Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memorial Day

Memorial Day has always been a big deal for me. My father was career Army, retiring as a Lt Col and working for defense contractors once he got out of the service. I spent my time at Carlisle Barracks in PA until I was ten before moving to outside the gates at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and Wurzburg, Germany. To say that I was an Army brat is an understatement. The military just... was.

I avoided JROTC in high school but applied for and received an Army ROTC scholarship for college. I aced the entrance exams and physicals... even had a Letter of Recommendation from one of the highest ranking army officials in Europe. I had a full-ride to anywhere I wanted to go. I was Va Tech bound...

But, it was 1996 and the armed forces were scaling back after our victories in Iraq. They were looking for reasons to exempt applicants, so my childhood asthma got my scholarship rescinded. To be honest, I didn't particularly care. Very few things affect me, and I simply let this roll off my back like everything else. I still had a full academic scholarship to Florida, and I made good use of it. Still, I wonder where my life would have taken me if I had gone off to Blacksburg and the Army. The likelihood that I would have been sent to Afghanistan is almost certain.

Thanks to my employment with the government, I've kept some ties to the military complex, but it's been nothing like what I had growing up. So, for the past decade, the military has been a darkening light in my day. I just hadn't been surrounded by it as in the past.

Then, I got swept up with Marines in Quantico. I signed up for a GORUCK and started hanging with active-duty soldiers of every branch. I had day-to-day interactions with Green Berets. Suddenly, the military is a bigger part of my life, and Memorial Day means that much more to me again. I've always had problems with the way people perceive the holiday. For a surprisingly large portion of the country, it's simply a day off to BBQ and enjoy the beach. They don't know why they have the day off from work, they just embrace it. Our country has the best of us (trust me, I've met a lot of these guys, and the mumbling cattle that walk the malls of America embarrass me as an American) serving around the world as ambassador soldiers. They represent us in other countries and fight the battles to keep us safe.

Remember them this Memorial Day. But, remember them every other day, too. We owe it to them. If not for them, it'd be like cattle to the slaughter. The average American doesn't have the spirit our forefathers once did. But, these men and women aren't average. Get off your ass and tell them thanks. Then, go back to your burger... or maybe hit the gym and try to be what we once were.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

For those runners of you out there, there's a great tool on that allows you to plan your races and track your times. It's a handy site that, much like other user-content sites, you can get out what you put in. For beginners, it tracks the races you've run and your times, giving you a limited mechanism to track progress. You can group your results by race type (5K, 5M, 10K, half, etc), and it even allows the inclusion of triathlons, mud runs, and similar (sorry, GRT family, GORUCKs don't appear in there).

The site is part social network and part race log, but I honestly never use the social network aspect of it. If you'd like, you can add friends, note what gear you use, and find out about your rivals. Rivals are those people in your community that run the same races that you do but that you probably never see in the 1500 runners standing next to you. I have rivals that I don't know but that I've raced against five or ten times.

You can search for your previous times in the database of races that the site maintains, and you can put future races on your virtual calendar to track what's coming up. The more you run, the more you get out of it. It's fairly comprehensive, and they recently added a Runner Performance Index that allows you to see how you stack up against your fellow runners.
I am 47.8% Awesome. That sounds incorrect...

It's a handy tool that shows how well you're doing. Initially, it is useful as a resource to see how you stack up against other runners when divided into age, gender, and overall divisors. During last year's Winter Park Road Race 10K, I came back with an RPI of 55.6 in my age group. This means that that percent ran 'better' than I did. Note that I didn't say 'faster.' (And, note that a lower number on the 1-100 scale is better). The more races that are run (by everyone), the better the tool is because it will begin to incorporate altitude, elevation changes, climates, and terrain. If a runner runs steady 25-minute 5Ks in Seattle and then 28-minute 5Ks in Salt Lake City, the system will eventually take all this data and determine the impacts such changes have on runners, in general. The more YOU run, the more it will tailor the same analysis to you, and the more accurate your RPI will be.

The intriguing aspect comes into play when you run enough (and it adds the functionality) that will allow for the application to *predict* your race time given all the factors involved. If you run 95% of your races at sea level and then head up to Denver for a half marathon, the system will have the theoretical capability to compare you to runners of similar history to predict a finish time. There will obviously be outliers, exceptions, and oddballs, but the math behind it is interesting.

Either way, even if you simply use the site as a race log, it's a great one-stop shop for collecting your race times and planning for future runs, bikes, swims, or mudding. Best Blogger Tips

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Five states down in my '50 Half in 50 States' quest...?

A brief rundown on the half and full marathons I've completed to this point. Some good. Some bad. All 13.1 miles... um... except the two that were 26.2.

2009 Gasparilla Half Marathon (3/1/09) [Florida: State #1]
My first half marathon was a well-organized race in Tampa that was overshadowed (literally) by clouds, wind and rain. In what would become a trademark for me, I ended the race with negative splits (the second half was run faster than the first) because I wanted to be confident about finishing. As it was my first, I wasn't sure I'd be able to get to the end and feared bonking in front of the cheering throngs at the race's finale. A 10 mph headwind that completely disappeared at the turnaround point didn't help. Still, I ran a good race and finished in a full sprint in 2:09:45. All in all, it was a good experience and convinced me that I could complete a half in much less time. A two hour finish was reasonable. Now, all I had to do was commit the time necessary to train to get there.

Salt Lake City Half Marathon (4/18/09) [Utah: State #2]
For my second half marathon, I took a page from the Boondoggler's Handbook and tacked an extra few days onto a week-long work trip to Salt Lake City. I spent 5 days touring the Solid Rocket Booster factory at ATK and proceeded to wander Utah. I hiked through the Wasatch range (awesome) and took a trip to the pitifully small (but still awesome) Promontory Point location where the two sections of the Transcontinental Railroad were finally connected.

Since my work trip had me there anyways, I signed on to the SLC half to see how much I could improve on my time from Tampa. The race started at the University of Utah campus... months after they were screwed out a national championship in football. I felt their pain and agreed that they were royally boned. But, from there, it was a nice downhill for several miles before reaching the flatlands of the valley floor. The pleasantness of the downhills were, of course, offset by the elevation. I didn't notice it during the race, surprising given my history of asthma and rarely-above-sea level training, but it certainly affected me afterward. My muscles were so oxygen-starved that I found myself nearly unable to walk. I decided to catch a movie that night, and it was almost impossible to get up at the end.

The scenery was great and the people nice. If I truly hope to get through all 50 states, Utah would have been one of the last that I'd probably run. Instead, it was my second. I finished in 2:03:31, a more than six minute improvement from a month earlier, largely due to the fact that I had the confidence brought about by knowing I could actually make it to the end. So, I pushed myself a bit harder and started looking for the next race.

Rock 'n Roll Seattle Marathon (6/27/09) [Washington: State #3] 2:04:04

In what has become something of a tradition, I began pairing up vacations with races and my other obsession: baseball. I am well on my way to visiting every Major League Baseball park with only a handful left (if only they'd stop building new ones). So, I decided to combine a trip to rainy Seattle with a Mariners game and a race. The RnR Seattle was an inaugural race in '09 (NOT a 'first annual'... don't use that... it annoys me. It'd be like people in the 1920s calling WWI... "World War I." It makes no sense). Anyway, I landed at the airport and went straight to the night game at Safeco Field, a nice place to watch a game. Incidentally, I will always remember this game as the day that the world found out Michael Jackson died. RIP... respect.

The race itself started in the middle of some distant, Washington city with about 35,000 racers (both half and full started simultaneously) and wound its way toward the city and finish line. Though the organization at the starting line was... weak, the support along the way was great. A bald eagle perched in a roadside tree along the route was a highlight.This was the first race where I saw someone pull over to the side of the road and need EMT support. It's also when I learned what kind of people make up the ranks of marathoners.

I finished my race (2:04:04... slightly off my SLC PR, so I was annoyed) and was walking back to my hotel (across the route). Two girls sitting on a curb saw me and congratulated me on finishing. They had bibs on but no medals. "How'd you do?" I asked, curious. "Oh, we are running the full. We just stopped for a sandwich," they said. What!? These women had a backpack with sodas and a sandwich and were sitting on the curb, 14 miles into the race, and just chilling. That wasn't the image I had of a marathoner... so I thought, Hell, I can do that! Thus, the seed of 26.2 miles was planted. It'd be 9 months before I ran my own full, but I'd get there.

ING Philadelphia Distance Run (9/20/09) [Pennsylvania: State #4] 2:05:11
As in Seattle, I took the opportunity to explore one of our nation's oldest cities (I do have a minor in military history) and catch a Phillies game to check Citizen's Bank Park off the list. I am not at all a Phillies fan, so this was a long game. But, I had a hotel downtown next to some great sports bars. Since it was the weekend, I had baseball and college football all over the television. Unfortunately, my mighty Florida State Seminoles were playing out west at #3 BYU that weekend (Noles victory!). So, at midnight, when I should have been in bed resting for the race, I was drinking heavily at a bar. For what it's worth, this is NOT the way to spend the night before a race if you're trying to PR.

The Distance Run is a well-known half, and there was a wave start thanks to the crowded start line and 30K+ runners. The fact that American distance star Ryan Hall was running it only made it that much more crazy. Hall was 4 miles into the race before I even crossed the starting line, and it and the weather made for a long run. My late night on the eve of the race contributed to one of the worst bonks I've had running. I was on pace for a sub-2 hour finish, but I completely died around mile 11 and couldn't make it up, finishing in 2:05:11. Still, I was able to complete my fourth half marathon in a great city, and have the start and finish line at the famous Rocky steps. It was awesome. Also, the Museum of Art that those steps lead to? It's a must-see if you ever get to the city of Brotherly Love.

Los Angeles Marathon (3/21/10) [California: State #5]
This was my first marathon, but it counts for the "50 Halves in 50 States" goal. Those of you that might disagree... have never run a marathon. This race report I wrote after I returned from LA is here, but it's been a couple years since I ran it. So, I figured I'd do a little revisiting/revisionism.

In hindsight, I don't think I'm exaggerating to say this was one of the turning points of my life. I was in San Francisco working on a lunar satellite mission (LADEE... check it out. NASA stuff is cool...), and was in the heart of a self-renaissance of sorts. I was learning new things and traveling more. I was flying somewhere every other week, and the NASA leadership program that I was a part of was changing the way I looked at people and opportunities. So, I ran a marathon, and it was an accomplishment. Other people might say that my career with NASA, or my years playing baseball, or my advanced degrees were accomplishments. But, to be honest, I didn't find any of that stuff difficult. It didn't challenge me, it just... was. Give me the time to take the classes, and I can get a degree in anything. It's just time and money. But, running a marathon for someone that had seriously-bad asthma growing up and avoided running like the plague... well, let's just say that if you told 8-year-old me that he'd complete two marathons in his life (maybe more...), he'd have laughed in your face and kicked your shin. [Note: 8-year-old me was an a-hole].

Though the race had existed for years, they moved the start to Dodger Stadium for this year. As a Dodger fan, I was ecstatic. Starting behind the centerfield wall is something I will never forget. Unfortunately, the organization at the start was poor. The packet pickup the day before involved about 5 miles of walking for me (not something you want to do the day before running 26.2 miles). And, though it was 5am, the freeway was packed leading to the stadium. We actually GOT OFF THE BUS and walked to the top of the mesa, because traffic was at a standstill (again, not something you want to do before running 26.2 miles). The race itself wound through the sights of LA, but I was hurting so bad that I didn't notice many of them. It was record highs (~80) on the day, and I hadn't run much past 20 miles in my training. The last section was rough.

Turning onto Santa Monica Blvd and running the last half mile along the Pacific Ocean was a great sight... for so many reasons. And, as I turned onto the pier and saw it for the first time in my life, I crossed the finish line in 4:53:59. It was amazing. When you've accomplished something... really accomplished something, you can't explain it to people. I had it when I finished LA. I had it when I finished both of my GORUCKs. Now, I seek out things that will challenge me and will be memorable for years to come. I'm an experiencist. (The spell check informs me I just made that word up... whatever.). I won't spend $400 on an iPad, but I'll spend $2000 to travel to Colorado for 4 days in the mountains with Green Berets and fellow poor-decision makers, sharing drinks and memories. I won't spend an extra $5K to get a flashy sports car, but I'll throw down about $5000 in entry and travel fees to wander the world running races and experiencing new things. The LA Marathon will always be one of the great things I've done.

US Half Marathon - The Other Half (4/11/10)
Though the LA Marathon effectively crossed Cali off the list, I thought this would be a nice race given that I was living in SF and it would require little planning on my part. Admittedly, there would be hills on this course... many, many hills. But, you got a sweet medal and shirt proclaiming your completion of a race that spanned the Golden Gate Bridge. Though my training runs had me crossing it every other day, it would be nice to have some apparel proclaiming my accomplishment. That's how I roll.

Unfortunately, parking was a disaster and it was pouring when I got to the start line. There were only a couple thousand runners, but we were miserable. I gave serious thought to just going back to my apartment and bed (a drawback to races that you don't have to travel to reach... home is right around the corner and calling your name). But, I made it into the ranks of runners and was off. None of my training runs covered as many hills in the city as the course for the half marathon did as it meandered through the Haight-Ashbury district and around the Presidio and Golden Gate Park area. We crossed Golden Gate and had to get to the opposite (southbound) side of the bridge to go back... and, we did this by trail running down, under, and back up the other side. Many hills.  Many, many hills.

This was three weeks after my marathon. By all accounts, I should have been resting my body and mind. I hadn't done much training in the interim other than a few miles here and there to help stretch out my muscles. But, I'll be damned if I didn't PR over the hills of that city, finishing with a strong kick for the last mile and a dead sprint the last 1/4 mile. 1:59:19.  I broke two hours. Though I've run some 13.1 mile training runs faster since, this race is still my official PR for the half marathon. As I walked back to my car following the race, I raised a strong middle finger in the direction of San Francisco.

Screw you, hills.

Dublin Marathon (10/25/10) [Ireland: Country #2]
This was an impulse decision. As my time in San Francisco ran down, I realized that I was going to be losing the simple greatest benefit the city offered when I moved: the weather. Moving back to Florida meant heat and humidity for nearly 8 months of the year. In the past, this combination had made outdoor (and, sometimes, indoor) running completely impossible. If I was going to run another marathon, it'd have to be soon. So, which one? Well, I traveled to LA. Where should I travel to next? I chose Dublin. Why? Why the hell not?! Get off my back! Anyway, I asked around to my running buddies, and they all predictably balked at the chance to run Dublin.

My cross-country drive from SF to Florida was three weeks before the race. I ran 15 miles in Salt Lake City. I ran 18 in Kansas City. The roadtrip was a great experience and rivaled my completion of the LA race for its 'awesomeness ranking' in my life. Then, I trained in Florida for two weeks and jetted to Europe. I spent two days touring the country. I got out to Cork and the west coast... Cliffs of Moher and the Ring of Kerry. I went through Northern Ireland and saw Giant's Causeway. I wandered Dublin. It was great.

Then, I woke up to 32 degree temps on race day. It was cooooooooooold. Standing at the start line, I was afraid I'd lose feeling in my extremities. But, by the second mile, the sun had warmed up the city a bit (a 9 o'clock start time helped), and I was cruising. Support on the course was great. Running through the Irish capital and its suburbs was amazing. The sites were breathtaking, and the people were friendly. It wasn't fancy, but it was quaint. It was great. And, hearing my name and 'Florida' shouted over the loudspeakers as I crossed the finish line in 4:40, 14 minutes faster than my LA race was pretty cool. Plus, I ran the second half of the race a full 8 minutes faster than the first half. Back to those negative splits again. I'd run it again, but if I was going to do a Europe destination race... maybe Paris next time? I'll carry a white flag and run it backwards. (Boom... the French are cheese-eating, surrender monkeys!)

Space Coast Half Marathon (11/27/11)
The Dublin race is also known for giving me a brutal heel bruise. I stopped running for a time and stuck to lifting and swimming. It was frustrating, but I adapted to the new routine... sorta. I ran sporadically, but it was nothing like previous years. This was mostly in an attempt to give my foot time to heal. Well, it worked.. marginally, and I'm back to running. But, in the interim, the 40th Space Coast Half Marathon took place. I've always wanted to run it, but the fall months are tough since I hit all the FSU home football games. This year, it fit my schedule and had the added enticement of being the last year it was run during the Space Shuttle Program. Thus, the medal had a little bit more significance.

I was doing about 6 or 7 miles every couple days and not nearly in shape for a half, but I ran it anyways. I stuck to my plan of running the first half and run/walking my way back. Though, I had planned to run '6 miles and stop,' I pushed it to the turn-around point (it was an out-and-back) at the 6.55 mile mark. I struggled a bit on the way back, because I wanted to run but knew it would be a bad idea. Still, I sprinted the last half mile as I approached the cheering crowds and finished in 2:18:57. The post-race food (full breakfast?! Eggs and ham and bacon, oh my!) was great, but I passed in favor of fruit and drinks. Still, it was a nice race (~1000 racers) and worth the 45 minute drive at 4am to get there.

Fortunately, the medal is pretty much the coolest one I have, and the shirt rocks. Totally worth it.

There you have it. Six halfs and 2 fulls. Eight 'long' races under my belt (I've done numerous 5 and 10Ks), covering two countries and five states. Five more halfs on the calendar by the end of the year, and two more states. Which ones? You'll have to wait to find out...
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Thursday, May 17, 2012

... and then I see the bowling pin (redux)

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The Marathoner’s Mantra. Rumor has it, everyone mutters it around mile 20. I said it 3 weeks before. But, it was a lie. This never seemed like a good idea.

Then, the bad omens start. The 2 hr round trip walk to the expo on Saturday for the bib was rough. At 7am on race morning, the mile-walk uphill to Dodger Stadium after abandoning our stranded bus on the LA Freeway was worse.

The walk up the 110 Freeway and Chavez Ravine. We are not amused.

But, then the race started. That was worse-erer. I give you: The unedited LA Marathon blog.

Mile 0: It’s 7am, and I’m at Dodger Stadium. Starting outside the centerfield fence at Chavez Ravine is one of the highlights of all my races. I would tear up from the beauty if I wasn’t already crying from hiking up 1000 feet. I breathe in the smell of all the runners going to the bathroom in the bushes. Hmmm… smells like Yankee Stadium.

Mile 0.5: A hill? Already? It took me 7 minutes just to get to the starting line after the gun. Fortunately, I’m crowd surfing on 24,999 other poor decision-makers, and I don’t notice the uphill run.

Mile 1: Dodger Stadium. What the hell?! Did we just do a loop around Dodger Stadium? Or, am I already hallucinating? I decide it may very well be the latter and don’t care.

Mile 1.5: This hill looks familiar.

Mile 3: I’ve found my rabbit for the race. She’s moving at the same pace as me, so perhaps I will survive. I do my best to not look creepy. I am not successful.

Mile 5: Um…

Mile 7: …Yeah…

Mile 9: … we were told there would be landmarks….? More people would run if there were landmarks, punch, and pie.

Mile 12: I finally see something I recognize. Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I am dutifully impressed. My back burns like someone has poured liquid fire on it. I ask a passing rabbit if she can put it out. She runs faster.

Mile 14: My back has stopped hurting, but I pour some cold water down it to be sure. I feel nothing. It appears that the reason it feels better is because I’ve lost feeling completely. I’m not sure if this is good or bad.

Mile 15: House of Blues. I now can no longer feel my left arm either. In an attempt to ease the growing concern over both it and my back, I run with it down against my side. I look like a geriatric stroke victim… minus the drool. I think.

Mile 20: I’m now doing what I call the Soccer Shuffle. My feet barely leave the pavement. I’m running like David Beckham slide-kicking the ball down the field… minus the drool.

Mile 21: Dmn. [At this point, I seem to have lost the ability to think with all vowels but ‘e.’]

Mile 22: As I slow to a fast walk through the water stop, I glance at my watch. The fast walk pace is the same as my soccer shuffle. This depresses me.

Mile 23: The Veteran’s Administration. Apparently, these buildings are LA “landmarks.” With my soccer shuffle, the VA speed bumps (really, LA marathon planners?) I’m forced to navigate are more likened to LA “dogs on the top step of a stairway at 2am.” I've started hallucinating to the point I think I'm on a Japanese game show. I stumble over them and hurry on in case giant wrecking balls are being swung at me.

Mile 25: I’m content at this point to maintain this less-than-sterling pace for the next mile and go home…. And then I see the bowling pin. A quarter mile in front of me, there is a giant bowling pin running toward the finish line. I assume it’s a person in a costume, but at this point, I may still be seeing things, and the bowling pin is fleeing those Japanese wrecking balls. I see human legs. Touché, sports equipment. He’s hurting. Partly because it’s mile 26 and hot. Mostly because he’s dressed like a bowling pin. The back has some ad for Lucky Strikes bowling alley, but for some reason I see “You’re getting beat by an effing bowling pin” written on it. Well, that’s unacceptable. I speed up… to some minimal extent.

Mile 25.5: I’m actually not tired. My body is done with this maniacal experiment, but I have tons of energy. I decide to hit my second wind and give it a kick. The hurt can survive for a few minutes. I’m going to go out strong.

Mile 25.51: I experience simultaneously charley horses in my left calf and hamstring. For the next 10 feet, I prance like a hotfooted, rookie shortstop. [Ugh… just google it.] The feeling passes, and I speed up… slower.

Mile 26: I pass the bowling pin. Screw you, sports equipment.

Mile 26.2: My second, controlled kick is more successful, and I shoot through the final chute and onto Santa Monica Pier.

I stand on the pier and looked down at my bib. It's hard to believe I've made it 26.2 miles in less than 5 hours. It's equally hard to believe that I've been able to keep putting one foot in front of the other for almost 5 hours. I never assumed it was a certainty that I'd make it the whole way. I don't 'do' much with my days that one would consider life-affirming... but now I can say I have. I look at the back of the bib where I wrote ramblings from the night before...

If I die, tell my friends and family I lived free and happy. John can have my Xbox games. And, tell any children I may have sprinkled throughout the country that Daddy loves them. [Note: Check Florida and Texas. And Hawaii. And, maybe Northern Illinois.] Peace. Love. Baseball.

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Five Books to Read: The Red Badge of Courage

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...

Previous discussions:
Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose.
127 Hours by Aron Ralston.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.


Just read it. I mean, I'm going to spend some time here discussing why you should read it and the impact it had on my reading/writing, but it's a freaking classic of American literature by one of our country's greatest novelists. I don't care if you think it's a book that feels like something you were forced to read in high school. In fact, you probably were. Even so... read it again.

This is a great American novel.

The Red Badge of Courage is one of the first books I can remember reading. As far back as I can recall, I've noted the impact it's had on my style. I've read it several times and come away with something different each time. The copy I have (one of my most treasured books) is dog-eared and torn. Excerpts have been highlighted and underlined. If one of my later classes in school asked for examples of imagery or character development, sentence structure or plot devices, I would use this book as a source... and a primary one, at that.

The main character is an everyman, and that's the point. Crane refers to him as the 'youth' more than he does his name. Even the other characters (the 'loud' solder... the 'tall' soldier) are more often described rather than named. Why? Does it take away from those characters in some fashion and make them more difficult for the reader to picture? Or, does it make them anyone and everyone we know? Does generalization serve a higher purpose here? It did for me.

For those of you living under a rock, the book centers on a young man in an unnamed battle of the Civil War. He's never fought before and fears he'll run from the enemy during the first battle. He does. Much of the rest of the first act is what he sees and does as he flees around the battlefield. Just as suddenly, though, he's returned to his camp. He fears scorn and ridicule. He fears the truth. But, a random injury conceals his cowardice, and the next day he picks up arms again. This day, he distinguishes himself in some of the most richly detailed battlefield prose you'll find. Crane is a master of it, and it's that masterful depiction of war that would eventually make him a war correspondent in Europe and Cuba. Strangely, Crane had never seen war. He knew little of it before writing The Red Badge of Courage, yet it is seen today as one of the most accurate and fair representations of war.

How much did this book affect me growing up? I recall choosing the book in an assignment in which we were told to find a piece of literature that described Nature as a being and played a considerable role in the development of the protagonist. I immediately jumped on Crane's work and was shocked when my teacher told me that she didn't think it held enough substance on the topic to be useful. As I read through it recently (remembering both the assignment and her words), I recognized the dozens of highlighted passages that I used in my paper. Crane is all about using Nature to help define and detail his characters. Nature herself is a character that frustrates and emboldens the youth in the story. She's a hindrance one chapter and a help the next, and the descriptive moments in the book give Nature as much of a presence as any of the other characters.

It's a great book. It's descriptive and detailed. It's general and far-reaching. Reading it now, I see how much of an impact it had on my writing.

The blow to the youth's head is strangely reminiscent of the bullet that Shawn Kidd takes in the temple.

His flight and stumble into the copse of trees where he finds the dead soldier are comparable to Kidd's flight from the chalet near my novel's end.

His inexplicable determination once he returns to his regiment are mirrored in Kidd's utter defiance of those around him and single-mindedness.

The Red Badge of Courage is a quick read... and it's a great read. For fans of military history, character evolution, and just good writing, it's a must-read.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A rediscovery of the half-marathon...

I still remember the first 5K I ran. I had a busted ankle and few base miles under my belt. Training was a new thing to me, and I fought/limped my way around Epcot to a 32:30 time. I wasn't happy with it, but I was hooked. In my next 5K, I dropped 5 1/2 minutes from my time, and I wondered if I could handle a 10K.  After that, what about a half-marathon? A full? I've made it through them all and have found myself looking for the next challenge. I'm already on the hunt for an Ultra race and am knee deep in GORUCK endurance challenges and trail races... several of which will be run with a full rucksack.

Why? Because I make poor decisions. It's the only reason I can come up with.

All of this, coupled with a new approach to life and workout regimen, has resulted in increased distance and speed, increased muscle tone, decreased weight, and more base miles. When I was training for my marathons, I ended up with 7 1/2 mile mid-week runs and long (13-15 miles) runs on the weekend. Now, I'm at that point without it being part of a training plan. I have no doubt that I could grab my gear and run a crisp half tomorrow if I wanted.

All this has reopened the half marathon to me again. If I'm traveling for work, why not see what races are being run in the area and jump in? What about local races that happen to match up with my long-run day? There was a point where I considered running a half in all 50 states. Is that a reasonable goal? Well, I decided to just run...

... and see where it got me.

Well, it has me running further and faster than I did during my training days, and I'm optimistic about participating in some random and amazing races in the coming months. Where? Which ones? No spoilers, you'll have to read about them when they happen. I'm already registered for 4 half-marathons this year and wouldn't be surprised to find myself jumping into more that fit my training schedule. The catch is going to be getting them to fit my life schedule. I will be driving all over the country every weekend this fall, either for college football games or challenges that I've already put on the calendar. Finding time to slide in additional races might be a mistake. But, as usual, I will make them real-time, spur-of-the-moment decisions. Those are usually the best kind anyway. Unfortunately, living in Orlando won't offer me many opportunities to cross states off the list. Still, I always have something up my sleeve.

I've taken a page from another runner and will be keeping up with my runs and their locations. Keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming post that talks the races I've already run (registration, expos, course, crowd, medal, etc), as well as race reports for each one I have upcoming. I'll update the list and map as I get going.

2009 Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon
2009 Salt Lake City Half-Marathon
2009 Rock 'n Roll Seattle Half Marathon
2009 ING Philadelphia Distance Run
2010 Los Angeles Marathon
2010 San Francisco US Half Marathon - The Other Half
2010 Dublin Marathon
2011 Cocoa Beach Space Coast Half Marathon

Five States (and two countries) Down

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Five Books to Read: The Catcher was a Spy

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to me to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...

The first post on Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose can be found here.
The second on 127 Hours by Aron Ralston can be found here.
The third on Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer can be found here.


As I put The Catcher was a Spy down, I was supremely irritated. The first half of Nicholas Dawidoff's biography of Moe Berg was superb. I related to the character of Berg and felt that I had an 'in a previous life'-type relationship with the man. Then, I reached the second half, and the enigmatic hero detailed in the first half becomes a sad, likely-delusional caricature of the man he once was. I was pissed.

But, I had to get over it. The story was true.

Moe Berg was born in the early 20th century to a Jewish family in New York City. He played an astounding fifteen seasons of major league baseball.. astounding in that he was a solid catcher that always seemed to find a team to play with while being a below-average hitter that seemed uninterested in bettering himself.

But, he's also the only guy with his baseball card framed and housed at CIA headquarters. He graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School... and could have written his ticket with any of a dozen law firms. He chose to play baseball. He toured Japan, picking up the language immediately and sharing baseball with the locals... possibly single-handedly developing the sport there. He'd sit in the dugout for the White Sox, Indians, Senators, Red Sox (he played for several teams) and explain calculus to the other players. He'd talk on subjects so antithetic to baseball that he was deemed the Strangest Player in Baseball by manager Casey Stengel.

So, what does the strangest baseball player ever do when he retires from baseball? Well, he joins the OSS and spies in Italy, of course. This man that spent nearly two decades playing baseball was suddenly sharing physics discussions with Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker. Berg spent the early '40s with the preeminent scientists of his generation and could hold his own in conversations with them. He even had orders to eliminate some (those behind the Nazi curtain) if they were found to be making progress on The Bomb.

He was knee deep in the beginning of the Arms Race and the Cold War. I was fascinated by this guy. He was eccentric and random. He told jokes one minute and completely ignored people the next. He was me... but Jewish. Then, the war ended. The mystique and aura of danger that his friends and family knew was gone. He had played his spy status for drinks and a warm bed to sleep on many occasions, but now what could he do? He still gave every indication that he was a spy. his friends assuming he was still in the employ of the CIA (the OSS's successor), but he wasn't. He was long gone from the CIA rolls. Still, he carried the act for years, possibly so caught up in his own lies that even he believed them. For decades, not even his closest friends and family knew what to make of the man. In hindsight, the story is depressingly sad, but he was treated as an eccentric while he lived. Relationships with his family soured, but he didn't seem to care, remaining aloof and apathetic about everything other than getting back into the field... though, it was the espionage and not baseball variety that kept his attention.

If one only reads the second half of his life, Berg was one closed door away from living on the streets. He was good-natured and friendly, and it won him dinners and spare bedrooms throughout his life. People kept him around because he was interesting. They certainly began to suspect that many of the stories he told were hyperbole, but no one cared. He was funny, exciting, and full of entertainment. Still, I wonder if he was alive today instead of 70 years ago if he would have been committed before his 60th birthday.

For the first 40 years of his life as chronicled by Dawidoff, I felt a connection with Berg and his interests. I saw the place he was in his life and saw my life reflected in it. And, as he made his decisions, decisions others saw as unusual, I thought I had found a kindred spirit given that I would have made the same choices. But, then Berg did something I feel was out of character: He chose to make something define him.

For years,he did what he wanted regardless of convention or society's definitions. If he liked it, he did it. If he was told to stop or it was seen as unacceptable, he stopped. It wouldn't matter if it was something he wanted. He'd just go find something else. He had limitless energy and interests, jumping at new topics and endeavors wholly and entirely. So, why did he latch so strongly onto the spy game that he made it define him so long after he was out of it?

I grab interests like a kid in a candy store, but it makes it so that - if one were no longer open to me - I could simply replace it with another. To find that Berg, a man I find eerily similar to myself, found something that he wasn't able to accept losing... made me question if such an activity/career exists out there that would do the same to me. What if someone told me that I couldn't run again? Couldn't write? Couldn't play baseball? Couldn't ruck? Could I accept that and move on?

Hell yes, I could... so what the hell happened to Moe Berg? The guy had everything and nothing.. and he combined the two into a strange amalgam of mystery and sadness. Read The Catcher was a Spy if you are a fan of baseball, espionage, or clinical psychosis. How's THAT for a recommendation?

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Three months of toning up...

Thirty pounds in three months. That's what I've lost.  How? Well, simply because I decided to. At 6', 220lbs, I was a big guy, but I worked out and ran constantly. I was in good shape. While at or near that weight, I ran six or seven half-marathons, two full marathons, and completed a GORUCK. I even actively maintained that physique by eating right after lifting ("Protein needs to be taken within the first hour after exercising in order to maximize its impact on muscle growth." Yea... whatever.)

Then, through no fault of my own, I took a week off of lifting. Well, it was to tour Italy for 10 days, so I guess it's partially my fault. But, while I didn't lift, I walked an insane amount around Rome, Venice, Florence, and Pompeii. And, more importantly, I rarely ate.

Why? Did I skip meals because I wasn't near a restaurant? Too expensive? Nope. I was just distracted by all the awesomeness and simply forgot. I forgot to eat. You know what that means? It means I didn't NEED to eat. And, that's the single greatest reason that we as a society and culture are so damn fat. Food is too readily-accessible to us now. So, I lost 10 pounds in about two weeks and decided to become a 'not-eater' and see what it would do to me. Result? I've toned up. I'm down 30 pounds. I'm lifting the same (if not more) weight at the gym than before. I'm running faster and further than before.

Not-eating is good for you. Who knew?

Now, I admit that there are a dozen little things I do in my day that contribute to my toning up. I work out everyday by either running or hitting the gym. I walk up the five floors to my office at work. I've found foods that I like that aren't high in fat and calories. But, those are the little things. What one thing can I point to that has had the biggest effect? I'm a non-eater.

After the gym, do I go eat a piece of salmon to get that protein? Hardly ever. Why should I? To gain the effects of the protein? All those articles are sadly over-rated, I hate to tell you. Should I go eat because it's 6:30 PM? Why do you eat at dinner time if you aren't hungry?

The secret to toning up and losing weight? Don't eat unless you're hungry. And, even then, wait an hour. You aren't 'starving.' People in third-world countries are starving. You're simply letting your body switch over from burning the calories you ingested this morning to the fat you've been storing. Know what? That's the point. It takes some discipline. I used to grab crackers at work, and I've cut down on that. I don't drink empty calories. Diet Coke? Totally acceptable from a caloric perspective. You can argue the point that the rest of the stuff in soft drinks are bad for you, but I haven't changed my soda intake at all during the past three months.

I'm 6', 190 pounds now... three months later. I still work out. I run regularly and have dropped my pace nearly a minute per mile. I carry a rucksack full of bricks that add up to essentially where I was three months ago, and it amazes me that what's in that bag used to be on me. I never cared to lose weight before, and now I weigh less than I have in nearly 20 years. Feels good. Best Blogger Tips

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Five Books to Read: #3 - Into Thin Air

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to me to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...

The first post on Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose can be found here.
The second on 127 Hours by Aron Ralston can be found here.


I honestly have no idea how to write this entry. Few books leave you complete exhausted after reading them, and even those I feel have had a profound emotional impact on me rarely do so. Yet, I'm worn out. I've just read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer for a second time, and I am physically drained. I feel much like I expect Krakauer did at the summit of Everest, dizzy and confused to the point that I'm not sure I can do the book justice in this brief post. I encourage you to read the book itself rather than this fumbling account of how it affected me, as Krakauer is an infinitely better writer than I will ever be.

Into Thin Air is an account of Krakauer's 1996 assault on Everest and an extremely well-written and entertaining tale of adventure and tragedy. It's a fantastic story made more so thanks to the fact that it's true.

Krakauer details his assignment by Outside magazine to report on the ascent of Everest and the growing commercialization (guided expeditions, increase in climber-carried trash, and the like) of the mountain. The first half tells of his climbing history and the growing bonds he forms with the other climbers of his and other expeditions. Minor tragedies strike - climbers are stricken with high-altitude sicknesses and the dangers posed by amateur climbers are revealed - but it isn't until Krakauer reaches the summit and starts back down that the story descends with him to disaster.

Before it was over, eight people would be killed in a 24-hour period, their deaths scattered all over the mountain. A total of fifteen people would die in that '96 season, the deadliest year in Everest history.

Taken as it is, Into Thin Air, lives up to its billing as one of the greatest adventure books ever written. It's thrilling and emotional with moments of tremendous bravery and abject failure. And, it's all true. This actually happened... and it's remarkable. If you're looking for an amazing read, I urge you to look no further.

But, that's not what grasps me and wears me down. If you pick up a later version of his book (post-'99 should do it), Krakauer's post-script addresses controversies that emerged from that day's ascent and the books (Anatoli Boukreev's The Climb, in particular) of other climbers. Boukreev was a guide on the sister expedition to Krakauer's, and - though Krakauer paints Boukreev in a mostly positive light and commends him for saving two people's lives - Boukreev took offense to his portrayal and a heated relationship developed.

In summary -

Five climbers in the two expeditions died that day (the other three that make up the 8 were part of a Indo-Tibetan Border Police squad climbing up the other side). Two were clients and three were guides (including the two expedition leads, Rob Hall leading Krakauer's and Scott Fischer leading Boukreev's). Boukreev himself was a guide for Fischer and took heat for (1) climbing without oxygen and (2) descending ahead of his clients, those people that paid him to keep them safe. The storm that blew in immediately after was... unexpected.

The controversy comes from Boukreev's comments regarding a supposed plan that his boss, Fischer, had for Boukreev to descend ahead of the clients. However, interviews after the disaster indicate that no such plan existed. The discussion is compounded by the fact that Boukreev climbed without gas, an impressive feat though not uncommon. Indeed, Boukreev had scaled Everest before without gas. The problem is that he was a guide, and the guides have other lives for which they are responsible. Guiding without oxygen is universally accepted as unnecessarily risky.

Krakauer didn't spend much time on this aspect initially, because accounts varied. But, he felt the need to address it when Boukreev's book came out and flung inaccurate and flat-out untrue accusations at Krakauer.

THIS is what makes the story for me. Not the arguments. Not the emotional interactions between authors. It's the leadership lessons that can be plucked from the pages. Even without the postscript, questions fly off the pages that cannot and will never be answered thanks to the deaths of so many.

Why didn't Hall turn his clients around at the predetermined time of 2PM? Did the presence of a reporter on the mountain impact the aggressiveness of the guides or the actions of the other clients? Has the draw of Everest encouraged unskilled climbers to make attempts and those around them to assist... for a price?

These questions are all brought up if not addressed by Krakauer. The most likely explanation is a mix of numerous factors including the reason Krakauer was there - business. You don't get people to sign up for your expeditions if you never reach the top. Another likely culprit is the altitude. You and I weren't there. We don't know what it was like to have to rely on oxygen-starved brain cells to make cognizant decisions at the roof of the world. I'll defer to the judgment of those that were there in the same way that I'll let the soldiers in the trenches handle the enemy as they see fit.

Either way, the examples of leadership - both successes and failures - are numerous and noteworthy. Clients became saviors. Guides lost their senses. Boukreev's plunge into the early morning storm to save two lives is juxtaposed against his lack of forethought in climbing without gas. Hall's historically conservative nature is something to aspire to as a leader, so why did he contradict his experience and instinct by continuing to the top so late in the afternoon? At least two of the climbers were strong-willed, business-minded individuals with type-A personalities. Why, then, did they become the heaviest weights on the teams, and could it have been avoided? One client was a former SAS-member from Australia, a group not known for their passivity. Yet, little is said about any role the man played. Did he not have the opportunity to step up? I find it hard to believe he would sit idly by as people died a few hundred feet from him had he known.

There aren't answers to these questions. These are discussions points, and I would love for my friends and readers to take the time to read the book and allow for some discussions. I feel entire college courses could revolve around decisions such as these, and Into Thin Air could be a tremendous learning tool.

The thing that strikes me, though, and something that to my knowledge has never been discussed, is this: Much is made of Boukreev not using gas. Did this contribute to the disaster? Was it a poor decision? I think both those can be answered with a justifiable 'yes.'

But, if that is a danger... if Boukreev, as a guide, should have been on gas the whole time to ensure the safety of his clients... Why didn't his expedition leader, Fischer, make him? It was Fischer's responsibility to get his clients up and back. Why didn't he tell Boukreev that it didn't matter what the man wanted to do... their first duty was to their clients. It shouldn't have been Boukreev's decision in the first place.

I still rack my brain considering the variables and how things could have gone differently. Krakauer makes the point that they would have all made it back safely if the storm hit two hours later. He also notes that they would have all been dead if it hit an hour earlier. The countless variables and randomness of it all are what keep bringing me back to this story, much like it does with Ralston's 127 Hours.

Krakauer was saved because he was running low on oxygen and had to descend quickly.

Running low on oxygen saved Krakauer's life.

See? This entire book is fascinating. Pick it up, and tell me that I'm wrong.

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