Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

h1

The “13th Man” speaks his mind

February 2, 2014

When I began running marathons in 1999, my parents had very different reactions. My dad seemed interested in my competitive success; at the least, he understood my drive to achieve a certain time or ranking. My mom thought that such events were pointless and mainly wanted to know that I got home safely.

As I think about today’s Super Bowl, I find myself feeling a lot like my mother.

Here’s my three-point stance on tackle football:
1. Football puts participants’ brains and bodies at great risk (as discussed previously on this blog and in the excellent Frontline news documentary League of Denial).
2. My interest in people’s long-term health should trump my interest in their feats of athleticism.
3. Watching football is a tacit endorsement of the sport in its current, dangerous form. Therefore, I do not watch football.

I haven’t always been this way. As a child, I was a rabid supporter of the New York Jets. Some might speculate that THIS is the problem — how could a Jets fan experience football at its finest, or avoid disillusionment?

On the contrary, I was thrilled by the tackle-evading halfback Freeman McNeil and the quarterback-hunting linemen Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko (the “New York Sack Exchange”). Watching athletes like these has always been exciting and fun. But how much should they have to sacrifice for the sake of entertaining me? Am I just another Roman spectator enjoying the spectacle of bludgeoned, bloodied gladiators?

Not anymore. When the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos take the field in a few hours, I won’t be watching.

As my mom might say, I just want everyone to make it home safe and sound.

h1

The center of attention?

November 8, 2013

My favorite pictures of me racing (e.g., from the 2005 World Cup 100K, 2006 Houston Ultra Event Weekend, 2006 Sunmart 50-Miler, and 2009 Sundodger 8K) now include this shot from the 2013 PNTF championships, taken by Seattle Running Club president Win Van Pelt.

2013_11_05_PNTF_me_Tom_Doris

It’s a nice image of me grinding away on the unrelenting Lower Woodland Park course. But there’s more. Behind me, clapping, is beloved coach and world-class talker Tom Cotner. At the extreme left is Doris Brown Heritage, one of the all-time greats of American distance running.

Often the most interesting people at a race are not the ones racing.

h1

The once and future ultrarunner

October 25, 2013

To read my latest blog entry, head on over to SeattleRunningClub.org.

h1

The playing fields of Eph-dom

October 8, 2013

As Williams College — the home of the Ephs — renovates its Weston Field Athletic Complex, “complex memories” are being collected and shared. Here are mine.

When I was an undergraduate at Williams, the short run down to Weston Field for cross-country practice was one of the best moments of my day. It often felt exhilarating to put away my work, put on my shorts, and burst out the door, full of anticipation. Would I be able to keep up with Billo today? What new stories from the weekend were circulating? Might I get to talk to one of the women? A lot of what I wanted out of life at the time was waiting for me at Weston.

We didn’t do that many of our cross-country workouts at Weston’s Plansky Track (named for coach Pete Farwell’s predecessor, Tony Plansky), but one exception was the annual “Plansky workout.” For several days beforehand, the upperclassmen kept the details of the workout a secret while hyping its overall difficulty (“I’ve never puked so many shades of green before,” etc. etc. etc.) Then came the big reveal: Farwell, in Plansky’s voice, assigning “fo-uh qwah-tuhs” (4 quarters, i.e. 4 x 400 meters) in 80 to 82 seconds apiece … “because most of you will never race faster than that anyway.”

A final Weston memory comes from spring track. We distance runners had many talented teammates in the sprints, jumps, etc., but the one guy who absolutely knocked my socks off was Sal Salamone ’93. During the winter, Sal competed with reasonable success in the 60-meter high hurdles and the 500-meter dash, but in the spring he focused on the 400-meter intermediate hurdles. Long-legged and lean, Sal sprang over those 36-inch barriers with the efficiency and grace of a halfback evading fallen tacklers. If any particular Eph was ever predestined to run one particular race, surely it was Salvatore Salamone, Class of 1993, in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles.

When the news came back from the 1993 national meet that Sal had been disqualified, I was sad, but his legend remained intact. In my mind, a DQ was the only plausible reason Sal would not have won.

h1

Jur-lock Holmes?

August 17, 2013

Sarah Lavender Smith has described ultramarathoner Scott Jurek as “familiar, cute, boyish and slightly nerdy in an attractive way … a cross between Peter from The Brady Bunch and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.”

I claim, though, that I’ve found a better doppelganger for Jurek: English actor Benedict Cumberbatch in his role as Sherlock Holmes.

Cumberbatch? Jurek?

[Images taken from fanpop.com and sportspressnw.com, respectively.]

h1

Interview with ultrarunner Charlie Engle

June 26, 2013

This spring I finally got around to watching the movie Running the Sahara, which has been out since 2007.

Having been exposed to many extreme ultrarunning challenges, I wasn’t as riveted as some people by the trans-Sahara quest per se. However, I was captivated by the on-screen charisma, eloquence, and humor of expedition ringleader Charlie Engle. He seemed like a complex guy who would be really interesting to go for a (non-trans-desert) run with.

Since that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, I did the next best thing: I asked him for an interview.

Charlie Engle, running in confinement.

GC: Hi Charlie! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. It will be interesting for me, though I’m not sure what (if anything) you’ll get out of it. I guess that’s my first question: given that you’re a busy guy, why agree to this? I’m just a guy with a blog who watched “Running the Sahara” and wanted to delve into a few things more deeply.

CE: Greg, in all my years, I’ve never turned anyone down who asked to speak with me. I don’t pretend to know where this path will lead. I just go with the flow.

GC: Fair enough! OK, next question… The movie “Running the Sahara” devotes a lot of attention to the medical and political logistics of covering the entire Sahara desert, but not much is said about the sponsorship side of things. Can you tell us more about how you raised the money for such an unusual undertaking, and how long that took?

CE: I take your question as a great compliment. I was adamant that this documentary not turn into an ad for sponsors. If a product couldn’t be represented organically, then it didn’t belong. That’s why the crew is driving Toyotas but we are not wearing Toyota logos. The same is true for Magellan GPS and Gatorade and Champion and Mission Skincare and Nike and others. Magellan GPS was the first to sign on. That was through a direct contact of mine. Then when LivePlanet, Matt Damon’s production company, signed on, they took over the sponsor acquisitions. LivePlanet also brought in investors to cover the bulk of the cost. It took about 9 months to put the financing together if i remember right. This was an expensive project but every single dollar came through investors and sponsors. In the end it was a very successful project. “Running the Sahara” is selling better than ever today.

GC: Many viewers of “Running the Sahara” see it mostly as a film about the immense physical and psychological challenge of running across the desert. Personally, I know lots of ultramarathoners, thru-hikers, and assorted other endurance-oriented oddballs, so I assumed all along that a traverse was physically possible, and that the logistical challenges (financial and diplomatic) would be even more formidable than the obvious physical ones. To what extent do you agree with that assessment?

CE: The logistical challenges involved in “Running the Sahara” were overwhelming. The entire project was on life support more than few times during the year leading up to the expedition. Raising money, finding sponsors, arranging support in Africa and managing the politics of the expedition itself were all far more difficult than actually running. The best times are the ones that involve physical suffering. That’s the part that makes all the stress worthwhile. Running is true escape. All the other stuff is just necessary noise.

GC: That certainly makes sense to me. Have your post-Sahara adventures reflected conscious choices to simplify the logistics? For example, I believe you subsequently tried to run across the United States in record time. That obviously requires significant planning, but it must be much more straightforward than arranging safe passage through six African countries.

CE: You give me too much credit for being conscious. Running America was inherently easier to plan for the obvious reasons of language and logistics. The AT [Appalachian Trail] and PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] are tough physically but one can be home safe in bed within a day if things go wrong. The same was true for “Running America.” The hardest part was planning the budget and making the film. The physical suffering was to be expected, there was no stopping that. And actually, the physical suffering was part of the goal, trying to scrape away the crap of daily existence and replace it with something better….hopefully.

GC: You’re saying that the physical suffering is not a simply a necessary hardship on the way to your goals; it is a goal in and of itself. That must seem perverse to some people. How does that work for you? Is there a spiritual dimension to this?

CE: I do genuinely believe that many of life’s most useful lessons come through hardship, usually situations that we don’t choose. Years ago, I decided to actively seek hardship with the hope of achieving the same life altering results that often come with surviving unexpected challenges. So I view my adventures as voluntary suffering that will lead to a greater understanding of what drives me. The trick I haven’t mastered is finding balance. I am trying to learn how to pursue and appreciate happiness as much as I crave the need to suffer. For me there is a great spiritual aspect to what I do. I am not a believer in any traditional religion but I do feel a strong attraction to certain people and to powerful places so this confirms for me that there is most definitely a power greater than myself. My personal suffering brings me closer in line with my higher power and that is important to me. In every long run, I want to push myself to that point where all seems hopeless because that is the exact place where I get to discover new things about myself.

GC: In many parts of “Running the Sahara,” you come across as humble, kind, and generous; in other parts, less so. Extreme suffering will cause almost anyone to say and do selfish things. Do you view your behaviors in your darkest moments as aberrations brought on by the circumstances, OR as a genuine part of you (even if they’re not the prettiest part)? I’m thinking about the possible parallels with drunkenness. Intoxication could be said to cause someone to abandon his/her true self; alternatively, it could be said to reveal a side that is normally hidden but has been there all along.

CE: It’s interesting that you characterize some of the things I appear to have done in “Running the Sahara” as selfish. I have learned the obvious lesson that everyone who watches the film brings their own life experiences to the mix. Some see me as a pushy jerk while many others see me as driven and passionate. I think that says as much about the viewers’ background as it does about me. I think the movie portrays me as 80% decent guy and 20% asshole. Much of what was in the film is not in context (500 hours of footage boiled down to a 100 minute film by a creative editor) but the fact is that in real life that ratio is probably accurate. I can say one thing for certain. The likelihood of three runners making it all the way across the Sahara is really small. My teammates have told me directly that without the urgency I put forth every single day, we would not have been successful. I can live with that.

The scene near the end of the film is the most perplexing to me. It makes it look like I might try to finish without my teammates. I have always found that fascinating. First, it begs the question; why would I do that? What would be gained? Had I actually finished before them, I would have looked like the biggest jerk ever. I may be a hardass sometimes but I’m not stupid. We started as a team and I always wanted us to finish as a team. Ray [Zahab] and Kevin [Lin] became scared that I would somehow finish before them and this made for great film drama. I had no idea what was happening behind me. I couldn’t have possibly run any slower. I was doing 15 minute miles. A pack of turtles could have caught me.

All that is to say that running reveals true character, amplifies all that I am, good and bad. Drugs simply acted as a mask for any feelings, a false and deceptive coping mechanism that only makes any situation worse. Running (adventure in general) is cleansing and enlightening. Drugs are debilitating, soul crushing substances. Drugs only destroy and never give back. Running makes everything clear, softens all the hard edges.

GC: You’ve written a lot about running in prison on your blog, Running in Place. In short, you were able to keep running, but without a lot of the amenities and variety that most of us take for granted. Did prison change your relationship with running?

CE: Prison changed my relationship with running in several ways. The most apparent change to me is that I learned to appreciate the purity of running again….or maybe for the first time. When I was young, I ran for pure joy, just to go play with friends. It always seemed so easy, I never got tired. Or at least that’s how I remember it. But my time in prison was just the opposite. Every step seemed burdened somehow, weighed down by stress. That’s how it started anyway. But I quickly realized all I needed to do was to find the joy again and that could only come from letting running do what it does best; cleansing the negativity and opening up the possibilities that are always there when I run.

GC: Finally, I’m wondering about the extent to which you’ve experienced a stigma attached to your conviction for mortgage fraud. On the one hand, you’re an engaging speaker who can win audiences over when you have a chance to tell your story. I imagine that serving your sentence has even made you more fascinating and more marketable in some ways. (“Charlie Engle: He survived Badwater, the Sahara, AND a Federal penitentiary!”) On the other hand, the phrase “mortgage fraud” will always sound terrible to many ears. Until I read the March 25, 2011 New York Times column by Joe Nocera, I had assumed that you had done something that was unequivocally reprehensible.

CE: Certainly my arrest and incarceration didn’t help my short term speaking career…..or much of anything else. But ironically I have gotten so much support that I have way more opportunities now than I did before this mess started. Speaking, writing and planning new adventures are all things I worried I might never do again. But just the opposite is true. I’m sure there will always be a stigma of sorts. I probably won’t be asked to help anyone fill out their mortgage application. (I didn’t fill out the ones I was accused of signing either.) I know I didn’t do anything wrong and that’s mostly enough for me. I have pretty thick skin. For a runner.

GC: Indeed — all that running through the desert must have created some impressive calluses! Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts so freely, and good luck with your next adventures!

[Related: Utrarunner Podcast interviews Charlie Engle]

h1

Paces as acquaintances

June 11, 2013

If you’ve been a runner for long enough, you may eventually regard certain paces as old acquaintances, each with its own personality and role in your life. For example…

6-minute pace: Steady but unrelenting, you rarely make me uncomfortable (unless I really overstay my welcome), but you keep me honest.

5-minute pace: It’s hard to be with you for very long. I tire of you almost instantly. After our encounters, though, I feel like a better, stronger person.

8-minute pace: A gentle, soothing companion. When I’m weary, you’re there for me.

4:30 pace: You seem faintly familiar. Did we know each other in college?

h1

Titus Van Rijn, Two Thousand Thirteen

May 31, 2013

Having Uli Steidl as your pacer is a bit like having Wolfgang Puck as your sous-chef. You don’t feel worthy of the honor, but still want to take full advantage while it lasts.

My latest attempt at the Titus Van Rijn one-hour track event came on May 25th at the Roosevelt High School track. I invited a few local running friends to join me; Uli was the only one to succumb to the temptation. He offered to pace me, I accepted, and off we went in pursuit of my goal of 11 “metric miles” (i.e., 44 laps of the 400-meter track).

At my request, Uli settled into a pace of about 82 seconds per lap, with a couple of slower lap times attributable to my consumption of Gatorade. We made it through 16 laps in 22:00 and 24 laps in 33:02, then picked up the pace slightly. We finished our 35th lap at 48:00, leaving exactly 12 minutes to cover the last 9 hoped-for laps. Uli locked onto the required 80-seconds-per-lap pace with his usual precision, and we ultimately completed lap 44 with 3 seconds to spare.

Our final distance was 17,615 meters. Thus, because of Uli, I was able to surpass my TVR distances from 2008 (17,420m) and 2001 (17,360m), though still falling short of my marks from 2006 (18,115m) and 2009 (17,920m). Not too bad for an old codger.

Thanks, Uli!

h1

Coming of age

May 20, 2013

On Sunday I attended the annual “Coming of Age” service at the University Unitarian Church, where 9th-graders offer brief statements on how they define faith for themselves. Many were quite insightful.

One of my favorite speeches emphasized making the most of today, rather than dwelling on the past or the future. It’s a very familiar message, but one that bears repeating periodically.

The UU service came a couple of hours after I made my debut as a Master at the Nordstrom’s Beat The Bridge 8K.

Among runners, the word Master has a very specific meaning — 40 years old and beyond — but associated with that are numerous ideas and feelings. For some runners, becoming a Master represents a leveling of the playing field whereby they can let the young kids go and focus on the other Masters. For others, it’s a sort of rebirth — a time to resume serious training and competition after a period of inactivity.

For me personally, the “rebirth” concept was inspiring in the months leading up to my 40th birthday. But now that I have actually arrived at Master-dom, I don’t feel reborn so much as rebuilt with spare parts. I feel OK, but certainly not “as good as new.”

As I prepared for Beat The Bridge last week, I exercised what I thought was admirable caution in my speed workouts. I made them shorter than usual and obeyed “speed limits” so that I wouldn’t strain anything. Nevertheless, my left hamstring was bothered by 2x1530m on the mildly uneven surface of Cal Anderson Park’s gravel path and felt slightly gimpy afterward.

The race ultimately went fine. With my time of 25:42, I won the Masters division comfortably over David McCulloch (26:46), Travis Adams (27:13), and Mark Donohue (27:51). But the kids left me in the dust. After 1 mile, my hamstring was not quite normal, and I was already out of contention for the Nordstrom’s gift cards given annually to the top 5 finishers. (I placed 3rd in 2006 and 4th in 2009 and 2010.) The winner, 29-year-old Jordan Horn, ran 23:37.

Thus, as I embark on life as a Master, I don’t feel like a master in the sense of “master of the universe” or “master of disguise.” I’ve managed to regain some speed on a schedule of running every other day, and I may improve further in the coming months. But my very fastest and healthiest days are almost certainly behind me.

As a wise 9th grader once said, I’ll try to make the most of today anyway.

with Health E. Hound
My post-race checkup with Dr. Health E. Hound.

h1

A Praeg-matic view of exercise evangelism

March 28, 2013

Like any popular fitness magazine, Northwest Runner has an unabashedly pro-exercise flavor, and that’s OK. But in the April 2013 NWR, triathlon coach Wade Praeger goes too far in his scornful dismissal of past and present concerns about possibly negative aspects of exercise.

Praeger’s column is titled “The Real and Imagined Perils of Being an Endurance Athlete.” It begins:

Back when I started running in the 70s, I often had to deal with the questions, “Why are you running so much?” and “What do you think about out there?” Like many of you, I put up with or ignored those silly questions and just kept on truckin’.

In fact, “Why are you running so much?” and “What do you think about out there?” are perfectly reasonable questions. Sure, it can be tedious to answer them over and over and over, but true running ambassadors will respond willingly and patiently, thus demystifying the sport for their acquaintances and perhaps even gaining a few converts. To brush off such inquiries as silly does not help the cause.

Praeger continues:

…Every month I read another article about the perils of endurance athletics…. In a recent article in the journal Heart, Dr. James O’Keefe from Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City proposed that people who run too often or “too fast” have the same mortality as sedentary slobs…. Though his work has been thoroughly debunked and discredited by other cardiologists, the tenor of the article is repeated elsewhere in our popular culture.

These words suggest that O’Keefe is a lone quack whose only success has been in attracting publicity. Actually, he leads a team of research physicians who are publishing their work in respected peer-reviewed journals. Not everyone agrees with their findings, but the team is making a legitimate contribution to the field of exercise research, as Amby Burfoot has explained.

After further discussion, including examples of physicians’ genuinely nutty warnings from the 1890s, Praeger writes (under the heading of “Spreading misinformation”):

…I see at least three distinct causes for all of this hand-wringing and proscriptive do-goodery… Firstly … people who don’t work out need some justification for their non-participation… Secondly, there is the age-old Protestant distrust of having fun… Lastly, there is some semantic confusion between the meanings of “health” and “fitness”…

In listing these three poor reasons for worrying about exercise, Praeger implies that that there are no good reasons for doing so.

He concludes:

…When it comes to athletics and fitness, we all make choices and set priorities for ourselves. And anytime you try to impose your choices and priorities (your values) on someone else, you are being a prude, or a snob, or just a plain old pain in the ass.

I agree. The problem is that, by lumping together all exercise-related skepticism and rejecting it all as equally ludicrous, Praeger sounds as snobbish as those he’s criticizing. He should work harder to distinguish between imagined risks and sincere, reasonable questions.

[This was published as a letter in the May 2013 issue of Northwest Runner.]