Wednesday, August 30, 2006


The Maui marathon winds away from Charles Lindbergh's grave. As a fan of endurance Lindbergh was around for the first Maui marathon though I don't know if he made the trip from his A-Frame house that he spent the last years of his life under the tropic starry skies a few miles away from the sea. He was buried close that home at Palapala Ho'omau Church in Kipahulu. His plot is one of the few things that was quiet about his life.

In 1927 at the age of 25 on a late day in May Charles boarded the plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, at Roosevelt Air force base on Long Island and headed east. Two hours later he saw Cape Cod to his right as his plane hovered 150 feet above the water. Seven hours later he passed by the southern edge of Newfoundland. He left the airplane windows open and hoped the cool air would stop him from falling asleep.

He was a man stuck between epochs - a 19th century explorer stuck with 20th century media. In an earlier time John Henry would battle the development of the railroads, but as the first modern hero, Lindbergh embraced engineering. There is a certain kind of faith in machines that defines modern life; we are slaves to our blackberries, our cubicles, and our cars. Airplane travel has changed from a lone pilot's adrenaline from keeping from falling asleep to five dollar drinks to help the passengers make sure that they do. All such epoch need a herald. Some of the greatest changes in civilization come from slightly delirious 25 year olds.

As tired as he was over the Atlantic, I believe that must have been his favorite moment. I think if he could he would have spent the rest of his days alone and aloft. The Greeks were wrong about Icarus. The hardest part about trying to reach for the stars isn't about flying too high. It is the part when you have to return to the ground.

The world worshipped his journey. He won the Pulitzer Prize, the Boy Scout Silver Buffalo, the French Legion of Honor, and the silver cross of the German Eagle. Tall and of Swedish descent, he was one of the most photogenic people of his time. Three years after his flight he had his first child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh III.

Shortly before his son turned two he was kidnapped and 10 weeks later he was found dead a few miles away from his home. The trial for the murder was even larger than O.J's, and in the end after the execution the Lindbergh's headed to Europe to be away from the frenzy of the media.

It was, however, not a quiet time on the old continent. Lindbergh, ever a tinkerer, worked with the French surgeon, Alexis Carrel, to create a glass perfusion pump that allowed major progress in heart surgery, but the Germans had a different use for engineers and were developing a war machine. The German aviators so loved Lindbergh that he was invited to fly some of their new planes. He reported his results back to the United States, but this did little to sway the American public from being upset that Lindbergh did not return German Medal of Honor given to him by Hermann Göring.

The best that can be said for Lindbergh he that he picked the wrong war to be an isolationist. Though against Nazi Germany's treatment of the Jews, he at times sounded like Mel Gibson when blaming them for getting the US into the war. (Unlike Mel, this was before the holocaust). President Roosevelt openly questioned his loyalty and refused to let him return to the Army Air Corps. Lindbergh had no sense of politics and was lost in the battle between countries.

The world must have made far more sense during his plane flight when the rules were simpler. Stay awake or die. Keep a straight course or die. Have faith in the machine.

Lindbergh was a pioneer at human endurance. But he was lousy at the calms.

For ourselves the calm period after the last long run is called the taper. It is an in-between time with the main goal is to let the body heal. We also want to keep fresh so we need to do a few runs before the big event. Relax during this time. It is one of the few times in your life that the best way to get better is cut down on your exercise. (Don't eliminate it entirely though). You can't make yourself faster between now and race. Take it easy. And as much as I think it is important to have new adventures, this period is not a great time to pick up a new sport like say aerobatics.

And like the Maui Marathon veering away from Lindbergh's grave, approach the taper the opposite way than Charles did life before the war. You can't be neither an isolationist removed from exercising entirely nor a tinkerer trying to figure out how to improve things. You have done the training; you are good to go. Enjoy the quiet time.

Charles must have loved Maui, the tropical island halfway across the pacific where the villagers left him alone. It is a beautiful place where you can watch the sunrise on Haleakala and watch it set behind Lanai. The south is ever dry and sunny while the winds on the north side are legendary for the surf. It is a compromise between the convenience of Oahu and the beauty of Kaui. I am sneaking there this weekend for a swim and plan to scout a bit of the course and a few of the mai tais.

Lindbergh became a spokesperson for wildlife preservation. He campaigned to protect endangered species like humpback and blue whales, and he supported the establishment of a national park. He died 34 years ago on August 26th from Lymphatic cancer. His gravesite quotes Psalm 139: "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea..."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mile Markers

It is my birthday again, and this event has long since slipped away from childhood exuberance to a more melancholy reflection of that parallel universe where my closet has less triathlon gear. Birthdays ricochet you back into endless introspection more than anything save weddings; both are celebrations of an old set of possibilities being replaced with new hopes. To have been to both in the past week is a bit like wandering through Versailles and staring into the infinity of mirrors on opposites sides of its rooms.

It is a great week for a long run.

So consider yourself fortunate that we are going far this weekend; for some it will be the last long run before the marathon. There is a natural anxiety for the final long training run both in preparation the night before and afterwards when pondering “is this all there is?” It is easy to worry about the distance, to have the feeling that you have to do at least 20 miles, but the real truth is that the last long run is only a fraction of the total training volume during the course of the season, a part of the program but only a small one. Several books advocate your last long run should be determined by time not distance, and in Europe they tend to do 30k ~ 18.3 miles, which is also the same distance I did when I did my best.

What I am trying to say is the last long run is an important to a marathon as a wedding is to a marriage. Everyone wants a great wedding, the magic day captured by photographs and toasts, but from what I have seen as an outsider to marriages is that they aren’t defined by their celebrations, but by their ability to handle the unexpected at two o’clock in the morning or some random Tuesday. Humor, good dance moves, general agreement about money, kids, and religion, and endless patience help.

The wedding I went to was a collection of friends from my first marathon season in 1999. It is symbol of my aging (like my hair gently frosting) that my friends’ weddings have shifted from production numbers fueled by parents with baseball team number of groomsmen and bridesmaids to quieter celebrations for the participants. Many years out from school we now have other groups of friends besides our classmates, but instead of being a larger celebration it has become harder and harder to get these friends from different parts of our lives together.

It had been a long time since the old marathon group was together and it was great to see everyone again. Under a lazy Los Altos sun we huddled around tables covered with jumbo shrimp, baked Brie, egg rolls and glasses of wine and talked about the time since we last met. There were children – one making his debut in a blue sailor outfit and the others now while looking more like their parents have started to develop their own personalities that will please and annoy their parents for years. We talked about new jobs and trips to Germany. We talked about half marathons, the c# programming language, and the TV show “Project Runway.” We enjoyed the wine.

The bride looked beautiful in a white dress that was convenient enough for her to float through reception and chat with everyone. MP3’s off of a laptop provided the background music, while toasts from her cousins from Bakersfield provided the laughter.

It was a great time to relax.

On our running calendars we have our athletic schedule, but in either Outlook or a daily planner, we have life’s mile markers. For most of these we experience the same emotions of last long runs – the dreaded anticipation and the wondering if that is all that there is. But on the occasional lazy summer day, all that is there winds up being just wonderful.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

One Equal-Temper of Heroic Hearts

In 490 BC the battle of Marathon was Darius of Persia first attempt to unify Greece with his Empire. The larger Persian force attacked after they landed on the shore and the middle of the Greek army fell back. But as the Persians pursued the Greeks separated into two flanks and attacked in what is now called a pincer movement. Herodotus wrote that 6,400 Persians perished to 192 Athenians. It was the first Greek land victory against the Persians who like the group U2 had been invincible for decades.

The popular legend is that afterwards a herald named Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens. It was an ancient Grecian August - not only the temperature must have been brutal, but also there was a general lack of quality footwear in those days. When reaching the palace Pheidippides, in the first known moment of product placement, said the word of our shoe sponsor ("Νενικήκαμεν!" - Nenikékamen, We were victorious!) and died on the spot after roughly after 26.2 miles.

This is not a very good race strategy.

So as we approach our races it is important develop a better strategy for ourselves. Certainly the time goal of a marathon changes from person to person (from sub 3 hours to while it is still daylight), but in general there are a few basics to any race strategy. The most important one is that you want to hydrate especially in August.

The second is the concept of a negative split. Simply put the second half of the race should be faster than the first. This is hard to do, and much more so for marathons than halves. But it is how the best marathons are run, and the golden goal of the sport. To get there we are going to practice pacing over the next few weeks. Soon it will seem natural to go out slowly.

Part of the secret is letting go. When the crowd surges forward with the adrenaline you need to hang back and say “this is the pace that I can maintain.” Let the speedsters go. Trust me that there is racing karma and you will see them worse for wear at mile 18.

This tends hard for guys. While synthetic testosterone might help win the Tour de France, its more natural form leads to males going all out far too early. Perhaps it was the excitement of the battle that pushed Pheidippides to his edge.

The male Greeks gods had cool stuff like thunder, war, and wine, but the Greek god for wisdom was a woman, Athena.

She was the god of the hero who traveled the furthest in ancient days – far past where Hercules strength or Jason’s desire took them – Ulysses. He was able to make it so far because he stuck to strategist whether it be fooling Cyclopes, giving a wooden horse, or explaining to his wife how he managed to be out with the boys for twenty years. The man was good.

Homer wrote about him first, but I prefer Sir Alfred Lloyd Tennyson poem that dealt with Ulysses’ negative split, the back half of his journey. It is about him once again return to the sea. It is one of my favorite poems:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vest the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all to little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

Here lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads- you and I are old;
Old age had yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Edge of Endurance

In the prologue of Heart of Darkness as Marlowe drifts on the Thames he laments “at the time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say 'When I grow up I will go there.' ... True, by this time, it was not a blank space any more. I had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery--a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

That was over a century ago, and now as the edges of the unknown seem even more distant, epic journeys have almost come familiar. Not that you should travel up a river to see the dangers of colonialism - we are learning this in a desert instead, but there are now training programs for our personal physical limits, clubs that train together for Ironman distance triathlons, sherpas to help with major peaks, and cushy vacation packages that follow the Tour de France and practice the same hills. Instead of black ink, our world is being marked by chalked arrows, mile markers, and first aid stations.

But that edge is still there. There are impossible distances; like ultra-marathon runs, twenty-mile swims, and cross-country bike rides; as well as exotic places; such as Death Valley or the jungles of Borneo that linger both in our childhood consciousness and adult apprehensions. The most difficult of these races combine both of these elements. In March I traveled north with the Team in Training cross country ski program to see the start of one of the most challenging events on Earth, the Iditarod, and perhaps see one of the legends. The race has produced its share. Rick Swenson has won the race five times in three different decades. Col. Normal D. Vaughn completed the race at the age of 86. But the most famous of them is Susan Butcher.

The event is a 1,161-mile journey across the top of the world, over two mountain ranges and endless tundra. The sleighs are pulled by up to sixteen dogs, which is twice the number of reindeer that Santa uses. Granted he is only going long for a single day, and the Iditarod in a best-case scenario is an eight-day affair.

To succeed at endurance races requires months of training to gain not only fitness but also wisdom to make the correct series of decisions when racing in the artic. The choices that the mushers have must be brutal, a constant tradeoff between resting and pushing against the cold. Against the muted tones of wintertime and deprived of sleep the mind wanders, and the victors have to fight against the strong survival instinct to stop with the mental tricks they have practiced.

The ability to keep sharp is critical, because sledding isn’t just a physical task but a managerial one as well. The modern CEO dreams that all of his employees could be roped together and pull him towards greatness. A musher has to do this without the benefit of a stock option plan.

And like a CEO, a musher also needs to be an expert navigator. Rule 37 says mushers are restricted to traditional forms of navigation. Electronic or mechanical devices that measure speed and direction are prohibited i.e., Loran, night goggles and GPS. The rules have not been updated for IPods, but the call of the wild isn’t heard with headphones. It is the sound of paws on snow, and the swish of sleds on ice.

Susan has won the race four times, and was the first person to take a dog team to the top of Denali. She had an article written about her in the New Yorker, became a spokesperson for dog food, but still prefers life out in the deep bush than the comforts her fame brought her.

The one race that got away from her was when a crazed moose attacked her in 1985. The beast came into the team and started kicking the dogs. Susan held her off with her axe and parka, but the moose managed to kill two of her dogs and to injure 13 others. She spent the next two weeks in the hospital saving the lives of the injured dogs.

It would be tempting to say was her toughest trip to the hospital, but in December Susan was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). With current standard chemotherapy regimens, approximately 25-30% of adults younger than 60 years survive longer than 5 years and are considered cured. It is a brutal thing to get.

The boundaries of the natural world maybe smaller these days, but the human condition is still frail. Just as we once learned the safe trails to travel the wilderness, this century we are learning the routes around the map of the human genome. On the sixth chromosome is the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) region, a collection of genes that determines the proteins on the surface of cells used for the immune system to recognize its body’s cells. Cells that don’t have those protein markings, say of a parasite, are attacked like a moose going through a pack of dogs. The trick of transplants is to transfer organs that have the same MHC proteins. In the case of a bone marrow transplant, if the marrow is not completely compatible, the new cells can also attack the body – a graph versus host rejection.

Susan and her supporters looked for a bone marrow match. Her two daughters and sister were tested, and the hope was that whatever the allele is for bravery on midwinters nights that manifests on her cells was out there with someone else. If the Iditarod is about a solo voyage using crudest of navigational technologies, the race against cancer is the opposite of that. It is a journey of a community, a network of support that uses the best of friendships to ease the burden and the best of science to help find a cure.

But both are long to point of blurring. She took on the treatment with the same determination she always has. Her husband wrote :

You can imagine a walk with Susan though. She will not go on a usual walk. We of course have to push her chemo cart around wherever we go. I asked for the all wheel drive off road type but they didn't have any so you can imagine what it was like. There we are hauling the cart over mud puddles, through the brush, up hillsides, down gravel roads and finally through a fence and up some stairs to get back to the hospital. As a result of my experience I have and idea that I am going to try to market to the medical supply companys.

The CHEMO BACKPACK. This is the latest inovation for those active cancer patients who don't want to hang around the ward pushing their carts. You just strap this handy device on your husband or wife and take off.

A few weeks later they found a match and on May 16 she had the transplant. But about a month later the newly planted immune system began attacking her. The doctors managed to suppress the new immune system from attacking her stomach, but in this weaken state the AML returned. Her husband wrote:

I cannot describe what this weekend has been like. Even if I could I don't think I would for a long time. Seeing someone you love in pain is too personal to share. Seeing the mother of my two small children struggle to be brave for them. Seeing the kids treating there mom with the same gentle compassion that they would a new born baby. Hearing the youngest one cry for her mother at night. Seeing the older taking on a mothers roll to care for her sister. Thinking of these things is almost to much to bear.

If Disney were writing this story, Susan would recover by the love of her dogs and her two girls, Tekla and Chisana. They do one last race and someone manage to go the distance against the tundra and then credit would roll as Hillary Duff sang.

But these are not the sounds of this story. Conrad’s book spins a darker fate to the champions of the frontier. On Saturday Susan Butcher passed away.

I want to believe that Marlowe was wrong about the edge of the natural world; there are worthwhile boundaries to explore. The last century came not only with the brutality that he found in the jungle but also with the achievement of voyages to the major peaks of the world. In our new century we will struggle with the power of biology as the last one did with the dangers of atomic physics. These boundaries are never approached easily for the edge of endurance is at the threshold of human tears.

We lost one of our bravest.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

What Fools These Mortals be

We have now entered midsummer and I thought I would pass on some of the expertise of Shakespeare's play about the dream. Granted this could be a bit off topic; I don't know if he was a runner. Trotting the boards isn't the same as running trails; cloaks and codpieces weren't made of spandex. But if there isn't a quote "Methinks I did boink at mile twice a dozen", he did offer the following:

Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through briar,
Over park, over pale,
Through blood, through fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;

This is about as good a race report as it gets.

The larger play at hand, however, is about mistaking your lover - someone literally falls for an ass. This notion of confused identity is an entire Shakespearean motif and I am sure help paid the bills for some of his more artistic work - he alternated styles like George Clooney. (There is an easy way to classify Shakespeare - following in love with someone who is dressed as a guy is a comedy; your uncle hooking up with your mom is a tragedy; defending against a large opposing army is priceless.)

Mistaken identity also can happen with Team in Training. The hard part for our world is that as you spend more time training you are more likely to accidentally start dating an endurance athlete. This is usually quite troubling and like everything early detection is the key. Check these conditions to discover if you might be a dating an endurance athlete:

1) They talk more about their it-band injury than they do about their job.
2) For them "LT threshold" does not refer to how little bacon they put on a sandwich.
3) Semi-formal is wearing a race t-shirt that they pr'd.
4) They call your time together as "Rest Days."
5) You met them at a race expo.
6) They never ask whether cloths make them look large, but always wonder if it makes them aerodynamic.
7) They call getting dressed in the morning "T-1."
8) They called their last breakup “a taper."
9) They wear body glide with dress shoes.
10) They need fill the need to hydrate and want a snack 20 minutes after *ahem* workouts.

If these conditions persist take them to a park and show them it is possible just to stay in one spot for a while. Tell them that this is called "picnicking". They might get confused at first and think they are suppose to do ab crunches or hold plank pose, but if you put out sandwiches and fresh fruit then perhaps they will get the idea. Sunsets are a good time and so is resting during the noon day sun. But perhaps the best time in the park are those lazy afternoons when you also catch a production of Shakespeare on a shared blanket and wonder if the true course of marathoning ever did run smooth.