Archive for June, 2008

Why ultramarathons?

June 28, 2008

I realized after my last post that most sane people have no idea why people would want to run (or walk) even farther than a marathon.

My first marathon was hard. I thought I would be able to run the whole thing, but after about 18 miles it got hard, and I couldn’t convince myself to run much at all after 22 miles. A couple days later I bought two books, both on ultramarathons and the people who run them (Ultramarathon Man by the controversial Dean Karnazes, and Running Through the Wall). But why?

First, I figured that if “The Wall” was a problem, going further than that more often would train my body to deal with it better.

Next, I noticed that before I started training for a marathon, a half marathon seemed like a really long distance that you had to plan for carefully before attempting. But once you do training runs that are noticeably longer than that, you start to get the impression that on most days, with no planning, you could go out and complete a half marathon. My theory was that ultrarunning could make the same thing true for full marathons.

Most ultramarathons are on trails rather than on roads, and I like trails much better, so that’s another reason to break out of the marathon tradition. They also generally have a lot more elevation change than road events, which makes them more interesting and more challenging, that last part being both a drawback and a benefit. As an old boss told me over 20 years ago, “if it was easy anyone could do it.”

And finally, I concluded that I’m not very fast, so I might as well go far.

Does that make any sense?

The 50K I just did is actually the first of three events that build on each other. In July I’m signed up for another 50K, only in that case I am expecting to have done a very long (28 mile) training run just a week prior, and the plan also calls for a shorter run the day immediately after the 50K, to experience running on tired legs. All of that leads to the current ultimate goal: 50 miles on August 9th.

Earlier in the year I figured I wouldn’t try 50 miles until 2009, but I got ambitious. Or stupid. We’ll find out which one it is soon enough.

Ultramarathoner in training

June 24, 2008

An ultramarathon is anything longer than the 26.2 mile distance of a marathon, but the shortest common distance that qualifies is 50K, which is about 31 miles.

Before this last Saturday, I had done a trail marathon with over 7000′ of climbing in April, and had covered 30.3 miles in a flat fixed-time (6 hours) event in May. But I hadn’t technically completed a real ultramarathon, especially under the hilly trail conditions that are common to such events.

Saturday I did, in the hills above Pacifica, California. The event was put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs, and offered distances of 9K, 21K, 30K, and 50K (my distance). This was the sixth of their events I have participated in (one per calendar month, as it turns out). It was an unusually hot day, eventually reaching a high of 87°F in Pacifica, where the average for that date is 70°F. Since I intended to take it as easy as possible, I was in the back of the group at the start, so I didn’t hear all of the instructions. After five previous events I thought I knew everything they were likely to say.

The route was five segments, all starting and finishing at the one aid station:

  • North Peak: 7.2 miles with about 1700′ of climbing in a mostly out-and-back route
  • Hazelnut Loop: 5.8 miles with about 1230′ of climbing in a clockwise loop
  • Hazelnut Loop (counterclockwise)
  • North Peak
  • Hazelnut Loop (clockwise again)

At the 8:30am start everyone doing the 21K, 30K, and 50K distances were together on a quickly narrowing path heading to North Peak, so all but the few ambitious enough to think they were possible leaders were walking. That was fine with me since it kept my heart rate mostly in the range I intended even though we were headed up some pretty good hills. After a bit over two miles we came out onto a wider fire road, and of course now that it was easy to pass people I pushed a little too hard, getting my heart rate slightly above 160bpm on a couple of occasions, even though I was still walking and my plan had been to keep below 150bpm. The heat had something to do with that, and even on the way back down I found the level of effort higher for a descent than it would have been under cooler conditions. I was still feeling okay, but not as good as I had hoped I might. This segment had taken about 1:53, meaning it was now almost 10:30 am.

The next section was the Hazelnut Loop, which has a short-to-medium climb and a longer climb. I was still well under halfway done for the day and already getting slow enough to wonder about making the 9-hour time limit. This loop took about 1:38, which comes out to just under 17 minutes/mile, which is about as fast as I needed to average for the whole 50K. And it was still getting hotter (it was about noon when I finished this loop), so getting slower was far more likely than getting faster.

The printed directions said that the third section would be the Hazelnut Loop again but in the opposite direction, which meant that on the first loop (the one I had just finished) I should have seen a bunch of faster racers passing me in the opposite direction. But the people who had been passing were going around the loop in the same direction I was. It turns out that the directions at the start of the race, which I couldn’t hear, indicated that due to the trails being unusually narrow the Hazelnut Loop would only be used in the clockwise direction this time. So much for knowing what they were saying at the start.

So it was back out to do the third segment, which was the same Hazelnut Loop I had just done. Near the start of the loop I noticed a drinking fountain just off the course, so I took an extra minute to soak my hat in water, which was great for a little while. But even with the coolness from the hat, this loop was probably the hardest part of my day, since it was hot, the 21K and most of the 30K racers were already done, and I knew that even when I was done with this loop I still had to go up North Peak again and do Hazelnut a third time. I started wondering what the people officiating the race would do if it was clear I would finish over the time limit, since that was seeming increasingly likely. I decided, after some moments of serious doubt, that I would keep going unless they told me I had to stop, even if that meant not officially finishing. This time the loop took about 1:41 (compared with 1:38 the first time), though it felt even slower.

At the aid station I did ask Sarah (the female side of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs organization) what would happen if I was over the time limit. She said I still looked like I would be okay, but didn’t make any promises. I discovered there was one person just behind me, which was a surprise since I had figured that I must be in last place by now. One of the volunteers told me to catch some of those ahead of me, to which I responded with something like, “right, like that’s going to happen.”

The singletrack trail up North Peak went on forever. I kept thinking I was about to break out onto the fire road, and it kept not happening. But of course eventually I did reach the fire road, and I saw that there were some people coming back down who weren’t all that far ahead of me, which felt good. I was able to appreciate the view a little more this time, and things didn’t seem so bad, especially after I reached the top and headed back down. At least I was done with that climb for the day.

And then something great happened. A cool breeze started making itself felt every so often. We were probably seven hours into the race (meaning it was around 3:30 pm), but it still helped a lot. On the way back down the singletrack I still didn’t run the whole time, but eventually I did catch and pass one other runner. Even so, at about 2:10 for this segment, I was 17 minutes slower than I had been the first time I went up North Peak. My pace for this segment was also just over 18 minutes/mile, which wasn’t fast enough.

The runner I passed turned out to also be named Mike, and we spent the first climb and descent of the final Hazelnut Loop talking. After that descent (for which he set a great steady pace, by the way) there is a slightly climbing gravel road. I started feeling just a little bit energetic, so I left him behind there—I was still walking, but with more intent. The final climb felt much better than the previous one, though I suspect I was only a little faster. It’s amazing what a cool breeze, even an intermittent one, can do for your spirits.

As it became clear that I would make 31 miles in under nine hours, a weight started to lift. Then it took a little longer for a milestone to appear that I knew was about a mile from the finish. Still, I was on track to finish in time. And I did. I was the 36th of 37 finishers, and at 8:53:06, just barely beat the 9-hour time limit (the other Mike was three minutes behind me, so he made it too—the person who had been behind me after three segments dropped out after North Peak and before starting the final loop). Considering that it was less than a year ago that I first ran 10 miles, and this ended up registering 31.8 miles on my GPS, I’m fine with that result.

That final Hazelnut Loop ended up taking about 1:31. At the time I thought it was probably faster than my second time around the loop, but I was surprised after looking at the GPS data to see that it was actually seven minutes faster than even the first time.

It was a hard day. I talked to a couple people with twisted ankles and one with a tweaked knee. Maybe that was their body’s way of getting them to stop. I drank well over two gallons of liquids and never needed a bathroom. But somehow I ended the 50K feeling better than I did much earlier in the event. And feeling stronger at 31 miles than at 15 miles was very cool.

I recently heard a quote from the Bible on the Endurance Planet podcast that seems appropriate: “We rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

The Forbidden Kingdom

June 19, 2008

The goal was to see a movie at either the Cerrito or Parkway Speakeasy Theater, since we like the comfy love seats and would be meeting my brother-in-law (who lives in the East Bay) there. Oh, and being able to have a glass of beer and/or wine while watching the movie doesn’t hurt either.

After eliminating films that one or more of us had seen and ones that we didn’t want to see, we ended up choosing The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, appearing together for the first time. Though given Jackie Chan’s recent film work in Hollywood, I didn’t have high hopes.

The central character is actually a teenage American boy who is a huge fan of Hong Kong film. He comes to possess the staff of an ancient Chinese warrior, and to travel back in time to attempt to return it.

I found the film felt far more Chinese than I expected, especially given the significant U.S. involvement in making it. Having taken a class about recent Chinese cinema, I really appreciated that. This isn’t a significant film by any means, but it was quite entertaining and well made, and I was definitely glad I saw it.

I’ll give it a high 2.5 stars out of .

Seen 6/1/2008.

The Memory Thief

June 19, 2008

I continue to be way behind on movie reviews even though I’m seeing hardly anything.

The Memory Thief is a strange little film about Lukas, a toll booth worker who has a rather empty life until he becomes aware of an organization that records the memories of Holocaust survivors in video-taped interviews. He insinuates himself into the lives of a Jewish family (including Mira, a potential romantic interest), pretending to be Jewish. He is both a good man and intensely creepy at the same time. I often found it hard to watch, but also hard to stop watching.

Even over two months later, I can’t say that I’m sure what I think of the film. I am glad to have seen it, but I’m not sure I would recommend anyone make any special effort to see it unless the story sounds particularly intriguing. I’ll give it 2.5 stars out of .

I saw this at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell on 4/13/2008. Gil Kofman, the writer/director/producer, was there to answer questions. Here are some notes that I wrote down (there are definitely some spoilers below):

  • Kofman studied physics before becoming a filmmaker
  • This is his first narrative feature
  • His father-in-law was a Holocaust survivor who wrote a play and asked Kofman for advice
  • Kofman’s wife’s reaction was like Mira’s
  • The toll booth signifies the making of selections
  • Kofman didn’t want to make a Hollywood film with obvious closure, so the film would stay with people
  • He wanted to explore the extremes of empathy–Lukas assumed it and destroys himself
  • Lukas becomes like a drug addict with the tapes, which incidentally, are of real Holocaust survivors
  • The fear of things you have only heard about but haven’t actually experienced can be stronger than “real” fears
  • This film is inspired by a book called Fragments, and also by a similar recent story around 9/11 survivors
  • The woman in a coma is not really Lukas’s mother but this is not clear in the film–Kofman didn’t want Lukas’s back story to be well defined
  • Lukas faces alienation in his job and in that he lives in a predominately Hispanic building
  • Lukas is rudderless
  • Lukas names the dog Jesus and wears a cross, and then forgets about it when putting his energy into being Jewish
  • Kofman wanted an actor who had done a lot of theater work and could be comfortable in his own skin for the longer shots
  • The film was shot out of sequence without rehearsal, and the lead actor still managed to hit all the right notes
  • The original cut was about 2:40, and Kofman could have saved a lot if he had known what was going to be cut
  • The interesting characters aren’t necessarily likable
  • The last third of the film is more and more symbolic and less and less realistic
  • Kofman doesn’t see the split between math/science and art
  • Kofman has shown the film to a producer of Schindler’s List–he has gone back and forth over whether he wants to show it to Spielberg
  • It is unclear why Mira would want a relationship with Lukas, but she doesn’t see most of the weird stuff–more just things like him visiting his mother–there was a re-shoot planned that would have helped explain all this, but they ran out of money
  • Kofman is working to get funding for his next film, which is a documentary

The Bank Job

June 1, 2008

Wow. I’m way behind on movie reviews again, even though I’m not watching anything.

The Bank Job is a fun little heist movie starring Jason Statham as Terry, a mostly reformed criminal who is recruited by his old flame Martine (Saffron Burrows). The target is a London bank’s safe deposit boxes, which contain both valuables and evidence of some dirty laundry that the powers that be would rather stay secret. Martine fails to mention the latter to Terry.

There’s nothing important or amazing going on here, but like I said, it is definitely fun. Note that being a European film, the “dirty laundry” is shown more explicitly than one would expect of an American film, and there is also some occasionally disturbing violence, so the R rating is definitely deserved.

I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/30/2008.