Monday, December 14, 2015

Quick Thoughts: What is Lance on? He's on the trails.


“What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”

Lance ran a 35k race this weekend at the Woodside Ramble, organized by Inside Trail Racing. Here are a few quick thoughts provoked by Lance’s run and the ensuing internet chatter (see here, here, and here). As you can see below I started thinking about doping and then started hunting bigger game: why is our sport so broken?  Full disclosure: I am on Inside Trail Racing’s 2016 team of racing ambassadors.  I received an informal invitation to run the race but declined.  

1) “It can’t happen here.” 
If I had been in the position of the Inside Trail organizers, I would not have let Lance run in my race. I understand their perspective: “He’s another entrant, there was no money on the line, etc.” So I am not terribly offended by ITR’s decision to let Lance run. But I am troubled by it. There is, currently, no way to stop doping from happening in trail running. For all you know, I myself have cheated to every single one of my victories at a trail races over the last 6 years (it is a lot). I have never been tested, I have never been questioned about doping since my days in the NCAA. This includes 6 top-ten placements at USATF trail championships, one as recent as this October. I am certain there are people in the world, probably folks enjoying the semi-celebrity of trail running success, who are currently cheating. Systematic testing, itself no real panacea to a larger cultural problem, appears currently unfeasible in trail races because of the cost. My worry is that if we create an atmosphere that is tolerant or lenient toward dopers, it will become easier to rationalize cheating. The absence of prize money as a justification seems nebulous to me.  I understand that ITR is not UTMB or Western, but we should try to create clear lines of acceptable behavior within an admittedly blurry ethical context. People will certainly cheat for more than just money; reference Christian Hesch. This being the case, I generally agree with Ian Sharman's thoughts on iRunFar, which I came across while I was proofing this.  In Lance's case, I could certainly be wrong in my thinking. I think this is an open debate. I certainly look forward to chatting with ITR race organizers over beer about this. What are your thoughts?
Christian Hesch, a cautionary tale

2) Lance highlights the real tension within trail running as a “sport.”
Competitive running is mostly moribund as a sport, having devolved into a mass-market pay-for-entry affair. In the world of running, a race entry can cost into the hundreds of dollars,  causing the subjective experience of a running event to be more important than the race itself. For ITR, one bad Yelp review is infinitely worse than the race for the win lacking any sort of drama. I understand (and accept) the fiscal incentives behind this: my money to run 6 minute pace in the hills is no better than the money of someone who runs 12 minute pace in the hills. So, why the hell shouldn't Lance be able to pay to do a supported run in the tony hills of Woodside?  However, we are trying to have our cake and eat it too: trail running is both a mass participation "festival" event and an actual sporting event. Both events usually (and weirdly) share the same starting line and lead to difficult questions that an organization like the PAUSATF would never even consider. If we think that it is ok to let in a man who cheated his way to victory seven times at the greatest endurance race on the planet because his money is the same as anyone else’s, well okay, I guess. But then the legitimacy of trail running as a sport is certainly up for continued debate.

3) The issues of competitive running’s devolution into pay-per-run festival is especially true in trail running.
Trail running came into its own in the last 6-7 years within an increasingly privatized race environment. There are few organic races in trail running (Dipsea, Western) and those are now nigh impossible to get into in any given year. (But, if you are in the East Bay check out the Triple Crown challenge next summer.)
3a) Additionally, there are few non-market incentives toward developing “trail running” talent. There is no natural feeder from the NCAA—though the iRunFar coverage and Nike sponsorship of the US MTN champs was a great step in the right direction. I think that the current trail running "competitive turn" has less to do with a pull towards the sport, as it is a push away from road marathoning with the raising of the Olympic marathon trials standards. Up until last week, the time requirements excluded all but the truly rarefied running talent.
3b) Worse still, there is little likelihood of doping anxieties being mitigated by a movement toward organizational governance, given American skepticism toward any governing body at the moment. There is surely a correlation between the skepticism toward organizing sport bodies like USATF and the cynicism toward government more generally in the wake of Washington’s takeover by militant Republican ideologues.  Additionally, generalized skepticism toward organizational reform—still the best solution to doping in endurance running—is likely exacerbated by trail running’s gravitational and institutional proximity to the plutocratic libertarianism of Silicon Valley.

4) The sport of running should be about people… people racing.
Eric Eagon suggests, “our sport is about relationships. It’s about people.” True, but me hanging out with some bros playing Halo over beer is not sport. I’m all for community, and work each week to encourage folks in the East Bay to attend local runs, but I would also love to turn on my TV every Sunday and watch a cross country race instead of the NFL. Community is a necessary part of sport, but it is not sport in and of itself. So we should work to build communities that also facilitate the creation of excellence.
The beautiful carnage of Dipsea

5) We need to rebuild the spectacle of running.
Running is dead. Can you name who finished 2nd at this year's Women’s NCAA Cross Championships? No? Me neither; I had to check Letsrun to refresh my memory and I watched the damn race live. Last Saturday I stood with hundreds of people watching Club Cross Country Nationals in Golden Gate Park. It was awesome. But nearly all of us had friends in the race, and I would guess the number of disinterested spectators to be in the dozens, if not fewer. Moving forward we need to rebuild the sport back into something that draws non-runner eyeballs. But how to do so?
5a) Some idealistic off-the-cuff ideas: i. We need to work with sponsors and race groups like ITR and Brazen Racing in their efforts to develop organic races. ii. There should be at least one or two USATF MUT running championship near major urban centers like San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, or LA. (I'm selfishly interested in an “up year” mountain championship on Mt. Diablo, which has featured Tour of California summit finishes.) iii. There should be team scoring at major marathons and ultra-marathons. iv. Big races should feature in-race premiums to create more drama in the race for the casual viewer.  v. We should stop using drones to kill people in Syria, and start using them to film trail races. vi. Why the hell is there not an Ekiden in the US? vii. More races should try to emulate the local idiosyncrasies of the Dipsea, using local terrain and roads to create non-traditional race courses. viii. People love beer; Lewis Kent was on Ellen. Beer meshes (sort of) well with running, so why fight it? ix. In general we need to create agglomerations out of niche markets (trail, road, ultra, track). Bring more eyeballs and you bring more money. Bring more money and you start to have revenue streams outside of race entries.   

6) Finally, we need to support the professional journalists who keep the sport honest.
History has shown that organizing sport governments, sponsors, and athletes will bend and break the rules unless free and disinterested journalists are willing to investigate and hold feet to the fire. The BBC/Propublica expose on the Salazar group and the steady journalistic pressure that led to the IAAF ban on Russia are topical examples. As journalists’ income continues to switch toward a contract labor model (goodbye, Running Times; hello, Medium), we can at least signal our continual interest in the sport by supporting local running journalists. Need a place to start? Sign up for Mario Fraioli’s Morning Shakeout for good (and quick) takes on the world of running.

7) Lance provides an opportunity for a conversation. 
 How do we police cheating? Is it a cultural problem? An organizational issue? Funding issue? Do we even care? We should stay civil, even in disagreement, even on the Internet. If Lance would like to run the MUT stuff, I would love to ask him (or hear him be asked) hard questions about doping at a forum at SFRC or Sports Basement or Transports or on UltraRunnerPodcast.

Anyway. Just some quick thoughts. Lance reveals big problems that require sustained and laborious effort… but I also need to finish my dissertation.  Cheers and see you on the trails.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Hitler Loses His CRs on Strava

I am about five years late in making a Downfall (Der Untergang) parody video. Hah, I definitely missed the moment for this meme, but I was inspired to make one during a lunch break this week. I had a lot of fun subtitling this and hope you enjoy, especially if you like Strava and running in the California Bay Area, as I do. The real movie is fantastic and worth watching.

My apologies for a couple typos in the subtitles. Mea culpa.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Does running hurt your knees?

When people ask me whether running will hurt my knees, I usually think:  














No.   I don't think that running will hurt my knees.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Strava and the Death of Solitude

Social media is endemic to our society. The endless need to cultivate an image has become embedded in our everyday routines as we exist in constant interaction, a network of connectivity that enmeshes our lives. With the rise of the 'Internet of Things' this network is penetrating ever deeper expanding ever wider into our activities. This includes running. The rise of GPS devices was a game changer for outdoor activities. Given the metricized nature of running, a sport that exists through the quantification of time, distance, and space, the allure of GPS was inevitable.

Strava has been the most successful attempt at integrating social networking with GPS data. There were early attempts. Nike had/has its Plus system. The Apple app store is filled with competitors. Every device manufacturer has its own in-house network. But, Strava's system is pretty exemplary. You can upload your activities, look at other people’s training runs, give and receive encouragement, and most importantly, compare your efforts to those of others.

Originally popular with cyclists, those wheeled custodians of disposable income, it has become increasingly popular with runners, particularly on the west coast. The website and mobile app have the sleek gloss of venture capital. The site is well managed with very few bugs.   The site is visually appealing and populated with professional athletes. Their marketing department is talented: users who raced the 2013 Boston Marathon were sent a neat care package before the race. As social networks become more ubiquitous and ever larger, Strava is part of the growing 'niche' networks, sites designed for specific communities of shared interests.

A few years back, William Deresiewicz, essayist and former professor of English at Yale, argued in the Chronicle for Higher Education that the culture of connectivity was ending solitude. Technology is eroding our privacy and concentration, but it is also removing our ability to be alone. Through texts, tweets,  updates, photos, kudos, yaks, pins, yelps, vines, and check-ins, we are enmeshed in social life. The bustle for digital society crowds out the subjective silence. The space in which we read, meditate, and think about ourselves is shrinking.    

This has changed us. As Deresiewicz points out, the contemporary self now aims toward a peculiar blend of connectivity and celebrity: ‘It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves – by being seen by others.’ So we are not just distracted. This digital creep is existential. For example, though I still over-share, I now try to maintain a more curated approach to what I say on the internet. But this curating worries me. As I’ve begun to think about what it is appropriate for me to say, post, or visualize on the Internet, I’ve begun to view the ‘real’ world through a reversed lens. Rather than judging social media by physical interaction, I’m starting to think about the physical world through categories of meaning crafted by digital spaces.

What we are losing, Deresiewiscz argues, is a sense of solitude. In an earlier world, people thought that you could not hear God when others were chattering at you. The banal twitter of everyday life obscured the voices that might be otherwise heard. So, monks and mystics retreated from the world into their cells. Secular society also valued solitude. Nineteenth-century Romantic philosophers and artists moved to cabins and slums to put some creative distance between themselves and society.

The American running boom of the 1970s and 1980s had this Romantic desire for solitude in its very DNA. While football and basketball stars were becoming millionaires, Prefontaine lived in a trailer in Oregon. Frank Shorter would log hundred-mile weeks in a definitively less-gentrified Boulder, Colorado. Amby Burfoot didn't even eat meat when he was logging 120-140 mile weeks in New England. Indeed, the fictional ideal of the distance runner, Quentin Cassidy, famously retreats to a rustic cabin in the Florida Panhandle. There he lives as a hermit and runs mythical workouts. 

Would Pre be on Twitter?

The modern sport thus evolved as a solitary affair. There are few people who want to wake before 7am to log miles in the rain. Even fewer who are willing to pound out intervals or hill repeats before or after work. Alan Sillitoe famously called this ‘the loneliness of the long distance runner.’ In his short story about emotional escape from the social blight of midlands England, Sillitoe encapsulated running as a transgressive activity. He was right. There is an anti-social element of running. We skip happy hours, social dinners, and work related-schmoozing for the run. During a race there is a lactic void that nothing can fill. Of course running can and should be social and fun, but it is one of the few sports that rewards solitary training.

Until recently, running never aspired to celebrity. Its drama pales in comparison to soccer, football, and basketball. Generally the best guy wins and an informed crowd usually knows the handful of competitors with a shot of victory. This can be entertaining, but usually lacks the exciting contingency of other sports. In short, there are no miracles in running. So the sport draws an odd crowd of athletic outsiders: those who are either willing to work very hard for little compensation or those seeking some deeper aspect of the self.

 After Colorado's upset victory at XC nationals in 2013, head coach Mark Wetmore stayed out off the podium and out of the limelight. Watching from the parking lot, he was "standing by himself with a bemused expression." Wetmore is a dying breed.

Yet Strava, with other social media, has killed this loneliness. When you are running with Strava, you are running with digital rivals, anyone who has trod the ground before you. These runs, immortalized as GPX maps, haunt trails and roads like ghosts striding between that nebulous divide of physical and digital reality.

Strava naturally and blatantly incentives competition. Much has been written about the problems of chasing after CRs and KOMs. Indeed, it is very difficult to fight off the urge to accelerate and gain the coveted crown for “Uphill Vomit Run” or “Grab Your Balls and Go” or “Counter-clockwise 0.21 mile loop around parking garage.” But critiquing Strava for its digital competitions is unfair. If folks want to chase Strava CRs, good on them. They certainly should. However such incentives are part of a deeper problem in which Strava influences running more generally. With Strava we can no longer run by ourselves. Solitude is impossible.

Prove it.

Let me elaborate. I live in a hilly part of Oakland. The slopes are steep, the trails are windy, and the footing is uneven. I usually average a minute slower on a run from home than when I run in the flattish areas closer to the San Francisco Bay. This should not bother me, yet it does immensely. Sometimes I dread looking through my Strava feed: Woah, Alex just ran 6:12 pace for an easy twelve miles. My average was 8:23. Yikes, Tim and David just demolished some hilly tempo efforts at 5:20 pace. I limped up the firetrail at 7:35 pace. When I run now, I run with digital partners, an immanent comparison of effort and fitness, that follows me for every step of my run. 

It gets worse. Even when I run alone, I am running for an audience. With Strava I not only have to ‘prove it,’ I have to think about how this run will be perceived. What was I thinking about when I was running? Will that make a fun title for this run? Will folks chuckle or grimace if I entitle my interval workout something snarky? If I upload this race will I get more followers? Do I really want more followers? I worry about pace, distance, vertical gain, and that damnable four-week mileage comparison between users. 

With Strava, we run for others. “Wow, what a sunset.” Post it on Instagram. “Goodness, my legs feel great this morning.” Tackle that hill and gain a crown. “Christ, what a tough week of mileage.” Take solace from your weariness with an improved MTS standing. There is constant affirmation. Kudos make you smile as they chirp in on your phone. Encouraging comments push you on through the midweek slump.

These last bits are what makes Strava awesome. The greatest benefit of social media is that it creates digital spaces for distant peoples of similar interests and values. When someone from across the country leaves a comment on my activities, it is literally energizing. Strava enables people to meet and learn from other runners across the world. This is incredible, valuable, and fun.

But we are losing a propensity for introspection, that deep mournful wonder about our selves in this world. Solitude gives one perspective with which to approach a changing world. As Deresiewiscz writes, solitude was a social mechanism of self-correction, ‘a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom.’ For me, running provides a distance with which I can better see the world around me in all its messy irregularity. It is only when I go run in the hills and the forests that the problems of the city present themselves. This distance is being collapsed into the same digital immanence that is consuming the rest of our lives.

I might conclude with some sort exhortation for folks to ‘unplug.’ I might suggest you leave your GPS watch at home to try to rekindle some sense of the loneliness of the long distance runner. But, that strikes me as naïve and a bit tawdry. Asking people to avoid useful social tools is an attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Life will become increasing digitized. More devices will clamor for our attention. Western life will continue to devolve into a buzzing, chiming, and blinking cacophony. But if you’ve read this far, and not swiped away with your smartphone, I might suggest we at least be aware of solitude’s decline. 

Our children may never have the desire to be alone. So perhaps we should endeavor to cultivate that sentiment while it still exists. Solitude isn’t easy, and it isn’t for everyone. But neither is running.

Photo credit Joe Viger.