That Time Again

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hi, Buckaroos.  Marathon training time again.  Gonna try to slide one by once more.

Yes, I got out early this morning.  I hit the pavement at 5:45 AM, to start my 20 miler today.  My plan was to get around seven miles in before our 7:00 AM group run, which is 12.5 miles, roughly, and have a half mile extra to do at the end.  I am training for the Twin Cities Marathon, Minneapolis and Saint Paul, October 1, 2017.

When one starts out that early on a Sunday in late August, the sun has not yet come up, and it is nice and peaceful.  No lawn crews with their gas-powered leaf blowers sending dust up into the air.  Very little traffic.  The houses are silent as the occupants slumber, completely unaware of the runner going by.  Even the locusts have dimmed their din.  A couple of crickets are still at the party.

What does occur is the senses, hearing, smelling and seeing, picking up little things that would ordinarily get missed.  As I stepped out on my front porch, I took a sip from my water bottle, set down my back pack and second running shirt on top, switched on my Garmin, waited for it to register the numerous satellites it follows, and headed out.  For the first mile and a half, things were very quiet.  At about that point, though, the first big olfactory hit came my way, which was the smell of someone starting up a barbecue.  I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but guessed it must be someone planning to do some serious smoking, maybe beef brisket or a pork loin, and needed to get things going early.  It would be pretty nice to be around when the cooking is done.

I noticed a few birds and squirrels, but not the usual number one sees later in the morning.  Clearly, these were those looking for a competitive advantage.  I wondered if they also were selective favorites for procreation, or did the lazier of their ilk happen upon willing mates while the others were out foraging.  While the early bird gets the worm, the later bird may ultimately contribute more to the gene pool.

I could hear each foot strike on the pavement.  If one focuses too much on that, the monotony becomes mesmerizing, and takes one’s concentration away from important acts, such as looking for potholes in the road, and listening for the occasional car.  Should cops need an opportunity to fill their monthly ticket quota, I suggest they set up very early on Sunday.  While there are few cars on the road, to a one, they were all exceeding the speed limit by a hell of a lot.  I had on my reflective vest, with a blinking red light in the back, but when I heard a car coming from either direction I hopped on the sidewalk, since they invariably came speeding by, ignoring road signs and the double yellow line.  One car I saw this morning was a Corvette, driven by a guy with a reflective vest of his own on, but there our similarities ended.

I saw as I ran down Park Blvd. that the giant trees that had been uprooted by our last major storm, pulling the sidewalk to a 90 degree angle, had finally been removed.  Where they had been was now dirt, awaiting sidewalk repair.  This is a narrow street, with cars parked along the curb, and neat homes from the 1940’s and ’50’s.  Normally, I would need to run on the sidewalk since it is too narrow and busy to run in the street.  But this morning, I made it a full mile before a car approached.  I darted up on to the sidewalk as it passed, then got back into the street.  As one runs farther down the street, the houses get older, into the 1880’s and even earlier.  It is a measure of how the farmland got transformed into housing developments.  This part of the run is through Collingswood, a town named after the Collings family.  Collingswood was their farm.  Being Quakers, the town has always been dry.

Heading into Knight Park, I passed close to the Collings-Knight Homestead, the home of Edward C. Knight, benefactor who donated the land for Knight park.  One week earlier I ran through this park early Sunday morning, when a large dog, saliva dripping from his jaw, ran at me barking and snapping.  I turned and faced him, palms up and facing the dog.  Its owner was nearby, a woman standing with a couple of other dog owners, all of whom let their dogs run leash-less.  She called to the dog to “c’m’ere”, reassuring me that the dog was a friendly dog and would do me no harm.  The dog did stop a few feet from me, then turned and went back to her.  She repeated several times what a friendly dog it was, and how I shouldn’t worry.  So, this was on my mind this morning, and fortunately, I had arisen early enough to beat this woman and her “friendly” dog to the park.  I was certainly relieved.

Reaching the end of the park, I headed to Haddon Avenue, and started to run back towards my starting point.  For anyone not from this area, Haddon is a common name.  Elizabeth Haddon was the daughter of John Haddon a Quaker in London who purchased 500 acres in the area that is now Haddonfield and Haddon Township.  He bought the land to escape religious persecution, but due to ill health, could not make the journey.  He sent his daughter, Elizabeth, instead.  She arrived, a single, young woman, apparently confident, and in 1702 asked John Estaugh, a Quaker minister already in this colony, for his hand in marriage.  Elizabeth Haddon was the founder of the towns of Haddonfield and Haddon Township.

Running up Haddon Avenue, I passed the numerous shops and restaurants in Collingswood.  While a dry town, there is a very vibrant restaurant scene, since one can bring wine or beer to the restaurant.  The restaurants have turned Collingswood from an aging, decaying town, with out of date stores like vacuum cleaner repair and hardware stores, to a busy, hip place, especially on Friday and Saturday night.  I pass the parking spots.  These used to be meters, but now are marked with poles labeled with notices that one must pay at the pay station.  Parking is paid seven days a week.  This morning, there are no cars parked here.  Leaving Collingswood and entering Haddon Township and Westmont, one enters the bar scene.  Capturing the revelers which Collingswood missed, this stretch of Haddon Avenue has numerous bars which are busy usually every night.  Again, in the early morning, they are shuttered and quiet, awaiting the opening gong much later in the day.

I turned back into the neighborhood streets for the last mile or so of my run.  I was again aware of a strong olfactory stimulus, this time, bacon.  The smell of bacon cooking is, first of all, unmistakable.  We have two eyes which can see various colors.  We have two ears to hear a wide range of sound.  But we have about 800 genes in humans each coding for a different olfactory receptor.  Most scents stimulate multiple receptors, which is how we can be so discriminatory identifying different odors.  The smell of bacon also is a strong motivator.  It motivates one to eat bacon, which I was, unfortunately, not able to do at that moment.

By this point, the birds were starting to become active and sing to each other.  To us, it is an entertaining bird concert, with different songs coming from different directions.  To the birds, it is the result of sexual selection at work, a subset of Darwin’s natural selection, establishing the male’s dominance for his territory and mate.

I made it around the last corner back towards my house, the sky now a mix of grays and rosy pinks.  I stopped by my house briefly, to change to a dry shirt which I had left on my front porch, grab my backpack and water bottle, and head out to meet the usual Sunday morning runners at 7:00 for our 12.5 mile loop, with 7 miles in already.

By the finish of the morning run, I got my 20.2 miles in.  One of my good running friends, Kealan, ran the 12.5 miles with me, and even the extra half mile I needed to get to that 20 mile mark.  Our conversation the whole way made the run seem much shorter.

I’ll leave you with a link to the song running through my mind as I was running the dark streets in the early morning of last Sunday:

Frank relaxes at Starbucks with his running friends, 20.2 miles in the training bank.

The Aging Carrot

Process

Process

As I  was digging up our carrots from our garden, having left them to grow the whole summer, I was pleasantly surprised to find the above carrot couplet you see on your left.  Why, it looked like an adoring couple, snuggling together, spooning.  I was quite taken by this natural representation of love, so I set the carrots on our counter in the kitchen.  There they stayed for some time.  When I again discovered them, hiding out behind other stuff that got piled around them, they had changed.  Yes, they were still in that loving, gentle embrace, but they lost their hair.  They became shriveled.  Their bright orange color was gone.  The embrace had lost some vital turgor.  In a matter of a few weeks, they went from being youthful and attractive, to stereotypes of the aged.

I am feeling this way, struck by the evil vicissitudes of my aging body.  It seems to have come on rather suddenly, as if a switch was turned.  I was still able to manage a decent marathon in 2015.  But this past year, my times for various races rose like hot air balloons.  What happened to the speed?  Also, I’m feeling pains I used to only feel the day after the marathon.  Now, when I wake in the morning and head downstairs to make coffee, I find myself relying on the banister, as my thigh muscles put out little protest yelps of pain.

I suspect some of this has come about due to my daily schedule and obligations leaving less time for training.  I know, people say, “you have to make the time.”  “There’s no excuse.”  But long work days and, during the winter months, short daylight hours, make challenges to getting out there and maintaining the fitness.  The other aspect, though, is what to expect as we get older.  Listening to the broadcasts of the Australian Open tennis tournament, the announcers stated over and over how shocking it was that the finalists, men and women, were all older than 30(!), and some over 35 (shocking!).  One can only imagine the losses in strength and ability to recover when one is over 60.  One estimate I read is that one loses about 0.6% of one’s overall strength and fitness for each year over 30.  I think that percentage applies to the previous year’s fitness, so that the 0.6% is subtracted not from the level at 30 each year, but from the last year’s level.

When I was 48 I got a book by Joel Friel, called “Cycling Past 50”.  While published in 1998, I think it has a lot of excellent information and advice which can be used in any sport, and certainly beyond 50.  He starts with some graphs showing how our bodies lose muscle, strength, and aerobic capacity as we grow older.  He also shows, in graph form, what happens if one allows extra body fat to accumulate, and it is not a pretty picture.   V̇O2max drops much more by the age of 70 if the percent body fat is 30% as opposed to 15%.  He addresses “task creep”, which he states refers to accumulating more work and responsibility as one hits the peak of one’s professional years in the 50-65 age group.  Beyond cycling specific information, he addresses recovery, nutrition and injury avoidance, all taking on greater importance as we get older but still wish to train and compete.  I also just ordered “Running Until You’re 100”, by Jeff Galloway.  That’s the way to take the long view….

While I feel like that carrot on the right in the top photo, I believe I can persevere and even get a few good races in, in the coming years.  At the same time, I want to continue to enjoy the benefits of aging, such as more freedom to travel, offspring who have become successful in their own lives, and an appreciation for life in general.  Anyway, see you out on the road.

 

Train in Missoula

Missoula, Montana has a nice ring to it.  A bit alliterative, it is a slightly liberal town in an otherwise very conservative state.  The region of Missoula is a relatively flat area which was once a glacial lake.  Remnants of that large lake exist today, in Flathead lake and Lake Pend Oreille.  As long as 12,000 years ago, people inhabited this area, including Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfeet and Shoshone tribes, although known settlements date from around 3500 BCE (Before Common Era).  French fur trappers discovered it and found that they were not necessarily welcome.  In fact, the eastern valley entrance to the region was referred to as the “Porte d’Enfer” or gate of hell, due to the many human skeletons lying about from killed trappers and explorers, and aboriginal people embroiled in battles.  Lewis and Clark explored this area in 1805.  By 1860, a small settlement was established five miles west of present-day Missoula, with the name Hell Gate Village.  In 1866, the center of town moved east five miles to be closer to a water source for lumber and flour mills.  The name Missoula comes from a Salish word, “nmesuletkw”, apparently pronounced “Nemissoolatakoo”, and meaning “the place of frozen water”.  The area was seen as an ideal route for a train to pass through to the west coast.  In about 1870, construction of the Northern Pacific Railway began and the final golden spike was driven by Ulysses S. Grant in Western Montana, September 8, 1883.  It extended from the great lakes through Missoula and ended at Puget Sound near Takoma, Washington.  The story of the railroad is filled with adventure, hardship and conflict.  The railway led to rapid development along the entire line.

Missoula was granted the right to become the home of the University of Montana by agreeing not to challenge Helena to be the state capitol.  It was established in 1893 on land on the south side of the Clark Fork River.  When I visited in June, 2016, I was told by a number of locals that the university is what makes the town different from other places in Montana.  Of particular note, the first woman elected to US Congress was from Missoula.  Jeannette Rankin, born in Missoula in 1880, was elected to congress in 1916, before women had the right to vote.  She was a pacifist, and during both her first term, and again after election again in 1940, she voted against entering the first world war and the second.  She stated that she could not go to war, and so she would not vote to send any one else.  She was a fighter, though, for the right for women to vote.

I and my whole extended family traveled to Missoula in June, 2016 for the wedding of my nephew, Greg.  I had not been to Montana before, and did not know what to expect.  While there is an airport in Missoula, my wife and I decided to fly in to Spokane, at the eastern edge of Washington.  We drove north from Spokane, around the northern shore of Lake Pend Oreille and the town of of Sandpoint, Idaho.  From there, we drove southeast, following the course of the Clark Fork river all the way to Missoula.  This is a beautiful drive, with scenic mountains in the background, some snow-capped, and the rushing river to our right.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Even though Greg would be getting married in a couple of days, he was very happy to go for a run with me the morning after we arrived.  Our first run was along the Clark Fork river, and past the campus of the University of Montana, home of the “Grizzlies”.  There is a nice trail along the river which goes for miles, and makes for a great running trail.  There is a very large “M” on a hillside above the campus, with a switchback trail leading up to it.  It is a favorite of visitors to the campus to go for a hike up this hill.  We, my family, considered it, but thought it looked a bit unrewarding just to go see the “M”.  We still wanted to enjoy the trails around Missoula.

University of Montana "M" trail.

University of Montana “M” trail.

Instead, we decided to climb up Waterworks Hill, a not-too-steep trail on the north side of Missoula overlooking the town.  We all gathered together, no small feat for us, and headed through town to the base of the trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

The trail goes up a rolling set of hills, with grass and native flowering plants along the way.  One gets the feeling this is a sensitive ecologic zone.  The hillside is covered with these plants, but if they were not there the whole side of the hill could come sliding down in a heavy rain and inundate Missoula.  It is also a risk for avalanches onto the the homes below during the winter months.  Sheep are used at various times during the year as a means of keeping some of the invasive species down.  How the sheep know the right plants to eat, I am not sure.   As we ascended, the surrounding hills came into view.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

A few man-made objects presented an opportunity for the group to look like the cast of a Shakespeare Play.

The cast of the play.

That guy in the middle is the main character.

Nearing the top of the first hill, one is greeted with a great view of Missoula and the surrounding mountains.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

This brings me to my main topic.  One can see the train stretching across the scene in the photo.  Trains of several hundred cars up to a mile and a half long pass through Missoula many times a day.  When the Northern Pacific Railway began, the freight was wheat, farm equipment, and passengers.  Since 1970, it was incorporated into the conglomerate known as Burlington Northern, and it carries a different cargo today.  On our way back into town, we were stopped by the train heading eastward back to its origin.  Empty coal cars rattled and screeched as the train passed eastward through the town, and automobiles idled at the railroad crossing.  Finally, the caboose was in sight, passed by, and the gates opened.  I was moved to find out more about these trains and their cargo.  I asked my cousin, George, who moved to Montana a few years ago from Los Angeles, and now lives in Missoula.  He told me the trains were coming from Wyoming, from an area called the Powder River Basin.

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

The Powder River Basin is a geologic area in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, 200 by 120 miles in size.  It is the largest coal mining area in the United States, and produces a type of coal called sub-bituminous.  About sixty million years ago, this region was largely a shallow sea, and received three meters of rainfall per year.  There was a large amount of plant growth, and due to the geography, dead plants did not wash away.  Instead, they became peat bogs which were eventually crushed under dirt and rock to become coal, as the region dried up.  It is estimated this area contains enough coal to light the U.S. almost to the twenty third century.  It was not of great importance compared with coal from Appalachia, until concern was raised about sulfur dioxide, or SO2.  The coal from this region produces about 8,500 BTU’s per pound, versus 12,500 BTU’s per pound for Appalachian coal.  But the SO2 content of the Wyoming coal is very low compared with the coal from Kentucky and West Virginia.  Sulfur dioxide is widely used as a food preservative, in wine making, and in medicine.  It is considered safe for human consumption, except for young asthmatics in whom it may precipitate an attack.  It is a part of normal plant and animal physiology.  However, released into the air from burning coal, it can become sulfuric acid, the cause of “acid rain”.  As acid rain became recognized as a serious threat to the environment, the US government in 1995 developed the Acid Rain Program, a market-based approach to reducing SO2 emissions.  This made coal from the Powder River Basin very competitive with Appalachian coal, since “scrubbing” costs were much less to burn Powder River Basin coal, even though it had less heat output.  The coal in this area is mined by strip mining techniques, and it is done on a very large scale.  An overview in a website called The Daily Climate describes the operation very well.  Of the one billion tons of coal used each year in the United States, about 400 million tons comes from the Powder River Basin.  The amount exported to Asian ports is relatively small, around 10-20 million tons per year.  However, the price offered can be up to ten times the domestic price of about $10 per ton for Powder River Basin coal.  The cost to the mine companies, though, is very cheap.  The coal is owned by us, the people.  It is sold via the Bureau of Land Management to the coal mining companies for around 20 cents per ton.  Since the price received from Asian countries is quite high, as high as $100 a ton in the last few years, the mining companies are doing quite well.

missoulatrain960x200

Like all energy production, though, these prices can change radically and quickly.  If China or India slow their use of energy due to a cooling economy, as has happened over the last two years, the production of coal exceeds demand.  Also, if prices are high, other producers around the globe including Australia, Russia, Indonesia, India and South Africa up their production.  All this has happened resulting in lower prices for coal in the Pacific Rim.  However, as seen by the steady train traffic through Missoula, the coal from Powder River Basin, because of its low sulfur content among other attributes, is still considered desirable, and is still being exported.  One of the factors in exporting this coal is the limited port availability near San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.  These areas are reluctant to invest in increased port capacity due to the market volatility.  Other factors influencing the building of these facilities include the rights of native American tribes.  In some cases, the tribes come down on different sides of the argument.  Producers of the coal feel limited by the port capacity, and would like to see it increase.  Of interest, too, is that while a large amount of coal is exported from the Powder River Basin, it is a tiny fraction of the coal imported to China, South Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia, currently about 4% of these area’s imports.  While coal demand in the US is falling due to the increase in natural gas from new production, it is difficult to transport gas overseas, and so coal use is still a major source of energy in Asian countries.

Naturally, Missoulans and others on the paths of these coal trains are concerned about the environmental impact.  There have been a number of protests in Missoula like that seen in the video below.  Diesel fumes and dust from the coal cars are concerns.  The Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with studying the environmental impact of the train traffic through these areas.

I knew nothing about the Powder River Basin, and very little about coal, before researching this topic.  As I dug deeper into the issues surrounding the use, mining and transport, and sales and world market for coal, the issues and side branches of this topic became exponentially more complex.  I do hope Missoula stays as livable and beautiful a place as it was for my very short visit in June.  For anyone who wishes to do their own reading on this interesting topic I have listed a few of the resources I used.

A very informative and detailed analysis of coal exports from the US, by Sylvie Cornot-Gandolphe, Research Associate at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies:  https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CL-21.pdf

U.S. coal prices by region, from U.S. Energy Information Administration data:  https://www.quandl.com/data/EIA/COAL-US-Coal-Prices-by-Region

U.S. Energy Information Administration coal export analysis:  https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=11791

The Daily Climate essay with impressive photos on the Powder River Basin and coal production:  http://www.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2013/12/western-coal-development

Wikipedia articles on Sulfur Dioxide and Acid Rain:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur_dioxide

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_rain

 

 

 

Deconstructing the Sounds of Silence

Last Friday evening I went out for a run on one of my usual routes.  I was running past a local pizza restaurant with outside seating.  There sat a very nice looking young couple, with a partially eaten pizza for two sitting atop a little stand, and a half filled bottle of wine.  The young man and woman were both intently gazing…at their cell phones, texting, or whatever.  They did not notice as I ran by, and they were not speaking to each other.

I had the good fortune to see Paul Simon at the Mann Theater in Philadelphia a few weeks ago.  At the age of 74, he put on an amazing performance.  His backup band of ten musicians, played too many instruments to count, including brass, wind, percussion, guitar and bass, and keyboard.  They all were fantastic.  Very moving, though, was his solo rendition of Sounds of Silence.

Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.

Running along, alone, I get a chance to converse with myself.  I have running (heh, heh) conversations in my head as I go along.  Passing the couple paying attention to their smart devices and not to each other, I wondered what they were looking at.  Texting?  Looking at a “social media” site?  Checking out what other people are doing?  I don’t know, but they were silent.  Not everyone is like that, and certainly not in every social gathering, but how frequent it is to see, not just a couple, but groups of people all looking at their cell phones (an anachronism, now, to call it a phone), and not connecting with each other.  This conversation I had in my head, and it kept me going for another mile.

In the naked light I saw ten thousand people maybe more.

People talking without speaking.  People hearing without listening.

When I think of these lines, I think about the disconnect between groups of people in our country and also around the world.  I want to delve into a group’s message, to see what they are really trying to say.  What are their goals, their fears, their aspirations?  Why would there be a strongly supported vote in a particular state to enforce laws about who may use a particular restroom?  Are the proponents of such a law just rigid, or do they have some fear that needs addressing?  Do people who support a law promoting “religious freedom” in fact feel their freedom is impinged if they cannot refuse service to a gay couple?  If so, is there a way to address their concerns without denying the gay couple appropriate service?  The NRA and the people wanting to carry a 9 mm Glock on their hips into their local Burger King clearly have a message they want to impart, which is completely missed by the people wanting to ban assault rifles.  And in the USA, I think our ultimate miscommunication is between members of congress on both sides of the aisle who cannot agree to discuss or compromise on anything.  World-wide, there are just too many examples to start a list….

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made.

At the Paul Simon concert, the sun had set and the audience was under the darkened cover of the outdoor theater.  There were hundreds of people holding up their cellphones capturing video of Paul Simon and his band performing.  The light from the cell phone screens reminded me of concerts past, before cell phones were invented, when people held up lighted Bic lighters as a symbol of solemnity and reverence when the song particularly moved them.  Now, the light from the phones is seen only from behind, and is a function of people capturing the performance so they can show their friends how lucky they were to be there.  In the first instance, the light from the lighters is a shared experience of people silently communicating.  In the other, it is all about the individual out of the moment.  From the back, though, I felt a sense of nostalgia.

Hear my words that I might teach you.  Take my arms that I might reach you.

One, an individual, must be receptive to be taught, or to allow an interaction.  We have opportunities to communicate, to agree, to disagree, and to blend thoughts.  Our world seems ever more dangerous and disconnected.  Whatever we can do to make it less so is an improvement.

 

 

 

 

Looking out; Looking Back

Way back in college, one of my professors, in a class in which I was a bit lost, talked about “signifier and signified”.  Hang with me on this, because it gets confusing before it gets clearer.  This professor, who was French and had an accent, said something about signifier and signified which has stuck with me, and seemed important.  He referred to these concepts as someone looking at another image, whether in a mirror, or another person or thing, and that the image changes the originator of the interaction.  That was probably a misinterpretation on my part.

It turns out, these terms, signifier and signified, are concepts in the large field known as “semiotics”.  Also, the signifier is not a person, it is a form that refers to something else, together making a meaningful sign.  An example would be a written word, like tree, referring to the object which we know as a tree.  But these signifiers are not limited to letters, or words.  They can be body language, facial expressions, clothing, grunts, color coding, and so on.

What the professor meant, and what I took from it, are too far removed from today, for me to say whether he knew what he was talking about (I bet he did), or if I just took from it what I wanted.  But I liked the idea that the message, whether a word, an expression, a gasp, a groan, a sneer, is reflected back and alters the sender, which is where I begin.

I look out from my own eyes, and if there is no one watching, I feel a certain way.  Trees, rocks, the road, my environment, will affect the way I feel or act, but they are not actively answering my message that I am either consciously or unconsciously sending out.  Still, the reflection of that message, say a groan when I see a hill coming up, or a sideways glance at a tree just starting to blossom, will reflect back at me and alter my course.  How we feel starting out on a run is almost never how we feel at the end, likely due to these interactions which change us as we run along.

Adding another person running with me is another complexity altogether in this analysis.  Now, I have someone actively receiving my message, interpreting it, and sending back a reflection with that person’s own message included.  I suppose this can happen with an animal as well, say, if one encounters a deer on the run who gets startled by one’s presence.  Or, if one happens upon a snarling dog in the road.  Or, as happened to me on a run in Wyoming, along the road bordering the National Elk Refuge, a ram in a group of big horn sheep standing in the roadway staring me down.  That was a definite direction changer.  Having a person run with me means keeping up, slowing down, talking, looking strong, looking beat, changing posture, and many other changes in direction, attitude, and feeling based on the reflection from the running partner.  This is not to include direct communication, but rather the meaning of the message sent and the reflection received.  We have these interactions with others throughout the day, but in running they take on a certain impact.

One of the most insidious, and dangerous interactions between messages sent and received, is from our own reflection.  As I mentioned earlier, when I am looking out through my own eyes at things around me, I feel a certain way.  But, seeing my own reflection is a message which can really go deep.  As I run, I can feel athletic, strong, tired, wet, dry, sore, fast, slow, or tough.  I can be distracted, angered, calm, happy, gritty or simply wondering at nature.  Almost never am I depressed or lonely, even when running alone.  One glance in a shop window, though, can change my perception immensely.  Almost always, I feel that I look younger  and more athletic than my reflection in the window.  How does one respond to that message, that you are older than you feel.  For me, it’s a great reminder to pull in the abs, straighten the shoulders, head up, and look more like I’m enjoying myself than look like I’m on a forced march.  Then there is the core of feeling, a sense of inner strength but also a minor sense of inner weakness.  These messages confront one’s sense of self, of ability, and of vulnerability.  All that from a simple reflection, one glance which may take less than a tenth of a second.

In sum, these are all messages and reflections over which we have no direct control.  They are ingrained in the way we interact with our surroundings, and we don’t take too much time to think about them or formulate a reaction.  Recognizing them, though, allows us to consider how we think and act on a basic, reflexive level, and use parts of our brain which are in the realm of the subconscious.

Lemmings?

 

The End is Near, or, "you got this!"

The End is Near, or, “you got this!”

I’m a big fan of cartoons, particularly the ones found in the New Yorker magazine.  Robert Mankoff drew a cartoon a few years back,  “What Lemmings Believe”, which showed lemmings going off a cliff and ascending skyward.  My marathon experiences are sometimes like that.

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

To runners, the legend of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek’s victory over the Persians is familiar.  The battle took place in 490 BC (although they didn’t call it BC back then).  Pheidippides was said to have fought in the battle, then ran non-stop to Athens and collapsed and died after he delivered his message.  This was the inspiration for the creation of the road race called the marathon.  In 1896, the era of the modern Olympics began in Greece, and the marathon was run with Spyridon Louis winning in 2hr 58min 50sec.

Training for 1896 Olympics

Training for 1896 Olympics

John Graham, who belonged to the Boston Athletic Association and was the manager of the U.S Olympic team at that event, was himself inspired to create the Boston Marathon, which had its initial running April 19, 1897.  In the early days of marathon racing, the number of runners in this and other early marathons was small, numbering in the tens to hundreds per race.  The first Boston Marathon had 18 finishers.  Average times were quite fast, and have gotten slower as the number of marathoners increased.  Running USA, a non-profit company which is a joint venture of USATF and major long distance races in the USA, keeps statistics on number of marathon runners, median finishing times, and many other subcategories.  The most recent marathon reports shows that in 1980, of 143,000 marathon runners in the US, 90% were men and 10% women.  Their median finishing times were, respectively, 3:32:17 and 4:03:39.  In 2014, 550,637 runners, 57% men and 43% women, finished with median times of 4:19:27 and 4:44:19.  Since 1980, there has been a steady rise in the number of marathons in the US and the number of marathon runners.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

What is the attraction for all these runners?  What were they doing before marathons got popular?  Will the numbers keep rising, or have we reached a plateau?  While I was not able to find reliable information explaining the phenomenon of ever-increasing participation in marathons, the trade site RunningUSA does an annual survey of runners which it sells for $159, and includes information from interviewing over 15,000 runners on topics such as demographics, running shoes and apparel, travel, and even sponsor recall.  From my personal experience, and speaking with runners I know, I can take some guesses.  The marathon is a premier event in many people’s minds, which takes guts and dedication to complete.  One who completes a marathon can, with justification, be proud of his or her accomplishment.  Marathons have become big city events, and get a lot of publicity, bring in money for hotels and restaurants, and show off the good side of most cities.  As marathons became more popular, and more of a mainstream athletic activity, more people knew someone who had run a marathon.  It became a sport that, like a ponzi scheme, fed on pulling more people into the fold.  The more people who run marathons, the more profit there is in running shoes, running clothing, GPS watches, books and training programs.  When marathons began selling out, the scarcity of the spots made them that much more desirable.  The fact that median finishing times have gotten much slower over the years shows that many people are joining in who are not elite athletes, but still have the desire to participate.  The marathon is marvelously suited to participation by people of different ages, abilities and fitness levels.  Training for a marathon, rather than being a solo venture, is often a group effort, and a very social one at that.

Struggling to finish Wineglass.

Struggling to finish Wineglass, 2013.

Left it all on the course.

Left it all on the course, Steamtown, 2012.

Yet, the marathon is a very demanding and grueling event.  It is run whether the day is warm or cold, dry or wet.  My first marathon, in Philadelphia, in November of 2008, the temperature did not rise above freezing, and there was ice on the ground at all the water stops.  So back to my initial thought, that to start a marathon, one needs a belief in oneself that is often unrealistic.  We train, but our training is mixed in with the rest of our daily responsibilities.  Like those lemmings, joining in the rush of the start of the race, one believes one will fly, when the sad fact is only a few truly do.  Most of us, myself included, will have a rough time finishing, and will, during the last few miles, ask ourselves why we are punishing ourselves so much.  But then, one crosses the finish line, gets a medal and a commemorative mylar blanket, and congratulations fly all around.  It is a very uplifting experience to finish this great race.  Shortly after the finish, in spite of how well or miserably I may have done, I start to think about my next one.  And, I’m back to the belief that as I start, I will fly….

 

 

 

 

Seizing up the Muscles

Christine, one of our Sunday morning regulars, asked this morning, “How do I get rid of muscle cramps?”  Sounds simple, and surely there is a scientific explanation and answer, right?

No one knows.

That’s the answer.  At least, no one who has done the research and looked for a cause, and has evidence to support their conclusions has an answer.  In an excellent article by Kevin Miller, Marcus Stone, Kellie Huxel, and Jeffrey Edwards, sports physiology scientists, titled “Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps,” (Sports Health. 2010 Jul; 2(4): 279–283), and provided through the National Institutes of Health, the subject of muscle cramps in athletes is reviewed in depth.

There are myriad theories and cures for this vexing problem.  Most of the theories and suggested cures are based on hunches, anecdotes and guesses.  The most common thoughts about why muscle cramps occur in athletes have to do with dehydration and loss of electrolytes.  The thinking goes that if one is dehydrated, meaning a loss of free water in the body, and loss of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and magnesium, the nerve terminals to muscles are over-sensitized leading to cramps.

Another leading theory is based on neuromuscular interactions.  This theory states that, in overworked muscles, excitatory impulses and inhibitory impulses are not in balance, and the excitation of muscle fibers wins out.

The report mentioned above goes into detail about these theories, looks at the research that has been done in these areas, and the reasons that these theories are not clearly supported by the research.

Most muscle cramps in athletes occur well into a workout or race, or occur after the end of the event.  There is a period during which muscle cramps occur after the event is finished called the “cramp prone state”, and until this period is finished, which may be eight hours or longer, the athlete is still susceptible.  While some cramps may be minor, and not interfere with performance, often the cramps can be debilitating.  Many cures have been tried over and over, with only anecdotal evidence to back them up.  Sports drinks containing (minimal) electrolytes, pickle juice, mustard, bananas, oranges, cold therapy, hot therapy, massage and TENS (trans-cutaneous nerve stimulation) have all been used.  But studies looking at hydration status, electrolyte status and all the above mentioned cures have failed to show statistical improvement in study groups.  Known to work to relieve a cramp, but not for prevention, stretching will stop the cramp.  However, that is a temporary solution, and not one that will prevent a cramp the moment activity is resumed.

I have been plagued with cramps, mostly of the legs and thighs, throughout my athletic career, starting from when I swam as an eight year old.  In my experience, the cramps are less likely to occur the better condition I am in.  When I was a competitive swimmer, the early part of the season was the worst, but as my training went on, they were less and less a problem.  Now, as a runner, and mostly with long distances, I find the muscle cramps hit me very consistently during a marathon, usually around the sixteen to eighteen mile mark.  This is in spite of maintaining good hydration, using salt or drinking electrolyte drinks, and supports the contention that these factors don’t play a role.  My best marathon performance, in which cramps definitely played a very minor roll, was the one where I had trained the best and most consistently.  There are plenty of good reasons to stay well hydrated of course, which have to do with other body systems.  Running in the heat and humidity causes excessive fluid losses, raises core body temperature as the body has trouble getting rid of excess heat, and can lead to hyperthermia and affect kidney function.  Overhydration by consuming too much water to replace losses, can cause hyponatremia, meaning too low sodium levels, which is equally serious.

Kevin Miller, the lead author of the article mentioned above, wrote a simplified version of myths regarding muscle cramps and what to do about them, called “Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Debunking Five Myths”.

While research into the reason for muscle cramps and the treatment has not provided an answer, he makes sound suggestions on how best to avoid them.  If you wish to have a more complete understanding of the research and conclusions, his paper is a good source, and provides many references on which it is based.  I hope your runs are as cramp free as possible.  Happy running.

Animals on the Run

Saturday mornings, my friend Brandon and I usually head out from his house for an early morning run around our local park, the Cooper River Park in Camden County, New Jersey.  We don’t have to go too far before we run into the most populous animals in the region, the so called Giant Canadian Goose.  These animals have learned to call New Jersey home, and long ago gave up their instinctive migratory pattern.  The reason they stay is that life here is pretty good for them.  According to state biologists and naturalists, they thrive on fresh water, grazing areas of tender, mowed grasses, and areas where they have a wide view of potential predators.  They like safe areas to make nests, which they make on the ground, with the goose laying five or six eggs, nesting for 30-35 days in April, and with the gander keeping guard.  All the eggs begin to develop the same day, and hatch the same day.  Once the goslings are out of the shell, they are taken right to the water.  The geese gather multiple nests-full of goslings together, making a very attractive grouping of thirty or forty goslings being watched over by the multiple parent geese of the broods.  It is sort of like how it takes a village to raise a child.  Apparently, our parks and lawns have created ideal places for these formerly migratory birds never to want to leave.  This is just one of numerous species we encounter on our runs.

Non-plussed geese and gosslings along the trail. (courtesy Sue Hamilton)

Non-plussed geese and gosslings along the trail. (courtesy Sue Hamilton)

Geese can be annoying.  They are crowding our parks, cover the trails with goose droppings, and hiss at us as we run by, indicating it’s their park now.  Counter to the geese, much fewer in number, and generally a pleasant natural site are our local ducks.

Ducks looking for a handout at Newton Lake Park

Ducks looking for a handout at Newton Lake Park (courtesy Brandon Hamilton)

I’m not sure of the particular species of these ducks, but I believe they are American Black ducks, common throughout the greater northeast.  Known as a dabbling duck species, meaning they tip bottom side up in the water to find food, they are fun to watch as they feed in the ponds.

Another very common site is the squirrel.  Now, everyone knows squirrels, and they do seem to be everywhere.  Our particular South Jersey squirrels are the Eastern Grey Squirrel, known by their genus Sciurus, a portmanteau of Greek, skia (shadow) and oura (tail), meaning that it is in the shadow of its tail, per the Wikipedia article.  They have adapted very well over a large geographic area, and even have pushed out other squirrel types in places such as the United Kingdom and Australia.  Closely related, but much harder to see for more than a few tenths of a second, are our local Eastern Chipmunks.

Chipmunk gathering seeds.

Chipmunk gathering seeds.

 

 

 

 

I see them mainly along heavily wooded trails in the local parks, darting across the trail to hide in dense roots and ivy.  They live in extensive burrow systems underground, where they store food, and have many entrances and exits.  I also see them darting out from overgrown ivy in my backyard to gather seeds that have fallen from our bird feeder.

A variety of turtles and frogs occasionally poke their heads out, or send a croak out along our lake side trails.

A little larger in the animal kingdom, and certainly more rare as a sighting, is the local red fox.  There are two species of fox in New Jersey, the red and the grey.  I’ve never seen a grey fox, probably because they live in the woods and rarely show themselves.  The red fox we see every now and then, early in the morning, trotting along the side of the water in our local park, looking for rodents.

Red fox.  Wonder what he is thinking....

Red fox. Wonder what he is thinking….

White Tailed Deer have become extremely common around us, which is a bit puzzling to me.  Living where I do in New Jersey, these animals had to cross some major highways, such as the New Jersey turnpike, I295 and US 130 to get to us.  I guess we are seeing the deer that got pushed out from the more desirable locations, or just a population that enjoys suburban living.

Some does have antlers, but this looks like a buck to me, with a fawn.

Some does have antlers, but this looks like a buck to me, with a fawn.  (from Rutgers website)

On a run through a local park not long ago, early in the morning, I was startled by a small herd of six deer bounding across my trail in a wooded area.  According to Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, the deer population in much of the northeast was almost gone around 1900.  This was due to a combination of hunting and natural predators.  Since then, there has been an explosion in the population, due to lack of predators such as wolves and cougars, lack of space for hunting, and increasing habitat in populated areas.  As with any part of an ecosystem, balance is important.  An acceptable herd size is good for forest edge regions.  Too many deer, though, can cause a spiral of decline of forests, as the underbrush is eaten out, leading to lack of saplings, lack of cover for birds and many small animals, and lack of leaves falling from the decreased tree population.  For runners, I’ve yet to hear of someone hit by a deer, but deer also carry the scourge known as the deer tick, a tiny biter which can pass on Lyme disease as well as other illnesses.  Watch your legs in grassy areas.

Looking up, one of the hardest birds to spot is the woodpecker.  In our area, we frequently hear these birds rat-a-tat sound from high in the trees along the trail.  But, the sound is tough to locate, so without spending some time standing still, not what we usually do on a run, we usually don’t spot these birds.  Most likely, we are hearing the tap of the red-bellied woodpecker, the most common in our area, or we could be hearing the marvelously named yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Red-bellied woodpecker (not red-headed, that's another type which is much rarer)

Red-bellied woodpecker (not red-headed, that’s another type which is much rarer) (from NJ Audobon Soc.)

 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker. (from NJ Audubon Soc.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ultimate wildlife spotting while on a run, in my opinion, was when I was running early Sunday morning a few months ago.  What first appeared to be a large hawk took off from the high branches of a sycamore tree.  As it made a wide, arcing turn, though, we could see it was no hawk.  It was a bald eagle.  I had heard there was a bald eagle nest in this area, but this was the first and only time I have seen one.  It was a beautiful sight, and we followed it with our eyes as it headed along the park lake.

Bald eagle photo (taken from free photos from photobucket)

Bald eagle photo (taken from free photos from photobucket)

There are many other birds and land animals we encounter on our runs.  There are blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, groundhogs and an occasional snake.  On runs outside my own territory, there have been many animals I have spotted, including beavers, skunks, and others.  No bears, fortunately.  I enjoy spotting these animals on the run, and it’s part of the joy of running outdoors.  Very few animals, other than homo-sapiens, are spotted running on a treadmill.

Why I Love the Caesar Rodney Half Marathon

Frank nears the halfway point

Frank nears the halfway point

 

I have written about this race before, The Caesar Rodney Half Marathon, in which I described the race, its history, and the particularly challenging profile of the course.  In brief, the first half of the race is relatively flat after an initial downhill first mile.  Then, there is a long and sometimes steep, 2.5 mile uphill climb, a number of turns through neighborhoods, then a downhill stint to the final steep uphill 1/3 mile to the finish.

This race is run the third Sunday in March, when chill winds still blow.  In fact, this year, we had a snowstorm all day Friday two days before the race.  Most of the snow on the streets melted the following day when it rose to 50˚F, but then the temperature dropped back to below freezing that night.  For race day, we had gusty winds and temperatures in the low 40’s.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

Dan and Brian Ambrose pumping up for the hill.

What is good about this race?  It is one of the first races of the early spring, meaning to be in shape, one must train through the winter.  So, it encourages fortitude in training when the weather is frigid, daytime hours are few, and the conditions on the ground can be pretty miserable.

It is a race with a history.  It is one of the first half marathons in the country, first run in 1964 when Browning Ross, from Woodbury, NJ, won it in 1:07:24.  It has been run every year since then, making this year the 52nd running.

It is well organized.  Runners are given permission to use the Downtown Wilmington YMCA locker rooms, to store gear, use indoor restrooms, and provide showers after the race.  Few races I know of have that sort of facility available.  Picking up one’s number and race packet is simple and done on the day of the race.  There is a very friendly bag drop manned by volunteers.  In fact, there is a friendly atmosphere throughout, and senior Delaware Senator Tom Carper, former Delaware governor and congressman, former naval air commander during the Viet Nam war, runs the race with the rest of us.

It is for a good cause.  The money raised goes to support the American Lung Association, certainly an easy tie in with running.

From a personal view, this was my first half marathon, and the race I keep returning to year after year.  I first ran it in 2007, missed 2008, but have run it every year since.  Up to this year, I have been kind of stuck in a rut, time-wise.  My times these past years have been fairly consistent:

2007  1:51:59

Brandon at the finish line.

Brandon at the finish line.

2008  Didn’t run

2009 1:49:45

2010  1:49:48

2011  1:49:40

2012  1:53:35

2013  1:49:16

2014  1:49:34

This year I wanted to break out of my rut.  I ran fairly consistently through the darkest days of winter, through slush and cold rain, enjoyed the occasional cold but sunny morning run on the weekends, and was feeling pretty good going into the race.  Still, I had some trepidation.  I know the course, and how challenging it is.  After running it all these years I know every turn, and know when it seems like the race will never end.

So, I lined up with everyone else at the start, and took off feeling good.  One cannot help feeling good in a race which starts heading downhill for a mile.  Of course, the clever among us will recognize uphill is coming.  Instead of feeling washed up as the road headed up, though, I felt I still had some energy in me, and managed to gut out the 2.5 mile climb mid-race.  I cruised back down the hill towards the finish, and my good friend and running partner, Brandon, came back to encourage me on the last mile.  This all resulted in a very satisfying finish of 1:47:56, my best half marathon anywhere.  I finished fifth in my age group, averaging 8:15 per mile.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

After the finish, a new half marathon PR for Frank.

Now, I’ve set the bar higher for myself, and each year get older.  I’ll really have to turn up the training screws next winter.

Arrivederci Winter

Moon, 4:30 AM, Friday, March 5, 2015.

Moon, 4:30 AM, Friday, March 6, 2015.

The whole eastern part of the U.S. was under the icy clutch of a band of frigid air the last two weeks. This air traveled from the Pacific, over the north pole, through the northern reaches of Canada, freezing Niagara Falls as it crossed the border and settled on our home. When winter comes upon us, everyone wonders, will this be another year of little snow and mild temperatures, or will we get hit with big snowstorms, creating scenes of pathways dug through backyards to driveways, snow piled high in parking lots, plows running up and down our roads, salt spray painting our cars gray-white, and people walking through the snow bundled with layers of clothing, knit caps, and big gloves.

While the weather forecasters got it mostly right this year, they did miss on a couple of occasions, when the snow hit Boston but pretty much missed us in South Jersey.  We managed to get a late winter snow three days ago, in the early days of March, while the temperatures were still in the frigid single and teen digits.  I went for an evening run the day of the latest snowfall.  It was only 7:00 PM, usually a time of the later rush hour crowd irritated and pushing to get home, but the roads were oddly quiet.  Since it had been snowing all day, it seems many businesses closed early.  The snow plows had passed through, but the snow kept falling, so the streets were covered with a thin layer of snow which had not turned to ice.  The combination of fresh snow everywhere, low clouds, and streetlights made for a very well-lit run in spite of the sun having disappeared an hour earlier.  There was a nice, faint crunch under foot as I ran, and the cold air felt good in my lungs.  My run took me past many local small shops and restaurants, all closed for the weather.  With one exception, that is.  The bars were hopping.  I think the bar owners get special attention from the snow plow drivers cleaning their parking areas.  Perhaps they need to pay a little extra for this but I’m sure it is worth it.  Teachers can’t get to the schools, but they make it to the bars.  Office workers get in late and sent home early, but they can make it to the bars.  Doctors, lawyers and dentists close early, no patients or clients are braving the slick roads to make their appointments, but they all make it to the bars.  The last few miles of my running route I pass about ten bars and every one of them was doing business like it was St. Patrick’s day already.  There is a quaintness about bars in the depths of winter.  It’s dark outside, the windows are frosted over, and one sees the profiles of the people inside all animated and lively.

In my house, we retreated to the front part of the house where the den with the fireplace is. The back half is beset with all sorts of problems. We live in an old Victorian, and the original design did not account for living in the 21st century. Bathrooms and appliances have been added over the years, and in spite of best intentions, cold air manages to sneak in like a cat burglar, freezing the water within. This past week, as the temperature dipped to a cruel zero, streams of that dense cold air moved in and around our old pipes, freezing some and leading to a couple of burst pipes.  This year, I had the foresight to at least turn off the inflow to these pipes so the damage was minimized, but we’ve had to wait until the thaw before we could fix them.

This weekend, though, brought a break in the icy pattern.  As we clicked over to daylight saving time, temperatures soared to 52 degrees.  The sun shone brilliantly, melting the patches of ice on the sidewalks.  Constant rivulets of water flowed down the street as the snow melted.  And people are out getting all their usual weekend errands in, not sure how to deal with a day when the only cover up needed is a light jacket.

Now we can start thinking about getting the garden ready for planting, cleaning up the debris that conveniently was covered up by the snow, and watch the road crews fixing all the treacherous potholes which have multiplied the last few weeks.  I’m sure in a couple of months we’ll be baking in premature heat, barely remembering how cold it got and stayed this winter.  Before that happens, I’d like to have a few more fires in the fireplace, have a reason to wear long tights and two layers on top when I run, and feel the cold air filling my lungs.

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