music from having played it night after night for a period of time are utilized. Usually when such things are done, corners are cut by reducing the number of string players, to their credit, they didn’t compromise the budget with a reduced string section, which I was happy to see. Having a large orchestra, including full strings, not only improves and balances the sound, but lends additional opulence to the show. If I pay $150, I wanna hear strings, dang it!

The only visual effects to enhance the performance were done with an enormous number of colored spotlights, always acceptably tasteful to the degree that Broadway and Hollywood art can be described that way.

One regrettable feature of the show was Barbara’s accompanying act, a male quartet called Il Divo, which I think is Italian for Four Tenors on Tranquilizers. In my opinion, they totally suck. There, I said it, even though suck is not a very nice term when used in this way. Despite their obvious technical credentials and polish, their overall artistic impact rings false. This group is thoroughly worth making a special effort to avoid hearing.

I would say that I’m surprised that Barbra would even perform with a group like them, given that she exercises absolute control over her shows, but she has not been beyond sinking to the lowest depths in collaboration with other so-called musicians. The utterly execrable movie A Star Is Born, with Kris Kristofferson, is a notable case in point. When I saw this movie on video I had to leave the room halfway through it in order to avoid throwing a beer can at my TV screen.

I’m sure I could find several other examples. Remarkably, this movie soundtrack earned eight Grammy nominations, which says a lot more about the Grammys than about Streisand’s choice of colleagues. “Stupid is as stupid does,” as Gump’s mama liked to say.

I’m sure Il Divo buzzes the drawers of a lot of middle-aged ladies (including possibly even Barbara herself), with their dashing good looks, tuxedos, and accents (a Swissman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and a Coloradan). Their mismatched bellowing voices and accents singing unexciting and overwrought arrangements left me unpositively moved.

The climax of Il Divo’s performance was a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s egomaniacal chest-thumper “My Way.” Frankly speaking, I prefer Sinatra’s way way better. Later they joined Streisand for a version of “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which although again highly Hollywoodized, was somewhat better, thanks partly to Barbra, not to mention that West Side Story is arguably the greatest American musical ever, with every single song a memorable masterpiece.

Whatever people think of Barbra Streisand personally, she remains an outstanding singer and showperson, a person gifted with a great and unique voice, one she has used magnificently at times. Her style is unique among singers. She does subtle technical things with her voice that no one else does, probably because no one else can. I’m not aware of many Streisand imitators — except among certain men who dress up and perform as women; even among them the imitation is more of her persona than her singing.

Barbra has been one of the greatest superstars for over forty years. We’ve all heard her recordings and seen her often horrible movies, so there’s no need to describe here the way Barbra Streisand sings. Everyone in America who does not live under a rock knows the voice, recognizable in an instant.

Streisand’s singing is difficult to classify. Although technically masterful, she is by no means a classical singer. Her carefully sculpted and undeviating lines prevent her from being labeled a jazz singer, nor has she ever claimed to be one. She’s way too good to be lumped with most pop singers, and is no rock and roller either. The closest category that can be assigned is that of American musical theater — a good thing, because it’s in that arena that Streisand has had her greatest artistic success. Her 1992 album Back to Broadway is a masterpiece, one of her best ever — preceded by plenty of mediocre offerings.

Barbra’s voice has mellowed now that she’s over 64 years old. She can still soar with surprising power, but the sound has lost a bit of its sleek, De Lorean stainless steel edge; her intonation, while essentially razor sharp, now suffers slightly along with spontaneous efforts at phrasing and pulling away from the beat; particularly when reaching some high notes, she had to strain a few times, barely making it up to pitch, while in previous years she could have shattered plate glass with a vocal climax. Streisand is not a notably rhythmic singer, but on her recordings her phrasing is usually impeccable. Her diction is without equal among singers, and was in full glory at Thursday’s concert.

Another strong point from Barbra’s days gone by is her phenomenal breath control — her ability to shape long phrases in a broad pitch and dynamic range with utter control in a single breath, not unlike a figure skater slowly working through perfect basic figures. She still has that, but less so, as I caught her taking occasional breaths in awkward places I wouldn’t have expected. The funny thing about it is you notice these differences only when you’ve heard perfection in comparison. A lesser singer could virtually gasp, gag, and growl all the way through a performance, and if that’s what you are used to hearing from that performer, you’ll take it for granted as a part of that person’s “style,” which word is sometimes used as an excuse for a lack of vocal technique.

The show included a bit of labored patter, some of it contrived, obviously created that day for local use (jokes about Camelback mountain and Scottsdale eateries), sounding sometimes overscripted, stiff, and unrehearsed — possibly read for the first time off the teleprompter.

Early in the second half Streisand indulged in political proselytizing under the guise of comedy at the expense of the current American president, an admittedly easy target. This humor was received with a mixture of hoots and polite resignation. Some of the jokes were funny, but the subject matter was uncomfortably not so. It is probably largely because of such excursions that Barbra has earned herself an army of dislikers.

The concert’s play list included almost nothing unfamiliar. Several tunes from Funny Girl were presented, the vehicle that made her famous, along with “The Way We Were”, “Evergreen”, and others even the most casual pop music listener has heard for many years. I’m assuming the one or two tunes I never heard before myself are just songs from long ago that I missed.

The program was not a marathon presentation, but of an appropriate length for a 64-year-old woman. Barbara seemed completely comfortable on stage, having overcome her legendary battle with stage fright, which she explained was caused by fear of forgetting words, something she did on three songs in front of 150,000 people many years ago, but has been conquered with the help of teleprompters.

She was gracious in accepting applause and cheers, seemed genuinely glad to be performing, grateful for her fans, and made her exit before becoming tiresome, while the audience still longed for just a tiny bit more.

Her final curtain call was desecrated by a cameo appearance by none other than Kris Kristofferson, who by coincidence happened to be in town performing the same night, though nobody was quite sure where, nor even cared.

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On Being a Soldier

Rwandan peacekeepers prepare to board a U.S. A...

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People can put any spin they want on words to defend war and those who join the military — willingly or otherwise. They can call them freedom fighters or defenders, and imply they had a choice by saying they make sacrifices. The one that gets me is when they refer to them as peacekeepers — calling black white and expecting people to accept it. However it’s phrased, a soldier is a trained killer, pure and simple, a person who has been taught to take the lives of other humans, efficiently and without qualms of conscience, in the belief that they are doing it in the name of some cause not of their own origination, but which they have been induced to support — again, willingly or otherwise. Ironically, the soldiers they are trying to kill are exactly the same as they are and have had pretty much the same experience. In other circumstances they could be best friends. It makes you think, doesn’t it? No? Well, it should.

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To-Do Lists

40+251 Done-ish

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I don’t do things unless I’ve added them to a to-do list. Sometimes my wife will ask me to do something. I’ll say, “But that’s not on my list.” She’ll say, “So put it on your list.” So I put it on my list. Then I’ll do it — eventually. Then I get the satisfaction of deleting it from my list. It feels more like I’ve done something that way. And I can say to Suzy, “You know that thing you asked me to do? I did it, and crossed it off my list.” And she gets to think her husband is orderly and productive.

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Javelina Jundred 2006

Geezer at JJ2006

Geezer at JJ 2006

At Javalina Jundred 100-mile trail race on November 4th and 5th, 2006, I had my toughest outing ever in that or in any other race. Less than two miles into my fifth loop at a little over 60 miles, I turned back and dropped, but I was fried both mentally and physically long before.

This experience leaves me with a record of zero for four in finishes, which no one else can claim. As fellow ultrarunner Dan Baglione reminded me: It’s still a record, enviable or otherwise! Rodger Wrublik told me that if I return next year they’ll have to redesign the bib because he doesn’t think they can fit four skulls (representing DNFs) on it.

Months before the race I made the decision that regardless of the outcome, JJ 2006 would likely be my last attempt at a 100-mile trail race. I say “likely” only because I don’t like to shut doors, but I have other plans in my immediate future that make another attempt seem unlikely.

To Begin At the Beginning

My finishing record for JJ to date had been zero for three, with physical, technical, and mental factors bringing me down each of the previous races at approximately the same point in each race — near the beginning of the sixth lap.

This year I began better prepared than ever, and in better shape, albeit a year older. At age 63, I don’t expect to be doing anything more dramatic than finishing these events; but I did hope for that much. I would not enter and start a race that I did not genuinely believe I can finish.

Beginning in May, I succeeded in meeting every one of my training goals, with long runs almost every weekend (taking a short break in June for my daughter’s wedding), several 20-mile runs, a 35-mile run, a 42.5-mile night run, and a 40-mile night run on Pemberton trail, the race site, on which I have run over 50 loops and could navigate in my sleep. Also, in September I covered 102.82 miles in one 9-day sequence without walking a single step of it, and after a break of four days, did another 9-day sequence of 89 miles where I did daily two-hour track runs, running four laps and walking one. Those were squeezed in between the 42.5-miler on September 2nd and the 40-miler on October 7th. The rest of October was spent tapering carefully, as I ran nothing longer than a 15-miler two weeks before the race.

In addition, I’d done far more mental and technical preparation than any prior year, designing a race plan with the greatest of attention to lap split goals, even estimating time to each aid station. After several rounds of revision, I printed the final plan, took it to Kinko’s to laminate, and hung it upside down from my number belt with a couple of trimmed off cable ties, so I could flip it up and consult it at will. It was a très cool idea that worked out well for as long as I lasted.

Three days before the race I began assembling, checking, and double checking all my gear, determining an assigned and easy to reach place for each item, minimizing the amount of stuff I would have to carry on my person, deciding what I would wear, when to change clothes, how many water bottles to carry on which lap, and how to get through the aid stations with the greatest efficiency.

Above all, I had my ace in the hole — the best pacer a person could possibly acquire, with whose take-charge intelligence, and genuinely caring help I felt certain I could make it to the end this year.

If that weren’t enough, I had race director Jimmy Wrublik, who was my pacer last year, and several other good running friends — among them Burke Painter and Jimmy’s father Rodger — all of them busy with more important official race business, taking time out to crew me at lap turnarounds, fetching things for me, helping me to get back out as fast as possible, so that I never even had to visit the aid station area.

The Day Before

I was jumping like a chimpanzee more Friday than before any race in memory, because I longed earnestly to put an end to my pitiful dry spell, and had high expectations of doing so. Though I plodded along at some low-priority projects, productive work was out of the question. By noon I had everything as assembled as it could be, such that all that was necessary was to load up and go.

As I’ve done each race year, I headed to McDowell Mountain Park plenty early, so I could meet new people, renew older acquaintances, and just hang out. Rodger and timer Dave Combs were running a little late getting the goody bags stuffed with transponders, so I managed to make myself useful for a while helping out with that. In the end, most people found their own bags, then stood in line to check in, which went quickly, without need for a complicated, formal check-in process.

Jimmy, who is age 17, and both modest and shy, gave his first pre-race speech, perceptibly nervous, but before an eager audience unanimously pulling for him to score high marks in his ambitious assignment. Discussion was kept to a minimum, and soon people were scurrying off to their tents, hotels, and homes to make preparations for various nights of unrest.

In my case, Suzy made us a nutritious meal of tomato based soup with pasta and a bagel, after which I was in bed with the lights out and the covers pulled up at 7:58pm. To my surprise, I slept soundly for the first two hours, then fitfully for a while, then soundly again. My failsafe internal alarm clock caused my eyes to sproing open at exactly 2:57am, allowing me to turn off the alarm before it went off, not awakening Suzy, who is a light sleeper.

My race preparation routine has become a priestly ritual. I no longer need a reference list, but can glide through it quickly from memory. All my gear was ready to pick up and put in the car when I was ready.

This time I took particular care with preparing my feet with tape, Bag Balm, women’s half-height nylons turned inside out under low-cut black Feetures running socks, with gaiters going on before my Asics 2110s. The effort served me well; after the race I detected no blisters or foot problems of any type as a result of the expedition.

It normally takes 45 minutes from driveway to trailhead to get to the park on a Saturday afternoon. On race morning, with zero traffic, it took only 40 minutes, which included a couple of minutes to stop and chat with the guy at the front guard shack, who was in a mood to talk about the weather and the moon. By 4:45am I was comfortably parked.

It was not too chilly — in the mid-50’s — which may have been a bad sign, but it made getting my personal aid station set up quite easy. Jimmy and Rodger reserved a spot right next to the timing tent for me, just like last year. All I would have to do each lap was tend to my needs, turn around, and go back out. It sounded good in theory, but in practice was a little harder than that.

We’re Off

The race started precisely at 6:00am, by which time light was beginning to appear. I opted to carry no headlamp, knowing from experience that for at least the first ten minutes I could see adequately by the lights of others around me, and that after that I would need no light at all, and didn’t want to carry a flashlight for the duration of a 15.4-mile loop.

Despite all precautions, I did trip and scrape my knee six minutes into the race, the first time I’ve fallen on that trail since the middle of the night in last year’s race. It was one of those falls where I bounced right back up as though nothing happened, and didn’t realize until the end of the first loop that I had bloodied my right knee slightly. No matter, because it didn’t hurt.

My hoped-for split times were:

Lap 1: 3:50
Lap 2: 4:05
Lap 3: 4:20
Lap 4: 4:35
Lap 5: 4:45
Lap 6: 5:15
Lap 7: 3:00 (9.2-mile partial lap)

which, if everything went perfectly, would bring me in at 11:50am the next day, ten minutes before the 30-hour cutoff. There was virtually no cushion built into those goals, particularly knowing that the totals include any turnaround time at the trailhead, which meant that they were effectively drop-dead times, but I preferred that to always thinking I could play catch-up later — because I never can.

The first lap was wonderful, as it always is. With three days of utterly no running or walking, two previous good nights sleep, three mugs of home-ground coffee, nerves supercharged with adrenalin, clear skies, and the prospect of accomplishing a long sought-after goal, I was okay to go.

Traveling in the clockwise direction, I estimated the time between aid stations to be 35%, 35%, and 30% of the total respectively, because the easy downhill jeep road on the north is so conducive to relaxed, effortless running. In the clockwise direction I estimate it’s closer to even thirds between stations, with a longer overall lap time.

When I got to the first aid station (Coyote Camp) I was about two minutes ahead of schedule. Not a problem. By the second aid station, I needed to stop at the portajohn (a new and much appreciated convenience feature this year), and left still a few minutes ahead. The rest of the lap I forced myself to take several walking breaks when I would not otherwise be inclined to do so. When I crossed the mat my watch said 3:37:24 — a bit further ahead than I wanted, but still not too fast. (I’ve run it in 3:05.)

At that turnaround it was time for sunscreen and a second bottle, which I filled with Succeed Ultra, after first shedding my gloves, then headed out the counterclockwise direction for what was supposed to be a 4:05 lap. The weather was still pleasant, but the sun was rising, and trouble was on the way.

When I got to the Jackass Junction aid station I was still about two minutes ahead of pace. It would be the last time. Then the warmth of the day began.

Between the two outlying aid stations on the second lap, something went horribly wrong, from which I was never able to recover. This section of the course, which is the prettiest, rolls constantly, with few segments more than 50 yards at a time either up or down, and almost none that are flat. It requires constant adjustment and concentration to make optimum progress.

The temperature never rose above the mid-eighties Saturday. As an Arizona runner, this should not bother me, as I’ve had good training runs on this trail when it was well over 100. But for some reason, by the time I got to the next aid station, I had slowed down to the point of being about 15 minutes behind. As yet undeterred, figuring it was just warm and I had to exercise patience, I made my way back. My split time was 4:31:41, for a cumulative time that left me 14 minutes behind schedule only 30% done with the race, with the hottest part of the day yet to come.

For my third lap, with a goal of 4:20, I refilled both Ultimate Directions 24-ounce kicker valve bottles, but one had only water, because I was getting sick of Succeed Ultra. I depended on my flask of Hammer Gel and whatever I could get down at the aid station for calories, but found that anything dry, such as pretzels, would become a mushy pulp in my mouth a half mile later and would wind up being spit out. One thing that did go down easy was plain old Coke, which I could guzzle two or three cups at a time. I also took my PrincetonTek 3-LED headlamp, because it would be getting dark later in the lap, but I didn’t need my big flashlight for that short period.

It was on this lap that I began to realize that finishing the race on time would be unlikely. With darkness and mercifully cooler temperatures coming, my only hope was to forget about the pace chart and push forward as hard as I could. As anticipated, I did manage to run most of the way down the jeep trail, but the

section from the north corner to the aid station, run in 24 minutes the first time around, took 34 minutes this time. How is it even possible to go that slowly and still be running?

My third lap split was 4:59:08, now about 45 cumulative minutes behind. After that I didn’t pay much attention.

Enter My Secret Weapon

Readers who read my account of the 40-mile training run at Pemberton Trail on October 7th are aware that I planned to use a pacer at Javelina, namely Laura Nagy. In my summary of that highly enjoyable and successful run I lauded Laura’s considerable credentials: a one-time 3:02 marathoner, multiple ultramarathon winner, triathlete, ACE certified trainer, just for starters. In addition, Laura is good company for this runner who prefers much of the time to just shut up and run.

Being the sort of person who does not like to see the unsolicited generosity of others taken for granted, I simply must let people know that what they do is genuinely appreciated. Laura made exceptional self-sacrifices to help me get through this race. When I blew up at the end, as disappointed as I was for myself, I felt even worse about letting her down, because she remained convinced I could have finished.

Laura did more than simply accompany me during the night. It was she who helped me plan my lap splits, doing research on previous race data, preparing a spreadsheet, over which we haggled about the details for weeks before the race before coming to agreement. She also offered quite a bit of helpful training advice, some of which I actually followed. And as I said, we had a de facto dress rehearsal of the race doing that night run, and foresaw no major problems. By race day I knew one thing above all, that execution according to plan would be the key to success. So I promised myself that I would try my best to submit to whatever Laura suggested during the race.

As I Was Saying …

I was about a mile out from Jeadquarters, well behind schedule, still in a good mood, but struggling, and it had grown dark, when suddenly I heard a lady’s voice: “Are you Lynn Newton?” Yes? “It’s me, Laura!” She had picked up my 14-LED green flashlight and come out to meet me, thinking I might need it. I didn’t, but I appreciated the gesture.

The rest of the way she talked non-stop about what we would do when we got back, while feeding me Clif Shot Blocks, a new product sort of like Gummy Bears with which I was not familiar, which turned out to be one of the only palatable foods I encountered that night.

Laura was determined to be sure I consumed about 100 calories every 25 minutes, and offered indisputable physiological reasoning why this was necessary. I had been surviving mostly on Hammer Gel and Succeed Ultra, plus I forgot to tell her I did pig out before the start of the third lap, when I could still eat. But my stomach was beginning to trouble me. After a while I began to feel like a steer being force fed and readied for slaughter.

When running an ultra a person’s alimentary canal becomes like the Alaskan pipeline, hauling a huge volume of stuff in and out. We are not built to process food that rapidly, and not everybody can adjust to it. This, like the running itself, needs to be practiced for in training, not on race day. Over the years I’ve tended to eat less than I should, but have done better in races where I’ve managed to eat frequently, delivering calories in small regular doses.

Nothing takes the fun out of running like nausea. I had never barfed in my life during a run, but came very close on two occasions, both from the fructose buildup from frequent ingestations of Gatorade, which I like and can tolerate on runs up to about a half-marathon, but never use for anything longer.

The honest truth is I really hate most typical race food. I particularly don’t like foods with manufactured chemical names like Endurox and CycloPower and Energine. I like foods with names like banana and lentil and yogurt. Laura kept telling me to think of it not as food but as fuel. So how did I suddenly become a diesel engine? Lately I can handle Hammer Gel — a good thing, because I got four new jugs of it not long before the race. Most race drinks, including Succeed Clip2 and Ultra, while they go down easy at first, get too disgusting to think about swallowing after a couple of hours. Happily, I can almost always consume plain old water, at least in sips, no matter how bad I feel.

At the lap turnaround, which took 4:59:08 by my watch, I changed my shirt and added a jacket, while trying to wolf down food that Laura and others were bringing me. On the way out I picked up my superlative Tektite 14 green LED flashlight, with which I have no fear of running at night at any speed I’m capable of, but I kept my Princetontek around my neck as a backup, and soon we were off on lap five. I was glad when Laura said we probably would not be increasing pace, but I also knew that we would have to keep hammering relentlessly, and I was still less than half done with the race. If you think too much about how far you have to go you will quit soon. It’s much better to get from aid station to aid station.

Having a pacer is not about having company, someone to yakkety yak with. I’m perfectly capable of being by myself for endless periods of time. Rather, it’s a matter of having someone who is way better and fresher than me take the lead and keep me on track — not an easy thing to do when starting from a position of being far behind.

For most of lap four Laura was ahead of me, moving at a pace that was difficult at times for me to keep up with. I’d say I felt like a sled dog, except the musher was in the lead. We didn’t talk much except for necessary discussion about matters related to the race, which was fine with me, because I needed to gulp oxygen, not talk.

It was on lap four that my stomach gave me the worst trouble. When I’ve had nausea in the past, it’s been minor, and would pass — particularly if I would just not eat and drink for a little while, which seems like the natural thing to do. I don’t know anyone whose inclination is to eat something while on the verge of throwing up.

But eat I did, and it became more and more difficult. First there was a veggieburger (without bun) that was still warm enough to be consumable, though I could get only about half of it down, while leaving another one getting stone cold in the sandwich bag. Next I had several slices of boiled potato, which should go down easy, but consumed cold started to make me gag. Somewhere in there I had some lukewarm vegetable soup. And on it went, as I obediently did my best to eat and drink on schedule, but feeling worse as time went on, and more exhausted much too early than I ever expected to be. My condition was deteriorating rapidly.

The night was pleasant, and the moon was as full as could be on a cloudless night. Many runners flew by in both directions using no lights at all. Three years ago I traveled much of the night without a light because it was so bright, but having my green LED flashlight let me not have to worry at all about rocks, ditches and other hazards on the road. Before my first nighttime run I used to be terrified by the notion of running through a wilderness at night. Now I look forward to it as one of the best parts of the experience. It’s much pleasanter and safer than many people might suppose.

My condition gradually degenerated over the course of the fourth lap, to the point that privately I was succumbing to the resignation that I would have to drop at the end of it, earlier than I have quit in any of my previous outings.

Already crushed with disappointment, I found that my biggest problem was not in making the decision to stop, but in how to tell Laura, who had done so much to help me out, and who was sure from our training run a month before that I would prevail. Besides, she had some training goals of her own she wanted to accomplish, so in quitting I felt that I was letting her down in a big way. But I refused to bring it up on the road.

Our time for the fourth loop, almost entirely walked, according to my Timex, was 5:03:20, including turnaround time at the beginning, faster than my fourth loop last year, and cumulatively only about 15 minutes behind my pace from last year, at which I felt vibrantly strong and enthusiastic all the way through the fifth lap, and into the beginning of the sixth lap, before melting down rapidly and dropping at Jackass Junction, barely able to walk.

At Jeadquarters I went through the ritualistic motions of getting ready for lap five, putting on a sweatshirt, trying to eat, making necessary adjustments, hoping against hope that something would happen to revive me. My head was in a fog. Finally I mustered the nerve to tell Laura I couldn’t do another lap and wanted to drop.

To her credit as a pacer, she would hear nothing of it. Jimmy and Burke were also there to bolster my spirits. I had already taken too long at this layover. It was time, as Yoda says: to do or not do — there is no try. Being thoroughly disgusted for being toast with 40 miles left to go, and knowing that come what may a sixth lap would be out of the question, much less a finish, I got up and zombied my way out alone while Laura tended to putting on some tights, then caught up with me. It didn’t take her long to do that, as she was still fresh enough to run the whole thing if she’d wanted to.

Clockwise loops head out to the southwest, beginning with a mile or so of short, rolling bumps in the road, then comfortably runnable downhill, until arching around a 180-degree curve that goes steeply up to a ridge that remains uphill and treacherously rocky for two or three miles. I have in the past run entire training loops of this trail without any walking except to pop electrolytes, including this nasty ridge. But as I contemplated heading up it sometime after 1:00am Sunday morning, I felt like I might need a winch to drag me up.

More than that, I considered the consequences. Every step away from Jeadquarters meant a step returning, for there are no convenient drop spots from the trail. I considered that if necessary I could have dropped at Coyote Camp and walked slowly down Tonto, but I wasn’t having much fun any more, and that option would mean prolonging my misery nearly three more hours.

I was also getting sleepy, which is not normally too much of a problem for me. I always carry caffeine tablets, and had not taken one, because their effect on me is unpredictable: they either serve as a miracle drug, or they upset my stomach and have little perceptible influence on my state of wakefulness — something I did not need to have happen in my current state. Whichever happens, it happens almost instantly, within just a few minutes. In desperation, I took one, thinking it might artificially recharge me. Caffeine is known for hitting the system with noticeable within a couple of minutes.

Finally, as we headed around the curve on the approach to the uphill to the ridge, about 1.8 miles from Jeadquarters, I came to a halt, stopped Laura, and we had a heart-to-heart talk in which I expressed profusely both my gratitude and my regrets, but there was no way I was going to make it up that hill and around for another lap. I needed to turn back. “What hill?” was Laura’s response. Very funny. But I knew exactly where we were on the course, and what was coming up immediately.

The matter was sealed right there when suddenly I experienced something that had never happened to me: a case of the dry heaves, coming in two waves, both times ending in a painful stomach cramp that nearly put me on the ground. Laura suggested helpfully that if I took a big drink of water I might throw up. Somehow, this did not strike me as a good idea at the time, and for the first time that night I refused to follow her suggestion! If I had any lingering doubts about my own fitness to continue, that put a lid on them right there.

After giving myself a minute to catch my breath, I straightened up, and we turned around and started walking back. Officially, I had completed four laps, which adds up to 61.6 miles counting decimals. (The park’s official cartographer-measured distance for one loop is 15.4 miles, regardless of what some signs and maps report.) Unofficially, I advanced about another 1.8 miles before turning around, and believe me, I’ve added both that and the 1.8-mile return to my running log! I want to take credit for what I can.

Non-running would-be comforters will inevitably try to tell me that going 61.6 miles is not so bad. But — yeah it is, if it’s a 100-mile race. (In JJ’s case, 101.6 miles to be precise.) If a runner falls dead a foot from the finish mat, sorry, but it still goes down as: Sorry, that’s a DNF, and by the way, what should we do with the body? Most people who follow ultrarunning know that very scenario almost happened at the Western States 100 this year.

My race over, we were able to enjoy some pleasant ordinary conversation on the way back, and the truth is, I felt somewhat better, probably as a result of the heaves. It’s funny how it works out that way sometimes. Maybe I could have gone on after that? I’ll never know, because we didn’t.

It must have been around 2:30am when I passed by the timing tent and told Dave Combs I was dropping. Burke got my transponder, and that was officially the end of it for me.

I didn’t spend much time sitting and watching others, even though I had a box seat, since I was tired, embarrassed, disgusted, and had nothing to celebrate. Instead, I headed to the car and slept on the front seat. But not until I had one more brief episode of dry heaves after opening the front door and dangling my sorry head out. Not good.

As disgustingly funky as I was, I managed to sleep soundly for a couple of hours, then fitfully for a while longer, before prying myself out into the chilly morning’s early light.

Being in no hurry to get out, I did manage to touch base with a few people who passed through, listening to a wild story from Gary Cross, who had come to pace John Radich, about how they took a wrong turn just 0.1 miles down the trail and doing an extra seven miles (and I’m still having difficulty conceiving how that’s even possible); later meeting John for the first time; and I also caught the indomitable Catra Corbett, waiting to go back out with Wonder Woman Xy Weiss, the Dirty Girl Gaiters lady. I asked Catra how she does it? “Just one foot in front of the other” was her pointed reply. Oh yeah, I must have forgotten to do that. I’ll try and remember next time.

I made other new acquaintances at the race and renewed others during the race — Brian Kathol from Alberta, Lucinda Fisher, and 70-year-old Peter Fish all come to mind. During the race many people greeted me by name that I could not identify, and not just because we had our names on our bibs. I’m guessing that most were Ultra List members who have read my various posts, including race reports, and the running articles on my blog. Some have directly told me that they read my past accounts carefully in preparation for Javelina Jundred. I hope it did them some good, because most of them finished, while I have yet to do so myself.


So what went wrong? I have no idea. My training was good, I was well-prepared, I executed to the best of my ability up until the warmth of the afternoon, and I’ve run further and faster on numerous occasions.

I’m in better shape this year than for any of the previous three races, though to be sure, at 63 age is unquestionably beginning to be a factor. That’s one reason I believed on Sunday morning I will not try another 100. What I believe tomorrow may be different. Next year at this time, barring unforeseen circumstances, I already have committed to doing something else that will make running Javelina impossible. The next opportunity I might have is in two years, at which time I’ll be 65. Isn’t that getting to be a bit long in the tooth to be a first-time 100-mile trail race finisher, especially for someone who is not and never has been any good at running? One thing is for certain: it’s not going to be any easier at some future time. We shall just have to wait and see.

To Top It Off

My car was packed and I headed off to home about 7:00am. But two more experiences awaited me on Sunday to cap off a most eventful day.

I had driven a mile or less down the main road on the way out of the park, when I opened the window to spit out some gunk that had accumulated in my throat. Big mistake. The wind blew it back in on me, and in my brief reaction to discover where it landed, I took my concentration off the road and suddenly found myself driving on the dirt, headed toward a ditch. My instincts took over rather than the things I’ve learned about what to do in such situations, so my reactions were probably all wrong, as I slid and steered wildly. I skidded out of control onto both the left and right shoulders, and finally turned completely around, 460 degrees, finally coming to rest in the middle of the road, leaving a huge cloud of dust and big, black, prominent skid marks on the road. A rousing way to start my trip home. Fortunately, there was nobody in sight to witness the fiasco. (And therefore no one to worry or frighten, because I was fine.) The near accident had nothing to do with drowsiness, as I was wide awake. It was just careless inattention.

To add insult to injury, when I got home and was getting settled, being finally able to eat once again, I chowed down on something and promptly popped a crown off my lower left central incisor (tooth 24 in the tooth numbering system that dentists use). The rest of Sunday and yesterday my tongue turned into hamburger, as it seems to be universally true that people are unable to keep their tongues out of newly formed holes in their mouths. My dentist was able to re-cement it for me early Tuesday morning, much to my relief.

So you might say I had a tough weekend. But I’m not bitter! I still have Across the Years ahead of me this year, with every expectation of doing well at it.

And guess what else: I will wear the race shirt next time I go out for a run!

Abundant thanks go to Jimmy Wrublik and the many volunteers, many of whom are friends, for a fine job in putting on Javelina Jundred 2006, and above all to Laura Nagy for putting up with me. May the race continue to live on for many years.

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Running Through the Night

Saturday night I ran an all-night training run at Pemberton Trail, two full 15.4-mile laps plus the 9.2-mile partial loop that comes back on the Tonto Tank trail. It was my best trail training run in years.

Not a race, but a no-cost supported run, its purpose was primarily to train for the Javelina Jundred 100-mile trail race on November 4, 2006. Generous aid was provided at the trailhead by JJ race director Jimmy Wrublik and his father Rodger. Jimmy reports seventeen runners showed up.

In return for my efforts I won the “Most Memorable Performance” prize, the only award given. I had the choice of a pair of Patagonia silkweight shorts and a bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila. I already had a pair of the shorts from the all-night 12-hour run at Nardini Manor last year, in support of the Katrina disaster, and don’t care for them, as I think they’re more like a playboy’s underpants than running shorts, so have never worn them. Happily, I drove off with the Jose Cuervo. I was strongly tempted to pop the lid and drink it on the way home, as the sun was just coming up. But that would have been a Bad Thing.

No I wasn’t. Just kidding. But the thought occurred to me as the bottle sat on the front seat next to me.

My total on-the-trail time was 10:39, but I logged it as three separate runs in my records because I had different objectives each loop. Every end I stopped my watch and took my time at the trailhead to regroup before heading out for the next. I won’t have that luxury at JJ.

When I looked at my logs from 2004, at which I ran the identical workout, but unaccompanied by a pacer, I completed it nearly an hour slower. I’m in better shape now than I was then.

The weather was utterly perfect all night, with a high in the mid-seventies at the start, when it was still light, to the low sixties by approaching sunup. We had the luxury of a full moon in totally cloudless skies. Moonrise began about a half hour after we took off, and the moon still had not set when I arrived home at 6:40am. It was glorious, bright enough for us to see our shadows, and made it possible to see everything for tens of miles around.

The JJ race itself will be held four weeks from yesterday, therefore also on the night of a full moon. The RD has always aimed to schedule it as close to that celestial event as possible.

One factor that enabled me to perform my best was running the entire distance with the person who will be my pacer during the night hours until the finish at JJ in a month: Laura Nagy, a superb runner I’ve known almost the whole time I’ve been ultrarunning. In 2003 she and Alene Nitzky co-directed my favorite race Across the Years, when the regular RD took a year off, so I had pleasant opportunity to work closely them both in helping to present that.

Laura is a multi-sport athlete who trains meticulously. At one time she was a 3:02 marathoner. She has won a number of ultras, finished well in some 100-mile races, and is now training for the Phoenix Ironman next spring. Though a software jockey by profession, she is an ACE certified trainer, and thoroughly expert in the technicalities of endurance sport. Helping motivated athletes to reach their goals, both with training advice and pacing is a service she enjoys providing voluntarily to people of her own choosing.

I didn’t directly ask Laura to be my pacer. She answered a query I put out to a local ultrarunning list for anyone who would be willing. Knowing her and her abilities as well as I do, I jumped at the chance.

Laura said that she had biked for three hours Saturday morning, and decided to stop because she didn’t want to be “too tired” to run all night. Sheesh.

One of the advantages of having someone so competent in my company was that I knew that no matter how often or how fast I wanted to run, she would be right there. I never once had to turn around and ask if it was okay to run, or if she was doing okay and needed a break.

Last night’s run was scheduled to start at 7:00pm, but as an untimed event, it didn’t matter when people started, nor how much or little they ran. Laura and I arrived at the site within seconds of each other just before 6:00pm. With getting set up, suitably pottied and ready to roll, we were able to take off by about 6:15. It was still light enough to see without flashlights for the first 1.5—2.0 miles.

We were both armed with superior green-LED flashlights. I also had my 3-LED Princetontec for backup, which was useful mainly at the trailhead for fussing with gear, also on the road for digging for electrolytes.

The single biggest mistake I made of the night was a failure of preparation: As I put on my footgear, following my usual ritual of taping, lubrication, and double sock rolling, I realized to my utter consternation that I had failed to glue velcro strips to the heels of the shoes I would wear, necessary in order to attach my gaiters. My option was to wear older gaiter-prepped shoes, but the newest of them have 600 miles on them, and I wasn’t willing to do that.

I definitely should have. I will never again run any trail without gaiters, as the way I run tends to kick up enough dirt and pebbles to fill the bed of a pickup, much of which ultimately finds its way beneath my feet, which comes to feel like running on a bed of pins.

In all I stopped at least eight times through the night to empty my shoes, to what I sensed was Laura’s increasing frustration with me, and could have stopped many more, as I ran many miles with shoes full of rocks until I could no longer stand it. As I write this, my heels in particular are still raw. Big mistake — real big mistake. But that’s what training runs are for: to rehearse our mistakes. Err … make that to identify them so we don’t make them again in a real race.

Laura had designed some sadistic plans for me, namely to run some hard uphills, and also to run a few other sections fairly hard. Though I raised an eyebrow at the notion of doing hill and speed training in a 40-mile training run, I had committed myself to trusting her guidance, as it provides for me the most realistic hope I have of making it to the end of JJ under the cutoff, after going 0-3 in that race for finishes. (The race’s dropout (DNF) rate has been close to 50% all three years.)

Therefore, I suggested we do the first loop the “hard” direction, where there is a 3.2-mile jeep trail that is steady uphill (therefore all downhill in the other direction). While not a difficult stretch by any reasonable standard, it’s sandy the whole span, so demands that the runner be on the lookout to plot the best line across the higher, harder-packed portions, made slightly more difficult in decreased light.

Run it I did, trying to keep my pace up, from Cedar Tank to the turn south at the northwestern extreme of the trail. The middle third of the trail I ran when I could, which was more often than not, and walked when I couldn’t. When we reached the rocky 3-mile stretch along the southern ridge, which is downhill, but tricky and laden with potential for extremely unpleasant injury if one falls, I managed to run almost all of it, working as I always do in that section on my technique of spotting and planting steps carefully, and lifting my feet so as not to catch a toe. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve tripped and fallen on that path, from which I conclude that my form has improved.

After coming down off that ridge, it’s a gentle two-mile run over undulating dirt mounds back to the trailhead, of approximately equal technical difficulty (not very) in either direction, though being at the start or end of a loop respectively does have an impact on one’s perception of its arduousness.

We completed the first loop in 3:32 — somewhat slower when I checked my watch than what I had guessed. I was thinking sub-3:15. Silly me. My PR for a loop, carrying only a single water bottle, is 3:04.

Our unrecorded turnaround time was somewhere around fifteen minutes, maybe a little more.

We headed out on the second loop the opposite, “easy” direction, with a different purpose in mind. We walked a fair amount of the first section, including most of the rocky ridge strip, and ran after that where we could, but I saved my best effort for the north jeep road, this time in the downhill direction. I stopped once at mid-point to empty shoes, take electrolyte and what have you, but overall it was a good piece of running. From Cedar Tank, immediately after which it becomes single track, back to the trailhead, we ran most of the downhills and walked the uphills, arriving at end-of-loop in a total of 4:23.

Regrettably, I made the mistake of inadequately replenishing my water supply after the first loop, thinking I had far more left in my 100-ounce Camelbak Mule than I did. I should have looked instead of hefting and squeezing it. Dumb mistake. As I result, I ran the whole last six miles entirely without water, and without that I was also reluctant to guzzle the chocolate Hammer Gel that I carried in a flask in my hand, that had begun to taste like medicine.

On all three loops, until the final mile, I ran ahead of Laura, being allowed to set my own pace rather than having to struggle to keep up with her, from which point I could also hear her better. (I have a slight hearing problem.) She could have run twice my speed if running for herself, but she never once suggested I should run when I was walking, or that I should pick it up. Knowing she was always right there was great incentive to keep going for longer.

We regrouped once again, perhaps a couple of minutes faster than after the first loop, and headed out for the third “Tonto” loop. Within thirty seconds I realized I didn’t have my green LED flashlight, so ran back to get it, adding another minute and a half to my loop time. Big deal, but I would not have wanted to do it with just my Princetontek, so I’m glad I noticed before I got any further.

At Javelina Jundred, the final portion consists of running out the counterclockwise direction to the aid station at the west Tonto Tank trail junction, then taking the easy 2.7-mile downhill trail back to the eastern junction, followed by a one-mile return to the trailhead on the same road we came out on, a total loop distance of 9.2 miles, and making a race total of 101.6 miles.

It was my determination to power walk the portion all the way from the trailhead to the Tonto Tank turnoff. Sometimes when I’m walking with someone I tend to walk a bit slower than I’m capable of, as I believe happened last night, because we got involved in chatting. In a training run it didn’t really matter. Besides which, my feet were hurting from all the rocks, both inside and outside my shoes.

When we finally hit Tonto Tank, after a final shoe-emptying session, I took off. Following a brief period where I got used to running again after not doing so for the past two hours, I started to push it as hard as I was still able, given that I already had over 36 miles on my legs for the day, that it was by this time around 4:30am, and as should go without mentioning, I’m 63 years old and have no talent for running whatever.

Soon I was in a zone, leaping over the speed bump logs placed like hurdles every 25 yards or so (an annoyance), extending both my stride and turnover, letting gravity pull me, as I tore down as fast as I dared without doing something dumb that would cause me to trip and be badly injured. A few times I checked over my shoulder to be sure Laura was still close by. How silly it was of me to think that my pace was in any way a challenge to her. The worst thing that happened was I once again had to make more adjustments in my foot placement to compensate for the confounded rocks in my shoes, which were beginning to feel like needles.

I ran every step of that stretch, all of it hard, until we reached the east terminus, upon which Laura reminded me we were not done. Oh yeah, we had another mile to go. This is when Laura at last took the lead, providing a practice session for what we will do at the end of the race, if we get that far. She began gently trotting and then walking about twenty steps each at a time, making some adjustments for the greater than average hills in that section, and gave me instructions to just follow and imitate her, which I did to the best of my ability.

The trailhead is not visible at nighttime until about 100 yards out, where there are still a few more lumpy hillettes to negotiate, but from that point on I ran it in. Laura began calling back to me from a bit before that: “It’s 29:55 … 29:56 …” At first, being thoroughly fried, I didn’t know what she was doing, but obviously she was simulating a close fight with the clock just before the cutoff. Finally, I came storming into the parking lot, and ran clear to the other side, where the aid station was still up, and a make believe finish line, before stopping my watch at 2:44:07.

Among the good things that happened last night was that I experienced not one single second of sleepiness. I carried caffeine tablets with me, but never took one, because I didn’t need one. Sometimes they work for me, but sometimes they don’t, or worse, they upset my stomach, so I won’t take one except as a measure to ward off relentless sleepiness.

I was never discouraged, nor did I wish I could just quit. Just as well, because once you’re out on that trail, quitting is not an option, short of waiting for a park ranger on an ATV or a $5000 helicopter ride to retrieve your sorry butt in the morning. When I finished my adrenalin was pumping, and save for my impaled feet, surely could have gone out for another loop if it had been in the plan. (But I’m glad it wasn’t.)

We were the last ones in. We sat down to chat with Rodger and Jimmy and Robert Andrulis for a few minutes, by which time the natural cooling off of my body combined with the early morning temperature led me to feel chilly. With dawn beginning to approach in the eastern sky, we packed up and went our various ways. Believe it or not, Laura dashed off to prepare to teach Sunday school this morning at 9:30. I don’t know how she does it.

For me, it’s a 45-minute drive home. By the time I got into Fountain Hills the lack of sleep started to make itself felt, requiring me to drive home with the utmost concentration. I arrived home safely, took a 15-minute shower, and crawled into bed, my wife still sound asleep, at 7:45, and slept for three hours.

Laura suggested an ice bath, which sounds like a good idea, but I was much too tired for such a thing when I got in. We had to go out in the late afternoon, and I considered soaking my legs in the shallow end of our swimming pool when we got back — but I just had to watch the St. Louis Cardinals beat San Diego. While watching it I ran our excellent massage vibrator over my legs, which helped a great deal.

Despite feeling sorer and more tired than I’ve been following a training run in years, overall, it was an enjoyable and beneficial outing that should go a long way toward preparing me for Javelina Jundred next month.

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A 42.5-Mile Night Run

Geezer runs all night

Geezer runs all night

As I’m training for the Javelina Jundred 100-mile trail race, my training schedule has called for a progressively increasing very long run every four weeks since May. As of today I’m still on target.

A month ago I did a 40-miler, so the objective of yesterday’s run was to do 45 (maybe 50) in 12 hours if possible, but in any case, more than 40. Mission accomplished.

This was not yet another indoor track run of the type for which I have become infamous, but an all-night grind on an asphalt loop around a golf community where Gary Culver, an active local ultrarunner lives, all pre-approved by the community’s recreational events management, so we wouldn’t be questioned by the security patrol and run off as loonies.

The course is proclaimed by official signs with mileage markers along the way to be exactly 2.5 miles. Gary verified this as 2.501 miles on his bicycle. It’s all on asphalt, almost continuously curving, but very gently so the constant turning is not a problem on the legs. There are a couple of mild rises encountered in the counterclockwise direction we chose in order to run toward traffic, compensated for by long, almost imperceptible descents. It’s a perfect place to run for runners of the type who habitually get their exercise by heading out their front doors to a standard nearby location, and indeed in the early morning there were quite a few walkers and bicyclists out. Being within a gated community, traffic is was very light during the evening and early morning hours, with none at all during the dead of night. If I lived there I would probably give up my Bally’s membership and get used to the heat.

There were just two of us the whole night. Many were invited but few came, to paraphrase an illustration of Jesus. No one else could be talked into this folly.

It was not to be a routine evening. When we started, at precisely 6:00 p.m. by my watch, what I was told was the edge of hurricane John was rapidly hurricane rolling in.

We ran two loops in good time while winds whipped up angrily, blowing over our tables. Some light rain pelted my skin like gravel being kicked up because of the impact of the drops caused by the wind. Incredibly evil black clouds headed our way, accompanied by disconcerting lightning. To that point it was still runnable, but the lightning was sufficiently disturbing as to cause us to have second thoughts.

Gary’s wife Sandy showed up to share the weather report. (They live a quarter mile from the clubhouse where we based our aid stations.) Exercising prudence, we stopped our watches, packed everything in, threw it in our trunks, and went to Culvers’ house to chat, drink coffee, and monitor the weather channel. We learned that the most dangerous part of what was to come had already passed by, and while it would continue to rain for a while, it would do so fairly hard, but not torrentially or dangerously, then would clear up by late evening.

So we headed back out. The total break from the time I punched my stop button until we started again was an hour and ten minutes.

It rained hard enough to flood the streets in places. I couldn’t avoid wading through water that came up over my shoe tops, which also impeded forward progress, slowed also by the constant weaving around the puddles that was necessary rather than running the shortest path. But that and the wind served to make it pleasantly cool, and good running weather. It had been 105 during the day. I didn’t mind at all running in the rain, and neither did Gary, and while running all night in the rain seemed like a crazy thing to try at the start, by a minute after beginning our second loop it seemed perfectly reasonable. The first ten miles was some of the most enjoyable running I’ve done in quite a while.

It stopped raining around 11:30, and while it was still plenty wet, the streets drained in the duration of a couple of laps, then nearly dried off. It rained briefly again around 4:00am, but not hard nor for long. It was never uncomfortably warm.

The rest of the night I just kept on cranking, never taking a significant break except for seven minutes to visit the comfortable, clean bathroom outside the clubhouse that by prearrangement they left unlocked for us.

My lap splits slowed incredibly, to about 160% of what I started at. I had one tough lap from 25—27.5 miles, when my stomach protested, and my will power waned, but it passed, and my next lap was one of the best of the night. Gary had a slow time of it too, though he was going faster than me. His goal was 100K, but it was soon apparent he would not make it, as I would likely not make my 50 miles.

By the time we quit, with 11:34:27 total elapsed time on my watch, and not enough time (nor heart) remaining to do another full lap, I’d gotten 17 laps, for a total of 42.5 miles, and Gary had gotten 45 miles. On a shorter course I would have had time to walk far enough to make it an even 44 miles, despite the complications of the evening. This performance falls squarely in the middle of my other four 12-hour performances, so given the conditions and other factors, I’m satisfied that I was at least on target rather than behind where I hoped to be at this time.

The aftereffects of running on asphalt are tougher than on a trail or on a rubberized track because of the more severe jolting the body experiences. I felt fine when I left, but by the time I arrived home, a thirty-minute drive, I had bound up so tight that I could have used crutches to get out of the car and in the house. My still wet and funky gear remained in the car until late evening.

It was a painful chore just to shower and get into bed at 8:00 a.m. Usually after going all night, e.g., following Across the Years, I feel fine after three hours sleep and can function well for the rest of the day, but today I never opened my eyes until 2:15 p.m., and have no intention of doing much of anything the rest of this day. I’m hobbling around the house like Grandpa McCoy. It’s going to take a few days to get back to normal from this one, and the only thing I can attribute the difficulty to is running on asphalt.

We were supposed to go out late this afternoon, but I opted to answer email, mess around on the computer, and sit on my butt in front of the TV. I can’t remember when I’ve ever been so wiped out after a run of that duration. I ran a 40-miler just a month ago, and aside from some dehydration-induced cramping, was just fine the rest of the day.

Every run is a learning experience.

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Running Pemberton Trail

Saturday afternoon I ran Pemberton Trail. The high in Phoenix was 102, about normal for this time of year. I didn’t see another human soul out there the whole time, not even in the parking lot.

I felt good at the start, anxious to get in a good workout. I wore my light white sun running hat with the neck drape, M-Frame Oakleys newly outfitted with brand new dark gray polarized heater lens, long-sleeve CoolMax running shirt, which I wear sometimes rather than depend on a superabundance of sun screen (also applied in ample supply), bandana on my left wrist, headband and newish Timex with Big Numbers on my right wrist (lefties often wear watches on their right hand), the Champion underliners that I refer to affectionately as Big Fancy Underpants — couldn’t live without them, Patagonia running shorts, new pair of women’s half-height nylons underneath regular running socks, Asics Kayano shoes, and my chock-full 100-ounce Camelbak Mule carrying ID, cell phone (as an experiment), a Powerbar, and drugs. (Well … Succeed tablets, ginger capsules, caffeine tablets, Pepcid A/C, and Advil.)

I headed off in the “hard” direction — counterclockwise, not knowing just how much I would actually be running in the heat and carrying all that stuff. I surprised myself by running at least three quarters of the loop, but eased into it by running a few steps, then walking, then running a longer stretch, and so on, until I was running all but the steeper uphills. There aren’t many, at least not that last more than 40-50 feet, on the first part of the course.

A couple of miles in you hit what in the opposite direction is the end of a majorly sweet downhill that lasts for about three miles, but going counterclockwise it’s (of course) uphill. By the time I got there I’d determined that I would do my best to run it rather than walk — something only a fool or an elite runner, of which I am neither, would do during a race. And run I did, with a break at the one-hour point to guzzle and slam down a Succeed!, and maybe two other brief walk breaks of thirty seconds or so each. I got to the end of that section less than ten minutes slower than it takes me to do it during ideal weather. The reason I ran it was simply because I’ve been delinquent about doing hill work, and with a 100-mile race coming up, I guessed I’d try to get a season’s worth into a single run.

I was still doing just fine, so I continued the strategy of running the downhills and walking the harder uphills, which increase substantially at this point in the course.

Two hours into it, from the remotest point on the trail, I tried to call my wife on my cell phone, but it was futile. There is no signal at all out there, so carrying a cell phone for safety purposes is useless. That’s the last time I’ll try that, even though running alone in the afternoon where it’s deadly hot and inhabited by snakes and other undesireables, but no humans, is not exactly the safest thing to do.

When I reached what turned out to be exactly the three-quarter mark timewise (3:00), I drained the last of my water — at a time when I had a mouth full of my last bite of Powerbar, and was hoping to have a little left to wash it down with. Ugh. Ptoooey! I had to make it the rest of the way entirely without water. It wasn’t pleasant, but the only way to take more water is to add a couple more hand bottles, which adds enormously to the weight.

Usually I take just the Mule and ration the water. I’ve done this often enough to know that then I’ll run out a mile or two from the end, and can get in before I start seeing pink elephants. This outing I decided to drink whenever I was thirsty, and allow myself to suffer the remainder. I figure the same amount of water is better off inside me doing some good than being carried on my back while becoming the temperature of fresh coffee. The difference this run is that during the hottest weather I don’t usually go in this direction, and I rarely run as large a proportion as I did yesterday.

About a third of the way through the rocky section on the high south ridge I was surprised to see there’s a brand new trail intersection called the Dixie Mine Trail. There’s an official sign up that says Pemberton Trail in the direction you’re traveling, like all the others out there, but the one pointing at right angles to the new trail, off toward the mountains, has just a piece of paper taped to it with the name, so it must still be very new. I hadn’t been there since April, so hadn’t seen this before. A map indicates that it leads about four miles southwest and does not reconnect with Pemberton Trail, so giving vent to my curiosity would have added about eight miles to my trek.

I still managed to run over most of the trickier rocky portions of that section — in fact, except for once at about 2:00am last October while running the fifth lap of Javelina Jundred, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve caught a toe and bit the dust on that trail. I must be learning to pick up my feet.

There’s a descent from that ridge that leads back out to the trailhead that takes me about 25 minutes to cover coming the opposite direction on fresh legs on a cool morning, but by this time it was approaching 5:00pm. For part of it I was walking straight toward the sun, and couldn’t bring myself to run for several minutes. When I turned north on the piece that leads out, which is quite lumpy with short rise-and-fall hillets, it was challenging to keep going, because by this point I was mostly toast, but I still managed to make that section from the descent to the finish in 34 minutes, missing a sub-4:00 finish by 33 seconds. I headed out hoping for 4:15, so I was satisfied with that.

You may think 4:00:33 seems like a long time to cover 15.4 miles, particularly for one who claims actually to be “running” much of the way. I’ve run a Pemberton Trail loop in the fast direction in as little as 3:04 — in cool weather, carrying only a single water bottle, in a race (the first lap of Pemberton 50K in February, 2004), and rested from several days off in preparation. And you’d be right, it is a long time, but all I can say in response is that heat and weight and going that direction on that particular trail add a lot to the challenge.

Whew! Only six and a half of those puppies and you’ve done the Javelina Jundred! I think I have some training left to do.

As soon as I reached the edge of Fountain Hills, I found first that my cell phone worked again, so I could let Suzy know I was still alive and on the way home.

Then I hit the first convenience store I could find and got a drink so big it took two hands to carry it back to the car — must’ve been at least a half gallon. It was nearly gone by the time I got home, and when I weighed in I was still four pounds lighter than my morning weight.

This week will be an easy week, as I’m planning on running an all-night 12-hour session next Saturday night, hoping to get close to 50 miles, and want to be well rested for it.

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Speed ball and ceiling ball comparison Origina...

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There’s a guy who comes to Bally’s gym that I call Ape. I call him that because it’s his name. Well, maybe not, but it should be. What else could his mother have thought when she first saw him?

Ape works out for hours almost every day, mostly in the free weights room. He stands about six foot three and in addition to his beard and pony tail has hair coming out of most every other pore in his body, which is also heavily tattooed. His arms are fire hydrants, his chest a steel vault. To top it, he’s pretty ugly.

The Bally’s gym I go to is laid out like this:

|                  track                      |
|  -----------------------------------------  |
|  |                               |       |  |
|  |        aerobics room          | stair |  |
|  |                               |  way  |  |
|  |                               |       |  |
|  |~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~    ---|  |
|  |                         |     |    |o |  |(office)
|  |                         |    X|    |f |  |
|  |                         -------    ---|  |
|  |                                       |  |
|  |        machines, treadmills, etc.     |  |
|  |                                       |  |
|  |                                       |  |
|  |--------------------------             |  |
|  |                         |             |  |
|  |                         |             |  |
|  |       free weights      |             |  |
|  |                         |             |  |
|  |                         |             |  |
|  -----------------------------------------  |
|                                             |

The track runs around the perimeter of a large, open upstairs room. (The corners are rounded. Sorry about the limitations of ASCII art.) The aerobics room is partitioned across the back (inside) and right by ceiling to floor walls, which help baffle the noise from the rest of the floor.

Recently Bally’s added some new equipment in the little enclave containing the X in the diagram: punching bags, including one of those dangly doodads would-be boxers train on. I’ve always assumed its main purpose is to help develop hand-eye coordination rather than strength. Ape has no more need for strength. I’m sure he could lift a rock the size of Ohio.

The dangly bag hangs beneath a platform designed to resonate. When anyone hits it even once, the noise thunders throughout the gym. If someone hits it moderately hard, it at first causes people to turn their heads, as if to say: “Whoa, what was that?” And if someone tries to use it seriously for the purpose it was intended, it causes a disturbing racket in a room already noisy with the din of treadmills, clanking weights, testosterone-enhanced grunting, and crude music coming over the excessively loud sound system. The bag goes Whackita-Whackita-Whackita-Whackita-Whackita-Whackita.

Ape quickly discovered the new bag. It’s become his favorite toy. Ape can hit it hard. Real hard — for a long time. When Ape hits the bag he gets utterly carried away with ecstasy. It goes WHACKITA-WHACKITA-WHACKITA-WHACKITA-WHACKITA-WHACKITA. Oooh my! is what I’m sure most of the people there are thinking when Ape starts up on the bag.

Last Saturday I spent most of a day at the gym knocking off a 40-mile run. By 2:30 p.m., I was getting pretty ragged out, but still had a couple of hours to go. Then Ape arrived for his daily workout.

On this day Ape decided that he needed to do some bag work. I’m not sure for what purpose. Suddenly it started up.

Whackita-Whackita-Whackita-Whackita-Whackita-Whackita! WHAT THE!? Oh yeah, it’s just him. Endure it. Time for some more.


Break time. For ten seconds.


Whew! It was pretty irritating already.

How long do you suppose this went on? Ten minutes? Guess again. Twenty? By thirty-five minutes I thought to myself: Say — he’s been at that a really long time! Is he ever going to quit?

Heck, he was just getting warmed up.

Every fifteen minutes or so he would take a break and go to a machine where he could pull on weights that swelled up his enormous biceps. I believe the main reason he stopped was to let a skinny teenager use the machine for a minute or so, a kid who would make it go plunka … plunka … … plunka-plunka … plunka. When he got tired of that, or else found it’s trickier than it looks, Ape would return for a little more bag work.


Okay, the answer to the question is: Ape beat on that infernal thing for a full HOUR AND A HALF!

Now, I don’t fault Ape completely for this disturbance. Bally’s put the bag there, loosely following the Field of Dreams dictum: If you hang it, they will punch it. Ape, as a paying club member, is as entitled to punch that bag for as long as he wants as I am to run around that track for nine hours at a time, as long as the resource is fairly shared with other customers.

But would you go up and ask Ape if it’s okay for you to work in with him?

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On Saying God

English: The Geneva Bible (1560): God's name I...

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Near the beginning of John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run the main character Rabbit and his wife Janet are having a minor tiff while Janet watches Mickey Mouse Club on TV. Chief adult Mousketeer Jimmy appears onscreen and the following takes place, beginning with Jimmy’s words:

“God doesn’t want a tree to be a waterfall or a flower to be a stone. God gives to each one of us a special talent.” Janice and Rabbit became unnaturally still. Both are Christians. God’s name makes them feel guilty.

While ignoring the mistake that “God” is not God’s name, I can nonetheless relate to what was portrayed here.

God was not talked about in my Christian home when I was growing up. Apparently my parents either thought it was inappropriate or they didn’t know what to say because they didn’t know anything about Him, so the safe thing was not to talk about Him at all. Such was the spiritual legacy I inherited.

For a while at age nine I had an interest in the Bible, from reading a Bible stories book for adults that my Grandmother owned. I even asked my parents to give me a real Bible of my own, a request that surprised them, but they happily complied. Because the real thing is more difficult to understand, and being given no instruction, my interest cooled quickly.

When I was in fourth grade I had to get up and read a paragraph from a book I had read in front of my class. It included some proverb that included words to the effect ‘… and God makes things grow.’ Because I was embarrassed to say “God” in front of my class — or in front of anyone — I read instead ‘… and some word I don’t know makes things grow.’ My teacher did a double-take, knowing I was an excellent reader and would at least make a stab at some unfamiliar word, and called me on it, but she did not know the content of what I was attempting to read. Somehow I bluffed my way through it without having to say “God,” but I was doubly embarrassed for being caught in what amounted to a lie.

By the time I was a teenager my father acquired the belief that it would be appropriate to say grace before dinner each night. Because he didn’t know what to say himself, nor did any of the rest of us, he used a book of flowery, sentimental and religious sounding prewritten prayers he’d found somewhere, and each night would read one of them out of the book, a longer or shorter one depending on how hungry everyone was. My three younger brothers and I, perhaps intuitively sensing the inappropriateness of reading written prayers, would titter and make jokes about my father’s newfound eccentricity.

Things changed later. In 1971 I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thereafter I became Prayin’ Sam for our family. Whenever I visited, and a need for one to pray would arise, because I was now viewed as religiously credentialed, especially once they learned that I was serving as an elder in my local congregation, with responsibilities of teaching and taking the lead in spiritual matters, I would be called upon to render the service.

But to use Jehovah’s name in prayer to some people who don’t know or recognize the Bible truth that Jehovah is in fact His real self-given name, that name being used as such in the original manuscripts nearly 7000 times, a Biblical fact that escaped them despite a lifetime of sporadic churchgoing, would be from their vantage point to pray to the God of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which most of my relatives clearly did not want to become.

But it is not necessary to address God by his personal name each and every time, any more than it is to call a person by name, there being any number of substitutions that can be made. So in such prayers I would generally address Jehovah as “God,” or as “Heavenly Father,” both entirely appropriate. Of course, in doing so I was nonetheless always praying to Jehovah all along. And when those in behalf of whom I was asked to pray said “Amen,” which they always did, they too thereby prayed to Jehovah.

Ha! Got ’em!

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The Rudest Devices

Picture of a Cell Phone

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On July 13th, I became the owner of my first cell phone. My resistance to having one in the past was not entirely for financial reasons, nor because I suffer from high-tech phobias, nor because I’m an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. I’ve been an internetting software engineer since the mid-eighties, usually up-to-date on things that are new.

The change came because my daughter, Cyra-Lea, recently got married and moved to Indiana, where her husband owns a business, and is firmly rooted. While we miss her, this move is compatible with what children do — grow up and leave home, sometimes leaving families behind. Having to adjust hardly makes us unique. But in our desire to keep in touch, we got in on Cyra-Lea and Eddie’s family plan, which for $15 a month per phone allows us to talk at any reasonable time, and also gives Suzy and me a means to communicate in emergencies. Our plan is to use it for little else so as not to eat into the kids’ monthly allotment of minutes.

Minutes? There’s a term that has taken on a whole new meaning in recent times. As in, “I can’t call you tonight because I’ve used up my minutes!” Ten years ago someone overhearing that conversation would have no idea what it was about.

Telephones in general, as interrupt-driven devices, are the rudest gizmos ever invented by mankind. I’m shocked by how enslaved people have become to them. The advent of cell phones has only served to increase their power over their owners. Users feel obliged to jump up and answer them no matter how important whatever else they are doing is.

When I worked for Motorola I would sometimes take advantage of this insight when I wanted to speak to my boss. If I went by his office and saw someone else was there, rather than stand outside and wait (visibly), or come back repeatedly, I would return to my office around the corner and call him on the phone. No matter who he was talking to, he would leap to answer the phone while the other guy had to wait. I got special pleasure out of doing that when he was busy talking to his own boss, a man I personally loathed. Meanwhile, my own problem would be resolved.

I have learned to ignore telephones. One day at Motorola my boss came by my office saying he’d tried to call me, and thought I was in. I’d forgotten that I unplugged my phone several days before when I was busy and didn’t want to be interrupted and never got around to reconnecting it.

Yesterday we were doing the work Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for, making return visits on people in their homes, which I sometimes refer to as “riding around in cars with girls,” because of the spectacularly unproductive use of time it can be when done in the disorderly hit-and-miss manner it often is in our area. We had five in our car. I was driving. The lady in the back seat was on her cell phone more or less constantly the whole morning. As she got in the car, she asked Suzy to describe Cyra-Lea’s new house, and as Suzy started to talk, the inquirer punched up a number on her cell phone and began to talk to someone else. Nice.

At one home, while two people went off to talk to someone, we waited behind. I took the opportunity to call Cyra-Lea. The conversation went something like this.

“Hi Cyra-Lea, whatcha doin’?”

“Hi Dad, I’m buried in writing thank-you notes. Why aren’t you in field service?”

“I am in field service, waiting in the car. In fact I’m doing something right now something that I hate!”

“You hate field service!?” She took the bait.

I replied in a clear voice. “Of course not. I love field service. The thing I’m doing is taking the opportunity while I’m waiting in the car to yack on a cell phone instead of conversing with the others in the car as though they aren’t worthy of my attention. I’ve always hated it when other people do that to me, leaving me to stare out the window and look at my watch twice a minute, so I thought I’d try it and see if it gives me some kind of buzz that I was missing in hopes of figuring out what the appeal is.”

Cyra-Lea cracked up on her end. I don’t know if I made my point with the others who heard me. I’m sure they were all too busy on their own phones.

A cell phone, properly used, can definitely be an advantage in simplifying communication.

On my flight to Indiana on July 13th, my flight out of Phoenix was delayed an hour so that I missed my connection. Having no cell phone, and not knowing my daughter’s cell number, I had no means of reaching Cyra-Lea to tell them my arrival would be delayed two hours. As a result they wasted two hours looking, and we all missed a meeting that night.

Yes, I should have written the number somewhere I could get it so I could call from a pay phone, but I’d never had a flight bumped before, so it never occurred to me to do so. The irony was that I had my new cell phone in hand later that evening, as it was waiting for me at Cyra-Lea’s house.

Upon returning, I arrived at the airport to find that my flight was canceled and that I would have to stay overnight in Louisville. Suzy had preceded my return by eight hours and was planning on picking me up at 10:30 p.m., when she had to be up at 4:45 a.m. the next day to get to work. Without easy access to a phone, it would have been tough getting in touch, as I would have had to find and dump endless quantities of change into a pay phone.

Regrettably, no protocol of etiquette regarding the proper use of cell phones has yet emerged, or if it has, I am unaware of it, and most people ignore it, as in most matters, the majority do whatever works best for them personally without regard for other people.

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Balanchine Festival, Ballet Arizona

Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso collaborated on P...

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Saturday night we attended a Ballet Arizona performance that was billed as part of a George Balanchine festival. While the music, the dancing, and the choreography were all exquisite, the experience was not without eyebrow-raising issues.

We bought tickets six months ago, when I learned that the program would be all ballets based on Stravinsky‘s music, a composer with whom Balanchine had a close friendship and affinity. I particularly looked forward to seeing Agon, one of my all-time favorite pieces of twentieth century music, a work that was a pivotal influence in my own composition in the year 1962, and one for which I own the score and have listened to over and over, but have never seen in a ballet production.

The Medium Is Not the Message

Imagine my disappointment when we received mail telling us that the programming had been changed substantially. While still a Balanchine festival, the music was no longer exclusively Stravinsky, but Mozart, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. Furthermore, though Agon was presented on another program in the series, we would not be seeing it.

My reaction was to write a letter of complaint to Ballet Arizona, pointing out that some people choose their performing arts events on the basis of content rather than medium. Such has always been true for me. When I choose a Phoenix Symphony concert, it is always because of the works they are performing, not just to hear the orchestra. It’s about the Beethoven or the Ives or the Mahler, not about the Phoenix Symphony, which sometimes sounds great but is nonetheless second rank orchestra even on a good day.

Imagine in comparison going to the theater, expecting to see Hamlet, and learning that they decided to present Harvey instead; or an exhibition of Monet replaced by paintings on black velvet; photographs by Annie Leibovitz substituted by photos of Princess Diana taken by paparazzi; a solo concert by Keith Jarrett stood in for by George Winston; a contemporary music concert of Elliott Carter compositions reprogrammed with somniferous musical blathering from Philip Glass; a reading from a new novel by Thomas Pynchon changed to Jacqueline Susann; the latest Woody Allen film screening Friday the 13th — Part 227 instead.

Ahem. I’ve digressed, but you get the point. Okay, admittedly Mozart and Tchaikovsky deserve better than to be compared with the likes of Jacqueline Suzann and Philip Glass. But their music has been played over and over — far too often, in fact. When such program machinations take place, I perceive the activity of the stuffed shirts who control the money in the form of substantial donations behind the scenes. When such things happen we see proposed summer festivals go from all Stravinsky to mostly Stravinsky to some Stravinsky, to maybe Stravinsky to who’s Stravinsky? What could have been extraordinary becomes merely pleasant but not innovative.

All the Discomforts of Home

My second disappointment was to arrive and find our seats squarely in the middle of row nine — some of the best in the house — but squarely in back of The Head from Hell, bolted to the body of a tall, broad man who sat squarely. Seeing over him was as hopeless as if I had been seated directly behind a pillar, and the seat next to me was not vacant.

During the first two ballets The Head listed somewhat to the right, which helped, but during the last work I missed the right third of the stage entirely except when I bobbed back and forth to see what was going on over there, which surely was annoying to the person in back of me.

Such things are nobody’s fault. They just happen, though it could be noted that in a sports stadium people never have obstructed views because of the steeper inclines of the seating sections. Given that they just spent a jillion quadrillion dollars rebuilding Symphony Hall to make it not much better than it was less than a year ago, I wasn’t pleased to have to strain to see the program because of a Goliath in front of me.

Finally, it was uncomfortably warm in the theater. I’m not the sort of person who notices small variations in the environment. But the high temperature in Phoenix was 111.9 during the day, it was still 104 when we left the performance at 8:30, and it was flat out too danged hot in there during the performance. An attendant told Suzy that the dancers like it warm. Well whoop dee doo. What about their gasping audience, which is not leaping around the concert hall wearing tights? Word must have spread, because during the third work the temperature dropped into the reasonable range.

Applause Protocols

Something that disturbed me throughout the performance was far too easily provoked applause.

There is a social protocol regarding when to applaud that people who regularly attend performing arts events readily learn. It differs depending on the medium.

At a rock concert the background noise, which includes constant bedlam and screaming, is high, but is usually drowned out by the deafening music, so it doesn’t matter when the audience stands, dances in the aisles, and sings along. This is hardly ever done at a Schubert song cycle recital.

In a jazz performance it is usually considered acceptable to applaud following an improvised solo, even though the music continues. Even at the opera it has long been an accepted tradition to applaud a soloist at the conclusion of an aria or soliloquy. Generally the conductor will halt the performance until it subsides. But imagine the impression that would be made if the tenor hit and held his high C and the audience went into a wild frenzy before he concluded his phrase.

In contrast, in the era of my own lifetime it has been considered inappropriate to applaud during the pauses in multi-movement compositions at classical music concerts, because the entire work is considered as a single entity. Mendelssohn hated so much the lack of sophistication in this regard on the part of audiences in his day that he wrote concertos in such a way that the first movements segued directly into the slow movement without interruption, so the audience would be unable to applaud. Slow movements take care of themselves. To applaud following a serene Adagio would be like applauding a prayer in church. (Though I hear nowadays this would not be unusual.)

Imagine instead what impression would be made if the audience were to break into cheering following each technically challenging passage. The pianist, grinding out an impossibly difficult arpeggio within some tired, overplayed concerto gets to the end of it to be met by hoots of: “Ooooh baby, PLAY that thing!!” It just wouldn’t be right.

So then, what is the currently acceptable Right Thing to Do at a ballet performance? What took place on Saturday night — on the part of others, not by me — revises significantly my memories of past ballet performances, prompting me to believe that things must have changed.

I was dismayed to find the audience to be applause happy. Every time a ballerina would catapult across the stage, going bouncety-bounce, twirly-twirl, deedly-deedly, kerthump, the audience broke into wild applause. The first time it happened I was astonished, and felt mildly embarrassed to be a part of such an unsophisticated audience — sitting among a bunch of hicks in suits. But it happened throughout the evening, and I was forced to conclude that this behavior has become the norm.

I asked myself: “What is this, the roller derby? The circus? Ted Mack Amateur Hour? An Olympic skating competition, where each triple toe loop is vociferously approved?” Where was the art? What had become of the sense of decorum, of the understanding of what was actually taking place on the stage, the unfolding of poetry composed in human movement?

To acknowledge a pleasing performance is a fine gesture, but the timing must be dictated by the context, which in the case of ballet should be determined largely by the structure and flow of the music, not by the astonishing physical trickery of the dancers.

The Mozart Divertimento No. 15, performed first, is a suite of five movements, the second being a longer movement consisting of a theme and variations. In a contemporary concert performance one would applaud only after the end of all five movements. A divertimento, as the name implies, is a diversion, a less formal piece than a symphony or sonata, so perhaps in Mozart’s day it was appropriate to applaud between movements.

Used as the background for ballet, it seems somewhat acceptable to me to applaud at musical pause points — between movements, possibly even between variations in the second movement. But certainly not following every Big Jump. To do so interrupts not only the music, but also the ballet, which must go on without interruption.

Saturday there was some applause at some spectacularly inappropriate moments. In music there is what is called a I-6/4 (pronounced one-six-four) chord, a tonic (main key) chord in second inversion. In the classical era a harmonic progression into such a chord typically was the gateway to a cadenza, which means cadence, a harmonic formula that ends in a resolution back to the main key; it would be followed by an opportunity for a soloist to enjoy a truly self-indulgent moment in the spotlight. Cadenzas are invariably crowd pleasers because of their pyrotechnics, but in the hands of lesser composers, of questionable musical validity. But that’s another discussion.

My point is that it is not the I-6/4 chord introducing the cadenza that reaps audience ecstasy, but what follows. Think: “Shave and a haircut —” (Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap …) “Two bits!” (More of the same.)

Yet such is exactly the point at which the audience applauded on Saturday night — a moment that was followed by a brief violin cadenza, although the containing work was not in concerto form. I’ve belabored the point, but my conclusion is: Well, that was just really a dumb and imperceptive thing for them to do.

But it got worse: We even encountered wild, enthusiastic applause on a fermataed diminished seven chord.

If you don’t understand all the musical explanation here, never mind. Trust me — these are not proper moments to applaud a ballet performance. But that’s what they did.

More Observations

During the first intermission I noted that the audience was about three to one female, a fact that I personally enjoyed. Many of the ladies were young and trim, probably including many who had taken dance lessons themselves and therefore had cultivated a degree of appreciation for the art form.

One thing that has always puzzled me about dance is why such a disproportionate number of male dancers are gay. One would think that being a male ballet dancer would be a good way to pick up babes for someone who is inclined to do so. (Not that I’m recommending it!) Female dancers are usually gorgeous, always in fabulous shape, athletic, artistic, and highly disciplined, and soloists work together with their male counterparts in a state of constant physical contact. Yet the ladies tend to find themselves hurled through the air by leaping sweeties in tights with bulging codpieces.

I’ll add the caveat that of course there are always obvious exceptions, and that I know absolutely nothing whatever personally about any of the male dancers associated with Ballet Arizona. For all I know they all shoot pool and watch NASCAR after hours.

Oh dear, I’ve digressed again.

Say — What About Those Ballets, Anyhow?

My personal preference in dance is for modern and contemporary dance — Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailee, Twyla Tharpe, Merce Cunningham, and others — over classical ballet. George Ballanchine bridged the gap between eras, revolutionizing the world of ballet, with some of the most poetic expressions in movement I have ever seen. His work suits my taste magnificently, and to my eye Saturday’s performance was flawlessly performed by Ballet Arizona.

I have mentioned already Divertimento No. 15, set to Mozart’s music, largely an ensemble piece with relatively little solo dancing.

The concluding work was Serenade, based on the work of that name for string orchestra by Tchaikovsky, a lovely piece, particularly in its grandly dramatic opening and closing bookends.

By far the highlight of the program was Apollo, with music by Igor Stravinsky, written and choreographed in 1928, a transitional period for Stravinsky, after the big ballets that made him both famous and notorious in his earlier years, and before he found neoclassicism, but on his way there. According to a quote in the program from Balanchine himself Apollo also represented an important change for him. “Apollo I look back on as the turning point of my life …”

Apollo is a magnificently subdued work of restraint, using only seven dancers, only one male, in the title role. The introduction was danced from a seated position atop a high staircase by a lone woman. Most of the remaining sequences were performed by Apollo and three female partners representing the Muses Terpsichore, Polyhmnia, and Calliope.

To describe motion is beyond my journalistic ability, so I won’t attempt to do so. The overall effect was deeply moving, responded to with an appropriately timed standing ovation on the part of the audience, and was worth the price of admission all by itself.

My only gripe is still that I missed seeing Agon.

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Conquering the Voice

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Whenever I go to the gym for a run there is a period of time between when I quit working for the day and when I arrive, during which my mind engages in relatively unproductive thought. It provides ample time to dwell on negatives, as I rapidly begin to unravel for the day. Upon pulling into the parking lot, I’ll turn off the car engine, put my head on the steering wheel, sigh deeply, wish I could take a nap, and as I review the facts of my life, a voice whispers into my ear all the reasons I should turn around and go back home.

In the span of a minute all the worries, the cares, the frustrations, the pain, and the crushing agony of daily life envelop me and proceed to suck all the wanna out of me. I am reminded that no matter what it is that I choose to be doing at any given time, there is also something else that I could and should be doing; at that time running seems to be of comparative insignificance.

Then I remember that years ago I made a deliberate decision. As difficult as working out can be some days, I’ve promised myself to opt for minor discomfort on the road or track, daily muscle pain, and tiredness over doctor bills, continual day-to-day illness and early death.

There are no guarantees it will work out that way, but the odds for better physical and emotional health and enjoyment of life are far better for one who exercises faithfully than for one who does not. So far doing so has brought me nothing but benefits, so why should I stop or even pause?

“Get behind me, you cursèd unmentionable orifice!” I say to the voice. Whereupon I drag my discouraged vessel of life from the car — between May and October stepping into oppressive heat — pull my gym bag from the trunk, and slowly drag my carcass toward the building, calulating ways I can cut today’s workout short, usually with plans to make up the effort Tomorrow.

Anywhere from forty-five minutes to several hours later I reemerge from the building a different person. In most cases I have conquered the voice, I feel wonderful, and am ready to tackle whatever may come for the rest of the day.

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Non-Utilitarian Apparel

Men's formal clothing, black and white tuxedos.

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There is a certain arbitrariness born of tradition regarding what is considered dressy attire. Utilitarian wear is not the first principle of design.

There is nothing intrinsically praiseworthy from a practical standpoint about tying a piece of cloth around one’s neck that gets in the way. They don’t call it a tie for nothing. It’s a form of restraint. A necktie is a symbol of repression. Nor is there anything praiseworthy about wearing a coat either indoors or out in a city where the daily temperature often reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, there is nothing commendable about women who wear high heels that throw their bodies out of alignment, forcing them to walk more slowly, and risking spinal and ankle injuries.

Men are considered to be “dignified” when they wear suits and neckties because this is what the business community wears. The implied assumption is that the business community is considered dignified, on the whole a group to be looked up to as a standards setter. The reality is much to the contrary; it is mostly those who strive to become a part of that community who narcissisticly confer that status upon themselves, and because they come to be the ruling class in society, impose it on others.

Jehovah’s Witness men (of which I am one) are strongly urged to conform to this standard of appearance. Why we are required to imitate the appearance of greedy sleazebags who rule a class of individuals that God has promised to destroy is an amusing question that has never been adequately justified to my own satisfaction.

If we are to imitate a class of individuals, why not choose a class more worthy of the honor, such as college professors, or professionals?

The efforts we make in our widely known work of visiting people at their homes would certainly improve both in quality and quantity if, when engaged in the work, we would wear clothing that is appropriate to the conditions rather than that which causes people who already regard us as flakes to conclude that we are also unreasonable.

Such clothing can still be regarded as attractive rather than slovenly, in addition to being practical. In the hot months in Phoenix standard items of apparel might include dressy walking shoes rather than formal dress shoes, shorts rather than long pants, moisture wicking, short sleeve, collarless shirts, and hats for head protection. But that’s not what we wear.

Nonetheless, the standards are what they are, and are unlikely to change.

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Giving Awards

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  The Lords team...

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Mankind is inextricably addicted to the ceremonious giving of awards.

When I was a Boy Scout, our troop had a pancake making contest. I took it seriously, thinking the intent was to make the finest-looking stack of pancakes possible. Some of the other boys brought in pancakes that were weird colors and decorated with all manner of doodads.

I chose to submit a single buckwheat pancake, one which covered the entire plate, and was perfection in its evenly distributed dark brownness and texture. I arrived optimistic about my chances for first place, for as a pancake my entry exemplified perfection.

When they announced the awards, mine was the first to be mentioned: It won the title “Heavyweight Champion.” I thought that was a might flippant for such a fine specimen of pancakehood, but I was initially gratified to receive the honor.

My delight was only momentary, however, as thereafter the scoutmaster began giving awards to the ones that looked like gangrenous organs, and those with flags attached. It didn’t take long to realize that every pancake-maker was getting an award, which meant that my challenge had not been a contest at all, but simply an exercise in pancake making. I should have felt gratified by the knowledge that I’d done a good job of nurturing a useful skill. Instead I was ticked off.

At the same time I learned a lesson: The more awards you give out, the more it becomes like giving awards to nobody.

Whereas it’s a fine thing to acknowledge another person’s worthy accomplishments, the act of award giving is prone to becoming a shallow act of feel-good psychology, something akin to giving a hug. The Oscars are a prime example of that truth. Another is giving deeper and deeper awards to increasingly narrow age groups at races, something seen frequently at amateur sports events.

Not long ago a New Yorker cartoon illustrated my point. A little boy in a sports uniform walks in carrying an elaborately fancy trophy as tall as he is, and announces to his bewildered father: “We lost.”

Since the best I’ve ever done in a race with more than 100 people in it is about the seventieth percentile of my age group, I’ve learned to live with this reality. I am unlikely ever to earn hardware, no matter how far down they go, until the day I manage to outlive all the other competition. But I would rather get an award that represents a significant accomplishment, something I earned, than one which seems more like an entitlement.

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Morons Need Jobs Too!

3.5" floppy disks

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To each person his own job is or becomes important. Morons need jobs, too. Give them their space; let them do their work.

When the average joe looks for a job, his primary objective is usually to find an occupation that will bring in enough money to pay the bills. Other considerations become secondary to that. If he can find something to do that he believes is important; wants to do; is trained for; puts him in an agreeable work environment; allows him to cultivate a measure of satisfaction in the act doing it; and also pays more than the minimum required by the job seeker; then those gains are all added benefits. But without sufficient money, other compensations are secondary. This is why many talented artists, musicians, and actors are sometimes seen working at mundane jobs.

On occasion a person gets a job that to most people seems stupid and purposeless. In order to maintain one’s own sanity and sense of worth, the worker adopts or invents the employer’s supposed sense of importance to it.

One example of that is the involuntary soldier, one who is impressed into service to fight, and risk and possibly give up his life for a cause that someone else in power believes in, but has found a convenient way to circumvent the need to fight for himself by convincing or forcing others to do it for him, even at the risk or cost of that other person’s life. How often we will hear soldiers in the field sing the praises of the flimsy causes they have been sent to do battle over, as though they thought of doing so themselves.

When I worked at Motorla we had POPI inspectors. POPI (which I pronounced “poopy”) stood for Protect Our Proprietary Information, a slogan that represented a whole well-intended system by means of which the corporation went to extraordinary lengths to prevent Bad Guys from stealing company technical information, including much that even the most jaded spy wouldn’t give a toot about.

Much rigamarole was involved, including the need to mark printed documents with ominous classifications, keep all cubicle drawers locked when we were gone, including those that contained nothing but pencils and paper clips, screen lock programs active, and even removable media such as floppies and tapes out of drives and in locked cabinets.

On occasion official POPI inspectors would show up at 4:00am, when theoretically no one would be there, to check each cubicle for violations. My own office was located in the remotest part of a secure building that was as far from the guarded gates as it was possible to be. Nobody was ever seen in that area who did not belong there. Furthermore, there was absolutely nothing in my cubicle of any interest to anyone, even to me. Nonetheless, I arrived one morning to find a pink citation for leaving a blank floppy disk in a computer that was not plugged in and had not been turned on in at least a year.

I had to wonder about the sense of pride and accomplishment it must have brought to that POPI inspector for having made such an important find. Here was a case of a man (possibly a woman, but let’s assume otherwise) doing his job. Why? Because he seriously believed that ferreting out such hideous violations was important to the good of Motorola, the country, the world, and the universe? Excuse me while I gag. He did it because it was a job, probably the only one he could get within the company, which was at that time in a business death spiral, and because he was probably too much of a moron to do much of anything that was actually important.

Ironically, there was a co-worker in my department who could not sleep because of a back problem; he lived less than five minutes from work, and who would get up daily sometime after 3:00am, and would always be there between 4:00—5:00am. Imagine the surprise of the POPI inspectors upon entering that office and finding someone there at that hour. (It happened.)

If there was ever a stupid job, that was one, but someone made at least a part of his living carrying out those inspections at the direction of persons who certainly would never do them themselves. And because a man’s job is his livelihood and often a measure of his self worth, he took it seriously and carried it out as if the future salvation of mankind depended on it.

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Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman — Arizona Opera

The last scene of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman...

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Last night was the first time in 62 years of musical life that I ever attended a live production of a Wagner opera. At that rate I’ll be 124 before I see my next one. I can wait.

The event du jour was The Flying Dutchman, one of Wagner’s earliest works. The music was listenable, the singers were real loud — a prerequisite for singing Wagner, the orchestra played well, meaning the first horn player didn’t crack too many high notes, and the sets were fabulous.

What was the plot? I’m not really sure. Something about a sailor condemned to ride around in a boat until he could find a faithful wife, which would somehow bring him salvation. It should be noted that it doesn’t always work out that way, including in Wagner’s own case. Theoretically this was based on something that was considered akin to slapstick comedy in its day, but Wagner had a way of putting a morosely serious spin on things.

‘Nuff said.

At a performance time of three hours, Dutchman weighs in as one of Wagner’s shorter works. So what does one do in a theater seat for that long? Obviously it’s not possible to concentrate on Wagner for that long, so I whiled away the time writing Wagner jokes.

Q: What’s the difference between a Wagnerian soprano and a police siren?
A: Vibrato.

Q: What do you get when you cross a Wagnerian soprano with a Mack truck?
A: Another Wagnerian soprano.

Q: What words about Wagner will you never hear?
A: That’s the Wagner lover’s yarmulke.

Q: What do you call all the scores to the Ring Cycle at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start.

Q: What did the Wagner lovers do before heading off for a performance of a Wagner opera?
A: Shut off their water, gas, and electricity, canceled their magazine subscriptions, had the post office hold their mail, got their affairs in order, and left their children at an orphanage.

Q: What is Armageddon?
A: The basis for an amusing Wagner comedy.

Q: Who are Moe, Curly, and Larry?
A: Actors from whom Wagner derived an epic drama about life, death, love, salvation, and universal truth. (He called it Parsifal.)

But seriously, folks …

The production was excellent, and the singers some of the best the Arizona Opera has ever hired, particularly the soprano, who has a towering yet beautiful voice, and is not built like a weightlifter, as many Wagnerian sopranos are. In fact she’s kind of a babe.

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The Most Secure Place in the World

Many adventure and sci-fi movies show scenes of top secret highly secure fortresses surrounded by armed guards and protected by more hi-tech gear than the Pentagon can afford. Each of these movies leaves you convinced that there couldn’t possibly be a more important place in the world.

What might be found in the Most Secret Secure Place in the ultimate sci-fi adventure movie of all times? All of the following:

  • The ark of the covenant, with Moses’ stone tablets.
  • The real location for all the gold most people assume is in Fort Knox.
  • Vials of all the most deadly viruses ever known, including smallpox.
  • Gallons of the most destructive chemical weapons ever created.
  • The world’s largest stockpile of weapons grade plutonium.
  • The files of the CIA.
  • The guy who really shot Kennedy.
  • Aliens from numerous galaxies outside the Milky Way.
  • Elvis.
  • Jimmy Hoffa.
  • Madeline Murray O’Hare.
  • Jesus Christ’s high school graduation picture.
  • A stone carved out of a mountain with the date that Armageddon will take place engraved on it.
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Music As Wallpaper


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Music today has become like wallpaper — part of the ambience. Hardly anyone ever just listens to it any more, unless it’s to get up and dance.

As a child I became accumstomed to simply listening to music, allowing it to take over my full attention. Even when I was little, I would sit on the floor and listen attentively as my father practiced, sometimes for long periods of time. To some people nothing is more boring than listen to a musician woodshedding, but I enjoyed it.

We didn’t have a record player during my youngest years. I no longer remember exactly when my father went out and bought a “hi fi”, but by that time 33 1/3 LPs were common, a medium that was appropriate for the distribution of classical music, and much superior to the 78 RPM records that had become popular. Meanwhile, pop music came to be distributed with one song on each side of a 45 RPM record. I never owned more then a couple of those. I remember buying “Sixteen Tons” by Tennesee Ernie Ford on a 45 single, and listening to it many times. It was the very first record I ever bought with my own money.

In those days there was always the radio. Even then classical music broadcasts were infrequent, but whenever they were on, is was an occasion for my father to sit in a chair and listen attentively, so that’s what I did, too. Before long I became a radio addict. Our radio was not portable. (They didn’t have portable radios yet.) Our family owned only one, and when it was on, I sat right next to it and listened to it, for at least a couple of hours every night. I sat so close I could touch it, and loved the warm smell of the vacuum tube circuitry burning inside of it. I knew all the popular programs, the schedule, and what stations they were on, and could slip easily from one to the other, even there was no a mechanism to preset favorite stations. I had to turn the dial and “tune it in,” adjusting it back and forth until the signal was the clearest.

When I started to learn music, it was already my habit to sit and listen attentively to it when it was playing. There was hardly anything to do that I enjoyed more. To this day my preferred mode of listening is with a score in my lap, because I don’t want to miss any details, and I’m deeply interested in knowing how composers accomplished what they did. I suppose that’s why I became a composer myself.

Today few people listen to the radio except as background noise. We listen to talk and news shows in the car when commuting because it saves what would otherwise be wasted time, enabling us to catch up on what’s going on in the world when we are held captive in traffic, making it less urgent that we do so on or or to read a newspaper, or God forbid, by having to watch it on the evening news, when TV news has become a joke.

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How Many Miles Per Whatever?

A ultramarathoner running the 32 Mile Wyoming ...

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Non-runners will ask runners: “How many miles per unit of time du jour do you run?”

If the inquirer is a fitness oriented type who sees me at the gym frequently, he may be the sort of person who assumes that I follow a periodic routine, and that I run pretty much the same amount every time I go out. The most frequent expectation is that I run so much per day. My usual quick reply is that most runners track it by weeks and months, not by days. The “per” designation is just a handle by means of which one may discuss averages, which themselves may or may not be meaningful.

My own routine is surely not much different from most thoughtful runners. I record all pedestrian miles covered while wearing running clothes for the purpose of “working out” on a daily basis, often in miles to two decimal places when running a known measured route, whether I’m going for a short walk or a long run or some combination thereof. A training session for me can be anything from one easy mile to over forty. The distance almost always predetermined, usually at least days and sometimes weeks in advance.

In turn, those daily accumulations add up to seven-day weeks. In my log I record not only the week as measured from Sunday to Saturday, but each day I calculate a new sliding total of the last seven days, including on rest days. That number can be a good predictor of how well I might expect to do the next time out.

Weeks add up to months. For a while I also calculated the past month’s sliding total as 30 days or 31 days, until it dawned on me that a month varies in numbers of days, and activity tends to cycle on a weekly basis, which throws variables into the number. Therefore I changed sometime last year to adding total mileage for the past 28 days on a daily basis regardless of the number of days in the current month —g four weeks, which is constant, and makes more sense as a guide to “how I’m doing” as far as recent mileage. So while my last 28 days might say, for instance, 180 miles, the month total of 30 or 31 days may wind up as 200 or more. That’s okay.

Week and month totals tend to build and diminish over the course of a year, depending on complex variables including weather, upcoming races, and explicit training goals. I’ll usually set a goal mileage for a month on the first of each month, using those factors, along with recent experience as a guide, and then will rough out the weeks, particularly the long runs so as to hit somewhere near that goal.

Keeping track of detailed training data is valuable, more so than having some vague notion about how much I’m running, which would likely result in not running enough to reach ultrasized goals. More data is better than less data in a sport where a scientific approach can give a person with minimal intrinsic skills (me) a greater advantage than a casual approach. So that’s how I measure it.

As noted, other people will ask about my running, and it helps to have a way to discuss it. Because I train an unusual amount on an indoor track at a gym, there are quite a few people who see me on a regular basis, and know that I sometimes run fairly long mileage there. It’s not unusual for someone to come up and ask: “How much do you run every day?” There is no answer to that question if taken literally that is both easy and correct. I could do a mental calculation in the knowledge that this past week I ran 48 miles, so could say “about seven”, when the real answer is that I did a couple of short runs, a 10-miler, took a couple of days off, and ran 25 on Saturday. Or I could say “about 40-50 miles a week”, or I could say so many miles per month. But when you’re flying by someone who asks the question in passing, that’s not the time to get into a big discussion or to present a lecture on how runners train.

In January I passed on the track an older gentleman I’ve never stopped to talk to who asked me, “How did you do on your last marathon?” The last race I’d run was Across the Years. I don’t know how he knew that I had been in a race recently. I responded quickly: “Which one?” He scrambled for an answer: “Any one.” I said “A hundred and forty-two miles!” as I glided out of conversation range, knowing he wouldn’t have a clue what I was referring to. He shouted back, “Very good!” in a voice that clearly indicated he was confused and didn’t understand my answer.

Still, I’m always happy to discuss this topic in any amount of detail with persons who are really interested and have the time. It makes little difference how one describes his routine. It is what it is.

A rose is a rose is a rose. — Gertrude Stein

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A Simple Life

The Satisfaction with Life Index. Blue through...

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Many people stumble along the path from birth to death with colossal holes in their lives.

They never read. How can a person know anything if he never, ever reads?

They never think.

They never work out.

They never learn to experience music or art or drama and sometimes cultivate a distaste for artistic beauty.

They are immune to spirituality, and rarely give God or questions about the meaning of life a thought.

The puzzling thing is that it’s not necessary to be complete in all these respects in order to create an illusion of happiness. Many people die happy and satisfied having never done much of anything.

When you think about it, who of us really knows or understands much at all about anything? Those who take the trouble to investigate the world around them learn above all that they are ignorant and haven’t a clue; that notion troubles them and tarnishes their happiness.

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Handel’s Semele — Arizona Opera Company

Georg Friedrich Händel

Cover of Georg Friedrich Händel

On January 30th Suzy and I attended the Arizona Opera Company’s performance of Semele by Handel. Some musicologists classify it as a “secular oratorio” rather than an opera, but all presentations of it I’ve found listed by Google have been completely staged — by opera companies — so it makes little difference what label one hangs on it. Remarkably, this was the very first baroque opera ever staged by AOC in its 35-year history. I do hope they do more of it — particularly more Handel; I’d also be happy to see some Monteverdi.

Upon arriving, I brought a lifetime streak to an end: we were late! Normally we leave home about 6:30-6:35 for a 7:30 performance, which almost always gets us through the front doors at Symphony Hall at about 7:05, with plenty of time to have a coffee and cookie, chat, look at the pretty dressed-up ladies and stuffed shirts, and prepare to be put to sleep soon.

On our journey we encountered an accident snarl on the I-10. It was bumper-to-bumper from there all the way to the parking lot. When we walked in they were playing the last measures of the overture. The decrepit volunteer ushers were whispering “There’s still time to be seated!” — barely. They stuck us in the back row, which I guess is a penalty box they normally keep open for latecomers. At least it was roomy. The sound and view were naturally somewhat muffled from there, though not terrible. So it was from there that we saw the entire first act. If we had been fifteen seconds later we would have watched it on plasma TV screens in the lobby.

It was the first time in my memory of a lifetime of concertgoing that I was ever late to a performance event. (I’m not counting performances at Smith Music Hall while in music school that I may have wandered into during mid-performance, having not previously committed myself to going. I’ll add that during my six years in Urbana I attended at least eighty percent of what was presented at Smith Hall — probably more.) Added to the fact that I had a bad experience that morning which upset me, I was disappointed to break my lifetime perfect record of on-timeness, so I arrived in a somewhat foul mood.

Naturally, the musicians used modern instruments, no doubt for a lack of appropriate gear and specialist performers, because after all, this was another performance by the AOC using their standard orchestra members; but the program said the singers followed eighteenth century vocal practice rigorously. It certainly sounded so to my ears.

The producers chose to present the work, not in traditional baroque fashion, but with twentieth century pop art staging. The first set consisted of five full-color giant female eyeball paintings hung high over the stage, reminiscent of Andy Warhol, with a set of stark black and white striped furniture. (I presumed the eyeball gender because of the makeup, though in 2006 such conclusions are by no means true.)

“Say what!?” I said to myself.

When a slight guy appeared in Ivy League garb, replete with sweater draped around the shoulders, sleeves tied in front, and a tennis racquet, and began flitting around the stage while singing the countertenor (falsetto) role, which at first, not knowing the plot, I mistook as an effort to portray him as gay as can be, I rolled my eyes, sat back in my chair, and proceeded to make a concerted and successful effort to fall asleep, convinced that the producers had lost their collective mind. It turns out he was scheduled to marry the title character — in the end he fell in love with and married her sister instead.

For readers who may not be aware, a countertenor is a male singer who sings in the female range, usually in falsetto. This may be accomplished in modern times through extensive training first as a baritone or tenor, graduating to specialization in the upper voice. In previous times, when such voices were valued by the Roman Catholic Church, and before it was outlawed, potential countertenors were given surgical help in their youth by means of a procedure that did not involve the vocal chords.

I’m sorry I fell asleep, though given my tiredness after my usual Saturday afternoon long run, a few moments of shuteye was inevitable.

By the end of the first act I started to come around, by which time I began to realize — Oh, this thing is a comedy! It’s supposed to be funny. Meanwhile I’d dozed through some undoubtedly superlative music.

There were two intermissions. After the first act we moved to our much better usual seats. From the second act on, refreshed by my nap, I was able to pay proper attention.

The vocalists were by and large excellent, including the countertenor, who did not reappear until the last half of the third act. They did sound much like traditional opera singers rather than baroque specialists, other than the countertenor, who of course is a specialist, because there is virtually no other literature for countertenors, but they sang clean as a whistle.

The cast of characters numbered six. The title role went to a soprano with astonishing virtuosity. Some of the most technically demanding music ever written for singers — most fun to listen to — is to be found in the showy coloratura passages of Handel. In fact, Getting to hear singers showing off is probably what most people like to hear most in Handel’s operas and oratorios. The questions that invariably present themselves include: how fast will they go, can this singer cut it, hit most of the notes, mostly in tune, keep up with the pace of the orchestra, and not run out of breath or appear to be left gasping for breath in the next eight bars before he or she has a chance to inhale again? In this regard I’m reminded of the challenges of the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, except that in the latter they also have to deal with mind-bogglingly complex and tongue-twisting lyrics.[1]

[1] “I am the very model of a modern major general,

I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical,
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical. …
I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.”


The only singer I had reservations about was the bass, the father of the title character. It’s one thing for a soprano to rattle through those long melismas under a cushion of orchestral backing, but to make it sound clearly in the bass range is technically almost impossible — as was demonstrated by this night’s performer. He did perform one amusing and well-acted aria, though — a slower number, in which he was supposed to be the god of sleep trying to wake up, wherein he kept falling back over on his side, and letting his voice continue to drop another half another half-octave below what was written.

By far the best singer to my ears was the sister of the title character, a contralto by my estimation of nearly 300 pounds who shook the walls when she sang, manifested total control and freedom, breathtaking technique, acted superbly, and turned out to be quite the comic character. Upon accepting applause at the end, the enthusiastic cheers earned for her from the audience indicated that the masses in attendance agreed with my own assessment.

As I got into the performance I began to enjoy some of the humorous touches. One of the characters, the tenor who played Zeus, being a god, had the ability to make funny things happen at the wave of a hand, as couches would move into position, and needed objects would appear. The stage was tended by a group of five non-singing tuxedoed men, who brought things in and out, including cotton cloud bedecked scaffolding on wheels with a couch on top from whence various gods and goddesses sang.

In one aria Zeus sang to Semele and desired to give her some flowers, whereupon an attendant walked in with an enormous bouquet of roses, but while continuing to sing to unaware Semele, Zeus made a gesture indicating something bigger, whereupon the attendants wheeled in six 10-foot-tall ultracloseup paintings of roses filling the entire stage, making a most impressive backdrop.

In another, Semele has magically become transformed in such a way that when she looks at herself in a tiny mirror she no longer sees herself as a mere mortal, but as a goddess. She is so impressed with herself she can’t get over it, and begins singing an aria that begins with the lyrics that go

Myself I shall adore,
If I persist in gazing.
No object sure before
Was ever half so pleasing.

which goes on and on to ridiculous lengths with no other lyrics added. Each time she launches into the amusing key phrase, beginning yet another session of self-adulation, another attendant walks in with a bigger mirror than before. In the background, the silent sister, who patiently endures it for the first several times (it was she who set the whole thing up in order to make Semele think she was a goddess and suitable match for Zeus, so she could capture the attention of the countertenor for herself), eventually started rolling her eyes, and eventually prostrated herself flat on the couch in exasperation. Surely this over the top immodesty must have been viewed as hysterically funny in Handel’s day as well.

Semele, being mortal, could not really ever “unite” with Zeus, because it would destroy her, and Zeus knew it, but pursued it anyhow. He decides to go through with the unitification, but proclaims that he will use his lowest powered lightning bolt to incinerate her. At the critical time, first Semele disappears behind a screen, while making seductive gestures toward Zeus, following which Zeus shrugs his shoulders and joins her behind the screen. There is an enormous and comical flash of lightning and explosion, the screen is lifted, and Zeus is alone, but there is a large cloud of smoke where Semele supposedly had been happily uniting with Zeus. More yucks.

In another scene (I’m telling these things out of sequence), a refrigerator was wheeled out and left in the background. As each character entered, including the stage hands, he or she would go to the refrigerator and open the top compartment, which was stocked to bursting with yogurt cups. The character would take one and carry out the rest of the scene while spooning yogurt. In another scene later on, with the refrigerator still on stage, Zeus comes out to sing to Semele, and opens the bottom half to find it conveniently bursting with champagne bottles.

Other lyrics provoked titters from a 21st century audience, particularly the aria with the opening (oft-repeated) line, in anticipation of Semele’s upcoming marriage:

Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare,
Love already his has lighted!

Hmmm. I wonder how many persons are aware that Hymen was the torch-bearing god of marriage in Greek mythology, the son of Apollo and a muse? I have to wonder if Handel himself saw the saucy double entendre that was implied?

By the conclusion of the opera, I was enjoying myself enormously. As the third act was about to begin I turned and said to Suzy: “This opera needs a chorus!” Handel wrote some of the greatest choral music ever written, yet this opera consisted to that point entirely of a sequence of solo arias (with a couple of duets), separated by mercifully short recitatives. Handel was an enormously popular and successful composer in his day, and clearly knew which side of the paper his check was written on, so I surmised maybe there would be a chorus in the third act. Georgie did not disappoint, as the Finale consisted of a glorious work sung by the entire cast (sans stage hands, who were nonetheless on stage). Okay, so a sextet, not a chorus, but with six parts rather than four, just as good — and one of the best I’ve ever heard from Handel a well. It was shorter than I would have liked. In compatibility with our desire to see happy endings in comedies, the lyrics, Still saucy by their licentiously amoral implications, go:

Happy, happy shall we be,
Free from care, from sorrow free.
Guiltless pleasures we’ll enjoy,
Virtuous love will never cloy;
All that’s good and just we’ll prove,
And Bacchus crown the joys of love.

In the end, judging by the audience’s warm applause, a good time was had by all, and we left smiling and laughing.

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Boredom Redux

Often I’ve claimed that I never get bored while running. I’ll stick to that claim, with a minor rider. Sometimes preoccupation with something else can interfere with whatever task we are presently performing, such that we do it less well, or quit it entirely. This postulate applies particularly well to running.

This week I’ve had decent runs so far, including a five-mile tempo run Tuesday, a better than expected 10.25 yesterday, and 7.05 today.

The only thing wrong is that I scheduled ten miles for today, not seven. I was doing just fine, was enjoying myself, and would have had no physical problem doing the last three miles. So why did I stop?

Recently a flood of important matters has filled my mind: searching for re-employment once again; preparing for upcoming interviews with two big companies, both scheduled for next Monday; my wife and I have been busy rolling all our material assets into a trust and making a careful evaluation of where we’re at; my daughter is getting married in June and will be moving to Indiana, and meanwhile has just sold her house and moved back in with us until then; working to complete a music project, other than when I licensed the distribution rights to my two CDs for commercial distribution, the first musical work I’ve gotten paid for in 23 years; and yesterday we had an Across the Years race committee meeting at our house, and work has begun in earnest to prepare things for this year’s races. These and a host of other matters, includine the need to continue to keep up with all the usual day-to-day matters of life, continue to dwell in my mind and heart, and can be distracting when in the meantime I am also trying to train to run ultramarathons, and maybe lose weight while I’m at it.

Once in a while a desire to go do something else immediately becomes ovewhelming during a training run. Today I got a brainstorm on how to solve a programming problem I’ve been cogitating over. By seven miles into my run I declared the workout to be Good Enough so I could run home to make some notes about my programming project.

Wouldn’t it be right to say that in essence I got bored with running today, because I let something of greater immediate interest deter me from my goal for the day? That’s how I view it.

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Downtown Chamber Players Concert Review

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Friday night Suzy and I attended an all contemporary chamber music concert. (Contemporary if you count Ysaÿe.) It’s been a long time since I did that.

The venue was a huge space in downtown Phoenix called The Ice House, which is exactly what it was built to be in 1910. It’s now owned by a woman who uses it for displaying large contemporary art exhibits that are unusual and can’t be or just aren’t displayed elsewhere, and for performance art. It’s directly across the street from Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s offices. (Non-Phoenix readers of this review may be unaware that Sheriff Joe is the most colorful and probably most well-known law enforcement officer in the country. But that’s a subject for another post.)

The floors at The Ice House are concrete, the walls are brick, the ceiling is at least 20 feet high, and the lighting is inadequate for spectators who had to squint to see their programs. It was chilly in there, but not uncomfortable. We had a dip in the weather here, with rain and chill and even snow in outlying areas. Inside the venue nobody took off their coats, and two ladies were sitting with a blanket over their lap. Still, I didn’t hear anyone complaining.

The program was all string music: String Quartet #2 by Henryk Górecki (I have a recording by Kronos), a Sonata for solo cello by Ysaÿe, “Riconoscenze per Goffredo Petrassi” for solo violin by Elliott Carter, Violin Phase (played by four violinists) by Steve Reich, and a collection of tangos by Astor Piazolla, with the last couple of pieces spiced up by first a pair of dancers with big-shot credentials, and finally by three pair of dancers, all fun to watch.

I enjoy occasional verbal program notes at a concert, especially when some piece warrants some explanation or if background information somehow enhances the listening experience — but only if the comments are accurate and not silly or apologetic, as sometimes happens with contemporary music. “You’re probably gonna hate this music, but lemme explain while we’re making you listen to it before you walk out.”

No, there was none of that at Friday’s concert. The commentary was by and large okay, but I didn’t like the gross generalization of classifying all the minimalists in one lump while all the others: Carter and Stockhausen and Berio and Boulez and … well you know … as the “other” camp that can be described with another single label. Carter in particular stands apart from those others in many ways, as anyone who has really listened to or studied his music is aware. So I could have done without the description of the kind of music “Carter and his camp” compose as being done by the guys who studied hard at Julliard and wherever, while the minimalists were the guys who flunked out of music school and moved downtown. Yes, they actually said that.

Also, while the violinist who performed the Carter was fairly knowledgeable about the music, and played it beautifully, he could have stood to edit and rehearse his remarks at little better, and the violinist who came up next (actually a violist, the founder of the Downtown Chamber series, who was playing violin on the Reich) made a BIG factual booboo when contrasting Reich and the other well-known minimalists with the composers from “the other side of town” when he referred specifically to Carter as a 12-tone serialist composer — which he absolutely is NOT!

Nonetheless, the music was all well played and enthusiastically presented. It was equally enthusiastically received by the audience, which by and large did not need to have someone stand up to defend the music they were about to hear. This crowd seemed to be of the type who knew what they paid their money to hear and that’s why they were there. It was pretty much a full house. The audiences at these concerts tend not to be the stuffy older retired rich folks who sit on their hands and complain about anything that’s not Mozart.

This series is not available by subscription, which is a good thing. People buy tickets for concerts they want to hear, not more than a month or two in advance, when they get around to announcing the location and program, about five a year. At $10 a head, including wine, cheese, and crackers at intermission, it’s hard to get a better deal.

It’s good to know that there is an audience for this kind of thing in Phoenix. My biggest regret is not being part of the inner circle. There was not a single soul we know at this concert, no one to talk to about music. I’ve gotten so out of touch. I miss not being able to hear this sort of concert a couple of times a week, as in my old school days, when we would compare notes during the intermission, then leave the concert and head over to House of Chin or the Capitol restaurant and argue about the music over beers until they threw us out and shut the place down.

A splendid time was had by all.

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Job Interviews Are Like Auditions

Sir Georg Solti

Cover of Sir Georg Solti

Recently I have been looking for work once again, and in so doing have had to make myself available for job interviews, the humiliating grilling in which a person is expected to lay his life’s work experience on the line in the course of a few minutes. He is expected to know, remember, and be fluently conversant about everything he has ever done over a career that may have spanned decades. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it does not.

Mulling over the inadequacies of the process brought to mind an experience my father had years ago, one he related to me in some detail years after it happened.

My father was a prominent classical musician who made his entire living his whole working life performing as a violist, conductor, violinist, teacher of professionals, and occasional composer. He was primarily an orchestral and chamber music player, but principal (first chair) in most orchestras he ever played in except the Chicago Symphony, the best orchestra in the world, where he was assistant principal during his first of two stints there. His first tenure was in the late forties to mid-fifties, the second in the early seventies under Sir Georg Solti. Dad was Good with a capital G, and I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody who loved music more than he did.

He came up through the ranks before the days of the high-power conservatory training aspiring professionals now get. He got plenty of work because he was known all over the Chicago area by those who hired that kind of musician, whether it was for a pickup orchestra, jingle recording sessions, night club dates backing Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, or whatever; most professional freelance work was obtained by a well-known core of solid and thoroughly competent musicians. That’s how the business works, even today, except in today’s world of MIDI-produced electronic music there are fewer jobs and lots more competition.

Today if one chair in a major symphony orchestra such as CSO opens up, management expects 250 players to show up for an audition. These will all be people who passed the initial screening, by sending resumés demonstrating they’ve already had years of professional orchestral experience, and also submitting tapes, CDs, or DVDs. Even after all that, the conductor and management might not like any of them, so will hire no one.

Around 1971, when my father was working as a freelancer, he got a call from the CSO business manager, who asked him point blank: “Would you like to play the season?” They had a vacancy in the viola section, and no one permanent had been hired. Of course, my father was thrilled to take it. He left when Fritz Reiner was about to take the reins of the orchestra, because the old man had a reputation for eating musicians alive for breakfast. Dad didn’t want that kind of stress, plus he had in mind to expand his career as a conductor and entrepreneur, creating a fine arts festival. But if you want to make a solid living in classical music, nothing beats a regular orchestra job with the best orchestra in the world. Musicians who get that job rarely leave, because it doesn’t get any better than that.

So he played the season, during which the orchestra went on a historic tour of Europe, where they recorded some Mahler Symphonies that got rave reviews and piles of awards. Dad was in heaven doing exactly what he loved and was so good at. By this time he was already pushing 65 years of age, but could definitely cut the job. The next year, and I believe one more year after that, for whatever reason, the orchestra still could not find a real permanent player for that position, so my father continued as a contractor, with somewhat less money and benefits than a full member, and he was no longer assistant principal, just another section guy. But what a gig!

The time inevitably came where the orchestra’s management decided to make an all-out effort to find a permanent player for that open position, which meant they had to have open auditions. Dad was never offered the job outright, but was told that if he’d like to take a shot at it, he could participate in an audition along with all the recent conservatory graduates who did nothing but practice difficult orchestral passages and sight reading and basically prepare for auditions like a runner training to win a marathon

Dad said: No way! He’d love the job. The conductor, his colleagues, and everyone in the CSO management knew him, his artistry, that he’d even been the featured soloist with the orchestra on at least one occasion (more if you count Bach’s Brandenburg #6), and they knew his vast experience for what it was worth. If they wanted to hire him on that basis he’d be happy to accept. But in an open audition against some young hotshot who could play the Bartok and Walton Concertos in his sleep while whistling Dixie and stomping out the high hat part to an Elvin Jones solo with his feet he wouldn’t have a prayer. Dad’s position was that anyone who plays a good audition has proven exactly one thing: that he knows how to play a good audition. It demonstrates nothing about his artistry or whether he will hold up his end in one of the greatest ensembles in the world for the next forty years, and it’s a sure thing he hasn’t already played the Brahms 4th Symphony at least fifty times in performance. So Dad declined to audition.

That was the end of his Chicago music career. He and my mother moved to Florida where he taught for several years at the university in Tampa, was principal violist and associate conductor of the Gulf Coast Symphony until he finally really did retire — but he continued to perform right up the end, playing a recital with accompaniment just a few months before his death in 1995 at age 88.

My point in all this is that some people don’t do well in put-on-the-spot interviews or tests and will screw up badly, whether out of nervousness, or whatever. And what does it prove? Nada.

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Spinning Statistical Meaning

At Across the Years this year I earned a jacket for covering 1000 miles lifetime in my seventh year of running it. That’s the accumulated total from one 24-hour race, one 48-hour race, and five 72-hour races.

(Update: My total following the 2010 race is 1516.58 miles, the fourth most overall. That’s probably where the mileage will remain, as I have no plans to return to the race. Eventually others will overtake me in livetime total.)

It probably doesn’t sound like a very big deal, but I did a little arithmetic and learned that to get a 1000-mile jacket at an annually run standard 26.2-mile marathon (if they even gave one), I would have to run and complete 39 of them.

It’s interesting how a little context can give meaning to a raw statistic

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