Monday, July 7, 2014

2014 Summer Running Gear

Here in the Nation's capital, it is hot!  In the month of July, we typically will see 14 days that reach 90 degrees or higher, and with the high humidity, it feels much hotter.  To keep running, you need the right clothes and the right gear.  Here is what has been working for me this summer:

The North Face Better Than Naked Hat.  Before this summer, I never liked running with hats.  They made my head hot, and the headbands frequently gave me headaches.  It turns out, I was just wearing the wrong hat.  This ultralight hat from The North Face keeps the sun out of my eyes, the sweat off of my face, and my head stays cool.

The North Face Better Than Naked Shirt.  Is it insane to pay $50 for a running shirt?  Not if it feels like it's made out of butterflies' wings.  The Better Than Naked Shirt is insanely light, it wicks sweat away quickly, and it never gets wet and heavy.  This shirt is simply light years beyond any other I've tried.  Durability remains a question mark, but so far, so good.

Salomon Trail Shorts.   Sorry, North Face, but Salomon still makes the best runnning shorts around.  Soft, comfortable waist bands, pockets that hold everything I need, legs that don't ride up or chafe.  Perfect.

Drymax Running Socks.  I used to wear Drymax Lite trail socks, but the regular running socks have a more open weave that breathes better.  It turns out, nothing is better than the original.

Amphipod Handheld.  Amphipod claims that their ergonomic shape allows the hand to relax, thus eliminating hand cramping and tension.  Personally, I've never heard a single runner every complain of hand cramping.  Regardless, this handheld is far more comfortable to carry than the typical round bottle, and the curved shape makes it easier to fill at water fountains.  There are all sorts of versions with neoprene insulating sleeves, iphone pockets, and the like, but I prefer the most stripped down version for its lower weight and lower price point.

What's been keeping you cool?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on a few Comix and the Kindle Panel Viewer

Most of the comics I’ve read over the last six months were on the Kindle reader.  The “Kindle Panel View” presents first the full page of the comic, and then you scroll through each of the individual panels on that page. It’s fascinating, and has both benefits and negatives. On one hand, it’s difficult to see the complete picture that all of the integrated panels construct – which can be a problem when reading Alan Moore comics, or comics where the layout contains unusual panels. On the other hand, zooming in on some of the smaller panels provides an intense focus on the brushwork details of the (for example, some of the amazing inking in the Swamp Thing's Floronic Man).  Overall, I still find myself wanting to read comix in their original format, but I imagine if I had a larger color screen I’d feel differently.

So what have I read? Let’s start off with the most recent: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1, which contains issues #20-27 of the series run, starting from when the imitable Alan Moore took over writing the story of this strange plant man. The first issue is a creepy but pretty straightforward closing of plot lines from the previous writer blatantly called “Loose Ends.” But with the next issue Moore started to put his stamp on the story, taking us into a trippy world where the Swamp Thing is more than just a cheesy monster but something of great power and beauty. Moore takes us on a journey, showing us how Swamp Thing realizes that the bio-restorative formula accident (a formula "that can make forests out of deserts") that that everyone thought  turned scientist Alec Holland into Swamp Thing in reality simply put Holland’s consciousness in some elemental plant-thing. (It’s much more interesting than I’m making it sound.) Despite the stories’ cosmic and epic nature, Moore's writing remains very human – giving us a depth of feeling and motivation behind most of the major characters in a way that most major label comics simply don’t have. Does it all work? No – cameos by the Justice League are strained, and the later issues where Swamp Thing confronts the bizarrely-clad demon Etrigan aren't nearly as moving as the issues without the rest of the DC Universe. Still, Moore’s immaculate pacing and creepy sensibility shine through, supported by Stephen Bisette and John Totleben’s detailed and creepy drawing. Their art - a strange mixture of awkwardness and twisted beauty – consists of lots of crosshatching flowing together in fascinating ways. It’s not at it’s best when depicting action sequences, or traditional “men-in-tights” superheros, but then that’s okay, since at it’s core this is a horror comic par excellence.

(As a side note, since I was reading this on the kindle it was black and white. I've since taken a look at the colored version on the iPad and it was a MUCH lesser experience IMO - the garish colors overwhelmed and took away from the mood and the beauty of the art. Be warned.)

Now the term "horror" is overused these days – it’s more of a genre description than a description of a feeling. Take Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, for example. Uzumaki  (“spiral” in Japanese) tells the tale of KurĂ´zu-cho, a Japanese town that is haunted by the pattern of the spiral and is touted as “a masterpiece of horror magna”. It’s a fantastic comic, one that’s genuinely creepy, disgusting, and macabre. But the book as a whole I can’t promote as true horror because the stories don’t combine to tell a complete tale. In reality, after the first few issues honest characters would have run screaming from the town, or crumbled into insanity under the weight of what they saw and their inability to escape it. But this is due partly to the episodic nature of monthly comix: Ito sets up his theme and explores it in inventive and genuinely creepy ways. (The man’s ability to generate genuinely horrific and disturbing images is uncanny.) But like weekly tv shows, the characters needed to be reset before each episode, or change so incrementally that they’re essentially the same. It's only as the series starts to reach its conclusion in the last few issues that it starts to really tell a cohesive tale. In short, despite many excellent moments, it doesn't have the depth of character to inspire the same levels of horror as Moore. But some of those images will just not leave my mind.

I should say that it's unfair to compare any other comics to Moore’s work. His ideas that span multiple issues or volumes seems to rise up out of him fully formed. For instance, check out Watchmen, and how single graphic frames in one issue will have powerful implications many issues down the road. Anotehr great example are the incredible multi-page spreads in Promethia where the art promotes the theme of the story while also moving forward the plot. In short, Moore thinks thematically while retaining a command of the details - a hard skill in any field, but one that is in short supply in comix.

Unless you also read Carla Speed McNeil's Finder, that is. She's the first comix artist since Moore that has impressed me with her thematic reach while being so impressive at a detailed level. (and I'm talking really detailed: check out the depth of thought revealed in the footnotes of her Finder Library volumes and you get a real sense for the amount of time and effort she's spent building up her world.) I have Volumes 1 & 2 and while I can’t say that I understand everything about it, she’s is simply a fantastic storyteller: both engaging & entertaining. What I love are the sheer profusion of bizarre details in her "aboriginal science fiction" – most of the stories take place in a far future where everyone lives in domed cities with fascinating technology, not all of which works (some details of maintenance have been lost to time). The main plotline is ostensibly about Jaegar, an aboriginal of some kind who can both track anyone (the Finder of the title) and serves as a “sin eater” (Wikipedia describes it as being a “ritual scapegoat” which I really like).  However, my favorite plot is Dream Sequence, where Magri White, a person who grows an extremely popular virtual reality in his head around which a successful corporation grows – but when White starts to lose his grip on reality, the people hooked on the world in his head start suffering strange and dramatic fates. The skill by which she weaves the effects of the big story together with the struggle in White’s life – and how she visually depicts White’s loosening grip on reality – is very complelling, to the point where I’ve revisited the story multiple times since it was first published in the late 2000s.

So other than the occasional Hellboy, that’s all of the comix I’ve been reading these days. What else should I be checking out?

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Show me the money!

In 2012, the Red Sox famously shipped Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford off to Los Angeles, shedding more than $250 million in future salary obligations in the process.

While the Sox held on to the big salaries of fan favorites such as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, they didn't take on any new big salaries; instead, filled the gaps with a ragtag group of journeymen.  And as a result, absolutely nobody expected them to contend.  (Just as an example, when over 40 "experts" at ESPN were polled before the 2013 season, only two predicted that the Sox would even make the playoffs, in each case as a wildcard.)

But contend the Sox did, and suddenly team owners and management looked like the smartest guys in the room.  They could win without spending money!

And indeed, that seems to have been the mantra for 2014.  (Ellsbury, who needs him?)  Thus, whenever there has been a hole to fill, all the Sox have done is called up one minor leaguer after another.  It doesn't even matter if they play the position that needs filling.  (Is the outfield still not producing?  Try Mookie Betts!)

Already, the Sox are one of only four defending World Series champions ever, and the first since 1998 to have three or more rookies start 40 or more games in a season.  And we're not even to the midway point yet!  By the end of the season, Betts and perhaps some others will be added to the list as well.

It's no wonder the Red Sox offense is foundering, despite the obvious passion of Pedroia and the other team leaders.  But in the meantime, what's been overlooked is what an impressive display of pitching the Sox arms have been putting on.  So, here's a nice stat: between May 28 and tonight, the Sox have held their opponents to three runs or fewer in every home game, the longest such streak in team history. But what do they have to show for it?  The Sox are either losing games by a single run (18 so far, the most in the AL), or they are having to send Uehara out in the 9th yet again.  And Uehara is starting to fall apart under the workload, even if Farrell won't admit it.

What is the solution?  Offense.  For starters, put someone in the outfield who can hit, finally.  Find a real replacement for Ellsbury, someone who is proven at the big league level.  In other words, John Henry, show me the money.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Running to the Empire State

The itch is getting scratched! I just committed to lacing up for the Empire State Marathon in Syracuse, NY on October, 19th. I've wanted to give 26.2 another go ever since my first attempt ended with a knee injury and a 12.5 min/mi pace.

So my training cycle is starting anew. I’m starting off with a solid base, having averaged 4 runs and ~23 miles a week since the MPP half in March. The goal now is to start ramping up the mileage, mainly through longer runs on the weekend. It will be challenging as I’m in the process of moving my family to a new house, but I can't think of better motivation to get out the door.

My initial thinking is that i'd like to finish between 3:45 and 4:00 but we'll see how I feel in a few months. Regardless, look for some posts in the future as I determine what my training plan will be and how my experience of training for this race will be different than training for the KBVCM.

Related Posts:

Friday, June 6, 2014

Book Review: Sergei Lukyanenko’s "Night Watch"

My attempts of describing of the plot of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch would take a carefully crafted world and crudely distill it down to an artless pulp, so you can read what it's about on Amazon. Lukyanenko doesn't  help matters by calling his agents of the Light and the Dark “the Others,” an unfortunate phrasing bringing to mind 50s B-movies and overwrought Nicole Kidman movies. But Lukyanenko infuses his struggle of good and evil with refreshingly liberal doses of Russian-tinged ambivalence and philosophy which, to this American reader, lifted the story above other countless fantasies superficially like it.

Anton Gorodetsky, the narrator for the large majority of the book, is a human with extraordinary magical powers. However, these powers don’t make him happy; rather, they're a burden that separates him from the rest of humanity and whose responsibilities weigh down his soul. This isn't helped by the fact that the collections of good and evil are divided into overtly complex and shadowy bureaucracies whose rules and structures provide an ironic blue collar contrast to the story. For instance, after a particularly rough experience, Anton’s team goes on holiday to the country and as a drunken bender, leading to this delicious observation:
“…now he understood what real Russian drunkenness was all about. … It’s all about waking up in the morning with everything around you looking grey. Grey sky, gray sun, grey city, gray people, gray thoughts. And the only way out is to have another drink. Then you feel better. Then the colors come back.” p.398
Anton drinks and desponds because this is heavy stuff. When things like the fate of the world and a keeping a millennium-long truce between good and evil hang on what you can accomplish, you might need a drink. And Lykyanenko does not take it easy on Anton – in the world of the Night Watch, the best you can hope is to not fuck up. To wit:
“Sveta, we’re not given the chance to choose absolute truth. Truth’s always two-faced. The only thing we have is the right to reject the lie that we find most repugnant. Do you know what I tell novices about the Twilight the first time? We enter it in order to acquire strength. And as the price for entering it we give up the part of the truth that we don’t want to accept.” p. 24
Another rehashing of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, this is not. It's a dark book with a sensitively ambivalent heart. Anton wallows in for most of the book in Russian cynicism, but this only makes occasional flights into romanticism that much more powerful, partly because of the lack of irony. Lukyanenko’s writes as if the struggle is not only ongoing right now but also the most urgent thing in the world. All of this in an entertaining story that sprinkles its adventure and mysticism with a variety of interesting dilemmas. It kept me solid company for two solid weeks and I miss it's view of the world. I'll have to try one of its many sequels one of these days.

Cross posted on Thought Ambience.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

C&O Canal 100: Race Report and a Few Reflections

I ran my first 100-miler last weekend, on April 26-27. 

This was the second year of the C&O Canal 100.  Except for a few miles, the course is entirely along the C&O Canal towpath.  The 184.5 mile long canal was built in the 1820s, roughly paralleling the Potomac River, as a means to haul coal and other products.  The towpath alongside it --essentially a dirt road -- was intended for mules to pull barges along the C&O Canal.  The canal was largely abandoned after 1924, but the towpath remains as a popular route for walkers, hikers, and runners.  During the course of the race, I crossed paths with numerous boy scout troops, numerous Sierra Club members completing a one-day 100-km hike, residents of local towns engaged in their daily exercise, and a handful of lovebirds enjoying wide open views of the Potomac.

This race is held at the right time of year.  The director set us on our way at 7 AM, shortly after sunrise.   Depending on where on the towpath you were, the temperatures reached about 75 degrees in the late afternoon, and dipped down to to 37 degrees just before dawn on Sunday.  The bluebells were out in full force, the new leaves on the trees provided plenty of shade, and along the route I enjoyed the sounds of the songbirds in the morning, frogs in the evening, and the rustling of deer in the woods at night.

I didn't use a run/walk system, but I took walk breaks frequently.  Here, my race walk training served my well.  I traveled light, carrying only the essentials, but packing my drop bags with every conceivable thing I could think of, without exceeding the size limits.  After mile 27, I would have access to them approximately 10 miles.  My ovepreparedness served me well when, halfway through the race, I realized I had left my handheld water bottle at an aid station two miles back. Happily, I had spare one in my drop bag five miles up the road. 

The volunteers couldn't have been more amazing.  Every time I rolled into an aid station, I felt I had my own personal crew, bringing me food and ice cold towels, swapping out batteries in my headlamp, taping my blistered feet, and preparing bags of food for me to take before I left.  This is all the more important because there are only five points during the race where crew have access.  My family was able to come see me at two of them, and knowing they would be there was a huge boost.

I didn't spend much time training to run at night, and was curious how mind and spirits would react.  I found the dark hours to be peaceful, and the stars to be amazing.  Around mile 70 my legs suddenly loosened up and I found myself running freely.  My mind did play a few tricks me, making me think that I saw specters on the road up ahead, including the ghost of a woman around the Catoctin Creek crossing.  After the race, while researching the history of the canal, I read a lady ghost had been reported on that stretch of the canal during its operating days.  If she is still there, I like to think she is cheering on the runners.

The temperatures dropped continually through the night.  Though I've spent a lot of time running in much colder weather, I wasn't fully prepared for how my body react to near-freezing temperatures after running for nearly 24 hours. I spent a good chunk of time at an aid station in front of a heater with cup after cup of hot soup, shaking off some mild hypothermia. I saw several other runners at various times dealing with the same issue.

Fueling and hydration went totally fine, except for 30 minutes of indigestion after an aid station where I ate too much.  For shoes, I chose to wear the North Face Single-Track Hayasa II, which provided plenty of cushioning and support.  I saw others wearing everything from huaraches up to Hoka One Ones.

A week later, I am feeling good and ready to start running again.  My sense is that doing well in a 100-miler is half about fitness, and half about the ability to avoid or solve problems.  While I did pretty well, there are some potential issues that I still need to think about. 

Regardless, I got it done, and am happy.  For that, I am thankful to my friends for their advice and for joining me in long runs, and to my family for their confidence in me and their willingness to support my running schedule.  Splits and so on are available on Strava.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Red Sox: 2014 prediction post

So I look pretty foolish after predicting last year that the Sox would go 77-85. But as a long, longtime Sox fan, it was in my blood to be pessimistic. Still is. So, I'm going to double down and predict that in 2014 the Sox go ... 77-85.

Oh, sure, it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and declare them favorites to win the World Series. But consider, from Mike Carp and Shane Victorino all the way up to Big Papi, this was a group that greatly overperformed last year. It was awesome and it would be awesome if they would do it again. But more likely, they'll return to something closer to their historical statistical averages.

Given that, what have the Sox done to make themselves better? Well, they went out and got Grady Sizemore. I loved the deal, and still do, given the price tag. But there's a good chance he's going to get hurt. Beyond that, the Sox lost Jacoby Ellsbury, they replaced Jarrod Saltalamacchia with a catcher twice his age, they turned the all-important right side of the infield over to a couple of guys with less than a year of experience between the two of them combined, and they let their aging starting rotation get a year older without any infusion of young blood.

Meanwhile, the Yankees and the Orioles have both gotten better. And the Rays still have the best pitching staff in the division, not to mention a scary lineup that inclues Evan Longoria and Rookie of the Year Wil Myers.

So, think back to the 2005 Red Sox, who looked a lot like the 2004 Red Sox, but only managed to capture the Wild Card before being swept in the ALDS. Or the 2008 Red Sox, who at least managed to get as far as game 7 in the ALCS. The truth is, its very, very hard to repeat in the big leagues, even when your team is stacked. And the 2014 Sox ain't stacked.

So, my gut and my mind both say 77-85. I hope I'm wrong.