Monday, November 24, 2008

The Big Run

26.2 miles.
42 Kilometers
More than 46,000 steps
6,000 calories

Any way you break it down, it was a huge event for me. I thought it was going to be incredibly hard, and it turned out to be even harder than I imagined. But it was a great experience, and, although it hasn't all processed yet, I think I'd do it again (I'm not committing to anything bigger than a 5k for a while. Actually, I'll commit to a pizza if anyone offers).

This all started long before the predawn drive to Philly, the idea really harks back to my high school cross-country days, before an accident derailed my running and life got in the way. I toyed with the idea when I was in my mid-20s, and even thought about trying it for my 26th birthday, but divorce and its attendant craziness kept me from dedicating the time and training I would have needed.

I finally got down to it this year, when I realized my blood pressure and weight were too high, and I looked in the mirror and didn't quite recognize myself anymore. It was time to, in the words of the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom "just do it." I started the serious training about six months ago. By race day I still wasn't anywhere near the shape I wanted to be in, but it would have to do.

My day started about 3 a.m. with a warm shower and my less glamorous preparations, which involved some strategic manscaping as well as the application of medical tape and generous amounts of Vaseline, all to limit the potential for chafing. My friend Katie (who I cannot thank enough, it really makes a difference to have someone there for you), drove me down in the wee hours. I lined up at the start about half an hour before sunrise and stripped off my sweats. My running outfit consisted of lycra shorts (again, an anti-chafing measure), a sleeveless shirt, bandanna and gloves, as well as my Addidas running shoes. It was well below freezing by then but the excitement and the heat of the crowd kept off the cold.

After an hour of waiting and endless repetitions of the Rocky theme, my group was off. I started out easy, and tried not to let my enthusiasm make me run too fast and wear myself out. By the time I reached the first water stop, at around 2 miles, I was feeling pretty good and warmed up. Over the next few miles I started to get into a good groove, and was on pace for about 10 minutes a mile. I made a point of walking through the water stops, both to give my legs a short break and to take time to get all the Gatorade in my mouth instead of on my shirt.

By mile 9 or so, I was starting to feel it. I was getting a blister on my left foot, and the course hit its biggest hill. At this point I started to walk the steepest parts. I also made my first "pit stop" in some friendly bushes.

By the time we approached the halfway mark, and the half-marathon runners got to finish, I was feeling pretty beat. Fortunately, Katie was there cheering, and I got a boost from seeing a familiar face.

At this point I was letting myself walk a minute for every mile. I knew it was slowing me down in the short run, but it was helping a lot in keeping my legs moving. But by mile 15 I was starting to have serious trouble. The blister on my left foot broke around then, I think, although it was more chafing than a blister. The tendonitis in my right leg flared up a bit, but faded into the general haze, and, after a quick self-assessment, I decided it was going to be ok.

At mile 17 or so I hit the wall.

I thought I was tired before that, really. I was exhausted, I was beat. I was ready to die rather than run any further. But got worse. It was the tired beyond tired. It didn't come on suddenly, I think, it's just that at some point I realized my body was not going to put out anymore no matter how stubborn I was. I kept going anyway, but I had to walk more frequently, and it was just hell.

Somebody was holding out candy. I was never so excited to have a Twizzler than I was then.

The second half of the race was an out-and-back run to Manayunk, and the whole way, while I was headed out six miles to the turnaround, the faster runners were passing us going the other way. When I started the loop, it was the superfast people, but as I got further along the people started to look more and more like me. There were some hills on that route, a couple of them highway on-ramps. As I struggled up one of them a girl headed the other way shouted out, "come on, mind over body, body over hill." It helped.

At mile 19, one mile before the turnaround, there was a bunch out on the side of the road handing out cups of beer. A lot of runners declined, but I figured it couldn't hurt, and how could I tell my marathon story and say "and I said no-thank-you to the beer?"

Mile 20 was the turn around. There was loud music. I got excited and picked up the pace a bit, even though I headed up a bit of hill.

The next five miles were all about mind games, I'd make deals with myself that if I would run to that road sign ahead, I'd walk for two minutes, and so on. I ran, I walked, I ran, I walked. By this point my quads were screaming at me, and my biceps and forearms were cramping up. I got a second, larger blister on my left foot (for some reason, my right was ok, I think my left is slightly smaller and moved more in the shoe) but didn't really care. At about mile 23 I used the porta-john and it hurt to pee. I was drinking one cup of water and one of Gatorade at each rest stop by this point. I could see the road crews cleaning up the outbound course as I headed in, even though there were a handful of runners and walkers out there. There was a seven hour cutoff for the race, and I realized I was passing the tail of the whole thing, and was at least an hour and a half ahead of those poor folks.

I walked almost all of mile 25, to save something for the end.

I told myself I was going to run the last 1.2 miles. There was nothing to save my strength for, so I went for it. It hurt. Instead of getting easier as I got towards the finish, it got even harder. It seemed to take so long to get there... time was slowing down, it felt like. I saw my brother, Carmella and Katie at the end, gave a few high fives and "sprinted" over the finish. That was it, I was fried.
It took me about five and a half hours to finish, slower than I would have liked, but it was a bit out of my control.

I was exhausted beyond description, in pain, borderline delirious and felt incredibly alive. It's really hard to describe, but I was just in another world at that point, and incredibly happy through the pain. Also, I wanted a pretzel.

It was an incredible journey, and today I'm basking in the post-race glow, which consists of equal parts satisfaction and agonizing muscle pain. I wouldn't say I recommend it to everyone, but there are a few people out there who would love this.

It is a life-changing experience, I'm not sure how, but the person who crossed that finish line is not the same person who started the run. It'll take me a few days to process this, right now my body is still a little haywire and my emotions are a little wobbly.

But there's something solid I can take away from this. No matter what I look like, how much money I have, how popular or successful or good at my job I may or may not be. No matter what else I fail or succeed at for a million complex reasons I'll have this. For one day there was only one question that mattered: can I finish?

I could, I did. I'm a marathoner.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prop 8 and the Minority Myth

OK, I want to address one of the things that's been kicking around the media and blogosphere that bothers me. Even before the election there were a number of articles that I read that speculated that a high turnout of black and Latino voters who likely support Obama would be bad news for same-sex unions in California.

Now, Obama has been elected president, while Prop 8, which allows an amendment to California's constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman, passed and several media outlets and pundits are almost casually tossing out the idea that Prop 8s success is due to the large minority turnout.

I don't think so, and neither does statistics whiz Nate Silver

There are a lot of other factors involved, and it was going to be a close call no matter which way, we all knew.

The thing that bothers me most about this bit of misinformation is that it sets up an artificial division between minority groups. Yes, there are extreme social conservatives in minority ethnic groups, but among the new voters who came out specifically to support Obama I bet you'd be hard pressed to find many. Generally, I think the more conservative of Obama's supporters are the so-called "Goldwater Conservatives" who are somewhat more socially tolerant, and definitely opposed to legislation that blatantly invades people's private lives.

Yes, a lot of the Spanish-speaking minority are Roman Catholic, and the Vatican has spoken out against gay marriage, but it's important to realize that a lot of Catholics treat some edicts from the Vatican the way that college students treat orders from their parents not to drink on weekends. We love you dad, but... really?

I worry, though, that this particular meme has the potential to build up resentment among people who, as minorities seeking mainstream acceptance of their internal and external differences, have a lot to gain by building alliances. If I were a conspiracy theory type, I would almost say the anti-gay folks were pushing the idea for just that reason, kind of a "divide and conquer" strategy. I'm not saying this is true, and the media, with out "conflict sells papers" mentality, is certainly not helping, but think about it.

Let me, by the way, reiterate once again my out-and-out bafflement over this issue. Speaking as a straight, white male of European Catholic descent, I don't get it. How does it hurt me if any other two people want to get married? I'm not particularly interested in having sex with another man, but why should I give a damn if some other guy does? And God himself knows that any chance we have of building stronger family bonds, of whatever kinds of families, can only be good for our country in these troubled times.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes, we did

Barack Hussien Obama, a 47-year-old man of mixed race has been elected president of the United States by both popular and electoral vote. A bit more than an hour ago Senator John McCain conceded the hotly contested race and offered his help to the new president elect, and President George W. Bush extended his congratulations and the promise of a smooth transition.

And Senator Obama just gave his acceptance speech in Chicago, the theme? "Yes, we can."

Tomorrow will be full of analysis and discussion, and in a few months the president elect will take office and have to deal with the reality of the country. It's a mess, and I'm sure he will disappoint all of his supporters on some things, and fail to deliver on some of his promises. We can hope that those failures are fewer rather than more, but to some degree they are an inevitable part of the game.

But tonight...tonight the first black president of this country stood on a stage and, with those three words, "Yes, we can," reminded us of all that is RIGHT in America. He reminded us how, over the last century, we have faced economic hardship, war and social injustice, and overcame it. He reminded us of the spirit that won wars, won the right to vote and planted an American flag on the moon.

The future is going to be hard, it's going to be messy but, if we, the people can work together it will get better, we will get better. Yes, we can.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"The Real America" and the Culture War

Lately, there has been a lot of talk (I'm not going to name any names) about "Real Americans" and "Pro-America" parts of the country.

First off, let me share John Stewart's take on this here and an excellent article by Frank Rich In Defense of White Americans. Both are well worth a look.

Now, on to my own rant.

For a long time, particularly since the Vietnam War era, there has been this great ideological division, called the Culture War, between liberal and conservative Americans. This social divide in recent years has come to center on the "God, Guns and Gays" issues - abortion, gun control, gay marriage, creationism, immigration, prayer in school etc.

In short, social issues that often have little to do with things like the economy or health care.

In recent years, especially in the past decade, we have also seen a carefully fostered division between "intellectual elites" and "red-blooded average joes." Somewhere along the way it was declared that if you think too much or like to eat sushi, you are somehow an exotic species who never leaves the rarefied heights of his urban ivory tower.

The word "elite" has become a slur, somehow. And now both sides of the current presidential race are scrambling to make sure they aren't too "elite" to get elected.

Um... I have a question.

What's wrong with our president being elite? If we don't put our best and our brightest in our top executive position, then who?

Oh...wait... we get this this. Yeah, that worked out well.

Navy SEALs are elite, professional athletes are elite. Our founding fathers? Elite. George Washington? He wasn't just elite, he was the most elite motherf-er in the room.
Abraham Lincoln? Great man, born in a log cabin, came in from the frontier to lead us through our darkest hour. Surely, he wasn't some intellectual elite, was he? He hardly went to school, right?
True, he only had about 18 months worth of formal education, but he read everything he could get his hands on and, on the basis of his self-education, was admitted to the bar as a practicing lawyer (a very elitist profession). He also avoided hunting and fishing, because he disliked killing animals.

In reality, many of the things that make America the only surviving superpower in the world, and the things that are our hope for remaining the greatest nation in the world come from these so-called Urban Elites (not all of whom actually live in cities, mind you). From Ben Franklin to the Wright brothers to the team of scientists, engineers and astronauts who brought us Appollo 11 America has all but defined itself by the brains of these people. At his or her best, the American Intellectual combines learning and intellectual curiousity with common sense, skill and the talent to roll up his sleeves and take the idea from the drawing board to the workshop.

And no, this guy or girl isn't all of us. I couldn't make a flying car in my garage, if I had a garage, but there are those out there who can. But because I don't 'have this particular talent, do I have to resent the ones who do? No more than I resent a pro baseball pitcher because I can't throw worth a damn. Instead, I cheer him on and am proud of him because he's out there winning one for our team.

So why don't we show the same appreciation for our intellectual World Series winners?
The short answer is that we sometimes do, just look at the success of Tom Hanks' Apollo 13 or the handful of other films and books that celebrate the power of real people putting their skills and brains together to solve real problems.

And, guess what? Your "Average Joe?" He's not Larry the Cable Guy, he's a lot smarter than some folks give him credit for, and so's his wife.

Monday, June 9, 2008

On Media Bias

I just wanted to make a point about something.
When there's some sort of heated debate going on, you'll often hear one side complain of "Media Bias," that the news outlets are out to get them and discredit them and will favor one side of the story. While this undoubtedly happens in some media outlets (coughcoughFoxnewscough) the majority of media outlets, ESPECIALLY print media, where people make less money and tend to be more idealistic, tend to strive to get both sides of a story.
This isn't a perfect system, for one, there are usually at least three sides to any disagreement (ie., my side, his side, and what actually happened) and this compulsion to get a contrasting viewpoint can actually lead to a bias, but not what the pundits usually mean when they scream "Media Bias!"

I will offer, by way of example, Global Warming.
Now, most scientists, for the sake of argument we'll say 98%, agree that:
1. In spite of annual fluctuations, the Earth's climate is following a warming trend
2. This is bad news, generally for life as we know it, and adversely affects many plants, animals and people
3. The actions of mankind, as a species, is contributing to this warming trend, and is responsible for it to a yet-undertermined degree
4. We, as a species, would be better off taking some big, but theoretically acheivable, steps to make this problem, if not better, than at least less bad

OK, still with me?

So, say you're a local newspaper that wants to do a story on Global Warming (a very topical story right here in New Jersey today). You call a bunch of scientists, say, a biologist, a couple meteorologists, and a few others. Say you get 7 guys or girls who are willing to talk about Global Warming as a reality, and as a bad thing. Now, your editor says "well, if we don't present the opposing viewpoint, we won't be fair."
So, you start making some phone calls. To get your 7 "Global Warming is real" guys you made, maybe, eight or nine phone calls. To get some Global Warming skeptics, you probably have to make ten phone calls before you get a single one, unless you know somebody, or have spoken to someone before, or get a reference to somebody from one of your other scientists. Or, I suppose, you could just call the oil company (although it depends on which company, you might be hard pressed even there).
So you end up with 7 global warming experts, all of whom have advanced degrees and have been published in peer-reviewed literature, and 3 global warming skeptics, only one of whom has a doctorate, one of them claims to be a scientists, but won't tell you where his degree is from, and the other one is a blogger on a neoconservative web site (I specify neocon here because, if you think about it, environmentalism is a conservative value, but that's another rant).

So you present your story, where your 7 say yes, global warming is real, and 3 others dispute it. In reality, you make is seem as if 30% of experts think global warming is a crock, whereas the real numbers are just 2% (hypothetical numbers here, remember, I haven't done a survey or anything). You end up, in fact, with an EXREME favor of the global warming skeptics. And someone will still complain.

Ponder that one a bit.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Open Letter to a Careless Driver

To the guy in the gargantuan white SUV whom I encountered this morning at the intersection of Readington and Hillcrest roads,

You may not have seen me there till the last minute, while I was riding my bicycle. I'm a small guy, being only 6'3" and my bicycle is a hardly-noticeable shade of neon green. I could see how it would be so easy for a conscientious driver such as yourself to miss.
However, there was a stop sign to the right of your cyclopean gas guzzler, just before the point at which you made that left turn at full speed. You may have seen them around. They're red, have eight sides and have the letters S-T-O-P printed on them fairly largely.
We have this tradition, some might even consider it a law around these parts, that when one comes in direct contact with one of those signs, one is supposed to bring one's vehicle to a complete halt and look both ways before proceeding about one's business.
One is not supposed to roll through it, even if one is in a hurry. And one is certainly not supposed to, say, kill the poor guy riding his bicycle to work.
See, I was there, riding along, trying to do my part for fitness, the environment and my lack of surplus cash. I was following all the traffic laws, as I prepared to make the turn onto the road you were coming out of. I first looked over my shoulder to make sure the way was clear, then I looked ahead, I moved to the left side of the lane and stuck out my left arm in what we call, where I'm from, a "turn signal."
Up to that point, everything was going smoothly, as an experienced cyclist, I felt that I had judged my speed and my position on the road proper for such a turn. What I wasn't expecting was for you to come flying out through the stop sign and directly at me to make your own left turn.
You may forgive me, then for the loud, inchoate noise I made to alert you to my presence. I hope you'll also forgive me for some of the possibly inappropriate language I used in my attempt to explain how, according to our local customs, you may have not handled the maneuver properly.
See, when one is traveling along, trying to operate one's vehicle safely and properly, it can be something of a shock to have a large truck suddenly directly in one's path. Fortunately, I was alert enough, and experienced enough to brake and change direction slightly so that, with what I can only believe is the direct intervention of the Madonna di Ghisallo, I avoided a painful collision. However, if it had been a less competent cyclist (I make no claim to extraordinary ability, mind you, but I've got enough mileage to be at least moderately confident in my skills) or even a heavier, less maneuverable vehicle, such as a motorcycle, or even a car, the situation might have devolved into such a mess as to, say, damage your otherwise pristine paint job.
If I may make a suggestion, perhaps you should do some research on our quaint local customs regarding traffic signs. And, if I may be so bold, you may wish to reconsider your choice of vehicle. In addition to a lack of maneuverability and a poor field of view, such a means of conveyance, in these days of international tension and environmental crisis might be considered by some, even those you haven't nearly killed recently, as somewhat...gauche. Unpatriotic even. Far be it from me, who merely uses muscle power on occasion to lessen my personal dependence on foriegn oil, to question your lifestyle, but it is something to consider.
Thank you,
A Cyclist.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lolcats and Digital Activism

There’s a really neat, if long, post on WorldChanging about the relationship between cute pictures of cats and digital activism.
The Cliff Notes version:
1. The original internet (Web 1.0, back when it was pure Geekland) was invented to allow physicists to share research papers.
2. The current internet (Web 2.0, Myspaceland, Facebookland, Onlineshoppingland, like we all use) was invented to allow people to share cute pictures of cats.
3. Many of the tools people use to post cute pictures of cats (and their grandkids, and their friends drunk at a party, you get the picture) can be used by activists in oppressed countries to spread the Good Word and fight Injustice and generally be the anonymous crusaders for Freedom that we know and love.
4. Oppressive governments want to oppress these activists, and take away their means of disseminating information.
5. Joe and Jane Average may not know about the Revolution, or care, but if, all of the sudden, you take away the means to post cute pictures of their cats online, they will be seriously PISSED!!!11! and may, in fact, join the revolution because, suddenly, they are feeling personally oppressed.
6. In the interested of not pissing off Joe and Jane Average, the Oppressive Government, whose power relies in part on the Average Family accepting the status quo, is forced to do a half-assed job of censoring the dissident web content.
7. Ergo, real Activists get away with more than they would otherwise, and Joe and Jane Average, in order to better post cute pictures of their cats in places that they otherwise may not be allowed to post said cat pictures, learn some of the tools of the Activists, in order to get around the system better, thus preparing them to be miniActivists, or blossom into full blown Activists, when they start feeling the oppression.
8. Freedom of Speech, and the accompanying Positive Change, forces its way up like grass through a crack in the sidewalk. Dissidents become like dandelions, albeit less tasty in an Organic Salad, and ideally, big, Oppressive Governments come crumbling down like great big...crumbly things.
9. All men become brothers, we learn to get along, and even those of us who aren’t really Cat People come to appreciate the usefulness of cute pictures of cats.
10. It’s a lot more complicated, in real life, people get shot, imprisoned, or post pictures of their cats that, really, aren’t all that cute, but you get the idea.

Can’t stop the signal.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Can't Stop the Signal

There's a Web site called Wikileaks, a site for corporate whistleblowers, anonymous sources and the various informants that make investigative journalism possible. What Wikileaks does is post leaked documents anonymously, allowing these people to let the information out with some degree of safety.
Recently a Swiss bank, Julius Baer, which is based in the Cayman Islands, filed a suit trying to get the site shut down because somebody leaked documents that allegedly make the bank complicit in money laundering and other dodgy endeavors.
The bank went to a California judge and, after what appears to be some pretty shady manuevering, got the domain name shut down. Now, if you go to you get nothing.
But, since the actual servers, and IP address ( are not in the California judges jurisdiction, you can get to the site by typing it in directly, or going through several overseas mirror sites.
To make it even more fun, and amusing, there was this article on the New York Times Web site which describes the situation and, in the seventh paragraph provides not one but four hyperlinks for alternate routes to the site.
Journalists tend to be a little bit hostile to people who try to burn out their sources. And that First Amendment thing? They take that seriously. There's a lot of talk that there may be some unconstitutional action going on here.
Another interesting point: this whole thing about the alleged dirty dealing of Julius Baer? Not too many people might have known or cared if not for this story (which I am, I hope, helping to spread a little bit more through viral journalism).
Now, it's making headlines all over.

I only hope, and this is speaking not only as a journalist, but as an American citizen and great believer in free speech and transparency, that this kind of thing is going to keep happening, that the internet is going to continue to be harder to control, and the power will lie spread out among the millions of users, rather than falling under government or corporate control.
It's not perfect, and there are dangers, but I think the free flow of information has benefits that far outweight the risks.
Here's an attempt to censor something on the internet, which, in the words of one journalist, the Web saw as a kind of a "wound" and proceeded to heal around.

To steal a tag line from a recent sci-fi movie, "Can't stop the signal."