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06 February 2008
Winter running

When I first started running about five and a half years ago, I never expected that it would become such a part of my weekly life and that I'd still be doing it years later. I never enjoyed it in school and figured I'd never do it again afterward, but thanks to a little inspiration from someone close to me, I tried it in the confines of a gym, then took it outside, and never looked back. I've had my ups and downs as a runner since then, but have seen it through and have been richly rewarded for it in mind, body, and spirit.

One thing I certainly never envisioned in those early days was willingly waking up early and going out in freezing temperatures to run around in cold winds and snow. Winter's always been the most difficult time for me to be consistent about running; after a long day at work or a too-short night's sleep, the idea of such discomfort can be daunting. It's been far and away the most irregular time of year for my running, and will probably always be so.

But after a break over the holidays, I've been getting back to it and have been pretty regular about it, despite the roller-coaster weather we've been having. (Finding some great thinly-woven wool layers to wear has helped.) And, as I do with each other season, I find something magical about the experience that makes the rigmarole worthwhile.

Last Friday was an excellent example. We'd had a snowfall the night before, just enough to blanket the landscape with a few inches but not enough to require, say, snowshoes, grappling hooks, or flare guns. After leaving work, I headed out to the trail as the sun was starting to settle into the horizon. The trail was deserted and quiet in the way that's only possible with snow--a gently muffled hush. Under my feet, the snow was soft yet supportive, a firm bed that felt luxurious to move across even as it required a bit more from legs to move through it.

That wonderful paradox continued throughout the run, as my eyes were dazzled by the rolling, snowy cloud-covered bluffs and forests around me and my mind and imagination fired by the alternating audiobook and music filtering through my rigged-up earmuff/headphone combo. Initial chill turned to internal warmth as the miles slowly slipped by, and the added difficulty of breathing the cold air was a wonderfully alive feeling. As I progressed, all these components merged into one experience of striving, heaving, frolicking, exploring, and just being.

Toward the end of my run, rather than wearing down, I felt a delicious surge of energy and strength in my legs--a thank-you of sorts for the forgiving snowy running surface, perhaps--and finished at a good, strong pace. Though a shorter run than what I might peak at in warm weather, the feeling of satisfaction after navigating those wintry elements is second to none, and what at first seemed like adversarial conditions soon became friendly, generous, and awakening.

I'm grateful for these moments, and the ready availability of a different physical, emotional, and spiritual journey every time I look over at those running shoes and decide that okay, it's time to pull them on and go.

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14 October 2007
Endangered Species 5K

Yesterday I ran my second-ever competitive race, the Endangered Species Walk/Run 5K, described thusly: "co-hosted by the Department of Conservation, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Health and Senior Services, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department. The event raises funds to help restore habitat, conduct research and support education projects for endangered animals and plants in Missouri."

I've always been more of a meditative runner than a competitive one; for me, there's nothing better than a long, empty trail under a brooding sky with an intriguing mix on my MP3 player, and no one else in sight. Racing was fun when I was a kid--I was pretty darn good at the 50-yard dash back in the day--but has never interested me since. But once in a while I suffer from the temporary insanity of wanting to do it, maybe as a barometer of whether I'm as healthy as I think I am. The availability of an event nearby that benefitted something important to me made it the right choice.

It turned out to be a great time, and despite the lack of any focused training on my part (I'd been running a couple days a week and biking 3 or more days a week over the last few months), went like clockwork, almost surprisingly so. I think it was a combination of just enough good choices leading up to and during the race:

  • I typically run on the Hinkson trail, which has no distance markers--which is good for a distraction-free run, but bad for having any idea how well I'm running, speed-wise. Earlier this week I did an extra run back on my old stomping grounds of the MKT trail, and timed my miles in a simulated 5K. My first mile was terrible--I was dragging badly--my second mile was great, and my third was somewhere in between. This run gave me something to beat and told me where my biggest weakness was: in the early stages.
  • Made an effort to eat nutritionally and heartily and get good nights' sleep in the few days before the race. Mixed success, but good overall.
  • I hardly ever drink coffee, but I decided to follow some advice I read on Runnersworld.com to drink a bit of coffee 30-60 minutes before a race, based on the idea that caffeine prepares the nervous system for exercise.
  • I asked Ann Marie, herself a cross-country star in high school, what her pre-race prep was in her racing days. She emphasized a long warm-up, even to the extent of running the whole race course before the real race. While I didn't think I was up for quite that much, her advice made immediate sense with what I had experienced just a few days earlier--hitting a wall in my first mile that mentally dragged me down for the rest of the run. So when we got to the race site, in addition to my usual alternating 1-minute-jog/1-minute-walk warmup repeats, I ran a good six minutes non-stop at just below race pace. During that run I hit that draggy, breathing-hard wall, but did not hit it during the actual race, so this turned out to be critical and I'm now sold on the longer-warmup approach.
  • I ended up being in a surprisingly good, practical frame of mind during the race itself. I'd thought through a few things ahead of time to avoid getting surprised, and switched between multiple mindsets throughout the race: checking in on myself to make sure I was at a comfortable pace, and then bumping it up a notch; looking around at the lovely morning sky and countryside; thinking about things I'm working on outside of the race; checking out the cute girl in front of me and then passing her (hey, motivation is motivation); and even zoning out altogether at a few points. The first mindset, which I kept coming back to regularly, was the most important; I think I underestimated myself a little early on, and was able to steadily increase my pace through the race, ending with the last 100 meters or so in a sprint.
Overall, it was just a really nice experience in a very positive setting. The running group was relaxed, easy-going, and good-natured, and the course was great (half asphalt and half Katy Trail, in a wide-open grassy/woodsy setting). For anyone masochistic enough to enjoy racing who's also concerned about protecting the natural world, I highly recommend it.

See a few photos documenting my race-day experience.

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06 October 2007
Which Star Wars character?

These little quizzes can get addictive. But this one was too 'me' to pass up. #1 surprises me a little, even though it was my favorite character as a kid. But then again, all of these are spot-on in their way.

Which Star Wars Character Are You?

You are Boba Fett

Because of your dark past you don't say much, and you don't have many close friends, but man do you look cool!

Boba Fett: 66%
Chewbacca: 64%
Han Solo: 63%
Qui-Gon Jinn: 62%
Lando Calrissian: 62%
Obi-Wan Kenobi: 61%
Darth Maul: 60%
Mace Windu: 60%
Count Dooku: 59%
Princess Leia: 55%

(This list displays the top 10 results out of a possible 21 characters)

Take the Star Wars Personality Test


02 October 2007
2007 Women's World Cup

For the most part, there are only three sports I care about and keep up with: NFL football, pro tennis, and international soccer. The latter can be especially captivating, as World Cups are great opportunities to see a true world contest where distinct national styles counter each other, as opposed to most sports in which the teams are all variations on the same theme.

This year's Women's World Cup soccer tournament was no exception. Catching as many matches as I could spare the time for (on tape, due to the time difference with host nation China), I really enjoyed what I saw. The women's came has come a long way toward parity, with the days of unquestioned U.S. dominance long gone. And in contrast to the men's game, which can at times be frustratingly defense-heavy--with many matches consisting mostly of lots of quickly-scuttled attempts to move the ball a little--the woman's game seems crisper, with the element of surprise intact. Sometimes, that can mean poor play--I saw many own goals and some absurdly lopsided scores--but a lot of the time it just means an action-packed match.

For the last several Cups, I've followed and been enthused about the U.S. women's team. That was true in this tournament, too; despite their generally lackluster play and the dismal coaching of Greg Ryan, I was still pulling for them. That is, sadly, until their semifinal match against Brazil.

By now the story's familiar, having been beamed all over the news: Ryan benched starting goalkeeper Hope Solo just before the match in favor of 36-year-old veteran Brianna Scurry, claiming her quick reflexes and experience against Brazil would be the best thing for the team. From there, things began to go wring quickly, with controversy erupting, the team being dominated by Brazil, and then an embarrassing and awkward situation where Solo spoke out against the coach (and, many claimed, Scurry) and was essentially exiled for the rest of the tournament, even being prevented from housing or eating with the team she'd helped carry through the tournament.

Having followed the team in the tournament to this point, I was at first miffed at the coach for his ongoing baffling moves (which previously included playing leading starters for too long and ignoring his young bench) and the decision to exile Solo.

But with a few days' perspective on the issue, my focus has shifted a bit. Ryan looks like a bad coach, plan and simple--he made bad choices, everyone knows it, and that's that.

What's still troubling me, though, is how the team handled the situation. Ryan defended his leaving Solo out of the team's final match (the third-place contest against Norway) by resorting to vague statements about going with the 20 players who stood together during the difficult times. This strikes me as something of a cou-out, as none of those 20 players had their starting positions taken away just before the biggest game of the tournament. Sticking together is easy, and no achievement, when you're not dealing with that.

But the problem is, they didn't stick together. They abandoned their teammate. They ditched the keeper who'd been compensating for their struggling, low-scoring offense throughout the tournament. Rather than work through the difficulties, they seemed to turn into a junior-high-clique and played the ignoring game with their teammate, who incidentally had just lost her father earlier in the summer.

By all accounts so far, this decision was engineered by Ryan along with senior team members Kristine Lilly and Scurry. Word is that the team was split between six older players and 12 younger players over how to handle Solo, with the younger players in support of her. But, with the Olympics next year and starting positions in the hands of the coach and senior members, it's not hard to guess how difficult any dissent would be.

So whether you support or decry Solo's right to be critical of her coach and imply criticism of a teammate (words which, incidentally, almost exactly mirror words spoken by Scurry a few years ago about her own predecessor), it's appalling how quickly and completely she was frozen out--how immature and petty that seems, how insecure that makes all the other players look. It couldn't have been summed up better than by the embarrassing words of leading team scorer Abby Wambach--"I'd like to think I'd like to forgive her." How sad.

The other aspect of this that's bothering me is how strongly Solo was attacked by many people for her remarks. Everyone understands the concepts of teamwork and the importance of supporting each other. But everyone breaks down from time to time--everyone gets emotional and says something they don't mean. Can we expect an emotional, competitive, and mourning 26-year-old to be perfect? Of course not. And we can be constructively critical of her statements without being hateful and derogatory toward her. The outcry over her statements reminds me a lot of the irrationally defensive reactions I often see directed at anyone who criticizes the Iraq war or the president--a sort of mob-rule where dissent is shouted down. And the critique has been much sharper in her case than in comparable cases involving male athletes (such as this week's story of an NFL player who, after a loss, claimed his teammates have "no heart"--what's that, you haven't heard about it? Exactly. And he hasn't been cut from the team, either.)

In my opinion, the solution is simple: the team should move away from its senior players immediately, and focus on the youth of this team and the up-and-comers in the college system. Go with Lindsay Tarpley and Natasha Kai upfront, exciting players who can make things happen. Go with Solo or one of the promising college goalkeepers out there. Sever ties with anyone from the last couple U.S. World Cup teams. Find a qualified, progressive woman coach with no connection to the last generation of U.S. national players. And then give it everything you've got.

The current in-between, starry-eyed-nostalgia approach seems to be killing this team, and perhaps worse still, splitting their own country over whether to support them or be disgusted by them. Women's soccer in the U.S. is at a crucial turning point; it can't afford to poison itself, and if this keeps up, that's exactly what it will do. I've been a fan of this team for many years, but I feel on the verge of moving on and not supporting them, and that's not what I want.

To end on a positive note, however, I'll just briefly say what a great ending to the tournament the final was. Germany vs. Brazil was everything it should have been, with the Brazilians showing off their grace and fire, but the greater experience and team strategy of the Germans winning out in the end. The Brazilians' individual play was creative and delightful, but you could see the frustration growing on their faces as the Germans' patient, organized approach gradually disrupted the Brazilians' flow and avoided playing to their strengths. In the end, it was the same result we've seen on the men's side, with Brazil's "beautiful game" falling just a bit short of teams with better group discipline. But there's so much talent and youth on that team, I'd be surprised if they don't win the next one.


01 October 2007
Arcade Fire

This past Friday, Ann Marie and I went to go see Arcade Fire play at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City. After missing a chance to see them back in November '04, in a small club in Columbia just before they took off to massive acclaim, seeing them in a big venue seemed like a letdown to me--big shows always seem more impersonal, more detached, and of course more logistically annoying.

However, this show turned all those expectations on their head. The sound was great, the venue was great (open-air on a lovely night), and the band was phenomenal.

After a solid opening set by LCD Soundsystem (which was terrific for the first few songs, then became repetitious), Arcade Fire took the stage with stirring drama and never let up 'til the final note. I haven't listened to them as extensively as Ann Marie has, and the impression I had of them was a mostly melancholy and darkly-Gothic group.

However, what I saw that night was anything but--it was emotionally powerful music played with sheer ecstasy. Ten people on stage, throwing themselves into it with all they had. Running around the stage, switching instruments between most every song, trading roles with what seemed like controlled chaos. Singing their hearts out song after song, whether they were at a mic or not. It was inspiring to see such commitment and synchronicity, where no one was just providing backdrop--every member was alert and aware and engaged in each word, each moment of the songs. The playing and singing was tight and faithful to the original recordings; in Ann Marie's words the songs were just like they were on record, but more so--more intense, more expressive and emotional.

It's been a long while since I've seen a show that all-around successful, and a band so fully on one wavelength and executing in such passionate unison. Hard to think of a better band playing right now--they really convinced me.

See a few photos I took at the show, and below is a brief video clip I recorded of the rousing finale, "Wake Up".


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20 August 2007
Hero or Villain?

Honestly, I would have guessed that I was the #2 character in each of these results. I must know myself pretty well... and yes, I'm a geek. So, without further ado, here are my results in the unquestionably official "Which Superhero Are You?" and "Which Supervillain Are You?" quizzes.

First up, hero. I'm a little surprised, but this does fit the grumpy-hermit thing.

You are Hulk
You are a wanderer with amazing strength.

My matches:

Hulk: 80%
Spider-Man: 70%
Catwoman: 70%
Green Lantern: 60%
Superman: 45%
The Flash: 45%
Robin: 42%
Iron Man: 40%
Batman: 35%
Supergirl: 35%
Wonder Woman: 35%

(Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test)

... And for the villain, a bit of a dark horse. I admit, I was hoping for Doctor Doom, which I think is still more accurate. But this one does have some flair.

You are Apocalypse
You believe in survival of the fittest and you believe that you are the fittest.

My matches:

Apocalypse: 69%
Dr. Doom: 67%
Mystique: 65%
Venom: 64%
Mr. Freeze: 64%
Magneto: 62%
Dark Phoenix: 62%
Lex Luthor: 57%
Juggernaut: 53%
Catwoman: 45%
The Joker: 44%
Two-Face: 37%
Green Goblin: 33%
Kingpin: 33%
Riddler: 28%

(Click here to take the Super Villain Personality Test)


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