From Start to Finish
What this ‘Blog’ is all about

This ‘Blog’ is not really a blog.  It’s a story told in chronological order.  

It’s a story about running which sounds very boring.  Indeed, running long distances at a stretch can be boring, painful, mind-numbing, or worse.

But in every run, the good and the bad, something interesting happens. These are the stories I want to tell. Sometimes the stories are sparked by passing landmarks in the magical country side of south-west France; sometimes by the scenes of daily life I pass in streets of Saigon; others have adventure, but juvenile adventure at best.  Often it’s simply some stray thought that appears between my ears as I put one foot forward after the next that starts the story I want to tell.   

So I’ll try not to bore you with daily workout distances, caloric intakes, V02 Max rates, occurrences strange foot fungus or other unspeakable maladies.  I’d rather share the story from Start to Finish.

A story, like a run, comes in many stages.  Some are exhilarating, some frustrating and some simply boring.  You may feel the same about these stories as they progress from Start to Finish so I’ve attached below an excerpt from one of my favorite running stories.  One that, for me, equates to that elusive ‘runners high’ which I personally believe is just a myth.

From there you can read the stories from Start to Finish.  I hope you find something there that amuses you.  The Start is not far away. The Finish is a ways off.  Without giving away the ending, I can say that there is a bit of a twist to Finish.

Enjoy,

Patrick

p.s. If you want to know what music works for me when I run, start the very cool “Grooveshark’ music widget to the right of this post. 

Sample Entry - from somewhere in the middle of the story

Support Team

Espiens 09-08-09

Today, I finally get a support team for a long run.  All summer I have asked my kids, nephews, nieces, guests, Odile and anyone else who cared to listen if they didn’t want to take a leisurely bike ride while I ran.  No takers.

This is my last run in France.  My son and my nephew finally agree to join me on the bikes.

A support team will be great.  They can carry my water and Gu.   I won’t need to drive around dropping re-filled Badoit bottles along the route before the run.  It will be nice to have company.  Most importantly, I can imagine that I am such an important runner-athlete that I have a support team.

Dreams like this rarely turn out as I expect.

I choose a particularly vicious 27km route for this last run.  This time I will not shy away from the hills. If I go downhill, I will go uphill, meter for meter.   Not one, but two hill climbs of about 300m each will come after the 15k mark.  This run will be a bit longer than my training scheduled prescribes.  But I can’t resist pushing the distance barrier out a bit further.  It’s my last chance to run in France.

The boys are 16 and fit.  The only problem I anticipate is that they will get bored with the running pace and cycle ahead with my water and Gu.  But they don’t know the way.  In the worst case, I figure they will have to wait for me at junctions where a turning decision has to be made. These come every 4 or 5 kilometers.

It never occurred to me that they could get bored and find strange ways to amuse themselves behind me. Twice I had to reverse course and find them.  I was at turning points that I did not want them to miss.  They were behind me.

At about 5k I point out an extravagant camouflaged palombière hunting-hide I had noted a few days earlier.  It is a three story tower-like steel affair hidden in a copse next to a small patch of vineyard tucked away in a forested area.

A palombière is used to hunt the palombe, a delicious migratory game bird that is related to the pigeon.  It’s just bigger, gamier and tastier than a pigeon.  The palombes live in northern Europe in the summers and Spain in the winter.  To get to Spain they have to cross over the Pyrenées.  I feel for the palombes.  They dislike big hills as much as I do.  Whether you are flying or running, a big hill is a big hill and gaining altitude does not come without effort.

One palombe, centuries ago, must have decided that it was best to rest in the forests of the Aquitaine and Gascogne before taking on the Pyrenées.  Very sensible, I say.  Word spread and DNA coding passed it down the generations.  Now, all palombes stop for a few weeks in the forests near here during the Fall.  I imagine they rest, enjoy the Indian summer sunsets of southwest France and exchange tips on the best places to eat, drink and pick up chicks in the Costa del Sol with anticipation and delight.  In this way, the palombes are very much like the English.

Over those same centuries the men of Gascogne have perfected another tradition.  It’s a tradition that is shared amongst male cultures all around the world.  Guys need an excuse to hang out in tribes, drink, eat, tell outrageous stories or outright lies and generally make fools of ourselves out of view of our spouses and off-spring.

The Gascons do this very well.  It’s been a tough summer.  Ankle biting kids are not in school.  Obligatory trips to the crowded beach are required.  Cold rice salad dusted with sand must be eaten.  After resisting the urge to shoot fellow travelers in grid-locked holiday traffic on the way home, they head off to their elaborately constructed palombières for a week or two in the Fall.  Now they can hang with their buddies and finally shoot something.

I dreamt with my brothers of building the ultimate tree houses, forts and command centers.  We once started digging holes in a wooded public park with a complicated bomb shelter in mind. The cold war was still going on in those days.  Progress was good until a policeman with no sense of humor shattered our grand architectural plans with threats of fines and prison.

If you ever shared such a dream you will love a palombière.  They have command posts, bunkers, camouflaged corridors with shooting ports, net traps and wires strung about on pulleys for the ‘bait’ birds.  The best palombières also have ovens, stoves, refrigerators, bunks and, I suspect, wine cellars.  In the forts of our childhood the only thing we were truly missing was an enemy.  The Gascons only have the palombes now that they can longer shoot English who are still around planning forays to the Costa del Sol.

The hunting methods aren’t terribly sporting.  But I don’t think hunting is the real point of palombières.  A few unsuspecting birds are captured live in the spring loaded net traps.  These are tied to wires run through pulleys back to the command center.  As the wire is pulled the bird gets agitated.  The palombes, as a species, appear to have a bit of the Good Samaritan in them.  When seeing a fellow in distress will fly down to help.  That’s when they get shot, cleaned, cooked and eaten by grown, unshaven, unwashed men with a skin-full of Armagnac.

Its bad form to intentionally shoot the bait bird on the wire.  But I am sure that a few are executed at the end of the week.  When Armagnac and the DTs have permanently ruined your aim, you still need to come home with some profit from a week of hunting.

I am not a hunter but I wouldn’t hesitate to spend a week with the guys at a palombière.

About a kilometer (downhill) past this particularly grand palombière where I left the boys, I am waiting at the next turn. And waiting and waiting.  Finally, I run back uphill to find the boys.  We meet half the way back. The tires, spokes, chains and seats of the bikes are caked in mud. There is a fair distribution on shorts, T-shirts and behind a few ears as well.  I don’t ask what happened. Clearly it’s something between guys that is meant to take place out of view of girlfriends and parents.  Trespass laws may have been broken.  Add another kilometer to the run.

(continued….)

From start to finish

Espiens, France 20-07-2009

I have been meaning to do this for a long time: to write a little bit after training runs.

A little background might be in order.  I am training now to run the NYC marathon on November 1st.  I have always run short distances a few times a week but just about a year ago became interested in distance running.  Since then I have run half marathons in Angkor Wat and Phuket.  So far that’s the furthest I have run.  But some of the long training runs are now up to half marathon distance.

As the training runs get longer and more frequent I realize that a whole lot of nonsense passes through my mind, as well as the occasional piece of insight.  It’s something like dreaming or perhaps what Ray Kurzweil calls lucid dreaming.  One train of thought, which might last no longer than a few strides, blends into another seemingly unrelated topic which may stay with me for a few kilometers.

So that’s the plan.  A few words from start to finish.

Soooo Slow

Espiens, France 23-07-2009

My last run was two days ago.  I am about to head out the door in a few minutes for the next which is meant to be longer and faster than the last according to my training schedule.

I ran so slow on a short run two days ago.  I chose to run the day after a long run (they come once a week) even though it would normally be a rest day.  It was hot. But I think the real reason for the excruciatingly slow pace is that Joanna arrived the night before.  Her arrivals are usually a good enough excuse for me to open one bottle too many of Buzet.

The run did not start well.  I dropped my ipod before leaving the house and apparently broke the nike+ receiver.  Luckily I had a spare.

The technology that can be involved in recreational running these days is astounding.  In addition to the high performance shoes and dry-wick shirts that prevent obscene injuries like bleeding nipples, here are a few pieces of tech that are involved in my running:

The nike+ receiver and transmitter.  The receiver plugs into the bottom of my ipod and the transmitter fits into the shoe.  Together the devices can measure distance and pace.  I’ve read that it works by measuring the amount of time one foot spends on the ground which somehow approximates speed.  Combining that with the clock in the iPod will give me distance. I can set the iPod for a certain distance or time and then select a playlist of music.  But the nicest (or nastiest) feature is the pleasant and encouraging voice that comes on to tell me that I’ve completed so many kilometers or have so many to go.  Nicest when I am through the halfway point; nastiest when there is more than half of the run remaining and I am struggling already.  Everyday is different.

The Nike+ website.
After each run the iPod syncs the data to a public website that records all my runs and stats.  Since I started using the Nike+ device on October 22 last year I have run exactly 780.6 km at an average pace of 5:46/km. On the site I can compare my stats to other runners and join into a ‘Challenges’ that runners post.  Right now I am ‘competing’ in two challenges.  The first was to run 500km in 6 months starting last Feb 1.  There are 8 people in that challenge from the US, Brazil, France and Japan.  The guy in Japan runs so far almost everyday that he finished the challenge in about 2 months.  I just finished the 500K last week (4th one to finish).

NYT Training Schedule and Log. Here I found a training program that suits me.  I can download the schedule to my google calendar that then syncs to my HTC G1 phone.    Its great to have on-hand the schedule of up coming runs.  The runs include some nice variety:  easy runs, pace boosters, fartleks and long runs etc   The site also has a log to enter my runs.

Tangerine! BPM analyzer
. This little piece of software analyzes all the songs in iTunes and tags them with their Beats Per Minute (BPM).  140 BPM or greater are fast enough for me.  Its sometimes surprising what songs fall into this BPM range.  All the usual suspects are there: The Clash, Barenaked Ladies, just about any ska band… but some odd ones pop up. Like Frank Sinatra’s ‘Luck be a Lady’ which is a surprisingly good song to run to, no matter how cheesy the lyrics are.

Orthopedic Inserts by Dr. Wade. I have a slight tendency towards pronation in my gait which torques my knee.  I found that my knees were quite sore for a day or so after any run past 10k.  I met an eccentric American chiropractor in Saigon who practices a bit of sports medicine.  He spent some time with Pygmies in Africa.  Its seems being short and walking barefoot on uneven ground all of your life leads to exceptionally good posture and bone alignment.  So I guess Wade had to find another place to work.  Judging by the traffic in his office, the Vietnamese have many more posture problems than the pygmies.  The inserts have completely eradicated the knee problems.

Glucosamine-Chondroitin Tablets. These were also recommended by Dr. Wade.  A natural supplement made from bovine bone or shellfish shells that is thought to play some action in joint functioning.  It also helps avoid knee pain.

Gu. An aptly named product.  Little packets of sticky gooey syrup packed with carbohydrates, sugars and vitamins that keep me going on longer runs.  I don’t think I could manage anything past 15km without these.

If Pheidippides had all this gear perhaps he would not have died of exhaustion after running the first Marathon.

What a Difference a Day Makes

Espiens, France 23-07-09

What a difference a day makes.  A day of rest that is.  Also a bottle or two less of red wine the night before a run.  Odile (I am her husband) and Joanna went to the beach to visit a friend so I only had a couple of glasses of wine at dinner with the kids last night. The 12k run today was enjoyable.  It was a pace builder and I managed it well.

Since I had just written the piece about running technology, I was trying, as I ran, to recall if I had forgotten to mention anything else that Pheidipides could have used to survive his run.

It turns out that the run from Marathon to Athens was probably not what killed him.  What few people realize is that he was sent as a messenger to Sparta 120 miles away a week or so before the battle of Marathon.  He arrived at Sparta in less than 36hrs they say.   It was hilly terrain and a horse could not be used for much of the way.  The Spartans were involved in a religious party of some sort and declined to help out the Athenians.  So Pheidippides ran all the way back with the bad news and then immediately joined the battle against the Persians.

The Persians had a cunning plan.  Draw the small Athenian army out to Marathon, wipe it out there and proceed to an unprotected Athens.  Despite being out numbered something like 10 to 1, the Athenians beat the Persians on the plain and drove them back to the shoreline.  Another battle ensued and finally the remaining Persians (still a lot of them) made it back onto their boats.

Plan B for the Persians was to sail for Athens anyway.  After all, the Athenian army was now 26 miles away.  On observing this, the Athenian commanders called upon Pheidippides once again and sent him running to Athens to warn the mostly non-combatant citizens that the Persians were arriving by sea but that the intact Athenian army would be not far behind, via land.  Upon delivering the news of the victory at Marathon, the impending threat by sea and the imminent arrival of rescue by land, Pheidippides finally gave into exhaustion and died.

So Pheidipiddes succumbed not to a mere 3hr, 26 mile run but to 240 miles of running and two major battles in the space of 6 days.  The trot from Marathon to Athens was only a minor contributing factor.  Having known only parts of the Legend – ‘man runs 26 miles to deliver news of victory and promptly expires’ – I, like Michael Clark who wrote about this in Runners World,  was always suspicious.  Why run yourself to death to deliver good news?  Could 26 miles really kill a hardy Athenian?

Provided that I keep the training to less than 240 miles in the six days before Nov 1, and if I refrain from joining in on any large scale, hand-to-hand battles on October 31, I think I stand a decent chance of finishing the NYC Marathon alive.

The Road to Montplaisir

Espiens, France 25-07-2009

I am running from our home in Espiens, Chateau de la Couture, to Montplasir.  I’ve been looking forward to this particular run for a long time. The road signs say it’s  7km from Espiens to Montplaisir, which is perfect for the ‘easy’ Saturday runs that precede the long Sunday runs on my schedule.  It’s hilly terrain past some magnificent Chateaux but on the whole it is more downhill than up.

Montplaisir is the place where I was married to Odile almost exactly 20 years ago. I guess we were technically married in a combination of the mayor’s office and the church in Lavardac but it was the 10-day party at Montplaisir that was the real deal.

It was my first trip to Europe.  It set the precedent bar very high.  I arrived only about a week before the wedding.  Day by day, more and more people from all parts of the world arrived until nearly every flat surface in the magnificent home was being used by someone as a makeshift bed or cot at night.

Each night was a discovery in how effortlessly my in-laws-to-be seemed able to put on an extraordinary feast.  Each night surpassed the previous not only in the quality of the food but also in the way the entire Papillaud family made the disparate international guest list feel as if they had known each other for years.  There was an almost medieval festival atmosphere enveloping the air.   The only thing missing, thankfully, were jugglers and fire breathers.

The festivities peaked with the wedding night and then very gracefully tapered off for another five days as various guests said their goodbyes and returned to whence they had come.  My father-in-law and his friend purpose built a free standing iron BBQ for the 5 day after-party on which they cooked mustard chicken, magret duck breast, sausage and more.  I still have that BBQ.  It is one of my most treasured possessions.  It has served my guests and me well for the past 20 years.

I have never felt so immediately comfortable and at home as I did when I first discovered Montplaisir.  I suppose its one of the many reasons I like coming back here whenever I can.  But this is the first time I have arrived by foot.

My brother Sean recommended one-way runs like this.  Now I understand what he meant.  The sense of arrival certainly beats the out and back loops that I have been running.

I also discovered that it’s 9.05km from Espiens to Montplaisir not 7km.

Long Runs

Espiens France, 27-07-2009


I don’t sleep well the night before long runs. I am anxious and fidgety.  I worry that I will wake up to one of those days when I just don’t run well.  That happens from time to time.  It’s simply not possible to predict which will be a good running day and which will not.


This particular long run was scheduled for a Sunday.  I prefer to make the Long Runs early in the morning whenever possible.  But I did not wake up until 11am.  It was already very hot and looked as if it would only get hotter.  I postponed the run to the following day.  It was a good decision.  On the same hot day at about the same time I woke up, France’s President, Nicholas Sarkozy, went running in the park around Versailles.  He collapsed after 45 minutes and had to be taken to the hospital.  Sarkozy probably didn’t have the option to postpone his run to Monday.  Still, this small decision, although born mostly out of procrastination, makes me feel wiser than the President of France.


Monday is ideal.  There is light cloud cover and the temperature is perfect. I run my furthest distance yet: 25km in 2hrs 37 minutes. I check my time at the half-marathon distance (21km).  My watch shows 2hrs 10 minutes.  I am pleased so I reward myself by opening my last packet of Gu and venture into new and unknown distance territory.  Only 4 more kilometers to go!  It’s a good day for running.


I’ve chosen another one-way route: from Espiens to Nérac, through a circuit of the Parc de Garenne past the remains of a Templar Castle, then to Lavardac on the old road from Nérac, across the wooden bridge into the XIIIth century walled village of  Vianne and back to Montplaisir in Lavardac on the other side of the Baïse this time.


The terrain and views are varied and spectacular.  I like to imagine what people were doing on the same roads and paths 400, 500 or 800 years ago.  Nérac was an important location before and during the reign of Henri IV in the 16th century.  The women in his family: mother, grandmother and wife were renaissance era humanists and intellectuals.  The court in Nérac attracted all sorts of philosophers, artists, poets and probably a fair number of hanger-ons, rogues and opportunists.  My sort of people…. Henri was apparently most interested in watching women bathing in the river below his chateau.


Vianne is a 13th century perfectly preserved walled town built by a reputedly cruel lord called Jourdain de l’Isle in 1282.  He was loyal to the Edward I of England, the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet.  It changed hands between the French and English many times during the 100 year’s war and finally became permanently French in the 1400s.


What was on the minds of the people who traveled these paths and roads way back then? Were they walking? On horseback? Driving a mule cart to sell their produce at market?

Surely they had to be thinking about many of the same things I do.  Is my family well provided for and prepared to deal with the world? Will anybody buy these damn things I am bringing to the market?  What are my old friends and family up to right now?  What do people really think about me?  Am I a good person?  Will the gates of Vianne be open when I arrive?  Will there be French or English behind the gates?  Will they let me in?

What’s for dinner tonight?

I hope some of the good wine remains.

If You Stay in Home with Spectacular Views You Better Learn How to Run Hills

Espiens, 01-08- 2009

Odile’s home in Espiens sits on a ridge-line that marks one of the highest points within a 20 km radius.  I know.  I have checked on Google Earth. I have also driven on every small road in the area to find high points and still I have to look back up to see Espiens.

The views are spectacular.  Particularly at this time of year when the fields are planted with seas of sunflowers.

If you live in a place with views like this it’s very hard to avoid hill runs.  The furthest I can go without any major hills is about 5km.  Even this ridge run is a rolling affair that is never really flat.  Imagine a healthy swell in an open sea with peaks and troughs that dip 20 or 40 meters and are separated by about one kilometer.  Freeze it.  Put a meter or two of fertile topsoil on it. Drop a few sprawling farmhouses here and there.  That’s as flat as it gets around here.

I have made 3 runs in the past 4 days each of about 10km.  On the first run I found to my surprise a road near our home that I had never seen before.  There are so many things I don’t notice when I am in the car, even one as old and slow as mine.  I thought the road would be relatively flat but after a few hundred meters it started descending into the valley between Espiens and Montagnac. The descent did not stop until I reached the valley floor.  This was nice but it’s hard to fully enjoy the lengthy downhill strides when you know every single one will have to be matched by two or three on the way back uphill.

The only way I can avoid uphill slogs at the end of my runs is to drive somewhere that is flat or time my run to finish somewhere Odile plans or wants to be.  It seems somehow wrong and a bit ridiculous to drive a car only to get out and run for an hour but sometimes it needs to be done.  I can easily overcome the sense of ridiculous when Fartlek’s are on my schedule.  On those days I drive my car to the flat bits without a hint of guilt.

The word Fartlek may sound laughable to those who don’t know what they are but for me the word produces fear and cold sweats.  I’ve known about Fartleks since college when my Lacrosse coach suggested them.  I had always imagined Fartleks were named after some sadistic Swedish running coach who stayed up late drinking Aquavit while he devised new ways to torment his runners.

Fartleks consist of a three to four kilometer warm up then running just about as fast as you can for two, three or four minutes followed by ‘rest’ intervals of one-minute where you are allowed to jog to recovery.  When I repeat this eight or ten times as my schedule requires, the word Fartlek transforms into something truly sinister.  Bathroom humor punch lines just aren’t involved in my thought process anymore.

I cheat sometimes during the Fartleks.  I take one and a half minutes for the recovery jogs or I don’t really give a 100% during the speed intervals.  At these times I can imagine some crusty old Swedish coach riding next to me on a ten-speed Schwinn bicycle.  He is shouting into my ear, “ Fhaaster Pat! Dhish isa pathetic. 10 more I make u doo if not fhaaster!”.  I really don’t need this crap.  I am 45yrs old.  I am not trying to win the NYC Marathon.  I just want to finish it in a time that does not embarrass me.

I still do the Fartleks when they appear on my g-phone calendar.  Each time I think, “On this run I will nail it.  I’ll give that Swedish idiot on his ridiculous bicycle a heart attack if he tries to keep up”.  It never happens.  After the fourth or fifth speed burst, he catches me cheating again.

But old Fartlek does know what he is talking about.  These workouts really do help me maintain a faster pace on subsequent runs.  This morning, the day after the Fartlek, I ran 10km to Nérac.  Odile wanted to go to the Saturday morning market.  We have some old friends arriving for dinner tonight.

I ran my personal best for the 10k. 53 minutes and 28 seconds.  I don’t intend to tell the Swedish coach but I cheated, sort of.  There is a net vertical drop of over 150 meters between here and Nérac with only a few of those rolling waves in the first 5k.  Since I knew I would be getting a ride home I took advantage of the downhill portions saving nothing for an uphill return and enjoyed it.

I did make one mistake today.  I looked old Fartlek up on Wikipedia.  It turns out that there was no person named Fartlek.  Fartlek is a Swedish word that means speed-play.  It was indeed a training program created in the 1920s by a Swedish running coach whose name was Gösta Holmér.

Now instead of some grumpy old guy with a laughable name I will have a real coach named Gösta Holmér screaming in my ear on those runs.  He doesn’t sound like someone I can ignore.  And he probably does not take kindly to making fun of his name.  Just the fact that he used the word ‘play’ in a tortuous program like this tells me that he must have been the sadistic son-of-a-bitch that I always imagined old Fartlek to be.

Running with David

Espiens, France 06-08-09

Today I ran 10k with David Byrne. The rest of the Talking Heads were just behind us.  It’s not often that I allow any one artist to run exclusively with me.  As a rule, I am like a little league coach.  I allow any player who passes the Tangerine 140 BPM test to have a chance to play.  But I had this hypothesis that was proven correct today.  David Byrne and the Talking Heads make the best music for runners.

It’s not easy for me to say this.  I distrust people who speak in declarative statements.  In the best case they are simple fools who can’t see the grey between the black and white.  In the worst case they are hiding something or trying to sell me a load of crap.

I had a colleague in my consulting days that sometimes backed himself into untenable logic positions during his presentations.  To extract himself he would come up with most outrageous statements that made no sense at all.  But he stated these great porkpie lies with such conviction that the clients actually believed him.  I was flabbergasted every time this happened.  These were intelligent people who knew their businesses better than we did.  That’s usually the case with consultants. I guess the declarative statements together with the price tag they paid let faith overrule common sense.

Now that I have stated this with such conviction, you can decide if I am a fool or selling you a packet of lies.

I will tell you this:  The Talking Heads are THE best band to run with.  I may save them for the 30 to 40k stretch in New York that everyone tells me are the hardest.

The best Talking Heads song for a runner is ‘Don’t Fence Me In”. Somehow, the beat and the lyrics conspire together to create a feeling of near invincibility. On this last run, which finishes with a steep 2k climb, David Byrne saved this song for last.  This makes David Byrne much more polite than David Laurance, who sings for slightly less well-known band called Father Festus.

I ran the same 10K track with David Laurance a few weeks ago and he did not stick with me for those last 2 difficult kilometers.  He ran off ahead of me.  For the record, I am claiming a foot injury as the reason I finished 4 minutes behind David.  But the truth is he is in better shape than me or simply a faster runner.

David Laurance is one of a group of high school friends that I have managed to keep in contact with despite the odds and circumstances being stacked against us.  Twenty-two years of living on the other side of the world make this unlikely at best. Most of those years were without the convenience of email, g-phones, facebook or twitter.  And in the early days especially, we could not afford very frequent flights back the States.  I honestly find it hard to remember how we communicated then.

We used to get in so much trouble in high school and college that our parents, on more than one occasion, forbade my brother and me to hang out with Dave.  Naturally this just made the friendship stronger.  Even Ronald Reagan could figure out that a common foe builds stronger bonds. It got so bad at one point that our parents stopped speaking to each other.  We began to wonder who was being punished.  It seemed to us that they were being exceptionally hard on themselves.  Perhaps our mothers were secretly chatting to each other in the supermarket aisles?  We were certainly sneaking out of our houses at night to cause more trouble.

Dave had been visiting us in France with his family when we ran the 10K hill circuit.  He and Margaret were married just a few weeks after Odile and me.  So it seemed appropriate to get together after twenty years had marked those two events. Not so many couples make it that long these days.   His oldest daughter is around the age of our kids.  This brought about some awkward dinner conversation decisions.  These teenagers pay much more attention to what their parents are talking about than I seem recall when I was their age.

With visitors in Espiens, if we are not running, swimming or shopping for dinner, we are sitting around a table drinking and talking.  With old high school friends this inevitably leads towards discussions of pranks, misdemeanors, larceny and the occasional felonious activity.  I am not saying that we were personally involved in any of these activities but we can tell the stories as if we were really there.

This is when the kids suddenly take an interest in our conversation.  What exactly should we say about juvenile delinquency to juveniles?

On one of the Laurance’s last nights in Espiens the house was full of French teenage cousins and friends.  In the morning there was an empty 5 liter keg of beer and some sticky euro coins on the kitchen table.  I think Dave and I may have been talking about a game called ‘quarters’ that some kids we knew used to play.  I know we didn’t drink the beer because I had some good Buzet wine and a fine bottle of Armagnac to test. We had no need nor room for beer.  Dave’s oldest daughter didn’t emerge until lunch time and she was moving rather slowly.  I am quite sure that was her first hangover.  I am not so sure Dave and Margaret thought it was a good thing.  Our own parents would probably have found this amusing.  Unfortunately, Dave’s mother passed away a few years ago but if she were still around perhaps our parents would have something to talk about now.

Running with David

7 plays

David Byrnes Song - Don’t Fence Me In (lyrics by Cole Porter)

4 plays

David Laurance’s Song - ‘Dean’ about a juvenile delinquent we once knew

A Short History of Technology and Running

Espiens, France 03-08-09

Another long run.  I am thinking again about technology.   Not so much about technology itself but my interaction and involvement with it.  I realize that the depth of my involvement with technology has mirrored my involvement with running.

I remember now that I ran regularly in high school and college and the first few years I lived in Asia.  I ran in those days for a different purpose.  I ran to keep in shape for the team sports I was playing.  I played soccer in high School and lacrosse in college and when I was studying Chinese in Monterey.  I was even allowed to play on the soccer team at the university in Kunming, China where I worked for a year.

I don’t remember paying attention to the distances that I ran, keeping pace rates or anything like that.  I was never a particularly gifted athlete but I found that if I worked hard and trained a bit more than my teammates I could at least not make a fool of myself.  Running served that purpose.

In those days, I was fascinated with computers and technology.  It wasn’t easy to get access to them.  In high school we somehow had permission to log onto the Naval Post Graduate School’s mainframe.  There were no other types of computers in those days.  This was before Microsoft and Apple where household names.  I don’t even think Bill Gates had conned his way into getting the DOS contract yet.  We used a rotary dial phone to call the naval base and then jammed the receiver into a foam cradle that served as a modem.  There wasn’t even a screen to look at.  We sent instructions in code by a telex type of machine that then sent back the computer’s responses.

There were only a few of us that messed around with the Naval School’s computer.  We were the geekiest of a student body full of geeks.  We mostly played some sort of Star Trek game that required a great deal of imagination to translate the ‘X’s, ‘O’s and double-dashes scrolling out of a teletype into a supposed space battle between the Starship Enterprise and the Klingons.  We learned a little bit about coding and even made our own games that required substantially more imagination than the already cryptic Star Trek game.

In college I took a few programming classes but the only computing I had access to were the terminals of another mainframe in the basement of the Occidental College library.  I think I learned a bit of Fortran and Cobalt programming.  I remember writing a few papers on the system and even doing some type of regression analysis for an econometrics class.  Despite its impressive size and obvious complexity, the computer was still an oddity and not central to anyone’s life when I was in college during the early 80’s.

When I worked in Congress I was as equally fascinated with the Word Processor (it wasn’t even called a computer) as I was with the workings of our government.  Constituent letters on the issues were grouped into “For” or “Against”.  Their names and addresses were entered into something exotic called a database.  We would confer with the congressman to get the gist of his responses then write an appropriate letter for each group.  The letters to the “For” and “Against” groups were often very similar.  Rather conciliatory in nature, they frequently took some sort of middle ground.

Once written, the Word Processor printed out beautiful customized letters with unique addresses and personalized salutations.  We would use the Franking machine to affix a facsimile of the congressman’s signature.  Those faked signatures, in wet blue ink, looked as real as a court summons from the IRS.  As simple as it was, I thought the whole process was genius.  Both the technology and the way a 5 minute hallway conversion with the congressman would result in a personalized letter being written by a 20-something year old to be delivered under official seal and signature to an activist citizen.  If the letter never really took a stand on the issue but satisfied the recipient, even better.  I suppose this was also my first real exposure to marketing, on the supply-side at least.

To be fair, during the year I spent on Capital Hill, I was probably most interested in crashing the lobbyist sponsored cocktail parties.  The booze was free and it meant I wouldn’t have to pay for dinner that night.  People even talked to me as if I were someone important until they figured out that they were wasting time and money on lowly intern.  That year was also the only time I ever ran in seriously cold weather.

By the time I moved to Hong Kong ,running and any direct involvement in technology had taken a back seat.  I became more a spectator or consumer than a real participant in either.  At my first real job as an analyst for a management consulting company we wrote our reports long hand and passed them to a typing pool.  I didn’t even have my own computer at work until I moved to Singapore and that was only because I was sent, alone, to open an office.   I wasn’t permitted to take any typists with me.

The businesses I have been involved with all were users of technology, sometimes pretty intense users, but still fundamentally consumers rather than serious participants.  Until recently.

Around the same time I started running seriously again I became much more deeply involved in technology.  I run a modest sized marketing company with several partners.  We like to think that we are clever in the way we approach our work.  This has driven us directly into the whirlwind that is the Internet today.  We have bought companies with expertise in industry and hired people who can help us make the most of it in our business.  Using technology intensively and even creating pieces of it is now part of what we do.

I believe that all the forces that come with this amazing technology are fundamentally changing the way we work and play with each other.  It is about chaos and pattern recognition.  It is Big Brother and the ultimate democratizer.  It is invasive-ness and unparalleled sharing.  It is open architectures and walled-gardens.  It is threatening and it is comforting.  How can something that is all these things and that is now so pervasive in our lives not change the way we live and work?  The way we play and learn?  How can it not influence our choices, our decisions or even our sense of morality?

I think I have come back to Technology at the right time.  I realize now that what fascinated me in the beginning still interests me now.  It’s not the coding or the modems for rotary dial phones. It’s not the massive mainframes in Naval bases or the very nice MacBook Air I am writing on now.  It’s not even the amazing Franking machine that congressman have.  It is about the emotions, the entertainment and the information exchanges.  It’s about being able to reach thousands or millions of people for pennies and tell your story.  Star Trek games played on multimillion dollar military equipment and congressional form letters have given way to a whole lot more these days but the principles remain same.  Second Life, World of Warcraft, video podcasts, social networks, citizen journalism and all the world’s information organized courtesy of Google do make the world a more interesting place.

Support Team

Espiens 09-08-09

Today, I finally get a support team for a long run.  All summer I have asked my kids, nephews, nieces, guests, Odile and anyone else who cared to listen if they didn’t want to take a leisurely bike ride while I ran.  No takers.

This is my last run in France.  My son and my nephew finally agree to join me on the bikes.

A support team will be great.  They can carry my water and Gu.   I won’t need to drive around dropping re-filled Badoit bottles along the route before the run.  It will be nice to have company.  Most importantly, I can imagine that I am such an important runner-athlete that I have a support team.

Dreams like this rarely turn out as I expect.

I choose a particularly vicious 27km route for this last run.  This time I will not shy away from the hills. If I go downhill, I will go uphill, meter for meter.   Not one, but two hill climbs of about 300m each will come after the 15k mark.  This run will be a bit longer than my training scheduled prescribes.  But I can’t resist pushing the distance barrier out a bit further.  It’s my last chance to run in France.

The boys are 16 and fit.  The only problem I anticipate is that they will get bored with the running pace and cycle ahead with my water and Gu.  But they don’t know the way.  In the worst case, I figure they will have to wait for me at junctions where a turning decision has to be made. These come every 4 or 5 kilometers.

It never occurred to me that they could get bored and find strange ways to amuse themselves behind me. Twice I had to reverse course and find them.  I was at turning points that I did not want them to miss.  They were behind me.

At about 5k I point out an extravagant camouflaged palombière hunting-hide I had noted a few days earlier.  It is a three story tower-like steel affair hidden in a copse next to a small patch of vineyard tucked away in a forested area.

A palombière is used to hunt the palombe, a delicious migratory game bird that is related to the pigeon.  It’s just bigger, gamier and tastier than a pigeon.  The palombes live in northern Europe in the summers and Spain in the winter.  To get to Spain they have to cross over the Pyrenées.  I feel for the palombes.  They dislike big hills as much as I do.  Whether you are flying or running, a big hill is a big hill and gaining altitude does not come without effort.

One palombe, centuries ago, must have decided that it was best to rest in the forests of the Aquitaine and Gascogne before taking on the Pyrenées.  Very sensible, I say.  Word spread and DNA coding passed it down the generations.  Now, all palombes stop for a few weeks in the forests near here during the Fall.  I imagine they rest, enjoy the Indian summer sunsets of southwest France and exchange tips on the best places to eat, drink and pick up chicks in the Costa del Sol with anticipation and delight.  In this way, the palombes are very much like the English.

Over those same centuries the men of Gascogne have perfected another tradition.  It’s a tradition that is shared amongst male cultures all around the world.  Guys need an excuse to hang out in tribes, drink, eat, tell outrageous stories or outright lies and generally make fools of ourselves out of view of our spouses and off-spring.

The Gascons do this very well.  It’s been a tough summer.  Ankle biting kids are not in school.  Obligatory trips to the crowded beach are required.  Cold rice salad dusted with sand must be eaten.  After resisting the urge to shoot fellow travelers in grid-locked holiday traffic on the way home, they head off to their elaborately constructed palombières for a week or two in the Fall.  Now they can hang with their buddies and finally shoot something.

I dreamt with my brothers of building the ultimate tree houses, forts and command centers.  We once started digging holes in a wooded public park with a complicated bomb shelter in mind. The cold war was still going on in those days.  Progress was good until a policeman with no sense of humor shattered our grand architectural plans with threats of fines and prison.

If you ever shared such a dream you will love a palombière.  They have command posts, bunkers, camouflaged corridors with shooting ports, net traps and wires strung about on pulleys for the ‘bait’ birds.  The best palombières also have ovens, stoves, refrigerators, bunks and, I suspect, wine cellars.  In the forts of our childhood the only thing we were truly missing was an enemy.  The Gascons only have the palombes now that they can longer shoot English who are still around planning forays to the Costa del Sol.

The hunting methods aren’t terribly sporting.  But I don’t think hunting is the real point of palombières.  A few unsuspecting birds are captured live in the spring loaded net traps.  These are tied to wires run through pulleys back to the command center.  As the wire is pulled the bird gets agitated.  The palombes, as a species, appear to have a bit of the Good Samaritan in them.  When seeing a fellow in distress will fly down to help.  That’s when they get shot, cleaned, cooked and eaten by grown, unshaven, unwashed men with a skin-full of Armagnac.

Its bad form to intentionally shoot the bait bird on the wire.  But I am sure that a few are executed at the end of the week.  When Armagnac and the DTs have permanently ruined your aim, you still need to come home with some profit from a week of hunting.

I am not a hunter but I wouldn’t hesitate to spend a week with the guys at a palombière.

About a kilometer (downhill) past this particularly grand palombière where I left the boys, I am waiting at the next turn. And waiting and waiting.  Finally, I run back uphill to find the boys.  We meet half the way back. The tires, spokes, chains and seats of the bikes are caked in mud. There is a fair distribution on shorts, T-shirts and behind a few ears as well.  I don’t ask what happened. Clearly it’s something between guys that is meant to take place out of view of girlfriends and parents.  Trespass laws may have been broken.  Add another kilometer to the run.

I’ve crossed the 12k mark.  I am on the canals but there is a turn.  I must cross a lock/bridge to the other side although the path on this side continues.  They will miss the turn.  So I am waiting and waiting and waiting.  It’s not good to stop running for this long.  So I start running back.  I find them casually cycling and chatting.  This time I am thirsty and a little bit angry.  I take a quick drink and demand an explanation.  It’s been flat for the last 5k after all.

Tadhg, my son, has thrown our only 10 euros into a thorn bush and could not retrieve it.  Scratches on his arms and legs and neck are proof of something.   I don’t want to know any more.  Add another kilometer plus plus to the run.

I run on, the first hill will come after another 3k.  It starts at the massive and somewhat creepy Chateau of Buzet.

18k mark. That hill was big.  Very big.  At the top is a turning decision.  And I am waiting and waiting and waiting.  There is no chance I am running back down that hill to find them only to run back up again.  I’ll walk home and call in a ‘Missing Persons Report’ before I run that hill again.  There is still one more hill to go.  So I wait.  They arrive.  This time with a good excuse.  They tell me it’s much harder to ride a bike uphill than it is to run one.  I have to believe them.  I don’t ride bikes.

We climb part of the next hill and get to another turn decision.  I am now in an area that I don’t know except from Google Earth. I know there is a 2K gentle climb to Xaintrailles from here then a nice 3k downhill to Montplaisir, our finish line.  Straight feels correct but it looks like a farming road that might dead-end.  Right could work.  It’s a bigger road and those show up on Google Earth.

This time I make the mistake.  I choose right.  It’s flat for 500m.  It looks promising.  Then with a shudder I see that it drops steeply ahead of me where my support team is racing down the hill.  For the first time all day my support team is ahead of me.  Figures. I can’t abandon them and turn around to the correct road.  But the thought does cross my mind.  So its down, turn left and start climbing again.  Add another one or two kilometers and another hill to the run.

Finally we are at Xaintrailles and we are all in familiar territory.  My ipod says; “Congratulations you have accomplished you goal”.   But there is another 3k to go to Montplaisir. At least it’s all downhill.  Arthur, my nephew, knows the way.  Off they go, with permission this time.

I wouldn’t trade that support team for any other today.  They carried my water and Gu and provided company, as well as plenty of entertainment, some good laughs and a bit of mystery.

The boys arrive to all the glory and congratulations twenty minutes before I come plodding in.  I get a cool glass of water, a pastis and the satisfaction that I have run nearly 31 kilometers, four of them by accident.

I also realize with some shock that I could easily have run the rest of the way back to Espiens.  For the very first time I feel that running a full marathon is not out of my reach.