Tuesday, December 24, 2019


Having had a blog for 15 years, I now have a lot of data about what topics people incidentally land on. To be clear, I don't have many views for individual new posts (most posts will have no more than 10 views) but over my whole body of work I have 287 views per month. There is probably always a level of passive "stumbling" on my ramblings, either through coincidental matches of words in search terms or topics that I have touched on that have been, at a time, well searched. 4 of my over 750 posts have 400 or more views. What are these posts? And is it the actual topic, an eye-catching title or an inadvertently popular search term?

Without wanting to make the popular more popular, the number one post on my blog, ever, is a 2007 post called "Re-addiction". The title itself might have caused it to be found. I can only imagine that many of the over two thousand views were people who went to this post seeking help for a crushing compulsion for crack cocaine, and instead found the comments of a nerdy guy gushing about cracking cryptic crossword clues. It could have been that, but also plausibly because I included the name of a particular compiler, the late, great Kropotkin who did have a weekly crossword in the Herald. At various times it was hard to find online guidance about his clues. I know because I searched for a time at a time. His clues were particular enigmatic to the average cryptic fan and a very possible search term.

With only a third of Re-addiction's view count was 2011's “没有天然的对错,只有必然的因果”  which came in second place. With blogspot inaccessible in China, it's unlikely that the title itself was a reason for it (which was a line for motto of a Cantonese radio host, meaning "There is no inherent right and wrong, only the inevitable cause and effect."). What was the hook? I have written many posts about languages (specifically Cantonese) and language learning. I still don't know what made people stumble on this one. That being said, it was a special post for me. I had stumbled on something that made a breakthrough in my language learning.

Bizarrely, with over 600 views and in third place is an cheeky one liner, "A gentleman will walk but never run.".  It was just one line. Literally, the post was a title: "Saintly Notable Quotable" and that one liner which I said to a friend during a long walk after he dashed across the road. It is initially unfathomable what was found by Google in this post that helped so many people find it. I think that the only thing that would compel incidental people to find it is literally people trying to find the name of the song by searching a line from the lyrics of Englishman in New York by Sting, which is where the line "a gentleman will walk but never run" comes from.

The last one with over 400 views, Forum Rules, from 2009 is another unusual top ranking post. It was one that I wrote prior to going to China. I was trying to expose myself to more Chinese websites at the time and was looking at comments about the US Open where many of the respondents were writing clearly racists comments about Serena Williams. I found and translated the forum rules for the page, which were in line with most of the rules for Chinese sites. It is well known that a political post would be taken down because it endangers "social stability" but these clearly egregious comments remained without any response from the moderators. Were the majority of the accidental readers searching for "forum rules" or perhaps "Serena Williams" (the latter of which there'd be many websites and articles). I don't know.

The next four posts had 125 views, 56 views, 55 views and 52 views respectively, one of which was the one I wish were number one, Never trust a eunuch, which I wrote while I started reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Chinese classic.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Bee with butterfly wings

In my bush-marauding youth, I cannot recall bee stings. Wasp stings, yes. Bee stings, no. I guess I was never the bare-footer that others were, but still I had plenty of spring and summer days in the thick of things where I'm certain the laws of probability should have made me a better target for the bane of bees. Fast forward to a few years back when I skipped onto the drive at my mother's place and felt an unusual discomfort on my toe. I casually swatted down on my foot thinking a prickle or some such must have been lodged, only to recognise a bee tangled in my sock. The stinger was on the outside of the sock but had gotten through to my skin. It wasn't terrible but certainly memorable. Fortunately removing the sock removed the stinger and in the end it was very mild.

Bringing the lens to recent times, two weeks ago in fact, my wife on another memorable day got stung for the first time in her life on a little suburban stroll when we stopped to take photos at a cricket oval. And now barely two weeks later, while at the Parnell Rose Gardens, a bee decided to check the underside of my watch and got lodged there. I felt the sting but saw the little creature before any instinctive flicking. I had to remove my watch first to remove the bee, which was rather hard to do without squashing it more. Once released, the bee feebly flew off to its certain death. With the watch off I asked my wife to try and remove the stinger. The difficulty level of this task was quite a lot higher due to the forest of hair on my arm, but after some clearing the sting was removed.

I was fascinated my the sensation. It wasn't that bad overall, but had occasional pulses of intensity. Then it more or less dissipated by the time I got to a chemist. Several hours later though the swelling moved from the site of the sting to the joint. Now any movement of my hand causes discomfort. 

I hope it goes by tomorrow because we're off to the Waitakeres!  

Friday, December 20, 2019

The demands of others

An extra special day. Three days from the end of the year. Each day packed with meetings and when not an intense series of performance appraisals, student meetings and activities. The morning of my appraisal with my line manager. The receptionist walks in:
"The big boss is sending me e-mails. He wants me to buy gift cards."
I hand her my credit card and head to my appraisal. It went well. It capped off another intense but successful year. I walk out and pick up my things to head off to another campus for a meeting but before I left my receptionist said:
"The big boss asked for $1000 worth of cards but your card would be over the limit." It being for the big boss, I diverted her to my line manager to use her credit card, and went out the door.

The meeting was another kick-in-the-butt to remind me that in my flustered lurch from one meeting to another I hadn't followed through on my action points, and I returned to my home campus with a sense of urgency to direct things to make sure things were happening. What I found was a surprise.
My receptionist was agitated: "The big boss asked for more gift cards! We don't have any petty cash now." This disturbed me - why was the big boss using the receptionist at my campus to buy cards and not his usual helpers. She told me that she'd sent our Student Support officer to buy more, but against her direction he hadn't taken the petty cash at all, but had decided on his own to buy with his own credit card because petty cash is pretty vital. I called him immediately and stopped him on the point of buying them and called our finance director.
"It's a scam. Ignore it," he said immediately. I hopped around the receptionist desk and looked at the e-mails to read the e-mail aloud while on the call.
"Hi Naomi, I'd really like to give some staffs a surprise..."
"That sounds like the big boss," he said. 
But unfortunately it was the first time I'd seen the e-mail and I knew straight away that the finance director's first instinct was correct. The e-mail address was obviously a fake. And then the next horrifying thing I read, not aloud because it hammered the point home:
"I want to give it t them now. Could you scratch the code off and take a photo and send it to me?"
Then I saw the stack of cards on the desk. All scratched. All obediently sent to the "Big Boss". Our company had been defrauded by a scam to the tune of $1000. 

It was unbelievable that the receptionist fell for it. Not only that, the Student Support officer that sits next to her almost used his own money, which would not have been recoverable, also falling for it. Ultimately, my and my line manager's naivety and lack of checking also added to it. It was her card and she decided to pay it back from her own money. 

It certainly changed the flavour of the week.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Glass with butterfly wings

It would be curious to know to what measure the legends of the past, the superstitions, the miracles and magic were explainable by the curious power of randomness to conjure up the unlikely. When you think that the proverbial butterfly wings can churn up a hurricane, it might not cause much strain to believe that inadvertent acts can cause rather improbable outcomes that in turn from their sheer unlikeliness lead some to ponder whether there were mysterious forces at work. 

And thus was my weekend's intrigue. My wife and I were home and keen to take advantage of the apparent sunshine and blue skies by going on a loop walk to the village and back. I had my normal glasses but it was so sunny outside that I thought I'd head to the car to swap into my sunglasses. I opened the door, went in, put my normal glasses in the divider between the car seats where I kept my sunnies, shut and locked the car and left.

It was a pleasant day but it quickly turned eventful as Christy, after posing for a picture beside a lush cricket oval, received her first ever bee-sting. Fortunately there was a well stocked first-aid kit in the shed next to the oval; there were tweezers; they had a cream for the sting; and we left the area quickly for lunch. We went to a cute Italian restaurant I'd been meaning to go to and then we went home for a brief rest before we got in the car for some more distant errands. 

When we got in the car nothing seemed awry. We drove first to a shop to buy Metamucil. I went into the back seat to grab a shopping bag, because not many places have carry bags any more. I also grabbed an umbrella from the backseat because the weather had clouded over and it was starting to spit. Fortunately the rain was never heavy and I didn't use the umbrella in the end. We got to the shop. I put our purchases into the shopping bag, threw both the umbrella and the purchases into the back of the car and then it was off to the Chinese supermarket. The weather was fine, yet again, and we vege-shopped, picked up the dry-cleaning and then drove home. And it was when we got home that something weird was noticed. I went to switch my sunnies back to my normal glasses, but there were no glasses in the divider.

At first I didn't tell my wife. To be upfront, for all my apparently normal intelligence and cognitive functions, I can be very absent-minded. No person wants to hear the groans from others for yet another misplaced wallet, phone or set of keys. I wanted to check if I'd somehow managed to take them up to the flat but a casual check of the house, my pockets, the shopping bag with the Metamucil and then a not so casual look in the car through the divider, side pockets, glove compartment, boot, backseats and ground around the car failed to come up anything besides a lot of general rubbish. The car was pretty clean inside by the end! 

I went up to the flat and admitted to my wife that something had disappeared. She didn't groan. We generally pieced together the same sequence of events that led to the present time. We both knew the glasses had to be in the car. My wife ransacked the car for good measure with no outcome. At no point during the earlier drive had I changed to my normal glasses but perhaps, we thought, I somehow pocketed them and then dropped them? Had I even put them in the car in the first place? we pondered. Perhaps I had got the sunglasses out but pocketed the normal ones on the walk before the drive, only to remove them from my pocket and place them on the restaurant table, from where I left them. None of the actual physically possible scenarios were plausible. (A walk by of the restaurant confirmed that implausibility was not to be the case.) But there must have been some sequence of events that lead to the situation. My glasses had completely vanished from a locked place where they should have been. 

I slept that night without knowing where they were. We got up the next day planning to have our normal Sunday but also with a brief scout of the Metamucil shop and the Chinese supermarket. First I took my wife to the gym while I had coffee. While there, another grand fine day crumbled into messy rain. After her workout, we got back to the car but as we drove to Dominion Rd for lunch, the heavens were clearly breached and a Singaporean monsoon came down on Epsom. By the time we parked, the rain had stopped but I still decided to grab the umbrella just in  case and we went to a new noodle house ("A Noodle Less Ordinary"). There I leaned the umbrella against the wall and we had our noodles and left.

It was on the way to the car that, holding the umbrella horizontally, I felt through the synthetic material that there was something unusual inside the unopened umbrella.

I knew what it was immediately. 

It was ridiculous. 

How my glasses came to be in there was beyond me. We'd never opened the umbrella at any stage over the two days and it was never near the divider between the front seats. The umbrella had just lain on the back seat and was always been put back on the back seat when returned. If the glasses had been in the umbrella from the get-go, we'd taken the umbrella out twice and there were plenty of opportunities for it to fall out both on Saturday and Sunday, yet it appeared in the umbrella just then, safe and sound.

It was just like a magician pulling a rabbit from behind your ear, where it had been all along.

It was reminiscent of a time in our first year back. We went to the Butterfly Valley near Thames. It was a nice little excursion. Butterflies galore, as you'd imagine. We wanted to get a fridge magnet butterfly for Mum, so Christy chose and bought one and put it in her handbag. I saw her. Even the shop assistant saw her. We went straight to the car where Christy proceeded to open her bag to play with it but could not find it there at all. Mystified, we retraced our footsteps, even asked the shop assistant whether she recalled where we put the butterfly. (She recalled it had gone straight in the handbag.) We checked the floor. The path. And we both ransacked the car. 

But that butter had flown. 

It is a story we often tell. We never found a trace of the butterfly since then. If only I knew then what I know now and checked the umbrella.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Under watching eyes

I'm rather starting to miss running. I've been out of action now for a month and psychologically it's rather tough. I feel quite different: I don't have the energy I did. Probably because I'm still eating like a marathoner, I seem to be putting on weight. And I'm rather groggy in the morning. How was I getting up at 4:15am before? I pulled out of my final event of the year selling my entry. 

But there is an opportunity cost to running. During this rather hectic streak of running since the start of last year, I've barely read. My only break from running was my surgery but that was during a time I was hosting guests so I didn't read much. But after my marathon I began what has been a hot streak of reading!

It started with Wandering Earth which is a short story collection from Liu Cixin, the same author as The Three Body Problem trilogy. Some of the short stories have characters from the trilogy but perhaps in a parallel universe as the plots won't fit together. But they were clearly from the same universe. And it was clearly so attractive that we ordered the book in, not waiting for our trip to China. The title story became a movie which earned $700 million in China. Although Wandering Earth was not my favourite story from the collection, it was very memorable: Irregularities are detected in the Sun to show that it is near an event within that would trigger a massive expansion that would engulf the Earth. The first instinct is to get into spaceships and run but the nearest planets are all gassy and toxic. Solution: Put some massive boosters on the Earth, put on the brakes and fly it out of the Solar System and park it in the orbit of another star at the distance of your choosing. Just as he did in the trilogy he's thought about how it would actually happen with the physics of doing such a change. Getting out of orbit with the sun takes a lot of time and effort bringing the Earth first into an elliptical orbit that flies close to the Sun a few times before getting enough speed to exit. Overall, a fascinating adventure. 

It was probably wrong of me to start with Wandering Earth because two years ago in China I bought a pile of books, only one of which I'd read... And I'm just over a month from going back to China and possibly buying more books! But I got straight onto the job with another short story collection, Mr No Problem by Lao She. I'd read some of the authors of the Republic of China period (after the fall of the Qing Dynasty) during my university years, all translated. Lao She was one I'd never read but he was one of the big ones. He grew up in Beijing but lectured in London and Singapore before returning to China. Most of his writing was before the Chinese Revolution, and thus it was all rather free and sometimes frivolous. He wrote satire, social commentary, whimsy and tragedy. As the were short stories each story launched you from one state of mind to the next. I read half the stories before strategically leaving the rest for my flights and travel. The last story I read, The Crescent Moon was tough to read as it focussed one what could happen to widowed women in the China of that time. 

I interrupted that collection also to read books that I wouldn't be able to read in China. I have a forbidden biography of Mao Zedong (Mao: The Unknown Story) and another book that probably wouldn't be banned but could be problematic: Nothing to envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Even though it's an English language book, I received it from a colleague in its Chinese translation. It's a compelling read of the stories that the North Korean defectors have told and retold by author Barbara Demick. I'm quite happy with my pace of reading in that I've read over 100 pages in a week, which means I'll easily finish it and probably be able to at least start the other before I board a plane. 

It's nice to know that when I can't do one hobby I can even more out of my other hobbies. In the meantime, I hope that all this rest will do something to help my healing.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Going native

I had a half-baked blog a few weeks ago that for whatever reason wouldn't save nor publish. Then when I came back, the window was open, which I closed, and thus lost half of what I wrote. Such is life. Reading the saved portion now, part of what I had written was again relevant to something in the immediate world. So instead of hiffing it into the trash can or trying to resurrect my past content, or recreate it with my present mind, I thought I'd quote myself and relate it to something new. So without further delay, here is October:

"If there were a collection of terms which represent most of the heat, vigour and violence of the world, they could be national identity, immigration, race, statehood and identity politics. Not surprisingly they are all aspects of the same elephant, in varying states of distress, in the room of almost every developed country.

They're also the hardest to talk about because there are so many beliefs linked to them. You can ask simple questions like "What is New Zealand?" "What is a New Zealander?" and the kiwi feathers could fly in between people across generations and even within generations. Ask my father those questions and he'd probably, with conviction, view New Zealand as a country that belongs more to the white people than the Maori people, and that European values are superior to those of not just the Maori, but any immigrant. It's a bunch of sentiment that really doesn't bear much scrutiny but he is not alone. I feel there are several forces at play: rejection of the native; denial of one's own historical immigration; ignorance of the vicissitudes, circumstance and flux of history; and a status-quo-ism in the intolerance of the immigration of others.

Rejection of the native is an interesting phenomenon but bears some analysis of terms. Native in New Zealand is generally regarded as the pre-European state, but that in itself is not such a long history and pretty easy to follow. Discounting immediately hypothetical visits or chance arrivals of other civilisations, Polynesian voyagers came across New Zealand perhaps as much as 1000 years ago, the main migration of people and settlement probably happened in the 1300s. It was over three centuries later that Abel Tasman cruised fatefully into Murderers Bay and left without setting foot. And then over another 100 years for Cook to cruise into Poverty Bay. Then there was the Treaty. Though there were battles between Kingitanga tribes and Treaty-breach related land wars, there was no invasion or occupation by another state. There were two melding cultures under a broken and de facto voided contract. What was native was Treaty-guaranteed so there can't be much rejection, unless you're advocating that nothing means anything and might makes right. Maori were here first and even in this modern era, being first matters and they're still here."

In my draft I went into the other terms but native is the push-button word here. So the main sacred maunga of Auckland have one-by-one come under the control of a Maori authority. They have deemed that Mt Albert (the hill, Owairaka) should have its exotic trees removed and native trees planted. And that was enough to set the Pakeha of the central suburbs to the hills to protect trees their heritage, both globally and from their and their family's memories on these hills, perhaps taking the symbolism of the natives expelling the foreigners to heart. One of my staff members has been pulled into it as her community group has gotten involved in the protest against the felling. The trees in a way have become proxies for a cultural clash.

I'm very dispassionate about the issue in that I think the Maori authority should have the right to do it and they're regenerating vegetation and I have no issue with it. The Maori authority was also behind the banning of most vehicles from Mt Eden (Maungawhau) and One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie). All in all a good thing.

The Cheat

I remember when I saw Larry (not his real name) for the first time. He was in the third row of my first encounter with the New Zealand-bound students I was meeting for the first time on my business trip to China earlier this year. He said a few routine greetings well and for a short moment I thought he might be fluent. Probably one question later I realised he didn't understand much. Larry was memorable though and I remembered his name well enough to be able to call his name to elicit answers. 

This first meeting with the students was a surprise for my boss. She was shocked how low level the students were and Larry in particular was one sitting in the middle of the room not understanding questions asked of him. After another session, Larry approached me and asked whether he should go to New Zealand to take this course. I didn't lie: I told him it'd be very difficult and he would have to work very hard. Or perhaps I did lie. I didn't think he would be able to be strong enough to do it. He'd fail. 

The next thing I was greeting him and others as they emerged from the lift at our school in Auckland, a little jetlagged. They started their course the following week but Larry and another student found it tough-going and asked to re-start their course in a subsequent cohort, which we approved. He attracted the attention of his teacher: "He doesn't understand anything." "He's a child." His teacher might have been on the judgemental side. He did seem sincere though and was working hard to improve himself. He didn't shy away from trying to communicate. He generally presented as an earnest but naïve learner.

Then there was the bizarre first incident. He was sending a girl in his class odd messages. He was probably besotted by her and when she ignored him he started saying increasingly intimidating language. She complained to her teacher who relayed it to me. Confronting him he squirmed a little and tried to downplay what happened, but also said he wouldn't speak to her any more. And thankfully he did.

Then there was the video of the cheating. Now, we had a spate of cheating from the same class and though student ethics was clearly an issue, I would still point the finger at the teacher who didn't implement test conditions in being the key factor in them happening to such a degree. The teacher left the room with the students still holding pens and exam scripts. Larry asked his much stronger friend Roy to show him his assessment answers which he photographed (because the teacher had not taken their phones off them). Other students videoed them cheating (because the teacher not taken their phones off them). And then the video came to me. 

The meeting following that was almost enjoyable. I've watched too many courtroom dramas to know that you leave the big "reveal" to the end. I started off with the simple questions of what happened in the end and whether he changed his answers. He switched into a vitriolic mode asking who was saying bad things about him. I showed him the particular answer for him and Roy that were the same and he deflected that it was what the speaker during the listening test said. (Not true, by the way.) So I confirmed with him that this was his answer and that he hadn't copied. That was when I showed him the video of him clearly working on that question with that photo on his phone. Yet he persisted, insisting he was just making his answer clearer and hadn't changed his meaning. I told him that it was definite cheating and his continued resistance showed he does not understand the rules and would be likely to cheat again. I told him his whole test would be void and that he and Roy would be subject to a strict study agreement that says that they would have their names recorded as cheats and any further instance would result in expulsion. He had the temerity to ask whether it was only the question he cheated on, or whether it was the whole test. To write the study agreement I had to record the student response and I told him that he must be honest in these things and told him that New Zealand is a trust-based society and that dishonesty was hard to repair. He was one of four students in a class of twenty who had done improper things during this particular test. I handled them all with meetings and study agreements. 

Then on the last day of the course after another test, one of his classmates brought me a torn up pile of paper, found in a bin, that was clearly notes that he must have had brought into the test. His handwriting was unmistakeable. Because it wasn't provable that he used them, nor did the writing on the notes match the content of his essay, I didn't approach him about it but kept them for another moment.

And then he had to do it again, didn't he. He was doing one of the final listening tests, where all students listen to an audio twice and answer set questions. After the first listening he told the invigilator that he had to go to the restroom as he was feeling unwell. She was suspicious, so much so that she spotted that he tried to take his phone (which was put on a table at the start of the test). She stopped him and he went out. They waited and waited and it took him 20 minutes to emerge from the rest-room. During this time, the test monitor was so concerned that she messaged me and also stood by the door watching the restrooms for any sign of movement. When the toilet door opened out came Larry with a phone in his hand. Spotted, he quickly detoured into another classroom and came out with no phone.

When I arrived on the scene, he was back in the test room, and I yanked him out. "I want to explain," "You can explain in my office," we parleyed down the hallway. In my office, he said the test monitor was mistaken about seeing a phone, that he'd had hotpot the previous night and had diarrhoea. I told him once more that dishonesty was the worst thing you can do in these situations, but he insisted he had been wronged. At that stage I told him that because of the previous instance and the suspicion in this case that this test would be voided and that we had to investigate. I brought him up to the Chinese counsellor and asked him to tell her what has happened honestly. I told them that I'd leave them to talk but that we'd have a meeting the following day. I quickly went to the classroom he dropped the phone in and asked the teacher who related how he got the phone and indicated the student he'd got the phone from. I spoke to the student who let me check the YouTube history to show his phone had been used by Larry to listen to the exact audio that was being used. 

Larry is a terrible cheat. Terrible in both senses of the word. Clearly with a bit more subtlety he would have gotten away with it. He also clearly hasn't learned that other people don't like cheats and generally tell on them; either that or he doubts my powers of investigation because in the meeting the following day he again decided to not tell the whole truth again. But when he "revealed" my first piece of evidence that he was lying, I reminded him again that honesty was his only way to improve this situation. He then admitted to it all of it. Fortunately, he also filled in another way that he has been preparing that, though not cheating, was a very grey area. 

Besides being a huge disappointment, these incidents have been a black hole of precious time. The student is from a key collaborative partner, which cases like this really strain. There is a penalty. It is not expulsion but enough to have huge implications for him. The way I rationalise it is that we did accept an obviously weak student into the programme, who was pressured to achieve. That's no excuse for cheating, but justification enough to soften the penalty from the extreme to what we are giving him.

Monday, October 21, 2019

A killer joke

In March this year I blogged about a song that I'd heard just in passing and was sucked into what was a pretty astonishing work of art. I don't know how many times I listened to it but I wanted to wallow around in it and eventually I tried to put whatever I got out of it into words.

In October, it pretty much happened again but this time in movies. To be honest, in terms of movies in a cinema, 2019 has been pretty bare. I've seen some very good movies on planes and on Netflix but I have missed my chances to watch any flicks "at the pictures" (recalling the quaint way we used to say it when we were young). But within a month, I'd seen two pretty decent movies. Ad Astra was effectively my birthday movie. Although it probably had no connection of inspiration, having read Three Body Problem made it even more meaningful to me.

But the movie to make enough of an impression to satisfy a year without movies was Joker. I gladly walked in with very few expectations. I had read barely a jot about it. For all I cared it was just another comic book movie. I went with a friend who cared a lot more about comic book movies and he seemed pretty keen on watching it with me. Did he know that I would have more appreciation than others? I didn't ask.

I won't write too much about it other than it is a violently provoking movie and I recommend if you have darker taste for movies, you can't go past it. It's the 12 Monkeys. The Black Swan. The Mulholland Drive. The movie that is an inhabitable nightmare where you can make sense of things if you stand on your head. In this YouTubular world we live in there is far too much access to commentary, when in the past you'd have to search for cinematic soulmates or coerce others to watch to get some sort of prompted reaction. But the youtube world is always well populated. My yen is nearing satisfaction.

The only spoiler I would give is ironically the only joke said by the main character, who would become Joker, on stage in the movie: "When I was young, I told everyone I was going to be a comedian. And they all laughed at me. But no-one's laughing now!"

In other news, I ran a marathon yesterday. New PB of 3.22:54. First one after 40. Sore feet.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The drama

8 September - I finish my fifth marathon.
22 September - After two weeks of light running, I push myself for the first time smashing my personal record (PR) on my regular half marathon route, TwinPeaks, by 2 minutes.
23-29 September - I break 100km for the week, including a 32 km run, which I really had to push myself on. The week contains some good runs, including a smashing hill 15km run.
30 September - I choose not to run in the morning considering a rest day, but upon getting home from work, and realising my wife had already eaten dinner, I elect to go for an evening run rather than a rest. Wanting to get some hills in at the start of the week, I head straight to Mt Eden. Going up, I feel some discomfort in my front left shin. It's an occasional thing that I've had before so I continue and summit but as I go down it becomes pain and I stop after just 3km. I walk down and the sensation is not pleasant. I limp home.
1 October - My 40th birthday! I have a rest from running and have a pretty awesome day albeit a working day. Physically though, I can still feel it.
2 October - I don't feel anything too wrong with my shin and when asked, I say I'll run in the evening. I briefly jog across the road on my way to my car and realise I won't be running in the evening.
3 October - I wake early and do my warm up. There is some sensation in my shin but not enough to deter me. I run 10km. 9km the sensations are evident but never pain. In the last 1km, it feels a little less comfortable but I complete the run. But when walking, I know my shin doesn't like me. When walking up the stairs, I have a bolt of pain. It's really peeved. But I think it's on the up because I did do 10km after all.
4 October - I wake up early. I can't feel it in warm up so I run. Not even 1km in I feel it and once I stop I know it's done. I curse my lack of patience. I really start to believe I won't be well by 20 October for the Auckland Marathon.
5 October - It's a weekend two weeks from the event. In my heart, I want to have some miles on the weekend. It's when I have the freedom to pace myself, go long at will. I have a party that day but I really just want to run. I do a comprehensive warm-up. I feel stupid because I know there is huge risk. I could just wait till tomorrow but I can't. I run 1km up the side of Mt Eden and with some premonitions I stop. I walk home and feel the sore tension along the front. I'm a fool. I know if I it happens again or doesn't completely clear up I would have to pull out of the marathon.
6-7 October - I don't run. It's now less than two weeks till the event and almost 8 days with only one run over 3km.
8 October - I take the gamble. I've had just two days rest. I initially want to be greedy and try 10km but some sensations during warm-up chasten me. I don't want to have to walk back from far away. I run anyway but loop around home twice. No sensations arise on the run. I make 6.8km and feel fine.
9 October - Putting more chips onto red, I take the chance to run longer. I aim for a loop that won't take me far from home. I feel good after a mile so decide to try 3x2mile repeats. Despite what I felt like an interminable lay-off, I can pump up the speed fairly easily and completed 14.8km without any sensations.
10 October - Now with confidence I bet all the chips by running my Orakei Loop. This one is one I fear during niggly periods because any serious niggle at the 7km mark will almost certainly leave me late getting home and definitely late for work. It's also hilly which is what I believe may have caused this thing in the first place. No sensations arise again and I'm feeling confident.
11 October - And then I rest. Hopefully this means I get to claim my winnings. The injury is over.

Such is the drama of training.

Friday, September 13, 2019

This is number five and I'm feeling quite alive...

Between the two end of year marathons, the North Shore Marathon was probably the one that I wanted to make the biggest impact. Last year it was there that I was full of confidence and had been brought back down to Earth, then ran across a beach before running back up a hill and then being brought back down to Earth. And then got the stitch and struggled home to only better my first marathon by a measly two minutes. After that painful effort I'd vanquished my doubts at the Auckland Marathon and broke 3:30 so it was only the North Shore marathon that I hadn't done well in. 

This year again I was full of confidence. I knew I was fitter than at the same time last year. I'd especially been training on hills, of which the North Shore course has plenty. The beaches no longer annoyed me either. The route is two loops of the peninsula of the Shore, from Milford to Devonport and had six beach sections and two ascents of Northhead. Every trip to the beach was sapping to run on the sand and followed by some sort of a rise to the ridge of the peninsula. I had done the half marathon back in 2017 (one loop of the course) and enjoyed it but the full really was my Waterloo.

As was the case last year though, weather looked like it would be a factor. Last year a downpour was predicted but came early and runners started beneath starry skies. This year was a repeat in a way. Heavy rain was forecast for the 5:30am start. Waking up at 3:30am at our motel room, I heard the thunder and pulsating heavy rain. I got up nonetheless and had breakfast. By then it had gotten lighter and after suiting up, I even went out for a jog. It felt like the air was wet but it wasn't raining. I drove to the start line without any rain and got to the starting area with a good park.

But that's where things left the script. I looked for the gear drop table without luck. People seemed like they were still assembling the event site. When I asked, a man grunted something and went the other way. I went over to where competitors were. A few dozen people were all there as the clock ticked closer to the start time. Then there was an announcement: The marathon had been cancelled. All marathon entries were changed to half marathon entries starting at 7:45am, i.e., 2 hours 15 away. Apparently there had been an e-mail and a facebook announcement. I hadn't noticed it. Many people hadn't. But the weather was now pretty decent so people just went down to the start line anyway. We collectively did our own countdown and started our own unofficial marathon.

We were clumped together for the first kilometres as we relied on each other for navigation. There weren't any super-fast people in the group so I was always near the front. There were opportunities to chat a bit. North Shore Marathon also starts in the dark and encourages the use of head lamps for safety. Only half the participants have them usually; I've always had a light source as I've come a cropper once due to poor illumination. So it was even more reason to stick together. For a long time I thought I was coming third but after the first descent of Northhead I realised other people had started earlier than us. (And also found out some people started later than us.) We started passing people from there. A faster fellow came up from behind me unexpectedly and we chatted a while. "Are you doing the half?" he asked. I was confused because I thought it was obvious that I was running the full, having started so early just as he would have. Then I realised his intention. He wanted to run the first loop for fun then rest and run a second loop as a race at 7:45am. I briefly considered it but the second half would be a poor effort because I would have gotten cold. Also Christy would be expecting me to finish around 9am which was impossible with a 7:45am half. And we had a motel still to check out of and a massage to get.

There was one particular aspect that I feared when starting this unofficial run. Water. Although the organisers had gotten markers out, because of the cancellation, there weren't the usual water tables on the course. I was glad to see one at 12km but had to wait until 26km to get my second. At both stops I guzzled a "gel" too so I was more "eating" than drinking.  

Anyway, I closed out the first loop, pretty much on the same pace as the previous year. I felt good... as I had last year. At about the 25km mark I became the sole leader (!), when the guy in front darted into a bush to relieve himself. I went up Northhead with ease but when I came down I noticed, as I did last year, that I didn't have the same pace. Fortunately I didn't have last year's stitch and eventually the guy who darted into the bush slowly moved past me. He queried our pace and then went by. I tried to use him to sustain pace but I just slipped further and further behind. By the last few kilometres I was really wanting the race to end as I was very tired. I never stopped though and crawled through the finish line at 3:32:50. The time itself wasn't terrible although quite a lot higher than I had thought I would. 

Now I have five weeks till Auckland Marathon. I feel that despite the result the easier course of Auckland will be a worthwhile chance to push myself. I'm going to spend a week more to recover from North Shore and then have a burst of training to get myself ready for Auckland.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

1 week to go

With the completion of this morning run, I completed the second week of taper. The mileage has dropped like this:
  • Peak week: 106km
  • First week of taper (last week): 81km
  • Second week of taper (this week): 61km 
I've made little modifications to my runs leading in the lead-up and have deliberately run a little less than planned this week and also changed the nature of a couple of the runs. Tapering is quite a personal thing. There are standard principles that go with it but you'll see many different strategies within it. Some basically have easy runs without any workouts. While some just have shorter but faster runs. I've always taken the difference in philosophies as from a lot of different people's experiences. Many online sources are generally going to be read by people doing their first marathon, so it goes more for safety and running solidly to completion than running for best performance. 

My own experience of tapering, like everyone I guess, has been a learning curve. Here are each of my marathon tapers (note: when I talk about the result, I'm not saying that taper is everything, but it does colour how I look at how the taper went. I also don't include the kilometres in the week of the marathon which are usually minor and easy):

  1. Oct 2017, Auckland Marathon: Not a great taper, influenced by ITB issues the week before peak week (PW): PW: 82km; 1W: 52km: 2W: 48km. Result: Hit the wall badly and walked parts to end with 3:47.
  2. Sep 2018, North Shore Marathon: A complicated taper because peak week was two weeks before taper because the usual peak week was a half marathon that I wanted to taper for; then a trip in Fiji in the first taper week which finished with a bout of food poisoning. So PWs: 103km then 83km; 1W: 64km (Fiji), 76km. Result: Hit the wall badly, terrible stitch, ended with 3:44.
  3. Oct 2018, Auckland Marathon: An interesting taper because this marathon happened just 8 weeks after the preceding marathon, so tapering happened barely after recovery from the previous: PWs: 89km then 81km, 1W: 80km, 2W:69km; Result: Finally ran the whole distance with a time of 3:29 
  4. May 2019, Rotorua Marathon: Perhaps the most disturbed taper with a business trip to China. Also it was disturbed by a half marathon in the normal peak week so I tapered for that first. So PWs: 98km, 64km (HM), 1W: 97km 2W: 51km (China). Result: A surprise PB with 3:27.

My own learning? There is nothing really that can be generalised from this. Doing events in the lead-up has been an advantage in the last two marathons. But was not auspicious in my second marathon.  Even high mileage in the 1W isn't an issue. I'll learn something more from this taper because it's the most "typical" taper possible, and follows theory the most. Let's see if theory works.

Sunday, August 25, 2019


One week into taper, one event down. I ran the Millwater Half Marathon for the third time this morning. I'd been looking forward to it as a "sighter" to gauge my fitness for the coming marathongs as well as achieve a personal best in the half marathon.

The latter plan was very much a wish. Last year's Millwater Half was my personal best ever (1:31:13) but had been surpassed earlier this year at the Waterfront Half (1:29:58). But they're very much different races. Waterfront is a flat-track, flat-out race with only multiple hair-pin turns to deal with. Millwater has more undulation and twists and turns. My pace was finally returning just before my taper. Yesterday I had a "shake-out" run and comfortably sustained speeds faster than what I would need to match these times. Naturally hitting these speeds and keeping such speeds going for an hour and a half over terrain are two different things.

The weather had been pretty dicey through the month of August and this morning was no different. Even a good forecast didn't stop it drizzling pre-run and post-run and even a sprinkle during the race. The wind was blustery the previous day but at least wasn't evident in Millwater in the morning. I came early and got myself set. When the race started, it was all on. A running team, the Night Ninjas, all dressed in their orange outfit, were running their own personal championship at Millwater. Last year I prided myself in beating a Night Ninja, as they are really serious, fast runners. Their use of the event as their championship made the crowd even more orange and challenging. In the initial bunching I was stuck behind a group of about five that I chose to squeeze past after about a kilometre. Ridiculously it seemed some were acting as pacers for others so ran quickly but then hung out at the drink stands waiting for the next runners to pace. This is distracting for normal runners because you run with groups and even target people ahead to pace yourself against or pass. When they inexplicably drop out of normal racing it knocks you.

Fortunately after passing the bunch and the pacers, I didn't have much to do with other Ninjas. There was one in the distance which I was forever pursuing but I couldn't reel him in. I was glad though to be quickly accompanied by some familiar runners. One runner, Andrew, is a runner you can't help but respect. He is over 50 but still competes well. He beat me in as many races as I beat him this year. I thought I had it over him last year because I would use him to pace me earlier in the race before racing off into the distance. Not so this year. Even when I tried this it only worked half the time. He outlasted me a few times.

This time in the initial jostling around I got ahead of him but at the 3km point he sidled up to me. We ran the next 7km more or less together. Occasionally he would pass me but I'd often overtake him on the downhills. We were also joined by another runner, Finn. I knew Finn without ever exchanging words. We ran as an arrowhead for a good portion of the first of two loops, with me at the front and Andrew on my left shoulder, and Finn on my right shoulder. Running in a pack has its advantages. An even pace is easier to maintain psychologically; it apparently also reduces the impact of wind too. The Millwater loop starts with undulation but features a stiff incline in the tenth kilometre. It was at this point that Andrew and Finn both overtook me. It was on the slope afterwards that I raced back past them and never saw them on the track again. I was more or less running solo as I cruised through the arch for the first lap in 44:28 which had me on sub-1:30 pace.

What I didn't think know was that shortly after I passed the arch, at the 45:00 mark, the 10km racers were to start. Not far into my second lap I heard rapid moving pursuer coming after me. For a moment I thought it was Andrew and Finn and thought I might have slowed down due to the lack of company. But it was actually the first wave of 10km runners. The leader of the pack was the husband of our company's HR Director so fortunately I figured who they were early in the piece. It was quite lucky for me as suddenly I had runners with me again. Some 10km runners passed me but clearly had gone too quickly as I caught up with them and used them for pacing. By the last third though I realised I had gone too quickly in the first lap and my splits were creeping up. I kept trying to figure out whether I still was in line to get under 1:30. The hill at the 20km mark was still in my mind. As I approached it I was again without a pacing partner but at least the finish line was near. The finish line is often the one thing that can sustain your pace till the end and I managed to hold a solid pace to the end and went through the finish line at 1:30:04. That may not be my official "mat time", which I'm still waiting to find out. Even if it is a touch over 1:30, I'm not that bothered. It's almost the same time as Waterfront Half but on a more challenging course.

It sets my expectations well for the North Shore Marathon. I will try for a time between 3:25-3:30. Even though at time around 3:29, a time over my personal best, I'll take it as a victory because it is such a challenging course. Now there are two weeks of lighter, shorter workouts.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Taper time!

In exactly 21 days from now I'll be rather tired after successfully completing another marathon, a little faster than the last. Or will I? It's taper-time and all the imponderables of the race are now coming to mind.

Tapering, if you missed it, is when your lower your training load in anticipation of a race. Tapering for a marathon usually lasts two to three weeks. In theory, at this time the main work of the training is done. You won't be getting much faster or stronger. The important thing is to just reduce the burden on the body a little so that it over-compensates in expectation of continued training and becomes stronger. It relieves the burden on overworked parts of your system so they heal. It's not that training stops - in fact, training is often the "good stuff" just shorter and with more rest, especially in the week before the event. On the net, I've heard lots of people get nervous when they go into taper because training is comfortable and not training is abnormal. And also because you've already built your fitness as much as possible pre-taper, there is that regret of not doing more and sometimes wanting to pack a little more in, but knowing you shouldn't. However, I've never had that nervousness.

As well noted here, I have been rather anxious about my progress since my good result at Rotorua Marathon. The training has been nothing near my expectation, punctuated by the interruptions of niggles, travel and flu. With the recent weeks though, there is enough to now feel satisfied that I can do well at North Shore Marathon. Excluding my week of flu, my weekly mileage has been: 65, 71, 76, 80, 90, 87, 101 and 106. It is a nice feeling when the body can take 100km without really noticably wearing out. It's not all about mileage though; it's about what you do with it. It should have many easy runs and some key workout runs. When I was frustrated earlier my key workouts were fizzers but I've had now a fair few runs that I'm pretty proud of, proud enough to nurture the hope that, even on the challenging North Shore marathon course that killed me last year, I might be able to do the same time or even better what I did in Rotorua. 

But the best measuring stick of what I should be able to do will be the Millwater Half Marathon next Sunday. My last race, Waiatarua 10km, was a little bit of a fizzer with me going fast too earlier. Fingers crossed that was an exception. 

Friday, August 02, 2019

A little high, a little low

There are many reasons people run. Some might just do a semi-regular run as part of a formal or informal fitness regime; some might run for weight loss. I'm sure some run to de-stress. Surely some run out of an old habit, an addiction that the body drives. Although I'm happy with some of the effects above, I think I run mainly as a project of self, to see what I can achieve in a performance with myself.

In this kind of running, training is the input and performances in races are the output. Some training is almost always better than no training. Some guided training is almost always better than random training. Some quality training should always be better than excessive unstructured poor quality training. And you only know the difference with trial and error; with a little learning and shared experience here and there.

But like any project, often the output doesn't always correspond to the input. Just like in business, bountiful capital doesn't mean a business will become a leader; or endless roses and chocolates do not necessary add up to a successful relationship. As recently related, I cruised into 2000km of mileage for the year. But mileage, while usually beneficial, isn't magic in itself. You have to do something with it. Since my recovery from flu, my runs and the feelings I got from them were extremely varied:

16 July - 10km "Tempo" run - I aimed for 20 minutes at "tempo" pace (the pace you could maintain for an hour at most). I felt good because just days after the flu I could get to that pace and hold it for the most part.
17 July - Shoe Science 10km group run - This was intentionally slower because of the faster run yesterday and also I had one person with me who wasn't that fast. Felt OK.
18 July - 10km of Moonlight Mount Eden summits, 5 summits to be exact. These didn't feel easy at all. In my current state of fitness I should have been able to press on any one of the summits but just felt knackered.
20 July - 30km Long Run - I did 15km steady and then 10km at marathon pace and then cruised for 5km. I felt really proud of myself after this one. I'd matched a previous good run. Suddenly I felt on track.
21 July - 18.8km Easy Run - This was a bit of a struggle. It was meant to be easy but I slipped back in pace more than I wanted.
23 July - 15km Intervals - I wanted to run 3x2miles at "Threshold" pace but really fizzled. My initial laps weren't that fast and barely lower than tempo. I was frustrated again.
24 July - 16.7km Easy run - Now this was actually at the pace an easy run should be done. And it felt easy.
25 July - 9.2km Hill repeats - This felt pretty good. I did 8 repeats up a 200m slope and felt I could go harder and faster as time went by.
27 July - 32km Long Run - A shambles. Probably was overoptimistic with pace on the first half and really struggled in the second half. The kind of run that should be stopped because you're probably doing yourself damage. Fortunately the body wasn't too bothered once home.
28 July - 14km Recovery - I ran up three mountains at my own pace. Felt good just to loosen up.
29 July - 16.6km 400m on/off intervals - These went well. For the first time in the two week period I could actually hit speeds close to 4:00mins/km.
30 July - 14km of Easy. And it felt pretty good.
31 July - 18.5km Tempo and some gentle hills - again a good feeling. The pace was close to tempo and I got lots of metres of ascent.
2 August - 15.5km 800m intervals - and now probably my best speed workout since April.

It really is a rollercoaster with fizzled out runs, smash hits, "Was it any good?" moments, "How is this helping me?" ordeals. This sequence is going to be measured directly whether I can run the Run Auckland 10km race at Waiatarua fast and furious. I haven't really felt that I have caught the speed of the past. With this morning's workout under my belt, I feel a lot better. I'll run easy tomorrow and then see what happens on Sunday.

And then either moan or exult.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

2000, mark.

In 2017, my first really big year of running, we were spending our last week of the year in Whitianga in the Coromandel, and on my one run there to close out the year I registered my two thousandth kilometre of mileage. 2000km had been my objective since the start of the year and I had timed it well despite some of the niggle dramas. It was a pleasant run, too.

In 2018, on 22 September, I registered the same mark and celebrated it by tripping for the third time that year. I was crossing a road while trying to open a "gel" and looking over my shoulder for traffic. Somehow my feet caught the ground and I landed in the middle of the road. The fall wasn't disastrous fortunately and by the close of the year I had 2775km.

In 2019, today, i.e. 28 July, I again broke the 2000km mark for the year. I did it on an easy run to recover from a debacle of a long run I went on yesterday.  where I had an easy run to recover my body from that debacle. I ran up three mountains, Eden, Hobson and St. Johns, to mark the occasion. My goal this year is 3000, which at the rate I'm running should be easy if I keep it up.

The key really is not how much you do but where it takes you. Right now I still feel "out of form". I haven't been able to hit the pace I had pre-Rotorua or feel robust to sustain efforts. This doesn't really make sense if I'm running more and doing a similar range of workouts. But what has been a problem is consistency.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Race schism

I have struggled to read this year. I blame it on my internet friend, Chenzi. Until mid-last year I was chewing through books fairly rapidly. If I weren't working or running or attending to the demands of living, I was probably reading. It was great to meet Chenzi for the first time last year, but we recommended each other a book and we bought our own copies of the other's book. I don't know whether he liked the book I suggested to him, but his book was hard work. In my view it wasn't well written and was really dense with Buddhist terminology in parts. It was a drag. I went through a period before my business trip where I pushed myself to grind through a few dry patches but when I saw him in April I still wasn't more than 60% of the way through. Reading it meant I wasn't reading other things, and without the drive to read it, I got quite hooked on podcasts and youtube.

What do I watch most? Mainly, American talk shows and cable news usually about the ongoing circus of US politics. It is quite possibly the outrage factor that comes with listening to someone as venal, ignorant, deceitful, base and egotistical as President Trump. He is incredible in his singular collection of negative traits that together have somehow, somehow, led him to be "leader of the free world". Recently he tweeted about four female congresswomen of different ethnic backgrounds and suggested that their home countries were chaotic and they should "go back to their countries" to fix it, rather than criticise America (by which he means himself). The response was swift: "President Trump is a racist." It was especially obvious because three of the four were American-born citizens just like him. One had come as a refugee but she too was a US citizen. All four were legitimately elected members of the House of Representatives.

Anyone who has followed him know that he is almost certainly a racist, but there was a lot of tip-toeing around the term. Firstly, it is taken as ad hominem put-down. People don't like to be called "racist" because it's a negative term. There was push-back because in civilised political debate you shouldn't use put-downs. But like many words seen as put-downs, they do actually refer to something. A racist, in the strongest sense of the word, is someone who believes that some races are superior to others; and in a weaker sense, attributes particular qualities to people because of their race, often despite their actual being. I say he is certainly a racist because he exhibits more criticism towards people of other ethnic groups, shows he believes black people owe white people respect and denigrates nationalities and ethnicities.

Secondly, there was a nuance between someone being a racist and someone saying racist things. Tepid criticism of it avoided saying anything about him; they just spoke about his language or his actions, a la "hate the sin not the sinner". This has some merit to it. I may some things that could be racist, sexist or bigoted without feeling racially superior, a male chauvinist or a bigot. Some of that can be from being inarticulate with a generalisation, speaking too simply when I know there is more nuance. There might also be a legacy effect where I might have latent beliefs or tendencies that distinguish. I might also speak from an observational point of view, rather than an aspirational tone. For example, I might say that the Chinese students in our school sometimes struggle with direction, rather than always trying to take them as individuals with their own different proclivities that could be uplifted by a consistent positive language for how they could be. I also might speak in jest but with the wrong timing, wrong audience or with a context I'm not aware of. His language is clearly racist, and in fact taps into a common offensive line: "Go back to your country!"

Also, thirdly, there was the classic racist defence: "I have black friends." If you have a black friend, you can't be racist can you? The best refutation of this is: "Can a sexist have a wife, daughters and a mother?" In a recent podcast it mentioned psychologically there is a degree of moral licensing at play. Often in history there has been a "pioneer" such as Sammy Davis Junior who might be permitted but often it comes at the detriment of others because they allowed him into their circle so they can continue to be racist freely to all others. Some people have suggested voters who elected Obama may have been licensed to vote Trump. Clearly, having a black friend doesn't mean you respect the dignity of other black people, let alone other races.

And fourthly there is a more elegant defence against being called a racist, that what is being to is not race but some proxy of race, such as religion. Is islamophobia racist if it is directed at fear of a religion or the fear of terrorism caused in the name of Islam? The discussion in America went more into these foreign faces attacking "American values" and wanting to install foreign ideas (evil things such as universal healthcare). Naturally it is preferable to have a superficial war of ideas than the superficial denigration of the person bearing the ideas.

Dissecting any comment of Trump's is a foolish endeavour. He splatters together some words, often without syntax, endlessly. Why waste time on it? Distraction, I guess. Now where is that book...

Sunday, July 21, 2019

7 weeks

Three dates in seven weeks: 4 August - Waiatarua 10km; 25 August Millwater Half; 8 September North Shore Marathon; the final one being an acid test, perhaps to lead to a fast Auckland Marathon on 20 October.

Waiatarua, I've never run before. I've enter two years and on both occasions it's been flooded by unexpectedly heavy rains. Being an inner city wetland is rather unique but clearly comes with a huge negative for organising events. When Run Auckland reconsidered its event this year I was amazed it still made the cut. It'll be my last 10km for the year and had always been one that I'd intend to be my fastest but with the niggles and flu I haven't really had a good lead-in. I'll still give it a good lash though and try to have some workouts in the next two weeks to get myself moving fast.

Millwater 2019 was a fond memory for me, a half marathon that cut 4 minutes off my best time, and an usually strong kick that I finished it with. Now running it for the third time, I know the course's idiosyncrasies quite well. It would be still a challenge to make a new PB considering my time at the Waterfront Half was on a course that was flat as a pancake, and Millwater has 170m of ascent but in a way that's the perfect goal for me. This will be the stepping stone for the North Shore Marathon which is as lumpier than any other.

North Shore Marathon 2019 by contrast was a bitter pill. I'd felt that I'd trained perfectly but it turned to custard whether it be because of pacing, which was overoptimistic; my race day nutrition, which was still based on whole foods; or just dumb bad luck, that of all days that my body had to have the stitch it chose that day. I went through the halfway point at 1:41, and did the second half in 2:03. (Compared with the Auckland Marathon I did 8 weeks later, 1:42 and 1:47 on a flatter course.) I really want to exorcise this memory with a good effort and time. Against me is this recent period of training and the fact that it is a significantly more difficult marathon. I might just choose to make this a stepping stone to the Auckland Marathon, which is just 6 weeks later.

My training might have been inconsistent in the last 2 months and sometimes feel I've "lost" some of the edge that I must have had to get me to good times at the Waterfront Half and the Rotorua Marathon, but a run yesterday cheered me up. I repeated one of the better workouts from that period and matched those times and set segments records in the process. It was also the first run since Rotorua that was over 30km, a distance that really does strengthen. All things going to plan next weekend I'll have another 30km+ run and between Waiatarua and Millwater will hopefully break 100km/week twice, a sweet spot of training. Millwater will be a good measure of what I should expect of myself in the North Shore and Auckland Marathons. On paper, it seems easy enough... At least 7 weeks isn't long to wait.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

As if it natters

I've had a rather good run of wellness since the start of last year. There was one occasion where a cut on my hand didn't heal well and it gave me some symptoms but that wasn't a biggie; a 24-hour bug from Fiji and then earlier this year a weird "night fevers" thing. But otherwise, among the infectious carnage that my colleagues have been suffering from at various times, I have been an island of wellness. Naturally all good things come to an end when I caught the flu last weekend and even though I thought my body would be able to recover quickly instead I quickly fell into a fever. Wednesday was a rather sub-standard day of work that incidentally became the end of my working week. 

Fevers are interesting things. Before my 30s, I admit that I barely had them; in fact I might have only knowingly had three in my recollection (probably had plenty as an infant). I'd always seemed almost impervious to the flu, which is the commonest cause of fever. Food poisoning in Fiji when I was 15 definitely gave me a delirious fever. In Taiwan I remember having one exotic fever, almost to the point of delirium. And then between 20 and 29 in NZ, there was just one time I recall having a weird virus in my 20s, where the walk to the shops felt like a marathon distance and where just walking steadily was a challenge. My fever record took a pounding though once I arrived in China and there would be no point counting because the sheer number memories of different feverish experiences are hard to parse. So relatively speaking my rate of having fevers have risen quite sharply since my 30s. To think I had one fever in my 20s and two in the last year is quite an astonishing contrast.

Sickness is a great time to take advantage of Netflix (or their ilk) and, apart from long haul flights, it's the only time that I watch movies these days. In sickness, movies are superior to books as a distraction as they handle themselves and don't mind if you pass out mid-way. This time I managed to watch:
- It
- Stranger Things (Season 3)
- The Founder 
- The Host 
- I Am Mother 
- Ted 

The best of the batch? I Am Mother was a pretty good sci-fi movie, simple and elegantly done like the Moon. And it ponders a slightly different relationship between AI and the apocalypse. Definitely recommended. 

The Founder, the biopic of Ray Kroc who made McDonalds what it is today, was a great watch too, if only that it shows the power of ambition. Its mantra is a Calvin Coolidge quotation: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." 

Ted is a guilty pleasure of a film, rolling around in its own offensiveness. It was as expected and Stranger Things wasn't really much stranger than the previous seasons. 

The worst in my opinion was The Host, which I only realised later was written by Stephanie Meyer.  

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Niggle Alley

After a very satisfactory start to the running year, the last couple of months has been a little frustrating. Although I ran more mileage in March and April with only small bothers, May and June came with two more major niggles that derailed my hopes of consistency.

As mentioned in my previous blog, it was first iliotibial band syndrome, also known as ITB syndrome. I was out for what would have been a 35km long run but 13km along my knee seized up and I hobbled back home. Once I knew what it was I handled it reasonably well. Once the symptoms disappeared I felt comfortable and had one of my biggest weeks of mileage, 92km in a week at the start of June.

Was this too much too soon? Maybe. By the end of that week, a mild issue I've had at some stage every year came to the fore, something similar to shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome or MTSS  to be more precise). I say "similar to" in that shin splints should really stop one from running eventually, whereas whatever I am experiencing does seem to go away with more training and some exercises and care. The description of the symptoms are the same: a sore spot half way up on the inward side of my shin, tender to press, most sensitive or painful at the start of the run, often fading once warmed up. I've had it every year and it often faded as I got stronger, whereas shin splints according to most of the online literature requires rest to recover, often up to 2 months. Persisting in training while having shin splints is linked to stress fractures of the tibia. Every time I have this issue I'm paranoid about giving myself a stress fracture; but almost always as soon as I got worried, the sensation ceased to appear during my runs usually after doing particular strengthening exercises.

This time round I got into the strengthening exercises quickly, cut back my mileage and days of training to 5 days a week instead of 6, and as of the last few days, my feeling of shin splints has eased away completely when running, although it is still sore to touch. Am I free of it again to resume my training? I hope so. These niggles have taken 6 weeks of my training without really advancing me in terms of my fitness, I feel.

There are 9 more weeks till North Shore Marathon. My apparent base of running is still strong. I just need some consistency, then key workouts to focus it all in on these events. Next Sunday is a hilly 10km race at Sanders Reserve; four weeks away is a race that I'm hoping to race fast, the Waiatarua 10km race, followed three weeks by the Millwater Half. This period before the marathon is very busy with training and races. Fingers crossed I can keep it all together.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Winter rolls

The ebbs and flows of a blogger's urge to write can be pretty random. There have been many things that have happened that might on other days result in a blog. It was a death that tipped me over into writing. Rex Benson, also known as Kropotkin, the cryptic crossword composer whom I have often written about, died yesterday. The word down starting with C wasn't crude, clues, crossword, but cancer. He was quite a character. His crosswords were top class cryptics and the "cryptic" in the title of my blog is partly from my love of cryptic crosswords, of which his were the best. Not long after I got onto a mailing list where he'd talk about his clues after each crossword had come out. He littered them with New Zealand references, political incorrectness and his own interests. The latter often made them difficult: someone with a thorough knowledge of the movies and actors of the 50s and the operas of Wagner would have had an easier job doing them than I. But the mastery he had of the clue meant that I could figure out the answers often people's names without previously knowing them. Once he knew the supply of Kropotkin crosswords would forever be limited, he made the appropriate arrangement so that the last of his body of work would get out there. Rest in peace, Rex. (Cartoon by Emmerson in the New Zealand Herald)

The last two weeks have been a tricky period for my running. For the third time in my running career I developed ITB sydrome and this has been the hardest to shake. ITB stands for the ilio-tibial band which is a thick strip of fascia down the side of the lower half of your body between hips to the top of the shin. The previous two times were due to footware, either buying the wrong shoes for my unique feet or running too many miles in the same pair of shoes. This occurrence has been a little bit of a mystery, though. I did hill repeats one morning and noticed during the day that the side of my knee was a bit "off". I gave it a rest for one day and then ran well the next for 13km without any issues. I stopped at a public toilet briefly and when I emerged immediately felt pain through my left knee. I couldn't stride at all. I started walking back and for some periods it felt fine until I tried to run again and the pain re-emerged. I was in the middle of nowhere without my phone and had to walk back.

Perhaps it was because I was wearing newish shoes that I didn't notice the symptoms were very similar to the ITB I'd had before. ITB is funny because even though you feel it in your knee, it's caused by muscles elsewhere that are putting the wrong stress on the ITB which rubs against your knee. One of the "give-aways" of the condition is that I have a really tight sensitive strand of muscle in my quad, which isn't noticeable really except by touch. On this occasion, while massaging in the vicinity of the knee I noticed it and put two-and-two-together. In the past it was resolved quickly by changing shoes and massage. This time even with different shoes and swapped in-soles it hasn't resolved. The physio and the online resources suggested weak glutes and some brief tests seemed to indicate it. Moreover, with my fall and surgery last year, my glutes especially on the left moved the least. Marathon or no marathon, I was probably imbalanced. However, after a period of exercising the glutes it still re-emerged on runs. The second visit to the physio came up with a different solution: my hamstrings. This made sense, too. Prior to my marathon, just after I came back from China, my left hamstring had been tight, and in fact I started the marathon itself with ominous tightness that dissipated by the half way mark. I kept doing the glute exercises but did more of specific hamstring exercises. The result: Though I still have a slight sensation at times in the knee, I've done hills yesterday and speed intervals today without any re-occurrence. I hope with some more specific exercises I'll be back to my regular running. In the meantime my mileage has taken a hit but the body probably appreciates a few more sleep-ins and some more generalised strengthening work. That being said I'm 13 weeks away from another marathon, with several shorter races before then.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The faster stuff

Marathon, shmarathon, there’s more to running than going a really, really long way. Some people love “the short stuff”, such as sprints (100m, 200m and 400m), “the Mile”, 5km and 10km races. I haven’t done sprints in my adult life but I’m keen to try a mile race one day. 5km and 10km races though have always been an occasional part of my running diet. Most common of these are parkruns, which are social, timed 5km races every Saturday, and I’ve now participated in the events that are part of the Run Auckland series, which consists of 5km and 10km races, for three straight years now.

Since my surgery I’d only taken part in two shorter races, parkruns, albeit in a casual way. Now, with the marathon behind me, I’ve been primed to give one a crack full-speed to see what I can do at the distance. And I only had to wait 8 days after the marathon to have my first opportunity to run the a shorter race, the first race of the Run Auckland series at Western Springs. I’d run the Western Springs 10km last year; it was flat and fast and, to this day, is my fastest 10km race performance of my life, 40:50. I was a bit annoyed that this opportunity to run there was just 8 days after a marathon. According to the websites, you should aim to have two to three weeks of rest or easy runs after a marathon which I’ve loosely followed in the past. Prior to the race I ran easily but also with full awareness of how my body was feeling and responding. Overall, I didn’t notice any residual aches or tightness. I spent my anniversary over in Waiheke in the days before the race and on one morning gave myself a bit of a fitness test on the hills. (Waiheke has quite hilly terrain.) Overall I felt pretty good and decided I’d give the Western Springs event a reasonable effort.

My first surprise came the night before the race. One check of the website found that unlike the previous event, this was not a flat track. In fact, it would be twice around a loop that included the long grinding gradient up from MOTAT to Grey Lynn. (And a very sharp descent down Motions Road.) Hills don’t bother me much in marathons because you can take your time on them. In faster events, though, you still need to sustain some pace despite the hills. My second surprise was that after getting there early was to find that I’d understood the race time incorrectly and had to wait for the 5km race to be finished. I waited from about 7am to 8:45am for my race! I did the warm-ups twice and went on little jogs around the place to keep warm and loose.

The time came though, the horn went and everyone ran. The starting area was very tight so, just like some of the half marathons, I spent the first kilometre dodging, ducking and weaving my way out of the crowded pack. One new habit I have is to get my speeds for each 400m so that I can judge how quickly I was going and on the first lap I was generally pleased with what I was seeing. On that lap, I was only passed once and passed a lot of people, especially in the early stages. I had some friends cheer me from the mid-point, but there was a lot of cheering for “Naomi” who was clearly the person who was right on my heels. By the 6th kilometre though I knew I’d gone too quickly and struggled before and on the hill. Two people, including this Naomi, passed me and I started to dread that it would become a procession. I kept in touch with these overtakers though and running along the plateau of Surrey Crescent was enough to recover me and get the pace back. It was a great feeling on the eighth and ninth kilometres. I hunted Naomi who was at the back of the bunch ahead, briefly overtaking her, before she would surge back in front. We all dragged past some other laggards and on the final turn down the Motions Road plunge I nipped ahead of Naomi too. Speeding downhill was a thrill and I briefly was on the verge of catching some others who were just in front, but once it levelled out they had more speed than I could muster. Again I heard the cheers for Naomi but this time I could tell she was further behind. I still put the foot down to charge to the finish line. I finished 20th with 44:41. For the course and the lack of pace training, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Also with only one person successfully overtaking me in the last lap (and overtaking a bunch) either I paced it well or paced it as badly as everyone else.

I’ll have at least three other 10km races and I have the goal of getting under 40:00, another symbolic milestone mark. This weekend though I’ll give parkrun a lash. I’m pretty sure that on a good day I’d be able to do it under 20 minutes by a substantial margin. Last year though, albeit on a harder course, I could only do 20:20, my fastest 5km race time. Fingers crossed it can again be another breakthrough race!

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The definition of insanity

Well, now that is four marathons done - two of torture; two of jubilation:
- Auckand, Oct 2017: 3:46 - ran out of gas 29km, finished but lay on the ground a long time post-run.
- North Shore, Sept 2018: 3:44 - excruciating stitch at 34km
- Auckland, Oct 2018: 3:29 - had the energy to surge in the 41km, finished fine and could walk around.
- Rotorua, May 2019: 3:27 - slowed slightly at 34km, finished fine.

There is a 19 minute range in finishing times, fortunately with the finishing times getting shorter as I do more. One cold-water set of statistics though is that according to Strava, my 30km mark times for each are:

Auckand, Oct 2017: 2:26:38
North Shore, Sept 2018: 2:24:54
Auckland, Oct 2018: 2:26:31
Rotorua, May 2019: 2:24:37

Therefore, at the same point in four different races over 19 months, I only have a range of 2 minutes. That's only 4 seconds per kilometre different in pace, which isn't really significant. I've clearly been trying the same strategy but with better success each time. What have I learned? Probably that time toughens you up and makes you better. Small training changes may have lead to better finishing. My base speed for long distance hasn't really improved though. I do feel fitter and readier now than the previous events but it still meant I was only slightly faster for the first 30kms than North Shore last year.

Of course, marathons aren't 30km. In Rotorua, I needed just over one hour to finish it from that point, whereas in North Shore I needed another hour twenty. The big difference in finishing times between the first two events and the last two is whether I could run for the duration.

Since my running won't be stopping now as I have a busy winter of 10km events and another marathon-packed Spring, it means that I'm ripe to lift myself to another level. Auckland Marathon is just 6 weeks after the North Shore Marathon this year, which could mean I could use one to prepare for the other. (That's how it incidentally worked last year.)

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Rotorua Marathon, finally

It was to be my first marathon, but in January 2017 I strained my calf and I downgraded it to a half. It was to be my second marathon but January 2018 was troublesome with a recovering knee, side strain and arch pain. I downgraded again to a half, and coincidentally discovered I'd given myself a hernia just after. You could say that the Rotorua Marathon, along with the Omaha Half, has been my cursed events.

But Rotorua is a hugely symbolic event too. It's one of the biggest events, around a lake of 42.2km, and notorious for its hills. For me personally it should be notorious for its Saturday race day which, for three years straight, has given me a horrendous drive south after a long work day. It'll be the last time I do this ridiculous drive and early morning run. Because yesterday I finally ran the full marathon and I did it well. 

The gun went off at 8am and I was in somewhat of a quandary thinking about what pace was appropriate. My preparation was so disrupted that I didn't really know what I would be capable of so I just ran according to my feeling. That pace turned out to be the ideal goal pace that I'd planned before the race of between 4:45-4:50. It was comfortable to the point that it cast the doubts from the preceding business trip week aside and allowed me to run as I had planned to run. The bunch thinned slowly in the first ten. I noticed my watch was 300m out early on (e.g., when I passed 10km marker it claimed I had already run 10.3) so I resorted to maths to check my speed. My two incidental pacers in the first half were Lass and Yellow Sole. Lass, a 20ish lady, in particular early on was regularly passing and being passed by me. That was how similar our paces were. She overtook Yellow Sole, who I then trailed for some time, until he dropped his cellphone letting me go by, and then on a downward hill I passed Lass as well. So I'd lost my pacers and was running in between groups until about the 18km mark when just before the first major hill I heard the thudding of feet on my heels. Both Lass and Yellow Sole passed me as a group of two. I dropped my pace on the hill and we all slowly chewed through the first challenge.

Out of the blue, Yellow Sole charged ahead and up the hill, bolting from our pack. He somehow made up about a 100m lead and linked up with another pack ahead. I kept Lass within a 10m range of me and we passed a lot who were having trouble with the first hill. Until gladly we peaked and then it was down to the lake's edge. At about the halfway mark Lass was running strongly until she inexplicably stopped, touched her toes and held her belly. I asked her if she was ok as I passed but she said nothing. It was the last I saw of her.

Losing Lass was a blow, because it left me without a pacer, but fortunately others were being cast off groups ahead so I always had people to chase and pass to keep my pace up. Yellow Sole and another, Bud, who I'd named earlier but had left our pack, were both in sight when I began the second major hill at the 25km mark. Hills are a big part of my training including my Titirangi run which has significant gut busting hills roughly at the same points so I wasn't terribly fazed. I passed quite a few people on the hill, including Bud, and shortly after, Yellow Sole started walking and I zoomed past him. I didn't see him again either. 

After only passing people I was strongly passed by a familiar runner, Haoting Ma. I didn't know him personally but he was recognisable because he'd been around a while, very small, fast and young, no more than 18. His pace was amazing for the second half of a marathon. I held onto him for as long as possible but by the 35km mark I started to lag. I couldn't really sustain my goal pace any longer but was still registering in the 5:00-5:10/km range, which I was happy with. Two older gentlemen passed me. We exchanged a few words and I gathered that they were friends, regulars and knew how to pace the course well. They churned onwards. I didn't fade any further and with 3:27:06 went through the finish gate. 

It was an improvement of 2:40 over my previous best. And the second time I'd run a marathon without walking. Considering my less than ideal taper and general tiredness, I'm rather pleased with the result. There are 4 more months till my next full marathon and presuming I keep improving then the next marathon will be even better. That will be North Shore Marathon that I struggled in last year. 

Now I have some 10km events coming up and I can practice getting faster. So with that I bid haere raa ki Rotorua and celebrate with hopes for the future.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The busy business trip

Over three years ago, just before moving back to New Zealand, we set ourselves up for a post-work pre-move trip within China. It was the big opportunity for both of us travel unconstrained by the calculations of annual leave and days-in-lieu. We weighed up a few places and eventually settled on the province of Shanxi. It's not the go-to province for travel but it had a lot of interesting places and a cuisine we both liked. On the verge of buying tickets and booking accommodation though, I had my shoulder bag stolen, which incidentally had my new passport, my old passport, keys to our apartment, my residence document and wallet inside. Not only was it a nuisance to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to replace everything, it thwarted our long-anticipated trip.

But Shanxi followed me back to New Zealand in a way. Barely a couple of months after starting work at my school did I teach a course that was opened for the benefit of a bunch of Shanxi students. They were a good bunch – good-natured, smart, each one pleasantly idiosyncratic but with English a few notches below what it should be for the high level course they were in. In 2017 we had two more groups of students, these students were similar to the first group. They were evidently well-raised and motivated students who again were to struggle with the high level English course that they were coming. It became a gripe for teachers who tried their best to help these wonderful young people get over the line to receive a certificate that was their "passport" to tertiary study. They often failed, and had to be lifted back up again. Their parents often complained via our marketing staff and it always felt like we were blamed despite we were doing the best we could with the students who were coming in and the standards we had to assess by. Staff from the university visited us that year and I got to meet the Professor, the main man behind the project of sending them over to us. It was a good meeting and I felt I had his trust in my judgement about how it was being handled. In 2018 more groups came and despite being the most organised for them we still struggled to get them confidently to an acceptable level. In fact, the time that was taken by staff to get them to an acceptable level raised flags with finance, who noticed the increase in wages, and I was under the pump at the end of each pay period to explain as the staffing cost went through the roof. Shanxi was as before, promising in its anticipation but bitter in its end.

Then about a month ago my boss decided rather wisely that the best thing to do was for her to go to Shanxi for an extended stay of five days. Usually these marketing visits were just for a day, as there are many agents to see and time is precious. And in a further big call, she decided to bring me rather than someone more involved in marketing to assist her. As mentioned in previous blogs, the timing was both great and terrible in view of my marathon preparation, but I was really happy to have the opportunity for professional and personal reasons. Professionally, I wanted to see things on the ground and think of ways to get it right. Personally, Shanxi had been an enigma and I wanted to experience it. And even more personally, I was also going to be stopping by Qingyuan on the way back to see my in-laws.

I flew in on Monday with not a wink of sleep and immediately went in for lunch with the Professor and a Director at the university. The Professor is an incredible individual. He is not what you'd expect. He presents himself like a simple man and looks a little bit like a teddy bear with slightly bulging features. He dresses casually and speaks in the same way. He has a thick Shanxi accent which makes it difficult for even Chinese to understand; yet he's a raconteur extraordinaire, with a story for any occasion: even if you don't understand a word he's saying, he'll be acting out every scene, with dramatic pauses, flailing limbs and sound effects. And he's not short of tales, both historical and personal. He was a non-smoking teetotaller, which is also a rarity. His abstinence has a story of course: He and some friends went on a bender on what turned out to be fake alcohol (this can happen in China). He lost consciousness and when he awoke he had lost the ability to move from the neck down. It took days for the doctors to figure out what had happened because it wasn't alcohol poisoning and they weren't sure how to treat him. Fortunately he recovered from this episode, except for the fact that his body now doesn't tolerate alcohol.

He's also rather coarse. He's the one with the inappropriate, often sexist, jokes; he's the one who will get the conversation centred around him stifling out others. He is a man of analogy and metaphor and would often drag me, usually unnecessarily, into them: "Imagine someone gave Daniel a hundred apples for free. Should he eat as many as he can now? Or eat just the best ones now and leave the others to rot?" Or something some such.

He's also rather brilliant. His archiving is a sight to behold. He was ahead of his time in how to arrange staffing and compliance. There is a lot to learn from him. He's also tough as nails. My boss is made of steel; but he is made of adamantine; when it came to final negotiations it dragged on for an eternity. He featured on every single day in some way, and slowly but surely I got more of as understanding of his accent and had more direct conversations with him without resorting to getting others to translate his Chinese into Chinese.
As the days rolled on, it also appeared he was a master strategist. My boss, who is as dynamic and quick-witted as they get, found it troubling to deal with him because he said only what he wanted you to hear and padded it with digressions and unnecessary tangents. He delayed the "point" to a later stage that was time-wise more tactically optimal. In other words, he was far more Sun-Tzu than simple teddy bear. Maybe the teddy bear look was deliberate, too, to leave you not expecting what might come. But such is business and China, as perhaps you've heard.

I only had to deal with him occasionally. I spent more time with other key people and one morning with the students, too. I must say it beats the day-in-day-out of the office on any day. But I was chronically short of sleep. Including the night I flew over, I slept 26 hours over 6 days. This was partly because of jet-lag but also my desire to run. The only way to combine some very busy days with running was to be up early, so in a way I preserved my NZ rising times but had no control over the time I got back to the hotel because dinner meals were all part of it. One night after a night of drinking, I didn't even sleep 4 hours, but having missed a run the previous day, I got up once I stirred and ran 19 kilometres (a pretty good workout too!) and then had a long day. But by 9pm I was feeling dizzy and they sent me home rather promptly. I did run far less than I had ideally planned but it might not be a bad thing. We'll find out on Saturday.

Despite the sleep, there was one rather surprising change. My Mandarin bolted back to the best it's been in years in quick fashion, especially listening. By the second day I was understanding without really even trying and by the last three days I could follow some very heavily accented Mandarin. In some ways it made perfect sense: It had been a long time that I had been immersed in a purely Mandarin environment. And I probably spoke more Mandarin for practical and professional purposes than I had in the last ten years. Bizarrely this increase in processing speed had a similar effect on my Cantonese, too. Before leaving the north for the south where I'd see my parents-in-law, I listened to some podcasts in Cantonese and was again struck that I suddenly didn't need much effort to follow the discussions. And even more extraordinarily, when I was picked up I could understand two of my in-laws who I had always struggled to follow due to their accents and speed of speech.

The county of Taigu was where I spent most of my time in the north. I'd never heard of it previously but it may have been one of the wealthiest places in China in the first part of the century. It was the hometown of Kong Xiangxi, who had an incredible life. He was born from Confucius's clan but after a miracle of western medicine courtesy of some missionaries, he converted to Christianity, went to America to study at Oberlin College and then Yale, and then returned to found a university, the very one I was visiting. Following that, he controlled a lot of trade into and out of China. He founded banks, and presumably with some government role, standardised the currency for the whole country. On one of our excursions we went to one of the remaining mansions of his vast complex which had photos of him with Hitler. Apparently one of the trades he was into, albeit secretly, was in military supplies… When the communists swept in, he swept out to live out his life in America. He married the oldest of what would be a famous trio of sisters. One married Sun Yat-sen, the "father of China" who was their first president; the other married Chiang Kaishek, the leader of China after Sun Yat-sen and later the man who was pushed out of China by the communists to Taiwan. All three had incredible historical roles in China and they were "lianjin" (the relationship word in Chinese for men married to sisters).

The Taigu county of today looks like a small Chinese industrial town, shrouded in coal dust and windblown sand from the desert, with only brief signs of its previous glory. On my first morning there I ran, I probably shouldn't have. It was the day of the worst air quality while I was there and my lungs and throat could still feel it the next day, and probably the day after that. It did improve on all the subsequent days but was never great. My hotel was recently built and my room was spacious and comfortable, but there wasn't a footpath nor any convenient eateries nearby. And the hotel restaurant's breakfasts were dire. At the end we went to Taiyuan, one of the two biggest cities in Shanxi, and I was pleasantly surprised that it had scrubbed up to be a rather nice city. In some ways, pre-trip, I expected Taiyuan to look like the Taigu I saw.

The China of today and the me of this moment are probably the most comfortable match we have ever been. I felt more or less in my element. My boss, who although having known my Chinese is decent, didn't realise I could do as much as I could, including navigating about without any support, handling vast quantities of Chinese wine and deftly handling some situations and people. She asked me why I don't live and work in China. China doesn't make itself an easy place to feel comfortable, to be clear. There isn't much freedom for a foreigner to really reside here stably long term. China can still creep you out easily too. Face-scanning technology is everywhere. Jay-walkers in Taiyuan are shown on street corner screens with two out of the three characters of their name showing, with the photo caught and the official card photo showing, for public shaming. The university had their IT students make a similar one that could recognise me from my passport photo and every time I went in, it brought my name up. On the screen it also showed that no "black-listed people" had come today.

Could I live here? Yes, I could if the country permitted me to be here long term. The country may have to think hard whether it really wants the uncertainty and the liberalism that foreigners sometimes stimulate by their mere presence.