Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Marathon Moments

I veered to the sidelines to greet my family at mile 25.

I don’t think I can describe running the Boston Marathon in a way that truly captures the magic of the experience. Nonetheless, here are my reflections on some of the moments I know I will remember about “running Boston”.

The People Want to Know You
Many runners wrote their names on their shirts or bibs to identify themselves to the crowd. I had heard about this practice, but declined to do it because I didn’t want to seem like I was begging for attention. Along the way, I was amazed at the constant response from the spectators calling to “Jimmy” or “Emily”.

Surprisingly, many in the crowd called out to me specifically as “green shirt” or “twelve five eighty-eight” (I wore bib #12588). I realized during the run that the enthusiastic spectators are as big a part of the race as the runners, and that they genuinely want to connect.

In some ways, I felt I had been selfish for not sharing my name and preventing a more personal exchange. The entire weekend was almost perfect but, if I could have one “do-over”, that would be it.

The Drummer in Natick
Just before entering the town center in Natick, we passed a stretch of road where the cheering crowds were especially thick and boisterous. I could hear a rousing drumbeat and I scanned the crowd to find its source. About 150 feet beyond the crowd, at a house set atop a rising lawn, I eyed a young black man who had set up a full drum kit on the New England style wrap-around porch.

While most of the runners pushed forward with inward focus and concentration, I caught the drummer’s eye with a fist-pump and we pointed at each other for several strides. He responded to the recognition with a sharp acceleration of the beat and the crowd exploded with a roar of approval. For just a single, surreal moment, engulfed in the force of a raucous cheer, he was a rock star and I was a celebrity athlete.

I think I will remember that moment for a long time.

The Gals of Wellesley College
In the middle miles of the long challenge, the course passes the picturesque campus of Wellesley College. I’m not sure I understand the full tradition, but from the runner’s perspective, it is a half-mile of screaming female students, each and everyone of them waving signs that say “Kiss Me”, along with a short message about why the runner should do so.

The signs are waved with vigor; there is eye contact, pointing, and begging. I can tell you first hand, it is enough to make a forty-something, anonymous runner believe that they really want him to stop.

Alas, that is a myth better not dispelled, and I will carry from the Boston Marathon a golden memory about the rampant, unfilled demand for my services at an elite, northeastern girls school.

Heartbreak Hill
Over the course of a run that takes hours to complete, runners will sometimes catch stride and compare notes on the experience. A common topic in the Boston Marathon is Heartbreak Hill, the famous incline at mile 21 where the runners’ fitness and resolve are challenged.

Recognizing the historical and cultural importance of that stretch of road, I found myself looking forward to it. I decided that, rather than going inside myself to seek some inner motivation that could  help me meet the challenge, I would stay in the moment and drink up the full experience.

The crowds that line that portion of the run are fully aware of the physical test imposed by the hill, and they rise to the occasion with vigorous, personal encouragement. I noted the passion of their vocal support, their faces contorted with intensity as they implored the racers to "push". It seemed as though many of them were burning more calories than the runners.

From the center of that storm, it was one of the single most impressive acts of group compassion toward strangers that I could have imagined. Their genuine warmth pulled my heart into my throat, and I scooted over Heartbreak Hill like I was rounding the bases after a game-winning homer.

The Disco Rave
Somewhere after the Hill, we ran through the square in Newton, where a major sound system was blasting 70’s music. A spandex-clad lady ahead of me spontaneously raised both arms and began swaying in a disco rave. This took about three seconds to ripple outwardly through the pack of runners and into the crowd on both sides of the road, until a sea of arms pointed upward and swayed in unison.

All of a sudden, we were not tired runners with untold miles behind us, but spirit-filled dancers with too much energy to contain. The much-needed boost was short-lived, but it served as another vivid reminder about the energy of the crowds and their profound effect on the runners.

Some of my favorite moments during the day happened when a nearby runner would meet their friends and family along the way. There would be a brief but intense cheer as they passed, some especially heartfelt support, and a notable up tick in the runner’s pace following the encounter.

As I approached mile 25, I moved to the left side of the road and began scanning the crowd for my family, who had risen early and traveled a great distance to cheer me on. I heard my name and then quickly picked them out, pressed against the barricade in the front row. I swerved over for some high fives and drew a deep dose of encouragement that carried me to the finish line.

Of course I have many more memories of the marathon. Memories that span the training and the qualification process to the countless other runners I met, and with whom I shared this experience. But as I rode the plane home, with a sore body and a soaring spirit, it was the memories of impassioned support from the locals that had touched me most deeply. And I know that looking forward, the Boston Marathon will always be, for me, more about "Boston" than about "Marathon".

Friday, April 16, 2010

Adrift on the Sea of Modern Whim

As Auggie described in his post about "The Blame Game" last year, everything you can imagine, no matter how absurd, eventually manages to happen.

You may recall that his favorite fictitious example of legal absurdity (suing a baseball bat manufacturer for an incident when the bat performed perfectly) actually unfolded in a court of law. Clearly, the realization that he had miscalculated the bounds of lunacy shook him to the core and left him searching for a semblance of structure in a nonsensical world.

I now find myself drifting in the same state of confusion after having a similar experience. We have arrived at a point of ridiculousness that I had previously thought to be unreachable and I must now find a new example of "unthinkably foolish consumer products".

It is no longer a joke. Chocolate toothpaste has arrived.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Feeling a draft

Contributed by Auggie
Calm down people, the NFL draft is only one week away. This event has become so popular that ESPN will televise the first three rounds in primetime over a two-day period, followed by rounds 4-7 in the normal Saturday time slot. I for one will be glued to the TV. Everyone knows how rare it would be for a single draft class to immediately turn a team into a contender, but still, it’s a time for optimism and hope. And for most sports fans, what else is there?

For you non-experts out there, Auggie is once again here to help. As you no doubt recall, I provided a similar service last year with spot-on predictions before the draft. (Ok, it takes more than one year to properly evaluate a draft but I’m not waiting 5 years to boast – and I need to boost my credibility so you’ll pay attention this year). Let’s review. Last year I said that WR Darrius Heyward-Bay was the most overrated player entering the draft and some team would foolishly pick him early. Bingo! The Raiders made him the seventh pick in the draft. Heyward-Bay basically bombed his rookie year with only 9 catches for 124 yards and 1 TD. He wasn’t even the best rookie receiver on his team - a distinction that went to 3rd round pick Louis Murphy who came in with 34 catches for 521 yards and 4 TDs. On the flip side, I said that CB Alphonso Smith was the most underrated player. Well, the Bronco’s staff must have been reading WWDS because they traded up to get him early in the second round. He didn’t exactly set the world on fire his rookie year but he did show promise. Let’s just give me an A and move on to 2010.

Most overrated: Taylor Mays, S, USC. He has the speed of a CB and the size/strength of a LB. Some team will fall in love with this combination without consideration to the fact he doesn’t know how to play safety. Actually, some teams are onto this now and he may be slipping down the draft boards. The runner up for this award goes to Bruce Campbell, OT from Maryland.

Most underrated: Jahvid Best, RB, California. Everyone is talking about C.J. Spiller as a top-15 pick and Best as a second rounder. I don’t see much difference between the two unless its injury concerns for Best. I could see Best ending up with someone like Indy or Minnesota and winning the rookie of the year award.

Safest picks: Maurice Pouncey C/G, Florida: Mike Iupati, G, Iowa. The offensive line is not the most exciting position, but both these guys are NFL ready and should start immediately.

Boom or Bust: Carlos Dunlap, DE, Florida: Jason-Pierre Paul, DE, South Florida. I could see either guy being an elite pass rusher in 2-3 years, or going the way of Manny Lawson and Vernon Golston. And if you’ve never heard of Lawson and/or Golston then enough said.

Sleeper: Andre Roberts, WR, Citadel. Roberts reminds me of Greg Jennings (WR for Green Bay). Jennings was a small conference WR who was not highly touted but immediately grasped the NFL system and developed into one of the better receivers in the league. I think Roberts will do the same. If your team picks him in the 3rd round or beyond they got a steal. Some late-round sleepers include Dennis Pitta (TE, BYU), A.J. Edds (LB, Iowa) and Jarrett Brown (QB, WVA).

I am not planning to post a mock draft, but if Jeff Ryer insists then I'll think about it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Dallas Cowboys and Humanity

I am no fan of those guys with stars on their hats but all the stories this week about the demolition of Texas stadium got me thinking about what makes us human.

Of course there is no simple answer to that question and sensible but drastically dissimilar conclusions are drawn from the fields of history, biology, psychology, and philosophy. Here's my contribution to the discussion.

One of the things that makes us human is our remarkable ability to store and process memories. We perform sophisticated social accounting to distinguish friends who deserve our cooperation from leeches who should be kept at arm's length. We remember places where we found comfort, joy, or other valuable resources as well as those where we felt threatened or harmed in some way. We recall times when various emotions peaked or important events unfolded. And remarkably, we tie all those memories together through an elaborate system of cues and references, index them against the emotions they produced, and use them to drive much of our behavior.

As far as we know, other organisms don't do this to the extent that humans do it. Yes, mates in many species form long-term bonds and clearly devote themselves to a partnership, various social norms in packs, herds, and hives suggest that social accounting is not uniquely human, and salmon return to their place of birth to die. All of those examples suggests memory and processing. But humans engage in memory processing almost constantly.

We make decisions by conjuring alternative scenarios and drawing on all of our memories to predict which decision will yield the best emotional payoff. Aside from extreme and automatic reactions in times of stress and surprise, such thinking completely governs our behavior. This is one facet of being human.

When I read the stories about the emotional reactions among the crowd that gathered to watch the implosion of Texas stadium, it struck me that a great many people have made significant emotional investments in the Dallas Cowboys. For some reason, the coalescence of that stadium, the team, and their celebrity during the 70's, underpinned some important markers of space and time for lots of people. As a consequence, those memories are informing the daily decisions of the Cowboy faithful and contributing to their humanity.

Long live Roger Staubach.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bumble Bee Dusted With Pollen

Not sure why I feel compelled to post this photo here but I really like it. It's a perfect example of one of nature's most symbiotic relationships. It also conveys a sense of an "honest day's work" on behalf of the bee.