Archive for the ‘Nostalgia’ Category


Me and Scottie McC

August 12, 2011

My first firsthand exposure to ultrarunning came in 2001, when I paced William Emerson through 20 miles of the Cascade Crest 100. We spent most of our time walking and got slightly lost, and I tripped and fell a lot. I tentatively concluded that ultrarunners are crazy.

I helped William again at the 2002 White River 50, and it was totally different. Being a mere 50 miles, much more runnable, and exquisitely organized by Scott McCoubrey and his team, White River was a race I could imagine doing someday. Charlie Dresen’s video (part 2) includes some great snippets of winner Nate McDowell, who made a strong impression on me as he galloped into the Skookum Flats aid station at sub-6-minute pace, seemingly unperturbed by the 43-plus miles already covered.

By 2004-05, I had started to compete in ultramarathons. An account of those early months is included in a Northwest Runner article about the 2005 World Cup 100K. The article mentions Scott McCoubrey’s role in leading me (and many others) to explore trail and ultrarunning, but it’s hard to capture Scott in print (though Heidi Dietrich gave it a good shot in a 2008 article for Puget Sound Business Journal). You really need to talk with him in person to understand how engaging, inspiring, and friendly he is.

For this reason, I’ve spent the last year wanting to do a Scott video (the next-best thing to an in-person encounter). After shooting some footage at White River two weekends ago, adding some royalty-free music, and assembling everything in Microsoft Windows Movie Maker, I’m finally done. I hope the video and companion article convey what a special person Scott is and how much he has contributed to the running community here in Seattle and around the world.


The ecstasy of agony

July 17, 2011

Sally Bergesen of Oiselle is collecting “Painfest” photos of runners deep in the throes of discomfort. I was happy to contribute a couple of my personal favorites such as the one below (taken by my uncle Chris in February of 2006 at the Houston Ultra Event 100K).

As I enter my eleventh month of Achilles trouble and drastically reduced training, most days pass without a strong sense of longing to be back out there. This photo really speaks to me, though. Are my days of rain-soaked shredded-quad glory really behind me?

99K down, 1K to go


Columns as memory crutches

March 22, 2011

On Sunday night, Liz and Phil and I watched Marley & Me, a movie based on the book by journalist John Grogan. Not being a dog person, I was moved most by the moments where, as the family dog ages and then dies, Grogan’s family flips through his old columns about the dog to relive the good times. My dad was also a journalist, with his own stash of columns about family life, to which I still return occasionally.

On Monday I had surgery. Several months of physical therapy has not proven that efficacious for my insertional Achilles tendinopathy, so my Haglund’s deformity, often called a “pump bump,” was shaved down, and some soft tissue between the bone and tendon was scraped away. I will be on crutches for two weeks and will not do any running in the next three months.

Using crutches has not been that fun. The reason I thought it might be fun is that, when my sister was six years old, she walked around with crutches as a form of recreation. She was perfectly healthy; she just liked pretending to be injured. I wouldn’t be able to recall any of the details, except that my dad wrote a column that immortalized her affectation. What a nice treat to be able to travel back in time and laugh about it all over again!

* * * * * * *

The Smells Of Christmas Just Past
By Jack Crowther
[from the Rutland Herald — December 30, 1982]

The day after Christmas our daughter was hobbling around the back yard on crutches.

Poor thing, you’re saying, the holidays spoiled by an accident.

Not so. Her femurs were fine, her tibias true, her metatarsals more than capable of carrying her around the green squishy lawn.

Fact was, she wanted to hobble around the yard on crutches, despite the lack of a suitable injury. Despite, further, the absence of real crutches. She had to find a couple of forked sticks to serve the purpose.

Inside were a Fashion Jeans Barbie Doll, twirling baton, puppy purse, toy organ and other ingenious products of human manufacture. But there she was, little more than 24 hours after ripping the paper from her presents, preferring the fantasy of a gimpy gam.

Actually, she had started out by using the baton as a cane. Oh, she twirled some. But it also performed nicely as a cane, until the light steel tubing collapsed under her weight.

Then she had an L-shaped baton. Trying to put a good light on keen disappointment, she noted that at least “L” was her favorite letter. After that she had to use sticks for her lame game.

Her friend came over to play and they both hobbled around on one crutch. Pretend broken legs must be contagious.

The forked sticks were easy to find. The winter hasn’t left much snow yet, but precipitation of sticks appears to be keeping up with the seasonal average.

The above was really just a sidelight of our Christmas, however. The essence of the celebration was a smoked ham, the centerpiece of the holiday meal. Writing this on the 27th — wait, let me go check. Yes, I have just been out to the kitchen and can report that the smell is still there.

My wife’s hair even smelled of smoked ham, and that led to the only real injury of the holiday. We were asleep Christmas night after the day’s excitement and ample evening meal. But I must have worked up an appetite by about 3 a.m. when I rolled over in my sleep and smelled smoked ham on the neighboring pillow. A Pavlovian reflex evidently set my jaws in motion, and my teeth seized on my wife’s ear.

Fortunately her scream woke us both up before any serious damage was done.

So much for the smells of Christmas. The sounds ranged from the fervency of John Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” to the inspiration of the “Hallelujah Chorus” to a halting “Farmer in the Dell.”

Our son likes Cougar and had asked for and received his album. Whether a 9-year-old can comprehend the substance of “Come on baby, make it hurt so good/Sometimes love don’t feel like it should” is doubtful. A friend of his once referred to the hit song “Centerfold” as “Center Pole.” But some elemental link in the music seems to bridge the gap in understanding.

My own musical preference on Christmas Day was for “The Farmer in the Dell,” which I played 18 times on the toy organ, the song being the shortest in the book that came with the organ. In case you don’t know it, it goes like this: 1 4 4 4 4 4 5 6 6 6 6 6 8 8 9 8 6 4 5 6 6 5 5 4.

No one applauded my playing, perhaps because Christmas is a time for giving. In “The Farmer in the Dell,” you recall, everyone takes — the farmer take the wife, the wife takes the child, and so on — except the cheese, which stands alone.

For Christmas dinner, I set aside the organ, since I couldn’t very well play — not even “Farmer in the Dell” — and eat at the same time. Our song voted for John Cougar. In the boy’s favor, the song, “Can You Really Take It (All the Way Down)” does seem to suggest the digestive process.

But my wife and I voted for Christmas carols, and carols it was.

And that was Christmas, still a smell but now just memory of sights and sounds, all mostly pleasant. And the mark is nearly gone from my wife’s ear.


Gloves and Sox

December 24, 2010

If the glove fits...

I’m at my parents’ house in Vermont, enjoying the company of family and artifacts from my childhood. My old baseball glove, for instance.

My first love among sports was not running but baseball. I grew up rooting for the Boston Red Sox and in particular Carl Yastrzemski, a potato farmer’s son from Southampton, New York, who led the Sox to the World Series in 1967 and 1975. By the time I was old enough to watch Yaz on TV, his speed and power had diminished somewhat, but that didn’t temper my irrational devotion to him. He had had a great career, and I for one was going to keep cheering.

Blessed with average hand-eye coordination and below-average size and strength, I never made much of an impact as a baseball player. In my final season of Little League I claimed a .500 batting average, but only by counting a few ambiguous at-bats as base hits rather than errors.

If my skills and stats were unspectacular, I at least had a truly excellent glove. It was decorated with not one but two signatures of early-’80s All Stars: those of Dave Parker and Ron Cey. Even more strange was the fact that Parker’s autograph was mostly obscured with a pair of dark triangles, with Cey’s added below it.

I’ll always wonder what story lay behind the double signature. Did Parker cancel his endorsement deal with MacGregor after the glove manufacturer failed to offer him what he thought he was worth? Did MacGregor dump Parker after a subpar season? Did Parker and Cey dislike each other, resulting in a “this glove isn’t big enough for both of us” situation?

The details, like so many other details of my childhood, may be gone for good. But the nostalgia of seeing my glove again and the anticipation of using it to play catch with my son in the spring gives me a doubly warm glow.

Ron Cey's John Hancock


A couple of links and another picture of Phil

October 8, 2010

* This is a news website article about a scientific paper (by Martin Robbins of The Guardian)

* A. Hopkins Parker and Rob Benson: names not easily forgotten (by me; text also reprinted below)

* Phil is learning to write his full name — see below!

Phil using The Force to spell

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I had to read A Separate Peace by John Knowles in high school. Perhaps you’ve read it too. If you have, and if you’re an athlete, you probably recall the following passage.

One day [Phineas] broke the school swimming record. He and I were fooling around in the pool, near a big bronze plaque marked with events for which the school kept records — 50 yards, 100 yards, 220 yards. Under each was a slot with a marker fitted into it, showing the name of the record-holder, his year, and his time. Under “100 Yards Free Style” there was “A. Hopkins Parker — 1940 — 53.0 seconds.”

“A. Hopkins Parker?” Finny squinted up at the name. “I don’t remember any A. Hopkins Parker.”

“He graduated before we got here.”

“You mean that record’s been up the whole time we’ve been at Devon and nobody’s busted it yet?” It was an insult to the class, and Finny had tremendous loyalty to the class, as he did to any group he belonged to, beginning with him and me and radiating outward past the limits of humanity toward spirits and clouds and stars…. He said blurringly, “I have a feeling I can swim faster than A. Hopkins Parker.”

So, with his friend Gene (the narrator) as the only witness, Phineas swims 100 yards in 52.3 seconds, then declines to repeat the feat or tell anyone about it. Gene concludes, “The Devon School record books contained a mistake, a lie, and nobody knew it but Finny and me. A. Hopkins Parker was living in a fool’s paradise, wherever he was.”

The repetition of “A. Hopkins Parker” is, to me, quite funny but also captures some of the prestige and solemnity of these school record boards. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across the name of Rob Benson on the Big Games website run by Will Dudley ’89. Rob Benson — why did that sound so familiar? Is he a Williams alum or something? And then it hit me.

In the early ’90s, the Williams cross-country team had pool practices on Monday nights, and in between bouts of thrashing around in the water I’d look up at the wall and see the school swimming records … including the one held by Rob Benson. 400-yard individual medley, 4:02.09, 1988.

I didn’t overlap with Rob at Williams, nor have I seen footage of him in action, nor do I have any particular fondness for the 400-yard individual medley. And yet seeing Rob’s name again — a faceless name with nothing attached to it but an event, a time and a year — filled me with nostalgia. Good old Rob Benson — he sure was a hell of a swimmer, wasn’t he?


Staying up late

July 13, 2010

-54:22: Two days before my friends Jeremy and Brinsley arrive for a visit, I’m struck by the thought that Jeremy and I should run the Firecracker 5000 together. I can’t articulate why a midnight run through the streets of Seattle with an old cross-country teammate seems appealing, but it does. I send Jeremy an email with the subject header, “a pretty terrible idea?”

-51:40: Jeremy writes back: “I have not run a step in earnest since 1996, when I trained in cursory fashion for, and subsequently finished next-to-last in, the Aluminum Bowl. I’m sure I couldn’t do anything more than 8-minute miles. I don’t even own running shorts anymore…. If you’re actually up for this, and if you promise to jog beside me (I’m not jogging by myself, that would suck, and yes, I will only be jogging) … well, I’m smiling as I type this so I guess that means I’m up for it too.” He adds that I must promise to write a blog entry about the event because “If I’m going to agree to do something this bonkers I expect to be immortalized forever on the intertubes.”

-1:25: The warmup begins. I’m running four miles from my house to the Moore Hotel, from which Jeremy and I will walk to the race. Still not quite sure why I want to do this. Still looking forward to it.

-0:10: Ten minutes ’til the start of the race. Bill Roe announces that the exact distance is 5,060 meters — bad news for those who’ve trained only for 5K. Jeremy is wearing his 10th anniversary (1985-95) Slow Boys t-shirt (“Passed, present and future”), the Slow Boys being a subgroup of the Williams College cross-country team. I used to be a Slow Boy as well, but I’m projecting the opposite image tonight with a Team USA jersey.

+0:01: One minute into the race, Jeremy’s timing chip has already fallen off of his shoe. It hadn’t occurred to me that this technology might stymie him, but why should it be otherwise for someone who retired at a time when results were often compiled using popsicle sticks?

+0:04: Jeremy says that the pavement is hard in Seattle. Um, yeah, sorry about that.

+0:10: We hit the one-mile mark in 10:05. Any projections, Jeremy? “If I can keep from getting a side stitch, I can probably hold [the pace].”

+0:13: We overhear a pedestrian asking his friends, “Why are these people running [in a giant cluster through the streets during the dead of night]?” “It’s an excellent question,” Jeremy notes.

+0:20: We reach two miles in 20:15. Considering his 14-year layoff, Jeremy is pacing himself remarkably well. He considers picking up the pace to improve the chances that we’ll finish before the donuts (provided by race sponsor Top Pot) are all gone. How many donuts were donated, anyway? Do the fast people get Boston Creams while the slow pokes have to settle for boring cinnamon-flavored ones? We’d better keep moving.

+0:29: Jeremy kicks to a 29:53 while I tag along dutifully. We grab some water and then quickly locate the donuts, which remain plentiful. They are chocolate with red, white, and blue sprinkles.

+0:36: The donut mission accomplished, talk turns to such topics as Carl Yastrzemski, whom both of us revered as kids. I can’t recall why I became so attached to Yaz, but Jeremy remembers admiring his baseball card — in particular, the extra-small type face needed to cram all of his stats onto the back.

+0:47: Jeremy rates fellow runners’ costumes as “predictable in a good way” but tame relative to some he used to see at the London Marathon, where, for example, people would run in professionally made rhinoceros outfits to call attention to the plight of the rhino.

+1:11: The discussion meanders further to thoughts about glasses half-full, roads not taken, and seeds soon to be planted. Amidst this melange of reminiscing, philosophizing, and joking around, I realize what I had hoped to get out of this evening, and that I’ve been getting it.

My undergraduate years were among the happiest ones of my life. That was a time when I had the energy, restlessness, and freedom to stay up late with kindred spirits, pursuing wacky adventures or silly-yet-profound conversations. It was great to turn back the clock with Jeremy for a night — to act less than sensibly and to speak less than clearly, but to do it with the enthusiasm and earnestness of a slightly sleep-deprived college student in good company.

pre-race photo of me and Jeremy taken by Carl Winter



February 19, 2010

One of the many things I like about running is that there are so many numbers to think about — numbers with stories behind them. If I see “2:03” on a digital clock, I automatically think, “current world record in the marathon.” If I see “5:27,” I think, “my personal best for 1600 meters as of the summer of 1985.”

The weekend before the Rocky Raccoon 100, I did a solo 5,000-meter time trial at the Franklin High School track. My time of 15:59 was unremarkable except that it brought to mind another 15:59, one that I had run 18 years earlier. The first 15:59 of my life, literally half a lifetime ago.

I was a freshman at Williams College, still getting taller and heavier and quite uncertain of my capacity for further improvement as a runner. After an acceptable fall season of cross-country, I plunged into indoor track. I loved it. The laps went by quickly on the small tracks, the tight turns made me feel like a speed demon, and even sparse crowds of coaches, teammates, and opponents were enough to create some atmosphere and excitement in cramped facilities such as Williams’ Towne Field House. There was only one problem: the races were too short. As someone without a single fast-twitch muscle fiber to his name, I was too slow to place highly in races lasting less than 20 minutes.

Then something very odd happened. As March 7th, 1992 approached — the date of the East Coast Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championships at Bates College, the last meet of the indoor season other than nationals — I was granted a spot in the ECAC 5,000-meter race. The qualifying standard for a guaranteed entry was 15:30 or so, but, for whatever reason, only seven other runners in the whole conference signed up for that event. And so I was let in, even though my best 5K time up to that point was 16:40. I was seeded last.

At this meet and many like it, the top six people in each event score points for their teams: 10 for 1st, 8 for 2nd, and so on down to 1 point for 6th place. In a race with only eight people, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I might be able to earn a point for a change. I went out fast — 2:29 at 800m, 5:04 at 1600m — but remained in last place until 2400m or so, when I passed two guys. I reached 3200m in 10:16, still way ahead of my usual splits. I passed a third guy with a bit less than 800m to go, kicked the final 400m in 70 seconds, and crossed the finish line in 15:59. 5th place! No, wait, 4th place — a guy ahead of me was disqualified! In addition to improving my personal record by 41 seconds, I had contributed 4 points toward the team’s total of 89. I had helped us win the meet!

Should sequences of digits on a watch really inspire such sentimentality? If you have to ask, you’re probably not a runner.


Looking back at Williams track

May 5, 2009

Joel Richardson (, a fellow Williams College alumnus, is collecting information for a book about the history of Williams track and field. Among the questions he’s asking is, “Do you think being on a track team (specifically the Williams team) benefited you in ways other than just being on the team (such as values learned, becoming more disciplined, or friendships and memorable meets and performances)?”

Below is my answer.

Being on the Williams track and cross-country teams benefited me in at least four ways.

First, I’m generally slow to make friends, so those daily interactions with fellow runners were important to me, especially during my freshman year, when I hadn’t yet bonded with others through shared academic interests or other routes.

Second, races served (and still serve) as a useful outlet for my competitive instincts. When I was injured in the spring of ’92, I felt myself becoming more of a grade-grubber trying to beat the test scores of my classmates — a less appropriate expression of this competitiveness.

Third, my development as a runner in college provided a vivid and dramatic lesson in my (and everyone’s?) capacity for self-improvement. A similar revelation is summarized beautifully in an essay by Adam Gopnik on the late Kirk Varnedoe, who before becoming a giant of the art world was a jock at Williams: “He [Varnedoe] gave football all the credit. He had discovered himself playing football, first at his prep school, St. Andrew’s in Delaware, as an overweight and, by all reports, unimpressive adolescent, and then at Williams, where, improbably, he became a starting defensive end. The appeal of football wasn’t that it ‘built character’ — he knew just how cruddy a character a football player could have. It was that it allowed you to make a self. You were one kind of person with one kind of body and one set of possibilities, and then you worked at it and you were another. This model was so simple and so powerful that you could apply it to anything. It was ordinary magic: You worked harder than the next guy, and you were better than the next guy. It put your fate in your own hands.”

Track may be an even better teacher of this lesson than football, since changes in performance are so easy to quantify. When I arrived at Williams, my personal best time for 3000 meters was 9:35; by the time I left, it was 8:43. It’s hard to experience this sort of physical transformation and not be changed psychologically — not become more hopeful or less fatalistic. I was changed.

Fourth, my coaches and teammates helped foster a lasting enjoyment of the sport. We took ourselves seriously and trained hard, yet were often reminded that there was more to running than trying to win races. I give Pete Farwell a lot of credit for promoting and extending the values of his predecessors: respect for tradition, respect for the environment, concern for one’s teammates, the simple joys of gliding through the wilderness….

I still run because, fundamentally, I’m still a competitive person. But I still enjoy it as much as I do in part because of Pete.


’80s flashback weekend

October 31, 2008

Cross-country races make me nostalgic in a way that other races don’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve been running in them nearly every fall since 1985; maybe it’s because ten of those seasons were spent amidst the foliage for which New England is famous. And maybe it’s because cross-country stirs up emotions more effectively than, say, track races. Nothing in the world of distance running is quite as exciting or scary as galloping through the countryside in very close proximity to many, many others of similar speed.

The thrill and fear of the pack were imprinted upon me at a young age. That’s partly because a lot of junior high and high school races consisted of a start across an open field followed by a long, narrow trail into the woods. In other words, you had to go out fast to avoid getting trapped behind dozens of runners. I never had much sprinting speed and considered these races cruel for penalizing me so severely right from the gun.

The old sights and sounds seemed even less distant than usual at the Bellevue Community College Invitational on October 18th. On the drive over to Lake Sammamish State Park, my “New Wave Hits of the ’80s, Vol. 11” CD helped set a retrospective mood. In a big country, dreams stay with you….

A minute into the race, the course narrows to a width of about three runners. I’m behind about 15 rows of them. Yes, this is what it had been like in junior high, except that I’m now surrounded by masters runners. I start to pick them off, glad to have more time for moving up than in the old days. David White-Espin, John O’Hearn, Carl Winter. There sure are a lot of them. Paul Abdalla, Kevin McGinnis. Mike Bailey — not a master, but older than me, I think. Why are my splits getting unrealistically fast? Finally, in the last mile, Tony Young and fellow submaster Ben Sauvage. Uh-oh, Ben is outkicking me — another achingly familiar sensation. Well, at least I’m closer to him this time than I was last time.

I left the race feeling satisfied that I had recovered well from my slower-than-advisable start. I was patient, focused on passing one guy at a time, and maintained the fastest pace that my fitness would allow. On the whole, I suppose I’ve learned a thing or two since 7th grade. Now if I could just learn the words to 99 Luftballons….

The day after the race, I was at a house-warming party. A woman watching over a young daughter looked familiar. “Do I know you?” I asked. “Are you from Vermont?” she replied. It was Andrea Eells (now Korry), the #4 runner on the 1987 Rutland High School women’s cross-country team. I hadn’t seen her since she graduated, but, 20 years and three kids later, she looks more or less the same.


A transparent life

July 21, 2008

I wonder if it’s common for researchers to flip through collections of old slides in the way that normal people might flip through albums of old photographs. I found myself doing this last Friday while moving boxes from one lab to another, except that many of my “slides” were overhead transparencies from my grad school days. How carefully I had designed them! How much of my life was represented in them! It was quite a trip down memory lane.

Here’s the title transparency from my first rotation talk as a grad student. I was studying the effects of nitric oxide (NO) on muscle contraction.

NO effect

I’ve never been much of an artist, but I still think this drawing is sort of brilliant. The pressure I felt as a new student…. My self-consciousness at having a skinny, unimpressive “runner’s body”…. My aversion to lifting weights…. It’s all in there.

Another whimsical overhead comes from a presentation I gave at a departmental retreat. Since we had transported Nobel Laureate Bert Sakmann all the way from Germany to give us a special guest lecture about ion channels (which allow ions to pass through membranes), I devised the following mock talk.

Bert Sakmann, transported

Eventually I started using PowerPoint like everybody else, illustrating slides with bad clip art rather than drawings. Anyone recognize runner #111 in the 1999 slide below? He was one of about ten free sports-related images that came with Microsoft software at the time. I don’t know where I found the snake picture, but my options must have been pretty limited because it’s not of a rattlesnake.

ACSM talk

By the time I finally defended my dissertation in 2002, we had all gotten more sophisticated in our ability to find and manipulate images. Since my doctoral research concerned NMR spectroscopy, I “photoshopped” the phosphocreatine peak of a 31P spectrum into an outline of the Space Needle.

Seattle spectroscopy

After I graduated, my next research project focused on bacteria that can subsist on methanol (a one-carbon alcohol) as their sole source of carbon and energy. At parties I’d often say that I studied bacteria that “consume nothing but alcohol,” which sometimes drew the response, “Yeah, I used to have a roommate like that….”

methylo intro

I have many more slides, of course, but this is probably getting really boring for you. No? Well, maybe just one more, then?

jelly electrophoresis