Sunday, January 14, 2018

Eyes Wide Open at the 2018 Spring Hill Marathon

“I come to places like this to avoid people like you.” 

That was the opening line of this giant of a man, fully clad in motorcycle leathers, as he approached my table at a honky tonk biker bar in the rural everglades of Spring Hill, FL. He was correct that this skinny runner was out of place - the gulf coast of Northwest Florida is rooted in American soil, yet unlike any America I know day to day. Rural towns, miles of double wide trailers, trash talking Trumplandia on every corner, more Walmarts and Dollar General stores than Starbucks, and a horizon void of mountains in all directions. It’s completely unlike my home in California. And it’s exactly why I came.

(UMF of America...note the hand below it!)
“You don’t like people who buy free beer?” I replied, “Shit, that’s just un-American.”

As a hush fell, I scooted my plastic bucket of Budweiser beers towards him and inched down to the edge of the picnic bench. This redneck olive branch is impossible to resist, particularly for Harley-riding bikers in the Florida humidity, and within a few seconds his friends filled the table. He sat down and cracked one open with a smile, and I noticed his jacket sported the patch for “UMF of America”. I had to ask what it meant.

Ugly Mother Fuckers of America. It’s a crazy social club, and we have fun riding and BBQ’ing to raise money for St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital.” he explained. I was shocked and impressed all at once, a reaction he was clearly used to, and enjoyed tremendously.

“Did you have to apply, or did you get an honorary membership based on your Facebook photo?” I asked to the roaring cheer of his friends. “Sorry, I get a little ugly myself after a few beers. It sounds like a very cool organization.”

“You know, you might be okay after all…but you’ll need a few more buckets before we consider you for membership,” he chuckled, winking as he downed his beer. This guy is cool. Like, seriously cool. All I had to do was reach his level of ugly long enough to connect.

Welcome to the real America. These days, the most foreign land I know. 

It was work travel that opened this door for me, starting 2018 with a trip to Orlando for a conference. I do my best to find a marathon/ultra in town beforehand on these trips, and I had the choice of running the Disney World Marathon and its predictable army of smiles (both real and illustrated), or truck two hours west to the rural everglades of the Spring Hill Marathon. The Spring Hill Marathon was a small local race that promised a lot of new adventure – a fast and flat out-and-back course, an annual celebration for Black Girls Run (a fast growing international running group for black women), and smack dab in the center of this rural community. Throw in the hyper-real experience of an Airbnb stay, and adventure was sure to be had.

Cindy, my Airbnb hostess, was amazing. She had retreated to her “vacation trailer” in Florida after a divorce two years ago, one of the few areas she could afford to live when personal disaster strikes (a common relocation theme here). Two years of hard work later, she had built a new home from the frame out, saving daily for every tile and fixture, and installing them one at a time while she lived in the garage with the only sink with flowing water. The house was now immaculate, and knowing the sweat and blood she poured into it to get it to this level made it all the more special. The baloney, ranch dressing, and Bud Light hors d’oeuvres were also a nice touch.

(Lining up for the start with Angela's Angels)

(Getting ready to roll!)
I woke up early to get to the race the first morning, arriving with ~300 runners tackling the marathon, half marathon, and 10k/5k courses. The color-clad and fit locals from Black Girls Run were everywhere, and in great spirits on this chilly morning. As the gun went off, we peeled out onto the bike trail and headed south (for the winter!).

(BGR was here in force!)
Total elevation gain was to be less than 200 vertical feet (less than my driveway), so it was no surprise a few runners went out fast. I was hoping to leverage their speed to lower my 2018 Boston qualifier time before the 1/31 deadline to adjust your times. I had run a 2:52 at Boston last year, but a sub 2:48 is required to have a shot at a race bib below 1000. Yeah, a fairly useless ego boost goal, but one that has helped push me to reach that top speed once or twice a year and occasionally nab a PR. It would be a stretch today though – my fitness base was okay, but I was holiday robbed of any specific training, and had lost a few days to a stomach flu five days prior. At my age, I’ve found I need to be firing on all cylinders for sub-2:50. But what can you do? Lace up and get ‘er done.

Ryan Farnan, a collegiate cross country runner from Florida eyeing his first marathon in a few months, went off like a banshee at a 5:30 min/mile pace, leading the half marathon and pulling 3-4 of us from the pack. I ran behind Gary Krugger from Flagstaff, AZ, who was leading his 300’th-ish marathon despite a flu-inspired cough. As we passed the turnaround for the half marathon (mile 6.5, 39:00), there were four of in the marathon about three minutes apart. Not too far behind was a very close race for the Women, with first time marathoner Gretchen Macmillan and Tampa runner Sally Watkins within a minute of leader Alessandra Scodinu.

(Enjoying the miles on a flat Florida course)
I picked up the pace to 6 min/miles, passing a gracious Gary as we sprinted down the long straight sections on the course. It sure felt fast! The aid stations were every 3-4 miles, so I slowed to ensure I got enough food and hydration. The lonely turnaround sign arrived in 1:24:20, but brought a steady stream of new faces and cheers. The body types looked familiar – the fast triathletes and runners up front, the Boston Qualifer hopefuls right behind them, and then an army of every age, sex, body shape, and race you could imagine. We are all the same once the gun goes off, and there were plenty of high fives to prove it.

I was on a negative split pace, but at mile 23, I had to slow down to fight off some dizziness, perhaps reaping what I sowed with those buckets of beer. The last few miles were at a “hang on” 6:50 min/mile pace, so I suspected a new PR was not in the cards. I finished in 2:51:53 for first place and a new course record, a mere 44 seconds bettering of my BQ time, but with a smile nonetheless. Greg Krugger (3:08) took second, just ahead of Joseph Materese (3:08) and Shane Magnan (3:11). Sally Watkins (3:33) took an hour off her marathon best to win the Women’s division, and immediately began making plans for Boston. Her secret? A year long training plan followed to the mile. Alessandra Scodinu (3:39) and Gretchen Macmillan (3:41) filled out the podium. (all results)

(Greg Krugger and I relaxing at the finish)

(The Women's marathon podium)
(Some fun swag...and a check!)
(A thanks to Race Director Craig Levan)
Race Director Craig Levan hosted the awards ceremony, generously presenting $500 checks to the winners. The team from Black Girls Run had their own great awards and t-shirts, and when I asked if I could buy a shirt with my winnings, the organizer said “I can think of two reasons you can’t wear a shirt that says Black Girls Run”. Funny! Still, I was happy to make a donation online and support the cause.

(Back to the roadhouse!)
(The manatee...could very well be the pug of the ocean)
The rest of my winnings went to more rounds of buckets of beer and local seafood as I visited a few more roadhouses and shanti-shack diners along the water, sharing stories and hanging out with live manatee. The locals have a deep love of the land here, almost as deep as their love for Tom Petty (a Florida native...hats off when his songs are played) and local seafood fried in goodness. Join right in, and you will be welcomed.

This is a fascinating slice of America, unique and still a bit strange to me, but significantly less ugly once you take the time to connect. Thanks to Race Director Craig Nolan, Black Girls Run, the UMF of America, and my gracious Airbnb host for helping me experience it first hand.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Airbnb - The Most Important Technology Brand Of Our Time

Over the holidays, my extended family sat me down to ask a very important question:

What technology company do you think is the most important and impactful to the world today?

It's an annual tradition to quiz the Silicon Valley Dunlap on such things. Some relatives are curious consumers looking for the next gadget or braggable trend, a few are looking for stock tips, and thanks to a Trump-tweet-filled 2017 (or Black Mirror Season 4 on Netflix), all of them share a fresh level of nervousness at how much tech can quickly upend their status quo.

As I pause for effect, there are plenty of suggestions yelled across the table with beer-infused enthusiasm:

Apple will be worth $1 trillion soon and the iPhone X is amazing! Have you seen the poop animoji?!?

Google AI is incredible and my Nestcam can now tell the difference between my two dogs! 

The Tesla Model 3 changes everything about the auto industry! Only 99% more auto sales penetration to go!

Facebook now connects over half the of the adult world...to cat gifs! 

Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) is the richest man in the world now! And he actually found a way for Whole Foods to lower their prices!

Bitcoin just hit $18,000 and I still don't know what it is! 

Yes, yes...all good suggestions. But to get at the core of the question, you really need to ask "what technology company has impacted me personally, and connected me in a positive way to the world around me?". For me, there is an easy answer:



It's Airbnb. Hands down, no question. 

[Cue the collective gasp!]

Then I explain why. Technology is most powerful when it changes a simple habit - in this case, staying with locals instead of a hotel room when traveling because of the trust created through their platform - and over time drives larger global change. The hardest part about this is to make the change drive a collective good, instead of a personal good (a digital vice, in effect). I am certain that Airbnb is doing this, and you can feel it with every experience.

I then tell them about my varied stays over the last few years. The newlyweds in Texas using Airbnb to build a backyard where they will get married, and helping them measure and cut lumber over breakfast. The the drone pilot in Switzerland who let me sleep in his "pilot room" before the Sierre-Zinal 30k, then having to run the race hungover thanks to all of his local athlete friends taking me out the night before. Or my fabulous host in Moab, who created such a fun youth hostel environment, I got holiday cards from nearly all of the other guests, even though they live in New Zealand, Arizona, and Washington. I just recently booked with a brand new host in Florida for this weekend, and she's already asking what kind of local delectable pool snacks I might prefer for a post-marathon chill with their neighbors (apparently alligator and queso is a thing). Japan is on our radar this summer...who knows what cultural divides that will bridge.

REAL connections, face to face, with REAL people in their own homes. All of them in walks of life I wouldn't normally tread. A technology platform that builds trust and friendships beyond the transaction...it's the most powerful movement for global citizenship I have ever experienced.

Contrast that to uncontrolled-fake-news-that-divide-us-to-feed-us-ads Facebook, Twitter the placebo-for-actual-action hate machine, Apple the global-income-disparity-black-hole-that-eats-everything-in-its-path, or the Google and Amazon see-and-hear-everything-you-do-inevitable-personal-security-mightmare. All are great stock picks for sure, but honestly, when you use these products, do you feel closer to your fellow global citizens? Or just feel better about yourself in relation to others?

Then dig into what Airbnb does with its success (and it is succeeding in a HUGE way, doubling every year and already worth more than Hyatt and Hilton combined). They acquire Accomable, to bring "Airbnb" for disabled people to a more global audience. They created "Open Homes", a project that allows people to open their homes to those in an emergency, such as wildfire victims, those in refugee crisis, and more (we could have used that at the 2013 Boston Marathon). They allow hosts to create "Experiences" to give tours only locals would know. When President Trump talks about "sh*thole countries", Airbnb responds with millions of stays and a #weaccept hashtag that gathers the world. They invest in sustainable tourism, the living wage, female entrepreneurs in India, building local meeting places in receding rural areas, affordable apartments...the list goes on. Yet the core of what they do is simple - they give us a great excuse to connect to new people and places, and give hosts legal access to income with just a room. Undeniably powerful, and undoubtedly expanding our collective understanding of the world. Take it from a product guy, there are so many other ways they could play this, many to greater profits. But they remain true to their core of building trust across the globe.

I'll spend the next few weeks arguing over email with my family about this choice (and explaining Bitcoin, naturally), but I encourage all of you to try out Airbnb this year if you haven't. I assure you, it will be an experience you will cherish in remarkable ways. I'm going to make a point to book all my travel this year through Airbnb, both to connect to the world, and share our wonderful sport.

To the good folks at Airbnb, thank you for your tireless ambition to bring the world together. You are a shining beacon in a powerful and increasingly foggy Silicon Valley. As we say in the ultra running world - run when you can, walk if you must, but never, ever stop!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Cheers, Scott






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