Friday, November 27, 2009

Good Times

I was thinking about politics and history the other day (I think about politics and history in every day ending in a "y.") It occured to me what a crummy political era we are living in. Imagine, if you will, that you had been 21 years old and able to vote for the first time in November of 1932 (because the voting age wasn't lowered to 18 until the 1970s). You would have had the opportunity to vote 4 times for FDR (arguably the #3 president of all time, after Lincoln and Washington, and the fellow whose face is on the dime), then once for Truman (traditionally seen as a top 10 president, and my favorite Democrat), twice for Eisenhower (also top 10, and on the silver dollar), and then finally JFK (not top 10, but he's on the half dollar). Even if you didn't vote for all of them, it would be hard to argue that we got a pretty good run of leadership. You would be 53 years old before you ever had to stand in a voting booth and wonder whether LBJ or Barry Goldwater was the lesser of two evils.

Contrast that with my voting experience. My first election was 1988. I voted for Bush 41, but never was a huge fan... it was more a vote against Dukakis. In 1992 and 1996 we got Clinton, whose distinction of being only the second president ever impeached will almost certainly keep him off of the currency. And of course, the alternative choices (Bush again, and Bob Dole) were of the hold-your-nose-when-you-vote variety. Then 8 years of Bush 43, who has never prompted an order for dynamite for any additions to Mt. Rushmore. The only good thing I can say about those two wins is that Gore and Kerry were just as bad as Dole had been. And then, most recently, Obama vs. Dole again. (Whoops. I meant McCain. It's so hard to keep track of which foul-tempered war hero is which.) I have gray whiskers, and I have never had the opportunity to vote for a candidate I really, really liked. I was just a little too young to pull the lever for Reagan. But in my 40 years on the planet, he would have been the only candidate I could have taken great pride in supporting (I also was around for Nixon, Ford, and Carter... now that's an all-star team).

I don't know why the last 20 years haven't produced a Reagan, or a Truman. But I do know that watching politics these days reminds me of Casey Stengel's famous baseball quote: "Can't anybody around here play this game anymore?"

Muscle Memory

Yesterday I ran our local Turkey Day Run for the first time in 9 years. This was my first race of any sort in 2 years, and only my third in the last 5. I didn't really know what to expect, but my brother-in-law kept on encouraging me over the last month as I debated whether or not to really do it. He told me, "once you pin a number to your shirt, muscle memory will do the rest."

It turns out that he was 100% right. On race day, I felt exactly like I have for every other race I've run in the past 27 years. Despite all my talk about lower expectations, running "just for fun," and all that, as soon as I pinned on a race number and laced up my racing flats, I might as well have been 17 years old again according to the butterflies in my stomach. And even though I told anybody who would listen that I really didn't expect much, and that anything under 23 minutes was an acceptable time, inside I was praying, "just let it be 21:59."

The race-day conditions were as perfect as they come. 55 degrees and overcast is what you hope for if you're a world-class guy seeking to set a record, and that's what we got. Additionally, the course is flat and fast, and the only challenge comes during a portion of the 2nd mile if there's a stiff headwind. This year was calm. My pace goals were simple--try not to be stupid in the first mile, run just under 7 minutes, and then try to hang on for dear life and average around 7's for the next two. I hit the first mile in 6:39. Although I felt like I had tried to hold back, the time scared me. I was sure I'd pay the price for that exuberance the rest of the way. I told myself, "stay steady," but mentally I reset my goals for a pair of 7:10's at best. But the second mile split said 6:53. Suddenly it was within my grasp to break 22:00 if I could just buckle down and run a 7:20 last mile. At the beginning of the third mile, a friend who runs consistently in the 21's came up from behind me. Two thoughts came to mind. First, I could tuck in with him and almost certainly meet my goal. But then another idea popped up: I haven't beaten this guy in years, and I've been ahead of him for two-thirds of the race. If I can turn it up just a notch, maybe I can pull away from him. I did, and managed to run the third mile in about 6:50. The last 200 meters is where I used to catch a lot of people, mostly because I would have too much gas left in the tank from poor pacing and because I had sprinter speed back then. Yesterday, not so much. I rolled up just a few souls in my feeble "kick," but only because I had just run one of the most evenly-paced races of my life (6:48 a mile, 21:05 total).

The numbers guy in me spent the rest of the day hoping for the results to be posted online so I could fiddle with them. I plugged my time into every online calculator imaginable. Turns out that my age-adjusted time would have been 20:10, less than a minute worse than I ran on the same course 9 years ago. I wound up placing 197th out of over 4000 finishers, and 18th in my age group (out of 188 men aged 40-44). I was also about 48th out of all the men aged 40+. None of those are great--it's the low end of what might be called "local class." Just like a decade ago, I'm right below the guys who can plausibly be called "pretty good." Indeed, the same folks I used to run with back in the 25-29 age group are still right ahead of me, by roughly the same margins. But that's fine. What's exciting is that I thought I had fallen out of that pack altogether, and it turns out that I've more or less jumped back in right where I left off.

I don't know if this means I'll get serious and try to move up in that pack, but it does validate what I've been doing for the past 7 months. The biggest difference between this "comeback" and many previous ones has been consistency. I haven't done any "workouts," I haven't even really had a training plan. But what I have done is get out the door regularly and just run (usually at a pretty easy pace). What has made that possible is having a regular "appointment" with consistent training partners. And with every run, the habit of consistency becomes stronger.

Anyway, I'm very, very pleased. This step will hopefully help me to stay motivated throughout the winter, when traditionally my training has dropped off. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Archie Bunker, Meet Sarah Palin

Sometimes two unconnected thoughts just come together. About a week ago, when Going Rogue by Sarah Palin was first making news, I participated in an online discussion on a message board I frequent. Someone asked, basically, "what's the attraction to Sarah Palin?" In a veritable ocean of partisan abuse, I actually took it upon myself to answer the question, as best I could (I'll get back to the answer in a minute).

Then today I finished up my lessons on the 1970s, which today included a whirlwind tour of the pop culture of the decade. I hit disco, movies (Jaws, Rocky, The Godfather, and Star Wars), Fonzie, MASH, and Archie Bunker. The part on All In the Family clicked in with my earlier thinking on Palin.

For those who are not old enough to have seen the show, All in the Family was one of the most cutting-edge, socially-conscious TV shows ever made. But something unexpected happened. Producer Norman Lear intended for the main character, Archie Bunker, to be an object of scorn and derision. For Lear and his social circle, nothing could be funnier than pointing and laughing at an ignorant, blue-collar, intolerant, sexist, bigoted, out-of-touch conservative from Queens. But Archie became the hero of the program. I remember watching reruns of the show with my grandfather in the late 70s and early 80s. He loved Archie. And why shouldn't he have? My grandfather was born in 1922, lived through the Great Depression and WWII ("the big one," Archie called it). Like Archie, he could see that some (not all) of the "gains" of the 60s and 70s were just foolishness. And Granddaddy never did have much time for foolishness. As it turned out, many Americans didn't see Archie as the bad guy--he was something of a spokesman for the "silent majority." (Let's not forget that over 60% of voters and 49 states chose Nixon over McGovern in 1972, even though ALL the "smart people" voted for McGovern).

That brings me back to Palin. Let me begin by saying I don't think she ought to be president. I don't think she has the requisite preparation, and an attractive personal narrative and ability to excite a crowd are no substitute for that. (Sadly, about 53% of voters apparently felt otherwise in November.) But what I do like about her is that she has all the right enemies. Not just the snobs of the left, but also the snobs of the right (I'm thinking David Brooks, for starters). She drives them absolutely batty, and that makes me happy. She also has the effect of shining a bright light on the amazing double standards at work in our modern media culture. When the Associated Press assigned 11 reporters to "fact-check" her ghostwritten autobiography--more than they could spare to analyze the multi-trillion dollar health care bill in the senate --well, that says a little something. I get tired of people who think they are smarter than me defining what is the "conventional wisdom." They say Palin is dumb because she didn't go to an elite school. They also say Bush was dumb, despite the fact that he went to Yale and Harvard. But then they say that the very fact that Obama went to Columbia and Harvard is proof-positive that he's a genius. Maybe that's even correct, but it is not so just because they say so, nor is it logically consistent.

Anyway, back to Archie. I think there is a "silent majority" today, too. And maybe we/they are not sophisticated enough to know when we're being mocked, or maybe we think it's the mockers who are out of touch. We recognize that Sarah Palin and Archie Bunker are far more genuinely American than Norman Lear and David Brooks and Jon Stewart put together.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Just another quick running-related blog post. On Tuesday, I logged my 100th run of this year. This is not an amazingly high number, but it includes only about 20 runs from January 1st to May 1st (including 10 of them in early January), so it represents pretty good consistency since then. Additionally, I only managed to run less than 120 times total each of the past 3 years, so if I maintain my current regimen, I should wind up with my highest total in recent memory. Moreover, I've already logged more miles this year than either of the past two, and my average run per day is much better than what I was doing then. So, I'm running more often, more consistently, and further than I have in a long time. Admittedly, I'm also running a little slower, and I haven't done many quality "workouts." But I'm rather pleased with the numbers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Running History

I've been exchanging emails with my brother-in-law today. He's a runner, too. Actually, we're very different kinds of runners. He's an ultra-marathoner. That means he gets more miles in one run than I do in a week. He is currently training for a 12-hour race. At that distance, you don't exactly sprint the whole way. Our emails back and forth have rotated around the fact that, in our early 40's, we're still runners, but not quite as fast as we once were (he was a sub 5-minute miler and a very good cross-country runner, and I once was a pretty good sprinter and not-horrible cross-country runner).

That led me to think of all the things I have done as a runner. It was about 27 years ago that I went out to my school's track with my dad carrying an old-fashioned stopwatch with a sweep-second hand and ran my first mile. I ran 7:26, but at the time didn't know if that was a good or a bad time. But I decided I would go out for the track team that spring, if only because there was no ball involved that I could fail to catch. They put me with the distance kids because I wasn't fast enough to be a sprinter, and I began plugging away trying to run a sub-6-minute mile. The next fall (my sophomore year), I joined the cross-country team, mainly because that's what all the track guys I looked up to did. I wasn't very good, but I got to run with some guys who were. That spring, I ran sub-6 and barely scored, but my team produced 7 state champions and an all-American, and we won the state title as a team.

My junior year I was 8th man on the cross-country team. 7 make the varsity. I was the alternate at the state meet. That spring, a combination of miles, a growth spurt, and the graduation of all those champions allowed me to contribute to the track team for the first time, and even to run the weak leg of the mile relay. I earned my first varsity letter. My senior year, I was a co-captain of the cross-country team and ran consistently in the top 7, including 5th (the last scoring spot) at state. I was the 82nd kid in the meet. In track I ran the anchor leg of the relay and set a school record in the 100 meter dash (largely due to being one of the first to run the event after the conversion to metric distances). I was a conference runner-up (twice) and ran in the lower-state championship meet. I never qualified for state in track.

In college there was never a time I considered myself to have stopped being a runner, but I didn't run consistently. I took 2nd place in the 100 two years in a row at the University of SC intramural track meet. Once a year, near my birthday, I would bench press my weight and run a mile in under 6 minutes, just to be sure I still could.

Sometime in the early 1990s I began training again. I was actually out on a run (a great hill workout) when my wife took the pregnancy test that told us we were becoming parents. The day my oldest son was born, I had to knock on my training partner's door early in the morning to get my watch, which I had left in his apartment. I had to clear splits from the previous day's run to time contractions. When I interviewed for my first teaching job, I told them I could coach track, and somehow they gave me the job. I didn't even know how to score the high jump. I just knew I liked to run.

While learning to coach, I kept running. I ran the USMC marathon in 1986. I ran a half-dozen half-marathons. I ran the Cooper River Bridge Run several times, which is one of the top ten 10k races in the USA. Once I even made the very first column of results in the tiny print of the local paper (top 600 out of about 30,000 finishers, but still over 2 miles behind the Kenyans who got the prize money). I raced dozens of local 5ks, winning a couple of small ones when the field was weak and picking up a few age-group awards. My favorite was a 6th-place award in a run called the "handicap run" which started runners in reverse order of their personal best. The lady who beat me for 5th was 80 years young and had started over 20 minutes earlier. Another 50 meters and I could have gotten her! Perhaps my favorite moment was running 5 seconds faster than my previous PR (personal record), set at the state cross-country meet in 1986, when I was 31 years old. .

The past few years I have run less and less, and slower and slower. The coaching has gone well (a couple of team state championships and about 18 individuals and relay teams, plus a re-writing of my school's record books, including re-setting the record I once held). But I've only raced twice since turning 35. Only one month of the past 11 years has gone by with zero runs (that was the month I drove 7000 miles in an RV across the USA), but I've certainly not been consistent, nor could you call what I'm doing "training." But the last 6 months have been great, and I'm flirting with running our local Thanksgiving race as my first attempt as a "masters" (age 40+) runner.

I don't know for sure what my running future holds. I'm pretty sure none of the miles will be sub-6. But I do know that it's a blessing to still be a runner.

Yesterday's Elections

The blogosphere is abuzz with Monday-morning quarterbacking of the very few elections held in this odd-numbered year. We political junkies have to have something to do, I guess. A few thoghts on the matter:

I was pleased to see Christie win in NJ and McDonnell win in Virginia. They are the ones I would have voted for. But if anybody had to lose, I hate that it was Conservative Party upstart Hoffman in the New York congessional special election. Not because of any national implications or broad ideological point, but because he was (is) a regular guy, a pretty nerdy accountant, who sought to become a citizen-legislator. He almost pulled it off, too. If I could get just one constitutional amendment passed, it would likely be term limits. Nobody, from either party, needs to be a professional politician for life.

Along those same lines, the big spin, especially from the White House, is that yesterday's big wins by Republicans were emphatically NOT a referendum on Obama or his policies, but rather a symptom of broad anti-incumbent feelings. OK, I'll buy that, to a point (although if Corzine had won, I'm sure the White House would want some credit). But here's a news flash: most of the incumbents these days ARE Democrats. It's almost always easier to be the party promising "change" than the one doing the governing. Reality is a stubborn thing.

Also, what about the conventional wisdom that the election of Obama signaled the end of the Republican party, the death knell of the Reagan Revolution, etc.? How quickly we forget. I recall back when George W. Bush became the only president since FDR to have his party gain congressional seats in an off-year election (2002) and then beat Kerry in 2004 that we gave the same sort of premature eulogies for the Democrats, and folks like Karl Rove were trumpeting the soon-to-be permanent GOP majority. People really ought to read some history (or just take my class).

Now there will be lots of ink (pixels) spilled over what yesterday means for the future of Health Care Reform--particularly over whether supporting the 1993 version is what cost Democrats control of the House in 1994, or whether getting that one passed would have saved them. But at the end of the day, what will make the difference is not what the pundits (whether professionals or amateurs like me) think, or what's good for the country, or even what's good for the parties. It will come down to what the 535 senators and congressmen each individually think is in their own best interest when it comes to keeping their cushy, powerful, prestigious jobs in DC (and in the case of those whose jobs are safe, what will enlarge their own influence). And that stinks. Bah! Term limits! Impeach everybody! A pox on all their houses!