Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

My Run

Tonight I skipped Pilates class to attend the nationwide premier showing of the documentary film My Run, directed by Tim VandeSteeg, which tells the story of Terry Hitchcock, a widower who decided to run from Minnesota to Georgia to raise awareness about the plight of single parents even though he had health problems, had never been a runner, and looked more like St. Nick than Scott Jurek. Hitchcock describes his run as 75 consecutive marathons, though in reality he ran 75 back-to-back ultras, since a typical day involved 27 to 30 miles of running–a distance that took his support crew half an hour to traverse in a car, but took him eight hours of painful run/walking.

Terry was woefully undertrained. Before the kickoff of this endurance stunt, he had never run further than 12 miles in one go, was on blood pressure medication, and carried around a pot belly (which never melted away the entire 75 days he spent on the road). A funny scene tells us that he was the annual last place finisher in the local Kaiser Roll 10k. He suffered a heart attack during his training for his transcontinental run, and then perhaps he had another one during his travels (the doctors could never confirm it). He describes every “marathon” he ran as being extremely painful, and no wonder: on day 65 of his endeavor he learns that he had been running with stress fractures in both ankles and in one kneecap. Less than a quarter through his run, his entire support crew quit and headed home, leaving just his eldest teenaged son to be his roadie. In a blunt confession towards the end of the film, Terry says us that he had no good days running, what he had were “good moments,” and that he thought about quitting every single day he was out there. How and why he persisted is explained to the viewers like this: he was driven, he met people along the way who were touched by his cause, and  he had a great love for his children.

For the most part, this movie is not actually about running, nor is it actually for runners. Films like The Spirit of the Marathon, Chariots of Fire, Prefontaine, or Run For Your Life are much more inspirational and satisfying for us. While Terry’s run is indisputably a stunning physical feat, I wouldn’t call him a “runner” (the film doesn’t tell us if he kept up the activity after his southbound bipedal passage). There weren’t any real training tips to glean, he ate 6000+ calories a day (which sounds high to me, even for 30 miles a day) but drank no water, ran wearing knee braces and a breathing strip, and in one scene we see him stretching but he was doing it wrong. To me, the documentary dragged when it spent too much time on the grief and challenges the family went through when Hitchcock’s wife died, and on the logistical and motivational challenges that faced him and his crew during the run (the subject of the ultra runner’s support crew is treated in a much more thorough, interesting fashion in Running on the Sun).

For me, there were two takeaways in this film which made it worth the 90 minutes and $15. While I maintain that I see no reason to ever run further than 26.2 miles, I still would like to understand why other people see the reason to do so. Terry spoke about the mental challenge of getting out there, day after day, grinding through 27-plus painful miles, and he offered this elegant way to understand how our minds adapt to the distance and pull us through: Consider the run as the answer to a question. Q: why am I out here on Day 50, running 30 miles again? A: the run. In other words, you question the run, so you go out and run to think of your answer; therefore, the run is the answer. It’s a beautiful way to approach the long run, creating a Möbius strip for our minds to slip along as we travel 20, 25 or 30 miles.

The other takeaway was the notion of reflection and faith, and how those practices sustained him. He was still having Ah-ha Moments, still learning things about himself and human nature on his 39th run (he’d already gone nearly 1200 miles), and enjoying flashes of grace–being paced by a black bear for a few hundred yards, jogging safely through the most dangerous neighborhood of St. Louis, and wisely asking President Clinton why there wasn’t a Secretary of Children in his Cabinet.

As his son said at the end of the film, being a child with a dead mother and a hapless dad doesn’t seclude or alienate you, but it does make you who you are. Terry and his children were forged once by a death, then were forged again by a great run. I believe that, if you’re doing it right, whether you run 75 marathons in 75 days or one marathon in 75 years, running makes you who you are. So perhaps in that context, Terry Hitchcock is one amazing runner.

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Butch Walker at Joe’s Pub

I have recently been introduced to the music of Butch Walker, and was able to catch his final concert in a series of three nights at Joe’s Pub (from the VIP section, no less).  “Maybe It’s Just Me” has got to be one of the most perfect songs ever written (he didn’t play it at the show I saw). Every tune he performed was absolutely entrancing, he turned them each into their own perfect, moody and discrete world. But his cover of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” was something else entirely. The preamble story he told, and simply the selection of an old country song, created a nuanced atmosphere of nostalgia–for childhood, for lost loves. And then, in an unassuming presentation, he turned Cline’s remorseful tune into something fresh, modern and comforting. Here, see for yourself.

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Hella Sound

Believe it or not, there are still a few purists out there who never run with an iPod or other music-providing device.  When I am training for a big race, I try not to run with music so as to mimic the conditions of race day (I am adamantly opposed to racing with headphones). Listening to music while I run is a treat, a way to entice myself out the door when I’m feeling lazy, or stubborn, or tired. By now we’ve heard about the studies–running with upbeat music tricks us into thinking we’re not working as hard as we actually are–but what about training with music with a specific tempo as a way to become a faster runner overall?

I first heard of Hella Sound through JF, author of Running from the Devil, when the site did an interview with her to help promote the book. JF told me about the site, and how John sold music designed to get you running at a certain pace. It seemed like one of those brilliant yet obvious ideas, the kind of idea where you wonder why someone hadn’t already thought it up. Since I was injured at the time, it wasn’t until months later that I downloaded my first tune, “How to Turn Around a Bad Day,” from Hella Sound.

One of the magical things about John’s music is that runners can download one of ten different versions of the same song. Each is recorded for different cadences, or how many steps you take per minute while running. But how many of us know our cadence? Certainly not I, so I had to count my steps during one of my workouts before I knew which BPM (beats per minute) was right for me.

What I like about running to John’s songs (I now own “As You Wish” and “How to Turn Around a Bad Day”) is the consistency they provide for my shorter workouts. If I were to run to a playlist for 40 minutes, I’d probably hear anywhere between 10 and 16 songs, each with their own mood, tempo, style and set of lyrics. I know from experience that certain songs make me speed up, and others make me ease up. But when I run to music from Hella Sound, all of those playlist variables have been removed and what I’m left with is a smooth, interesting intrumental that keeps my feet moving with an even turnover, tick-tick-tick-tick.

John started Hella Sound a couple of years ago because “As a musician, I got frustrated when I started running, looking for music that worked well.” So he started creating his own extended, instrumental pieces–and now has three different ones for sale on the site. They are “original music, which is thoroughly and frequently ‘road tested’ during the composition process to ensure that all parts are good to run to.” (They are.) The site hosts a blog which offers tips and information for runners, as well as his monthly “Listening Party,” which presents a short playlist and then invites discussion. Another cool feature lives on this page, where people can send their tweets to be posted in realtime by sending a Direct Message to @GoRun.

Really, I just want to provide the soundtrack for people’s runs…I believe running to music that is synced to your stride is an incredibly beneficial training and motivation tool. I used the different speeds of our first release to improve my own cadence from 160 to 170, and knock 4 minutes off my 5k PR. It’s also a form of creative expression; I would be deeply satisfied if we, over time, were able to contribute in some way to the body of interesting, worthwhile music available in the world. A boy can dream, right? – John at Hella Sound

I use Hella Sound’s music during my recovery runs, and on those days when I am just so tired I am tempted to cut it short (I have to run for at least as long the 30-minute piece). If you are new to running, making a comeback, or just starting a training program–I highly reccommend adding a Hella Sound workout to your schedule twice a week.

[ Follow John on Twitter @hellasound ]

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Joan Osborne at BB Kings

joan osborneShe took the stage in a white satin cocktail dress, which clung to her silhouette with stretch and gathers in all the right places.

She is a woman and she presents herself as such. Classy and sultry, she is a nightclub siren who knows there’s no hiding behind the microphone stand.

She’s got the blues, and we feel her when she purrs, “Ain’t No Sunshine When He’s Gone.” When she sings that she’ll “be with him on that midnight train to Georgia,” I think about who I love enough to follow anywhere.

She also has rock and roll in her soul, but for some reason we get just the tiniest glimpse of this, when she sings “Only You Know and I Know.” She gets a different shake in her hips, a different twist to her lips.

She performed for merely an hour and ten minutes yet I cannot hold it against her. She is the best example of how to be a bombshell–appropriately–well into your 40’s. I study her closely, as I refuse to think my prime is nearly over. She teases us with the notion of a Bacchanalia but then lets us down easy with an intimate dinner party.

She’s Joan Osborne and I want to be her.

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Live music? I say Amen, and the smaller the venue the better. But not just any band is going to be able to put out a performance that makes my face nearly crack from smiling, makes me laugh and cheer out loud, and leaves me sweating and panting from dancing as hard as I can. Galactic is one of those special bands, and last weekend they played two shows at the Brooklyn Bowl. 

brooklyn bowlA nice coincidence, since the Brooklyn Bowl is my new favorite venue. Owned and operated by the same guy who ran the Wetlands in Tribeca, Brooklyn Bowl replicates much of what made the Wetlands so special: you can stand right against the stage or watch the show easily from the bar; there are areas away from the stage where you can lounge with friends but still hear the music; and there’s a funky themed decor (bowling alley!) that is a little bit hokey but also just right. Yes, you can bowl at the Brooklyn Bowl. and you can get dinner in the restaurant, all while the band is playing. The Brooklyn Bowl is one of only two reasons I’ll ever go to Brooklyn (the other being visiting my best friend CB is the first). Funny, it’s only a few times I’ve seen shows there but I already feel brooklyn bowlso at home there, like it’s “my” joint. 

Galactic has got to be my all-time favorite band to see live. I love these guys. They jam, they funk, they rock, jazz and dance. The swirl it all together until it feels like Stanton Moore’s drumbeats are aimed directly at my chest and Robert Mercurio’s bass licks have possessed me by the hips and are shaking me left and right. Is the music within me, or without? Last Thursday night, they were barely three songs into their set and the lines were already blurred. I wiggled and jumped, I swayed and shimmied, I reached for the sky and closed my eyes. We–me, the band, the audience–did this for nearly three hours. Talk about an endurance event. I watched Stanton bang away, and the saxophonist wail away, and the trumpeter blow and rap and stage-dive (yes! twice!) and I thought–surely you guys are athletes like me. Stamina for elation. And look! Mercurio is performing in Nike running shoes! I checked him out all night long trying to sort out if he is an actual runner or not. (Could be–he’s trim and has a cute butt.) 

trombonistThe first night’s show wasn’t sold out, so I was able to dance right next to the stage the whole show. Once I circled back to Husband and our friends and said, “This crowd is great! I don’t feel like punching anyone!” I wore my blue sequined tank top; this is my post-race celebration top. I only wear it right after a big race or the Green Mountain Relay. Saturday the Brooklyn Bowl was mobbed–I walked in and immediately felt the heat of a thousand bodies ready to groove. I wore jeans, an old pair of running shoes, and my little white tank top that says La Petite Coquette.” (Get the joke?) Galactic’s first set was as energetic as ever, but I spent most of my time either swaying in the back next to where Husband had his mike stand and DAT recorder set up or waiting at the bar for a glass of wine. (No comments from the peanut gallery about how I am now officially an old woman for drinking wine at a rock concert.–PF) I couldn’t deal with the crowds up front, and was offended on behalf of the band that the venue was airing the Yankees vs Angels game, and everyone kept cheering for the team instead of the band. Manners, people! They aren’t a fucking wedding band! 

But once the game was over and the second set started up, inexplicably the crowd cleared out and I was able to elbow my way up all the way to the front, on Mercurio’s side of the stage, again. Oh yeah, it’s Jazzercise time! I danced so hard that it felt like I was in the middle of a long run or a race. I know you know that feeling–when everything else slips away and it’s just you, your heart, your lungs and the rhythm. That feeling is your body and your mind, conspiring to transport you and to elate you; to lift all your troubles until you cross the finish line, until the music stops, until you arrive home…

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It’s taken me entirely too long to finish this book. It’s not for lack of interest, believe me, but rather from lack of time (work reading trumps pleasure reading every time). Back in May, I attended Chris McDougall’s event for Born to Run with Cowboy Hazel–you will all remember I was still pretty freaking injured and not running at all. This is what Chris wrote in my copy of the book:

To TK and her flying pigtails–
With this book may your hamstring troubles disappear. “Running is magic.”

Well, look at that. Chris’s book kept me company through Recovery #1 and Recovery #2. Just this week I decided I was okay enough to go through with my first endurance event since February. I like that timing.

Now, I didn’t read this story looking for training or performance advice.  I know a bunch of folks have come away from this book feeling like McDougall is a barefot running evangelist (he is, but I doubt he’d insist it’s the only way). What I liked best about Born to Run was the people he presented–the ultrarunners, the Tarahumara, el Caballo Blanco, the scientists, the doctors, and himself.  Like any talented journalist Chris drew out and then captured on the page each character that played a part in his own quest to learn how to run effortlessly and without injury. By the end of his book, I wanted to be a part of his band of Mas Locos. Also appealing to me were the notions that running is the basis for our humanity; running is free, freedom, and freeing; running is about connection and escape; running makes us better people. Sure it’s all a little bit romantic, sure it’s all a little bit crunchy–but Chris is writing about ultrarunners here, not your standard track stars. And, as a professional in the book publishing industry who  notices these sorts of things, I must add that Chris’s acknowledgements are a lot of fun, too.

I also posted a separate review on Goodreads. And, many other bloggers and podcasters have reviewed Born to Run, here are the links:

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It’s taken me a while, but I finally wrote my review of Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr. and turned it in to my editor at The Second Pass. Please click over and read the whole review, but in the meantime, here is the first sentence:

What does it mean that the proclaimed “best novel ever written about running” (Runner’s World said it, and others have implied it) is in fact an average novel?

Two other interesting reviews on the book were published on Slate and in the Irish Times.

I hate to link and run, but life has been busy, very very busy. The quick update is that I am now running 15 minutes on the treadmill every couple of days, and am learning Chi running form. An oh–I finally filled my Green Mountain Relay team. More later, have a great weekend, I’ll be here on Friday, there on Saturday and laying around on Sunday.

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Talk to Me

I tend to compartmentalize activities throughout the day. I like to answer email for the first hour I’m at my desk. I peck out a blog post during my commute home and call to check-in with the family on Wednesday evenings after Nike Speed. And, I listen to running podcasts while I walk the dog each morning. 

As you know, Matt’s Dump Runners Club podcast is my favorite. (His new format within a two-week cycle is a stroke of genius, and his episodes get better and better.) But recently he tipped me off to a new podcast called turfcasts, thinking I would be interested in Brenn’s vignettes of his marathon training and racing in New York City. Matt hasn’t given me bad advice yet, so I checked out the first episode, “Prologue: Running and Boredom.” In less time than it takes me to run a lap around the East Village Track, I was charmed by its thoughtful NPR-esque presentation. I wanted more, and so I downloaded them all and listened to the first dozen episodes on Wednesday. Matilda was thrilled because it meant she got lots of walks. 

Brenn, the host and narrator of turfcasts, is about my age, ran track growing up in Rochester NY, lives in Brooklyn with his wife, and races for the Central Park Track Club (which means he’s one of the fast, lanky guys in orange we see at local races). He is training for the Big Sur International Marathon, which is the same day as my Flora London Marathon. 

He sets the scene so we’re right there with him, stride for stride; and he has the chops to describe the things about our city that only runners tend to notice or think about. In “When Nature Calls,” Brenn reads the passage which hooked me: 

These observations of dogs, dancers, and silhouettes, pedestrian as they may seem, are more poignant when running, because the mere act of running, like any form of moderate or intense exercise, tilts the perceptual and emotional plane. Observations register as impressions. These impressions provide the color to the run. As for the running part of the run, there are better and worse days, but the basics are always the same: a management of breathing, a negotiation with pain, and a feeling of relief when done. Recalling how one feels during a run is like recalling a day at the office. Recalling what one sees during a run is like recollecting a dream.

After a few episodes, I was lulled by their essayistic quality, and recognized the three separate satisfactions Brenn delivers to his listeners: one guaranteed laugh, at least one nod of recognition, and the “Ah-ha!” that accompanies the oblique, casual poignancy of his conclusions. 

If you run in New York City, if you listen to NPR, if you enjoy being told a story, you will enjoy Brenn’s turfcasts. They are of a manageable length–never longer than 9 minutes. For me, that’s ideal because I rarely have more than 15 minutes of uninterrupted time. 

The writing on this podcast is so good that listening to it is a little bit like training with a faster runner. I’m both inspired and annoyed: Brenn prods me to look at and think about my running more keenly, and he also motivates me to up my game here on PF. 

Brenn on…
the potency of the cheering crowds in the New York City Marathon: “The sirens do call, but not from Manhattan-from Brooklyn. Spectators line several deep along Fourth Avenue….After a silent passing through the Hassidic neighborhood, Hipsterland is raucous.” 
the weather conditions in the 2009 Bronx Half-Marathon: “The wind was strong enough to make drafting a legitimate strategy.” 
his running shoe fetish: “Mimura [Asics’ Japanese master cobbler] compares runners and their shoes to Samurais and their swords. How refreshing and appropriate is this reverent approach. I imagine Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill rewritten.”

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Let me set the scene for you. It’s 9 AM. Cornbread is baking in the oven, and a big mug of coffee sits steaming by my left hand. The Currier & Ives scenery persists, right out the windows to my right and the sliding glass doors to my left.

For Christmas last year, Husband gave me the DVD of Running on the Sun, a documentary about the Badwater 135 ultramarathon, which winds through Death Valley and ultimately up Mt. Whitney, in California. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to watch the film over the last twelve months. So last night — a  year to the day since I first became owner of said DVD — I pulled it out of its plastic and cajoled Husband to watch it with me. Besides, he wasn’t going anywhere: we both needed a little bit of immobility in order to digest the butternut squash soup and rack of lamb I’d cooked for us.

Some people may be fascinated with what it takes to run the Badwater Ultramarathon, what an athlete must do to prepare for such a taxing physical challenge, and who they must be, in their guts and soul, to push through the pain and cross the finish line. And I was fascinated with that–I kept constantly comparing their training and their race (more than 5 marathons long)–to my own, just as a way to get a grip on what these runners (and one speedwalker) had undertaken. But really, there is no comparison.

Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the support crews. I was impressed with how knowledgable they were about the effects ultramarathoning has on a runner’s body, and how to administer the preventative measures and countereffects. I was impressed with their good spirits, unflagging support, and the way they used every psychological trick in the book to keep their runners fed, hydtrated, as rested as possible, and mentally strong.  A fair amount of runners had family members as crews. The defending champion, Gabriel Flores, had his  brothers on his crew. The two brothers would go back and forth with the same conversation throughout the race in one of the sweetest expressions of sibling rivalry I’ve ever witnessed.

“He’s my brother and I’ll do whatever it takes to get him across that finish line.”
“Well, he’s my brother too, don’t forget!”

One British guy in his early 60’s, Jack Denness, had his wife Maggs on his crew. She was a spunky bird, subtly propping him up with humor and wifely nagging. Every time they were on screen together my heart beat a little faster at the romance of this middle-aged couple sharing with equal enthusiasm such an odd “hobby.” (I recommend you listen to the podcast of Jack Denness’ induction into the Badwater Hall of Fame.)

There’s also a lot of footage of blistering toes and feet, complete with dangling toenails of all different colors. This, I could not watch. For pure gross-out factor, it probably rates only a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, but that was to much for me!

The documentary captures the 1999 race, before ultrarunners like Dean Karnazes, Scott Jurek, and Jamie Donaldson started making appearances on “The David Letterman Show.”  Since this documentary was filmed, the number of competitors in the Badwater 135 has doubled — from approximately 40 to 80 or so. That’s still a teeny field, but look at the New York City marathon–it started with 127 runners, and now has nearly 40,000 crossing the finish line.

As the credits rolled, Husband turned to me and said, “Don’t get any ideas.”  We had a good chuckle, but you know my mind had to respond… To race an ultra? Nah. But to crew one? Maybe!

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I forgot to tell you all I saw Grace Potter in concert again, recently. Due to a poor choice of haircut and the acquisition of some additional pounds, Grace is no longer allowed up in my government. Harsh, I know. Superficial, I realize. But people: we’re talking fantasy here. Perhaps even more of a turnoff, though, was the uninspired and lazy cover Grace and her Nocturnals played of “Paint It Black.” The only good thing I got out of that cover was a feeling of superiority when some guy standing next to me turned to his friend and said, “Dude, what song is that?” 

So, yeah, paint it black… On the TV news this morning, the jackass anchor was exclaiming with glee, “Only 9 more days until Winter!” Yeah man, just settle down. The only good thing about December 21st is that afterwards, the nights begin to get shorter and the days respond accordingly. Of course it’s not like these longer days will register for months, not really. I’ll still be training for London through the dark heart of “Winter!” 

I began steeling myself for this morning’s run last night, around 8:30 PM. I was counting on rain. I was counting on darkness. I was counting on a 5:15 wake-up sonar attack. (My BlackBerry’s alarm is set to ‘Sonar.’ I wake up in the middle of Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea every day. Periscope Up!) I was even counting on balmy temps–I laid out shorts, a tee-shirt, and my running jacket. Even though the overcast sky guaranteed me dashing through an inky morning, and the streets glittered wetly like black ice, it felt like an even trade when I realized it was 40 degrees when I headed out at 5:30 AM, with not a drop of precipitation. 

I was slow–5 miles, over the bridge and back, in 48:10 – but not as slow as I was on my two other runs this week (my average paces Tues 9:48’s; Weds 10:01’s, and Fri 9:38’s). I’ve a long way to go to get back to where I was exactly two months ago – that’s the day I ran my half-marathon PR at Staten Island.

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