September 23, 2012

Breaking Wind in the Capital Pursuit

Some days, it counts as a win if you don't die or shit your pants.

I'm calling today a win.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to meet a good number of good folks who happen to love poker. I have enjoyed sharing some food, cards, and hijinks with a group of poker bloggers at the annual Winter Poker Blogger Tour (WPBT) held each December in Vegas. However, a subset of these fellow degenerates—loosely based in parts East—gather each year in G-Vegas (Greenville, South Carolina) for an event known as "Mastodon", a primal celebration of man's (and woman's) refusal to evolve. Mastodon has always been alternately alluring and frightening (check out the official invite/warning video), but this year, I figured it was high time I got high in South Carolina.

Part of this year's Mastodon festivities include an optional spin through one of the road races on tap for the Spinx Run Fest. Now I've been a runner since high school, but I gave up running road races years ago. As age and complacency have taken their toll, my commitment to running has gone from fanaticism to routine workout. So Mastodon—as well as the Vegas Rock 'N Roll half-marathon during WPBT in December—served as good motivators to kick my running up a notch.

I started training to get back in racing shape this summer, bumping up my mileage while throwing in the occasional long run (7+ miles) and tempo run (faster paced runs). I pegged the Des Moines Capital Pursuit 10 mile race today as a good training race, combining a long run with a chance to knock the rust off my road racing skills (such as they are). Back when I was a serious runner—10 years and 20 pounds ago—Capital Pursuit was one of the regular stops in my annual road racing repertoire, ranking behind only the Dam2Dam 20K as fun yet challenging distance races.

One of my best road races ever was finishing Capital Pursuit in 1:08:37 (6:51 min/mile pace). Considering I'm older, fatter, and lazier, my expectations for this year's Capital Pursuit were modest—don't die, and break 1:30:00 (9:00 min/mile pace). Secretly, I hoped to break 1:27:30. It's good to have goals.

Then last week happened. I was on the road for three days for work. I came down with a sinus infection I couldn't shake. I went to the doctor who put me on an antibiotic that led to, ahem, "intestinal distress". More ominously, the meds came with a four page brochure warning of horrific possible side effects. The most disturbing warning, taking up half the brochure, dealt with a rather alarming side effect. To paraphrase the warning:
CAUTION: This medication may cause spontaneous tendon rupture and random explosion or dismemberment of one or more extremities.
Well, that could put a damper on a casual run through the park.

Long story short, I took a full week off from running, mostly because running and intestinal distress make for an uncomfortable combination.  I thought about skipping Capital Pursuit, but I had paid for my registration, my sinuses were feeling better, and my knee and ankle were feeling as good as they've felt in years, having had a chance to let my chronic tendinitis calm down.

So there I was this morning, waking up at 4:45 a.m. to start the pre-race ritual I hadn't followed in at least eight years. Rehydrate with a couple of Gatorades (the low-cal version for my older, fatter body). Munch a granola bar to get some carbs in my system. Curl up on the couch with my dog in my lap while I read my Twitter stream and Google reader feed. OK, so that last part is new. I'm a modern runner.

The weather this morning was about as perfect as could be asked for a road race. Temperature was upper 30s at the start, and mid-40s by the finish. Light breeze, low humidity. The stuff where personal records (PRs) are made.

The race followed the long-traditional course from downtown to the state capitol, then up to the Drake University area, on to the Waveland neighborhood, then back down the Ingersoll business district before the final dash though the heart of downtown Des Moines to finish at Nollen Plaza. The course is fairly flat, with no major hills and all inclines fairly gentle.

I committed the newbie sin of starting out too fast, letting the adrenaline of the start and the pace of the lead pack pull me out at a fast clip around 8:00 to 8:10 min/mile for the first three miles. For those of you who aren't runners, you have to trust me that running 30-45 seconds per mile faster than your goal pace is very difficult, and a recipe for disaster. Even thought I felt comfortable at the fast pace, I knew I likely could not maintain that pace over the entire course in my current conditioning level. I decided to pull back a bit for the middle part of the race, going closer to the 8:30 min/mile pace, and feeling good about it.

Then, disaster struck. Somewhere in Mile 7, I felt the dreaded signs of the return of my intestinal distress. Being three-plus miles from the finish line and the nearest kybos, I was in the uncomfortable position of not knowing if my guts wanted to break wind or make it rain. Letting out a small test sample was inconclusive, as the mind senses butt sweat and assumes the worst. So, I had no choice but to suck it up and finish the race with a noxious bubble of who knows what churning up and down my intestines.

Just past Mile 7, when I wasn't sure if I could finish the race, I spotted the sig other and our dog, Berkeley. Berk looked like he wanted to jump into the race himself. Seeing Berk (and the sig other) gave me a little boost, and I started to pick up the pace. I didn't have as strong a kick at the end as I would have liked, but I still tripped off the last three miles right at 8:00 min/mile. As I was pushing toward the finish line, some 40-something woman came sprinting out of nowhere to try to pass me in the last block. I tried to dig in, but quickly realized I was not going to beat her. So, I got my azz kicked by a woman—along with several dozen teenage soccer players, AARP members, mothers and fathers pushing strollers with infants, and people who outweighed my fat azz by 30+ pounds. Such is the world of running; all can compete, and often effort and training matter more than physical talent. Still, I finished in a comfortable and satisfying 1:22:21 (8:12 min/mile pace) (54 minutes in Paul Ryan timing).

As an aside, I must apologize to anyone who was in the downtown Des Moines Marriott approximately 9:35 a.m. and happened to stumble on to my version of this scene:

Altogether, I was pleased with my race. My pacing was not perfect, but I ran the entire race without feeling stressed or winded, and I feel like I could probably coax a little better effort in my next race. Coming off a rough week, I ran better than most of my practice runs. It's tough to extrapolate this race to the longer half marathons coming up, but I feel I have a solid shot at meeting my goals of running Spinx in under 1:54:42 (8:45 min/mile pace), and Vegas in under 1:51.26 (8:30 min/mile pace).

Assuming I don't die in a South Carolina bar during Mastodon, of course.

September 11, 2012

Never Forget

Like most Americans of a certain age, I remember September 11, 2001 well. I had pulled an all-nighter at the office, working on an appellate brief. I had gone home for a quick nap, shower, and clean suit. I was ironing my shirt, watching CNN, when news broke of the first plane striking the Twin Towers. I remember thinking it was a terrible tragedy, but the idea of a terrorist attack was just one possibility. Then I watched as the second plane struck in the background of a live news update. That second strike made it real. There was no way it was an accident. America was under attack.

I remember going to the office, and watching in one of my partners' office as the Towers fell. I remember heading to a noon hour special Mass with several Catholic partners, even though I am a lapsed Lutheran. I remember heading home as they closed my building, the tallest in the Des Moines skyline, because right then the idea of a terrorist attack on an insurance building in the Midwest seemed entirely plausible. I remember watching hours of news coverage as America tried to come to grips with the thousands of little tragedies spinning off from the greater tragedy we were still unable to process.

Every generation has its defining event. For my grandfather's generation, it was Pearl Harbor, when America was pulled into history's greatest war against tyranny. For my father's generation, it was the assassination of JFK, the man who steered America away from the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was probably the last best hope to avoid the quagmire and historical-political repercussions of the Vietnam War.

For my generation, in 1995 I would have assumed our defining event to have been the Oklahoma City bombing, then the most significant act of terrorism on American soil. I still remember where I was when I heard the news of that attack—in my last year of law school, thinking about finals and the bar exam while supervising intramural softball. But somehow, the Oklahoma City bombing faded from the public memory in a few years, maybe because the terrorists turned out to be home-grown American radicals, maybe because times were good and Americans just wanted to move on. A few months ago, I was in Oklahoma City for a mediation. We walked past the Oklahoma City bombing memorial on our way from the parking garage to the soaring building where we were meeting. Our attorney rather off-handedly pointed out the memorial and mentioned how it was just part of downtown and not something he had visited in years. Just another historical marker for another historical event.

The terrorist attack on 9/11 truly was a defining moment for my generation. It dwarfed the Oklahoma City bombing in its scale, its brazenness, its evil. It was a sucker punch to the American psyche, an attack at the foundations of our culture on our home turf. The world changed for Americans when those planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside. We solemnly vowed we would never forget.

I remember the bitter political rancor that divided the country less than a year prior to 9/11, when a few hundred ambiguous votes and a split decision of the U.S. Supreme Court decided the hotly contested presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Yet in the days after 9/11, I remember being inspired by President Bush as he visited the still smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers. I remember my pride at Al Gore solemnly declaring, "George Bush is my President." I remember how Americans—so recently and so bitterly divided—came together, their political discord mended by a renewed sense of common cause.

We forgot.

Since 9/11, there have been three presidential elections, each more vitriolic than the prior. Americans are more polarized politically than ever. Red states vs. Blue states. Republicans vs. Democrats. Politicians willing to lie, dissemble, obfuscate, and slander merely to thwart the other side, without regard for the merits of the issue in dispute. America no longer has a common cause. It's good vs. evil, and evil vs. good. Compromise is a dirty word, an unacceptable surrender to the enemy. Bipartisanship is dead, slain by ideological purity.

I remember after 9/11 how Americans were careful to separate the terrorists from their Muslim faith. How politicians and clergy spoke of treating Muslims with compassion, to recognize that their faith does not condone such senseless violence, to understand that Muslims worldwide condemned the attacks and sympathized with our loss. I remember how the terrorists were our enemies, not Muslims.

We forgot.

Today, barely a decade removed from the atrocities committed by a fringe radical group more similar to the Oklahoma City bombers than to the average Muslim in the Middle East, the idea of a mosque in the same area as the Twin Towers is grist for conservative politicians and talk show hosts to whip up their base into a frenzy. These same radicals turn "Muslim" into a pejorative slander against our President, who makes the electoral calculation that it is better to declare his Christian bona fides than to defend the millions of Muslims whose faith follows a path of peace.

I remember when we sought those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and were viewed as the good guys, the righteous people seeking justice, not vengeance. I remember the broad coalition of our allies, and the support of those countries and peoples who prior to the attacks might have shared the terrorists' view of America as an arrogant, hedonistic behemoth who imposed her will on the world.

We forgot.

America's thirst for justice was subverted and perverted. We used the 9/11 attacks to justify a war against Iraq, a country with no connection to the attacks and posing no threat to American security. We began to torture enemies and suspected enemies, using euphemisms like "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation techniques". We opened and continue to operate a concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, enabling us to hold prisoners—even American citizens—idefinitely and beyond any judicial authority. We have Presidents of both parties asserting the authority to order the summary executions of not just foreign terrorists, but also American citizens thought to be terrorists. Those same Presidents who decry the loss of innocent Americans in the 9/11 attacks order drone strikes on terrorist suspects without regard for the collateral damage to innocent foreign civilians.

I remember when we viewed the 9/11 attacks as a fundamental attack on our American way of life. I remember how we swore we couldn't "let the terrorists win" by changing our core principles, by sacrificing our freedoms to assuage our fears.

We forgot.

Americans sold out their liberty for the illusion of security. Sensible security upgrades gave way to a nationalized system of security theater. Airports are filled with TSA agents irradiating and patting down millions of American citizens who pose no threat greater than transmitting the common cold with an unprotected sneeze. Now TSA agents are inspecting our beverages; it's only a matter of time before we all fondly remember the days when we did not have to strip naked before boarding a plane.

Even worse than the indignities of airport security are the more fundamental erosions of our rights. Today, the Homeland Security conglomerate mines the detritus of our daily lives, looking for suspicious patterns of behavior in the goods we buy, the books we read, the web searches we conduct, the people we meet. If we trip the wrong alarm, or piss off the wrong government official, we may find the full force of the government digging into our lives via secretive "national security letters" that circumvent our Constitutional due process rights. But it's all OK because the Government is simply trying to "prevent the next 9/11".

The 9/11 attacks unquestionably struck a major blow to the American way of life. But we do a disservice to those who died in the 9/11 attacks if we superficially remember their sacrifice while fundamentally altering our time-honored American values. Saying "we will never forget" is not about a monument or a memorial service. The best way to honor those who fell on 9/11 is to remember and celebrate the fundamental values of America—liberty, equality, and tolerance.

Never forget the essence of America.

September 04, 2012

In Cursura Veritas (In Running, Truth)

"You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy."

~ Arthur Ashe

Last week, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan brewed a political tempest in a teapot when he was caught lying about his history of marathon running during an interview with Republican talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Ryan, a fitness fanatic, proudly claimed to have run a sub-3:00:00 marathon, specifically asserting he had run "Under three [hours], high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something." Trouble is, Runner's World writer Scott Douglas did some research and found that Ryan's only recorded marathon time was actually 4:01:25 at the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota (generally regarded as one of the top ten marathons in the United States).

Ryan's campaign issued a statement admitting Ryan had not been truthful, but suggesting Ryan simply mis-remembered his time from a race 20 years ago. Although Ryan's explanation is probably good enough to satisfy the general public, among serious runners his explanation simply doesn't hold water. By asserting he had run a marathon in under three hours, Ryan was claiming to be among the elite of recreational runners. In the 2012 Grandma's marathon, only 145/3425 (4.2%) of men and 165/5788 (2.9%) overall runners cracked the three hour barrier. By contrast, Ryan's solid but unspectacular actual time of roughly 4:01:00 was matched in the 2012 Grandma's marathon by 1573/3425 (45.9%) of men and 2169/5788 (37.5%) overall runners. Ryan's boast is the poker equivalent of bragging about making the final table of the WSOP Main Event while actually busting out long before the money.

There is exactly zero chance Ryan simply made an honest mistake. Runners remember their times from their most significant races; maybe not down to the precise second, but certainly they remember whether they beat certain paces or times. For a marathon, the significant times all runners know are sub-3:30:00, sub-3:00:00, and Boston Marathon qualifying (generally between 3:00:00 and 3:30:00, depending on age and gender). Looked at another way, the pace for a sub-3:00:00 marathon is roughly 6:30 to 6:45 minutes/mile, while a 4:00:00 marathon is roughly a 9:15 minutes/mile pace. Trust me if you aren't a runner, but 2:30 minutes/mile is a big difference over one mile, and a massive (and painfully impossible) difference over 26 miles. So, breaking a significant, elite time barrier like 3:00:00 is simply not something a serious runner would forget or make a mistake about.

On the political side, Ryan's lie generated some discussion from pundits who were baffled why he would misrepresent something so trivial and so easily checked (James Fallows at the Atlantic and Nicholas Thompson at the New Yorker have some interesting thoughts on the subject). But to to frame Ryan's lie in a political context misses the point, in my estimation. In the rough and tumble of politics, Americans have come to expect politicians of every stripe to exhibit a certain casual disregard for the Truth, spinning fantastical policy proposals and unleashing outrageous attacks on the policies and character of their opponents.

But Ryan's marathon lie is not a political lie, it is a personal lie, an illusion to provide the bona fides for the legend of Raul Ryan, all-American hero. Ryan's marathon lie points to a deeper character flaw than mere craven politicking. In Ryan, we have a man who ran a perfectly creditable first marathon at a young age. Yet it wasn't enough for Ryan to be part of the proud pack of Americans who have completed a marathon in average fashion. Instead, Ryan's personal narrative required him to be among the elite of marathon runners. So, somewhere along the way, Ryan bedazzled his racing résumé.

Ryan's lie pales in comparison to some of the more odious examples of its ilk—misrepresentations of military service and honors, job experience, and educational credentials are more serious and probably more common. Even among marathon fraudsters, Ryan's lie is rather petty compared with the notorious Rosie Ruiz who cheated her way to short-lived victories in the New York City and Boston marathons, or the lesser known but more ambitious Kip Litton who was recently outed as having cheated in several marathons in a quest to break the 3:00:00 barrier in every state, going so far as to even invent one marathon entirely (hat tip to @Iggylicious for pointing out Mark Singer's excellent piece in The New Yorker).

Still, Ryan's lie is probably more disturbing to those of us who are serious runners. For the vast majority of runners, running is not about prizes and accolades, running is purely about personal growth. In an ironic twist, running embodies the Ayn Rand-infused self-made-man mythos Ryan has long demagogued. Runners start from different baselines of ability, and have different natural limits to their talent. But within those parameters, whether a runner improves is solely a function of how hard they want to work. Sure, runners will race each other, but mostly runners are racing themselves, chasing their own personal records (PRs), seeing if they can set a faster pace through a section of hills, or trying to kick a great last mile. The only way to measure improvement—the only way to "keep score"—is by stopwatch. A runner who cheats on his time insults those runners who have put in the effort, the hard work, to earn their times.

Make no mistake, marathon training is hard work. It takes dedication to stick with training in heat, humidity, wind, rain, cold, snow, and ice. It takes commitment to organize your daily routine to include two hours or more for running. It takes grit to keep pushing yourself when you've run fourteen miles and have six more to go, and your legs are burning with lactic acid and your chest is straining for oxygen. But most of all, it takes mental toughness to silence that voice in the back of your head that wants you to ease up the pace, take a walking break, cut short a workout, or enjoy an extra rest day. Paul Ryan probably had—and may still have—the physical talent to run a sub-3:30:00 or even a sub-3:00:00 marathon. But Ryan chose the easy path, awarding himself the honor of an elite time he couldn't be bothered to work for.

Maybe Paul Ryan's marathon lie shouldn't disqualify him from becoming Vice President. Of course, in my view, many of his political positions have already disqualified him. Still, if you are an undecided voter, next time you hear Ryan wax poetic about how Americans can achieve anything they want through hard work, just remember:

Paul Ryan doesn't believe that.