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Monday, March 30, 2015

SHOULDACOULDAWOULDA


“Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer, in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”.

--Helen Keller

After every tragedy that involves numerous casualties has been analyzed from every conceivable angle; after it has been Monday morning quarterbacked to death by the 24 hours news cycle, a mantra is born. It is always the same question, over and over again.  Whether it’s a school shooting or the crash of an airliner, the chant has become: How can we keep this exact circumstance from happening again?

The truth is; it is only possible in retrospect, for every decision to be circumspect.

The litigious society we live in now sees negligence at every turn, demanding that somehow, someone should have seen it coming.  Every tragedy is boiled down to a mere lack of vigilance, the implication being, if somehow we could “increase” our vigilance enough, fate would be assuaged and safety assured. 

Risk management is an oxymoron.

This is dangerous and superstitious thinking.  The scary truth is, we can't foresee or prevent every calamity, no matter how cautious, no matter how many rules, regulations and government security organizations we create.  Our anger and our pain drive us to demand that some “one” or some “thing” be held accountable. We demand action for the future, because in our arrogance we presume that it will tip the scales in our favor. 

In the end, no amount of dancing for lawyers will prevent heartbreak and catastrophe.

We could never fully account for the unintended consequences of every precaution we implement.

Newton’s third law explains this phenomenon better than superstition ever could.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

Terrorists busting down your cockpit doors? 

Make the doors stronger, unbreakable from the outside.

So unbreakable, that a suicidal co-pilot may now effectively lock a pilot out of the cockpit.

 No amount of desperate pounding on the now impenetrable doors will gain him entry in order to save the plane and the lives on board.

It’s an ever escalating arms race of impossible-to-anticipate circumstances. The airline will still be held to task about why they didn’t anticipate this scenario and plan accordingly. 

Perhaps if the doctors had reported his issues we’d all be safe now.  Why stop at pilots?  Why not bus drivers, truck drivers, taxi drivers, architects, construction workers, chefs, teachers, data entry clerks, train engineers, everyone who drives a car, doctors, nurses, lawyers… Why specifically call out pilots? Is it because of the high profile nature of the event?  On any given day, aren’t we all personally responsible for the safety and well being of others we encounter?
Do we believe there will now be an epidemic of this type of behavior in the future that we must act to prevent, or can we view this as the one off, terrible tragedy that it is?

Do we really want to give up all personal privacy to combat the off chance that someone, somewhere, will do something, stupid?

 Will it help?
    
It’s been said that we always fight the current war with the weapons and strategies of the previous war.  That is a testament to the concept that we cannot anticipate every scenario.  We can only plan for things we are familiar with.  For every strategy we devise, whether for the battle field or personal safety, there will always be a way to countermand it.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, we rely upon strangers every day of our lives.  Sadly, there seems to be an increasing number of people who do not concern themselves with how their behavior impacts others.  Narcissistic, me first, “selfie culture” seems to permeate everything. While this may be mostly benign, or harmless, there are some seriously disconnected, mentally ill people out there.  We want try to understand and be forgiving when someone commits suicide, but we are completely horrified and dismayed at the utter selfishness of taking innocent victims along for the ride.  Will greater societal restrictions impart greater empathy or a stronger moral compass in these people?  Will they rescue us from the depraved souls walking around the edge of acting out their maniacal fantasies?

Probably not.

Almost all of the school shootings in the past 20 years have involved psychotropically medicated, socially maladjusted boys, acting out in ways that, while there may have been “signs” that something was amiss, could not have been accurately predicted.  This doesn’t stop the media from pointing fingers in every direction and demanding to know why a tragedy was permitted to happen.  In the case of the Germanwings copilot, a doctor did eventually declare him unfit for work, but ultimately it was up to the pilot to obey the orders. 

He chose not to.

Regardless, living in a free society requires a peculiar type of faith. We are obligated to trust that the car coming towards us does not cross the double yellow line, whether due to negligent behavior, accident or malicious intent...that the bus driver doesn't drive the bus off a cliff, that the truck driver isn’t falling asleep at the wheel, that the person entering our medical information does not confuse us with someone else, that the food we eat is safe, that we get the right medication, or that the pilot flying our plane isn't suicidal that day. 

These heartbreaking instances, while rare, make us fully aware of our powerlessness, of our lack of control. The first knee jerk reaction is to reach for more control, more restrictions, and legislation.  If we were to be truly honest we would realize that more laws do not put us more in control, nor do they increase safety.


While it is important to learn from our mistakes, none of us may predict the future.

The problem is that no one in the public realm will admit this.

We have always had to rely on our fellow human beings to do the right thing. 

Human beings are flawed creatures and therein lies the problem.  
We demand perfection from imperfect beings. 






Thursday, August 7, 2014

DNF


“The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.  If we don't have that, we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.” 
-Maya Angelou

One Sunday morning, not too long ago, I noticed some runners were still circling the parking lot after they had already finished their weekly long run, or so it seemed.  They kept glancing at their watches and I began to wonder if they were impatiently waiting for others to finish, when it suddenly dawned on me what was going on.

It was not so long ago, that a runner wanting to plan a route would have to get in the car and drive it.  The odometer was the gold standard and a tenth of a mile, here or there, off of the desired distance was not a concern.

Now, thanks to gps watches, everyone knows down to the hundredth of a mile, the exact time, pace and distance they are travelling at any given moment.  Folks who used mapping software to plan their weekly long route of, oh say, 10 miles, will continue to circle the parking lot until the discrepancy between what they charted, matches what their gps watches tell them they have actually covered. 

Perhaps there is something inherent in human nature that gives rise to the desire to finish things off with round, even numbers.

Thanks to a special kind of mental math, claiming a 10 mile training run somehow lends more credibility and a sense of completion to the accomplishment than does claiming a 9.87 mile run.  Not to mention that uploading and sharing 9.87 miles to social media simply screams “unfinished business” to the world. 

Unfinished business is messy and unsettling.

The same is true for race results. Finish times may be disappointing, or they may be a point of pride; a reward for hard work invested. 

Ask anyone involved in racing and they will always prefer a finish time, any finish time, no matter how awful, to the alternative; a DNF.

Did Not Finish.

DNF did not sit well with me.

Several years ago, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Twice. 

Why twice? Because the first time I took a crack at it, I did not make it to the top.  I vowed to return someday because not completing the journey disturbed me so deeply.  Three years after the first attempt, I returned with a friend and successfully completed the climb.  I cannot begin to describe the feeling of satisfaction other than to remark that the issue was settled and the itch was scratched.

Some say, that a DNF opens a wound that may only be healed by returning to finish another time.

As a newly minted cancer survivor in the spring of 2001, I knew all about wounds.  I was also determined to prove to anyone that cared to notice, that cancer had not diminished me in any way.  Having already been involved in sprint distance triathlons prior to my illness, the Ironman® became my focus and fixation, because it had been billed as the “ultimate test of personal fitness”.

My plans were set to go further and faster than ever before, thus figuratively flipping off anyone, and everything, that haunted me.
 
In my mind, it was going to take something big to shake off the yoke of victim status.  The medical profession that had completely dismissed me was going have every expectation of failure and catastrophe they threw at me, slung right back in their face.

Ironman® was big.

 After my recovery, rage fueled a ferocious return to my comeback training.  Entire days were spent out on the roads, dividing the hours between running and riding my bike.  Early morning master swim practice was somehow crammed in there as well.  

It was a singular existence. Eat, sleep, train.  Outside of work, it occupied most of my time.

What I discovered out on the road, is that retribution is a fickle motivator and it does not guarantee success. 

I made it to Ironman® but I DNF.  Somewhere around mile 70 of the bike segment, about 40 miles short of the run transition, the pain of a herniated disk in my neck forced me to abandon the race.  As emotionally painful as it was, I rationalized quitting as the safe and prudent thing to do, which it was. 

At that moment, I knew, or thought I knew, that I would be back to prove myself another time. 

After neck surgery to repair the damage, training started all over again, but not to the same degree as before.

As the years passed, I found that was I was left frequently feeling anxious and disappointed because I never did return to Ironman®.  I’d resolve to train more and work my way back to previous levels of intensity, but it never quite materialized.  I’d train some, but never enough.  I’d stress about it and yet was unable to get myself up to speed.

I could make a million excuses as to why - different job, not as much time to train, all legitimate excuses…reasons and yet, not enough. 

Eventually, I recognized that my motivation had shifted and the time had come to make peace with that.

I had nothing to prove to anyone, any longer.  I had accomplished so much, physically, and managed to dismiss all of the negative expectations.  So why was I still anxious?  There was something else I could not quite name banging away at my brain.

In addition to all the indignation I was venting through my training, I discovered I had also become entangled in a compulsion.  I had completely bought into the mentality that endurance sports confirmed that you could, as a matter of fact, “endure” anything.  I had stepped into a world in which stopping was an unacceptable option.  Further and faster was all that mattered and whether or not this contributed positively to one’s well being was never a concern.

Looking back, it was easy to recall the exact moment, over 15 years ago, when the obsession started. My most immediate thought as I crossed the finish line of my first long distance event was:

 “If I can do this, I handle anything that comes my way”. 

I was diagnosed with cancer 5 months later.

I suppose it is a useful metaphor to take into battle, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis, or a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but the ability to "endure" a particularly grueling race doesn't necessarily correspond to improving one’s health or fitness.  This is particularly true, especially when one considers other elements of good physical conditioning such as strength, power and agility. 

Ultra events, into which category the iron distance triathlon belongs, are more properly classified as suffer fests, rather than true tests of overall, personal fitness and health. 

Keep in mind, the iron distance itself, was not developed as a scientific benchmark of health or wellness. 

It is random.  

Worse than random, it is the result of a drunken argument among a few runners, swimmers and cyclists about whose sport was the toughest; which athlete among them the fittest.  They selected the longest distance races of the three local, Hawaiian events for each of their respective sports and threw them all together sequentially.  Scientifically speaking, this experimental endeavor would not even answer the questions they themselves raised.

There’s a vain, egotistical side to all of this as well, that is a bit tougher to own up to, but I’m doing it now.  Most will not admit it, but deep down inside, every triathlete gloats and preens just a little bit when someone calls them out as an overachiever.  I confess; I enjoyed it.   Perhaps it was because I am physically small, but people were often astounded when they heard that I did triathlons.  I’m not exactly sure why, but I imagine it has something to do with the way triathlon is mythologized by society.   It was quite the ego stroke, kick in the pants and pat on the back all rolled into one, whenever someone acknowledged it for me. 

There was an ugly, elitist attitude that went along with it as well.  Snide banter triathletes would engage in when other athletes were around often went something like this:

“Oh you are a runner, that’s nice, how cute.  I run too, after I swim and bike, of course…” 

You may have even seen that crap on a bumper sticker. 

I could have been their poster child.

Reading books by Dean Karnazes did not help the situation any.  I was simultaneously drawn in and repulsed by, everything he describes in Ultramarathon Man. There was something strangely appealing about running all night and ordering a pizza for refueling to be delivered to a street corner in the next town.  I also found myself thinking that he was an annoying, narcissistic jerk as well, and that didn’t bode well for my own self image. Reading his description about his experience at Badwater, kicked something loose.  It had me thinking that perhaps something about extreme endurance racing was not quite right.

 A line had to be drawn somewhere, between healthy activity and insanity.  I had to decide for myself when or where, the finish line of “that’s enough” was.

Badwater, The Ultra-Marathon, claims to be the world’s toughest footrace.  According to the race website:  “Covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA in temperatures up to 130F (55c), it is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet”.

I suppose that the mental fortitude required to complete any ultra event is admirable, but nowadays I struggle to understand what sort of accomplishment it is to suffer the potential consequences of severe dehydration, kidney damage, heat stroke or death, in a race that someone else dreamed up as a challenge?  

What benefit could it possibly impart to my body? Or anybody’s body?

What is to be gained? Prestige?  Pride?  Bragging rights?  At what cost?

Is it worth it?

To some it must be, but the answers to those questions are ultimately, quite personal.

Was everyone else who participated in these races as furious as I had been?  What drives them? What compels someone whose life is not being threatened, to push themselves to the very edge of survival?

For me, and certainly many other athletes, participation in sports is an avenue of self-expression.  It’s an old cliché that a true artist must suffer for their art, and in that sense, all athletes suffer, to a certain extent, for their sport in various ways.  It’s also been said that a little suffering is good for the soul, but at what point does the suffering become counterproductive?  

I have dubbed myself a "reformed" triathlete.  Years of pushing myself to go further and faster never got me anywhere.  The compulsion to spend endless hours riding the same training routes, eating energy bars and sucking down Gatorade in the hot sun, to the exclusion of all other activities, was gone. 

Once the anger that had been driving me dissolved, once I came to appreciate that stopping, or slowing down was not failure, extreme racing became an unfulfilling, open-ended treadmill.  It was easier than expected to step away.  

It was a relief.

Who’s to say that 140.6 miles imparts better longevity, health or mojo than 70.3 or 26.2, 13.1 6.2, or even 3.1 miles.

Is more of the same, always better?

I suspect the answer will be different for each of us. Everyone needs to seek their own, healthy balance.  For me, that balance has to involve not being so involved, in any, one thing.  Others thrive on the singular focus, so for them it works out. 

I know I’m not alone when it comes to the need to “step away” from triathlon culture.  Recently, while out running with some friends, a guy wearing a souvenir Ironman® singlet struck up a conversation with us out on the road. 

“You guys training or maintaining”? he asked.  We told him we were training and which marathon we were training for.  I gestured to his Ironman® shirt and said, “which one are you training for”?  He threw up his hands with a dismissive wave and said, “Oh I don’t do those anymore.  In fact, I’m thinking about taking up smoking and bull riding instead”. 

I completely understood the sentiment.

Ridding myself of the obsession to be constantly training, or feeling guilty when I wasn’t training, was liberating.  I had forgotten how much fun it is to do other things.  Reading, working in the garden, hanging out and drinking beer with friends and gasp… even playing golf,  are now back on my list of things to do. They are not necessarily focused on improving my VO2max, but what’s the point of being fit, if you can’t enjoy the fitness? 

It had become difficult for me to enjoy these things because even when I allowed myself to partake in those other activities, I was constantly thinking about, how much training time I was losing, how far behind I was falling.  Gradually it dawned on me that training had become more of an obligation in my life and not all that much fun anymore.

It was time to ask myself some hard questions:

Why was it important to go so far? I no longer remembered.

Was killing myself racing the best or most appropriate way, to honor my body and the battle I fought with cancer? Probably not.

It’s been 12 years, have all the wounds healed yet?

Yes.

Thanks to years of training, I can still swim a mile or 2 or 3 if I need to.  I’m not the fastest or the slowest out there but it doesn’t really matter.  

In this part of the country, riding a bicycle out on the roads is a particularly risky undertaking and I’m no longer willing to endanger my life every time I go for a bike ride.  Riding a bike here is way too stressful for me and certainly not fun.  If we lived somewhere more conducive to bike riding, or if we go on vacation somewhere bike friendly, I’ll ride.

 It is still fun to plan vacations around a destination marathon now and then, for the shared experience and exotic location.  Why not? After all, it is "only a marathon".  That's fun.

By no means should it be construed that I think ultra events shouldn’t exist, or that they are inherently bad or wrong.  I’m glad other people can participate in and enjoy them.  If "enjoy" is the right word for that experience.

What’s different now, is that it’s finally acceptable for me to sit back and marvel at other people testing the limits of human endurance.

Their endurance. Not mine.






Thursday, May 16, 2013

Y.M.C.A. Redux


"I believe in the forgiveness of sin, and the redemption of ignorance".
            -Adlai Stevenson

There’s always so much chatter these days regarding how children must be shielded or protected from every one of life’s little speed bumps.  Their precious self esteem must never be damaged, no sadness or disappointment must ever occur; I suppose what it comes down to is that they should never feel or be challenged by reality.  Our culture’s recent trend towards helicopter parenting of their children, protecting them from anything that’s not been sanitized, literally or figuratively, is beginning to impact even those of us that do not have children.  

When a school district felt obligated to offer “counseling” because a kid chewed a pop tart into the shape of a gun, I laughed at first, but I really had to wonder what the hell has happened to us.   

 Adults seem to have very different ideas about what being a child is like, than the children themselves.  Do we really believe the kids were actually traumatized by the “gun shaped” pop tart, or was it more a matter of politically correct hysteria on the adults’ part, because they have to acknowledge that a child might be aware of guns? 

Gasp!

It is almost as though one, particularly anxious, phobic, neurotic scientist, rewrote all the rules about child rearing based solely upon their irrational hang ups, and somehow, they have managed to become entrenched in our cultural outlook.  Society expects less and less of children, and as a result, they are living down to these lowered expectations.  They are being treated as infants right up until the age of 18, and then suddenly expected to function as adults. 

My encounter with one child in particular, proved to me that kids are quite a bit smarter, and much less fragile, than all the sociology gurus would have us believing.
          There I was, in the very same locker room, where I had only just recently encountered "The Scowler". During the sanctimonious tirade I had endured from her a few weeks earlier,
Read Y.M.C.A. Part 1)
she so eagerly declared, among other things, that she believed that “people with my lifestyle should not be allowed anywhere near children”,  right up until the moment I explained to her that my baldness was a side effect of cancer treatment and not a fashion statement. Not sure why that was better, but I suppose she thought she was shielding children from whatever evil influence and mental suffering  that the sight of a bald head might impart.   Just then, in walks a little girl, about 4 years old, skipping along, holding her mother’s hand.  In her other hand, she was dragging a very long and colorful beach towel.  When she passed where I was standing she dropped her mother’s hand, came to a dead stop, eyes locked on my bald head. Her mother never looked up and kept walking around the corner to the next set of lockers, out of sight.

 My heart sank, because I fully expected some busybody to intervene again, since obviously my mere presence could potentially be causing this child some deep, psychological distress.

That was when she tilted her head like a puppy, furrowed her brow, and in as serious a tone as a 4 year old can muster, asked, “ Are you a boy or a girl”.?

I was instantly relieved.  The only distress my bald head caused her was confusion about whether I was a boy or a girl.

Fair question. 

I answered her in what I hoped was a reassuring tone, “ I’m a girl”.

“Well”, she continued, logically and in the thickest of southern accents, “How come you got no hay-yer”?

Now this answer was going to be tricky.  I stalled around a bit by fidgeting with my locker then I sat down on the little bench.  She sat down on her towel. 

My first reflex, in all things, is to be honest, but how much information is too much for a 4 year old?  I figured her mother could hear our conversation from the other side of the lockers.  I also knew that if I told her that my medicine made my hair fall out she’d probably have a hard time accepting any medicine she might need to take.  Her mother probably would not appreciate me giving such a vivid explanation.  Still, I was not going to lie, to protect her from the truth. 

 So I said, “Well, I was very sick and it made my hair fall out.  I’m all better now and my hair will come back soon.  She nodded with understanding and acceptance and I could see that the answer satisfied her curiosity.  

It was truth enough.

Then suddenly she jumped to her feet and spread her towel out for me to see. It was covered with brightly colored frogs, and she exclaimed, “See my frogs”?

“Yes, I said and smiled at her, They are very colorful”!

She went on, “They are just like you! They got no hay-yer neither!”

Apparently she was not the least bit disturbed about my hair, or my illness.  Once her concerns were addressed, her questions answered,  she accepted that I looked slightly different without the least bit of angst or apprehension.   

No trauma, no foul.  

Same locker room, same circumstances, yet it was a much more mature response than I had received a few weeks prior. 

I have come to understand that in a majority of cases, when someone rants and raves about what people should or should not do,  “For the children’s sake…” it is merely a convenient way to mask their own fears and prejudices in an attempt to pass themselves off as righteous protectors, rather than the dreadful tyrants that they truly are.



Monday, January 7, 2013

A Nod to Rick Bragg-Repost

In honor of Alabama playing in the BCS Championship game tonight in Miami, I thought I'd put this out there for everyone again.  And in case anyone is wondering, yes, I'll be watching, and cheering my heart out for Alabama...but I just might be wearing an orange shirt...



“Who are you for?” is usually one, of the first of two questions a person is asked, when they relocate to Alabama from out of state.  If you reply with an SEC team other than Alabama or Auburn, you may or may not meet with approval, but you are automatically granted a degree of respect.  Mentioning a team from up north like Syracuse, Nebraska or Oregon will get you a head tilt and some cocked eyebrows, but folks will at least know where you stand. 

Answering with “Well, I didn’t go to school in this state and I don’t really care much about football ”, is a common, though ill advised, answer.  Alabama folks have heard this before from multitudes of displaced Yankees, who seem to get some wicked thrill, pretending not to notice that down here, football is important.   It’s not an original answer.  It is, however, equivalent to declaring atheism when asked the second of the two questions, which is usually, “Where do you go to church”?

If you declare an SEC team, that’s at least like answering the church question with Baptist, Methodist or A.M.E.  It may not be their church, but they know where you stand and will honor your beliefs.  Proclaiming loyalty to a team from an “up North” conference will buy you slightly more suspicion, say on the order of claiming that you are either Jewish or Mormon,  but you will still be welcomed with open arms to the brotherhood of Monday morning quarterbacking.

I know this from personal experience.  I used to be that ugly Yankee that feigned ignorance to the phenomena of southern football.   After a while, it just becomes tiresome for everyone involved.  What I’ve also learned, is that it’s much more fun, to join in the fun. 

I’m going to pass along a little personal advice to any future Yankees that may be locating to Alabama in the future.

Pick a team. 

You don’t have to run out and buy season tickets; just be polite.  

Pick a team.  Any team.

 I know you probably don’t care, not yet anyway.  It doesn’t matter.   Watch a game, or at least pay attention to the highlights on the news at night.  Be able to name a player or two, and the coach.   Pick a team whose colors you wouldn’t mind adding to your wardrobe, then wear those colors to work on Friday with everyone else and talk a little trash.  Who knows, after a while, you might find yourself at a local sports bar watching the game with a bunch of rabid fans.

 You will tell yourself that you are not really there for the football. 

You will rationalize your presence by noting that the place does have a really good selection of your favorite microbrews. 

Oh and by the way, the game is on and you are wearing the right colors.

That’s how it starts…

Talking about football is the sacred, social grease in the wheels, down here.  In most places, people talk about the weather when they need to break the ice with a stranger.  Down here, weather is no benign, neutral topic.  People live with constant, tragic reminders of deadly tornadoes and storms. No one opens a conversation with a stranger by saying, “nice weather we’re having lately?”.

No, they ask each other how they think their team is doing, they question whether or not the coach made the right decisions the previous week, or they may even ask for prayer to heal an injury to a key player.   I have seen shared football stories, memories of triumph on the gridiron, or even playful needling by rivals, create smiles, in the saddest of times and places.  

After living nearly 20 years down here, I’ve learned to fit in.  I love Alabama.  Nowadays, when someone asks me “who I’m for”, I tell them Auburn.  They don’t have to know I picked Auburn merely because their colors happen to be similar to one of the teams I left back home, the N.Y. Mets.  I like orange and blue more than I like crimson and white but that’s ok.    I suppose if any of the team uniforms in Alabama had pinstripes, this N.Y. Yankee would have to, “be for them”, as well.

In a recent article in ESPN magazine, Rick Bragg remarked that “In order to understand football’s place in the south, you first have to see it from the inside”. 

He’s right.

 I have also discovered that in order to understand Alabama’s place in the world, you have to see it from outside the United States.    

10,000 miles away at about 14,000 feet of elevation was where I caught that glimpse. On the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2 degrees of latitude below the equator, one of the Tanzanian guides asked me where, in America, I was from.  Back then, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the notion of saying that I was “from” Alabama, but I didn’t want to have to launch into a long, complicated explanation about the difference between where I was born, versus where I currently live.  I also figured he’d probably never heard of it and so it would be something unique to discuss.

I was wrong. 

The word “Alabama” had barely finished resonating, when the guide punched his hand in the air and yelled, "Rolllllllllll Tide!" with perfect inflection.  I was stunned and amazed as tears suddenly filled my eyes.  In that instant I became proud of my adopted home.  Several days later a security agent at the airport in Amsterdam, struck up a conversation with me at the gate access.  After asking me where I was heading, she sealed the deal for me right then and there by launching into a lovely, a cappella, version of Sweet Home Alabama.  

For outsiders, I could see that it might get a bit confusing, because sometimes the word “Alabama” refers to the State of Alabama, and at other times, it is a reference to the University of Alabama, and more specifically, the football team. 

In my travels around the world, I managed to learn what the rest of the world somehow already knew about Alabama.  It just took me a little longer than most, to figure out. The whole world knows that down here, Alabama is football, and football is Alabama.

Auburn fans understand about that.
They smile and forgive it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Give 'Em the Finger!

No wait, it’s a good thing and runners know all about it.  When they encounter each other from opposing directions on the road, either too focused or too out of breath to shout a “Hey!” or a “Good Morning”, they give each other “The Finger”.  It’s a small gesture, usually not the middle one, though its meaning can be fluid and is completely user and context dependent.  Depending upon perspective, various, elaborate interpretations may be assigned to a seemingly simple use of body language.  Below are some sample interpretations of both, sending and receiving “finger” signals:

1.     Hey you! Fellow human being and runner, I acknowledge your presence and see that you and I are both of similar mind when it comes to getting up and out at 5 a.m. and making the most of our mornings.  This is cool!

2.     Wow, you are really moving fast; I wish I was as fast as you, but hey at least I’m out here running too while other folks are still in bed. Oh and look you gave me the finger too and acknowledged me even though you are one of the elite runners in town. Yes! That’s great!  Aren’t we cool? I feel so cool!

3.     Hey there struggling runner-good on ya! Good to see that you are out here even though it’s tough for you.  Keep up the hard work; trust me it will pay off. You are cool!

4.     Alright! I’m not the only crazy person in this neighborhood out at this hour.  Isn’t this fun? Hey, cool dog you got there!

5.     Good luck getting up this hill.  I’m on my way back now and I know it was tough! Stay cool in this heat!

When it comes to giving our fellow runners “The Finger” each of us adds our own particular panache to the gesture.  First of all “The Finger” is not necessarily limited to a single digit.  It is possible for it to be a full, open hand wave or greeting. More often there are a few fingers involved, some curled, slightly incorporated into a more complete “wave”.    Usually, the index finger is most prominent, but not always.  Sometimes, while offering “The Finger”, runners merely extend the index finger while simultaneously rotating their wrists 90 degrees in the direction of the other runner.  Hands usually remain at or by their side and may never actually rise above the runner’s waist.
Brief eye contact may also accompany “The Finger” for various time increments depending on the grade of the hill.  Subtle chin tilts up or in the direction of the approaching runner may substitute for, or combine with, “The Finger” gesture and is usually reserved for runners that frequently encounter each other.

The next time you are out running, pay close attention.  Observe the gestures that oncoming runners throw your way, and always, always, always, return the courtesy…
Give’em “The Finger”.  It is the considerate thing to do.



Friday, October 5, 2012

A Nod To Rick Bragg


“Who are you for?” is usually one, of the first of two questions a person is asked, when they relocate to Alabama from out of state.  If you reply with an SEC team other than Alabama or Auburn, you may or may not meet with approval, but you are automatically granted a degree of respect.  Mentioning a team from up north like Syracuse, Nebraska or Oregon will get you a head tilt and some cocked eyebrows, but folks will at least know where you stand. 

Answering with “Well, I didn’t go to school in this state and I don’t really care much about football ”, is a common, though ill advised, answer.  Alabama folks have heard this before from multitudes of displaced Yankees, who seem to get some wicked thrill, pretending not to notice that down here, football is important.   It’s not an original answer.  It is, however, equivalent to declaring atheism when asked the second of the two questions, which is usually, “Where do you go to church”?

If you declare an SEC team, that’s at least like answering the church question with Baptist, Methodist or A.M.E.  It may not be their church, but they know where you stand and will honor your beliefs.  Proclaiming loyalty to a team from an “up North” conference will buy you slightly more suspicion, say on the order of claiming that you are either Jewish or Mormon,  but you will still be welcomed with open arms to the brotherhood of Monday morning quarterbacking.

I know this from personal experience.  I used to be that ugly Yankee that feigned ignorance to the phenomena of southern football.   After a while, it just becomes tiresome for everyone involved.  What I’ve also learned, is that it’s much more fun, to join in the fun. 

I’m going to pass along a little personal advice to any future Yankees that may be locating to Alabama in the future.

Pick a team. 

You don’t have to run out and buy season tickets; just be polite.  

Pick a team.  Any team.

 I know you probably don’t care, not yet anyway.  It doesn’t matter.   Watch a game, or at least pay attention to the highlights on the news at night.  Be able to name a player or two, and the coach.   Pick a team whose colors you wouldn’t mind adding to your wardrobe, then wear those colors to work on Friday with everyone else and talk a little trash.  Who knows, after a while, you might find yourself at a local sports bar watching the game with a bunch of rabid fans.

 You will tell yourself that you are not really there for the football. 

You will rationalize your presence by noting that the place does have a really good selection of your favorite microbrews. 

Oh and by the way, the game is on and you are wearing the right colors.

That’s how it starts…

Talking about football is the sacred, social, grease in the wheels, down here.  In most places, people talk about the weather when they need to break the ice with a stranger.  Down here, weather is no benign, neutral topic.  People live with constant, tragic reminders of deadly tornadoes and storms. No one opens a conversation with a stranger by saying, “nice weather we’re having lately?”.

No, they ask each other how they think their team is doing, they question whether or not the coach made the right decisions the previous week, or they may even ask for prayer to heal an injury to a key player.   I have seen shared football stories, memories of triumph on the gridiron, or even playful needling by rivals, create smiles, in the saddest of times and places.  

After living nearly 20 years down here, I’ve learned to fit in.  I love Alabama.  Nowadays, when someone asks me “who I’m for”, I tell them Auburn.  They don’t have to know I picked Auburn merely because their colors happen to be similar to one of the teams I left back home, the N.Y. Mets.  I like orange and blue more than I like crimson but that’s ok.    I suppose if any of the team uniforms in Alabama had pinstripes, this N.Y. Yankee would have to, “be for them”, as well.

In a recent article in ESPN magazine, Rick Bragg remarked that “In order to understand football’s place in the south, you first have to see it from the inside”. 

He’s right.

 I have also discovered that in order to understand Alabama’s place in the world, you have to see it from outside the United States.    

10,000 miles away at about 14,000 feet of elevation was where I caught that glimpse. On the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2 degrees of latitude below the equator, one of the Tanzanian guides asked me where, in America, I was from.  Back then, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the notion of saying that I was “from” Alabama, but I didn’t want to have to launch into a long, complicated explanation about the difference between where I was born, versus where I currently live.  I also figured he’d probably never heard of it and so it would be something unique to discuss.

I was wrong. 

The word “Alabama” had barely finished resonating, when the guide punched his hand in the air and yelled, "Rolllllllllll Tide!" with perfect inflection.  I was stunned and amazed as tears suddenly filled my eyes.  In that instant I became proud of my adopted home.  Several days later a security agent at the airport in Amsterdam, struck up a conversation with me at the gate access.  After asking me where I was heading, she sealed the deal for me right then and there by launching into a lovely, a cappella, version of Sweet Home Alabama.  

For outsiders, I could see that it might get a bit confusing, because sometimes the word “Alabama” refers to the State of Alabama, and at other times, it is a reference to the University of Alabama, and more specifically, the football team. 

In my travels around the world, I managed to learn what the rest of the world somehow already knew about Alabama.  It just took me a little longer than most, to figure out. The whole world knows that down here, Alabama is football, and football is Alabama.

Auburn fans understand about that.
They smile and forgive it.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Barefoot Contestant- "Toeing the Line" Part IV


“There are many paths to the top of the mountain but the view is always the same”.
-Chinese Proverb


    I embarked upon this journey because I was seeking an end to my running pain. I had no intentions of joining a cult or of becoming some sort of running evangelist.
I have tried my best to keep an open, honest perspective, while reporting back the full range of my trials, trails and tribulations with the crazy toe shoes, known as Vibrams.

{Catch up on  Part 1Part 2 and Part 3}

Funny thing is, once I put them on my feet, people took notice.  Suddenly I was forced into a role akin to a clergy member.  Folks apparently felt free to unburden their questions and confessions upon me, a perfect stranger, regarding my feet, and in particular, my shoes. 

People would look down and ask, “Hey, are those things comfortable?”  “They look funky!”

“Yes, they are comfortable,” I would say enthusiastically, playing the role of the accidental advocate, regardless of what I was feeling about them at the moment.

It’s not like I had a choice.  What could I have said? 

“Oh, these things you see on my feet?  Pieces of crap actually, I hate them.”  I’m miserable in them and they have totally screwed up my training schedule and so on….

Of course not. 

Nor did they truly want to hear the full list of pros and cons I’d managed to tally up to this point.  The shoes merely caught their attention and they were responding to them.
 
“Wow those are cool shoes!  My daughter has been asking me to get her a pair, would you recommend them for a teenage girl?”

It required superhuman effort to suppress my overwhelming snark reflex at this moment.  While silently conceding my role as an involuntary Vibram promoter, I did NOT reply with the first thing that popped into my head:

“You mean, you want to know if they would serve as a fashion accessory for some ditzy, Justin Bieber fan? Why no, no I don’t recommend them at all.  Lock her in her room and let her  watch Twilight movies until she’s 21.  These are shoes for serious runners with a solemn commitment to the freedom and performance that comes from unleashing one’s more natural potential…”

Sadly, all I DID is say, was, “Uhmmm, well they come in some pretty cool colors, she would probably like them,” and walked away very quickly.

On other occasions, people would point at my feet, nudge their companions and proceed to  talk about me and my shoes, in the third person, utterly indifferent to the fact that I was standing right there, listening to every word.  

“Will you look at those things? I don’t know how she walks in them, I’d be afraid to step on something and get my toe cut off.  They can’t be good for her! I don’t know if I could wear anything with all that junk between my toes…”

It happened more than once.

More running savvy folks would ask better, more specific questions but they were all pretty much the same.

Frequently  I heard various versions of:

 “I’ve seen those shoes around and even thought about getting a pair, do you think I should? What about support?   Don’t your feet need some kind of support or cushioning or something?”

Vibram and Mr. McDougal should both be paying me commissions for my replies to these people.  I found myself explaining the entire theory behind why artificially supporting the natural structure of any arch weakens its inherent strength, both architecturally and anatomically speaking.   I’d mention the book, the research and refer them to the Vibram website, all as part of the “experiment.”  I repeated myself so many times, that I  started to feel like a broken record; while many of you reading this will not know exactly what that means, I felt that way just the same.

Despite the distractions,  I managed to increase my long run mileage up into the double digit range.  As the mileage increased, I found that I kept a constant pain or soreness in my left Achilles. It required a great deal of stretching and massage therapy to keep me on track for the Talladega Half.  I’m also quite a bit slower on the long distances. I am unsure if it is still a matter of acclimation to the shoes or if this is as good as it’s going to get for me.

 If I could meet with him, I’d like to ask McDougal  how long acclimation is supposed to take.  My calves are no longer cramping up, I can cover the distances, but after every long run, I’m still left with the same, achy soreness.  I can stretch and it eases up somewhat, but any time I sit still for any length of time, the soreness returns. I know “they say” that the Vibrams will convert me to being a toe or mid-foot runner but it still hasn’t happened.
 
Additionally, I have serious reservations about whether or not many runners would be willing to sacrifice the mileage from their regular training schedules and scale back to the extent that I have, merely to experiment with a new shoe.

While, philosophically, I agree with living more in accordance with our Paleolithic origins, I just don’t know that everyone’s anatomy is designed to run the exact same way.  The wear pattern on the bottom of my Vibrams still indicates I’m using my heels quite a bit.  

  There is one caveat regarding this experiment. Over 35 years ago I had a serious injury to this same left ankle.  It was badly broken in a skateboarding accident, and it required surgery to repair.  Then, several years later, I had a nasty sprain while waterskiing.  I had thought I’d recovered reasonably well from those injuries, and I’d never experienced ankle or Achilles issues from running before.  If the previous injuries constitute a part of my adjustment issues,  I’m not so sure that I’m grateful to the Vibrams for eliciting these particular muscle memories.  

I think I should also mention here that in the 5 months that I’ve owned the shoes, I have not yet washed them.  Not unusual perhaps, for a pair of running shoes, but for sock-like shoes??? They are fairly filthy at this point and yet, I’m afraid to wash them because it seems as though they’d fall apart.  Within the first month of wearing them, all the ornamental stripes and accents either came loose or fell off and the material inside the toe compartments  began to fray.  The inside sole has gotten worn and rough and sometimes it’s hard to tell if I have a rock in my shoe, or if it’s merely one of the jagged edges that is now a permanent part of the bottom of my shoe.


My experience with the Vibrams has led me to believe that, while Born to Run is a wonderful book and motivating story, I am not fully convinced that it qualifies as the ultimate, running “gospel.”  McDougal also made a few hopeful leaps; a bit of theorizing that didn’t exactly fit with some the science he was attempting to explain, but I will let that slide, if only because he at least got us all thinking about the subject.  I also refuse to become a convert to the belief that Vibrams are THE definitive running shoe for all people, in all situations, at all times.  They aren’t.   Since I’d like to remain true to the original product testing spirit that gave rise to this series of articles, here are the pros and cons as I see them:
Pros:
1.     Great for sprinting, track events and short road race distances-- (in dry weather only!)-- I will probably continue to wear them for 5k’s, maybe 10k’s depending on the terrain.  For the future, I will consider them a training tool and perhaps use them for speed work while training for half and full marathons. However, I will probably not be wearing them on any trail or long distance runs.

2.     Great for any sport that requires agility and lateral stability-- I will definitely continue to wear them for plyometrics and agility training.  When it comes to box jumps and ladder drills, the extra control imparted from the flexibility of the shoe and individual toe compartments is very reassuring.

While I have not personally tried indoor or outdoor court sports such as tennis and racquetball, I suspect that the Vibrams would be good for those types of activities as well.   


Cons: 
1.     Need to avoid any situation with water--Puddles, mud and river crossings are not your friends with Vibrams unless you like pruned toes.  Many paddlers will also find them unsuitable for use on the water for the same reasons.

2.     Trail running--I’m sure Vibram makes a trail specific shoe, but as for me and my feet, I want more protection than any “toe shoe” can offer.

3.     They may not be suitable for all foot types--This includes people with Morton’s foot, ( a common anatomical variant where the second metatarsal is elongated and creates a situation where the second toe is significantly longer than the first toe) or people with range of motion issues dues to scar tissue or previous injuries.

4.     Not for triathlons…I’ve seen other folks wearing them at tri’s, so maybe I’m just a klutz, but it still takes me a while to get my feet in them.  I’m much better these days, after 5 months of practice, but I would end up cursing and fumbling around the transition area if I was in a hurry to get them on.

As with any philosophy, there will be varying degrees of orthodoxy.  I’ll buy into the theory that a low, or zero-drop, shoe is more natural for our feet.  I will concur with the concept than the constant flexion of our Achilles tendon, caused by shoes angled like jacked up muscle cars, be they running shoes or women’s high heels, is not healthy.    I’m not, however, sold on the idea that a little padding on our soles, or protection for our toes, is such a bad thing. And as far as being more “in touch with our Paleolithic origins,” I have yet to see any cave paintings depicting the virtues of compartmentalized shoes.

Addendum: Written after 9/16/12-Race Day!

My Talladega Half Marathon results were nothing to complain about.  In fact, my time was 1:49:32   Good enough for first place in the 45-49 age group!!!  I also got to give Bill Rogers a hug and had him sign my race result printout, thus making it “official”.
I was ecstatic about the race results but I attribute my recent improvement not so much to the Vibrams, but to my strength and agility workouts. In fact, I think I did well in spite of the Vibrams rather than because of them.  On the course, there was one stretch of a gravel road that I had to pick my way through carefully.  The small gravel was not an issue, but there were fist sized chunks that I knew I did not want to step on.  My ankles and Achilles were sore afterwards, as they typically were, during my long training runs.  Additionally, while this never happened in training, I not only “blistered up the track” with my new found, blazing speed, but I “blistered up on the track”.  Maybe it was because I raced faster than I trained, but I had to gut out the last 2 miles with some nasty blisters that formed in odd spots.  The undersides of both big toes, at the first joint.  In other words, the soft spot, in the bend of the toe, that would never normally even contact a shoe, was rubbed raw, in the Vibrams.  All the more reason for me to reiterate the fact that I will no longer be attempting any long distances in them.   

It’s been a great run and an interesting experiment for me.  I’ve learned a great deal about the shoes, but mostly about myself.  Thank you for following along with me on the journey.

Along the way I was frequently asked if I would recommend the Vibrams to others.

 My answer :
If you are enduring pain that no one can figure out how to fix, and are willing to cut back on your training, give them a try.  They may be exactly what you need.  For some people, they are a perfect fit.  We are all designed just a little bit differently, and life has taken different tolls on each of us, in different ways.

 If you aren’t in pain and you are merely seeking to improve your running performance, I would  suggest you cut down on your running and vary your workouts to include strength, agility and plyometric training.  It’s worked wonders for me; your mileage may vary.


What I do recommend for everyone is to do as Bill Rogers once suggested:

“This sport is the sport to see what you are made of, so use those expert’s advice, but be free to be your own champion runner, picking and choosing advice you enjoy and that works best for you”.