Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Twilight of Childhood - Life, Death, & Soccer

While we are working on our aerobic base, the rest of the world is turned to a different sporting endeavor, the World Cup. In the seventies soccer arrived with jogging and disco. The later two were for the adults. Soccer was for kids.

The secret of the beautiful sport - what David Eggers likes and Chuck Klosterman despises - is that it is an easily played game. Throw a ball out amongst a group of eight year olds and they will understand that the ball has to move towards the opposite net even if they are bunched around the orb like runners around a water stop on a hot day. It was the first team I ever joined. In our OP shorts, knee high socks, and bowl haircuts we, small band of carpooled warriors, bravely enjoyed the world where everyone played, and the debates on the ride home weren’t about who should get the ball to score, but whether you would rather be Spiderman or Superman.

But as we aged it became clear that even if we weren’t all going to be super heroes, some of us had far more talent than others. In junior high I was on the same fall soccer team as John Henry Williams. In a Garrison Kellerian tribute our squad was called "intermediate" even though there wasn't a level below us. We had world-class intentions of getting the ball into the net, even if the final score rarely reflected our hopes. We were always on the wrong side of the verge of greatness. Still after every 4-0 loss, John Henry was pleased to be out there; he had an infectious smile that said good game.

Perhaps his optimism came from a life of sports. There should have been some genetic hope that could have bloomed with John Henry; his father played baseball in the forties and fifties. My heroes growing up were Albert Einstein, Harry Houdini, Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Luke Skywalker. I had never heard of his dad.

With our demoted status we played at the furthest field from the showers. As a huge fan of hot water I would always sprint up a large hill after practice to get to the showers before the varsity and junior varsity players. Another coach noticed the uphill sprints and in the springtime I joined the track team.

John Henry went out for baseball. I was surprised that he made the varsity team, because he wasn't much more coordinated than me. Later in life I realized that there was not a high school coach on this planet who was going to cut Ted Williams' son. His father is a legend in New England somewhere above Sam Adams but below clam chowder. John Henry switched schools at the end of the year, and I lost contact with him.

We weren’t the only ones with dreams of soccer glory. Our nation has now sent its highest ranked teamed to the World Cup, and our imagination went wild - if we could tie the Czech Republic, if we could avoid the second red card with Italy, maybe miss playing Brazil. Our team was on the verge of greatness. But as in all of our dreams we still have that waking moment when childhoods have to end. We are struggling in Germany with the realization that wishes don’t mean goals. So if we are destined for a first round elimination I hope we could cheer the way John Henry did.

A few years ago I saw John Henry sportsmanship for the first time in a decade on TV when he helped his father along at a baseball game - literally a crutch that propped his father on a podium in center field with the remaining all time greats. Determined not to give up these childhood dreams and win the respect of his father later that year John Henry even tried out for a minor league team, but those managers weren't as lenient as the ones from our youth.

I don’t want dreams to die either, but this is the point where John Henry’s best intentions went past common sense. When his father died, John Henry stuck him in a freezer as a hope for the future and that his genetic material could be shared with the world. It seems like an idea out of a comic book or mythology, a modern Orpheus going to Hades to try to keep a love one alive.

But even Orpheus couldn’t make it back to the world. Everyone struggles with the waking moment of a dream’s end. And sometimes lives are as fleeting.

John Henry soon afterwards was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), a malignant disease of the bone marrow in which hematopoietic precursors are arrested in an early stage of development. It is as if the blood cells themselves are yearning to remain in an eternal youthful state – John Henry’s dream at a cellular level. Their unwillingness to undergo programmed cell death (apoptosis) results in their accumulation in the bone marrow, blood, and, frequently, the spleen and liver. Normal blood production also decreases. About 10,000 people a year are diagnoses with AML. 25-30% of adults younger than 60 years survive longer than 5 years and are considered cured. I have no doubt that he did the best he could against the disease. But in 2004 John Henry Williams was among the 70%.

The obituaries talked mostly about his father being the last to hit 400 (and the cryonics part).

I want to think him more of the junior high version - the one coming off the intermediate soccer field and smiling, the one who was happy just to be playing.

For many of us this run season is the return to an earlier time when summers had to be spent outside. There will be bruises and sunburns of our youth even if we run on shakier knees. I don’t want to lose that youthful spirit, but this time around we are running for something just a little more than going up a hill to get to a shower first.

We run because there are a few friends and family that have already hit the metaphysical version of showers, and we wish they still could be here to play. What we lose in childhood innocence we gain in adult purpose. We run for research. We run for a cure.

But if I am allowed to dream again, I would like to pretend that John Henry is up there smiling someplace above - finally at the same level as his father and Superman - and never worries about the score.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

GO2 Team

Summer movie season is upon us, and one of the surprising stars isn’t the man of steel, a mutant, or a religious code breaker but an ex vice-president. Lacking x-ray vision or a long hair cut Al Gore is armed only with PowerPoint slides and the luxury of science to discuss global energy and the impact on the environment. Without delving too much into politics, I want to do the same for running. Let me pull the slides.

Aerobic Anaerobic

C6H12O6 + 6O2 → C6H12O6

6CO2 + 6H2O 2C3H6O3 (lactic acid)

2830 kJ 120kJ

Slide 1

We can categorize energy systems by the fuels they burn. In the case of cars we will all one day decide between gas and ethanol. For ourselves, we can convert sugars either directly into lactic acid or instead, in a longer process, combine it with oxygen to get carbon dioxide and water.

If the secret of a sustainable environment is developing renewable energy sources on a global scale, then the secret of endurance sports is to optimize sustainable energy at a personal level. We need a cruiser gear.

Lactic AcidRunner with too much Lactic Acid

Slide 2

To get there we need to train at the point along our various effort levels called the anaerobic threshold, the boundary below which we use aerobic metabolism and above which we use the unsustainable anaerobic. It is the maximal aerobic effort level, the best payoff in terms of bang for buck.

The more you train at a particular metabolism, the more you adapt your body to it, and the more efficient it becomes. If you race every run you will develop a great racing gear (the Tasmanian Devil was anaerobic), and while that is fantastic for chasing after rabbits with Brooklyn accents, you will run out of sugars about mile 18. You will wish that you had spent more time developing your aerobic capacity.

While there are a slew of tests that can measure your anaerobic threshold (AT) with a great deal of accuracy, the simplest way is to find the pace where you can be slightly conversational. If you have enough oxygen to speak, then your body isn’t forcing to steal all of it for metabolism (as long as you don’t talk too much).

It is not to say that we never want to use the faster gears when we train – in order to go far we will need all available energy process – but it works out to about at most 10% of the time or as a more conveniently way of thinking about it, one workout a week. The best time to save this is the for the Wednesday evening speed/hills run.

For the rest of the time when we run, talk to your teammates. Discuss the high home prices or the summer beach novels. Share your knowledge of cheap restaurants and favorite places to run.

This team comes from such wonderful places - from Michigan and Texas; from grape lands of Napa and Lodi – and those are just your mentors. Talk about careers. Talk about high school loves. But breathe. Support you local aerobic system. Oxygen is your friend.

And occasionally on a windier trail, maybe on a sunrise buddy run or a lazy mentor run through a park, take a deeper gasp when you realize the beauty of the Bay Area environment.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Good Gear Days

Our summertime companion, the fog, will visit frequently to our workouts. There is an Alaskan saying, “There are no bad weather days just bad gear days.” If you had to pick a place that would know about outdoor fashion Alaska would be a good place to start (as opposed to the runways of Paris – The French on adversity have a saying “it is a piece of pie” which is why one place is known for the battles between man and nature and the other is known for the battles between man and waiters).

And while we are on adages, in the running world attire there is a saying that “cotton is rotten”. Normally I don’t believe that one should dress according to a rhyme - it leads to ideas like “Bell Bottoms are awesome” or “Sequins are groovin” - but the phrase does reflect the issue of wearing cotton while running. The fabric absorbs water. On cloudy sixty degree days when you are only going to run for a half an hour this is fine, but for longer runs or adverse temperatures this means that you will be keeping your sweat close to you rather than letting it evaporate as a coolant. It isn’t very pleasant. Simply put, cotton doesn’t have much range.

The way to extend the conditions we feel comfortable to train in is to extend the gear that we use. The simplest way of doing this is layering. Being able to put on and then shed non-absorbent garments allows for a great range of temperatures. Cyclists, gear fanatics perhaps worse than Alaskans, have all kinds of layers – outer shells, arms warmers, and long sleeve jerseys to name a few. The pockets on riding jersey also make then a great way to carry food, which we will need to do when we get to our longer runs.

Of the layers to have, two of the most important are hats and sunscreen. The later of which was discussed in a graduation speech from nearly a decade ago (see below). As for hats not only do they help with sweat going into your eyes, but they also keep you significantly warm. 30% of one's body heat can be lost through the head. About 13-16% of the body's blood volume is in the head at any given time, but it is a very exposed structure, allowing it to lose heat pretty quickly. A mind is a terrible thing to chill. To paraphrase Joe Cocker, you should leave your hat on.

In short come to practices with a few layers so as you cherish the hills you can take clothes off to cool and as the sun goes down you can add them back. Learn to dress like Alaskans and relax like the French. This will lead to more enjoyable workouts. And when you get home after a very foggy evening and your friends ask, “How was the run?” you can just look them straight in the eye and say:

“It was a piece of cake.”

Thursday, June 01, 2006


This begins with a word.


Our proud sponsors promote their shoes with “just do it”. But as part of improving at endurance sports is gaining efficiency by eliminating unnecessary motion, their phrase can be reduced.


Go, because the second toughest run you will ever do is the first one coming back into shape.

Go, because you are meeting a friend.

Go, because you want to make a new one.


While the word, run, can be used as a noun – a 5k fun run, a midnight run, the true essence of the word is as verb. Cherish this. Run to the corner. Run to the park. Run around the coaches on the parade ground. Run home.

Running is a journey. We will travel to such places: from the slopes of the presidio to the flats of Ocean Beach; from the trails in Marin to the shores of Maui or Crissy field, from these first anxious spring weeks to the celebratory autumn.

Go, because you made a promise to yourself.

Go, because the toughest run you will ever do is coming in the fall and you need the practice.

Go, because you know someone with cancer.

Go, because it feels right.


It isn’t that this season starts with the first step, because, well, you need to make sure your shoes are tied, but it begins with the belief, the hope, and the longing for a great adventure. Someday soon you will realize any day on the road is a great one.

Go. Go Team