Tuesday, June 23, 2015

I Can't Live Without The Back Burner

The look on my face said everything - something about this new cooktop was wrong. Maybe not wrong, but, I don't know, weird. A kitchen appliance that was fundamentally flawed at some cosmic level one can just sense.  Sure, the Thermador 36-inch Masterpiece Series Freedom Induction Cooktop was a technical marvel, easily demo'ing the ability to put a pan anywhere on the surface and have it heat up for just that pan. That was cool. It was safer, more efficient, and a considerable step up from the 70's era coil burner workhorse that had warmed my oatmeal for years. But something about this new cooktop had me skeptical.

(Does that look right to you?)
Was it the price? Well, it definitely was expensive. But the cost was easily justifiable given how many hours Christi spends cooking amazing organic meals, and the countless hours of eating benefit that deliciously follows for the rest of us. I had long learned ago not to penny pinch such daily use items. It's like saying you won't spend that extra $100 on a phone you are going to use 140 times per day in the next two years. So glad I saved that $0.0001 per use! If a device can fill 100,000+ seconds of your life with delight, you should get the best you can. And the Thermador was choice #1 for Christi.

Was it the commitment? Anyone who has remodeled a kitchen knows if you upgrade one item, it's going to make all the other appliances look like cheap pieces of crap. You're not just buying one, you are buying into months, possibly years, of upgrades. As Christi often jests in Vanity Fair parlance, "it's the botox that leads to the boob job". But the Thermador doesn't stand out...it's as flat and black as one could ask. It had to be something else.

I decided to go for a run and think about it. And that's when it hit me. The Thermador had killed off something dear to me in its new design. It had killed one of my favorite analogies, the "back burner".

I love the "back burner". I use and abuse the term regularly. Don't drop the subject, don't forget about it, just let it simmer.

"I'm putting my guitar playing on the back burner until I get through Comrades training."

"That sounds like a back burner priority."

"Let's put it on the back burner and let it simmer, then see if it tastes better in the Fall."

Even as a verb:

"Let's back burner any decisions about this project until we get more data."

So many uses! I LOVE the back burner. It's even fundamental to trail running; when every step is an adventure, you have to put all your daily woes and troubles on the back burner so you can focus on the task at hand. The back burner clears your mind. The back burner gives you peace in the moment. The back burner feeds your soul. How in the f*ck could I possibly like a cooktop WITH NO F*CKING BACK BURNER?!? That's just madness.

Or maybe I have it wrong. Perhaps the whole cooktop IS a back burner. Maybe there's no front burner. Now that's something I could get behind. That, my friends, is genius. The Thermador 36-inch Masterpiece Series Freedom Induction Cooktop...put your whole life on the back burner.

It's the long run of cooktops.

SOLD! ;-)

Friday, June 12, 2015

RIP, Trail Runner Ray Morris 1925-2015

It was a strange message, and I did at least one double-take when it popped up on my phone. Then I did another. Is this real? 
[Mom]: ...your great uncle, Ray, whom you haven't seen in 35 years, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He's a runner too, and has been following your running career with great interest. It would be great if you could touch base. He only lives about ten miles from your house.
What? There's a 90-year-old trail runner, a blood relative no less, that lives just a stones throw away?!? How could I have not known this?

Wow. Just...wow.

But with some reflection, I recalled memories of Ray from my pre-teen years. Walks on a beach north of Mendecino, stories of his retirement, little tidbits my Mom would mention as we caught up over the years.  I did know of Ray and Helen, and now that I thought about it, I was aware they lived nearby. I'm not sure why I had never reached out over the years...convenience, out of sight/out of mind, or perhaps it's just that he and his family were just far enough out on the fringe of the family tree. But I don't recall even knowing he was a trail runner. That feels different. That feels like an opportunity missed.

So this time, I paid Ray a visit. I was so glad I did.

Even in the grasps of cancer, Great Uncle Ray was quite a gentleman. We were able to share stories of family, running, and Silicon Valley. Ray was one of the original engineers of Hewlett-Packard, inventing a light beam diode that is now commonplace in our flat panel TV's.  This was back in the day you had to write the design out by hand and convince people a diode could actually be built. His drafting charts would fill all the walls of his room like cave drawings...such a change from the charts my 9-year-old can crank out on her iPad today.

(Ray on the cover of a 1988 HP newsletter, complete with Dipsea shirt)
Ray's running stories were the best, no surprise. He became a trail runner at the ripe old age of 40 in 1965, after a bad cholesterol test result laid risk to his passion for daily ice cream. He took up "jogging" to get fit, but soon found it was far more fun to run the trails in nearby El Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve. He fell in love with trail running, and quickly had a group of friends he called "Ray's Raunchy El Rancho Runners" that would run and race together all over the USA. A story any of us would take for granted today, but in the early 70's, Ray was a bit of a nut. A pioneer in sport as well as technology.

Ray ran the Bay to Breakers over 10 times, and the Dipsea Race 17 times, including two Black Shirt finishes (#28 and #35). As he recalled the groundbreaking crowd of 2,500 at his first Bay to Breakers he ran in the 70's (a race that now has 30,000+ runners), I began to understand why he loved following our generation of trail runners online. In his day, runners were pioneers, rebels. Now everybody gets it. Perhaps the thousands of trail runners are similar evidence as the TV's that housed his inventions once thought crazy.
(I love how this bio of Ray refers to his as a "determined jogger")
It was a shame we couldn't share the trails together, but in his last few days, it took everything he had just to sit next to me for the occasional visit. Through our stories, however, we did share the trails. We even virtually ran through El Rancho, and he noted the switchbacks that had robbed me of breath on dozens of occasions, and the tree stumps where the wild turkeys still nest to this day. There's no doubt he clocked thousands of miles in those hills. He wanted to hear all about Comrades, and was eager to see the pictures when I returned. He didn't quite make it for that, however, and passed away in his sleep the day before the race. Rest in Peace, Ray...an impressive 90-year run.

His wife, Helen, and surviving kids Mark and Monica, left me his array of Dipsea finisher medals and a hearty thank you for making his few remaining days more pleasant and full of smiles. With the 17 medals in my grasp, I knew I had to run the Dipsea someday soon. Once wasn't even enough. Even beyond the grave, Ray is getting to me onto the trails!

(17 Dipsea medals, legacy of a bygone era)
I think of Ray often, and make the trek to El Rancho for the occasional tribute run. Would his life be my fate someday? Rehashing stories of races and mountains to long lost relatives? Seeing a lifetime of invention commoditized in the products that fill every home? Clutching my race medals, the last material evidence of an adventurous life, to get a few more smiles out of my family in my final days on earth?

Actually, that doesn't sound like a bad way to go. Not bad at all, in fact.

Thank you, Ray, for showing me a legacy worth striving for.

Dipsea Race, I will see you next year.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Running the 2015 Comrades Marathon - An Experience Like No Other

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of joining 22,300+ runners for the 90th annual Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa, known as the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world. This was a "bucket list" race for sure, if anything just to see what it's like when this many people go 87km (55 miles), and visit a country on the other side of the globe known for its hospitality to runners. The experience did not disappoint!

"The Comrades", as it is called here, has a deep history with the growth of South Africa. It was started in 1921 as a dedication to South Africa's World War I veterans to "celebrate mankind's spirit over adversity", and has been run almost every year since, helping unify a country through a second world war, the race struggles of apartheid, and build an enduring legacy that spans generations. I had a chance to chat with Comrades legend and 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce, who has completed over 20 Comrades, and he emphasized that even in this sport-loving country, Comrades is as big as it gets. Bruce would know - he's traveled the world to win races on every major continent, and his 50-mile world record of 4:50:21 set in 1983 still stands today.

(Chatting with Comrades legend and WR holder Bruce Fordyce, who is hilariously funny)

(Map for the "up year")
This was an "up year" (it alternates directions each year), meaning we would run from the coastal town of Durban inland to Pietermaritzburg. I chose to stay in Durban, a charming coastal city known as a tourist hot spot. South Africa is quite approachable as a destination, with english spoken fluently, a delicious mix of local and English-influenced food (curry!), affordable activities such as safaris and water parks, surfing and paddle boarding in the Indian Ocean, and a graciousness in the smiles and kindness of the people here that makes it easy to relax. I particularly enjoyed the gospel-like tribal music of the Zulu (and other tribes) that seduced my hips into swaying at every corner. A random stroll through town would feel modern in one block, completely third world in the next, all with plenty of welcomes for visiting.

(Slothie, the stuffed animal who miraculously sneaks into my luggage for every trip,
hangs out over North Beach in Durban)
(My wife texting me about our 4-year-old Quinn...
hmmm, I think I know how Slothie is getting into my suitcase)
(The Indian Ocean is pleasant...perfect for a surf!)
(The local art is fantastic!)
Come race morning, I walked to the start with dozens of others, navigating the Saturday night vampires rolling out of the clubs and betting halls. The race bibs were so well marked (number of previous runs, country, name, etc.), you could quickly strike up a conversation. It astounded me to see so many of the special "green numbers", which noted runners who had 10+ finishes. Some runners even had 20 (double green), 30 (triple green), and 40+ finishes...it was like a country of Tim Twietmeyers! Over 11,000 runners now have a green number, which is simply astounding.

(Sporting a patch jacket)
(Not sure which is more impressive...the double green number, or that at age 55 Marius still makes the "A" Corral)
(Locals take their permanent green numbers VERY seriously!)
I jumped into the "A" Corral, my unacclimated body already dripping in sweat. In retrospect, if I'm going to fly 22 hours, it's probably best to give myself 3-4 days before the race to be at least a little prepared. Some of my fellow runners had hats, gloves, and makeshift garbage bag vests to stay warm...wha?!? Good perspective! There were a few costumed runners, but most of the field (96% from South Africa) represented their local running clubs with striped and cheetah-print pride. This race was clearly the pinnacle event of the year.
(No big deal...just me and 22,300 runners out for a 87km jog)
(Here we go! Photo courtesy of News24)
Lots of them asked me what my goal was, and I let them know I was just going to take it out comfortably and see where I end up. On a good day, I might qualify for a "silver medal" (6 hr-7:30hr finish), but likely would be shooting for the "Bill Rowan" (7:30-9hr), or perhaps casually bringing in a "bronze" (9-11hr) or "Vic Clapham" (11-12hr). One thing for sure is I better get there before the final cut off - this race is known for their aggressive "closing of the gate" at exactly 12 hours. We sang the South African national anthem at full lungs, the fantastic "Shosholoza" Ndebele song that would run through my head for the next four hours, and heard Chariots of Fire as the course lit up with digital fire. One loud "ca-caw" and the final gun...Comrades had begun!

(Pietermaritzburg, here we come!)
As we charged through the city and took over the highway, I immediately noted some very different things about these runners. First, there were ZERO headphones. Second, not a lot of selfie photo action...in fact, I was mocked a bit any time I pulled out the camera. Costumes were everywhere, and the tribal-inspired traditional outfits were particularly enjoyed by the crowds. The strides of my fellow runners were long and easy, which I guess shouldn't be a surprise when racing in Africa, and the conversations were all in local dialects such as Zulu, Swazi, and Sotho. Nontheless, I could pick out the inflections of encouragement and a fair amount of teasing and joking.

(Awesome Zulu outfit)
(The male string top singlet is quite popular down here)
The distance markers were in reverse, telling you how far to go rather than how far you had gone, so "60km to go" wasn't exactly inspiring. But I was glad to find the hills were all runnable - challenging compared to your normal road race, but nothing compared to a trail ultra. The hot African sun peaked over the hill just as we hit the downside of Cowie's Hill (20km in), and I was running just under an 8 min/mile pace.

(Party time!)
(Even cheerers are excited for their first Comrades)
The "green number" runners graciously offered advice and let me know what was coming up. One of them explained to me that once you get a green number, you can keep that number for life, and even pass it on to your kids. Wow! What a great incentive to lure in the next generation. It turned out be one of the many genius marketing aspects to this race, including the time-based medals named after founding runners, the "back to back medal" (extra medal for finishing an up and down together...rope you in for a second trip!), the caps that had the map on the underside of the visor (thus being the default headwear on race day), the encouragement of the running clubs to set up and provide assistance on the course, and the iron-on badges that many had turned into great jackets.  No surprise attendance at Comrades has doubled in the last ten years.

(The back of the pack tackles the hills, photo courtesy of News24)
I hit the halfway point at Drummond (44km, mile 27) in 3:36:10, just a minute under the pace for a "silver medal" finish. I was still feeling comfortable, much in thanks to the well-stocked aid stations every couple of miles that had plenty of water and snacks. The water is brilliantly handed out in recyclable 150ml bags that were easy to bite into and either drink or spray, and I wondered why we hadn't seen this in the States yet. I was doing more spraying at this point as the African sun started to bear down on us and push the temperature into the high 70's. It was hot (not "Africa hot" though, ha, ha), but many of the locals were happy it was so cool.

(Water in a bag!)
(Out in the countryside)
As we got out into the countryside, we alternated between long stretches of lonely road, and huge parties put on by local vendors and towns. Local school kids showed up in uniform, and church-goers cheered in their Sunday best. Everyone had a "braai" rolling (the local BBQ), and it smelled awesome. As Bruce told me, "since you have a number on, you're a hero today...you can grab a beer or burger from anyone...tomorrow you'll get punched in the face for trying that."

(Phew! Those km's left are starting to get small)
As we approached Camperdown (70km, mile 43), the afternoon heat started to take its toll and created a long line of walkers. I soon realized that most weren't exhuasted, they were just being smart about heat management. I was not doing this, and quickly paid the price. I vomited on the sideline, dizzy with heat, and it wasn't until some locals helped me fill my handkerchief with ice that I could get rolling again. Mile 40 clocked in at 16 minutes....and just like that, the silver medal was out of contention. That's okay, I now had lots of buffer and could relax knowing the ice radiator on the back of my neck was doing the trick.

(Enthusiastic cheerleaders)
(Getting his groove on)
(Welcome to the Nedbank Green Mile!)
(Volunteers are superheroes, literally in this case)
As I cruised along at a more casual 9 min/mile, I wondered how my fellow US athletes were doing. Sage Canaday and Max King were both here, two of our fastest, so perhaps one could make the Top 10. I sent good vibes to Dave Mackey, now having his leg painfully rebuilt from a fall in the Colorado mountains, who would do anything to take a single step right now (yet still had time to wish me well). I also thought of my great uncle, 92-year-old Ray Morris, a 16-time Dipsea runner in the 80's whom I recently reconnected with after 33 years, who wanted me to text him during the race in his last days of surviving pancreatic cancer.  To those who cannot run today, this day is also for you. It is a celebration of running!

(From green to pink!)
(He would fit right in at Bay to Breakers)

(Polly Shortts, the last of the big climbs)
The last steep climb at Polly Shortts (83km, mile 51) brought almost everyone to a walking pace, and I would soon learn even the winner of the Women's race had done the same. I cruised through the last few miles and entered the finish area, a tailgate-meets-stadium filled with thousands of races supporters and team tents. Incredible! I hit the finish line in 8:08:25, good enough for 840th place, and received a hearty thank you from the race directors for coming to their race. "You international runners are a big part of what makes this race great...we hope to see you next year so you can pick up that back-to-back medal". I was thinking about the next Comrades before I even got my first beverage from the first one...genius!

(Through the green gate, onto the field)
(Last lap!)
(There's that finish!)
I soon retired to the tent for international runners to grab a beer and cheer on fellow finishers. The vibe was amazing at the finish, particularly when a time deadline for a medal would come within the final seconds, and hundreds of well-paced runners sprint around the final oval as the crowd goes wild. Members of all clubs would stand at their feet and scream, hollering and stamping the side boards with their hands, and the crowds got bigger with every hour. It was so much fun! With 16,584 runners finding the finish, Comrades boasts an outstanding 74% finish rate. Apparently more than half the finishers come in during the final hour...that has got to be a cheer heard around the world.

(Here comes the sub-9 hour pack!)
Check out the cheering in this video of the winning finish to get a feel for it:

I learned from the other finishers that the 90th Comrades had been a historic day for South Africa, winning both the mens and women's division for the first time in 23 years. Gift Kehele (5:38:35) was the overall winner, after placing third last year, much to the excitement of his older brother who won the race in 2001. Caroline Wostmann (6:12:22) was a favorite after winning Two Oceans this year, and led by a large margin over the Russian twins who have dominated this race for years. Ellie Greenwood, the 2014 Women's champion finished a respectable 6th (6:44:03).

(Gift Kehele wins...)
(...and gets a hug from his big brother)
(Caroline Wostmann cruises in for the win)

Sage Canaday (6:03:47) took 15th overall and was the fastest US male finisher, and Max King finished 52nd (6:33:48) as the second American. Guess who was 3rd? Me! Holy crap, I just podium'd with Sage and Max. I am humble-bragging that for the rest of my life.
(Hey, look...I podiumed with Sage Canaday and Max King for fastest American! I'm so framing this...)
As I headed back to Durban on the bus, chatting with Australian ultrarunner Amelia Griffith, I felt completely transformed. I always enjoy the adventure of traveling to new race destinations, but Comrades had simply blown my mind. It was like...actually, it was exactly like... finding out there was a place on the other side of the world that holds the true roots of your sport, with a community of tens of thousands who welcome you with open arms and a strong, generous spirit. The tagline for Comrades - "Bamba Iqhaza!" - means "be a part of it" and I am so glad I did! Add this race to your bucket list, my friends, and you will not be disappointed.

Dankie, South Africa and the great volunteers and organizers of the Comrades. Congratulations runners and clubs! I hope to see you again soon.

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