Monday, April 30, 2007

Team Kwikstep

Chance are my weekend was more interesting than yours. I spent it running across Riverside and San Diego counties with 8 other slightly insane people. Officially we ran a collective 179 miles in about 26 hours, but it was a lot more fun than that sounds.

Our team (named Kwikstep after a character in L. Frank Baum's Oz books) consisted of 9 people, with not much previous association. Some were coworkers of mine at Yahoo!, others were friends, others were folks drafted from message boards, seven men and two women. I was prepared for something like a cross between a military training exercise and an episode of MTV Road Rules, but despite differences in age and background we turned out to be remarkably compatible.

The adventure started for real on Saturday morning. Our first runner (Rick) went out at 9am on a trail at Vail Lake near Temecula. Ameen and Ken ran the 2nd and 3rd legs, also at Vail Lake and it was apparent by late morning that it was going to be a hot day. Leg 4 was also run by Rick, and then John did leg 5. Both sections were uphill and hot. Aimee was scheduled to do the next leg, but she was having stomach problems, so i took that leg. Todd did leg 7, Aimee did leg 8, and Leg 9 was back to Rick for his last leg of the race (he needed to head home in the evening because his son was home alone). This 9-mile leg was brutally hot and mostly uphill, so Rick was suffering by the time he finished. Runners from other teams dropped out at this point, one with fairly severe heat exhaustion, so Rick's effort was amazing considering the mileage he'd already done that day.

Leg 10 was run by Ruth, and then i did leg 11, a fairly flat 9 miler. Leg 12 was Ken, 13 was Todd, and 14 was John again. That concluded the first section of the race in the eastern part of Riverside county, and then we took the van across to the eastern side of the county to start the second section of the race. It was about 9pm by then.

Ah, yes, the van. Like most teams we had rented a large passenger van to haul people around for the duration of the race (we call it the heist van). They're all essentially the same and they have little character to begin with, but for some reason i developed a sentimental attachment to it by the end of the race.

The beginning of the second half started with Leg 15, run by Ken. Todd did the next, a really tough uphill section in a place called Horsethief Canyon. Aimee did 17, Ameen 18, Ruth 19, and then i had legs 20 and 21 back to back. Leg 20 was a flat, straight section of about 5 miles, but 21 was all uphill. I started 21 a bit after 2:30 in the morning, and it eventually went into some unpopulated back country with no man-made light. About half way up the hill i had one of those rare moments of running-inspired bliss where i just felt right with the world. I'd run 20+ miles already during the relay and i knew i had a lot of hill in front of me, but i wouldn't have traded anything for that moment.

I arrived at the top around 3:30, at which point our team was required to take an hour-long break to avoid arriving in San Diego county before dawn (due to some strange regulation). I couldn't really sleep, but i was happy for the rest in any case. At 4:30 John took off on the next leg, a ridiculously steep downhill section with a few brutal uphill turns. Todd took leg 23, a beautiful run along De Luz road that took us from darkness into dawn.

The first three legs on Sunday morning were run by Dana, which served as a marathon training run. He did close to 23 miles straight, which gave the remainder of the team time to rest and relax. Leg 27 was run by Ameen at a really fast pace. John was scheduled to run the next, but had some difficulty finding the exchange point so Aimee ran that leg, and John took leg 29. Ruth brought us home on Leg 30, which finished at San Dieguito Park in Del Mar.

Hanging out at the park i think we all had a tremendous sense of relief and accomplishment. I've finished 7 marathons, 1 ultra, and 4 bicycle century rides but i don't think i've ever felt so good at the finish of a race. I hadn't slept in a day and a half, but i wasn't sluggish or incoherent (so far as i could tell). I'd run roughly the same mileage as a marathon, but having it divided up over 3 sections made it less taxing on my muscles so i didn't feel the sense of complete physical depletion that's normal at the end of a marathon.

I'm at a loss to explain why this event was so satisfying. I can say that it was inspiring to be around so many other serious runners. I can say that it gave me a sense of accomplishment both with respect to the physical challenge and the logistical difficulties. I genuinely enjoyed the time i spent with the team members. But the whole was more than the sum of these parts. I think, maybe, it was just nice to be on a team again given that running is usually a solitary sport.

Internet technology figured prominently in our planning and execution of the race. Of course, e-mail is essential, but we also utilized Google's spreadsheet stuff to plan leg assignments and pace, and to plan for supplies. We used message boards to draft runners and during the race, we used Twitter to update the outside world on our progress, and Flickr to post race photos afterward.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


We spent the last few days in Las Vegas. The boys are on spring break, but we went also to celebrate Nathan's 13th birthday, which was Monday. Having an official teenager in the family makes me feel ancient, but there's been no Mr. Hyde-like transformation into a sullen, hormone-saturated, pain in the ass (yet).

We went to see the show Love by Cirque du Soleil, which is based on the Beatles' music. Nathan is more of a Beatles fan than i've ever been, probably indicating that his musical taste is better. The show was quite good, though more of a dance performance than an acrobatic or circus performance. It was more 3 dimensional than a typical stage show though, with performers entering from both below and above the stage, and multiple points of focus. I enjoyed it more than i thought i would.

We also saw the Blue Man Group at the Venetian. I'd seen bits and pieces of their act over the years, but the show was still a great time. It's so high-energy and funny and joyous that it breaks through the boundary of frivolous and loops back to profound. Giving the performers a literally uniform appearance and eliminating speech seems to enhance what would have otherwise been a relatively normal comedy and music performance. And they have cool t-shirts at the gift shop.

We stayed at the Excalibur, the Camelot-themed hotel. It pretty much sucked. I'd never been to Vegas with my family before, but most of the lower-end casinos employ people whose job it is to harass people into going to see the hotel's shows. It's amazing to me. Except for the phone companies, i can't think of another industry that goes out of its way to irritate its own customers. We started referring to them as "zombies", because of the similarity to the way that zombies behave in video games.

During our time in Vegas, the shootings at Virginia Tech took place. Even in Las Vegas, reporters were asking on the street for people from Virginia. I hate the fact that the shooter, despite being dead, is getting the attention that he wanted. There are people out there right now who think that this insignificant idiot proved his point and demonstrated his power by changing people's lives, however horribly.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Breakfast of Champions

When i was a high-school kid i picked up the book Breakfast of Champions in our high-school library. I retrospect, i know that if any of the librarians had ever read the book, it would not have been on the shelf (this is a community where an editorial in the local newspaper referred to Grapes of Wrath as 'smut'). For me the book was nothing short of a revelation. The most controversial thing i had read before that was maybe Catcher in the Rye, and so BoC broke convention in every way imaginable. It was funny and fantastic and sexual and by the standards of my previous experience, very strange. I loved it. I sort of felt that it was my own personal secret. I had originally chosen it as a novel on which to write a report, but i decided to do another book because i wanted to keep BoC to myself.

I never became a rabid fan of Vonnegut the writer, though i admired Vonnegut the human being. He was a fellow Hoosier and a fellow chemist and i thought his outspoken humanism was brave in a world where celebrity opinion is inevitably condemned as either vapid or elitist. Mostly, i admire how he took the difficult experiences in his life and transformed them into something amazing and enduring.

Monday, April 02, 2007


In a couple of weeks my older son turns 13, a significant age both socially and numerically. A month after that my younger son turns 10, and the following month is my 20th wedding anniversary. In September my father turns 70 (and my sister 45). This is also the year of my 25th high-school reunion, and 20 years since college graduation. Alas, my own birthday this year will be 44, which i suppose has a pleasing symmetry but not much other interest as a number (though 44 is also the number of derangements of 5 items).

I suspect this type of coincidence isn't that rare, although i haven't analyzed it much. For example, it'll happen to me again in 5 years when my sons are 18 and 15, it'll be my 25th anniversary (assuming...), my dad will be 75, etc. It's also true that i have ascribed significance to these values more than others. Other than age 13, which corresponds roughly to major physical and psychological changes, there's not any real reason why these numbers should have greater meaning than the number before or after. But still, it's strange isn't it?