Saturday, December 19, 2009

a running season

i did not always run in the winter. there was a time that i, like so many others, would follow the patterns of on-season and off-season, and take some respite over the winter.

part of it was the belief in recovery time, to let the body, with its accumulated wear and tear and nicks and scrapes and outright injuries and assorted breakdowns, have the chance to recuperate. part of it, too, was the desire for free time, to release the mind from the continual pressures of work and school and home and humanity and let it roam free to grow and find itself in an ever-expanding world. part of it though--and as much as i tried to not think about it--was the need for spiritual time, to reconnect with the more important things in life, things forgotten or misplaced or abandoned or unfinished or never even begun, but whose presence ultimately cannot be denied.

the last part was something my grandparents held with deep conviction. given their religious proclivities, it coincided seamlessly with the observance of the Advent season. and in accordance with the strictures of this time for piety and self-reflection, they would gradually shut down all wordly activities of the body and mind and release themselves from the mundane to follow the messages of the spiritual and the sacred. and in the twilights that led into Christmas, they would seek to reconnect with the sublime.

i was with them much of this time. being a child, i took their lead, and followed the patterns of their lives. and so in the evenings, after we'd eaten and cleaned and dried and seated and the day had fallen into dusk, we'd gather the wood and start the fire and come together to ponder the mysteries of the twilight, our eyes turning towards the embers in the darkness for the warmth in the hearth and the flickering of the light. and slowly, surely, softly, there would be silence, and then there would be stillness, and then there would be just ourselves, with our souls alone in the depths of the winter night.

and it was then that we'd recommit to all that which we held most sacred, and reaffirm our faith in the things most divine, and restate our promises to act upon them so as to make this world--our world--a better place.

which was not easy. because we knew that in this world, our world, we weren't just by ourselves. and in the darkness we'd see the sparks that broke off from the flames and then glowed and spun and rose so briefly and then were carried away in the draft to fade into the depths of the darkness stretched so vast above us, and we'd realize who we'd lost.

and at those times, i would look at my grandfather, and say: we're so few. so few. and we've lost so many. too many.

my grandfather would just gaze at me quietly and repeat to me: i know. i know. and then he would pause, and nod, and finally respond with the same message he had always given every year: we'll close ranks, and we'll reform the lines, and we'll guard the fire for one more night, so that there may be just one more day.

for years, i lived by those words and kept to those promises and held to the calling of the seasons. for the sake of the spirit, for the sake of this world, for the sake of all souls.

but then, one Advent, in the years long after my grandfather's passing, and near the end of my grandmother's time, she and i were seated alone together late one Christmas Eve recounting all the fires of all the seasons before, and in midst of our reveries and in the stillness of the evening she came upon a revelation that glowed like the coming of a great multitude of stars long lost but rediscovered to bring their lights once more to all the spirits caught forlorn within the abyss...and their message blazed greater than all the minions of all the darkness of all the void.

and at that moment, she paused, and then she came out from within her shadows and then she looked at me and then she sighed and then she began to cry. and then she spoke, in tears that held back the silence that heralded the coming of all our eternities: the fire wasn't meant to stay in one place, you know, it wasn't meant to be hidden. it was meant to be seen. it has to be seen. if anyone is going to find it, it has to be seen.

and at that point, she realized what it was going to lead her to say, and she broke down and wept with what came next: and that's why i'm going to let you go. because i know i have to let you go. you're the little bird who's been in the nest, and now it's time for you to fly away...the fire goes with you.

i didn't know it, but that was the last time we would ever talk like that again.

in the years since, i've thought a lot about that moment, i've thought a lot about what she said. it's haunted me. it haunts me still.

for my part, i've done my best to incorporate it into my life. not because she asked, but because i know she was right. i stopped following the seasons. i stopped taking the winter respite. i stopped with the Advent and Christmas break. now, instead, i run. i run all the time. especially all the time.

but that does not mean i have forsaken the things my grandparents taught me. if anything, i've taken them even more to heart.

because you see, i've come to believe--i've come to know--that the important things, the sacred things, are not just about what we believe or commit or affirm or act, but about what we live and how we do so. and so now when i run, i run not just for the building of the body, but also for the freedom of the mind and the transfiguration of the spirit. now when i run, i run towards greater truths. and those truths require my entire being; they require all of me.

because the fire isn't meant to burn for just a night or a day nor for a winter or a season. the fire--creation's fire, the sacred fire, our fire--was meant to burn forever.

like the coming of a great multitude of stars long lost but rediscovered to bring their lights once more to all the spirits caught forlorn within the abyss...with a message that blazes greater than all the minions of all the darkness of all the void.

and that message is eternity.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

the viking way

i've had conversations with my father regarding the ironic history of scandinavian culture--about how a society so renowned in the past for its warlike behavior has in the present become one of the most pacifist societies on earth. it's like at some point they renounced their former selves, and transformed their natures into something diametrically opposite.

for his part, my father just shrugs, and says it's better that way. he notes that theirs was a superstitious, fatalistic, violent society with an apocalyptic vision of the future (it can be seen in their myths, which called upon warriors to fight until the final end of ragnarok, wherein the gods were doomed and the end was death for all). being a man of science, he points to the darwinian process of human evolution and notes that whatever the viking culture was, there's a reason why it died out, and hence a reason why it's better left forgotten.

for my part, being a different creature entirely, i have to say i'm not so sure. i've thought about it from time to time, and even written about it here before (reference: sagas for valhalla, santa lucia, stamford bridge). but i've come to believe that perhaps the viking spirit did not die, but goes on living today, and that at least part of it should not be forgotten, but kept very much alive. here's why:

anyone exposed to scandinavian culture will always note the prevalence of reticence. people in nordic societies just don't talk. and if they do, it's not for very long. they'll instead tend to forego talking and proceed about doing their business. oftentimes bundled up against the cold in the darkness of northern winters.

as amusing as it may seem, to me this is the prototypical viking way.

you see, the vikings explored unknown seas with only the most rudimentary navigational equipment. they traveled to new lands without knowledge of what awaited them once they arrived there. and they did so with no compasses (they had lodestones), no charts (they used reckoning), and no GPS (they followed stars). and despite all that, they ventured as far as north america, mediterranean africa, and near asia in a time when european civilization was in retreat.

these are not the actions of a civilization associated with words like fatalism, apocalypse, and doom; these are the actions associated with a word like hope. hope that there was another land. hope that there was a better place. hope that there was a tomorrow. hope that motivated people against the eternal cold and perpetual darkness to believe and seek a greater life.

actions and words. actions with words. actions for words.

because the vikings knew something that we all know--deep down inside of us in places that make us all singularly, uniquely, wholly, universally human: hope is a vision of dreams manifested as reality, but dreams are imagination entwined with expectations and reality is expectation allied with action. that is, hope ultimately requires expression. hopes calls upon action.

and there's something else i also think the vikings knew that we all really know--and that we should remind ourselves every day lest we ever forget: that if hope is ever to fulfill its promise to humanity, if hope is to ever to better the condition of the human species, then we must act despite all the prognostications of apocalyptic futures, despite all the afflictions of eternal cold and perpetual darkness, despite all the horror and misery and suffering in this world in which we live. we must act, so that we can find something more.

because hope is why fire burns through the winter.

because hope is what is meant to be.

because hope is who we are.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


for all we ought to have thought, and have not thought
for all we ought to have said, and have not said
for all we ought to have done, and have not done
i pray, O Lord, for forgiveness
--Zoroastrian prayer of repentance

we like to think of ourselves as being good, as being embodiments of qualities we think are associated with our names: compassionate. courteous. kind. courageous. pious. virtuous. even noble. things that represent our greater ideals, and which we think will make a better world.

but invariably in the course of daily living our lives end up becoming something else. we succumb to the afflictions of our lesser realities, and lose ourselves in the mundane details and perpetual travails of society and the world, and find ourselves pushing things away and postponing promises and shuffling priorities and changing choices and making decisions that we swore we would never make and thinking and saying and doing things we thought we would never think or say or do...and in so doing, despite our aspirations to the contrary, we inevitably add to the suffering in this world.

and then, perhaps out of denial, perhaps out of guilt, perhaps out of frustration, perhaps out of regret, perhaps out of fear, we tell ourselves that it's okay. we tell ourselves that the race is long, that there's always time, that there's the rest of our lives, and that there's always a future to make things right.

thing is, we know that's not true.

because we know, as every creature that has ever realized the nature of their mortality has ever known, that every race has an end. that there isn't always time. that there's not the rest of our lives. and that there is not always a future to make things right.

because we know, as every creature endowed with the gift of life has ever known, that a race cannot be changed once it has been run. whatever happened is what happened. whatever we thought is what we thought. whatever we said is what we said. whatever we did is what we did. and none of it--none of it--can be undone.

which is why we must ask ourselves about our legacies. about what it is that we really want associated with our names.

because if we want our names to be associated with greater ideals instead of lesser realities, then we must recognize that the race is not just about reaching the end but also about what happened on the way. that race is not about when we finish, or if we finish, but how.

because our end, above all things granted to us in this life, is without any doubt most certainly assured. it's the nature of our lives that is not. and if our lives are to be about our greater ideals, if our lives are to be about helping to make a better world, then we have to act to confront our lesser realities, and we have to act to ease the suffering in this world.

and we have to act now.

not later, not tomorrow, not at the end of our race, but now.

while the race is still being run, while there is still time, while there is still life, for ourselves and for this world, so that both can truly become good.

our legacies originate from our nows, even as they reside in our futures.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

the lessons of kahlil gibran: substance

i wanted to highlight one of my favorite poets: kahlil gibran. he's a bit of an enigmatic figure in literature, with much less attention given to him and much less information known about him compared to other poets and writers i've mentioned here. as a result, i can't say that i like him as an artist, since there's just not that much available to understand him, but i do like him for just one very special, very unique, very profound piece of his: the prophet.

i've read his other stuff, and it didn't move me the same way. the prophet is just one of those works of literature that surprises you, but in a way that is very quiet, very soft, very gentle, to the point that it seeps slowly into the deepest recesses of your mind and then lingers like a long lost memory of sublime beauty that rises to something sacred, and which you can thus never quite bring yourself to let go away--nor would ever want to. it is, in a word, exquisite.

i'm not going to cite it here. it's just too long. it is, however, readily available at many locations on the internet for free. you can try the following:
there's also a good bio of kahlil gibran at the following:
i will state why the prophet means so much to me.

kahlil gibran, at least as much is known about him, exudes a sense of ineffable loneliness. and you can feel that sense, and the emptiness that it brings to life and living, in the prophet. but more importantly, you find gibran's response.

the setting of the poem is a city, wherein the namesake prophet has been informed a long-awaited ship has arrived to take him home. when the word of his departure spreads throughout the city, the populace cries out in sorrow, for they have come to rely on the prophet as the source of wisdom and comfort in their lives. in a last effort to glean their final lessons from him, they begin to ply him with questions on a range of subjects, including children, love, aging--essentially, the essence of living. the poem consists of chapters, with each chapter being the people asking questions, and the prophet then giving his answers.

in the course of discussing the issue of living, i find that the poem gets to one of the most incredible mysteries of life: substance.

for so many people, at so many times, the act of living becomes an act of emptiness. we go through our days going through the motions, with nothing in terms of spirit. there is, as has been said in many other ways, no purpose, no urgency, no vitality, no connection with the notion of life in a universe that has absolutely no reason to have it. the french use the phrase joie de vivre (i.e., joy of living), but in the sense of joy being the ecstasy that comes from understanding--the joy that comes from fulfillment of knowing all that there is to know...and so often we lose it. and in so doing, lose ourselves.

and that's when we're most alone.

gibran's passages respond to this. the prophet speaks of the things that fill the emptiness, not just in actions or goals or concepts or things, but in terms of perspectives on how to see and understand and approach and embrace the mystery of living in a way that does justice to the sanctity of life. in short, it gets to spirit. it gets to purpose. it gets to substance.

and i speak of this from experience. because in the times of my emptiness, in the times when i am lost, in the times when i am most alone, the prophet has been one of the few things that has ever brought me back.

back to life.

Monday, November 23, 2009

lighting a candle

it seems we live in a world beset by darkness. everywhere we look there are forces less than benign. cruelty, malice, anger, hate. in behavior and in nature. and everywhere we find the hallmarks of their presence and the legacies of their message: fear, sorrow, suffering, despair. as black as eternity's abyss.

we see so much of this that we are led to believe this is the state of the world. that our universe always is and always has been and always will be darkness. and in so doing, we are led to believe that there can be nothing else. that our dreams of a different world, our vision of another life, our hopes for something more are only just that: dreams, visions, hopes. of that which is not and has never been and never will be reality.

and so as a result, so many times for so many people in so many places in this world, there comes the acceptance of defeat, and with it the rejection of dreams. and we tell ourselves that whatever it was for which we had wished was just not meant to be. and we resign ourselves to the darkness.

but it does not have to be this way.

you see, the fact that we dream is proof that there is another course. that things can be better than they are. the fact that we can conceive of a universe that is more than this is evidence that it has the prospect of greater possibilities...of things that were meant to be.

and it can be this way.

all it takes is that we hold to our dreams, and make of them our visions, and build upon them our hopes. and thereby allow ourselves to believe that there can be something else.

and then act to make of it reality.

so that it takes fire against the night. so that we may see the world is not black. so that there is light brought into the abyss.

and yes, the darkness is vast. and yes, the darkness is strong. and yes, the darkness is many.

but that is all the more reason we must spark the candle that is life.

singly. individually. personally.

so that there is a beacon in the darkness for all the lost souls out there to find their way into the light and to learn that they are not blind and to ignite the fires of what they that the flames begin to catch, and the fire rises higher, and gives the universe a flame as great and as powerful and as infinite as the glory of all eternity.

one candle at a time.

starting with you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

mary oliver and the message of moving on

it appears that i didn't do a very good job trying to publicize a favorite poet of mine in a previous post (reference: an extra off-day of poetry). it turns out the link doesn't work. which is a shame, since she's one of my favorites, and i think deserving of more attention than she's gotten. to rectify this error, i'm do a re-post, so that she can get the credit she deserves.

the poet in question is Mary Oliver. she's a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work seems to make its way into popular culture--unfortunately without proper citation. you can find a very good biographical summary of her at the Poetry Foundation website (reference: Mary Oliver's page). i'm a fan, in part because unlike so many "award-winning" artists that i've seen, her stuff isn't overblown, overhyped, overdone verbosity.

i find her poetry really good. i mean really good. as in it does what really really really good poems are supposed to do: slow you down, create a pause in your day, and let you take in the air and sun and clear blue sky and the supreme depths of a single moment of time held in infinite stillness.

which brings me to the main reason i like her poetry: realization. particularly in regards to the self.

you see, there are certain moments in certain situations in certain conditions in certain ways, in the instances that lie transfixed between the interstices of time, in the places that sit within the recesses of the universe, in emotions and memories and thoughts and senses felt so often so much so only alone, when you don't need help with cadence, when you don't need help with motivation, when you don't need help with reaching deeper truths, but instead need help in finding an understanding to a singular, peculiar, particular aspect of the instinctual, fundamental, eternal question: why?

part of the answer to this is in the meaning rhetorical, as in relation to things outside or beyond or greater than yourself: what is it that you are trying to reach? what is it that you are trying to find? what is it that you seek?

but another part of the answer--and a part perhaps more antecedent, perhaps more basic, perhaps more profound--is in the meaning specific, as in terms of you and you alone: what is it that makes you search? what is it that makes you wish, want, need to search?

in essence, i can phrase the question as this: what gives you your why?

and when you're at mile 130 and beyond all stages of suffering and looking at another 13 yet to go, you will be faced with that question, and you will need to find an least, if you want to have any chance of moving on.

and that's where i find Mary Oliver's work comes in. because the spirit and subject matter of her poetry seems to get to this. not explicitly, not clearly, but most definitely directly, and in a way that gets to the heart of the question.

i can tell you there have been times when i have faced that question, and was not sure of the answer, and thought back to her lines, and found something that led me to it. and that something was me.

and that's what her poems are about. the self. and learning about it. and discovering that there is more to it than you ever thought possible.

more than enough to move on.

here's what i mean:

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The Buddha's Last Instruction
"Make of yourself a light "
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal - a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I'm not needed
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this

In Greece,
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door

to two strangers
who were,
it soon appeared,
not men at all,

but gods.
It is my favorite story--
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give

but their willingness
to be attentive--
but for this alone
the gods loved them

and blessed them--
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water

from a fountain,
the light
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,

and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down--
but still they asked for nothing

but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.

Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning--
whatever it was I said

I would be doing--
I was standing
at the edge of the field--
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors--
I was leaning out;
I was listening.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

exercise and immunity

well, since we're heading into that season again, replete with this year's spectre of H1N1 as the bogeyman of sniffles, coughs, runny noses, fevers, delirium, phlegm, and all other host of potential assorted symptoms, i figure it's time to offer up this piece of medical interest for all you athletes intent on training through the health hazards that lurk ahead of us:
it's an article from the New York Times presenting findings of recent health research on the relationship between exercise and immunity, particularly with respect to the influenza virus. in case the link doesn't work, i've put the full text of the article at the end of this post. in brief, the studies it describes showed that mice forced to engage in stressful exercise (apparently in terms of intensity or duration) suffered higher rates and worse prognoses of illness when exposed to the influenza virus relative to mice who were made to engage in moderate exercise.

for humans, the studies go on to assert
  • the greater the intensity or duration of exercise, the greater and longer the suppression of the immune system
  • the immune system relationship to exercise follows a "J"-shaped curve, with the risk of illness initially decreasing with an increase in exercise, but then rising dramatically as exercise stress increases
  • suppression of the immune system occurs with either high intensity or high volume exercise, meaning both individually are sufficient sources of stress to induce illness
in addition, an interesting point for endurance athletes was the definition of exercise stress used by the studies. "intense" exercise was roughly identified as a workout or race lasting an 1 hour or more with a high heart rate and a perceived exertion level of hard. as most of you know, this pretty much constitutes endurance sports (i can't think of a workout lasting less than 1 hr.), which leads to the implication that endurance athletes are more susceptible than most to illness, particularly the flu.

personally, i can attest to an increased vulnerability to all sorts of malaises during training season, particularly when that training coincides with the winter (and if you're training for a spring Ironman, you will be training through the winter, bet on it). and invariably, the illnesses have occurred in the days following intense or high-volume workouts, with every 2-hour swim session, every 6-hour bike ride, every 3-hour run being a guaranteed surefire recipe for infectious misery and contagious suffering.

which was bad enough, but then incurred insult to injury by wiping me out so much that i've been bedridden to an extent that it wiped out whatever training gains i'd made in the workout. this has inevitably led to a vicious circle, with me ramping up the workouts as soon as i recovered in an attempt to catch up on the training plan, only to put myself through the same exercise stress that caused my illnesses to begin with, sending me back to bedrest with another round of sickness.

i've taken to following the dictum that caution is the better part of valor, and taking maximum care to protect myself. this doesn't mean cutting back on the workouts--that, of all things, is most assured--but rather means making greater efforts to monitor the things that can boost my immune system and isolate me from possible sources of disease. nutrition-wise, this means more nutrients, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, etc. disease-wise, this means more washing, sterilizing, disinfecting, covering up, resting, etc.

it's a bit of work, since it takes a conscious commitment to change personal habits, and it sometimes feels like it verges on hypochondria--and yet one more thing to add to all my other neuroses. but it makes a difference, especially as i watch other athletes fall prey to unknown bugs and ailments that they can't identify, can't trace, and worse, can't shake.

of course, having said that, i should note that none of this should be used as arguments to avoid exercise. a good immune system comes with good health, good health comes with good fitness, and good fitness comes with good exercise. the question is how much and what kind. a moderate amount is good, even beneficial. an excess poses an issue.

but even then, i think the issue is manageable. the trick is just knowing how all the variables of immunity, health, fitness, and exercise are related, and then making sure your behavior observes the nuances of those relationships in a way that enables your exercise regimen while still ensuring your immunity.

at least, that's what i'm telling myself as i head through my winter training schedule to yet another spring Ironman. here's to hoping i get the trick right.

Phys Ed: Does Exercise Boost Immunity?
New York Times
By Gretchen Reynolds
October 14, 2009

Two recent experiments hit rather close to home at this time of year. In the first, published last year in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers divided mice into two groups. One rested comfortably in their cages. The other ran on little treadmills until they were exhausted. This continued for three days. The mice were then exposed to an influenza virus. After a few days, more of the mice who’d exhausted themselves running came down with the flu than the control mice. They also had more severe symptoms.

In the second experiment, published in the same journal, scientists from the University of Illinois and other schools first infected laboratory mice with flu. One group then rested; a second group ran for a leisurely 20 or 30 minutes, an easy jog for a mouse; the third group ran for a taxing two and a half hours. Each group repeated this routine for three days, until they began to show flu symptoms. The flu bug used in this experiment is devastating to rodents, and more than half of the sedentary mice died. But only 12 percent of the gently jogging mice passed away. Meanwhile, an eye-popping 70 percent of the mice in the group that had run for hours died, and even those that survived were more debilitated and sick than the control group.

Is this good news or bad? This is a particularly relevant question as two important human events converge: the peaking of the fall marathon and other sports seasons and the simultaneous onset of the winter cold and flu term. Scientists are diligently working to answer that question, perhaps because they are as interested as the rest of us in avoiding or lessening the severity of colds and the flu. The bulk of the new research, including the mouse studies mentioned, reinforce a theory that physiologists advanced some years ago, about what they call “a J-shaped curve” involving exercise and immunity. In this model, the risk both of catching a cold or the flu and of having a particularly severe form of the infection “drop if you exercise moderately,” says Mary P. Miles, PhD, an associate professor of exercise sciences at Montana State University and the author of an editorial about exercise and immunity published in the most recent edition of the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Review. But the risk both of catching an illness and of becoming especially sick when you do “jump right back up” if you exercise intensely or for a prolonged period of time, surpassing the risks among the sedentary. (Although definitions of intense exercise vary among researchers, most define it as a workout or race of an hour or more during which your heart rate and respiration soar and you feel as if you are working hard.)

Why exercise should affect either your susceptibility to catching an illness or how badly a particular bug affects you is still unclear. But it does appear that intense workouts and racing suppress the body’s immune response for a period of time immediately after you’ve finished exercising and that “the longer the duration and the more intense” the exercise, “the longer the temporary period of immunosuppression lasts — anything from a few hours to a few days has been suggested,” says Nicolette Bishop, an associate professor of sport and exercise sciences at Loughborough University and the author of a review article about exercise and immunity published in January.

A telling new study, published in August in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, looked at cellular markers of immune system activity in the saliva of twenty-four, Spanish, professional soccer players, before and after a strenuous, 70-minute match. Before play, the saliva of most of the players showed normal levels of immunoglobulins, substances that help to fight off infection. Afterward, concentrations of saliva immunoglobulins in many of them had fallen dramatically.

If scientists aren’t sure yet why intense exercise temporarily depresses the immune system, however, they seem to be closer to understanding why, once you’ve caught a bug, intense exercise can make the symptoms and severity worse. In work at the University of Illinois, reported last month in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Review, some of the same scientists who’d studied mice and flu looked at just what was going on inside the cells of the affected animals. They found that the leisurely jogging rodents showed signs of a very particular immune response to the flu. In general, and this is true in both mice and men, says Jeffrey A. Woods, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois and one of the scientists involved, viruses evoke an increase in what are called T1-type helper immune cells. These T1-helper cells induce inflammation and other changes in the body that represent a first line of defense against an invading virus. But if the inflammation, at first so helpful, continues for too long, it becomes counterproductive. The immune system needs, then, at some point to lessen the amount of T1-mediated inflammatory response, so that, in fighting the virus, it doesn’t accidentally harm its own host. The immune system does this by gradually increasing the amount of another kind of immune cell, T2-helper cells, which produce mostly an anti-inflammatory immune response. They’re water to the T1 fire. But the balance between the T1- and T2-helper cells must be exquisitely calibrated.

In the mice at the University of Illinois, moderate exercise subtly hastened the shift from a T1 response to a T2-style immune response — not by much, but by just enough, apparently, to have a positive impact against the flu. “Moderate exercise appears to suppress TH1 a little, increase TH2 a little,” Woods says.

On the other hand, intense or prolonged exercise “may suppress TH1 too much,” he says. Long, hard runs or other workouts may shut down that first line of defense before it has completed its work, which could lead, Woods says “to increased susceptibility to viral infection.” So, if you have just completed a strenuous 20-mile training run and have, in consequence, a depressed immune response, avoid colleagues who are sniffling. Wash your hands often. “I would recommend everyone get the annual influenza vaccination and the new H1N1 vaccination,” Woods says. But if all of that has been for naught and you now feel the early stirrings of sickness, “listen to your body and be prudent in your exercise decisions,” Woods says. In general, moderate exercise, such as a leisurely jog or walk, may prop up your immune response and lessen the duration and severity of a mild infection, but be honest about your condition. “If you don’t feel well, especially if you have fever or body aches, I would recommend stopping daily exercise until you are recovered,” Woods says. “It is okay to exercise if you have a simple head cold or congestion — in fact, it may improve the way you feel. I would avoid heavy, prolonged exercise with a head cold, though,” since it can unbalance that important T1 and T2-helper cell response.

And take comfort in the results of the most recent study to look at actual, practicing marathoners. In it, 1,694 runners at the 2000 Stockholm Marathon informed researchers about any colds or other infectious illness they developed in the three weeks before or three weeks after the race. Nearly one-fifth of the runners fell ill during that time period. That’s higher than the rates in people generally, but it still means that the overwhelming majority of runners didn’t get sick.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

ban the speedshop

i ordinarily eschew anything that might give the appearance of marketing, focusing instead on just commentary and recommendations. but occasionally something comes along that is so notable that it stands on its own independent of commercial overtones.

this is one of them:
this is, without a doubt, an act of sheer genius. it is one of the most hilarious videos on cycling i've ever come across. even for people not into cycling, the writing and delivery are so over-the-top that you can't miss the satire. and for those into cycling, you'll catch everything that's being parodied.

for all that, you barely notice that it's a video for Pearl Izumi. it's that funny.

my favorite line: "...cycling is supposed to be are too cold, you are too hot, you are stinky, you are smelly." a friend of mine tells me the last part (which is in italian) is even better, since the speaker goes off talking about technology and how much he hates it.

but anyways, just watch it for yourself, and enjoy.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

a kick in the nuts

you meet some interesting characters in endurance sports, particularly for ultra-endurance events like Ironman. they are without a doubt very unique personalities--you have to be one, or you have to become one, in order to get through the transformative experience of long-distance races--and they are the kind that tend to stick with you in your mind.

and i mean this in a good way: the people i've met are some of the best human beings i've ever met, and among the best exemplars of human nature i've ever seen. i consider myself lucky to have met them, and consider myself lucky to continue meeting them. each one has an indelible story to give, with their own slate of lessons learned.

one comes from a former member of my school's triathlon program (a certain Southern California university located in Los Angeles: go Trojans!). i found out that this particular person, apart from being an MBA student and Ironman triathlete, was incidentally also a former U.S. Navy SEAL instructor. i won't give his name, since i suspect he's loathe to give out that kind of personal information about himself, and i won't mention how i met him (that's a story, and quite an entertaining one, for another time).

at some point during the course of our time in the program, we got into a conversation about the requisite character attributes necessary to do ultra-endurance races. in particular, we were talking about our responses to the question people always ask: how do you prepare yourself for an Ironman?

after swapping stories and talking theories, my acquaintance looked at me and smiled and said that in response to the question he usually went back to his SEAL training, and that one of the things that was told to him (and that he subsequently passed on to recruits as an instructor) was the associated question: how do you prepare yourself for a kick in the nuts?

the idea, essentially, is that an experience like Ironman is invariably (indelibly? inevitably? perpetually?) unpleasant. there are some who might beg to differ. but put it this way: which would you associate as being more pleasurable, sex or Ironman? personally, i would hope it would be sex with an Ironman (preferably me, but again, that's a different story). anways, you get the idea.

no matter how you look at it, Ironman is not going to be easy. it's going to be a challenge. it's going to be hard. it's going to be painful. that, in part, is why it is the experience that it is. and that is why you're going to have to deal with it no matter how you perceive it...hopefully with a response that is constructive and conducive to you achieving your goals.

and how you respond to it determines how you finish it--or if you finish it at all.

so to answer the original question, i go back to my acquaintance, who concluded his comments with a shrug and a smile that can only be described as strangely enigmatic, paradoxically mystical, laconically humorous, and supremely dry:

how do you prepare yourself for an Ironman?

how do you prepare yourself for a kick in the nuts?

the answer is you don't.

you just take it.

and move on.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

the going sure is nice

there are days when you wake up, and everything is right. the air is clear, the wind is crisp, the light is soft, the land is still, and time is more than time and space is more than space and the world is more than the world and

you want to go
everywhere; everywhere
is the murmuring of whispers deep in the mist with the message
that calls you forth to venture beyond your mind
to places you do not know and that you cannot find but which
you most assuredly were meant to understand as clear as the meaning of this sacred morning.

and on these days, you arise in the bliss
that comes with the certainty
that lies in the calm
that holds the secret
that is the beyond

wherever; wherever
the water is harsh the wind is sharp the terrain is steep the body is afire
but does not can not will not reach you

you are a solitary single soul upon golden glowing tree-lined shaded sheltered streets lying in the light of foothills rising in the silence to the majesty of god's great mountains and the realization that you are reaching one step closer to the face of heaven and the sanctity that is the sacred that is the stillness that is eternity
breathing; breathing
guiding seeking aspiring following wandering journeying
in the rhythm that goes as deep and as strong and as certain as the symphony of the song of the sublime sung by the holy of the story of the truths that are the most divine
out there

you do not know
you do not know
you do not know
the going sure is nice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

rappstar's IMAZ 2009 charity event

this is positively brilliant. so brilliant, in fact, that i feel compelled to pass the word:
some of you may have seen the announcement for this already on Slowtwitch:
yes, i know. i just did a social-cause post, and some of you may already be feeling some compassion fatigue. but this caught my eye because it connects Ironman to underdeveloped communities, and i think any attempt to do something like that--especially logically coherent ones like this--deserves to be lauded.

essentially, pro Ironman triathlete Jordan Rapp is using Ironman Arizona 2009 as a vehicle for generating financial support for his efforts to supply bicycles to secondary school children in Zambia. these children frequently travel long distances to reach school, and the idea is that bicycles would alleviate this problem and thereby eliminate at least one of the many myriad challenges facing their education.

the concept is this: Jordan Rapp has created a raffle, with the cost of each raffle ticket being $134. $134 is the cost of 1 bicycle in Zambia, which means that each raffle ticket is going to donate 1 bicycle to a school kid in Zambia. the raffle prizes are given in the Slowtwitch announcement. raffle prizes will be awarded on-line following IMAZ. in addition, Jordan will donate a portion of his prize money, should he get any, towards purchase of the bikes.

so for any of you triathletes, Ironman or otherwise, who have desires to relate your sport to social causes, this is an opportunity. feel free to check it out, and if it meets your wishes, feel free to donate.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

blog action day 2009: climate change

social conscience, social consciousness, and sports are not often associated with one another. for whatever reason (and i admit, there are many), people just don't generally associate athletes and athleticism with concerns for the larger world.

which i think is unfortunate, and one that i think should be dispelled.

as part of this, i am writing this post. some of you may have noticed the presence of the following badge on this blog:

this is the badge for Blog Action Day, an international effort to coordinate blogs from around the world on behalf of various causes, with blogs being asked to raise awareness by posting entries on October 15 of every year on specific themes. for 2009, the theme is climate change, with the goal of helping educate internet users on the issues of climate change. you can learn more at their website (, and also check out their video on Youtube:

i've been remiss about Blog Action Day. i participated in it in 2007 (reference: Blog Action Day 2007), but missed it in 2008 (no excuses, i just let it slip, and it was entirely my own fault).

this year's theme is close to my heart. the bulk of my research and classes relate to international environmental and human rights issues. i deal with climate change--and its political and legal ramifications--quite extensively.

i'm not going to be so conceited as to bore you with details of what i've found in my work, but i will support the cause by providing everyone with information about climate change that i think they can stand to learn, particularly in terms of athletics.

believe it or not, there's been a fair amount of stuff written about the connection between sports and climate change, with articles and reports in the mainstream media, private sources, and even governments. i've selected an assortment of the more comprehensive ones that discuss how sports contributes to climate change and climate change impacts sports:
there's also been efforts by athletes to support climate change as a cause, and i've found some pretty notable examples of Olympic and professional athletes calling for more awareness of climate change:
and of course, if you want to familiarize yourself with the current efforts to deal with climate change, i offer links that i use on a regular basis:
hope that helps. if you have any questions, feel free to write. otherwise, contribute to the cause!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

what if

we make choices in life. choices we don't like. choices difficult. choices uncertain. choices with consequences that reverberate throughout our lives with the whispers of what we did, and leave us to wonder forever what if.

what if we had thought what should have been thought?

what if we had said what should have been said?

what if we had done what should have been done?

what if we had taken

the different direction
the other way
the separate path
and gone

what if we had opened that door and proceeded outside and breathed a deep breath and stepped the first step of the only journey that ever really mattered

but we didn't. for lack of knowledge, for lack of diligence, for lack of effort, for lack of resolve, for lack of courage. for whatever myriad reasons that never really matter other than that they remind us of what we missed and call to us of what we lost and tell us that it was ourselves and then leave us to wonder what if

and nothing more.

which is dangerous. it's not good. it's not right. it's not healthy.

because, you see, the danger with what if is that it often means we spend so much of our now looking at our past that we miss the arrival of our future...and its departure with the rest of our lives.

wondering about what might have been means forgetting about what might be--and leaving it forever as exactly that:


ought could should would

of unrealized dreams
of unmet expectations
of unfulfilled hopes
of unlived lives of

ought could should would


when it must need have will


of dreams made real
of expectations exceeded
of hopes surpassed
of lives lived


there's nothing that we can do about what we did. nothing that we can do to change our choices. nothing that we can do about the consequences. what is what was now history.

we can't control the past. all we can do is to endeavor to see it not become our future. and that means we proceed with our now.

and that means we take whatever knowledge diligence effort resolve courage myriad reasons that gives us ourselves and open that door and proceed outside and breathe a deep breath and step the first step of the only journey that ever really matters and


and make of it our life beyond any imagination.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

playlist: oldies and newbies

we live with a sense of ingrained nostalgia, reaching instinctively for things gone past, reacting by reflex for the idyllic memories of the way things were anytime we are confronted by the shock of something new.

we do not like the new. we do not like its imposition of change. we do not like its demands to break with calcified tradition and fossilized custom and hardened formula. we hold to the habits of the old. cling to the comforts of conformity. reach for the slumber of habits and memories. and turn away from awakening in the disdain of another day.

we want one but not the other. we want nothing with the either. we want to see never of both.

auld lang syne

die toten hosen:

but it doesn't have to be this way.

there does not need to be a shock with the new.

there does not need to be the slumber of habits and memories.

there does not need to be never of both.

love will tear us apart again

joy division:

nerina pallot:

sometimes, the new is not a demand to break.

sometimes, the new is a memory. an attempt to remember. and reach out from a place unknown to a place familiar. and realize that change came from and change is going to the same place: somewhere.

and somewhere can be someplace very special.

just can't get enough
depeche mode:

the saturdays:

there she goes
the las:

sixpence none the richer:

rocket man
elton john:

me first and the gimme gimmes:

let your love flow
bellamy brothers:

petra haden and the sell-outs:

and so the new can be every bit the same as the old. with the same feelings. with the same emotions. with the same stories with the same messages told the same way for the same reasons to the same people with the same hopes and dreams and aspirations and ideals and imaginations and visions of what once was and what now is and what will be.

regardless of time. regardless of space. regardless of who or when or what or why or how.

it's all the same.

it's a hard knock life


tears of a clown
smokey robinson:

the english beat:

i fought the law
bobby fuller:

the clash:

stray cats:

green day:

because we are one and the other. we are all things with the either. we are always of both. old and new. in the connection most profound and eternal:

the race, the journey, the path that is the singing of the song called life.

and that is what we make of it.

stand by me
ben e king:

playing for change:

Saturday, September 26, 2009

videos: strength training (part 3)

note: this is the 3rd in an ongoing, non-regular, non-periodic series on strength training in terms of endurance sports. you can see parts 1 and 2 here:
i found some more Youtube videos regarding strength training. you can add these to the library of videos. these are a little different, but i consider that useful in the sense that it provides some new ideas to help mix up workouts and keep things from becoming monotonous.

there's 2 series of videos from Canada, courtesy of the Ottawa Triathlon Club (i love the way the guy pronounces "about" as "aboooooooooot"!), with 1 for basic and another for advanced strength training. the basic weight training series has 4 parts:
the advanced weight training has 3 parts (although, the video info says it's part of a 4-part series--i couldn't find the 4th, so i'm guessing it was just mislabeling?):
i also noticed that Triathlete magazine is now making Youtube videos, and they have a good one for strength training (and they should make more):
in addition, i came across this one, which i found to contain some of the same exercises that i use:
i should point out that all of the videos here involve exercises that seem to have come from Pilates (or Pilates-type workouts), which focuses more on the core and joints with the development of supporting and stabilizing muscles. as a result, i'll venture to argue that these exercises are NOT meant to develop overall muscle mass (i.e., bulk) or even raw strength, but instead more to help balance the overall musculature and thereby prevent injury. so take them for what it's worth.

but as i mentioned at the start, they still provide some alternative exercises to help mix up the routine. especially as we head into the winter months and the looooooooooong interminable (some say agonizing) season (some say purgatory) of indoor (some say claustrophobic) workouts.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

international talk like a pirate day 2009 (channeling captain jack sparrow)

ok. it's time for a day off. i'm not doing or talking or thinking about anything related to sports today. i'm sore. i'm tired. i'm hungry. and i'm really interested in nothing other than going back to sleep. and the only reason i don't is this:

today, Saturday, September 19, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

i've written about this before:
i'd forgotten about it, but then i saw the CNN news report on it (see below), and was reminded about it once again. ahhhhhhhhhh. yes.

one of the dreams in my life has always been race in pirate gear, dressed up like my hero, Captain Jack Sparrow. i haven't had such blessing to do so, but this day lets me ponder the possibilities. and it will come. yes, it will come. by the doors of Davy Jones' locker and the beatin' heart of a dead man's chest, i'll represent the pirate's code and make for a race day yet!




ahoy! avast ye scurvy dogs!!! prepare to be boarded and thrown to the mast!


and just what be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, you ask? ye can learn more here:
celebrate this day with me, my hearties. and know we be not alone, for their be proof that thar be others like ourselves makin' merry on here day:
and no, we be not bad. why even yon magazine New Yorker espied our trade, and offered up compliments:
and just so you know me hero, Captain Jack Sparrow, i'll leave you with this tale:
so celebrate! tell all the mateys. and tell 'em i sent ya! and remember: this is the day you will always remember as the day you met...Captain...Jack...Sparrow!


Thursday, September 10, 2009

vancouver 2010: green olympic village


the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada are supposed to continue the trend towards more eco-friendly sports events, with the Olympic-related construction in Whistler and Vancouver aimed at fulfilling the goals of sustainable development. as part of this, the Olympic village in Vancouver is intended to be a model of sustainability, and has been touted as an example of what will eventually become mixed-use mixed-residence green urban living, accommodating businesses and residences spanning low-to-high-income populations.

you can see Vancouver's plan on their website, as well as on the BBC's video report:
there's also 2 excellent websites with computer renderings of the completed project:
the project features the usual assortment of sustainable practices: use of solar energy, energy-efficient construction, catchment of rain water, recycling of human waste, etc. all of it takes advantage of Vancouver's natural environment. it's also serving to replace some of the more decayed parts of the city's waterfront with more attractive cityscape matching the existing urban environment. quite impressive, seeing how Vancouver is already--if you've ever been there, you'll know that it is one of the most beautiful urban areas of the world, with immaculate shorelines, well-laid street grids, abundance of green space, and all of it within minutes of some of the most beautiful sea and mountain terrain you will ever see (at least, it is during the summer...the winter is a bit of a different story).

it's quite commendable. and something i'd like to see more sports venues, especially the mega-events, try to aim for.

however, i'd be remiss if i didn't point out that this kind of construction isn't without some issues. i came across this piece:
it doesn't reveal anything tawdry, like corruption or sleaze or anything of that sort. but it's interesting in that it shows that the Vancouver Winter Olympics are experiencing the same issues as all other Olympic construction: cost over-runs, decreasing profitability, over-optimistic plans, scale-backs in aspirations, etc. which essentially demonstrates that green, eco-friendly sports tied to sustainable development are not immune to the issues typical to other mega-sports events. in other words: it may be a good cause, but it still has the same problems.

i wanted to make this point because a lot of the time we tend to associate good causes with ideal scenarios, with the assumption that because we aim for something noble (e.g., green Olympics) that we will be magically transported to a land where everything is easy.

but life doesn't work that way. and it's dangerous to think so. because things invariably do run into challenges, and any assumptions of easy lead inevitably to disillusionment--and worse--cynicism. and that leads to the most tragic outcome of all: abandonment of a worthy cause.

i think it's important to remember the lessons of our sport...or any sport. things aren't easy. especially if they're good. if anything, one of the reasons some aspirations are good is because they're hard. because this shows what a challenge they pose, and what achievements they are, and just what they can teach you in accomplishing them.

good things are good because you have to be good to deserve them. you have to earn them. you have to change. you have to be better than what you are now.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

european runners

for those of you into cross-cultural exchange, ASICS recently published the results of their multi-national study on running habits in Europe. you can access it here:
don't be fooled by the spare nature of the entry page. click on any one of the countries or the more general "Europe" and you'll find a lot of content regarding the nature of runners and running across the continent. it appears to have been a pretty big project, with the sample size being 3,500 runners from 7 countries ranging in age from 15-65.

i find this fascinating. whether you're European or not, what's clear is that there are very clear differences with respect to running that are identifiable based on culture on a national level. the results of the study show that different nations have different levels of running, with different motivations and different patterns. it makes you wonder what aspects of the culture in each country led to its respective relationship with running.

of course, the differences may be trite, considering that the study points to a single simple result: Europeans run. nothing earth-shattering there. and what you would expect given that ASICS sponsored this study.

but i think there is some insight provided by the study in terms of why Europeans run. and i do think it's important, because it shows that even though many people share a common passion for a common activity, they find very different reasons and very different ways to do so. which suggests that the activity--and by extension any activity (swimming, biking, running, sewing, playing cards, throwing rocks)--can be universal, particularly in the sense of being something that can unite people and societies who are so different. and better yet, it can then thereby indicate how we can seek to do so.

something we can probably use in this world.