Wednesday, October 25, 2006


The great meteorologist Mark Twain once wrote, "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes." And while that is true for the North East, the more local version is if you don't like the weather, just run a few miles. On Sunday for the Nike Marathon we were blessed with a sunny start and a foggy finish - climates that were wonderful for both runners and alliteration enthusiasts.

Life should always be served on a sampler platter.

This is the last email of the season, and my final bit of advice (other than after a marathon it is helpful to walk down stairs backwards) is to encourage you to continue to seek new experiences. For most of you, this has been an introduction to the world of endurance sports. Welcome. Please stay while.

At this point I don't need to tell you that marathons are hard. They are harder than anything else I have done with the exception of grad school. You should be deeply proud of how much you have accomplished and how far you have gone.

They are hard to the point that is common to have post event depression, to feel that the rest of ordinary life isn't as meaningful. This is quite normal in the same way that crying at a finish line is. Marathons toy not only with your quads, but also with your emotions.

They are also hard to the point that there is a difference between marathon "the lifestyle" and marathon "the event." I truly believe that everyone had a marathon in them. It might be a slow one. It might be foggy one. However, frequently running marathons is tricky. Constantly training at that level is when you start to hit major issues like body type and technique. I don't want to discourage you from trying, there are people who run all fifty states or 100 miles in a day, but realize that most of us have about three marathons in us.

Make these as special as you can. Running for a cause is a great thing to do.

But it is also good to try other endurance sports as well. My favorite Team in Training season (except, of course, Summer Run) is cross-country skiing. It does have the logistical issue of being away on Saturdays from 6am to 8pm, but it is such a beautiful sport. It combines the grace of the wilderness with a cardio workout equal to running while being far more forgiving. The race in Alaska has a wonderful vibe. It is the only time I have gone to a pre-race info session to learn about how to handle moose on the trail.

There is less chance of that in triathlons, but you will need to learn how to handle other riders on the road. There is an intensity to triathletes that is different than single sport junkies. I think it stems from the nervousness of balancing all three sports. The great danger of the sport is that it is quite addicting. You feel great doing triathlon training (at least at the half ironman distance or below. I have not gone further than that).

Bike touring and distance swimming are fun on their own.

As for me, my biggest cross training this season has been writing. During our first coaches' meeting I asked April if I could write the occasional piece. I have in the past written something about every two to three months, and I thought I would try something as daring as writing monthly. April, ever the wonderful coach who will push you farther than you think, of course, said something about writing weekly. This felt the same as the start of my first marathon season when I knew I signed up for the bounds of what I could possibly do, but that I was a long way from getting there. I knew I had one piece about clothing and one about my brother, but the rest I would have to improvise.

I like to think that some of them worked. I want to say thanks so much for the positive feedback you gave me during the season. I have gathered them along with my older pieces at .

The discipline of writing is similar discipline of running. The secret to both is to have a good calendar. I learned by doing both not to get too disappointed when having crappy day, but to try harder the next.

I want to continue to write and will admit that my next few pieces won't be about running at all. After these months I, too, need to sneak in a bit more variety. I plan to continue to post to the blog.

And after a small break I do also plan coming back to the road. I would love to see you there sometime as well. Mark Twain also wrote about San Francisco, but I think he had it backwards. I know that the warmest summer ever I spent was the season running with a few good friends.

Thanks for a great season. Take care.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Nothing New

The last koan is the running adage: nothing new on race day. Not shoes. Not food. You have arrived at this point ready. Your training has worked. You have seen this course. You have felt the weather. It is nothing new. You are good to go. Believe this.

And if we are doing nothing new this week, then I, too, am going to go back to the work that I wrote this season. This is nothing new:

Lay your running clothes out the night before the run.

Run your own pace, not your neighbors’ nor Joan Benoit’s.

Cheer everyone you see on the course even if it is with just a nod. It is their day, too.

Remember your legends - the Susan Butcher's, the Lance Armstrong's, the Pheidippides', the Charles Lindberg's of the world - the ones who reached for the horizon. They, too, were nervous, as is anyone who pushes their limits. But the world is a better place for their courage. The world is a better place for yours.

Wear sunscreen but not above your eyes.

Remember your friends both present and past. They are the mile markers of your life. With luck place a few of them on the course. Tell the ones who want to take photographs that you will look the best around mile six. Save the better conversationalists for Lake Merced and Ocean Beach. Offer the ones who cheer you on race day pizza. Write the others about your gratitude. After all this done, perhaps convince one of them to go for a run.


Appreciate beauty. Seek it out everywhere from museums to concerts. From great poets to silly musicians. From views of the Bridge to the cute runner just up ahead. Never underestimate the power of a muse. It is what gives civilization purpose.

Remember your honorees.

Enjoy the race t-shirt. Wear it to the next family dinner. Be nonchalant about it.

This season began with the word "Go", and it ends at the same place. There is one last "Go" this season, one last early morning run through the city on the familiar routes we call home. You are ready.

Go team. Go.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Sloppy Joes

Twenty years ago my boarding school cafeteria served Sloppy Joes for lunch. I don’t mean this in the vague sense with which we look back at our youth – how mothers always seemed to make cookies, fathers always seemed to make pancakes, or grandmothers drank gin and tonic. The memory is more specific than that. On October 7, 1986, Cate School served Sloppy Joes. This, I am certain.

It was a gorgeous sunny day with the sky the color of blue that parents use for their infant boys. Except for summer fog the weather in Santa Barbara has a warmth that feels like a hug under the coziness of a wool blanket.

I remember that sun and those Sloppy Joes.

But this is where it starts to blur. I must have been coming from some class – maybe Pre Calc or AP Biology when I saw my father at school. He had been there a couple of weeks earlier for a board meeting, and I was surprised to see him. He looked pale. I don’t know if he had slept in three days.

My youngest brother, Edward, had been on an eighth grade class trip to Yosemite the week before. Normally quite enthusiastic, he was sluggish on the hikes. My family thought he was sandbagging a little, but a fellow parent who was a doctor recommended that he checked out the red spots on his legs. Those spots were what sent my father on a flight down to Santa Barbara. Those spots changed everything.

My father pulled me out of the lunch line to the small senior lawn underneath that warm Santa Barbara sun. Still shocked, he managed to get the words out. “Edward has leukemia.”

And now the rest blurs as if paint thinner was poured on the canvas of my memories. There was the first trip up where I saw my brother hooked on a dialysis machine. The chemotherapy had worked so well that it killed every cancer cell, but his kidneys couldn’t keep up with the dead material and went into renal failure. He screamed about the catheter.

There was the second trip up when I went to the hospital and I couldn’t recognize my brother. The cortisone made his cheeks puff out to chipmunk levels and the chemo had ruined his hair.

There was the helplessness of being away an unable to do anything, and then when I returned home there was the awkwardness of trying to blend into my family’s rhythms. They had their rotations down about who went to the hospital, who went to the pharmacy, and who helped organize the donation of blood. The best I could do was to be invisible. My parents yelled as me when I instinctively flinched when my brother puked on me. I was supposed to just sit there and take it. They had already got to that point and had little sympathy for anyone who was away and hadn’t been through their daily grind. Suffering at a distance was only mental anguish; the real hardship was the physical part.

The uncertainty got to us all. The language of medicine is one of probabilities. You hear about 70% chances or 20% effectiveness. You start to follow the platelets and neutrophils counts you get from his blood work harder than any baseball box score. You ask, “What does it mean that the count is low? Is that normal?” But normal was a long time ago. Those days before the red spots seem distant. We have a family picture on a tennis court at my grandparents’ place of all of us take the summer before, the last photograph of normalness. We wouldn’t take another family portrait for years.

There were two different protocols my brother could go on, and his wonderful doctor, Kate Mattay (younger then than I am now), ran a model to figure out which one to use. My brother called it the Big Spin.

We joked about things like that. We kidded that he was the only one taking steroids at the junior varsity soccer game. We played Nintendo. We ate the food my parents friends gave us – the cookies and the chocolate thoughtfully given. Edward loved Marina Subs on Steiner Street to the point that we wondered whether the sandwiches would be written up in a medical journal.

We are a family long on neither hugs nor religion, and so it was our wit that carried us through. Sometimes we cried.

That started twenty years ago, and there was no family celebration this past week. During a lunch at Chili Up in the Crocker Galleria, my father; my other brother, George; and I mentioned that it had been twenty years, and that was it. Afterwards I realized how much chili can look like Sloppy Joes.

This is my eighth year of doing Team in Training, and while I have enjoyed the exercise and the friends I have made, it is that feeling of not being able to help back in boarding school that drives me to return.

I know that I am not alone. Each week we have heard several dedications made about friends and love ones. The fabric of suffering looms large over us all, and I just wanted to say thanks to each of you for making a difference. You are fending off of against that void of helplessness. It is a great and noble thing.

My family is not celebrating this day. Dark things need only to be briefly acknowledged.

Instead we are going to get together the day before the marathon to cheer Edward’s daughter’s first birthday. She arrived in a better world than her father (now a doctor specializing in clinical trials for cancer medicine), and we will work hard to make it an even better one for her children. Thanks for helping this cause.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ode to the ‘Zar

Led Zeppelin opened their 1973 show at Kezar Stadium with “Rock and Roll”. The pounding drums and symbols quickly accompanied first by Page’s flailing opening guitar rift and then Plants roaring vocal must have been the perfect start for a concert. The watershed moment of alliteration – one of the few times a band with a Z in a name played in a venue with a Z – was probably lost on the attendees. I have no idea whether the summer fog had come in that day, but with the venue’s location at the edge of Haight Ashbury, the weather must have been hazy. Nobody would have shouted “get off of the grass.”

Kezar was a much larger stadium then. Forty Niners played there until 1971– trying to throw passes while ducking the beer bottles thrown from the crowd. Dirty Harry was filmed there. It was a tough place; the grit center of a city. In 1989 it took an earthquake to rip out the blue-collar heart of San Francisco, and a while smaller version was rebuilt, it has been a long time since the place has rocked.

The music played there now is mostly on Ipods. At a 3:40 song length Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” is perfect for an 800 repeat. Like flowers after a volcano blast, running clubs and triathlon groups have sprouted in the newer version of the stadium. They form tight packs and run around either the eight-lane track next to the field or a paved road at the rim. There are stairs to run and places to stretch. The place has been transformed from social to physical toughness; from a place where most were spectators to one where most are athletes. Cherish this transition.

Still some principles remain the same. Creating a strategy for a marathon is like developing a set list for a concert. You already have the tunes - we have done the Nike course in sections – and the next step is to assemble the pace.

Come up with mantras for the race that reflect the gears you want to use. I have two – the one for hills sounds like something Samuel L. Jackson would say on a plane with reptiles, and as such isn’t printable. The other for the flats is “rock steady.” I have a habit of going out to fast so I need the words to hold me back.

Work on your own set. Reflect on how far you have come from those opening hills in the Presidio to the time along Ocean Beach. Remember the foggy evenings spent hustling in what was once one of the toughest stadiums in football and a show for one greatest metal bands of all time.

At the 1973 concert Zeppelin played “Stairway to Heaven” in the middle part, their taper before going to “Whole lot of love” and “Communication Breakdown.” Like most things with Zeppelin, I am not really sure what the lyrics mean (nor do I know what the four signs were about), but they are always great to say:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show

How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all

To be a rock and not to roll.