Friday, June 26, 2009

boiled frogs and lions

James Fallows has his quixotic struggle against the boiled frog cliche. In solidarity, I am now taking arms against the stupid, mendacious, cruel "when the sun comes up, you'd better be running" so-called motivational running quote, not for the first time. My hope was that it would vanish into well-deserved obscurity. Now, in Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, comfortably placed on the bestseller lists, he attributes it to Roger Bannister. That attribution is creeping into the internets too, for example at the ironically-named factsleuth site.

Here's the quote. "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle - when the sun comes up, you'd better be running."

I cannot prove Roger Bannister never said it but am entirely convinced that no-one can prove he did say it. Sir Bannister is a scientist, on the evidence of his life and 'The Four-Minute Mile' a careful thoughtful man, who would not knowingly say a false thing. The entirety of this farrago of nonsense is false.

Let me break it down: Gazelles don't wake up in the morning, because they don't sleep at night. Lions don't wake up in the morning, because they hunt at night or early in the morning before sunrise. Lions don't run down their prey, instead stalk it and then pounce, like a domestic cat writ large and terrible. In the morning when the sun comes up, the gazelles may safely graze around the lions, who are probably lounging happily near the carcass of last night's dinner. The time to worry is when the sun goes down, and running won't help you then.

A bravura performance by whoever wrote this, a whole paragraph without a single true fact. I saw it first on a motivational poster in a Fortune 500 company office, its natural habitat. It was doubtless composed by some ignorant cubicle corporate drone in a flop sweat, fabricating motivation for other wage slaves; to sell posters to executives who think talking on the phone and tinkering with spreadsheets qualify as work.

In terms of running quotes, it's a blight and an excrescence. The facts matter. Falsity must be opposed at every level. If you take falsity as your token in small things then how will you resist its blandishments in the large things ? Even on the surface level, perhaps it's just me, but I don't find inspiration in the fear of starving or being eaten. Terror is a fine goad and entirely appropriate to most corporate cultures, but fear is not why I run. If you want inspirational running quotes, Sir Bannister's book is a good place to start. On running as a child: "I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed". Power and beauty: this sounds ridiculous if you don't run, still it is neither more nor less than the truth.
There, I feel better now.

A few notes on Born to Run (whoops, wrong Born to Run, but I think we should acknowledge prior art). Of course I enjoyed the book, it's about running after all so I am bound and determined to interest at the very least. The first few chapters took me aback with their overcaffeinated, Outside magazine neo-gonzo, jaguars-ripped-my-flesh kind of prose. Fortunately it settled down after that, but as a whole it seems a pastiche of magazine articles roughly stitched together. Many of the articles were interesting, though. The standard of research is often poor, as in the misattributed quote that started me off.

Another observation on aging runners - Dr Bramble is interviewed, who says that according to New York marathon times, sixty-four-year-olds are competitive with nineteen-year-olds. This seemed wrong to me. I know my times at sixty-four (when I get old, and losing my hair, many years from now) will be a lot slower than I was running at 19. 

Checking with the WMA Age-grading calculator, using a 21-minute 5k, that performance at age 19 is roughly equivalent to the same time at... age 35. At age sixty-four, that performance is roughly equivalent to a 17-minute 5k by a nineteen-year-old. The same proportions apply to marathon times. 

The WMA calculator uses world age group records as one of its inputs. Looking at the NY Marathon results for 2009, Dr. Bramble's numbers are confirmed: top 3 for 19 and under have times 2:55 to 3:09, top 3 for 60-64 are 2:58 to 3:04. Looking at world age group records, 19 is 2:10, 64 is 2:42. That rather makes a nonsense of the NY marathon times, and the whole contention that sixty-year-olds can compete with the young guns.

Another age-based calculator that uses world bests only, can be found here.
The study on which it is based finds "the estimates show linear percent decline between age 35 and about age 70." That only addresses the aging side of the equation though. Also, I'd contend that using world bests only has an inherent bias. Most runners reach a personal peak after five to ten years of consistent training, and it's very rare that this peak can be sustained for more than a few years. Look at the list of world bests for the marathon, linked above: there aren't many names that appear more than once, those that do are not far apart in time. 

Update May 2020:
Speculation confirmed in a new study by Prof. Jason Hall. This used 40 years of data from the Crim 10-mile race to track performances of aging runners. 
58,599 observations from 6,666 individual runners show a consistent decline about 1.1 percent each year for men, 0.9 percent for women, at ages 35 and up. As the paper notes, "the rate of decline is considerably faster than the world record times for age recommended by the USATF for age-grading." So, "Using world best times as a benchmark understates the effects of aging on performance."
- end update.

The WMA calculator also uses age-grading factors from the Masters Track website, motto: "older, slower, lower". I can get behind that.

The mysterious Caballo Blanco has a website where some later history of the Great Race can be found. It is sadder than the story in the book of course.

The story of Louis Liebenberg was fascinating. He was studying philosophy of science in the early 80s at the University of Cape Town when he had an epiphany about the origins of science, believing that tracking animals was the motivation for the scientific method. I took that same course in 1979. The professor was an eccentric who would show up, talk rapidly and eloquently throughout the lecture, then stride out of the room in mid-sentence on the pip of the hour. No epiphanies for me, though I did get a lot of running done, mostly in the forests on the slopes of Table Mountain.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

dogs and children

C (7) hurt himself in some fashion, rooting around in the basement in pursuit of a special Lego piece. He refused consolation from his mother, heading instead for the sleeping dog under the coffee table, where he got loving face-licks for ten minutes. According to C, Artie is better at comforting than Mom, since "Artie doesn't press for details".

yurt raising

Memorial Day weekend turned into four days straight: working construction in Palisade, to get the deck down and yurt up. I forgot the camera, so the first picture skates blithely past a days' work of finishing and framing the first subfloor.

Here Keith and I are slicing and installing insulation below the second subfloor. The fibreglass made me cough, probably should have worn a mask. Keith's t-shirt says in Dutch 'horen, zien.. en suipen' which translates in Afrikaans (kitchen Dutch) to 'hear, see, and get happily drunk'. In Dutch the meaning is the same, but there is an extra layer since it's a corruption of "Horen, zien en zwijgen", the Confucian edict.

Rain stopped play quite often. This ensured the insulation got nicely saturated. The menfolk hoped this would translate to a stinky mould infestation, so the yurt would become a man cave, unsuitable for wifely habitation. Here, most of the second subfloor is down and wet, and the bender boards are getting bent around it. Eventually the skirt of the yurt (pause for Marilyn Monroe flashback) is screwed to the bender boards.

Two monkeys in a tree, with hangers-on. The lattice is expanded around the inside of the bender boards, and screwed to the floor. What this means, is the entire structure is dependent on the floor's structural integrity. Hm. The scaffolding holds up the center ring of the yurt, as will become clear.

Young Fernando (orange shirt) works with Keith, came along for a bit of mountain biking, plus helped out with yurting.
We drank all his beer - thought we'd be picking up the necessary from the Palisade Brewery, but never quite got off our duffs and the work site. Sorry Fernando..

While on the subject of youth, Farmer Thomas' daughters were around on the first day. Their track and cross-country spikes were in a box on the back porch, awaiting some event. I had a look at the shoes; a lot better than the Nike Elite waffle shoe which was state-of-the-art at the close of my x-c career. The younger daughter and her boyfriend were setting off for a summer of living in a van in Buena Vista, working as raft guides on the Arkansas river. It's one of my favorite whitewater rivers. I was talking to them about paddling, camping and all kinds of groovy things, but kept getting called 'Sir'. While I appreciate the courtesy, it makes me feel old enough to be their father .. wait a minute, I am.. Oy.

This morning I left Artie the Wonder Dog leashed to a tree, so he wouldn’t get into mischief in the 10 minutes between me leaving the campsite and H following. Some child unleashed him, a different child went into the hen run to play with the chickens and left the door open, carnage ensued. Ian reports Artie came out grinning broadly through a mouthful of feathers, 'mmm, tastes just like pheasant'. One of the girl childs screamed loudly enough that the neighboring farmers came out to have a look. Everyone thinks Artie is an evil dog now, but he's just a dog who likes birds, really. The rooster was still walking when we left, not sure of the longterm prognosis though.

Evan has the instructions. We have nothing to fear but Evan himself.

The central ring looks alarmingly toothy.

OK, so far so good. Now where does the rest of the rocket go ?

A steel cable runs around the top of the lattice, secured by a hook that says '2T limit'. The entire weight of the roof plus any forces generated by the winds depends on the frail lattice. Presumably some vector of the forces is actually outward, onto the cable, but it looks implausible. The background on the right is rows of incipient potatoes.

Practicing for when everything's finished, and we can relax on our shady deck. It may never happen, so we have to seize the day.

A layer of insulation goes over a liner. It comes in halves which have to be taped together. Brian invented a giant Q-tip to press the tape down, here he employs it under our admiring gaze.

Ommm.. here in the center of the mandala, perhaps we can get levitation..

Raising the roof. A couple of people on scaffold-stabilization; two on a rope on the left out of the picture; Thomas and Evan on top; and three of us boosting it from below. A good roar (me on the L) clears the pipes, and might even help with lifting it. I don't remember yelling though, makes me wonder what else happens during the day that I'm missing.

The roof unrolls on each side and is gradually unfurled. We had to wait for a lull in the winds to get it up, to avoid a Mary Poppins moment.

The walls then get unrolled around the lattice, and laced to the roof by a kind of crocheting of rope loops and grommets. No pictures of this, as the wind was picking up and it was all hands on deck. No further pictures either, as we were hoping to get home before the early AM and were focused on work. No such luck in the event - last screw driven at 6pm, a chukar running around the farmhouse as we packed up in the rain, home by 1am in torrential rains.

Finally. There's a spacy plastic dome on top, for light: it can also be opened a bit, to let the breezes through. Now all we have to do is put a floor over the particleboard, add railings so kids/dogs don’t fall off the high side, and make a bathroom arrangement. .. oh well. As Thomas said, soon we'll be coming up to clear out the under-yurt storage. Right now it's beautifully open, spacious and light in there.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

rainy day

Here in Seattle-by-the-Rockies, it's been raining for what feels like a month. The grass is lush and soggy. Taking Artie for a walk on the long leash, he runs circles around me dragging the rope through the wetness. The green belt is full of rabbits, which the owls and the coyotes appreciate. When the dog takes off, half-crazed with bunny lust, after one of these, the rope snaps taut: throwing off spray and an occasional rainbow.

Meantime the boys are on summer break, constructing cities and subterranean caverns of Lego on every flat surface in the house. When this palls, Ian painted the grey skies and trees outside the kitchen window. The yellow tree is a honey locust, its leaves a bright green on the yellow side of the spectrum.

Here's the picture with a background of sordid domestic detritus.

In closeup,