Friday, December 21, 2007

the gut check (training notes 12-21-07)

you know the feeling. it happens to everyone. the time when you wake up one morning, and find yourself shuddering at the thought of the upcoming slate of workouts.

it's not that you're injured (although, at this point, you are very much hurting). it's not that you're overtraining (although, by now, you are definitely tired). it's not that you're sick (although, with Ironman, many would say you have to be some kind of sick to be doing this). in fact, there's really nothing wrong with you at all--at least, nothing enough to stop you from doing the workouts you should (and need...if you want to avoid having a really bad, really painful race day) to be doing.

the only thing there is, in truth, if there is any word to describe it, is dread.

or possibly distaste. or maybe fear. or even revulsion.

whatever. all you know is that it's not pleasant.

it's made even worse by the fact that somehow, inexplicably, perhaps stupidly, you made a very fateful decision to sign up for an early spring Ironman...meaning that you've signed up to be training all winter, and training hard, when everyone else with any semblance of sanity is enjoying the comforts of a nice long off-season, comfortably esconced in the warmth of their abodes, likely cuddling with a loved one with a very warm blanket and a very hot mug of hot chocolate, while you're out in the bitter winds and freezing cold getting blasted into the frozen hell that is the polar expeditions of each and every one of your workouts.


the only thing that pulls you out of bed, and into your running shoes, or bike, or wetsuit, and out the door to face the december and january weather by yourself is the very real knowledge that if you don't do this, you never will, and that this will ensure you pay a very heavy and very nasty and very unpleasant and very painful price on race day.

not that race day is ever pleasant, but there's a difference being paying the price that's listed versus the price with a full training period's dose of interest added on top of it. the less you have to pay, the better.

and so you tell yourself to suck it up. and you make promises to yourself that you'll just make it through this next workout, and then you'll take a break. or make it to just this next hill, and then stop and assess how you feel. or you'll go for just a few minutes, and then figure out if you want to go on.

but you always do. and somehow, you make it to the next hill, and then all the ones after that. and you not only finish the workout, but also all the ones you had scheduled. and the only time you stop is when you had planned on your schedule to stop.

and when you do finally stop, and take a break, you do so with the realization, reassurance, and memory that you completed the hard workouts. all of them. even though you didn't want to...and it has made you better for it.

sometimes, the real reason for the hard workouts--the long ones, intense ones, the ones piled up in the times that people in the know euphemistically call "build weeks" (as opposed to what they often are: sheer and utter hell)--isn't so much for conditioning the body, but rather the mind.

you have to push yourself through these workouts, not because you can (because, barring injury or overtraining or sickness, but this stage in the training you really can), but to know you can. you have to do them, to 1) learn how to push yourself to do something you know will cause supreme discomfort, and 2) gain an awareness that you can push yourself to do something that will cause supreme discomfort...things that will very much happen on race day.

you need the gut check. because you need to know how to deal with it, especially when you're at mile 127, and suddenly, horrifyingly get the yawning, overwhelming, supremely disheartening realization. that. you. still. have. another. 13. miles. to. go.

afterwards, you can thank your gods for rest. but until then, there's only you, by yourself, plumbing the depths of your fortitude to finish the race.


so this build week, as you can tell, i hit some milestones: 16-mile run (with follow-up runs), 4200 yd swim and 4400m swim (difference in units because i had to switch pools from one that used yards to another than used meters...i personally prefer meters), and simulated hill work on the bike (and heavy weights). tough workouts. swim-heavy. i feel like i earned the recovery week. i'm back end of december, and then another 2-week build phase heavy on bike and run, and then recovery again before the last 2-week build phase, heavy on bike and swim. after that, taper into race week.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sagas for Valhalla

A common Viking custom during the interminable nights of Arctic winter was the hosting of gatherings in the mead hall, where families and guests would congregate to finish their day's work, conduct their lord's official affairs, pool resources for meals, or simply wait for the coming of daylight (which in winter is only a few hours long, or in Arctic regions not at all). Frequently, to help pass the time, they would recite the Viking sagas.

Sagas were a peculiar tradition of Norse culture, and consisted of a mixture of poetry and prose of epic scope. Originating in the oral histories of ancient Norse society, they evolved into transcribed accounts of the past, imagined or real, passed on from one generation to the next. Sagas fell into several categories with varying degrees of truth depending on their purpose: Konungasögur, which gave the histories of kings (such as the Heimskringla), Íslendingasögur , which were the histories of major families (famous ones are the Saga of Erik the Red, who brought settlers to Greenland and whose son Leif Erickson reached North America, or the Greenlander's Saga, which tells of the creation and ultimate doom of the Viking Greenland colony); and Fornaldarsaga, which were historical legends (such as the Volsunga saga, which is tied closely to the Germanic Niebelungen story).

The latter were the most enduring, since they reached beyond simple recounts of the past to encompass the ideals of Norse culture. With complex plots and relationships that engaged listeners through long winter nights over the course of several months, the historical legends told stories of characters that--like their audiences--had to tread amoral, ambiguous lines between good and evil, and who invariably had to struggle with their own limitations even as they vied heroically against the awesome powers of gods and monsters.

On-line, there are several succinct introductory references to sagas:
In the modern era, sagas have largely faded into artifacts of history. While seen as works of art reflecting the Viking culture that produced them, sagas are still frequently discounted as quasi-factual, quasi-fanciful constructions of less civilized peoples. Moreover, they are generally held at a cautionary distance by critics, who point out the sagas' obsession with violence and brutality, and their ingrained outdated and quixotic notions of glory, honor, and divine luck.

Despite this, sagas should be seen with some relevance for the modern world. Filtering out the layers of the past and the imprints of ancient society, sagas reveal at their core a number of values still holding universal significance across the gulf of cultures and times:
  • Actions, not words: Sagas were spare in their language, following the use of objective narrative with little space for descriptive commentary. As part of this, audiences were left to judge characters by the nature of their actions, and the consequences those actions had upon their lives. The implication given to listeners was that people were to be evaluated by what they did and not by what they said. In life, it does not matter what you say, it only matters what you do. Because only actions can change the world.
  • Tenacity against the odds: Heroes in sagas did not abandon their missions. Even in the face of discomfort, suffering, or overwhelming odds, they did not turn away, but instead persisted, undaunted and resolute. This was not because their challenges were temporary, nor to suggest to audiences that persistence always results in victory. Indeed, sometimes the foes triumphed, resulting in the hero's death. Rather, heroes persisted because of who they were. For them, their actions were statements of their character...character that was in many ways more important than life, because it would be known even after their death.
  • Courage against the unknown: Sagas frequently had characters encountering gods, monsters, and supernatural forces. Almost always, these challenges were awesome in their power, and greater than the hero, who in contrast was often shown as an individual of personal foibles and all-to-human limitations. None the less, characters demonstrated courage in facing their challenges, rising to meet them even though the outcome was uncertain or even doomed.
For ancient Vikings, the message was that how you lived was a statement of who you were. Hence, your actions and your character defined your life. Ostensibly, for the ancient Norse, a person's deeds and behavior while living were taken towards earning a place among the gods in Valhalla. But the undercurrent was still clear: even as your life was short, and could end at any time in any manner of ways, the way in which you lived your life would be remembered long after your death by the world you left behind...a world ultimately made of nothing more than the countless lives that have passed through it; a world that reflects you.

This was, and is, important.

In modern society, the world is beset by challenges. Problems of complexity defying description. Issues of scale and scope beyond comprehension. Horrors of magnitude exceeding imagination. The temptation is apathy, inactivity, surrender. To give in to the weakness of our own humanity in the face of the awesome darkness that surrounds us.

It was no less than in the Viking era. But then, as the ancient Norse huddled in the low firelight of their mead halls through the bitter cold of the encroaching winter, besieged by a world of harsh brutality and violence and ignorance and cruelty and mystery and fear, they still recited the sagas that told of people who rose to stand against the night and the terrors all around them...people who struggled against gods and monsters, who strove against the supernatural and unknown, even in the face of their own death, despite the assurance of their own suffering, through the utter desolation of winter, across uncharted frozen seas, and unto the ends of the earth. People who dared to become heroes.

The sagas told people how to live, even if there seemed no hope. They told people that they could change the world, although it was beset by dangers seemingly insurmountable. The sagas told people that the manner in which they struggled against the impossible would speak of who they were and what it meant to be alive, and that because of this each person should strive to make of their own life their own saga, worthy of the gods in Valhalla, worthy of having daylight upon the earth, and worthy of all the later generations that are yet to come.

In short, against the onslaught of night, the sagas told people to face the darkness, and to continue living.

And they do still.

The race may seem impossible, the distance may be daunting, but the sagas tell us otherwise, and they bid us to do our utmost to the very end of the finish.

Friday, December 14, 2007

the big weeks (training notes 12-15-07)

this is it. crunch time. Ironman New Zealand is roughly 9 weeks away. meaning that whatever i do during this time is pretty much whatever i'm going to do on race day.

generally, at least for amateurs, the 3-4 weeks before Ironman are treated as taper, when workouts are gradually reduced in volume and intensity to allow the body to recharge and heal in time to be fully prepared for race day. this means that if you don't have the training foundation by this time (the start of the taper), you pretty much aren't going to get it in time for race day.

the result is that fitness gains and physical performance have to be built prior to this time. given the lead-up required to even get the base fitness required to get to a level where you can begin Ironman training, this pretty much leaves an 8-week block before the 3-4 week taper period to get all the Ironman-distance (read: really long) workouts in and taken care of.

which is what i'm in now.

going on the 3-week cycle this training iteration, i'm going on 2 weeks of build (heavier workloads in terms of volume or intensity) and 1 week of recovery (lighter workloads). the 1st week of this month was recovery. i just did the 1st week of build, and have another before a recovery week of Christmas break.

it's been brutal.

you can see what i've been doing on my Google Training calendar:

i started the build cycle with a 2:45 run covering 16 miles. tired of the monotony of running alone, i used the Rose Bowl Half Marathon to get some company--besides, it was using a good portion of the trail i use, so i figured i might as well have some company (and aid stations). i ran 3 miles before the race, then ran the race itself. i would have run faster, but my legs were still sore from a lower body weight-training session 2 days before (i know, pretty stupid, but i figured that's pretty much how your legs are going to feel on race day, so you might as well get used to it).

i followed that up with a 4200 yds. swim (hey, i prefer metric too, but the freakin' pool at school is only measured in yards...boooooooooo!!!) that went surprisingly well, considering i was still beat from the run. the day after that i went ahead and had a stationary bike session with another round of lower body weight-training.

i've been told it usually takes about a week to recovery from a 3-hour run. i can believe it. i'm still pretty beat up even now, and it's just getting to the end of the week after the race.

a coach told me that by this point of the training schedule you pretty much expect to be sore all the time. at times it's bad enough that all you want to do is whimper. at times that's all you can do.

that's Ironman. it's just pretty much the way things are. all you can do is suck it up and go on.

what's funny is that i still have another build week to go (at least until January, when things get even harder). oh joy. i've got a long swim (the full 2.4 miles, or 4400 yds.), a solid simulated 90-minute hill session on the stationary bike with immediately following lower-body weight training, and then an 8-10 mile run. i expect to be good and tired by the time the next recovery week comes.

of course, it'll be Christmas by that time. which is good...even though i'll be alone.

but that's a story for another time.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Falling in Love Again (Marlene Dietrich Was Right)

Note: This was a song made famous by Marlene Dietrich, and originally featured during her performance in the movie Der Blaue Engel (English translation: The Blue Angel). It's pretty much the theme here.

If the video doesn't work, you can check out the Youtube link:

Marlene Dietrich was right.

It happens all the time. Near the end of every season. Past the big race of the year. After all the training.

You'll feel it, in the middle of a workout, when you're slogging through the miles in mind-numbing monotony, in the drudgery of yet another set of hours in sweat and pain. You'll feel it, chewing emptily over a plate of food, contemplating the prospect of the training schedule and roster of races. You'll feel it, crawling wearily into evening bed, dreading the thought of being woken up by the crack of the alarm in the darkness of a cold autumn morning with nothing more the promise of another slate of workouts repeating your daily cycle yet again, when all you really want to do is to stay warm and snuggled under the sheets in your bed.

You'll feel it. The dejection. The jadedness. The burnout.

You'll try to push it off. You'll mix things up, adjust the workouts and the races, and try and break out of the cycle.

But for some reason, it won't make any difference. It will all just remain the same...Stale. Hollow. Empty.

And you'll start to question yourself. And wonder about everything you're doing. And sometimes, when things start to get really bad, you'll think to yourself: You used to love this sport. But now? Maybe not so much any more.

In desperation, you'll sign up for a race you hadn't planned on, with no training you've really organized. Just a random race, to get out of the house--really to get out of your mind. As in to just get out. No reason, no purpose, no goal. Not even anything really that important. Just a handful of time out in the air and the light and somewhere anywhere anyhow away from what were doing before.

And that's when something special happens.

You'll be in the middle of a crowd, running along the race course, surrounded by people in all manner of accoutrements and attire in all shapes and sizes in all states of physical exertion. There'll be people with baby strollers. People in Santa costumes. Families huddling in groups. Couples holding hands. Kids barely old enough to walk. Adults struggling to get under 300 pounds. Some struggling between a run and a walk. Some gasping as if they were taking their last breaths of air. Many looking nothing at all like seasoned athletes, nor even anything close to the pros up ahead already crossing the finish line.

Somewhere in the midst of this bizarre carnival, you'll suddenly look around, check each person out, maybe even talk to a few. You'll listen to their stories, hear what they have to say, share a few words of your own together.

And you'll find there are people here who have never done anything like this before. People just starting. People just figuring things out. People who just began on the path that you all are on now. People feeling fear and uncertainty and trepidation, but full of curiosity and courage and thrill and excitement and a desire to see what is around the corner up ahead...and they're happy.

And you'll learn that for them this race, and everything associated with it, is a new adventure of mystery and wonder and discovery. It's an exploration into strange unknowns both mystical and magical. It's about a journey through places not traveled before--in the self, in others, in the world.

And you'll realize that what is really happening is something that has happened before to everyone who has ever entered this sport, and is about something ultimately much deeper.

It's not about training. It's not about racing. It's not about personal bests, qualifying slots, or podium places. It's not even about competition or athletics at all.

In truth, it's about people coming to revelations about themselves and what they can do, and in so doing coming to an understanding of their place in the universe, the ways we can go about living, and what it means for all of us--each of us--to be alive.

It's about becoming a better person.

It's about enlightenment.

And that's when you'll remember this was what pulled you into the sport. This was what made it so special.

And that's when you'll know it still is.

And that's when you'll think to yourself: You. Love. This. Sport.

Falling in love again,
Never wanted to. What am I to do?
Can't help it.
Love's always been my game.
Play it how I may, I was made that way.
Can't help it.
--Falling In Love Again (performed by Marlene Dietrich), Fredrick Hollander & Sammy Lerner

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

olympics in china (sportsmanship, in a centralized party politic kind of way)

ok, now i'm really curious.

ESPN posted a recent article from the AP about the ongoing preparations in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. the link is here, but if it doesn't work i'm including the full text at the end of this post:

the article is a mix of serious and light-hearted, pointing out some of the amusing oddball activities to ready the city to host the Olympics while still providing some provocative notes. in a way, a lot of the observations in the article to me are just the kinds of things any country would be expected to do in getting ready to run a multi-cultural, multi-national event--such as teaching citizens how to cheer in different languages, educating them on social mores, and stressing the need to be hospitable for the sake of good sportsmanship.

however, some of the stuff is a little...disturbing. particularly in a centralized party politic authoritarian state kind of way. it's not the preparations for the Olympics that are the issue, it's the way the PRC (as in China, People's Republic of) government is going about doing it, and the philosophies they're exercising in doing so.

it's kind of eye-opening. i mean, "approved" cheers? referencing the 1984 Olympics as "the year the humiliation ended"? a mandatory "queueing day"? hmmmmm...just a tad bit on the insecure-defensive-historical complex-racial identity-nationalist-big brother-ish side, don't you think?

my favorite line from this article: "Civilization equals order...We need to express the same slogans, think the same and behave the same way. That's how we become civilized.

uh, yeah, uh-huh. hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...

i've discussed this with other academics (grad students and professors alike), but i'll say it here: a sociologist or psychologist would have a field day investigating the national identity of the PRC. seriously, you could devote an entire dissertation to the causes of current PRC national personality alone.

like i said, some of this is just a little disturbing.

it's giving me some really mixed feelings about having the Olympics in China. something about allowing an international sporting event espousing human ideals of freedom and growth to be hosted by an authoritarian state with a dodgy human rights record, questionable rule of law, and persistent (some say growing) issues with corruption. it just doesn't really jibe. i'll try to write a post on this soon.

but in the meantime, i'll let you make your own observations from this story. Olympics Olympic cheering program hopes to stamp out bad sportsmanship
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Associated Press

BEIJING -- The drills are about to begin. With his right hand, Zhang Ran hoists a yellow flag above his head, much like a sailor directing traffic on an aircraft carrier.

He's facing 150 sales clerks sitting in tidy rows, hand-picked by their labor union to learn the approved cheers and chants for next year's Beijing Olympics. It's all good-humored without the slightest whiff of swearing or boorish behavior.

Nobody doubts that TV-friendly venues will glitter when the Olympics open in eight months. It's other matters that cause worry -- people's manners, their knowledge of many unfamiliar sports and the government's promise to allow more than 20,000 reporters unfettered access.

Zhao Xi, a 24-year-old Communist Youth League member, works in a nearby shopping mall, a five-minute drive from Tiananmen Square. Zhao is using an off day to work on the cheers.

"We want to do this because we are making contributions to the Olympics," Zhao said. "It's an honor."

Zhang's left hand snaps another flag and cheers erupt with military precision.

"Zhongguo, Zhongguo -- ha, ha, ha. Zhongguo, Zhongguo bi sheng," the crowd shouts, simultaneously beating yellow, stick-shaped batons to the rhythm. "Jia you, jia you." Rough translation: "China, China -- ha, ha, ha. China, China must win. Let's go, let's go."

One of about 20 cheers approved by authorities, it's drilled a half-dozen times, orderly repetitions practiced in a meeting hall darkened by stained gray carpet squares and wood paneling. Thirty red and yellow paper lanterns dangle overhead, casting faint light on government slogans papering the walls.

Welcome to the "Beijing Civilized Workers Cheering Squad," a public-education program to teach sportsmanship, all part of a larger Olympic etiquette campaign to show off a polite, prosperous and powerful China.

"Civilization equals order," Zhang said. "We need to express the same slogans, think the same and behave the same way. That's how we become civilized."

Chinese are ecstatic about the Olympics. And though the cheering lessons are highly programed, 48-year-old Liu Aimin -- balding and a generation older than almost everyone else -- springs with gusto from his chair to practice the wave.

"The younger people make me feel so much younger," said Liu who, like most attending, has no guarantee of getting any of the 7 million tickets available for Olympic events.

In a 2 1/2-hour session, Zhang also leads a cheer in basic English: "Come on, come on -- go, go." His pupils wave yellow scarves this time, and everybody wears multicolored vests carrying this slogan in Chinese on the back: "I participate, I'm healthy, I'm happy."

"There will be foreigners attending, so we have to take this into account," says Zhang, who shared the teaching duties with Zhai Yue, deputy editor of Sports Vision, a magazine published by the Beijing Sports Bureau, the government's top sports body in the capital.

Hunched behind an office desk draped with a white sheet, Zhai lectured on China's Olympic history, which dates from 1894 when founder Pierre de Coubertin sent an invitation to the Qing Dynasty to compete. Unfamiliar with the sports, the government reportedly didn't reply.

He asks simple questions, rewarding correct answers with a thick handbook of Olympic sports and etiquette. For laughs, he shows a video in which a zealous cartoon character roams a stadium and berates fans for smoking, littering and swearing. And he repeats four major points: don't insult former wartime enemy Japan; don't swear; respect the referee; and don't snap indiscriminate photos.

Specks of nationalism also creep in, calling 1984 "the year the humiliation ended" and China won its first Olympic gold medal. This time, China is expected to challenge the United States for the most gold medals.

"Many Chinese don't understand why they can't take photos when athletes are about to serve or hit the ball; they think it's the best moment to take the shot," Zhai said. "The most basic and most important thing we teach the fans is about when to cheer, when to snap photos and when to clap."

China has a tradition of hospitality, but some manners can seem rough by foreign standards. Historians say that's partly a fallout from the Cultural Revolution, when old-line values were discouraged.

Broad-reaching campaigns are under way to remedy littering, swearing, spitting and dirty taxis. Everyone is being encouraged to speak some English. The 11th of each month is "queuing day" when residents are forced to stand in line to catch public transportation.

"When Chinese invite you to the house, they'll clean the house first," said Dr. Luo Qing, who researches China's national image at Communication University of China in Beijing. "No matter how poor, guests will be treated with all the best stuff. We're definitely sweeping the house before the Olympics."

"We care very much about how foreigners think about this nation," she added. "We feel we have a responsibility to show this nation is rising again."

The state-run China Daily newspaper regularly rails against careless driving, and harps about English misspellings like this on a restaurant menu: "Hot Crap," instead of "Hot Carp."

"After the 2008 Olympics, will there be fewer people spitting or jumping ahead in line?" Zhai asks rhetorically. "Will more people respect women and children? I don't know."

China's authoritarian government fears any glitches, which could happen with fans attending unfamiliar sports like baseball, sailing or field hockey, which are as foreign in China as a bullfight in Belgium.

Cheering at the wrong moment, taking photos when they're prohibited or cell phones going off as swimmers teeter on the starting blocks are potential snags that could draw negative coverage.

At a field hockey test event this summer between Argentina and Australia, hundreds of middle-age women were bused in to add atmosphere -- the kind of instant numbers only China can muster. The women tried to imitate cheers in Spanish, but got it wrong.

"Ba mao si fen han de di le," they chanted, which in Chinese could roughly mean: "Eighty-four cents, you've offered a price too low." Nobody could figure out what this had to do with field hockey.

Golf isn't an Olympic event, but players often complain that Chinese fans breach the game's etiquette.

"The good thing is we do have a lot of fans following us," Chinese veteran golfer Zhang Lianwei said at a recent tournament. "The bad thing is they are so excited and yell at all times."

American player Boo Weekley was more blunt: "They don't quite understand the game, I don't think."

Chen Xiaohai, a 25-year-old accountant, acknowledged she wasn't familiar with all Olympic sports. She thought snooker was in the Olympics and confessed to being stumped about the equestrian events.

If there's trouble, it could come in soccer -- or any team event in which Japan participates. Scuffles with police and general chaos erupted in Beijing in 2004 after Japan defeated China to win Asia's national soccer title. Japan's women's soccer team was peppered with insults three months ago at the women's World Cup in China, and fans jeered Japan's national anthem.

Shouting obscenities at opposing players is common in Chinese soccer, which has been plagued with match-fixing scandals and on-field fighting. Beijing's top club team, Guo'an, plays at the Feng Tai stadium, which is draped with huge signs urging good behavior. Dozens of closed circuit cameras have been added in the last few years, and the police presence has increased several fold.

"Be civilized when you watch the match. Don't get angry about the results," one banner reads. Another banner in Chinese was recently removed. It read: "Welcome to Hell."

Dozens of closed-circuit cameras will dot each Olympic venue, many looking down on the crowd from the ceiling. Organizers say they may dress police and soldiers in volunteer uniforms to help ensure order.

"We are not going to shout profanities in front of foreigners because the Olympics is a show for foreigners," said Lui Wei, a 21-year-old spectator attending a recent Guo'an game.

"The government has told us it's not polite," Lui said. "The government wants to show a good image of the country."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press