Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category


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.]


A brief history of Uli’s times

March 8, 2013

So there I was at a birthday gathering for Uli Steidl, wanting to sing him the parody I had written at the gym that day (“Uli Uli,” to the tune of “Louie Louie” as performed by The Kingsmen). But I couldn’t comfortably sing and play the keyboard simultaneously, and nobody else would join me on either keyboard or guitar.

“Come on, people,” I pleaded, “it’s three chords! A-A-A, D-D, E-mi-nor, D-D … over and over and over again. Anyone? Anyone?”

At last Joe spoke up. He had played the piano a bit as a teenager and was willing to unretire for an evening. For 15 minutes we worked in the corner of the room while the others ate cake and talked. Once we labeled the keys with a dry-erase marker, he started hitting the right ones pretty consistently, but I worried that he might never get the rhythm down. Like the long-distance runner that he is, though, he persisted until he got it.

Then he tried to continue while I sang softly. That derailed him, but only temporarily. He tried ignoring me, focusing only on his notes while I followed his beat, and that seemed to work.

Finally we got everyone’s attention and gave it our best shot. Joe hung in there like a champ, others joined in on the chorus, and, if I do say so myself, my lead vocals were appropriately gritty and emotive.

the Gray/Crowther warmup
Gray and Crowther warm up. Photo by Joe Creighton.

* * * * * * *


sung to the tune of “Louie Louie”
as recorded by the Kingsmen (1963)

Uli Uli, oh no —
He’s gettin’ old!
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said,
Uli Uli, oh baby —
He’s gettin’ old!

He grew up in southeastern Germany;
Rode his bike all around the country.
At 17, he went to a 10K race;
Didn’t have a clue, but took 1st place.


Uli came to Portland and then U-Dub;
Joined the Seattle Running Club.
Once got invited to go to Pyongyang, [rhymes with “song”]
So he ran a 2:13 marathon!


Uli got lonely; he made a wish.
Things got better when he met Trish!
Now they coach together on Capitol Hill,
But he keeps running and he’ll beat you still!



“Run Simple”: a conversation with author Duncan Larkin

March 2, 2013

Last November, a Taiwanese woman interviewed me about trail running. That was the ostensible topic, anyway; four of the five questions addressed the clothing, gear, and cross-training equipment that one might use in becoming a trail runner.

Concerned by this focus on “running stuff” rather than the actual act of running, I recommended that the interviewer read the book Run Simple by Duncan Larkin.

Then I decided that I should probably read it too.

“Run Simple” is a good, provocative title, but it doesn’t mean exactly what you think. I was surprised, for example, to find that one full chapter is devoted to cross-training exercises, and another contains detailed 8- to 16-week training schedules. Wanting to ponder the nature of simplicity a bit further, I conducted an email interview with the author.


1. The title “Run Simple” reminds me of Apple’s colloquial-sounding “Think Different” slogan. Was that parallel intentional? Would an adverb (i.e., “Run Simply”) have been too sophisticated or elegant for a book about simplicity? Chapter 6 advises runners to wear cheap clothing, even if it looks a bit shabby; did you want the title to have a rough-around-the-edges feel too? Or am I overthinking this?

The parallel between Steve Jobs’ brilliant philosophy of simplicity in terms of design and my own vis-a-vis running was not intentional. Originally, I wanted to call the book ORGANIC RUNNING, and even suggested MAO’S LITTLE RED BOOK FOR RUNNERS, but those titles were rejected by my publisher, who kept seeing the word “simplicity” in my manuscript and made the suggestion, because that’s really the overarching theme of the book. As it stands now, I like the title, because it does have a rough-around-the-edges feel and is itself minimalist (just two short words that hopefully reach out and grab people when they see the cover).

2. In the book’s opening chapter, you describe how various experiences led you to simplify your approach to running over time. (The bit about your dog burying your $25 gloves was priceless.) Aside from the fact that you’re a writer, what made you want to create a whole book about your approach?

Great question. I wanted to write this book, because I felt compelled, almost obligated, to point out something very important to my fellow runners. Why? Because I feel a strong sense of loyalty to this community and want to help give back to it in some way. As I went to expos and lined up on the starting line of races, I saw thousands of well-intentioned people who thought (and had been conditioned to believe) that they could run faster if they spent their hard-earned money on solutions. Here in the United States, we tend to think that technology can make life easier for us in all facets of our lives, but I don’t necessarily think this is the case with running. I really didn’t see the “run simple” approach going on anywhere I went. I saw ads in running magazines and a whole lot of salesmanship going on in expos for GPS watches, technical tee shirts, specially designed running shoes, and electrolyte-infused jellybeans. I saw more and more of my fellow runners donning headphones and heart-rate monitor straps. I overheard conversations about “power songs” and witnessed people poring over biometric data that they collected during their runs in the effort to draw conclusions about their running that I think are quite basic to grasp. I think offering people this perspective and getting them to at least consider a simpler approach was worthy of a book.

3. Your book argues that many runners have become overly dependent on high-tech apparel and food and gadgets and so forth. What do think are the most egregious examples of this? Live-tweeting one’s runs? Monitoring heart rate 24/7? Ingesting expensive, specially formulated recovery foods after a 3-mile jog?

One that comes to mind is the time I saw a guy line up for the start of a one-mile road race wearing headphones. I can begin to understand people who want to listen to music after six hours of running, but why do you need to listen to music for six or so minutes? Are those two songs really going help you pass the time? Can’t you get motivated from just listening to the huffing of runners around you and the roar of the crowd? Another egregious example is the time I watched a track race (3000m event, I believe) and some guy was wearing a GPS watch. It’s a track for crying out loud; you get pace feedback every lap!

4. Your sample training schedules seem good to me, but are not what I’d call “simple” — there are 16 different types of workouts listed, plus cross-training exercises. To reconcile this with the simplicity theme, I’d say that you advocate keeping each individual day relatively simple (e.g., not worrying about exact paces and heart rates) while still pushing for lots of variety in any given month of training. Is that about right? Do you think a lot of serious runners are stuck in a rut of doing essentially the same workouts every week, and need to shake things up a bit?

To me, simplicity requires some level of method. A runner can’t just be told to run simple and then left with no ideas of what that means. I put forth 16 different types of sample workouts in order to get the reader thinking about how to apply the principles I espouse. Each of the workouts map to three key concepts: “race”, “rest”, and “just run”. I don’t expect the reader to memorize these workouts and try to figure out exactly when they should be doing exactly what. However, I do want runners to ask themselves every day which of the three concepts their body and mind crave and then run accordingly. I hope that eventually, after some degree of experimentation, readers come up with their own types of runs they should be conducting on the race, rest, or just run days. I debated for a long time whether or not to put sample training plans in the book, because I think sample plans can lure people into believing in what I call “running recipes” (e.g., If I follow the plan exactly, I will reach my race goal). But I believe putting plans in the book was ultimately necessary since it can help people see how to put everything together. That being said, I think each runner needs to come up with their own plan and that their plan doesn’t necessarily have to be a daily schedule; it can be much more abstract. As to your second question: absolutely. I think many serious runners reach plateaus and don’t alter their workouts or approach that much in order to break through. Why? Because most of us are creatures of habit. We pretty much run the same routes and do the same workouts. We have our dearly held routines. Forgoing them entails taking risks, and so I believe instead of significantly altering the approach, runners rush to the store for a solution.

5. The part of the book that seems most contrary to my notion of simplicity is in Chapter 7, where you suggest creating and studying wind maps and elevation maps for your race courses. I claim that the kind of runner you’re cultivating — one who reads his/her body well without high-tech aids — can run through changes in wind and elevation simply and effectively by sticking to a constant effort (aside from any drafting opportunities that arise). To what extent is this complementary to or in conflict with your view?

Yeah, I know it seems odd that a book espousing simplicity has a runner studying the race course the day before (or running on it in training) and creating a wind/elevation map. But a race is usually a pretty important event and so why not be prepared for it? By suggesting these ideas, I’m trying to set the reader up for success and help them as much as possible reach their goal. Thoreau, no stranger to simplicity, once penned that “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” So if you are exchanging large chunks of your life training in the pursuit of a race goal, then the price to attain it is high, and therefore the person should come prepared with knowledge. Running simple doesn’t equal racing ignorant. (e.g., I didn’t know there was going to be a 20mph headwind and a mile-long hill!)

6. Your book provides training schedules, but your ultimate goal is to help people create their own schedules based upon their individual goals and bodies. I applaud this, but it will be hard for some people to make this transition. What sort of feedback on this have you gotten from readers? What are the main difficulties (if any) that they have faced?

I’ve had a few people write me to say that they PR’d after reading the book, which was music to my ears. Most people tell me that they are unable to follow the schedules to a tee, which is great, because that’s what I want. Their main challenge with going out on their own has been keeping up the confidence that they are doing the right thing on a daily basis.

7. The book also provides examples of and interviews with runners and coaches who employ principles similar to yours. Who is your all-time favorite example of a “simple runner,” and why?

It’s hard to come up with an all-time favorite “simple” runner. I guess my top choice is Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauichi. I tried to interview him for the book, but unfortunately couldn’t connect with him. Why Kawauchi? He became a 2:08 marathoner while holding down a full-time job. His approach to training is surprisingly simple (just three structured weekly workouts: one long run, one speed session, and one soft-surface trail for recovery). He doesn’t train with gadgets; he doesn’t run on an Alter-G treadmill. He isn’t out promoting whatever product. To him, it’s all about putting in the miles and believing in yourself. I wish there were more pros like him.

8. Your main target audience for this book is people who want to achieve their racing potential. How would you modify your advice for people who aren’t particularly interested in races?

Do fewer “race” workouts in favor of more “just run” workouts. Racing is all about attaining comfort at a particular pace. If people don’t want to race, then don’t focus on that aspect, but I still would argue that this type of runner should at least do one “race” workout a week as breaking up the pace is good for preventing burnout.

9. Ultramarathons, especially trail ultras, could be considered the ultimate in simple running: enjoying nature for hours at a time, with competition and exact pace an afterthought for many participants. On the other hand, issues like refueling, maintaining the right body temperature, and seeing in the dark become more important in ultras, and can be addressed with the specialized products that you normally avoid. You’ve done a few ultras; what are your thoughts?

I recently did my first 24-hour race. I didn’t run with a headlamp (the course was lit). The only thing I carried was an 8-oz bottle. My fuel was whatever they had for me at the aid stations. I wore trainers with thousands of miles on them and my holy shirts/shorts were what I’ve been wearing for a nearly decade, so at least I practice what I preach! That being said, I think entering into the ultra realm requires some element of “gearing up”. There’s nothing wrong with getting a nice headlamp for night running and there’s nothing wrong with doing some research about finding the right fuel to consume, but I still think all runners should “gear down”. Most ultras do a great job supporting runners. Aid stations are stocked with pretty much everything a runner needs. The weight of carrying things for 100 miles, no matter how small, can add up to a significant amount, so I would suggest that ultra runners look at paring down in a race. They can best do this by experimenting in training.

10. “Run Simple” ends with a chapter of questions that readers might have, along with your answers. What additional Q&A would you now add, based on reactions to the book?

I would probably spend some more time clarifying why I have so many sample workouts in a book that supposedly espouses simplicity. I can see why some readers would be confused by that and I believe I need to add some more clarification about the purpose of these workouts.

* * * * * *

review of “Run Simple” (
The Most Dangerous Man in Running, and The Book He Wrote (


A [long-ago] Season on the Brink

February 2, 2013

I just read A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein’s chronicle of Bob Knight’s 1985-86 season coaching the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team. I was appalled.

Admittedly, my perspective is that of an outsider, both sports-wise and time-wise. I’ve had limited immersion in big-time college athletics; my cross country and track experiences at an NCAA Division III school of 2,000 students hardly seem relevant. Meanwhile, the culture of sports has changed over the past 27 years, and it’s questionable whether the events of the ’80s can be judged by the standards of today.

I couldn’t help myself, though. The farther I got into this book, the more I wanted to yell at the protagonist: “You insufferable, self-righteous, disingenuous prick! What right do you have to subject these students to incessant bullying, verbal abuse, and mind games? Do you really think that the goal of winning basketball games justifies such tactics? Do you? Huh? You’re the worst coach I’ve ever encountered! You make me sick!”

Such rhetoric would be an oversimplification of the truth, not entirely fair, and unnecessarily mean-spirited. But that’s exactly how Knight sounds in talking to his players much of the time. Thanks to the author’s thorough reporting, there is no doubt about this. Here’s just one example of a post-game harangue, typical except for a paucity of profanities, after a valient Indiana comeback falls short in a road game against Michigan State.

“Don’t even hang your heads,” Knight said angrily. “Don’t bother, because you don’t care. Don’t even try to tell me that you care. Every time you make a mistake you just nod your head. I told you at the half about those six points that we gave them. Ricky, you foul on the rebound with the score tied. Jesus. Harris and Jadlow, I’ve never had two more disappointing people here in my life. You two haven’t contributed two ounces to what we’re trying to do. You don’t improve or change from one day to the next.

“Boys, I want to tell you how long a season you’re in for if you don’t compete any harder than that.” He paused. His voice was almost choked now. “I never thought I would see the day when Indiana basketball was in the state it’s in right now.”

They went home dreading what was to come. The assistant coaches were genuinely frightened about what might happen next.

Feinstein provides numerous anecdotes like this, yet the book is not intended as a hatchet job. It begins with an unabashedly pro-Bob introduction from Knight’s friend Al McGuire, and ends with the following comments from the author.

As I finish this, I am reminded of an incident that took place in January. After the Indiana-Illinois game during which Bob kicked and slammed a chair, and kicked a cheerleader’s megaphone, Dave Kindred, the superb columnist for The Altanta Constitution, wrote that he was disappointed to see Knight acting this way again. Kindred, a longtime friend of Knight’s, ended the column by writing, “Once again I find myself wondering when it comes to Bob Knight if the end justifies the means.”

A few days later, Knight called Kindred. “You needed one more line for that damn column,” Knight said. “You should have finished by saying, ‘And one more time, I realize that it does.'”

Kindred thought for a moment and then said, “Bob, you’re right.”

I agree.

Feinstein provides evidence throughout the book that Knight cares deeply about his players, despite outward appearances to the contrary; that he occasionally gives them heartfelt praise; that he sticks up for them and helps them out after they graduate; and that he picks mostly on those who can handle it the best. But I just can’t get beyond Knight’s basic attitude, which I could paraphase as, “Winning is the most important thing in the world, and I’m willing to say and do almost anything to get my players to crave winning as much as I do.” That’s not an approach I can accept.

[Related: my review on]


Over the hill … and still climbing

January 17, 2013

On October 29, I was just about to start an uphill interval when I had an unsettling realization.

“I haven’t done a hill workout in over two years,” I announced to my training partners, “…because hills are bad for my Achilles.”

My left Achilles tendon had been feeling fine, so I went ahead with the workout, which didn’t seem to do any real damage. But boy was I slow! Ian and Tim repeatedly glided away from me as if I had just given blood.

In the long process of regaining fitness, regaining uphill speed has seemed especially hard. Eleven days after the workout noted above, I repeatedly climbed a Ravenna Park hill that, in my heyday, lasted about 83 seconds. Now I needed 95.

You know what, though? Training still works. I’ve since done a bunch more hills, supplemented with some stair-stepping at the gym, and I’m getting better. In last Saturday’s Bridle Trails 5-Mile race, I finally shed my 25-year-old pursuer with a surge on the course’s last ascent, about half a mile from the finish.

It was, if nothing else, a reasonable sign of progress.

post-race smile Hooray for hills! Race volunteer Eric Sach and runner-up Keith Laverty are in the background. Photo taken from Win Van Pelt’s collection.


2013: SRC turns 10

January 1, 2013

The Seattle Running Club celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

The club is asking people to share their favorite memories of the SRC and founder Scott McCoubrey, so here are a few relevant links:
* how Scott inspired me to become an ultrarunner (2005)
* Scott named Mountain/Ultra/Trail Contributor of the Year by USATF (2008)
* my profile of Scott for (2011)
* photo of Scott and me (2012)

Thanks, SRC!


Again to Carthage

November 25, 2012

Several years ago — well before my own recent two-year sabbatical from serious running — I read Again to Carthage, John L. Parker Jr.’s sequel to Once a Runner.

It’s a bigger book than Once a Runner, and less focused on running. There’s a lot of stuff about Vietnam, for example. But amidst the multilayered richness of the story, I found myself caring mostly about one issue: why did protagonist Quenton Cassidy, whose athletic retirement seemed so permanent in Once a Runner, return to elite competition?

The answer comes in a letter written by Cassidy to his old flame, Andrea.

There was one thing I did miss… It’s strictly a runner thing, I think…

What it was was this: when you’re a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending.

That’s it.

It’s a simple idea, but the more I thought about it, the more profound it became to me.

It’s not something most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you’re doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward an agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn’t that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?

In rereading this passage now, I find it close to the truth, but not quite right.

Striving for continuous improvement is indeed “ennobling,” as Cassidy writes a bit later in the letter. But the striving per se isn’t as unique to running as the character and perhaps the author believe.

Running is special because you can test yourself whenever you want, and you can quantify your performance with exceptional convenience, clarity, and accuracy.

Yes, there are variables that can complicate the analysis somewhat: weather, terrain, competition, etc. But we can account for these variables much more easily than we can account for, say, the impact of the other members of one’s soccer team or sales team. And we can quantify overall performance directly, rather than using partial indicators like “goals scored” or “number of new customers.”

The ability to make frequent, meaningful measurements is important to me as I start working my way back into shape. I haven’t run this slowly since 2003 (the last time I was returning from an Achilles injury), but I can chart my progress easily and convincingly, and be encouraged by it.


Not getting old

November 18, 2012

Yesterday I turned 39.5.

I don’t celebrate half-birthdays; usually I don’t even notice them. But yesterday I was exactly six months away from masters competition, which offers significant prestige and reward to those who excel.

I decided to mark the 6-months-out point with a race — my first race since my Achilles injury in 2010 and surgery in 2011.

While many of the fittest Seattle runners were in Spokane for the regional cross country championships, I headed to Magnuson Park for the first-ever Mustache Dache 5K.

I wasn’t sure how competitive the Dache would be. There were hundreds and hundreds of people with numbers on, but the singlet-to-costume ratio was quite low.

As the race began, I settled into about 7th place, with the top six within 10-15 yards. The pace — 5:15/mile? — felt brisk, given my current fitness, but manageable.

A bit less than one mile in, the tempo seemed to slacken. I surged mildly to the front of the lead group. That felt fine, so I extended the mild surge and distanced myself from the others without too much trouble. And that was that. I won by 17 seconds.

Regardless of the exact circumstances, it’s always exhilarating to take command of a race. To assert one’s fitness and experience and, in doing so, dictate the outcome. To announce, “Thank you for playing, but you are now playing for 2nd.”

However childish or arrogant this pleasure may be, it hasn’t gotten old in three decades of racing. I don’t think it ever will.


Now We Are Six

October 21, 2012

Phil turned 6 yesterday.

He spent much of the day building new Lego vehicles and structures with his usual focus and purposefulness.

aerial view of construction

playing with his favorite gifts

following directions

One other highlight of the day came at Phil’s introductory soccer class for 5- and 6-year-olds.

For the first few weeks, the class’s connection to the sport of soccer has been rather tenuous. It might best be described as “activities taking place at a soccer field.” But a portion of yesterday’s class was devoted to bona fide 3-on-3 scrimmages, and in the opening minute, Phil somehow broke free of the ball-chasing pack and scored.

It was a good day for both of us.


From the SRC blog: “The race of his dreams”

August 4, 2012

Joe Creighton asked me to write something for the Seattle Running Club blog about Sage Canaday’s course record at the 2012 White River 50, so I did.