Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Things I learned from running an ultramarathon (in which I admit my hubris)



On Saturday, I ran 50 miles in the woods at Millican Reserve; first a 10K loop followed by three 25K loops. This was the inaugural ultramarathon put on by the folks at the BCS Marathon Series benefitting Mercy Project. The almost-thirteen hours I spent running, and the time I’ve spent hobbling around since, have given me the opportunity to reflect on several lessons this experience has taught me.


1.      Give yourself time/training is good
2.      Trail races are very different from street races
3.      Running is a team sport
4.      Dill pickles taste great

1. Give yourself time/training is good – I had been sort-of contemplating registering for this race since its announcement several months ago. Several personal reasons had kept me from registering until about two weeks ago at the weekly Brazos Valley Whisker Club social, a friend announced that he would be running the 25k race with mutual friend of ours. I immediately opened up my phone browser and registered for the 50 mile. Why not?

It did not occur to me in that moment that these friends had gratis registration since their employer,   New Republic Brewing Company, is a race sponsor. Time is your friend when race registration costs get higher the closer you get to race day. My consolation is that the race proceeds fund a charity that I care about deeply.

Registering for a long race two weeks ahead of time also does not give you much time to train. I have good friends that have trained relentlessly for ultramarathons and given the race and themselves that each deserve. I feel like a dilettante because I had two double-digit runs between my December marathon and this race. I’m truly lucky to have finished, and without (permanent) injury.

 2. Trail races are very different from road races – I have previously run the BCS Marathon Series Night Time Trail run twice, and the Honored Hero run, which had some off-pavement portions. Neither were true technical trails and could not have prepared me for the terrain and how this would affect my pace. The Night Time trail run was on a wide, fairly flat, path that (while dusty) was like running on a cushion. Similarly, the trail portion of the Honored Hero Run is on a flat gravel path along the Trinity River. 

   A true technical trail has significant elevation changes, sometimes in very short distance (at one point in this race we pulled ourselves up a steep creek bank on a knotted rope) and many trip hazards. Technical trail races are especially unkind to minimalist runners since you’ll feel every twig, stump, and rock in the path. This can be an advantage to those behind you.
My rationalization when signing up for the race was that the 15-hour course limit was plenty sufficient for me to take it easy on the course. I estimated that my typical long-distance pace is between 10-12 minutes per mile, which meant I might expect a 10ish hour race. My normal walking pace is 18 minutes per mile, and I figured that even if I walked the course I could finish 50 miles in 15 hours. These estimates were based on my experience running on road races, however. Trail running means significantly slowing down your pace for obstacles and taking more time at aid stations.

While I made it through about half the race in fairly good shape, my lack of training started to show by the end of our second 25k loop. My hip flexors threatened to give out with every up- or down-hill step and my left foot felt so swollen that it might burst the seams of my Vibram Fivefingers. This might have been the case even in a road race, but my feeling is that the terrain played a large part in how beat up I felt. On the bright side, the scenery was gorgeous!


3. Running is a team sport – I usually run alone. As I’ve described before, I began running because my spouse was running, then I kept it up because of the charities being supported, and in order to be healthy enough to keep up with my kids. As I’ve continued to run, I have found that it is my contemplative time—the time I get alone with my thoughts. I often use the time to say my daily prayers. As a personal meditative exercise, running is a solitary activity for me.

As an athlete, though, I am a team player. I find motivation in encouraging others. This is especially true in long races, where my encouraging someone else is also keeping me going (however annoying I may be—apologies N. & E.!). I was fortunate to find someone to train with and have shared contemplative time with for my marathon this year, but did not plan for this kind of companionship for the ultramarathon (see #2 above). Fortunately, a friend was running the ultra, too, and had come to the race with similar naïveté. He was better trained than I was, however, and I encouraged him to go on ahead in our final 25K loop and not be dragged down by my slowing pace. That final lap, in which the sun finally set and I was making my way through pitch dark and finding the trip hazards that were hard to see even in the sunlight, I was finally mentally beat.



As I made it through the stretch of woods just before the final aid station, I was playing through my options mentally. I rationalized that 46 miles was still something to be proud of, and that I shouldn’t expect to be able to finish without proper training and preparation. I emerged from the woods to find the race director and one of his staff at the table. They had sent the volunteers home; I was the last runner through. They took my water bottle from me, asked if I needed any food, and said I could rest—but only for a couple of minutes. Chris, the race director, asked me what my motivation was. In the moment, I couldn’t think of anything except to just finish. He then reminded me of something he had said at the previous BCS trail run (and which we had discussed briefly since then): that we are very fortunate to have the freedom and means to pay money to run. Chris reminded me that I wasn’t running just for myself, and he also reminded me why running is a team—really a family—sport. You need perspective, and sometimes that perspective has to be loving but firm.

Chris told me there were just 3.5 miles left, and that if I pushed myself I could catch up with the rest of the group. I don’t know where it came from, but I did run most of the rest of the way, passing a couple of guys who were part of the 50 States Marathon Club (and who were headed to Lafayette, LA the next day for a marathon) and finishing about 15 minutes behind my friend.

4. Dill pickles taste great – Besides the encouragement of others, the other thing that truly sustained me on the race was the food. I typically cannot eat before running; I get bad indigestion. However, in order to keep up this kind of activity, you have to keep fueling yourself. The first aid station we came up to had things you might expect: water, electrolytes, pretzels, cookies. But what I was immediately drawn to was the pickles. Tiny kosher dill pickles must have been exactly the salt source I needed. I picked up some M&Ms, too, but it was the pickles that I really wanted (I even drank pickle juice later when the pickles were all gone). Other sources of food included peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (to which I added potato chips) and quesadillas. The beer proffered by New Republic as we finished each lap was heartening, too!



Against what seems to be incredible odds, I was able to finish this race with nothing worse than some chafing and serious stiffness the following couple of days. I went out for a 3 mile recovery run (in the rain) yesterday. I commented to a friend that I couldn’t bear the thought of rolling my muscles as I knew I should, but I wanted to go for a run. That is a kind of sickness, I guess.
Another friend sent an email to congratulate me and see how I feel. I’m still not sure how to answer. It feels kind of like finishing another marathon. Not much has changed, except that my legs have carried me 50 miles in about half a day. And I survived.

Part of my desire to run this race in the first place is that I’m planning to apply to the Unogwaja Challenge for 2016, which includes the 56-mile Comrades Ultramarathon. Since I’d never run anything close to that distance, I wanted to test myself to see what is possible. My friend John, who started the Unogwaja Foundation as an homage to the indomitable power of the human spirit, did a nice job with that teachable moment. He said, “if the heart is in the right place it won’t matter what surface or how long.”



ShooooOOOOoooops!  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

TAMU Zoo?

Today's news item describing PETA's request that Texas A&M stop using live elephants for the annual Elephant Walk tradition reminded me of details of a pet project I've been mulling for a number of years: A zoo at Texas A&M University.

In my notes, I have dubbed this dream project "The Texas A&M University Wildlife Habitat and Center for Conservation Science," but I should note that I have neither sought nor received any official buy-in.

This is a very rough sketch, and I'm mostly posting it now for posterity, and on the off-chance that an angel investor might read this and decide to bankroll the project. If that happens, I'd at least like to get a season pass.

The broad strokes:
  • We are a land-rich campus and have the opportunity to pick up farmland in the area to make natural habitats.
  •  Augment Elephant Walk tradition by having a (secondary?) mascot elephant(s)…these wouldn’t be carted in for a performance, but would be friends with whom we would develop a relationship
    • *Bonus: "Ol' Sarge" the elephant helps build the first on-campus bonfire after we are allowed to have them again.
  •  Opportunity for cheap labor by utilizing undergrad and grad students in related majors for labor.
    • Bonus: Enhances the Vet School’s offerings by allowing specialization in zoo exotics.
  •  Attract top notch scientists to work on an interdisciplinary endeavor.
  •  Adds value to the community…provides a source of revenue as a family/tourist attraction.

The potential shareholders (again, these are my thoughts, and this should not be taken to represent buy-in from any entity named below):

  • TAMU Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences – Conservation Biology and Biodiversity (CBB)
  • TAMU Bioenvironmental Science
  • TAMU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science
  • Dr. Mark Holtzapple, TAMU Chemical Engineering – Biomass Fuel
  • Whoever is working on solar power
  • Whoever has the land
  • Whoever is working on cleaning up river water
  • Cities of Bryan & College Station
  • American Zoological Association
  • International Zoo Educators Association
  • Stephanie Boyles (Wildlife Biologist at PETA when I first dreamt this up)

I've noticed that there is roughly 700 acres of land along the Brazos River where TX-60 crosses it heading southwest out of town. The Cameron Park Zoo in Waco (the closest zoo to Bryan/College Station at about 100 miles) is similarly situated on a river. It seems to work well for them!




Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Injustice Anywhere

I am still trying to process and respond to the news that Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot multiple times and killed Saturday in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO. 

I was in St. Louis at the time and didn't hear about the issue until I saw militarized police responding to unrest on the news while traveling home on Sunday. Truly, there are two Americas. 

Watching and reading the news of response to this latest atrocity, especially the rioting in Missouri, I was reminded of Frantz Fanon's assertion that violent subjugation leads to violent freedom. I'm not content to leave the issue here though, because to do so seems to remove other options for agency, especially nonviolent response such as was advocated by Dr. Martin Lither King, Jr. 

The essence of waging nonviolence, or satyagraha as Ghandi called it, depends on a moral consciousness that can be shocked into action. I am not convinced that the fourth estate is robust enough or its American audience sensitive and attentive enough to be moved. I hope I'm wrong, but even Dr. King recognized the limits of his tactics:

"And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."

Excerpted from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's speech "The Other America" delivered at Grosse Point High School March 14, 1968. Read the entire speech at http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/

Merely condemning riots or condemning systematic violence against black and brown bodies is not enough. Are we willing to be personally invested (and then stand to be personally divested of comfort and freedom) in the hardship we don't yet face ourselves?

Monday, August 04, 2014

Some of us are still here



Some of us are still here
Sitting, no longer expectantly,
Behind grey windows and brown walls
Whose vacant stare we’ve adopted
As defense against the loss of hope

We sit, whiling the hours till it is time to leave for work
Or not.
Work that pays just enough to pay rent, and food, and transportation
To get to work and back
Or not.

Sometimes, when we forget ourselves,
We hate you, just a little bit, for making it out
We are jealous of your successes large and small
But only when we forget ourselves
When we return to sense
Your success is our pride

We love you because you made it out

We don’t want anything from you
Except that you remember,
In the midst of that money, and power,
And bright life
That some of us are still here.

March 2009

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Orthodox Localism

The following advice is transcripted from Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick's The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism (Part 1  & Part 2).

In this two-part talk, Fr. Andrew describes how consumer-oriented society is at odds with traditional Christian faith. Orthodox localism, then, is a kind of corrective, an ascetic practice which though prayer and stewardship can sanctify a place. (See Fr. Andrew's series "The Transfiguration of Place," as well as his discussion of "thin places").

In the second part I this talk, Fr. Andrew provides some concrete suggestions for Orthodox Localism:

1. Buy local, especially food
2. Attend the (canonical Orthodox) church closest to you
3. Don't worry about having to "maintain" friendships 
4. Walk around your neighborhood and town
5. Take pictures of your town
6. Try to do all of your shopping and banking within two miles of your house
7. Move out of the suburbs or make your suburban area more of an urban center
8. Try to make new buildings reminiscent of the historical architecture in the area
9. Put a front porch on your house
10. Learn how to garden
11. Think up a name for your house
12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good
13. Learn the history of your town
14. Get involved in local politics
15. Figure out ways to involve your parish in the immediate neighborhood and town
16. Give to local charities and help local people in need
17. Have your parish start a non-profit small business

If you are interested in discussing ideas like localism (not necessarily Orthodox) and the related economic concept of Distributism, check out the "Party of the Shires" group on Facebook. 

Curators of the Particular

This was originally posted to the "The Best Thing This Year" (TBTTY) list, but I wanted to share it more broadly, too. There's a nice write-up on the TBTTY project at Mother Jones (http://m.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2012/05/the-best-thing-this-year-dan-shapiro) and you can sign up for the list at http://membership.thebestthingthisyear.com.

Since being introduced to TBTTY by Dan Shapiro (through the Robot Turtles Kickstarter), I've wondered what I might use this virtual soapbox to talk about. 

I thought about using it to promote the work done by my friend Brad Blauser, who provides pediatric wheelchairs for children in poor an war-torn regions. Brad was a finalist for the 2009 CNN Heroes program, and has provided wheelchairs for children in Iraq, Haiti*, and South America (http://kidChairs4Life.org).

I've also thought about using TBTTY to promote Mercy Project (http://mercyproject.net), a program started by my friend Chris Field to help rescue children from slavery in Ghana and help address the underlying economic problems that contribute to a culture of child slavery. Chris is a runner and started a marathon in my hometown to benefit Mercy Project. This proved pivotal I. My life because--while I am not naturally a runner--running for a cause has helped me learn discipline and improve my health. Chris is currently in the running (pun intended) to be featured on the cover of Runner's World and share the work of Mercy Project with the 3 million readers of the magazine (if you'd like to help, vote at http://covercontest.runnersworld.com/entry/1013/).

Instead of focusing on either friend (see what I did there?), I decided to talk about something they've both helped me to realize: true success and making a difference in the world depends on figuring out my unique set of interests and abilities, and focusing my time, energy, and resources in that space. 

This advice comports with what I've heard from successful entrepreneurs so all stripes. Find what you love and pursue it. 

The way I think about it is that we're each curators of the particular. We all have an overlapping set of interests and abilities that lend themselves
To a niche product. The trick is to become an expert in that niche and learn how to talk about it intelligibly to the rest of the world. And, it helps to remember that you don't have to catch everyone's interest. Roughly paraphrasing Derek Sivers, even if you only capture 1% of the population, that's still a huge number of people (http://sivers.org/proudly-exclude-most).

My own intersecting set of interests and abilities seems to deal with art, food, and education at human-scale. That is, supporting local artists, farmers and restauranteurs, and figuring out how best to engage learners' curiosity to ignite a life-long love of learning. 

I'm not in the same league as the friends I mentioned, but I'm still working on curating my cause. If be interested I hearing about your cause. Hit me up on Twitter @jkotinek. 

* My original post to TBTTY incorrectly listed Cuba instead of Haiti. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Is Gifted Education Worth It? Who Should We Ask?

Questions about the value of gifted education have seen a lot of recent attention in the news recently. This recent contribution to the conversation stands out for me because of the gaps in logic:

Four gifted writers share doubts about gifted education - http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/four-gifted-writers-share-doubts-about-gifted-education/2014/06/14/ec8f2228-f31a-11e3-9ebc-2ee6f81ed217_story.html

A few thoughts in response:

1. Gifted doesn't just mean good at what they do or creative. The proliferation of definitions makes this difficult to discern, I understand.

2. Not only is your sample one of convenience, you've asked people who were never formally identified as gifted what they think of the formal program that they didn't participate in (save one).

3. Gifted education advocates that I know would not disagree with the assertion that gifted children would benefit from the opportunity to explore their interests rather than a highly-structured curriculum.

A better piece might first take a critical look at the definition of giftedness. There are certainly lots of opportunities to poke holes in gifted education just because of the proliferation of definitions and the curricula developed (and sold) to support them.

Next, a better piece might ask gifted persons who were part of a GT curriculum what worked and what didn't. It might ask those that weren't identified for their perspective from the outside looking in.

Lastly, a better piece might take a closer look at what is actually advocated by scholars in gifted education, rather than punching a straw man argument.

Maybe someday I'll have the time and opportunity to write that better piece. For now, this critical response will have to do.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A haiku for running

No earbuds for me
Heart and feet thump against city
cadence for my prayers