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October 31, 2007

Popularity is unpredictable

I spent a few minutes this morning trying to figure out why this site has seen a surge in traffic over the past few days. It’s not as though I’ve been posting anything particularly interesting (at least, aside from the generic World Series post, which may have set some kind of all-time record; there’s a nice spike in the traffic graph around that posting.)

It turns out that I’m the top three Google Image Search results for cat face jack o lantern thanks to my original version around the time of the Sox’ last World Series victory. (Since then, I’ve been posting my images on Flickr, so the subsequent versions don’t direct traffic here.) (Anyway, this one is better.)

All of which goes to show how pointless it would be to try writing a personal weblog with the intention of attracting traffic. All my pages which are most-found by searches are ones I never would have predicted as high-traffic pages; the frequently-linked ones puzzle me as well. (There was a big spike last month when this page got cited in a comment—a comment, for pity’s sake—on Metafilter.) What’s more, they’re almost inevitably the older pages on the site.

If I considered traffic a measure of success (I don’t), and this site a success (I do, but by different measures), I’d be writing a book about “how to succeed in weblogging” which recommends throwing a lot of random stuff up and then waiting three years.

Now Playing: The Precience Of Dawn from Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans

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Posted by pjm at 8:52 AM | Comments (2)

October 29, 2007

Only in New England...

…can we be cranky about winning, for pity’s sake.

Eric Wilbur’s sports blog entry in the Globe is worth reading because it has some cute images—waking up his three-week-old son to watch the Sox win the World Series—but his central point, that Red Sox Nation is top-heavy with dilettantes who don’t understand what it means to be frustrated for decades, is a little too wrong-headed for me to get along with.

Sure, the Sox have plenty of new fans since ‘04, but what did ‘05 and ‘06 do to bring them in? Sure, plenty of old-school fans get annoyed about pink or green Red Sox hats “that allow them to better match with their evening apparel.” (Not me, by the way. I wouldn’t go there myself, but if my nieces want pink Sox hats, let ‘em have ‘em. Doesn’t change the way I feel about the team.)

The problem isn’t “Johnny-come-lately fans,” as Wilbur implies. The problem, if there is one, is this curious belief that there’s a “right way” to be a fan, and if not everyone does it right, it somehow devalues everyone’s appreciation of the game. Does that sound ridiculous to you? If I may risk being a little too heavy, that’s like saying that there’s only one “right way” to be religious, and anyone who does it differently is devaluing the faith of those who do.

Especially in New England, a part of the country which has long been fond of the idea that one’s relationship with God was a private matter not for public display, this dogmatic intolerance in the Church of Baseball smells ugly to me.

And wishing all these “new fans” could wait 86 years for a World Series victory, so they too could have “a lifetime of emotion in the waiting,” as Wilbur says, is just sadistic. Should we now require all new baseball fans to serve apprenticeships as Cubs fans?

Now Playing: Crashin’ In from The Charlatans by The Charlatans

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Posted by pjm at 9:56 AM | Comments (2)

October 27, 2007

No fool like an old fool

I ran NESCACs again today. It was wet, like last year, but not, I think, the kind of wet that leads to nasty rashes.

I also made some poor choices when it comes to uniform (forgot my singlet in Somerville) and footwear (no socks inside the spikes: that would’ve worked if it had been dry, but not so well in today’s wet mud.) The grit of the mud that came in the shoes became sandpaper on the heels, themselves softened from soaking. By three miles, I felt like I was flaying my feet. I took the spikes off immediately after leaving the chute, and there was a bit more blood there than I really like to see after a race.

I am, really, getting too old for this. But it is kind of fun.

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Posted by pjm at 10:23 PM | Comments (1)

October 25, 2007

Generic World Series post

Can I just do this once, and re-post it for the duration of the series?

What a game last night! How’d you like that -inning shot by ? And wasn’t it great to see back again?

I was a bit nervous there when but boy, the Sox have their act together now. I wish my could see this. We’re gonna win it in .

And not a moment too soon. I think I’m gonna scream if I have to see another one of those ads. I’m going to be useless at work today after only hours of sleep. Can’t they start these games so they finish before ?

Now Playing: Weathervane (Live at the Somerville Theater) by Kris Delmhorst

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Posted by pjm at 10:11 AM | Comments (5)

October 24, 2007

Don't drive to the Olympics

No, not Beijing: 2012 in London. The Times is reporting that the 2012 organizing committee is “adopting the most aggressive anticar policy ever applied to a major event.”

The details include an almost complete lack of parking areas around the venues (exceptions, of course, being made for “a small number of disabled people”—I wonder if public transportation will be Paralympics-friendly?) and extensive promotion of mass transit, including free all-zones travelcards for many London venues. A more disturbing note is the creation of “Zil lanes” on many motorways for transportation of the “Olympic Family.” These are reserved for athletes, officials, and media, and named for the “routes reserved for Soviet Politburo cavalcades in Moscow,” an uncomfortable allusion at best. (A commenter on the article suggested renaming them “pig lanes” after Orwell’s Animal Farm.)

On the one hand, this is fantastic; London has had four years to get used to the idea of “car exclusion zones,” and this is a massive expansion of them, encouraging people to establish new transit habits. London, at least, has an adequate rail system, unlike, say, Boston.

But the need for such buzz around a low-car Games points to England’s almost American dependence on cars. For comparison, I think of Osaka: Nagai stadium had very few nearby parking lots. Nearly all spectators arrived the way I did: by subway or light rail. (Many thousands doubtless also arrived by bicycle, since the racks I saw were jammed full every night.) One hopes the 2012 committee puts up adequate bicycle racks as well as promoting rail.

I wouldn’t have been a “Zil lane” user had there been any in Osaka, traveling as I did on the subway every day thanks to the pass which came with my media credential. (As I recall, we took light rail to the stadium in Edmonton most days as well.) If I’d stayed in one of the official media hotels, I could have caught a “media shuttle,” a bus which would whisk me to the stadium, but the subway worked fine.

In Seville, we used those buses, but on many occasions we walked. I also remember seeing David Monti riding a bicycle back and forth to the stadium; he had the foresight to send one over. I contemplated renting a bicycle in Osaka, but in hindsight I was fine without one. I dislike being dependent on another (either a bus schedule or a driver) and I like being able to “get myself there”. I wonder how I’ll get to the Bird’s Nest?

Now Playing: The Creep Out from Come Down by The Dandy Warhols

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Posted by pjm at 10:37 AM | Comments (2)

October 21, 2007

The Sox via Ohio

It’s still the seventh inning, but I’m back in Somerville. I hopped from FM station to FM station tracking first five innings; as the Maine affiliate started to flicker, I picked up New Hampshire. That worked well for a while, but as I got closer to Boston they started flickering as well. Eventually, after 95 joined 128, I found myself unable to pick up the game on FM.

So I flipped to AM. I’d caught a few innings of Game 1 on AM on my way out to Amherst last weekend, so I was still on a baseball station, and the game was there… but something was odd. The announcer was strangely elated about Manny striking out at the bottom of the fifth. Then the ads came on, and I realized: I was listening to a Cleveland station.

So I listened to the sixth inning from Cleveland. I realize I probably could’ve gone down to 680 and picked up WRKO, but it was almost like listening in another language (except that I could understand everything they were saying.) There was something beautifully unreal about it.

I suppose this just underlines what kind of fan I am: I follow the Sox through the year, but more on a weekly than a daily basis, and I don’t actually start watching the games until well into the postseason. But I am pretty old-school; I’d rather listen on the radio than watch on TV, though I suppose I’d prefer to be at the game. I think it’s because I associate the radio broadcasts with my grandmother, who used to sit in her dining room with the Sox on during the summer, listening to WBZ clear up the coast. So I may not be a fanatic… but I’ve been at this a good long time.

Now Playing: BOS vs. CLE, ALCS Game 7, bottom of the 7th, two run homer for Pedroia!

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Posted by pjm at 10:59 PM | Comments (4)

Sox o' Lantern

Sox o' Lantern

This is my brother’s jack-o-lantern. I told him he needed to have it lit tonight, because if they lose Game 7 it will have a pretty short shelf life. (I did another cat for my nieces.)

I’m getting ready to drive back to Somerville, probably listening to the game in the car. I had to post this before I left, because it may be obsolete in a few hours.

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Posted by pjm at 7:38 PM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2007

Unsolicited praise

While I am still at least a part-time resident of the Greater Boston Area, I need to say good things about Adam Gaffin and his site, Universal Hub. UH is a community blog which posts mostly brief summaries and links to news and blog stories from around the area; it doesn’t pretend to be an impersonal institution, but Adam also tries to keep it open for everyone’s contributions. He’s highlighted a few of my posts in the past, like my Olympic assignment last week, and I draw some traffic (and, in that case, nice comments) from that, which is cool. There’s often more discussion on the Hub as well, where the posts serve as the springboard for discussion; see this story from earlier this week, for example.

If you live near Boston—probably anything inside 495 counts, but inside 128/95 is definitely in range—it’s worth having Universal Hub in your feed reader. Adam does a great job highlighting what everyone else is doing, and it’s a good way to keep in touch with what everyone else is talking about, and get introduced to other reading outside your own list. (For example, UH led me to the motorized surfboard shot I linked earlier.)

Now Playing: Golden by Radio Nationals

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Posted by pjm at 9:41 AM | Comments (1)

A shot of the motorized surfboard

Remember back in July, when I posted about the powered skateboard I saw sometimes on the street in Medford? Cowbark at the Boston Daily Photo got a photo of the contraption locked to a parking meter outside her office. At least, I assume it’s the same one; it seems so unlikely that there would be several of them. It’s interesting that he’s still using it now when the weather is starting to turn cool; that makes the “gas saving” motivation much more likely, I think.

Now Playing: Desire from Demolition by Ryan Adams

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October 18, 2007

Josh Ritter: hear for yourself

I’ve been dinning in your collective ear for years now about how great Josh Ritter is. But look, don’t take my word for it; you can hear for yourself. Here’s how I would do it:

  • Go to Josh’s website. In addition to having the entire new album streaming (which does have the inconvenience of requiring you to keep that page open in a browser tab somewhere), you can download—free!—”To the Dogs or Whoever” from the newest album on the news page of the site, plus two each from each of the four previous albums on the music page. I recommend “Girl in the War”, “Kathleen”, “Me & Jiggs”, and “Harrisburg”. Altogether there’s nine free songs on the site, which is a decent greatest-hits disc. There’s more on the fan site, but we’re not digging that deep right now.

  • NPR’s “All Songs Considered” recently broadcast a full concert from the 9:30 Club in DC. You can get it most easily by subscribing to the ASC podcast (Bog, did I just type that ugly neologism?) and listen to the whole show on one drive, as I did on my way back from Amherst last night. It’s pretty cool, very similar to the show I saw here in Somerville down to the Springsteen cover in the encore, and I like the podcast as well; being able to slurp down hour-long showcases of new music and good concerts for nothing sounds like a great deal to me.

Now Playing: To the Dogs or Whoever from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

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Posted by pjm at 10:44 AM | Comments (0)

October 16, 2007

Athlete of the Year

Once again, I have a vote in the IAAF’s World Athlete of the Year selection. The first round of selection narrows the pools of eleven men and eleven women to three of each; the Athlete of the Year will be picked by a “special jury” from that short list.

Voting is available online; the “internet vote” will be 30% of the selection for the first round, whereas the vote of the “IAAF Athletics Family” (a component of which is “Selected International Press,” i.e. the likes of me) counts for 70%. I have no idea how many people make up that group; I’m betting more than a hundred, but I suppose I’d be surprised if there were many more than one thousand. So my vote counts somewhat more than it would in the average U.S. general election, but not enough to really sway things.

By the looks of the online poll, Liu Xiang and Blanca Vlasic are leading so far, and they certainly have a lot in their favor, Vlasic in particular. However, I’m sending in my vote for two Ethiopians.

I’m picking Haile Gebrselassie over Xiang, because he set two world records this year, including one in the marathon which I think heralds a change in the event. Xiang ran a stunning World Championship final under tremendous pressure, but otherwise he didn’t make much of a dent in the season.

The women’s side was tougher. Vlasic dominated the season in the high jump, and won all the big meets. I’d vote for her. But Meseret Defar, once again, lowered the world record in her event, and after watching her gut out a very, very fast 3,000m in Boston when she wasn’t 100% (and then get that record later in the season) I thought she could use a vote.

Disagree with me? The poll is right here. I’m not certain, but I’m betting that three of you out-vote one of me.

Now Playing: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go by Lori McKenna

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October 15, 2007

Watch what you say

I hadn’t given much thought to it until this weekend, but one of the consequences of taking this assignment—aside from the potential asthmatic effects I’ve been warned about—is that I’ll be behind the “Great Firewall of China”.

Given that I have a pretty narrow focus on what’s happening at the track, I can’t imagine myself sparking any political clashes with the Chinese government. If I can make it eight weeks in post-Soviet Russia without sparking an international incident, I can probably manage ten days in China, despite the doom and gloom in this New Zealand Press article Nicole links. But part of the nature of my job is to get stuff online in a hurry, and bitter experience in that area suggests to me that that can be hard enough in allegedly-less-authoritarian countries, simply due to technological challenges. What kind of logjam might be created by an artificially-imposed internet bottleneck?

Maybe not IAAF stuff, but how about posting photos on Flickr? Trying to get a secure (i.e. encrypted) email connection?

Heck, shelling in to a work server? Running an impromptu wireless network in my room? All relatively unthreatening things on the face of them (though an SSH connection can be used with port forwarding to bypass a firewall, and who knows what an unsecured network could be used for.) I doubt any of these things would be significant problems, but I wish I knew more.

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Posted by pjm at 9:26 PM | Comments (1)

October 14, 2007

1491

Last night we went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a sequel to the 1998 movie (how often do movies wait nine years for their sequels?) which deals with, among other things, the early stages of English exploration of North America. Sir Walter Raleigh blows in to court to seek funding for his colonization of North America (a quest one of his nephews would continue quite near where I grew up) and proposes to name the entire region “Virginia, for our Virgin Queen.” Elizabeth smirks a bit and ripostes, “If I am to marry, will you rename it Conjugia?”

Raleigh paints a picture of a “New World” largely peopled by savages without kings of their own, tempting Elizabeth to reach for empire, but he was speaking with his own agenda. On the trip to and from Stuttgart, I chewed through Charles Mann’s 1491, which promises in its subtitle “New revelations of the Americas before Columbus.” One of these “revelations” is that some recent estimates place the population density of America before Columbus significantly higher than that of Europe, at least in some sections of South and Central America, a picture somewhat different from Raleigh’s. Even the area around present-day Boston had, 100 years before the Pilgrims arrived, a dense enough population that the various groups often tried to push others away to gain more space for themselves.

Mann seems to find his subtitle problematic, and admits that many of the “revelations” he delivers date back to the 1960s or earlier. But, he points out, many high school and college texts are still being printed which paint a portrait of the Americas prior to 1492 which is now under attack, if not flat out wrong. The picture of pre-Columbian America which most of us are taught today was created by the dominant (Western) culture out of ignorance, mis-reading of the evidence, and attempts to avoid the realities of their own effects on the continent. The picture of the Americas as thinly populated, for example, largely ignores the horrific epidemics of illnesses common in Europe but unheard of in America, which killed (depending on whose reports you believe) as many as nineteen in every twenty Indians before the Europeans were able to get established on the continent, let alone take a census.

Mann tries to steer clear of accusations, finger-pointing, and blame-assigning. He picks out a few scholars who he considers responsible for the mischaracterization of entire continents, but generally finds them mistaken rather than malicious. More than anything else, he prefers to put some kind of scale on the kind of cultures we (a collective, global “we”) have lost in the collision of continents five hundred years ago, and the result is actually quite fascinating.

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Posted by pjm at 9:17 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2007

Jones, juice, and joylessness

A week later, and I haven’t said a word about what nearly everyone else in the sports-journalism world has already weighed in about. Last Saturday I went to pick up my number for the half-marathon and on to the New England open cross-country meet listening to NPR coverage of Marion Jones. I’ve been reading columns about her all week.

I don’t really have much to say, not that anyone is asking. I’m annoyed, to be sure; I come back, in my mind, to the meet where I (and most of the other reporters on hand) missed watching Meseret Defar run a world record in the women’s 5,000m because we were in a press conference listening to first Justin Gatlin and then Jones tell us how clean they were. (N.B. This would be annoying even if Gatlin and Jones were clean.) But that’s nothing; I didn’t write the book on Jones or anything like that. I’ve never lost out on a medal, a national championships, or prize money because I was running against an athlete who was doping.

I’m not shocked; I, too, have been hearing the rumors since Jones burst on the scene ten years ago, coincidentally at the first USATF championship I attended as a reporter. I’m disappointed. I’m resigned. And I’m… tired.

I’m so tired of having to wonder what I’m seeing; of having a great performance clouded by questions about how it was reached. Just the thought sucks the thrill out of a meet like a sudden drop in cabin pressure, leaving us all gasping.

When you come right down to it, I’ve never been entirely sold on the idea that sprinters are really part of my sport. Marion Jones has as little to do with the sport I participate in as Mia Hamm—maybe less. This is willful naivite on my part, because the general public doesn’t see “distance running” as significantly different from the greater sport of “athletics” (track and field, in this country.) Marion Jones, Adam Nelson, Paul Tergat: all on the same team, as far as the general public is concerned. And while I would be shocked and dismayed if either Nelson or Tergat were busted for doping, I’m sure both have been accused by someone, somewhere, simply because they’re so good. (Tergat, of course, would be accused of a different agent entirely; steroids like Jones used are less useful to distance runners than blood-boosting agents like EPO.)

I’m limited, I think, by the way I write about the sport, or more correctly, the way I don’t write about it. I’ve said before that I come to this subsection of journalism as a fan with a notebook, and the writing I do, usually event reports or athlete profiles, necessarily starts with a premise that athletes are clean until proven (or confessed) dirty, and that competition happens only within the constraints described in the official rules. Removing the sport from those borders removes the sport. Also, I tend to assume that my audience knows the sport a bit; they know what covering ten kilometers (or twenty, or forty-two) on foot feels like, etc.

It’s a narrow little window I look at my sport through, and it’s really too small to give me much to say about Jones.

Lauryn Williams, on the other hand. She has something to say, and it’s worth reading. I’ll stop now.

Now Playing: Bang And Blame from Monster by R.E.M.

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Posted by pjm at 10:16 AM | Comments (1)

October 11, 2007

Almost official

I can speak a bit more confidently now about the “pair of exciting assignments” I’ve been alluding to. I’ve been invited to be part of the IAAF.org team for the Beijing Olympics. According to the tentative plans I’ll be writing the “competition blog” again, and this time also writing more extensive previews and highlights stories for each day of competition. There are some complications and sacrifices to be made on this end, but I’ve never yet been to an Olympics (nor to China, for that matter) and it seemed like too good an offer to pass up—especially considering how notoriously difficult it is to obtain press credentials for the Olympics as a freelancer, or even in some cases as a magazine editor. I’ll be paid slightly less (though this is slippery: I’ve been paid in dollars before, but this offer was in euros) but I won’t need to make my own travel and housing arrangements, which is a big deal.

The icing on the proverbial cake is that the “dress rehearsal” with the systems and processes we’ll use for Beijing will be the “second-biggest event” of 2008, the World Indoor Championships, a biennial event coming up next March in Valencia, Spain and another major international I’ve never been to. (I suppose, when I think about it, that before 2006 the only major internationals I had been to were the 1999 and 2001 World Championships.) Leaving aside the inherent appeal of the event, the idea of going to the Mediterranean coast of Spain right about at the point where we in the Northeast U.S. are thinking winter has overstayed its welcome sounds tremendously appealing.

So, the almost-for-real track-writing career will continue for at least another year. And I’ll need to renew my passport (which will expire after Valencia.)

Now Playing: Sunshine/Nowhere To Run from Tarantula by Ride

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Posted by pjm at 10:16 AM | Comments (2)

October 10, 2007

Writing professionally, for free

Since I started writing here, the site has been something of a notebook for me, parts log and mass e-mail and writing practice-space. I can claim, in a small way, to be a “professional writer,” because I get paid to write, even though it’s not my primary source of income. What I write here, in general, is not the sort of stuff I get paid for. And I’ve resisted the temptation to slap some AdSense ads on this page somewhere, because I’m personally a little annoyed at the pervasiveness of advertising and giving up one more ad-free zone doesn’t seem worth the small change I would probably collect.

But last week I had email from someone asking why I didn’t shop around certain posts here for publication, and I realized that the line between my writing for pay and writing for fun is not quite as bright and sharp as I thought it was.

I know there are some full-time writers who work in feature length most of the time, and keep weblogs because things cross their desks which aren’t big enough for full articles. Even columnists, I suspect, have paragraphs here and there to burn off. But these two posts were—almost unintentionally—pretty close to column length, which tends to be the scale I work in.

I also like to think of this space as practice; I think that writing here regularly, even if it’s not about running, even if it’s not good, keeps me considering the way sentences fit together, and keeps the rhythm of paragraphs and sentences and transitions sharp in my subconscious. This makes it easier for me to do work when I have it; I can’t write well if I’m thinking about writing well.

At some level it comes down to a bit of superstition. I don’t know why I should be able to sit down and write a competent magazine article any more than I understand why someone else couldn’t. I feel like I need to use it or lose it—keep writing stuff when it comes to mind, even if it means self-publishing an otherwise saleable article on the internet—because I’m afraid if I force it too much, I’ll lose it. And for all that it’s frequently hard work, every now and then it can be a whole lot of fun. So I suppose sometimes this site is a libation—a little work poured out on the ground in recognition of the work I have and hope to continue getting.

I was offered a pair of exciting assignments yesterday, but I haven’t confirmed them yet; I’ll post the details when I do.

Now Playing: Army from The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner by Ben Folds Five

Posted by pjm at 9:54 AM | Comments (0)

October 9, 2007

Details, as yet, unresolved

…but “renew passport” should probably be on my to-do list.

Posted by pjm at 1:27 PM | Comments (0)

October 7, 2007

Putting prose on a diet

It’s always better to know what you’re writing going in, I think. New England Runner didn’t really give me any guidelines for an Osaka story, so I threw every story I hadn’t told already (and I few I had) into one big, sprawling narrative and sent it in, knowing it was too long but figuring cutting was better than stretching.

Some days later came the apologetic reply: great stuff, but it needs cutting all right. To about a quarter of its original size.

I have it at a bit more than a third, right now, but I still need to cut another third of what remains. I’m toying with the idea of removing every third word and seeing if it still makes sense.

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Posted by pjm at 7:12 PM | Comments (0)

Lots of teams means lots of teammates

As running goes, I am pretty lucky. Not only that I’m able to do it at all, but in the people I’ve come in contact with simply because of my (relatively) long participation in the sport.

Through today’s half marathon, from arrival before the start to departure, I was running in to people I know professionally, including three different members of the marathon bike spotters team.

A member of one iteration of our Reach the Beach relay team was at the eight-mile water stop. Spotting and recognizing him took my mind off feeling sorry for myself (that was the race’s rough part, for me) for a few minutes, which was great.

And in the finishing chute, I was greeted by a college teammate who had finished around the time I was passing the twelve-mile mark. Another person I was pleased to see.

When I was running PRs and racing to win, I used to wonder what motivation I would have for training and racing when my times were hopelessly slower. I don’t think I’m washed up for good yet—another year or so of consistency may bring a breakthrough that would pull me back to PR territory—but several of my races this fall have given me clues about why I’ll keep at it once I am.

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October 6, 2007

Why own a chip?

I belong to a fairly small subset of runners with a curious quality: we own Champion Chips.

We’re a pretty small percentage of runners here in the USA, but a much larger percentage in Europe. “The Chip” took off there before it came to the USA in 1996, and many races there, I’m told, required their runners to own their chips.

The model in the USA, however, turned out differently. Timing companies bought thousands of chips to go with their mats, and rented them to the races for issue to registered runners. The runners were responsible for returning the chips after the race, either directly to volunteers past the finish line, or by mail.

Before that model was established, however, there was a window of a few years when there was more aggressive marketing of chips to individual runners. I got mine in late 1999, in anticipation of Boston ‘00, and it has the Boston Marathon logo. You can still buy a chip, with logos of various races, but I get the idea they’re not hot sellers.

Why not? Well, they’re not cheap, $35 each. And what’s the point? The only difference between a race-distributed chip and one you own is that you submit your chip number with your race registration, you have to remember and find your chip before the race, and you don’t have to return it afterward. (I suppose this could be a plus if you prefer not to have to mess with your shoelaces immediately after a race.) Many races don’t even allow for you to use your own chip, issuing one of theirs no matter what. Others make you jump through hoops; I had to go to the trouble desk and return a race-issued chip for Beach to Beacon this year and make sure my chip was correctly in the database.

The BAA Half Marathon, which I’m running tomorrow, is better (despite being run by essentially the same race management team, DMSE.) I put my chip number in the entry form, and when I picked up my number today, that was noted on my chip sheet and there was no chip in the bag. I’ve laced the chip onto the shoes I’m racing in tomorrow, and I’m ready to go. But I’m still not sure how it’s any easier than just taking the one the race issues. A has a chip which she never uses; I suspect most people who own chips do the same. I suspect I keep filling in my chip number out of pure obstinacy, because I can’t figure out any other reason.

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Posted by pjm at 7:55 PM | Comments (0)

October 5, 2007

Pipes are cool

I’m late to the party on this one, I suppose, but I recently discovered the coolness which is Yahoo! Pipes, and I feel the deep, geeky need to share.

I’ve read about Pipes for months (I even hinted about building one here) but I really only came to find them—and see how easy they are to use—a week or so ago. I’d been putting together a bunch of feeds for Common Kitchen, and the nature of their creation meant I had a feed which had cookbook objects, a feed with recipe objects, etc., but it was very difficult to create a feed with different kinds of object. So, in order to put together a “unified feed” with everything that’s new on Common Kitchen—a concatenation of the existing feeds—I turned to Pipes.

Pipes let me take the five or six feeds of interest, slurp them all into one big blob, sort it by date, then truncate the result to a reasonable length. Presto: a unified feed.

Intrigued, I built a similar pipe which combines most of the feeds linked from this weblog: the main site feed, the comments feed, my Flickr photostream, and my del.icio.us bookmarks feed. One feed to rule them all, one feed to bind them…

But Pipes are good for more than just combining feeds. Say you’ve had enough of reading my ramblings on technology that’s so last month (or, what’s a feed, again?) or folk singers with horn sections, and you just want to read what I have to say about running. I wouldn’t endorse such monomania myself, but it would be pretty simple to create a pipe which filters out all but the “running” category.

Why “pipes”? Because in the Unix world, the “pipe” character—the vertical bar you get from shift-\ on your keyboard—tells the operating system to take the output of one command and “pipe” it into the input of the next. By chaining a series of simple commands with pipes, you can build complex and powerful operations. That’s what Pipes is doing: allowing several simple operations on data to be chained into a powerful system.

(Tell me again: what’s a feed and why should you care?)

Now Playing: Fighting In A Sack from Chutes Too Narrow by The Shins

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Posted by pjm at 9:43 PM | Comments (0)

Changes in the horn section

The last time I saw Josh Ritter at the Somerville Theatre, the encore involved Josh’s band (a four-piece at the time) hauling out a tuba, among other instruments, for the encore. That was shortly before “The Animal Years” was released, and songs like “Girl in the War” were still just being tried out.

Josh has a new album, a month or two ago, and to go along with the bombastic title (“The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter”) he’d added a guitarist to the band and brought in a four-piece horn section. There was at least one song last night which could’ve been performed by Bill Halley and the Comets without anyone batting an eyelid, but this horn section was bottom-heavy (baritone and tenor sax, trombone, trumpet) and Josh uses them like a growl—the new album is online for the moment, check the second verse of “Rumors” and you get the idea. “My orchestra is gigantic,” (buh bah,) “This thing could sink the Titanic,” (buh bah,) and so on.

So with three solid albums behind this one, it’s getting tough for Josh to play all the good stuff from his back catalog while still showing off the new music. He played a lot of the new album, including all the up-tempo stuff, a pretty deep range of “The Animal Years” (“Wolves” and “Girl in the War,” of course, but also “Here at the Right Time” and “Monster Ballads”). “Hello Starling” got short shrift; he played “Kathleen,” of course, since the half of the audience that wasn’t there for “Girl in the War” was there for “Kathleen.” And then from “Golden Age of Radio,” not the expected ones: “Harrisburg,” yes, but not “Me and Jiggs” or the title track; “Lawrence, KS” instead.

And, as part of the encore, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” by himself without the mikes. Part of Ritter’s strength is that, unlike Springsteen, his voice works best when it’s not at full shout; he was at the ragged edge of his range with “The River,” and with the bigger, louder band and the energetic songs on “Historical Conquests,” he’s working hard. Maybe it didn’t help that midway through “Girl in the War,” he sounded like he was breaking down in tears. It’s as though he’s incapable of not feeling the music completely; it makes a great show, but man, it must be tough work.

As usual, whenever I leave one of Josh’s shows, I have a new favorite song; this time, it’s “Here At The Right Time.”

Now Playing: To the Dogs or Whoever from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

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Posted by pjm at 9:44 AM | Comments (1)

October 4, 2007

Down to the wire

It was the best of series, it was the worst of series? We can start with the worst: Robert Cheruiyot (I’m occasionally impressed with myself for being able to spell that without double-checking somewhere) locked up the ‘06-‘07 World Marathon Majors title with his win in Boston last spring; maybe if someone like Martin Lel managed to win both Chicago and New York this fall, with Cheruiyot no better than fifth, they could knock him off, but that’s about as likely as me qualifying for the Olympic Trials.

On the other hand, the women’s ‘06-‘07 series will be decided in New York next month. Gete Wami has the lead after winning Berlin last weekend, but only by ten points, and second place, Jelena Prokopcuka, is running in New York. And so is Wami. The kind of race the five marathons have been hoping for all along.

Therefore, it’s entirely likely, depending on how those two run, that a “minor place” as far back as fifth may win half a million at the NYCM, notably more than the winner.

A tie goes to the victor in head-to-head competition. The two haven’t faced each other so far in this series, so if Prokopcuka gets enough points to tie (i.e. 10 more than Wami) at the NYCM, she wins. Here are the scenarios which would let Prokopcuka overtake or tie Wami to win:

  • Wami 2nd or worse, Prokopcuka 1st
  • Wami 4th or worse, Prokopcuka 2nd or better
  • Wami 6th or worse, Prokopcuka 3rd or better

Prokopcuka may have an advantage in that Wami just ran Berlin and may not have recovered fully, but there’s some history of runners coming back from late-summer marathons (e.g. the Athens Olympics) and running well at the NYCM.

It actually feels a lot like the 1,500m in a decathlon. I expect we’ll see Prokopcuka and Wami eyeing each other until the pack reaches Manhattan and the real racing begins.

Now Playing: Electioneering from OK Computer by Radiohead

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Posted by pjm at 10:18 AM | Comments (0)

October 3, 2007

Literal self-promotion

When we were first writing the business plan, in January, I spent some time researching traffic numbers for various websites. These numbers generally aren’t widely available, so the next-best option is to work with Alexa, Amazon’s traffic-monitoring service.

In the course of this, I looked in to how Alexa measures traffic to various websites. The principal route seems to be by asking volunteers to install a browser toolbar or plug-in which then phones home to Alexa with your browsing data. Alexa then assumes that the users reporting their traffic are a representative sample of the whole population of internet users (which is, in the circumstances, one of the only reasonable approaches to take.)

This is effective enough when it comes to ranking the top 10,000 or so websites. However, once you get far enough down the scale, one user can have a disproportionately large effect on the overall ranking. This site, for example, was unranked for the first three years of its existence. Since I installed the Alexa plug-in, however, it has jumped to #547,291—an “improvement” of 750%.

Now Playing: From Time To Time from Live Light (France, 11/1994) by Ride

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Posted by pjm at 9:03 AM | Comments (0)

It's never just one thing

It’s nice to see Steve Cram praising Kara Goucher, but the ultimate conclusion of his article—which seems to boil down to, “Goucher runs well because of altitude training”—is problematic. The problem is that, like so many other how-they-do-it articles, it grasps at a single element of a larger training program and points at that one thing as the source of success.

Cram’s not inherently wrong, but the conclusion he reaches is faulty. If all it took to run like Goucher was an altitude tent (or training at altitude, etc.) the Universities of Arkansas or Wisconsin would never beat Colorado and BYU at the NCAA cross country championships. Paula Radcliffe spends as much time (or more) at altitude and in her hypoxic tent as Goucher, and yet that didn’t carry her to victory last Sunday.

The desire to reduce a winning program to a single element is understandable, because the fact is that top-level training is complicated. If you want to be world class, not only do you have to have some talent to start with, you need to do it all. You need to train hard, recover well, tend your injuries (and Goucher cites the availability of therapists of all kinds as one reason she and her husband Adam chose Salazar’s program in Portland over the excellent training group in Madison, Wisconsin,) eat right, etc. etc. etc. And Alan Webb’s Osaka experience shows how narrow the margin of error is at that level. Keeping all that stuff up is complicated. It requires good coaching and support. It’s nearly impossible to do it by yourself.

But we hang on to the romantic image of the lone, noble amateur who bases a program on one magic element which allows them to triumph. If you’re sufficiently patient, you can list off some former champions and go one-to-one with their “secret weapon”: Frank Shorter and high mileage. Lasse Viren and “reindeer milk” (or, if you’re more cynical, blood doping.) Prefontaine and his willingness to hurt. Halberg and Snell and their phenomenal aerobic base. Miruts Yifter and his speed. Any number of athletes and their incredible coach, though I actually think that’s closer to the reality of things than the other magic elements, though in not in the direction you’d expect.

But every one of those athletes was as good as they were because they got all the pieces—or at least, as many as were available at the time—right. No silver bullet. If I move to Boulder, I won’t become a Trials qualifier. If I do 120-mile weeks, I won’t run a 1:05 half-marathon. If I quit my job, slept 10-11 hours a day, ran doubles and filled the rest of my time with massage appointments, active release therapy, weight training, yoga, etc. while living above 10,000’ and training below 5,000’… well, maybe I could pop a fast time or two.

Goucher is doing all that. Plus, she’s training as hard as (or, as my coach observed when he visited their training camp this summer, harder than) the very talented men in her training group.

It’s not just altitude. It’s making it a full-time job, and then doing it all right.

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Posted by pjm at 8:19 AM | Comments (2)

October 1, 2007

A bad day for the Os in athletics

I just went to the IAAF website to check a statistic for a story (which I’m past deadline on) and discovered that Al Oerter died. The USATF release arrived in my inbox minutes later. Oerter probably isn’t a name that’s familiar to younger track fans—including my own generation—but the IAAF is calling him “the greatest athlete ever to compete in the men’s discus throw.” Oerter not only competed in four consecutive Olympics, beginning in Melbourne in 1956, he won four gold medals—setting Olympic records all four times. Twelve years after retiring in 1968, Oerter came back to contest the 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, and threw his best-ever mark in 1980 at age 43.

This morning, I had another press release in my email, noting the passing of Asics chairman Kihachiro Onitsuka. Again, longtime runners will see the resonance of that name: before Asics was created from the merger of several sporting goods firms, Onitsuka founded his own company to encourage Japanese youth in sports following the second World War. Onitsuka had a hand in the birth of two major running shoe companies, since Blue Ribbon Sports, the forerunner of Nike, was founded by Oregon’s Phil Knight to import and market Onitsuka’s Tiger running shoes in the USA.

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Posted by pjm at 3:13 PM | Comments (1)