Sunday, March 29, 2009

A baseball game at Rice University

Today, we saw Rice come out on top against Memphis with a score of 9-5, on a picture perfect day at Reckling Park. Rice took two out of three games over the weekend. Reckling Park is one of the best college baseball facilities in the nation, and its setting against the backdrop of the Houston Medical Center 'satellite downtown' is pretty spectacular too.

I struck out on the food though: no vegan hotdogs here... Peanuts was pretty much my only choice. But no sweat, as soon as we got home I started cooking up a storm, making refried pinto beans (no frying involved and a minimum of oil...), some nice fresh green beans, baked curried tofu from Veganomicon and Mexican millet also from V-con. It was quite a feast.

The view from our seats

Another view of Reckling, from the main grandstand

And one more, down the left field line

Midway through the game

Running this morning was along Buffalo Bayou, 12 miles with the first six quite slow, the last six better at about 8:30 pace. I actually ran 4 miles at 8:00 average, just to see how my heart rate would hold up. It didn't. It crept up beyond 140 to 145+, which is definitely beyond my tempo threshold. Over the next couple of weeks I will try to run close to the red-line as much as possible.

A quick word between mother and son

Rice baseball players always have a few minutes for the fans

Popular player Anthony Rendon in a relaxed mood after the game

What did you say your name was...? Brock Holt signing some autographs after the game

Two happy customers!

The final score

Friday, March 27, 2009

Casablanca 5+ Duplicity 3.5

For a spell of several weeks there Kathleen and I did not see any new movies, just re-watched some of our old favorites such as Casablanca. Brilliant, as the Brits would say! Everything in this movie is perfect: the script, the photography, the acting, the setting, the soundtrack, the ending. Yes, the soundtrack probably deserves to be higher up in the list. If there is a better movie out there I have yet to see it. For my money, Claude Rains as Captain Renault steals the show. True, he has many of the best lines including ‘Round up the usual suspects!’ but his timing is spotless and his almost impish sense of delight to be at the nexus of this intrigue is almost palpable. I was shocked, shocked! to find out that he was nominated for, but did not win, an Oscar for best supporting actor that year (1942). If you don’t have the digitally remastered DVD version of this masterpiece in your collection, drop whatever you’re doing, rush out to Best Buy and get it today. Make some popcorn, hope for rainy weather and enjoy.

Will people be holding such exalted views of the latest Julia Roberts movie, Duplicity, 65 years from now? No, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go out and see this movie. There’s not much else around this time of the year. Julia Roberts is extremely likable, and she is second probably only to Kate Winslet in acting ability amongst current ‘A-list’ actresses. Duplicity comes alive whenever she is on the screen which is fortunately most of the time. Unfortunately, the movie has several shortcomings, not the least of which is an overly complicated, some might even say convoluted plot. Is it really necessary to have so many flashbacks? Every now and then I had to make a mental halt to figure out if we were in the now, or the then. This does nothing for keeping the tension alive. Eventually I gave up and just went along for the ride, so to speak. Which was quite enjoyable, just not as satisfying as it might have been. There are some gorgeous hotel room settings (the Miami view gets my vote for #1), superb photography, altogether a delectable, stylish, classy affair. The romance doesn’t quite pass the smolder-test (see Casablanca for that), but at least Clive Owen doesn’t disappear next to Roberts like so many other actors would. Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson weigh in with a couple of fine performances too. Overall a perfectly fun and enjoyable couple of hours at the movies.

Peaking and tapering

Books have been written about peaking and tapering for a marathon, yet neither are easy to plan for or to execute. Invariably, one's training program is partially derailed due to illness, injury or other unforeseen event, resulting in last-minute revisions and adjustments. Is it better to taper over 3 weeks rather than 2? How do I know when I have reached peak fitness? The answers usually come with experience, but even seasoned runners can miscalculate and show up at the starting line with tired legs. It is definitely better to start a race slightly under-trained and fresh.

This morning I woke up with sore calf muscles which is never a good sign. No runner should have chronically sore calf muscles - it is one of the early markers of over-training as I know only too well, having experienced it a few years ago. Depending on how I feel early in the morning, I might postpone tomorrow morning's long run by at least one day to give my legs some additional time to recover. Either way I think I will reduce the distance by a couple of miles or so.

At least the end is in sight: already, my longest run (last Saturday's 20-miler) is behind me as I will be doing 'only' 18 miles tomorrow... This week has been quite taxing though with a fairly fast (8:50 pace) 10 mile run on Monday, an 8-mile track session including 4 X 1-mile repeats at around 7:00 pace on Tuesday, another 10 miles on Wednesday night at Memorial Park with 5 miles at 'marathon pace' of 8:33 and 6 miles last night, 4 of which were short hill repeats at the Barker Reservoir hill. Four sets of running up and down the hill twice and then going around on the top of the levee wall after the 3rd uphill. Only to start the same sequence again.

I am ready to start the taper, ready to run Boston and ready to end my marathon career on a high note!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

'I'm loving everything about this'

I did my weekly track workout at Memorial High School yesterday. It went well. If you count the 2 miles warming up and 1 mile warming down, I logged 8 miles including 4 X 1 mile repeats of 7:03, 6:57, 7:01 and 6:48. I wanted to 'feel' fast so I wore my rarely used bright red racing flats. And yes, I felt as fast as a 56-year old guy running on tired legs could feel. The temporary euphoria was quickly banished when a 20-something athlete blew by me at blistering speed.

Nice as it was, by next week I will have forgotten this workout. What I won’t forget is running with a group of mentally challenged individuals, who happened to be at the track by the time I got there. At first, I didn’t realize that there was anything different about them. They didn’t look any weirder than me, or a hundred other runners. And of course, it is a thin line which separates ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’ when it comes to the mental faculties. Where does odd, eccentric or quirky end and true mental illness start?

So when I heard one individual loudly talking away to himself as I passed him during one of my warm-up laps, I thought nothing of it. Nowadays, one assumes that solitary talkers in the supermarket, at the dry cleaner or at the running track are on the ‘phone, that there’s a Bluetooth device in play. On the second go-round, I realized that this guy was not talking to anybody else. Perhaps he was conversing with an imaginary friend, or just rehearsing for a ‘phone call to his mother. I have to confess that at least in my mind, I rolled my eyes but at the same time I felt quite sorry for the individual. And of course I felt fortunate not to be in his shoes. So I was more than a little surprised when he loudly proclaimed – as if the whole world was listening, - “I am loving everything about this”. What a pleasure it was to observe such innocent joy! And as I started to look around at some of the other runners the differences became clear. The mentally challenged runners were having a lot more fun than anybody else. For them, it was all smiles and joy. The other runners? Not as much. Several grim faces (including yours truly), a few frowns and even some tears on the face of one young competitor. Yes there were some happy ones too but overall probably deserving of a ‘B’ on the contentment scale.

We runners in general sometimes tend to be negative: we grumble when we don’t hit our splits, we feel under-trained, we never have enough time, we wish we could be faster, thinner or taller. We dwell on our injuries. We set very high goals for ourselves which often lead to disappointment. At least for the next few weeks, I will try harder to have a smile on my face too, when I run. I want to experience the pure joy of running like the guy who talks to himself, even when nobody is listening. I’m loving everything about running too, and maybe I should show it more often.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bulk shopping at the supermarket

Do you buy food from the bulk bins at Whole Foods or one of its competitors? I bet you do. Certainly most vegans do – you just can’t get wheat berries, millet or TVP (textured vegetable protein) from your garden variety supermarket down the street. So there we go once a week or so, and it is quite the ordeal. I think the Whole Foods managers must be vying for a quarterly award for the most weirdly organized bulk food aisle. You’d think they’d divide it up in a somewhat sensible manner. Such as all vegan stuff to the left, and everything else to the right. Or maybe keep grains, nuts, beans, rice, dried fruits, candy & processed items in its own separate section. Forget it. They watch us through those ominous-looking domes in the ceiling, as we scurry around wasting precious minutes, trying to find the sesame seeds amongst the Medjool dates and the coconut rolls. Oh, and here’s the pumpkin seeds right in between the snappy ginger cookies and the crystallized ginger. That really makes sense. Thanks Whole Foods!

Then, if you can find a pen that works (good luck with that!), you do the little label thing, pay, leave and then put everything in containers as soon as you get back to the house. Or maybe not. I still have a few neatly sealed plastic baggies floating around here from circa 1999, with just a bin number written on them. Could that be chili powder or maybe garam masala? Who the hell knows! Problem is I am too worried about screwing up a recipe, to try to find out the hard way, which would be to go ahead and use some of the stuff. Does this look like mustard or could it be turmeric?

There are some things that I do not buy from the bulk section at Whole Foods. Such as peanut butter from one of those huge tubs. Why? Because I saw an unsupervised little girl drop something in there a while ago. Could have been a penny, could have been a popsicle. My guess? A previously owned piece of gum. The same little girl took a bite from a whole wheat fig bar, made a nasty face and put it back with the other unsold fig bars. Her mother was no doubt pre-occupied, trying to find the brown rice tucked away between the banana chips and the adzuki beans.

Running today was very good: a brisk 10-miles with Daisy, maintaining the pace at around 8:55/mile most of the time, despite very muggy conditions. Had to stop for Daisy to have some water a few times. I am definitely feeling a lot stronger than just 2 or 3 weeks ago. During these last 2 to 3 weeks I will step up the intensity on all my runs - other than the long run on Saturdays.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pap and tofu

People who know what 'pap' is won't expect to see it in the same sentence as tofu, and likely won't think it can be served together, either. Well I doubt that it was a first, but we did it today: traditional South African 'stywe pap' - for the uninitiated it is a rustic version of polenta made with ground white maize meal - served alongside baked BBQ Tofu. The Baked BBQ Tofu is from Veganomicon. I am still busy cooking my way through this book and have discovered quite a few instant favorites, such as Southwestern Corn Pudding, Cheater Baked Beans and Spinach Linguini with Basil-Cilantro Pesto and Artichokes. As for the Baked BBQ Tofu - what absolutely makes it is the Backyard BBQ Sauce, also from Veganomicon. The sauce, which contains onions, garlic, crushed tomatoes, molasses, vinegar, a little mustard and some liquid smoke, amongst others, cooked up thick and delicious, just as advertised. As I had anticipated, the pap and the BBQ sauce were dynamite together. The tofu? Well it tasted better than anticipated. Not exactly beef but not a bad source of protein, no cholesterol and practically zero fat. Some steamed broccoli on the side and there you have it, a nice early Sunday dinner before heading out for a movie. The new Julia Roberts flick - Duplicity.

Running still going well. On Saturday I drove out to New Ulm again, and did a repeat of last week's 20 mile run. This time under less than ideal weather conditions, which turned the last few miles into a real slog. I'm hoping that these back to back to back to back to back long hilly runs will pay dividends in Boston, even if I am running them quite slowly. The makeshift plan, necessitated by the knee injury and inability to run while traveling in Africa in February, is to complete six long runs in New Ulm, being 16, 18, 20, 20, 18, and 16 miles long, respectively. I am down to the last two, an 18-miler on March 29 and then a 16-miler on April 5. By April 12 - barely more than a week before the Boston Marathon, I think I will dial it down to no more than 10 miles with a few at marathon pace. Marathon pace? Still to be decided. Probably somewhere between 8:35 (for a personal best time of just over 3:45:00) and 9:10 - just to be able to finish respectably at under 4 hours.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Germ, fish, mermaid, Man.

The title of this blog entry is of course, someone’s tongue in cheek take on evolution. Evolution has been an on-going process since the dawn of time, but the concept or theory was not widely known until Charles Darwin published ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859. Darwin is in the news again because 2009 happens to be the 200th anniversary of his birth – which was on Feb 12th 1809. I just finished reading Darwin’s landmark work, having dragged it in and out of the bath (a favored reading spot), on two trips to Africa and all around the house for the last 8 months or so. Note to self: make more time for reading! The Origin of Species is definitely not an easy read, but it is fascinating and very well written. It has been described as one of the few revolutionary works of science that is engrossingly readable, and I have to agree with that. Darwin’s writing can be extremely dense at times, and I often found myself going back over the same paragraph a couple of times. But once you get it, you get it. In a gentle tone, but loaded with facts and excruciating detail, Darwin puts forth his elegant theory of evolution, and proceeds to convincingly demonstrate the fact of it.

When I first arrived in the USA in the early 1990’s, I did some birding in various spots in Texas and was amazed to see the uncanny resemblance of the Western Meadowlark to an equally common Southern African bird, the Yellowthroated Longclaw. In fact I initially misidentified the Meadowlark as being a Longclaw. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was natural selection on display right in front of my eyes. The two species have absolutely nothing in common from a familial background; the one is related to New World blackbirds and orioles and the other one is part of the pipit and wagtail family. Yet they look the same, they inhabit the same habitat and they even have a similar way of flying. It doesn’t take a Darwin to realize that both species had evolved – through the process of natural selection - to fill a particular niche in nature and that their coloration, habits etc. made them ideally adapted to their environment.

It has been a while since I reported any news on the running front. I’m happy to say that it is all good. After running 36 miles over the course of 3 days (20 last Saturday, 6 easy on Sunday and 10 on Monday), I was dubious whether I’d have anything in the tank for the usual mile repeats at Memorial High School track on Tuesday evening. No worries – reeled off 4 X 1600’s with 1 slow 400m recovery, at about 7:10 to 7:20 pace, the last one feeling not much harder than the first. On Wednesday I joined a group of Houston Striders on the trails at Memorial Park and managed a total of 7 miles, again feeling quite strong despite some rather warm & humid conditions.

Due to a doctor’s appointment this morning (cardiologist) and an after-work meeting with some visitors from South Africa, today will have to be an unscheduled rest day. Probably just as well. For what it is worth, the cardiologist (a multiple Houston Marathon finisher) says my heart is fine, but just to be safe and because of my age (56), he recommended a stress test and echo cardiogram after Boston. Is it any wonder that medical costs are so high in the USA?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

True running confessions

Today’s Boston group (Runners World forum) prompted some ‘true confessions’ which made me think about some of the foibles of running, at least in the case of yours truly.

* I am a secret racer. Nowadays, I’m not fast (or young) enough to beat anybody when they ‘know’ I’m racing them, but I have scored many a victory on training runs when I routinely vanquish many an unsuspecting jogger, happily listening to his/her iPod while getting beaten to a pulp. Figuratively speaking of course… Every now and then one of my ‘adversaries’ would wake up and start to race me back. Oops. Usually it would be another middle-aged guy who doesn’t enjoy being passed by anybody even remotely in his age category. The result? A planned ‘easy’ 10 mile run would end up being a messy, sweaty affair with two balding, paunchy guys increasing the pace so as not to fall behind – or to get ahead – all while pretending that it is just a routine training run.

* I have a weakness for blondes, so I often – totally coincidentally of course - happen to find one for ‘companionship’ in a long race. They don’t seem to mind. Or maybe they are just super polite. Whatever. As the French song goes, Auprès de ma blonde - Qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon - Auprès de ma blonde- Qu'il fait bon dormi. It is all very harmless, of course. See for yourself.

* When I’d get dehydrated at the end of a long run, which used to happen more often when I was younger and less slow, I would get aggressive with cars. Resulting in rude gestures to drivers cutting me off, slapping the trunks of cars trying to run over me in driveways, and so on. I would not recommend this behavior and have stopped doing it. I never got shot at, but had to take some evasive actions once or twice.

* I do not like it at all when pedestrians (walkers) totally block the way by walking 3 of even 4 abreast. Don’t they know this is a running path… So I would often scrape right by them when passing from behind, no doubt helping to make runners less than popular amongst the walking fraternity. Sorry about that. One time in Washington D.C. I was running towards the FDR Memorial when this scenario occurred. Having just barreled my way past a few gawking tourists, my foot caught a protruding root and I took an almighty spill right in front of them, almost bouncing into the Tidal Basin. Served me right? I guess so.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Boston and out

Twice over the last couple of weeks I tried to sign up for the New York City Marathon, which is to be run on Nov 1. [Some of you may know that I have a guaranteed entry due to my half marathon time in San Antonio last November.] Twice the application/registration process stalled out; something wrong with my computer or their server, who knows. Maybe just as well. Over the weekend, during and after a long 18-mile training run in the hills of New Ulm, I started wondering whether I really wanted to run New York. Or more correctly, if I really had it in me to tackle another marathon training cycle. By Monday, I had made up my mind. Boston will be my last attempt at the full 26. 2 mile distance.

Sure it would be fun to run New York with 30,000 other people and no doubt it would be a fantastic experience. I am just not compelled to train for it. My marathon string has come to an end. The enthusiasm is still there for running, but not for running quite that far. Too much wear and tear on the body, too many hours on the road, just too too much. I will still be doing some half marathons and I am looking forward to becoming more involved with the Houston Striders, do some volunteering, maybe some photography and definitely more short races such as the local spring and fall HARRA series.

Running marathons have been and still are one of the most amazing things I have ever done. I don't think I will ever forget the exhilaration of finishing the first one, running one with Kathleen and finishing together, or going all out and qualifying for Boston. Along the way, I met and befriended many interesting and fascinating people, saw some great sights, conquered a few hills, stumbled and fell a few times, hit the wall, sweated, sweltered, froze, lost a few pounds and gained some too. I gave advice, but not as much as I received. I talked and listened, laughed and joked, swore at a few bikers and worried about some dogs. I subscribed to the magazine, read all the books, checked out the websites, pored over training programs, tracked mileage, measured heart rates, and calculated training paces. In the beginning I thought I could run through injuries. Wrong. I thought if I ran hard every time out, every day of the week I would get fast. Wrong again. All I got was seriously over-trained.

But of course all is not over yet. There is still Boston! Training is still going well. I ended last week with a total of almost 50 miles, including a long and very tough 18-miler with a few Katy Fit runners in New Ulm. We will be going out there again next Saturday. I am told that the hills around New Ulm are easily the equal of the Newton hills and Heartbreak hill in particular. That remains to be seen. Saturday's long run was followed by 6 more on Sunday, and more than 10 on Monday. The result? Fatigued legs and and no energy by Tuesday morning. I took the day off. Starting to act like a former marathon runner already!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is it the exercise or the diet?

The verdict is in and it is good. Had my annual physical check-up yesterday and cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and other markers were all normal and in most instances close to ideal. Did exercise play a role? Most likely, but there are other important factors involved. Diet, for one.

Just more than 2 years ago, when I was still eating red meat, fish, chicken, cheese, milk and other animal products, my cholesterol and blood sugar levels were so out of whack that my (then) MD put me on a statin (to lower cholesterol) and also prescribed medication to help lower my blood sugar levels. At the time, I was exercising just as heavily as I am now, although I was about 12 to 15 pounds heavier. The point? That even a fit, healthy marathon runner is prone to high cholesterol and pre-diabetic blood sugar levels, as a result of a diet containing animal products.

A few months later - on April 1 2007 - I adopted a low fat plant-based diet. The combination of this much healthier diet - and the medication - quickly righted the ship. Under doctor's orders, I stayed on the medication for about a year. However when my MD decided to leave Texas for Colorado, I stopped using the statin and the 'diabetic' medication. Yesterday's normal test results showed just how powerful diet alone can be: it is possible to significantly lower cholesterol and prevent Type 2 diabetes without using any medication whatsoever.

Running has been great this week to date: today's run was at Memorial Park with the Striders; after 2 easy miles on the trail, I joined a small group of fellow Striders on a pretty fast 6.5 mile run - about 8:00 average pace. Yesterday was mile repeat day at Memorial High School track: total of 7 miles including 4 X 1-mile repeats. Three of those were at about 7:10 pace, the second one was at 6:55. And on Monday I did 8 easy miles with Daisy along Buffalo Bayou. So total for the week to date is just over 23 miles. I might be setting myself up for a tough 18 mile run on Saturday, probably need to take it easy on Thursday and r-e-s-t on Friday!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Terry Hershey Park running route

My daily running route follows an asphalt trail in the eastern-most portion of Terry Hershey Park, alongside Buffalo Bayou, a murky river of sorts which winds through much of the western suburbs of Houston, before entering downtown and becoming the Houston Ship Channel, one of the most important commercial waterways in the USA.

Buffalo Bayou is not nearly navigable west of downtown. While hardly a tourist attraction, parts of it (that have not been scrubbed of the native vegetation) can be pretty, especially in the spring when patches of wildflowers line its banks. Terry Hershey Park in west Houston is quite heavily used by walkers, runners, joggers and bikers. I've been running in the park since the early 90's - well before the current asphalt trail was extended all the way to Beltway 8. Between Beltway 8 and Wilcrest Drive the trail is fairly hilly, at least for this part of the world.

My run starts from the back door of our townhouse - this is where we grow some herbs in containers

About half a mile further, the actual trail starts on the west side of Beltway 8, which forms a second ring around Houston, the inner ring being Loop 610. The trail head is just to the left, across the bridge from which the pic was taken.

For the next half mile or so, the trail skirts the southbound lanes of Beltway 8 West

It then veers sharply to the right, crossing over Rummel Creek just where it empties into Buffalo Bayou. This bridge is often flooded when it rains heavily in the area

The trail then continues alongside Buffalo Bayou, here separated from a waste treatment plant by a wooden fence (on the right hand side of the trail)

This may not look like much, but it is one of the steeper hills along the trail; I use it for my short hill repeats

A couple of runners just about to crest the top of the hill

Buffalo Bayou lives up to its reputation as a muddy, murky stream

The trail winds westwards, lined by trees and shrubs - much leafier in spring and summer

2 miles into the run, there is a small park with some outdoor exercise equipment

The trail is not all flat...

Further westwards, the area opens up more, with some floodplain and levees on the right hand side of the trail

Near the 3-mile point, this is one of the bigger bridges on the trail

From the 'new' bridge (previous photograph) you can see the old bridge which is often under water when the bayou backs up into its tributaries. In the 90's, before the new bridge was built, I sometimes had to turn around here due to the bridge being impassable

Daisy loves running the trail almost as much as I do. She gets very excited when she spots squirrels and rabbits, both of which are very common

At the 4-mile point (from our house), the park is quite narrow. This outdoor workout facility is within view of some of the homes which look out over Buffalo Bayou.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Running update - 7 weeks to Boston

A partial view of downtown, taken from the Police Memorial on Memorial Drive. This was on our way back from the baseball game today.

The Boston Marathon is just 7 weeks away. Due to the knee injury - and the Tanzania trip - my training is not where I would like it to have been. However this last week things have finally started to go well. I had a good 5-mile Park to Park race last Saturday (Feb 21), running the first 3 miles at about 7:15 pace before slowing down over the last two. The next day's half marathon race was a disaster. I bailed out at 9 miles; absolutely nothing left and feeling quite ill. However by Monday night I was much better and jogged 6 miles with Daisy in tow. Tuesday night's mile repeats at Memorial High School track was ok; three miles at around 7:25, well below my usual pace but not bad. On Wednesday I managed about 9 miles at Memorial Park, and Thursday some hard tempo runs at Terry Hershey Park, with a few of the regular Strider runners. By Friday a scheduled rest day felt good! Saturday's 16-mile long run was at New Ulm, under exceedingly windy conditions, I practically had to fight my way through the teeth of a gale, for the first few miles. The return stretch was much easier, but my average pace was snail-like, barely under 10:00 per mile... All in all, I managed to rack up 49 miles total, the highest total in many weeks.

This morning (Sunday March 1) I did 6 miles along Buffalo Bayou and it felt great, no soreness, the knee is fine and there was definitely some life in the legs. Hopefully the rest of the week will go equally well. Kathleen and I saw Rice beat Baylor 8-3 at the College Classic Series at Minute Maid, it was fun to see some baseball again! Rice also beat the highly touted A & M team on Saturday night, 2-0.

The new Reserve Bank on Memorial Drive

Another view of downtown Houston from Memorial Drive