Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: Issac Asimov's "Foundation"

Foundation, the first novel in Issac Asimov’s famous Foundation series, speculates how to use a scientific sociology (here called “psychohistory”) to predict (and control) future events. As with most of Asimov’s writing, the prose is frequently leaden, but this is secondary to the ideas and plot. Indeed, the whole fun of this book is seeing how Hari Seldon’s plans to reduce a coming “galactic dark age” from 30 millenniums down to one plays out on an epic scale. And it is fun seeing Seldon's original hints and insinuations come to fruition, even if I didn't find it as engaging during my second reading. Still, I've read a fair amount of epic “space operas” since Foundation and very few of them stack up to the original. Recommended.

Cross posted on Thought Ambience

Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book"

A fun, fairy-tale like YA novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is filled with magic, both literally and figuratively: many scenes are constructed such that you truly experience a sense of wonder. Magical books are a cliché, yes, but reading TGB reminded me of the books I loved as a kid, and how the world seemed new and filled with opportunity afterwards. What is magic if not that?

Not surprisingly given its title, the book starts with a murder. A boy’s parents are killed, and the only thing that saves the boy is being adopted by the ghosts and specters of the local graveyard. They raise him as one of their own, and his ongoing education is a fun take on the myths and history of these supernatural creatures.  (It's apparently loosely based on Kipling's The Jungle Book.) In particular, Silas, a vampire that takes the boy – now named Nobody Owens – under his care, is wonderfully depicted in how his fatherly nature and vampiric nature conflict and complement each other. My only criticism is that the story can occasionally feel a bit too pat, but that's probably the result of the genre more than anything, and certainly a minuscule price to pay for this little gem of a book.

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Margaret Atwood's "MaddAddam"

Ever since I stumbled across an old paperback of Cat’s Eye, I've loved reading Margaret Atwood. Everything that I've read has been well constructed, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining. So I'm a bit surprised to have to report that MaddAddam - the final entry in her Oryx and Crake dystopia - is not the slam dunk I expected it to be.

Don't get me wrong: Parts have the propulsive narrative and interesting ideas that made the previous two books in this trilogy – Oryx and Crake (the best!) and The Year of the Flood - so compelling. But I’d be lying if I didn't say that I thought the characterization of the female characters – especially Toby, such a strong woman in TYotF – to be weak and inconsistent compared to their previous lives. Hell, Toby spends a good part of this book pining for or wallowing in jealousy for a man! In addition, parts of this book are - sadly - boring. This may be to the fact that she's revisiting scenes we've seen before in previous books, but also it's due to her framing devices, in which events are depicted at a distance. This is especially problematic with the climax of the novel, which is told as an afterthought and thus so removed from real-time action that it feels like a dream, and makes its repercussions (which were also blatantly foreshadowed beforehand) seem unreal.

This doesn't mean that the book isn't worth your time! On the contrary, any time spent in Atwood’s O&C world is worth it. It's a place where humanity has come to a horrible end through the efforts of the titular biologists who both design an ideal human being (the “Crakers”) and also unleash the apocalyptic virus via a designer vitality drug. There are so many fascinating and scarily prescient ideas here that exploring them is half the fun. MaddAddam in particular really gets rolling when she starts exploring Zeb’s story, the fascinating tale of this preacher's son who ends up intertwined in the lives of all of the main characters in what lead to the end of humanity.

Overall, though, what I found most interesting about MaddAddam was it's strange combination of hope and rebirth to what had been a relentlessly grim series. (The previous books read like The Road as written by Kurt Vonnegut.) The main arc of this third book is humanity’s efforts to rebuild and reestablish itself, perhaps most importantly with how to define its relationship with the Crakers and the other GMO beings (especially the pigoons: a pig with implanted human stem cells who escaped from their organ-harvesting fate and how are one of the most intelligent post-apocalyptic species).  And while I read the end of the book to be a delightfully snarky and ambivalent take on where all this might end up, overall MaddAddam is an interesting (if uneven) take on what happens the day after the world ends.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Vicki's Death March - 2013

On Friday, I joined up with a group of other VHTRC members to run the 10th annual Vicki's Death March, a scenic run through some of the best trails in Shenandoah National Park.

My thermometer read 20 degrees at the start, so there wasn't much lollygagging.  Quatro Hubbard offered a few comments and made sure everyone had turn sheets, and then we were off.  The group quickly broke into smaller groups according to ability and desire.

After a long push up White Oak Canyon with its spectacular waterfalls, my group found itself pondering whether conditions would allow us to keep going up to Hawksbill Peak, the highest point in the Shenandoahs, or jump on the Appalachian Trail and cut things short.  We saw more footprints going up than coming down, and decided to give it a go.  I'm glad we did.

While the running should have been mostly downhill from there, we were also a section that got very little sun, and the ice made the footing treacherous.  Happily, I only slipped and fell once.  On some of the steeper downhill slopes, my hip was giving me trouble, a holdover injury from the Stone Mill 50 two weeks before.
At about mile 13 I left my group go on ahead while I stopped to take a few pictures.  Despite my best efforts, I never caught them again.   Without their guidance, I found myself frequently referring to the turnsheet, determined to cover the entire course.

 When I got back to the car, I discovered that my group had stopped in at Skyland Resort (mile 15.6) for pie and coffee, and then taken a shortcut back.  Indeed, many of the more experienced runners took advantage of the day to run longer or shorter routes, according to their own pleasure.  In fact,  as I discovered while looking at my GPS track later, I managed to put a couple of extra miles on, most of it around the Stony Man cliffs and again while looking for an unmarked path to the Corbin cutoff.

All in all a fantastic day.  Thanks to Quatro and the other VHTRC members who organize this outstanding run.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Washington, DC Area Ultramarathon Reviews

This year, I have run three ultramarathons in the Washington, DC area: the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile (June 1, 2013); the Athletic Equation 12-hour Adventure Trail Run (September 21, 2013); and the Stone Mill 50 Mile (November 16, 2013).

Rather than writing up a blow-by-blow of each race in its entirety, I thought I'd suggest some of the pros and cons of each race for those who are looking to run 50 miles (or so) in the DC area next year.

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile

  • Big Name.  The North Face Endurance Challenge is a big name race, as far as 50-milers go.  While local favorite Michael Wardian won the 2013 race, top competitors come from all over the country.  In addition to rubbing shoulders with the greats, you'll get treated to a lively sendoff and a serious finish line festival. 
  • Scenery.  Every other photograph of race is of the short section that requires rock hopping high above the Potomac gorge, but frankly, the entire course is beautiful, which runs along the wide Potomac and then in the hills of Great Falls national park, is amazing.
  • Swag.  The race costs $90 if you register on time, but it comes with some serious swag, including a high quality silkscreened technical shirt, socks, and a water bottle.  And, yes, a medal if you finish.
  • Spectator Friendly.  There aren't many ultras that pass four times by a big grassy picnic area where your family and friends can chill out and have a good time.  This is one of them.  
  • Course.  The first fifteen miles of this race is mostly flat, luring many runners into a marathon like pace.  They pay for it when they hit 20 miles of steep hills and gravelly fire roads and the aforementioned rock hopping.  The fact that three repetitive loops are required doesn't help.  Then, its 15 more miles to get back to the finish line.
  • Weather.  To make sure that the Endurance Challenge lives up to its name, schedulers put it in early June, when the weather in Washington, DC is anything but great for running.  The weather can be above 90 degrees and humid, as it was in 2013, or it can be very rainy, creating a mud-fest like in 2012.  Don't be hoping to set any PRs.

The Athletic Equation 12-hour Adventure Trail Run

  • Flexibility.  This could be a fifty mile race, but it doesn't have to be.  The goal is to run as many 6.5 mile loops as you can, in under 12 hours.  Some runners are here to rack up the miles, while others are happy to knock out a fast 20 mile and be home before noon.  So, decide what you want to do, and don't worry about anyone else.
  • Ideal Weather.  While late September can occasionally get a little warm, this generally is the perfect time of the year to be running in a T-shirt and shorts.  
  • Aid Stations.  The beginning/end of the 6.5 mile loop is a rollicking loop with music blaring and an ever changing array of food throughout the day.  (The pierogis, in particular, were awesome.)  If you have your own supplies, this means you can also hit your drop bag every 6.5 miles.  Midway through the course is a self-serve water stop, so you can run all day carrying just a single water bottle.  
  • Spectator Friendly.  Your friends and family will basically end up tailgating in the parking lot, but they do get to see you come by every 6.5 miles.
  • Value.  For $85, you get a pretty low-quality t-shirt.  You'll also get a pint beer glass if you finish.  I wouldn't call this race a bargain.
  • Repetitive.  There's a lot to like about a 6.5 mile loop - the aid station, seeing your family and friends - but by the end of the day, they get pretty boring.  A couple miles of long straight fire in the middle of the loop don't help.

The Stone Mill 50 Mile

  • Price.  Only $35 for a 50-miler?  That's unheard of.  I don't care that there's no swag.  At this price, sign me up.
  • Course.  The course is essentially a lollipop, with 20 total miles of out-and-back, and a large 30-mile loop in the middle.  While you're not exactly out in the wilds, there is plenty of scenic natural beauty, and something new to see around every bend.  And if you want to set a PR, this is the place to do it.  The course is 99% non-technical, and mostly soft underfoot (except for a mile or two of suburban sidewalk.)  Lots of soft rolling hills (and one brutal hill at the end!) to keep different muscle groups engaged, while giving others a rest. 
  • Aid Stations.  With 11 aid stations, you'll have a place to stop, on average, every 4.5 miles.  Sure, some are better stocked than others (and those that are well stocked are amazing with everything from hot soup to quesadillas to Knob Creek whisky), but regardless its nice to know there's always a friendly face and fresh water around the corner.  And the volunteers here were uniformly the best and most supportive of those at any of the three races.   
  • Camaraderie.  Maybe its the low key nature of the race, but I just met a lot more cool, friendly runners here than during any other race.  
  • The Basics.  Sure, the price is great.  But having only a single toilet for men at the start of the race meant a lot of runners were late to start.  Similarly, not having access to drop bags until mile 29 meant really loading up my pockets and hoping that I didn't need a change of socks.  This is a race that demands self-sufficiency.  
  • Late Year.  Running late in November makes for cool weather, which is great, but legs can be tired from other races.  It also makes for icy streams (and I lost count of the number stream crossings.)  It also means that many of the runners had to finish in the dark.     
Of course, there are other 50-mile races in the area that I haven't yet run, most notably the Bull Run Run 50-miler, in April, and the JFK 50-Mile in November, which is the granddaddy of them all.  I hope to report back on some of these next year!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Autumn Trail Running in Rock Creek Park

If you haven't yet gotten your fill of fall foliage, there's still time to get to Rock Creek Park.  The trees in the valley are mostly bare, but up on the western ridge they are glorious.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Troubleshooting a Blank Screen for a Garmin Forerunner 110

I had a birthday a few weeks ago, and am now the a happy owner of a Garmin Forerunner 110. Overall, i'm very pleased with it - it's much more convenient than wearing my iPhone on an arm strap, and I love having my pace and time information available to me on my longer runs. But the experience hasn't been completely smooth; my computer doesn't always recognize the watch right away, forcing me to repeatedly connect and disconnect the watch to the computer.

One time, connecting and disconnecting the watch to the computer caused my watch's screen to go blank. It became completely unresponsive. Panicked, I turned to the Google and found this great article on BruSimm. It summarizes all of the solutions available out there and concluded with a crowdsourced solution that worked for me:
Brusimm reader Steve G said he didn't have good luck with any of the first four suggestions, but he called Garmin, who added this new aspect to the potential fixes:
  • While the watch is connected to the charger,
    • Hold the light and start/stop buttons at the same time for 20 seconds.
  • In addition, connect the watch to the clip BEFORE connecting it to the charger.
    • When the clip is being connected and then unconnected, it causes problems for the watch.
Be sure to click through for the entire article for good information. Hope this helps anyone else out  there that might have the same problems.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Best. Headline. Ever.

While I've enjoyed the moonshots and hot streaks as much as the next person, I can't say that I've ever been a huge Mike Napoli fan. However, that all changed this weekend:
Mike Napoli drunk, shirtless on the streets of Boston
You have to click through for the pictures. Priceless.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

2013 World Series Champions!

Here's to the World Champion Red Sox! Thanks for a hell of a ride!
AP Photo/David J. Philip

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988)"

What an interesting book. Vonnegut's 1987 novel is about many things, but it's essentially the diary of Rabo Karabekian, a one-eyed failed Abstract Expressionist painter and how he learns to accept his weaknesses and creativity towards the end of his life. The story skips back and forth between the present narration and the past – his growing up with his Armenian immigrant parents, struggling through an art apprenticeship, his rise and fall in the serious art world. Vonnegut, as always, entertains while pulling off something deep – his glib prose belies the depth behind the thoughts and experience it details. What I found most interesting about the book was the conflict between its generally cynical tone and, in the end, its generally positive message. In this respect, it’s an old persons novel. I'm not really sure how to express it, so let me include some examples. The cynicism:
“A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily communication with nothing but world’s champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name or him or her. We call him or her an “exhibitionist.”
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, “Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”
And the humanity:
"I think--it is somehow very useful, and maybe even essential, for a fine artist to have to somehow make his peace on the canvas with all the things he cannot do. That is what attracts us to serious paintings, I think: that shortfall, which we might call "personality," or maybe even "pain." "
(More quotes here.) 
Other than Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s other books haven’t always spoken to me. But this little gem of a novel blew me away.

Cross-posted on Thought Ambience

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Jon Lester, World Series Hero

Jon Lester has come a long way. After performing rather averagely last year and for part of this season, Jon Lester finished up the year strongly. And in the playoffs, he's been the Ace pitcher we all knew he had in him. In the World Series alone, he's pitched brilliantly, reminiscent of how fellow Texan Josh Beckett performed in 2007:
Jon Lester backed up 7 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 1 with 7 2/3 innings of one-run ball. He was incredibly efficient, needing only 89 pitches to record the 23 outs. He struck out seven, allowed four hits and recovered one paper airplane.
He's been so good that if not for Ortiz's incredible performance (hitting .733 with a .750 on-base percentage and 1.267 slugging percentage), he could quite possibly be named the MVP should (when!) the Sox go on to win. Fun to watch!

Related Posts:
Jon Lester, Settling In
What's Wrong with Lester?
Lester's No Longer an Ace?

Sunday, October 27, 2013


The Boston Globe calls game 3 of the 2013 World Series a game that "will go down in history for its controversy."

Even though I'm a Red Sox fan, I don't see why there should be any controversy.  The only thing that made the obstruction call unusual is that it happened at third base instead of second.  But regardless of where he is on the diamond, baserunner has the right to advance along the basepaths without anything (other than a defensive player who has the ball) getting in the way.

Will Middlebrooks was lying in the basepath in front of Allen Craig.  It doesn't matter that he didn't intend to be there.  It was his responsibility to be out of the basepath, or to face the consequences.  That's a risk he took when he dived across the basepath to try to field Saltalamacchia's bad throw.

One wonders what Saltalamacchia was even doing in the game.  Reliever Brandon Workman entered the game in the eighth inning, and then came to the plate to hit at the top of the ninth with the game tied.  But Workman didn't need to be batting at that key moment.  If Farrell had pulled a double switch, he could have put Workman in for Saltalamacchia in the 7-spot, and inserted Mike Napoli into the 9-spot.  Then, the Sox would have had Napoli batting in the top of the ninth instead, after which David Ross could be switched in as catcher.  That would have been the right move offensively and in hindsight, defensively as well.

Instead, we got a play the likes of which nobody has ever seen.

Although the umpiring was right-on, last night was another night of not-very-good baseball.  The Sox have now committed five errors in the world series, and the Cardinals have contributed four more.  Of the 24 combined runs that have been scored, only 18 of them were earned.

But even bad baseball can still entertain, thrill, and break hearts. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Race Report: TARC Fall Classic

thx to GoMotion and Topham Photography
It’s funny how things evolve. A few years ago, not only was I not running on a regular basis, but the idea of running on trails was something I had relegated to the closet with my high school XC mementos. Fast forward a few years and now I’m addicted to running as much as I can – and running in my first trail race since my senior year of high school. The event? The TARC Fall Classic – a loop through Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle MA on an absolutely fantastic fall day – a clear, chilly morning fading into unseasonably warm temps by late morning. I did the half-marathon (two loops) but runners could also do a 10K, marathon or a 50K. Most of the course was relatively smooth trails with some rolling, rooty hills, alternating with a few miles of fields and a highly technical 1.5 mile stretch towards the end (the Woodchuck Trail).

I had run the course a week before with Eric and Adam, so I knew what to expect. However, the race was structured so that the ultrarunners would go directly onto the trails while the half and full marathoners needed to do an extra field loop or two before hitting the trails. This meant that for good positioning, I needed to haul ass in order to get ahead of as many ultras as I could before hitting the single-track. As evidenced by my pace the first two miles, I did my best, but an unfortunately-timed loose shoelace meant that I lost valuable time and was stuck behind a fair number of runners by the time I started up Indian Hill.

I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is for passing runners on trails. In my high school days, I would have just bushwacked into the woods to pass someone, but now I don’t want to thrash up the wilderness and am much more aware of the risk of turning an ankle. So when I found myself behind someone on the single-tracks, I typically hung behind them, only passing when a suitable place presented itself. I’m sure I annoyed some foax but it I felt like I essentially stayed on pace.

A clear majority of the race was comfortable, striding up the hills and hammering the downhills. However, the extremely challenging Woodchuck Trail and its immediate aftermath was windy, extremely rocky , and with a lot of quick ups and downs. I traversed it the best I could, trying to keep my feet up, but you can see by the slow pace times how different it was from the rest of the course (miles 6 and 12).

At the end of the day, I scored a 5th place finish with a time of 1:42:25. I didn’t really know what to expect, given that I felt my training was just adequate—I wasn't doing a lot of speed work and certainly not as much technical trail work as (in hindsight) the course demanded--so I was pleasantly surprised by my performance. (Full results here.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the DIY food tables – easily the best I’ve ever seen at a race. Kudos to the TARC folks for throwing a great event – a challenging race with an atmosphere a perfect blend of friendly competition and campfire party. Perfect weather, good friends, solid run: you can’t ask for more than that!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend"

I finally picked up Richard Matheson’s famous 1954 novel I Am Legend because I kept hearing how all three movie adaptations (The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007)) were good but not only missed the point of the book but fucked up the ending. Thousands of geeks can’t be wrong, so I set off to investigate.

What I found is a book that reads like a fast-paced thriller, but in which not much really happens. Robert Neville is the last survivor in a world filled with vampires. His house is a fortress in which he (impatiently) waits out his nights before staking as many vampires as possible during daylight. While this situation doesn't feel new (especially the detailed biological research on the cause of vampirism) that’s only because of how many books and movies have built upon Matheson’s creation. In other words, this is the original post-apocalyptic zombie text (the vampires might as well be zombies—to the point where Night of the Living Dead was inspired by it). Despite a (now) over familiar subject, IAL holds up well. It’s an emotionally honest work that depicts Neville’s struggles with apathy, anger, alcoholism and many other emotions resulting from his life of isolation and horror.

The ending is a twist that is so cynically powerful that I can see why movie execs are scared of it. (Spoilers!) By showing how Neville’s quest for “good” turns him into “evil” from other points of view, RM taps into an uncomfortable truth of human nature: that we’re all capable of the darkest deeds—while telling ourselves that we’re behaving altruistically.  And in a world ruled by vampires, Neville is guilty of the most heinous genocide. Now picture Will Smith or Charlton Heston committing these acts and becoming the poster boy of evil! The movies can’t (or don’t have the guts), and so entirely miss the point of Neville’s unwinnable scenario. After all, who among us could have handled Neville’s situation any differently? Few – if any – of us, I suspect, and so we’re forced to rethink all of Neville’s actions from the lens of the ending – not a comfortable experience.

I’m happy I read this book, although I have to admit to being bored at times; parts of Neville’s investigation take too long, and Neville and Ruth’s discussions are extremely dated.  But overall the book is a powerful touchstone for a lot of current popular culture – and it’s always good to go to the source rather than relying on the pale imitations. And you gotta love that ending!

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fearless World Series Predictions

  1. The Red Sox will get to Michael Wacha.  The rookie righthander has been phenomenal, allowing only 1 run over his first three post-season starts.  Even more scary than his ERA is the fact that he's thrown 22 strikeouts and allowed only 4 walks over the same stretch.  But the Sox will solve him, if not in Game 2, then in Game 6.
  2. Big Papi will not be the MVP.  Sure, he's the favorite in Vegas (15/2), followed closely by Dustin Pedroia (8/1).  But I'm looking for a hungry Mike Napoli to come up huge, narrowly edging out Koji Uehara, who will be automatic, as always.
  3. Jake Peavy will knock in a key run.  Speaking of hungry players -- there is nothing that Jake Peavy wants more than this.  He's not the Cy Young pitcher he once was, so he'll find a way to get it done with his bat instead.  If Sox fans are lucky, maybe he'll even return to his 2006 form and let fly a home run...
  4. Red Sox in 6.  Just saying.

That's all there really is

"Look, runners deal in discomfort. After you get past a certain point, thats all there really is".

-  John L. Parker, Jr. in  Once a Runner

Marukami's "Samsa in Love"

I stumbled on this short story from Marukami.  Interestingly enough, the tagline says "October 28, 2013".  Hmmm...

At any rate, you can find the story here, if you're interested:

Let us know your thoughts if you read it!!

Monday, October 21, 2013

I Knew Someone Would

There hasn't been a lot of Red Sox talk around here lately because, quite honestly, we're all just enjoying the ride! I'm still having a hard time believing how good the Red Sox look, and in awe of how fun - and tense! - the series against Detroit was. This team is something special and i'm really looking to see how they perform against what sounds like a very solid Cardinals team.

And not to take away from anything, but I am curious about some of the decisions that Farrell has made recently. Admitably, most of them have worked, but here's what i've been wondering:

  • What horrible thing did Daniel Nava do to Farrell's dog to deserve being benched for a steady diet of Gomes in the playoffs? What happened to their effective regular season platoon? Please tell me it's not because Nava's beard pales in comparison...
  • He seems to have learned his lesson, but why did he stick with WMB so long when he had the remarkably patient Xander Bogaerts available? Bogaerts performance this postseason reminds me a bit of Ellsbury in '07 - he seems mature beyond his years. (And did you know he's from Aruba?)
  • Why is he pitching anyone other than Breslow, Koji, and occasionally Tazawa in relief? Watching Morales the other night was painful in the extreme. Again, I shouldn't criticize because he had the stones to pitch Tazawa's heat against Cabrera in game three - when the dominant Koji was sitting there! - and it worked beautifully.
Regardless of those quibbles, that Tigers series was unlike anything I've watched. These games were tense from start to finish, and filled with dominant pitching. I believe both teams set team records for playoff strikeouts, and other than the amazing, series-turning Grand Slam, Senior Octobre Ortiz did not actually hit well. But somehow despite it all I truly never got horribly nervous once Ortiz hit his huge HR. The team just seems to pull things out in the end, as their incredible 11 walkoff wins attest. Chad Finn, in his excellent post on Game 6 of the ACLS, encapsulated it well by quoting "...Brandon Workman's perfect postgame summation of how this team sees each other: "I didn't know who was going to step up. But I knew someone would." Looking forward to seeing who's going to step up in the World Series.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Reviews: Quick Hits

There hasn't been a lot of time for blog posts these days...  but I can assure you I've been reading, running and following the red sox.  I've read a few books of late and I'll provide a couple of notes on them below:

  1. The Blind Man's Garden (Nadeem Aslam):  A post-9/11 book focusing on the viewpoint of a family (and associates) in Pakistan.  Riveting to the point of being painful to read in spots.  It seems to have been written with the purpose of telling "the other" side of the story, maybe to Westerners.  The writing is impeccable.  The plot might be too brute-force at times.  I didn't like the ending.  I think it's a worthy read.
  2. How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Moshin Hamid):  Picked this up on the merits of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  Written in the voice of a self-help book, but you easily forget about that.  It follows the life of a boy (unnamed, in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country) from youth to old age, his life, his loves, his successes and his failures.  It's not a (Love in the Time of Cholera) love story, way too light-hearted despite covering some very heavy events.  It's somehow the voice that keeps it as such, and for that reason, the book breezes by, pulling you in but never too far, making you like, but certainly not love, the characters.  That's real...  and the story is fantastical for sure, but it feels so real, even without all the minor details.  I really enjoyed it, but likely won't always remember it (and I'm fine with that and happy to have read it).
  3. Pilgrim's Wilderness (Tom Kizzia):  Wow, I was not ready for this one!  I picked it up after hearing briefly about it...  thinking it was going to be a book about a big, religious family trying to live in the "old style" in the wilderness of Alaska.  And, sure thing, there is that...  but WOW, this story is twisted.  It's a true account, gripping, cold and brutal.  I did not enjoy it, but I read it to the end.  Papa Pilgrim is certainly one of those characters that will be hard to forget.

Next up on the nightstand are Colum Mccann's TransAtlantic and Russell Banks' The Darling.  And soon enough, Dave Eggers is back with The Circle.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Three Baseball Predictions

Now that the regular season has wrapped, we can start turning our interest not towards next year, as we have in years past, but towards the POST-SEASON!  I, for one, am quite excited, as every win feels like upside after last year, and every game builds the hope.  Unfortunately, we have to wait until Friday to see the Sox play their first post-season game.  In the meantime, I'll make 3 predictions about roster changes involving the Sox and/or Yankees for next year:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury will sign with the Yankees.  
2. Robinson Cano will not sign with the Yankees or the Red Sox.
3. Curtis Granderson will sign with the Red Sox.

I don't think the Sox will cough up the money Boras is going to ask for (for Ellsbury) and I think the Yankees will.  Granderson will likely sign a short term, highly-paying contract with the Sox to fill the CF role as the Yankees shift their focus to Ellsbury.  I think Cano wants out of New York and that the Sox won't want to offer him a contract long enough for his liking.  Some other team will add this massive weapon to their roster and possibly make him the highest paid baseball player of all time.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Book Review: China Miéville's "Railsea"

Imagine… a world… where oceans…. don’t exist. In their place are deserts covered with massive amounts of train tracks twisting every which way – a maze of tracks spanning the majority of the globe. Welcome to Railsea, a fantastic yarn by everyone’s favorite New Weird author China Miéville.

At its core, Railsea depicts the quest of Abacat Naphi, the captain of the “mole train” Medes, who is in obsessive pursuit of an ivory-colored “moldywarpe” (think monstrously large mole).  But it’s also a coming-of-age story of Sham ap Soorap, who starts off as an inept doctor’s assistant but through a combination of luck and self-growth finds himself at the center of a race to the edges of the Railsea in pursuit of mythical lands – and treasure! It’s a compelling story that blatantly lifts ideas from other books – the captain’s quest is from Moby Dick, the abandoned alien tech (called alt-salvage) that litters the landscape is from the Strugatsky BrothersRoadside Picnic, etc.) – so creatively that the story never feels derivative or uninspired. In fact, with only one or two exceptions I didn't know what was going to happen next, a rare quality that makes all of his books extremely compelling.

I’m told that it’s a YA novel, a relatively meaningless distinction but does explain the (pre?) teen narrator and lack of serious swearing and sex. Regardless, all of the things I love about Miéville re here: unfettered imagination, linguistic wordplay, ample demonstration of his fierce intellect, unapologetic left-wing politics, and (of course) gigantic monsters. Relax and pour yourself a nice drink because this one’s a fun ride.

Related Posts: Book Review: "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Jon Lester, settling in?

Like many of you, i've been disappointed with Jon Lester. Which is why last night's performance came as a big surprise - it's been a while since Lester has been able to blank an opponent, even one as offensively inept as the Giants. What I was more surprised to learn, however, was that Lester's season hasn't actually been that bad, as the fine folks at Over the Monster point out. There's a lot of great information in the post, but here's what I found most interesting:
In [three starts in June], Lester allowed 17 runs in just 15-1/3 innings of work, while striking out 14 batters against 10 walks. Six of his 18 homers on the year came in just those three games -- his home run rate the rest of the year looks very similar to that of Lester at his peak. Again, we're not scrubbing them from the record, but Lester packed together a significant portion of his awfulness into one teeny stretch -- 23 percent of the runs he's allowed all season came in these three contests.
 So, while Lester hasn't had a complete return to his dominant past, he's still been a highly reliable piece in the Red Sox rotation. Even with those three poor starts on his record, he has a 103 ERA+ and 4.09 ERA, and is on pace for over 200 innings for the fifth time since he became a full-time starter back in 2008 -- those innings are significant by themselves, as a look back to last year reminds: only 31 starters logged at least 200 innings, out of the 150 starting slots available around the league, and of the 286 pitchers who started a game. Even if Lester were only average when all is said and done, there's huge value in that volume of average.
Lester used to be an ace. He's not anymore, but he's still settling into performing as an above average pitcher - when he's not losing control of his mechanics like he did during those three awful starts in June. We just need to recalibrate our expectations of him.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ryan Dempster and Alex Rodriguez

Red Sox fans should be embarrassed by Ryan Dempster's intentional plunking of Alex Rodriguez last night.

I'm not sure that anyone saw this coming.  Dempster is generally known as a laid back, lighthearted guy.  While John Lackey was mouthing off about A-Rod's return to baseball, Dempster intelligently noted that even A-Rod has the right to play while he appeals his suspension.

But maybe, behind closed doors, the pitching staff convinced Dempster to do the job because he is the one that can most risk a suspension of his own.  Dempster is no late season pitcher, and this August he is particularly bad, with a 7.40 ERA through four starts.  Hell, it took him four pitches to plunk A-Rod.

Unfortunately, he also succeeded in getting the Yankees fired up.  They hit Dempster 9 times in 5-1/3 innings, including a towering home run by A-Rod.  With 3 hits last night, he was quite arguably the best player on the field last night.

So was it worth it?  The Red Sox benefitted from PED use during their two championship seasons.  Whether you think that's horrifying, or just part of baseball, it's more than a bit hypocritical to suddenly get huffy about A-Rod being on the field. 

More importantly, let's keep in mind that the Red Sox are only one game up in the AL East standings.  And if they fall behind the Rays, there is no guarantee of a wild card spot: the Orioles and the Athletics are both in heavy contention.  So, keep your eyes on the prize.  Let's play baseball, boys, not morality police.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Celebration of the Pedroia Deal

As you know by now, Dustin Pedroia signed an extension with the Red Sox that will keep him playing in Fenway until he's 38. At first glance, this seems like another one of those absurd long-term baseball contracts that never seem to pan out at the end (A-Rod, Pujols, etc.). But there's a couple of mitigating circumstances that seem, to me, to make the deal a good one. They are:
  • The compensation is a bell curve. Rather than the most expensive years of the contract coming at the tail end, Dustin will be making his most money in the middle of the deal (2017-2019) and only (only?) 13 and 12 mil respectively in 2020 and 2021. This becomes even more important when you take into account the endlessly escalating salaries for players. if Pedroia is an average player at the end of this contract, the Sox will most likely be paying for an average player.
  • The Sox are averaging out the cost of his early years. Most arguments against these types of deals is that the teams are "paying for past performance. While i'm sympathetic to that argument, the fact is that Pedroia was a steal for many years. Fire Brand of the American League took at look at his 2008:
    In 2008 he had 213 hits, 54 doubles, 17 home runs, 20 stolen bases (and was only caught stealing once), and an outstanding .326/.376/.493 slash line. He posted an outstanding 6.9 WAR and was the starting second baseman for the AL All Star team. In addition to that, he took home the Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and MVP awards. All of this from a player who celebrated his 25th birthday during the season, and pocketed a salary of just $457,000.
    So we can see his bigger salaries as evening out the cost of his earlier years. Of course, there's no guarantee that Pedroia will continue to be the excellent player that he currently is. But even if he becomes average, the value of the contract can be averaged out by looking at how much of a bargain he was for many years.
  • He'll be the face of the franchise. Currently, the only reason Dustin is not the main man on the Sox is the presence of one certain Large Father. But as impressive as Ortiz' late career resurgence has been, he won't be wearing the B for much longer and then Pedroia will be the main man on the team. Does this make sense from a baseball perspective? No. But from a business perspective - from the eyes of the owners who need to sell the team - it's a big deal to have a much-loved role model as the face of the franchise. I love the fact that "our guy" will be a 5'8" firecracker rather than some "perfect" player that has half of his personality.
  • Attitude. As a fan, I love how Pedroia plays the game. With passion, spunk, and unrelenting effort. I love the fact that he has never once talked or complained about his contract or how much money he has made. I love the fact that despite he's one of the best players in the league, he actively pursued a new deal that made him a Sox for live, regardless of the money. As he put it himself:
  • It was a no-brainer to me. This was a place where they gave me an opportunity to play professional baseball. I want to make sure I do all I can to prove to those people who take a chance on me right. I'm not here to set markets or do anything like that. I want to make sure the team I'm on wins more games than the other team's second baseman. That's the way I look at it.
Anyways, that's just details. In the end, I just love watching the guy play. I'm excited to know that Pedroia will be in Boston until he retires - it's just no fun watching your favorite players go to other teams. So for the next 10 years, you'll find me wearing my #15 shirt and rooting for the little guy!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Grandeur Peak

While taking a trip to Utah last week, I decided to hustle my way up to the top of Grandeur Peak, using the steeper trail from the west.  Eric has generously encouraged me to call this activity "running."

I decided to hit the trail before dawn, figuring that nobody would be around to see this slow East Coaster make his way up the mountain.  But as I got out of my car and got my bearings, a couple of trucks pulled up, and some guys jumped out, started their watches, and began running toward the trail.  There was no chance I'd be keeping up.

I nearly did turn my activity into a real run, though, when I missed the Grandeur Peak trailhead and just kept jogging along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.  After about five minutes, it hit me that this wasn't what a 29% grade was supposed to feel like.  I turned around and found my way to the single track trail that went straight up that mountain.

Within 1/2 mile I was huffing and puffing pretty hard.  I looked at my watch and found I was only 800 feet.  2,500 more feet to go.  I decided if I was going to make it to the top, I'd better stop and take more pictures along the way.  Luckily, 2013 has been an unusually wet year for Utah, and the trailside was covered in green and flowers, so I had plenty of opportunity.

A half mile from the the top, I spotted the two dudes who had beat me out the gate, now tearing down the trail toward me.  I stepped off the trail to let them pass, and they stepped off at the same time to let me pass.  "I don't like to let strangers see my fall on face," one of them offered.  "That's why I came alone," I countered.

Still closer to the top, I heard a click-click behind me, and turned around to see a guy speeding to toward me using mountaineering poles.  How long he had been following me, I had no idea.  I was grateful to take yet another break and let him pass.  I would see him again on his way down.

Other than some amazing views, the top of the peak was pretty unremarkable.  I lingered for a while, looking at Salt Lake City from a kilometer up, then turned back down the trail.

Coming back down didn't take much energy.  It was all about coordination, trying not to fall while letting gravity do the rest.  I did fall once (not on my face, luckily) but that's because I was trying to take a drink of water while running, instead flailing my arms around to the sides like a maniac.  Of course, I also took more pictures on the way down.

Other than the steep grade, the trail was not overly technical.  It had its rocky moments, and was grown over with scrub oak in a few place.  My Brooks Cascadias did a great job of biting into the loose trail and keeping me from sliding down the trail.   Impressively, I didn't see even the tiniest piece of trash on this popular trail.  We in the East could take a lesson from Utah.  (Now, if only Utahns would learn the meaning of switchbacks...)

Summer Running Gear

Here in the nation's capital, we've been having an unusually hot, humid summer.  It started the first weekend of June -- the weekend of The North Face Endurance Challenge -- when temperatures reached 91 degrees with an average humidity of 57%.  Since then, the temperatures have kept and rising, and so has the humidity, which often hovers in the 80-90% range during the day.

So, what running gear works in this kind of weather?

So far, I've been happy wearing the same shoes and socks.  My road shoe are Brooks Launch, and my trail shoes are Brooks Cascadia 8 and Inov-8 Roclite 295.  Drymax Lite trail running socks continue to be go to socks, whether I am on the road or the trails.  But what about the rest?

Salomon trail running shorts are absolutely the best shorts I've found.  They are super light, comfortable, don't bunch up, and don't chafe.

On top, I've taken a page from fellrnr and am wearing the Under Armour long sleeve shirt.  It evaporates sweat quickly, and it keeps the suns rays from beating directly on my skin.  Whenever there is even a slight breeze, it feels icy cool.  I've also been impressed by my North Face technical T-shirt with FlashDry technology.  It does what it says.

My Maui Jim Hot Sands sunglasses absolutely rock.  I wore them on the 50-miler and they never felt heavy or tiresome, never too dark or light, crystal clear vision the whole way.  Love them.

I have a love-hate relationship with headwear in general.  I'd rather not have anything on my head, but a visor does keep the sweat from dripping all over my face.   The Patagonia visor I wear has a nice wide headband, and comes in white, which can get a bit grungy looking, but reflects the heat.

On long runs I continue to use a Nathan HPL 020 race vest.  Super comfortable, very light, very breathable.  It never gets hot or sweaty on my back or underneath the straps.  I love having the multiple pockets up front.  No wonder its the favorite of ultra runners everywhere. My only complaint is the slightly leaky reservoir that came with it, which I've since swapped out with a Camelbak reservoir.

Questions about any of the above gear?  Favorites of your own you want to share?  Leave a comment!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Block Island Running 2013

Block Island is a small island off the coast of Rhode Island that is only accessible by ferry. Perhaps for that reason, it is, in my opinion, the perfect ecosystem; a perfect mix of town, open space (over 43% of the island is protected from development), beach, and shrubland.

On my vacation the last two years, I focused on running on the road or beach. This year, however, I really wanted to take advantage of Block Island’s trails. The Greenway, named after the famous UK walking trails,  consist of ~25 miles of trails that wind all over the island – a lot of coverage for an island that’s only about 10 square miles. Since I knew from previous experience that the trails were not well marked, I spent a lot of time studying the maps before I headed out. I was helped by the fact that our rental home was in the heart of the island right next to a major trail (near Turnip Farm).
Trail Entrance
Block Island trails feel incredibly remote, even when paralleling roads. The only other beings I saw on the trails was one runner, numerous deer (BI has a serious deer overpopulation, countless birds, and an a rooster defending his chicks.

My first outing was a combination of roads and the Fresh Swamp Trail. This served as my introduction to the themes of Block Island trail running: extreme humidity, lots of bugs, rolling terrain, and lots of brush to duck and weave around.

On my second run, I hit the beach around the southwest corner of the island. As you can see, the bluffs are dramatic and served as a nice backdrop as I labored through the sand. I had assumed there would be a trail up the cliffs to the Elizabeth Dickens Trail, but this did not exist, so I had to run to Black Rock Point where I found a path up to what turned out to be Black Rock Road. Unfortunately, there were no markers and I turned left when I should have turned right and ended up hopelessly lost in the meadows.  (It didn't help that I had no GPS signal!) Eventually, I made my way Lewis Farm Road (with a minimum of bushwhacking) which lead me back home. The lesson: verify your beach access points before you start out!

The third run I hit up the Rodman’s Hollow loop, a dramatic basin that's only 20 feet above sea level. Despite laboring up and down some intense hills in massive humidity it was a nice run with a fantastic view north towards the end. Afterwards, I ran down Black Rock Road - a disused dirt road perfect for hiking - and enjoyed the views of the southern part of the island.
Path down to the Beach
My favorite run was heading north through Turnip Farm past the Island Cemetery and all the way to the Coast Guard Station. These trails were the most poorly marked, mainly because there are a large number of small spur trails. Still, these were perhaps the most fun, and led to at least one amazing view over the airport towards Old Town. These trails were diverse, and mainly went along the stone walls that you see wherever you look.
One of many Stone Walls
As much as I'd like to say I finished off with a bang, by the end of the week the hard living was catching up with me, so my last run was a short a short run to and from Dories Cove for a (extremely cold!) swim. On the way back the trail took me past old Dodge Cemetery which lived in the bushes above our house.

The Trail past Dodge Cemetery
In conclusion, if you find yourself on Block Island, there's no doubt you should explore the trails - they're fun, challenging, and lead you to areas of the island that feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of the town and famous beaches. Just be sure to take along a map and a compass!

Related Posts:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rethinking Kafka

I like Kafka, having read everything he wrote in or immediately after college, although it’s been a few years since I've cracked any of his books. My impression of his writing is that it consisted of very logical depictions of fugue-like states, where byzantine bureaucracies, anxiety, and the capricious powers of aloof and often distant figures (the government in The Trial and The Castle, father figures in many of his shorter stories) rule the day. The stories are filled with powerful dream-like symbolism, but - probably because a good chunk of his writings were unfinished (and certainly unpublished) at his death - fizzle out rather than have a traditional ending.

For these and other reasons, Joseph Epstein argues that he’s overrated, that he’s simply a remnant of his time and place – essentially that “[he] reads like Freud fictionalized. Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline; Kafka’s, somehow, lives on. Without belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and authority." I don't really buy this. I certainly am not a Freudian, and don't know anything about 19th century Prague, but regardless still got a lot out of his writings. I think one reason Kafka's works have thrived is that they are general and vague enough to let people impress upon them their own thoughts and options. And - of course - he quite accurately depicts the absurdity of the modern bureaucratic state (most powerfully in The Trial). However, Epstein makes an excellent point when  he criticizes Kafka’s propensity for writing dreams with bad endings:
“Kafka felt that his talent was “for portraying my dream-like inner life.” But dreams, however gripping they can be, are aesthetically unsatisfying, especially in their endings. Kafka himself did not find the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” his greatest story, satisfying, and it isn’t. Perhaps for the same reason, he was unable to complete his novels: dreams, especially nightmares, want for artistic endings.”
Again, part of this may be that he quite simply died before he could finish them, but I don't think so. The Castle in particular just fades away with no clear hint of what the ending might be. And there are many passages that, while adding to the overall mood of the whole, simply wander along with vague intentions. Of course, this may be the point:
Kafka created “obscure lucidity,” Erich Heller wrote in his book on Kafka. “His is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure,” he added, “than literature has ever known.” One thinks one grasps Kafka’s meaning, but does one, really? All seems so clear, yet is it, truly? A famous aphorism of Kafka’s reads: “Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places.” Another runs: “A cage went in search of a bird.”
 As with Kafka’s aphorisms, so with his brief parables. The parables, Walter Benjamin wrote, are “never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.”
In this sense, some of Kafka's writings are like listening to someone else describe their dreams - interesting to a point, but so filled with personal meaning that they will remain forever inscrutable. I certainly didn't know what half of what I read meant - particularly in the novels - but then i'm comfortable (and sometimes even seek out) ambiguity in my art. 

Anyways, it's always good to question your assumptions about things, so Epstein's article is a fun read. What do you think about Kafka? Overrated? Genius? Somewhere in between?

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

And the winner is . . .

When you are running for half the day at an ultramarathon pace, the shoe with the best technical features may not be the best shoe for your foot.  Having learned this lesson the hard way, I began to shop for a cushioned trail shoe.

I narrowed down my choices to five shoes that have gotten excellent reviews.  Unfortunately, those reviews don't tell me how the shoes compare to each other in terms of cushioning, flexibility, and other factors.  So, I bought all five from Running Warehouse so I could try them all on . . .  and then send four back for a refund.

From top to bottom, Asics Gel-Fuji Trainer 2, Asics Gel-Scout, Brooks Cascadia 8, New Balance 1210 Leadville, Montrail FluidFeel
Since the purpose was to compare these shoes, I've ranked them against each other on the following factors:

Cushioning: The rankings simply indicate how much cushioning each shoe has, and not on which is best.  Different people like different amounts.  1 indicates the least, and 5 indicates the most.

Protection: After stepping on a variety of household objects, I have tried to anticipate how much protection each shoe will provide from rocks and roots on the rail.  Again, 1 is the least, and 5 is the most.  More protection means less road feel, so again, these are not rankings of which shoe is better.

Flexibility: Easily determined by twisting the shoe in various directions with my hands.  1 is the least flexible, 5 is the most.  (Do you sense a pattern?)

Width:  1 indicates the narrowest shoe, while 5 indicates the widest.  There was very little difference between the shoes ranked 3-5, so those rankings should be taken with a grain of salt.

Weight: From the lightest to the heaviest.

Note that I have not run in these shoes, and have no idea how grippy they are, how well they drain, etc.  The purpose of this test was simply to try them on and compare how they feel on my foot, since to me that is the most important factor over a long, slow race.

Asics Gel-Fuji Trainer 2
Cushioning: 1
Protection: 1
Flexibility: 4
Width: 3
Weight: 1
Notes:  This shoe feels "barely there" while still offering more protection underfoot than more minimalist shoes.  A tempting shoe, but they're not going to take me on much longer runs than the Inov-8 295s that I already wear.

Asics Gel-Scout
Cushioning: 3
Protection: 3
Flexibility: 2
Width: 5
Weight: 5
Notes: A exoskeletal heel counter, a visible gel pod in the sole, durable layers of mesh, a pocket for the laces on the tongue: this shoe is loaded down with visible technology.  Although it feels extremely stiff in my hand, it is somewhat more flexible when on my feet.  While it doesn't stand out to me, it is a comfortable, protective shoe that could appeal to many.

Brooks Cascadia 8
Cushioning: 4
Protection: 2
Flexibility: 3
Width: 4
Weight: 4
Notes:  Aaaaah!  Brooks has nailed it.  This shoe fits my foot beautifully.  The cushioning is softer than in any other shoe, perhaps a bit too soft for my tastes, but it will feel great over a long day on the trails. Now I see why these shoes are so popular among ultrarunners.  The one downside is that they are the most expensive of the shoes I'm trying on.

New Balance 1210 Leadville
Cushioning: 2
Protection: 5
Flexibility:  1
Width: 2
Weight: 2
Notes:  In my hand, the materials feels plasticky -- maybe that's why this shoe manages to be so light.  The upper feels fantastically comfortable on my foot.  As for the sole. . . while this shoe has a LOT of sole, it isn't very soft.  In fact, it feels stiff as a board under my foot.  I just can't imagine running in these.  But, stepping on household obstacles, I barely feel a thing.  A shoe only for those who want maximum protection.

Montrail FluidFeel
Cushioning: 5
Protection: 4
Flexibility: 5
Width: 1
Weight: 3
Notes: Out of the box, I didn't want to like this shoe -- it is so damn ugly.  But in my mind, this is exactly how a long distance running shoe should feel.  Lots of resilient, but not squishy, cushioning; outstanding protection, and somehow still an extremely flexible shoe.  Unfortunately, despite having a very wide, stable base, the fit is much, much too narrow for my foot.

Any of those shoes could be great for someone, but the winner (for me) is -- the Brooks Cascadia 8!

WMB demoted to Pawtucket

Despite a couple highlights, it's been very hard to watch Will Middlebrooks play baseball for the sox this year.  His struggles at the plate are well chronicled, but his fielding has been shaky at best as well...

For so long, I have been unable to understand the sox commitment to him.  Sure, he's a poster boy... but the boys who look up to him and the pink hats aren't generally buying tickets, so that rationale doesn't explain the story away for me.  It's perfectly clear that he's got a ton of potential, so if they really cared about developing him as a player, it made sense to me to get him down to Pawtucket to let him work on his game (wish that would have worked for Daniel Bard, but oh well).

I'm relieved to see the sox finally make this move, and in a move that rewards the player who actually has earned the spot (in my opinion, anyway) make Jose Iglesias the every day third baseman.

Here is a link to the ESPN story:

I was really worried Iglesias would get off his hot streak with the on-again/off-again rotation he was thrown into.  To say his offense has been surprising to me is an understatement.  But I cannot argue that his numbers are a fluke or just luck at this point.  I imagine he'll drop some points off his average and cool off in general a bit, but I'm quite happy with this move.  Seeing him in the field is a thing a beauty, and I think he'll fully adjust to playing at third base within a short amount of time.  I'm really hoping he continues to play well at the plate and in the field and I really hope WMB turns his game around in the minors.

I have no idea what is going to happen for the sox at SS next year, and would love to see them both in the lineup, playing well!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The North Face Endurance Challenge DC 50 Miler Race Report

Almost two weeks have past since I ran TNFEC 50 miler in DC (actually in Virginia, but close enough).  It was a day I won’t soon forget for a large number of reasons.

Going into this race, I knew it had the potential to be much hotter than the conditions I had trained in.  That’s pretty easy to figure out given the race was held in the DC area in the early part of spring, where temperatures and humidity have been known to begin rising much more quickly than in the Boston area.  Training through an intense New England winter, my toughness was not in question, but my acclimatization to heat certainly was.  To try and combat this, I did quite a few “heat suit” runs in multiple layers, a running coat, a hat, tights… 

Unfortunately, I was quite simply not prepared for the race day conditions.  Forecasted temperatures for the start of the race were mid-70s with high levels of humidity, rising into the low 90s as the day progressed.  Standing at the start line, I was absolutely sure the forecast was right; it was going to be a very hot day. 

Strangely enough, standing there in the half-darkness with Joel, it still hadn’t fully occurred to me that I was about to run 50 miles.  Maybe because I had never done it before my mind quite simply couldn’t grasp the task I was about to undertake.  Joel made some similar remarks about how he was feeling and we traded some giddy banter about the strangeness of it all.  Before long, the first wave of runners had departed.  As we were in the second wave, 1 minute later, we too were off.

My goal for the race was to take the first 14-15 miles of the race very easy.  I knew I’d be fighting adrenaline and didn’t want to ruin my day early.  Especially in the heat, I took great caution to run slowly, to drink often and to stay in touch with nutrition and hydration from the get go.  The schedule was simple:  a Gu every 30 minutes.  Every 90 minutes, a cliff bar.  Every hour, 2 SCaps.  Anytime the thought of drinking occurred to me, I drank heartily.  Every time I ate, I drank heartily.  

The first part of the course has a lollipop out-and-back.  I didn’t like this section at all as it felt counter-intuitive, like tack on mileage to an already arbitrary distance.  Once we got through the lollipop, though, and settled into some nice single-track, my mind started to settle.  Unfortunately, as we rolled alongside a golf course, the single track was so tight, passing wasn’t going to happen very easily.  I wasn’t running fast by any means, but I did catch up to some slower runners in front of me.  My flow was interrupted by their slower cadence and constant chatter, so when I saw a slight opportunity, I made a break off the trail to get around them.  I accomplished my goal, for sure, but in doing so, I ran into some stinging nettles.  Ouch!!  “Stay on the trail” I told myself.

When we reach the first of the short but very steep climbs on this course, I walked, despite feeling strong enough to run.  I was being extra cautious.  My climbing legs felt great through, and it felt great overall to be climbing.  I kept my pace measured on the downhills and my mind focused on staying upright.

I didn’t stop at the first aid-station as I still had plenty of water in my camelbak and plenty of nutrition as well.  The trail was quite hard to find as I ran past the Frasier aid-station, as it had become overgrown since I’d run that section earlier in the year with Joel.  Still, my mind was in a good place, my hydration, nutrition, body temperature and effort were all under control.

Soon enough I jogged down a steep decline and onto the road into Great Falls Park.  Waiting for me at Great Falls was my sister, who had taken great efforts to get to the park early enough to great me there and had prepared a number of helpful items to keep me fed and hydrated.  It was great to see her, and I was feeling really good.  She handed me a burrito, gave me some helpful words of encouragement and I headed over to my drop bag. 

Thanks to Joel’s good thinking, I copied him and prepared separate plastic baggies for each aid station stop at Great Falls.  This made the first exchange rather easy.  I emptied my trash, dumped the GU and Clif bars into my pack, dropped some nuun tablets into its bladder and headed to the actual aid station to get a fill of water.

I munched on the burrito Jen had given me and started up the fire road into the Great Falls loop that would be my undoing on this day.  I had done this loop twice with Joel during our course recon run earlier in the year.  I felt very confident I knew it well enough to know when to push and when not to.  Despite feeling strong enough to run, I walked as soon as the incline turned up, as many of the runners nearby me did.  As I turned from the fire road into the woods, I started to run, feeling quite good.  I made my way through a serious of ups and downs, none too high, but certainly steep enough.  Passing back towards the fire road, I saw Joel, who looked as if he was feeling quite good too.  This gave me a boost as I headed towards the next aid station.  Unfortunately, things soon started taking a turn for the worse.

I started to feel some stomach pains.  I have trained with burritos and found them to be the most agreeable thing to my stomach while I’m running.  Not so on this day I guess.  The heat was started to ratchet up, and I had been drinking a LOT of water as well, so these were surely contributing factors.  Regardless, my stomach was not well. 

As I passed through the next aid station and onto swamp trail, I made a special note to stay upright, as I had fallen in this technical section twice in my previous run here.  It’s made up of a lot of roots and rocks and if you don’t pay attention, they can jump up and bite you.  I did manage to stay upright the first time through this section, but my stomach was not getting better.  Back on the fire road, I took a detour to use the bathrooms that were near the turn.  Once I emerged from the bathrooms, I had a bit of an exchange with a course official who thought I was trying to cut a loop.  In the end, after he conferred with another official, they agreed the mark on my bib indicating that I had already made a stop at the second aid station was enough, but the situation frustrated me.  I had already lost enough time having to stop and this just send my mental state into the negative.

I then hit the iconic section of this course, a ¾ mile section along the exposed cliffs of the river bank.  The sun took its toll on me during this section and the relentlessly bad footing kept me from finding a rhythm.  Still, I pushed along knowing I’d soon be back at the great falls aid station where I would see not only my sister, but hopefully my wife and son and Joel’s wife and their son.

When I popped back out at the aid station, I saw no one, however, which was strange because I knew my sister (at least) was there.  I went to my drop bag and swapped everything out, filled my camelpak with water and peered around the crowds.  Turns out they thought I’d be coming from the same direction I had previously come, so they were waiting up the trail a ways.  I spotted Joel’s wife and waved for them to come over.  I spend some time high-fiving my son and letting everyone know how darn hot it was before departing.

This second loop of great falls park was really awful for me.  The day had gotten quite hot at this point, and it was starting to take a toll.  I didn’t have much energy, and instead of simply deciding to walk to conserve energy, I relished the chance to walk, if not HAD to walk due to lack of energy. 

The loop was unremarkable, apart from my seeing Joel (closing ground on me), taking a spill on swamp trail and deciding that I was no longer able to run this race as I ran along Great Falls approaching the aid station.  The heat had become unbearable, and I was losing the battle of core temperature.

As I pulled into the aid station, I immediately sat down and told my wife and sister that I wasn’t able to continue.  My wife said that I should keep pushing on, and my sister shouted at me: “You’re a Hodge.  Hodge’s finish.  You’re finishing this thing.”  That plus my son walking over with ice and putting in on the back of my head (he is nearly 2) really sealed it.  All that my family endured during my training and to be out here with me today, I owed it to them, to my friends, to Joel still out on the course and to myself to see it through.  After a long sit with ice on my neck and a box of coconut water (something I will use again, really good on this day) I got myself together and packed up to go back out for the final loop.  This time, I filled my bladder with ice, and put a bunch of ice down my shirt and (ahem) in my shorts.

It was amazing what the a little bit of coldness did for me.  It wasn’t apparent at first.  I started the loop much as I had the previous one, walking, feeling no energy and with a stomach that was not agreeing with anything I tried to put in it.  I was completely off my nutrition schedule, but I did increase the amount of SCaps I was taking and I think the coconut milk really helped as well.

When I saw Joel, he was not too far behind, maybe 15-20 minutes.  He told me to take it slow, that he’d catch up and we’d take it in the rest of the way together.  When Todd, Joel and I ran the Key Bank Vermont City Marathon last year, I had a similar implosion (though more physical, with leg issues).  Joel stopped his race late (mile 18) while very close to hitting his goal time to walk me in.  I was very grateful, but also felt awful.  I was determined not to let this happen again, even if it meant hiding in the bushes as he passed.

Soon after that, however, the ice started to do its work.  I started to cool down.  I started to run.  I started feeling better, taking in calories.  I stopped at the next aid station and had them dump cold water over my head (they were out of ice).  I ate two unboiled (no idea why they didn’t boil them, but I assume oversight) with salt and starting taking in clif shot blocs which were available at the aid station.  This all helped.  I ran swamp trail without falling and more quickly that I had the previous 2 times this day.  I made it through the Great Falls “cliff” section mostly running.  When I got to the aid station, I was extraordinarily hot, but not feeling too badly.  All I needed was some ice to cool me down.

Oh no!!!  No more ice!!  I’m amazingly disappointed that they ran out of ice.  It was an incredibly hot day.  Races have been known to be cancelled for this sort of thing…  but not an ultra.  They ran out of ice and I was going to have to deal with it.  I drank some more coconut milk, had a couple pieces of fruit, restocked my pack for the trip back to the finish and set out to finish this thing.

Jen paced me for the next couple of miles.  It was nice to run with her and took my mind of how frustrated I was to not have been able to cool down.  I don’t get to see her enough, and we spent the time catching up.  It was a nice boost.

After a steep climb, Jen left to head home after a long day of supporting me.  I didn’t feel too bad at this point, so I pushed the pace a bit.  This was fine, until I hit a road section exposed to the sun.  The heat crushed me.  Soon after, I was in an open field with the sun once again beating down on me.  I felt myself boiling… I was reduced to walking and my stomach really started to get bad.  By the time I made it back onto the single track section (and into the shade of the woods), I was frantically looking for places to duck in the bushes.  This would be a recurring theme for the rest of my day.

As would not being able to take in calories.  Be it due to too much water, too much salt, too much heat or some combination, my stomach was done cooperating and was in full revolt.  I ducked into the bushes a couple of times, and the rest I walked and jogged and walked and jogged.  The trail was littered with folks who were in distress, laying in the tall grass waiting for medical attention.  I was handing out SCaps left and right.  Whether I drank too much, and took too much salt is still debatable, but I will say I was still sweating, which meant to me I was hydrated.  That was the most positive thought I had.

A fellow I had been back and forth with all day came up at one point and we pushed ourselves through the next couple of miles together, him leading pulling me along, and then me leading pulling him along.  At one point, I turned around and he was gone.  And so with him went my motivation to run.

My energy was gone.  The Frasier aid station was a mess when I got there, and I couldn’t (mentally) take the time to get what I hoped for (ice, a beverage other than water, something edible), so I quickly filled my bladder with two cup-fulls of ice (they were rationing) and took off.  Still not able to eat, and still ducking into the bushes, my energy hit an all-time low for the race.  I was resigned by mile 42 that I would have to walk it in.  I could not get my mind around how long it would take in this heat to walk it in.  It was demoralizing.  Being exposed to the heat through the golf course on tight single track with a stomach that was bursting every half mile or so was really taking its toll on my mental state.

After 4 miles of mostly walking, I hit the last aid station.  This was just before the lollipop out and back, which was frustrating at the start of the race, but maddeningly so this late into it.  I could not believe how slow I was moving.  I could not believe how far off my goals I was.  I could not believe I couldn’t just make forward progress to the finish, but had to waltz around this silly lollipop out and back to make the mileage right.  I also noticed there was nothing I could imagine eating or drinking at the aid station apart from some coke.  I drink two warm cups of it and starting walking the loop.

A few things happened at this point.  I think the carbonation from the coke settled my stomach a bit, the calories and caffeine in it spiked my energy and I realized that I was going to finish, no matter what.  It hurt to walk and it hurt to run… and I’ve heard the advice time and time again: “If it hurts to walk and it hurts to run, run”.  And so I ran.  And I started shouting at people, “We’re going to finish these 50 miles”!  I think people must have thought I was crazy, and surely, by this point I was.  But I was running. 

I saw Joel one last time as I was nearly done with the lollipop.  I was amazed, by that point, that he hadn’t caught me, but I could tell from his gait that he was dealing with problems of his own (and it turns out, the entire bottoms of his feet were completely covered in blisters and mashed up to bits, making each step nearly intolerable).

But I was running.

I stopped at the aid station to grab some more coke, had them pour some water over my head and took off, shouting.

I ran large stretches, pausing to walk when there was shade.  When I reached the golf cart path leading to the finish, I let it all go… I ran as well as my overheating, depleted and battered body would allow, purely on mental strength.  I crossed the finish in a sea of emotion, nearly 3 hours off my “best case” time goal, to very minimal fanfare.  I was done.

What an experience for my first “real” ultra.  It was a super long day, one that surely could have been better had I made some smarter decisions, had I done hotter heat training, had I done any number of things.  But it was a true learning experience… I learned (some of) what to do and what not to do in a race of that length, under those conditions.  Some tidbits I will take to my next race are:
  • change shoes and socks and much as possible, if necessary, to keep the feet in top condition; 
  • if you cannot take in calories from solid or semi-solid food, take them in from sports drinks or coke; 
  • if you are sweating, your hydrating is ok, no need to overdo it; 
  • start a regular schedule of SCaps and stick to it, no need to overdo it; 
  • Have alternate means of cooling yourself down, if possible; 
  • Coconut water is quite good, as is coke.

I also learned that I’m made of the right stuff to get me through a race like that.  It was revealing and rewarding to finish a race in those conditions, feeling the way I felt.  I take away from that experience things that will contribute positively to who I am as a person, things that will positively influence my life going forward.

And you’d better believe I can’t wait to race that far (hopefully more quickly next time) again!