Wednesday, July 26, 2006

For Love and Money

We remember our hills. We remember the long ones that rise ever slowly. We remember the sudden peaks or the winding switchbacks. We remember the dirt path up to the bridge and the asphalt slope returning from Baker Beach. Sometimes we stride up them effortlessly. Sometimes we swear.

Flats are more of a blur than a memory. They are like those parts of our days that we know must have happened but fade quickly like thoughts about sophomore year in college or budget meetings; filled with motion but without the sense of progress. Flats are the same bus ride home every day. Flats are the point of the marathon when you think you past mile 18 but then see a sign up ahead for mile 17 and you wonder how you could be so absent minded that you actually lost track of a mile during a marathon. Flats are the silences between songs.

We remember our Wednesday night peaks - Lovers’ Lane and WebVan hill. They lie next to each other in the center of the presidio created with the same geological hiccup. We have run figure eights around them, two loops named for different epochs of our city’s history.

April coined WebVan hill after the television advertisement that showed the vans delivering food to the residents. Created by the San Francisco firm, Hal Riney, the ad had the hazy nostalgia that brought Reagan’s “Morning in America” and the intoxicating warming blur of Bartles and James wine coolers or Henry Wienhard’s beer.

The city was drunk on what felt like never ending newness. After good internship at Microsoft, you would have venture capitalists lined up to give you money to create evite. There were cab drivers discussing portal deals on cell phones as they drove in from the airport. The poor schlub who had worked in purchasing for years all of sudden could make millions as b2b integration expert. The money flowed (and, well, the fundraising was much easier if your friends were rolling in options). What differentiated this from the earlier tech booms that the word “network” changed from being a noun to a verb. There were link exchanges. There were drink exchanges. Who you knew was everything. There were more pitches than products, and the WebVan advertisement captured the haziness of actually having to deliver anything. It too soon faded like its cup holders at PacBell park.

A few yards over from WebVan the path that became Lover’s Lane was created centuries earlier to link the Spanish Presidio to the Mission. Later the American soldiers would trudge up over it to see their loves ones (either marital or fiscally based) who lived in the city. Motivation to go up a peak is often difficult – few of us have Sir Edmund Hillary’s attitude of Everest “because it’s there.” But after spending the entire week in only the company of their fellow soldiers, they must have set a record for hill repeat determination even if the return trip was done slightly bowlegged.

We share these paths of those that came before us. Sometimes the hills of our life are about money. Sometimes the challenges are about love. Sometimes the hill wins. But there are those days, the better moments of our character when we rise to meet the peak.

These are the times we remember.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

External Markers

Like junior high school dances the key issue of bone marrow transplants is avoiding rejection. Most of the cells of the human body are labeled with protein markers that are coded on major histocompatibility genes on our sixth chromosome. When the immune system discovers cells that don’t have the correct markers it can uses a variety of the methods to attack the intruder. For another tissue transplant (say a kidney) it is important that these markers match or the immune system will try to destroy the new tissue. With bone marrows transplants this issued is doubled because the new cells might unwarily attack the host – similar if you tried to relocate armies to foreign countries. These proteins are the truce between parts of ourselves.

Even though these markers are genetic and the best chance to get a match is through a family member, there are plenty of people who don’t match with their parents or siblings and desperately need bone marrow. A great thing you can do is to get tissue typed. The tissue typing procedure isn’t any more difficult than getting blood, and to put it bluntly could save a life of someone. The more complete bank of possible external matches the better. It is a great thing do in addition to the wonderfully appreciated raising of funds and awareness. Who knows? You might get to meet a genetic cousin or histocompatiable friend.

Granted this isn’t the only way to identify comrades. (In a fascinating research project it was discovered that folks preferred the smells of the people with different histocompatibly proteins. Opposites do attract, but similarity saves lives.) Cells aren’t unique in using external markings to signal identity. Peacocks have their plumage, flowers have their petals, and runners have race t-shirts.

Other than watching the occasional Project Runway episode, I am not that much of a fashion expert, but let's examine the taxonomy of endurance shirts...

A key element is degree of difficulty. If on a start line you see a runner with perhaps a quadruple Dipsea t-shirt (something April’s husband actually did) this will strike a deeper level of fear than someone wearing a Muffy’s run five-mile fundraiser (something I did).

I do also believe the following about t-shirts:

  1. If you don’t finish a race you can’t wear the t-shirt. This rule is unbreakable. There is a Wildflower t-shirt that I am not allowed to wear, but that is another email about hydration.
  2. If you get a t-shirt prior to the race start you can’t wear the shirt beforehand (see 1).
  3. You are certainly allowed to wear a shirt for twice the time you spent training for the race. This gives you almost a full year for wearing your marathon shirt.
  4. You probably shouldn’t wear a t-shirt unless you can do at least half of the race distance (unless in rule 3 grace period).
  5. There is nothing better than passing someone with a macho t-shirt. When in doubt dress modestly and run strong.
  6. You are always allowed to wear the same race shirt from an earlier year if you are entering the event again. Huge bonus for showing up in race expos with prior year shirts. It is a great way to strike up conversations. “Boy, it was hot” or “how about that mile six?”
  7. The best time to wear a race t-shirt is when no one has any idea how hard the event is. “Catfish crawl, now what did you have to do for that?” Perfect times are work parties and class reunions.

Like all of your coaches I have seen a ton of race shirts from Ironman champions to someone doing a half marathon in a Spiderman suit. But out of all of the coolmax and cotton combinations I have watched during a race or at the parties the best t-shirt wasn’t the one that said “Finisher.” It was the one a friend wore that said “Cancer Free.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Songs of Summer

While there might not be a price on childhood memories with the advent of ITunes nostalgia costs $.99 to download. It was in one of those “late night/why not click” whims that I decided to purchase Colin Hay’s solo album of mostly acoustic covers of his old band, Men at Work.

Men at Work are one of those awkward bands in the history of rock; the ones that sound absolutely brilliant for a couple of months then taste like a red white wine hangover. Depending on your decade they were the Hanson or Black Eye Pea’s of their day. They were from Australia, and their lyrics had southern hemisphere coolness. In the pre-google days of the world there was no easy way to know what exactly a vegemite sandwich was without being clued in by a knowing older sibling or cousin. There was the tinge of sexuality to their words - my friends debated the subtext of “A Land Down Under.” Still it isn’t a sin to put sex into Rock and Roll; their mistake was to use an overproduced horn section that Huey Lewis + Phil Collins would use to ruin the rest of the decade.

So what I expected when I downloaded the album was a slightly overpriced smirk, the kind of laugh when you look your high school haircut and you are pleased of how much more mature you are even if you never will be hip enough to set up a myspace account. I put my headphones on and then clicked on the first tune, “Beautiful World” with cheeks fully ready to chuckle at more vegemite references.

What I got was completely unexpected. Colin Hay is actually really good. Stripped away from saxophones and down to just a guitar he is a talented lyricist. Not all groups can pull that off. Nirvana’s “a mosquito, my libido” is only a shade different than “a spider sat down beside her”. If only Humpty Dumpy had long blond hair and facial stubble we would talk about how much of an egg genius he was.

I like to think running as other sports stripped down, the acoustic set of soccer without the ball or cycling without the bike. George Plimpton’s theory of sports writing was the smaller the ball, the better of literature. And unless world class sunbathing makes the Olympics it doesn’t get much more minimal than running.

Cherish this yin. As my high school English teacher would write about my sentences – simplify, simplify, simplify. Enter the yoga mind state when you run. Work on that inner narrator. Reflect. But always check for cars.

For safety sake, we are going to start to run without IPods so the sounds of our runs will be traffic mixed with imagination. It gives you the chance to develop the mental mix tape of your life with footsteps and breath as the rhythm section and the occasional “go team” as a chorus. Take time to craft your own lyrics.

The last time I ran, I wondered about Colin Hay and how it must be to go through life overshadowed by genius of youth played too loudly. A New York Times article mentioned about how high school stars later in life stopped exercising, and what I appreciate about Colin Hay is how he avoided this fate and keeps returning to road even if they are smaller crowds. It is a marathoner’s philosophy, and one of the proudest things to take this season is the knowledge that you are out there trying as well. The daily soundtrack of our lives is neither applause nor rock, but heartbeats at a threshold.

Beautiful World Colin Hay

My my my it’s a beautiful world
I like swimming in the sea
I like to go out beyond the white breakers
Where a man can still be free (or a woman if you are one)
I like swimming in the sea.

And still this emptiness persists
Perhaps this is as good as it gets
When you’ve given up the drink and those nasty cigarettes
Now I leave the party early at least with no regrets
I watch the sun as it comes up I watch it as it sets
Yeah this is as good as it gets.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


My dentist follows the Tour de France. I mentioned cycling to him and for the entire time I was being scraped and flossed I learned about the rain, the cobblestones and the courage of the riders until he paused for a moment and I could see him dreaming of the French country side, the small farm towns next to battlefields, the crowds waving their flags and inflatable whales, the brutal heat of the Pyrenees, the narrow turns on cobblestone roads, and the long climb at Alpe D’uez. I then gargled and rinsed.

Cycling has skyrocketed in popularity because of the cult of Lance. He casts a long shadow over the sport, and if we are spending our summers using slow twitch muscles to fundraise for cancer research then he is as good as role model as they come. His yellow bracelets have become the most popular new men’s jewelry since digital watches decades ago, a symbol not of social affiliation but of personal aspiration.

We all wish we could be like Lance - except for that whole getting testicular cancer part (even Superman had kryptonite). The weekend roads of Marin are now clogged with the spandex hordes. The tightest fitting clothes are no longer on Castro Street, but on Alpine Dam and Lucas Valley Road. These packs of riders pound in a single line formation like a multi-segmented, multi-colored centipede as the scent of oak trees and asphalt rushes past their helmets. They signal with their hands, shout “car up” and “on your left”, and share my dentist’s daydream of perhaps winning a stage or perhaps helping a teammate to a jersey, but the only victories they have are hammering a hill in the correct gear and the exhausted satisfied nod that even though the ride was hard it was worth it.

There is, however, a bad taste to the Tour this year. Like governmental transitional problems that hit both King Lear and Iraq, the succession to a post tour Lance hasn’t run smooth. Three of the major heirs - Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Francisco Mancebo - were linked to a drug syndicate in Spain. While cycling has always been on the forefront of the chemical alloys to create better frames for bike, it has also been on the chemical forefront for better bodies for the riders.

One of the techniques now banned is to draw blood out a few months before the race and then return it back to the system so there are more red blood cells to transport oxygen almost, to excuse the pun, in the same vein as leukemia patients being able to extract their own bone marrow and receive it after their system has been nuked. We are entering an era were we can make biological promises to our future selves, but there is a difference in that one is bone marrow for survival and the other is oxygen for endorsements. We don’t want to destroy innovation, but we need to limit our Frankenstein urges.

And so we must return to Lance. Even if the purity of the modern athlete as been tainted with the advances of biology, there is a simpler truth is that medicine gave Lance the chance to ride again. It gave inspiration to a nation that has been too often sitting on couches and that confused golf as exercise. People went on the road and learned to love putting sunscreen below their eyes to avoid it mixing with sweat. And from a deeply personal perspective I am quite happy that my dentist can work out his issues with pain on hill repeats.

So what does Mr. Armstrong do after the seven victories and after being Sheryl Crow’s favorite mistake? This year instead of going long in France, he is going hard in New York. This year isn’t about the bike. This is the year he is going to do a marathon. Like with several of you, it will be his first.