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, have 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 spent some time thinking about what pace was comfortable. It 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 I cast the doubts from the preceding business trip week aside and ran as I had planned to run. The bunch thinned slowly in the first ten. I noticed my watch was 300m out early on so 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, and then on a downward hill I passed Lass as well. So I'd lost my pacers until about 18km 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 and we all slowly chewed through the first challenge.

Suddenly, Yellow Sole charged ahead and up the hill, bolting from our pack. He somehow made about a 100m lead and linked up with another pack ahead. I kept Lass within 10m range of me and we passed a lot who were having trouble with the first hill. Then it was down to the lake's edge. At about the halfway mark Lass was running strongly until she 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, 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 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 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.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Pre-trip (apparently not published earlier)


(apparently this wasn't published earlier)

Easter. Resurrection? New life? Well, not this time round. In front of me is a very busy time, flying to China for a packed 5 days of business and then a more sedate 3 days in Qingyuan before coming back to NZ and running a marathon less than 3 days after touchdown. It's going to be interesting.

Professionally it's a delight. I really do want to see where a large number of our students have come from, see how we can make sure they are as prepared as possible for the significant challenge of going abroad to learn English and study at a tertiary level in a foreign language. My ability to see the possibilities and make a contribution could have large ramifications for them and their project for which we are a part. It's no small thing.

And to see a place in China I'd never been before is quite a treat on top of that. Shanxi is famous for its food, noodles specifically; but it also has its local baijiu that I'm reasonably fond of. It's a pity that I won't have discretionary days to get out of the city. Of course one of the perils of an organised trip is that you don't always have the flexibility to explore. I'll probably scope out the neighbourhood in my morning runs and try as much as I can as breakfast. (Not the baijiu, though! That can come later.) Fortunately my hosts know that I can handle myself with the language so I don't need to be always accompanied or kept safe.

The trip is either perfectly timed or terribly timed. It is the beginning of my taper where I can drop down my mileage, which is pretty much forced on me by travel anyway. (Runways are poorly named in that respect; you can't run there.) There will be running tracks at the university I'm visiting so I'll probably job over in the morning and do some laps. I do hate the track but tracks are useful for some of the training.

But right now I'm still at home in anticipation of what lies ahead. One gamble I made on the running front might have been a bad idea. As I knew my travel would inhibit my running I decided to make this week a big week, even though it was right after the intensity of my half marathon effort on the weekend. Result: My achilles tendon on my right foot is "odd". It isn't swollen but has been cranky these last three days. It started with what was an easy run on Thursday. On Good Friday I was always due a big run; felt fine in the morning and started to run but I noticed it pretty quick. The heel felt stiff and not as resilient. I gave it massage and some exercise that night but this morning it wasn't worse but wasn't much better either. And whether it be the work schedule or after a lot of intense running weeks, I have the kind of sore throat that means I'm worn down. Taper week will help with that but the travel won't. I'm trying to sleep to the best of my ability on these nights to get the body back into the right state to handle the stresses ahead.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Breakthrough

For the majority of non-elite runners who take part in races, there is a symbolism in each 5 minute interval of time that could make up a race result. I remember my first half getting 1:50:01 and being a bit peeved that I hadn't pulled finger a bit more to go just 2 seconds faster. (I'd pulled a hamstring instead.) My next half I was ecstatic to cleanly break 1:40. I foiled myself getting a possible sub 1:35 in 2017 when I took the wrong road a couple of kilometres short of the end at Omaha. And then last year I had the sweetness of smashing that with a 1:31 time at Millwater.

But the times are a little like cricket milestones. The difference between a batsman getting a century and being out for 101 or falling short of the century of 98 for a team or a game's result isn't much. But for the batsman him or herself, 101 is so much more satisfying than being just 2 runs short of a century. You'd almost prefer to get out for even less, maybe 87, than to be so close on 98. The 1:31 was a little bit bittersweet because I'd felt like a million dollars in full flow when running and almost got within sight of another milestone: 1:30.

1 hour and 30 minutes is something of a symbolic threshold for a decent half marathon runner. 100 minutes (i.e. 1 hour 40) is a solid result for good training. 1:35 is a special result for sustained training. 1 hour 30, for most of the running population, can only really be gotten with a long sustained, focussed training. It's been my target since that 1:31 at Millwater last year that made me dare to believe. But since then I had Devonport 1:33 on a challenging course, 1:37 at the cursed Omaha course where I fell pre-race, 1:38 at Coatesville post surgery and 1:39 at Maraetai, one of the few recent races where I'd paced beyond myself and struggled. So there had been an odd trend away from my goal. There would be one last opportunity to make amends prior to trying to better Millwater and that was the Waterfront Half, the last in the half marathon series.

The Waterfront was weighed down with the expectations of a great many. It would be what most were building up to. It was also the flattest half marathon you could ever really imagine. Apart from the need to four 180 degree turns, it was going to a race to pace consistently, because there was no texture of hills, terrain, beach or otherwise to make strategy any more than an idle preoccupation. Pacing consistently isn't as easy as you'd think because you need to know exactly what pace is your maximum for your current fitness, the course and the conditions and then not go over that unless you're in the last few kilometres. But what is that pace? There can be guess-work from recent results and training. My most recent result, Maraetai, was not the best example as it was hillier and I quickly struggled with the wrong pace. But my training had gone well except for the niggle. I knew the pace that I'd need for 1:30 was 4:16mins/km which was achievable over short periods but still seemed to be a mental barrier if not a physical conditioning barrier in thinking I could do that over 1 hour 30 minutes.

The race though did start. I made the same mistake as Devonport, doing the warm-up and not realising that any shrewd racer would be in the starting chute near the front. Once the warm-up was over 1,789 people all tried to get through the start gate. It took me over half a minute before I actually crossed the start-line and again it was a tiring exercise in dodging and weaving to find some "clean air". Once I had though I locked into a 4:15 pace and found that my breathing was pretty even and I also found some good pacing buddies pretty quickly, obviously other decent runners were delayed by the start gate crush. For the first half of the race, I followed "Hamilton Old-Boy" a scrawny but dynamic runner. He was efficiently moving through the slightly slower runners and I noticed that staying with him meant I maintained speed. After the half-way point, I felt even easier and pushed past him and for a while didn't have a particular person to pace against. The hairpin turns had an advantage that you could see who was ahead. My friend Jonathan was killing the course, over a minute ahead at all points, but I could see the 1:30 pace group / cluster not far ahead of me. One bad thing was one particular hairpin puts you in the flow of runners much slower than you. When I converged with them, I quickly identified two runners who were at the same progress of the race as I was and stuck with them, then dropped one and stayed with the faster. Then dropped him and was all alone. Like Devonport and unlike Maraetai, I had the high of only passing and barely ever been passed. All but one of those that passed me got to see me later.

When I got to the 19th kilometre I felt confident that I was breaking 1:30 and even though I was feeling tired, I wasn't decelerating. In fact I "negative splitted" the race (ran the last half faster than the first half). As I went through the finish line my watch claimed 1:29:50, although it had overestimated the distance I'd run. I was exhilarated. The body felt fine and I'd finally got the monkey off my back.

When I got back that I saw my official net time was 1:30:28. It was a mild downer and couldn't really understand how the times would be different. Did it feel like it detracted from what was still the fastest half marathon of my life? Yes. Not just because I had already celebrated and shared the result but also for the very reason that those 30 seconds over 1:30 did not get over that symbolic line. Fortunately, it wasn't long before I heard that there were some problems with everyone's timings. And then by evening my time was reassessed to the rather precarious 1:29:58. 2 seconds under. How do I feel? Happy but now over it.

Thinking about the event: Putting a half marathon in one of the most popular cafe areas on a Sunday morning has got to be one of the most courageous decisions ever. They closed the Tamaki Drive completely and with the lack of parking even on a good day, an additional 4,000 people worth of vehicles in the back streets of Mission Bay was always going to be a "mission" to find a park and then get out. They did have special bus services but I didn't realise before they were sold out. I played it safe and stressless and drove early, parked far up the Patterson Rd hill and besides having a long uphill cooldown stroll after the race, I got in and out without much fuss.

And that is the end of a series. Even with the surgical interlude and two fizzers, I'm still pretty stoked to have run all five half marathons. Rotorua is three weeks away and with the business trip also in between I don't have time to rest on my (partial) laurels. This evening, tomorrow morning and the long weekend before the trip are all going to be full of mileage.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Deja vu

It happened once. And it happened again. With the coincidence of it being the same time of the year. On Tuesday 24 April last year, two weeks before a half marathon, I woke up early as usual for a 15km run and barely had gotten going before a niggle in my front left shin stopped me in my tracks. At the time, it felt like it was serious but a few days later it had gone not to feature again for the rest of the year.

Tuesday 9 April this year, one week before a half marathon, I woke up early for a 15km run and... barely 1km in I felt a tight sensation at the front of my left shin. This time it didn't stop me in my tracks. I changed my gait but the sensation remained. 4km in, I doubled back and finished a pretty nice race-week workout albeit with a tender, sore front left shin and only 8km run. I initially regretted continuing when the next day, Wednesday, I could still feel it through the day but foolhardily feeling a slight turn, I ran that evening for a mile to test. It was still there but not significant. I did the Shoe Science 5km the same night and it didn't feature. I ran 3km home and though I could sense it there it didn't cause me problems.

The best thing was a race walker at the Shoe Science run identified the problem: anterior tibialis. She suggested a particular way of massaging it and suggested the possible instigating factor. Secondly, perhaps as a product of experience, I knew that most niggles, provided they are niggles and not muscle tears or fractures, benefit activity and often running is often a treatment not to be avoided. I ran again this morning (i.e. Thursday morning), a pleasing 10km, it was still tender but not to the point of pain and much less apparent than the previous evening.

Friday will be a rest day; Saturday will have an easy run with a brief patch of race pace; and then Sunday the Waterfront Half will be on!

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Running tips from a garden-variety amateur

I'm no pro. But I've made all the mistakes so I can say I might have learned something along the way in my running career. Take it with a grain of salt. Salt is good to supplement a runner's diet. Here goes with what I learned most:

  1. Build up slowly - When I started running again in NZ in 2016. I started with run/walk. This is exactly what it says on the box. Run a bit, walk a bit and with every day of "running" increase the running component and reduce the walking component. Even with a bit of a lay off from running I generally increased my mileage slowly, first increasing the number of runs every week, then including consecutive days of running, then increasing the distance of some runs and then intensity. 
  2. Vary your pace - This took me a long time to really learn and I've known others like me who ran every run like it was a race when they began to run regularly. My first regular run-only runs were a 5km loop and then a 10km loop. Each run I looked to better the last. My improvement was fast but my plateau came quickly too. And niggles and injuries came just as surely. Now I always have an intended pace before I start. I have several paces from recovery pace, to easy pace, from steady tempo pace, to threshold pace to 10km pace to 5km pace to 400m pace. Alternating easier paces with faster paces mean the body helps reduce the chance of injuries. Slower runs allow you to go harder on faster run days. And different speeds work different muscles and "energy systems", too. To be an all round runner, you need all round pace.
  3. Don't compare yourself to other runners - In line with no. 2. I remember being a hunter. I'd aim for other runners and run them down. Not just in races, but in training too! One of the most important realisations is to "run your own race" and "do your own training". A mediocre runner might speed past an Olympian doing a recovery run. Someone else doing intervals might speed past you when you're doing your time trial. Neither is comparable.
  4. Track mileage - Going along with no. 1, if you're serious about your running, keep a record of how much you do every week. Apps do this now but a notebook or a spreadsheet (if you're that way inclined) have their advantages.
  5. Race! - Even if you're not competing for things, races are great goals as well as time to push yourself to the next level. I remember the thrill of my first half marathon, effectively the first race of my adult life. After that I had a ball in the Coatesville Classic and it was a regular diet of events ever since. The races that punctuate my running life have really added the colour and the camaraderie. And being a goal-oriented person, I use them to propel and focus my training.
  6. Do "core" exercises - Running initially seems to be everything about calves, quads and hammies. But once you get going the more you find that your glutes (buttocks), groin, hips and abdominals are crucial, especially for maintaining form, which in turn helps you avoid injuries and is less tiring to the body over longer workouts.
  7. Do dynamic stretches and mobilty work in your warm-ups - It took me about a year to "get the memo" that static stretches (i.e., when you just hold a stretch like you've always been told to do) have not been proven to improve performance, prepare you for action nor prevent injuries. If anything they do the reverse. If you don't know about dynamic stretches, look them up. I do them before every run and I only do light static stretches after workouts and only occasionally. 
  8. Run mornings - this might just be me, but it really works: the best way to consistently get out without excuses is to exploit the cooler, less traffic dominated time of the day before 6am. Why? (a) Work/life issues won't even have started for the day to interrupt you. If I only ran in the evening, work or dinner or family would present a big temptation to deal with other things. The morning is mine. (b) Safety. Running down the middle of a well-lit road is always better than dodging traffic running along a foot path during the day. Even if you are on a road with traffic, it's easy to hear approaching traffic when cars are sparse. Street lights are surprisingly good, too. (c) Unfueled training, i.e. running without pre-run food or on-the-run gels. Running like this makes your body rely on its energy stores and increase the availability of the stores. I just have half a mug of coffee and I'm out the door in the morning. If you adjust to running without breakfast it's pretty much the same as running at any other time, just without having to wait for digestion. (d) Energy through the day. It's an irony but early morning running doesn't seem to impact alertness during the day; in fact, it seems to have the opposite effect. I've run the equivalent of a half marathon in the morning and had a fully effective day of work. (e) Better sleep - Running in the evening takes my body a long time to settle back down. Running in the morning means I get good quality sleep first before I wake up.
  9. If it's dark, wear a lamp - Generally a good idea unless you are very sure of the terrain and confident of no fallen branches in the darker stretches.
  10. Rotate shoes - my wife mocks me for my extensive shoe range but I have found wearing only one pair of shoes has a feedforward reaction where my shoes modify me and I modify the shoes to the point that both are twisted versions of what they should be. Changing the shoes regularly means that the joints are never overused in one way and the muscles have a different challenge with different runs. That's my theory of it. My period of rotating shoes has been almost injury-free. And niggles often disappear with the changing shoes too.
I'll keep it down to ten. Like picking up and mastering anything, it comes with the kinds of subject learning and self-learning that makes life interesting. Enjoy it!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

They are us // This is not us

Karl gave us the heads-up. Karl Marx, that is. We'd wanted to take students off to a vigil for the victims of the Christchurch attack and one happened to be set to happen nearby in Aotea Square called "Jummah Remembrance: Vigil for lives taken in Christchurch" - sounded on the money. To get details we headed over to the Facebook event page but saw that one of the organising groups was Migrants Against Racism and Xenophobia. I had never heard of it before, but I shouldn't need to tell you what their acronym is to tell you it was a tip off that as noble as the event might have been envisioned, there might be something more than mourning on the agenda, even if a vigil for the victims was what it said on the box. My senior teacher and I exchanged glances and shared our concerns. Ultimately it didn't matter as they moved the event to the Domain which was logistically difficult for the school to arrange a large scale attendance so we kept it "in house" with a Wall of Wishes and a representative speech from me. Language schools have a mission to bring people together, which is relevant to countering the message of the gunman. We have muslim staff and students for whom we must show they have as much right to dignity, safety and respect as anyone else. One student cried after the speeches at the school.

Today I saw the news in the Herald about the vigil we missed. Karl was right. There was a bit more in the mix and apparently it might have caused some attendees to leave early. Some parts of the reporting:

Muslim and tāngata whenua speakers covered experiences of everyday racism and violence they face, and spoke to New Zealand's white settler history and colonial violence. Sharon Hawke, of Ngāti Whātua Orakei, said hatred existed in New Zealand: "White hatred is its foundation." She spoke of atrocities committed against Māori throughout New Zealand's history, including at Parihaka, and even Okahu Bay in Auckland in the 1950s, where the Auckland Council burned down her hapū's village.
Apparently one of the messages was that even though white New Zealand sincerely repeated Jacinda Ardern's words that "They are us" and that the actions and beliefs of the gunman "weren't us". The event, the reporter mused, may have become a bit more a political rally of sorts. And being someone who was not white in even egalitarian New Zealand did not enjoy the same feeling of safety, dignity and equality that those who seemed white did.

Putting aside the "false advertising" element of it, and also filing away the fact that in grief and anger, people often act with poor judgement, I can only say that such words don't help achieve any goal except for some catharsis and exultation among the speakers and their confederates. Racism is in New Zealand without a doubt but prejudice and hate doesn't die through pointed fingers. It weakens only with open hearts and minds. And it is pointed fingers that both of those things close. And it was ironic because it was with the preceding collective grief that people start to open up and embrace.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, who also spoke at the vigil, said rather than it being "too soon" it was actually "too late" to be having these conversations.

I would just say that it wasn't too early or late but simply the wrong place. There are places for these conversations to happen, and in fact they are happening. Reconciliation with NZ's past is always happening and continues to happen. As the old guard of national influencers change and pass, so does the standard belief. Race relations are changing. Racism is ebbing. Is it happening quickly? No, because there is no magic that brings a whole population's worldview around on pinhead. And the collective worldview is not a collective but a 4D continuum. Even views within migrant communities aren't uniform. After Jacinda's recent international prominence through her response to the attacks, some commenters mentioned their desire to leave the US for NZ; in response, some suggested that NZ wasn't a paradise and no better than the States. To those naysayers, I can only say that whether it would be recognition of original inhabitants, migrants or the acknowledgement of the significance of history on minorities, there is no comparison.

Yet there is still a long way to go, which is what they wanted to say at the vigil, when all the people wanted to do was grieve together.

One notable place conversations of racism are happening, in the right place, is in Australia where Project host, Waleed Aly, has spoken with eloquence and then combatatively to the core of the environment which engenders racial bigotry and violence there. I don't have a measure of Waleed - the comments reveal he's not liked by a rather large proportion of commenters, of which a noticeable portion use language that relates derogatively about his ethnicity rather than as a person. One interesting piece of sophism that was used against him was that he comments when there are people within Australian politics who espouse racist views or exploit racial differences for political gain yet he doesn't speak about muslims killing Christians in Africa. Why would he speak about religious attacks in Africa, when he's an Australian Muslim? And why shouldn't he confront Australians with language that cultivates the same thoughts that lead those to slaughter for religious ends?

He doesn't have to answer for African Muslims any more than those sympathetic caucasian attendees of the vigil need to answer for the overt and open racism, or even the motives or influences on the Christchurch shooter. Regardless of where religious or ethnic killing happens, the context and history are worth exploring. And even when it is apparently ethnic or racial, it is often something else that the killer(s) are calling their identity that race or ethnicity is just an incidental characteristic. For example, if one tribe which happens to be Christian avenges with blood a past grievance to their group by a non-Christian group, is it actually a religious crime?

Also with a historical context is the discussion about whether to change the name of the Canterbury Crusaders in sympathy for the victims of the Christchurch atrocity. Crusader and crusade, from that ignorantly blissful idyllic implicitly Christian New Zealand life I've lived, are benign, cute words: "the caped crusader" "she's going on a crusade!" Probably for a lot of pākeha and while British or Americans it's the same, even if they've had a little bit of history taught to them about the historical Crusades. Any reading of the histories make it quite clear that the Crusades, while having seized distant Jerusalem for a century or two, was not very holy in its execution. While the crux of the war campaign might have been geopolitical, it's name bears the cross. Europe had sent holy warriors to the Middle East and slaughtered the inhabitants of cities of all faiths. A crusader as a term would seem to be akin to a jihadi, an appellation that would have an unfriendly sound to many of an Anglo-Christian background. If Jakarta had a football team called the Jakarta Jihadis, would it bother non-Muslim residents and citizens. Would it if a jihadi had just killed some infidels the other day? It might be an overreaction to change the name of the Canterbury Crusaders, but it's an understandable one, probably one that fits into a Marxist up-turning of the world, though.

And that's where I'd like to come back full circle. When Jacinda Ardern says: "They are us" or anyone, in reference to the beliefs and actions of the killer: "This is not us" I understood it not as a description, certainly not a description of treatment of Māori through history, or the way my wife felt when confronted by a Polynesian in the CBD, nor how one of my mixed marriage teachers told a Jewish joke in the office; nor the times when my father mocked Indian customers who simply want to order some ice; nor my own discrimination when choosing which of the hundred CVs I need to look at in my busy day. I take it as an exclamation of conviction and a forceful declaration of an aspiration for us all. It is the desire for all people in New Zealand, white, brown and every shade in between, to embrace the other and refuse divisiveness. It is one of the strongest declarations I can recall for cultural unity I've heard in my lifetime. It made me want to be better in the face of this tragedy and thereafter.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Starvation

I'll never know what it is like to be a pregnant woman who has to eat for two. I'll (hopefully) never know what it's like to be in a famine or a disaster with scarce food. I'll (hopefully) never know what it's truly like to be in the kind of poverty that means that there isn't always enough money to buy food. But I do know a thing or two about that "First World problem" of marathoner hunger.

It didn't really affect me too much in the preparation for my first marathon in 2017. I probably ate more overall and succumbed to Pandoro (an Italian-style patisserie) from time to time but that year, relatively speaking, I didn't train to the same extent. In fact, when I look at that year, which felt like a busy year of running, it wasn't anywhere near the same intensity as last year or even this year. No wonder I had trouble hitting my goal. My 2017 mileage was just over 2000km from 44 training weeks, averaging 45km a week. In 2018, I ran 2800km from 39 training weeks, averaging 69km a week. And that kind of calorie burning, muscle repair and and electrolyte demand takes some provisioning.

2018 was my first real year of running hunger. When it was a staff member's birthday, welcome or farewell and there was cake, pizza, chocolate or whatever, I was completely unprofessionally scoffing what I could get. Student farewells were awesome. Bye bye! Num-num-num! Worse, the chocolate for student prizes was stored in my office and barely stood a chance with the wolf inside the door. It became my year of bags of almonds, cashews and cranberries. They were often $8 a bag and I'd buy them all and store them in my drawer. One 500g bag might last me a few days in the office. Breakfasts deluxed. Throw in a pie. Pop down for a muffin. There was no respite.

My training in 2019 has slowly but surely cranked up and at some stage over the last few weeks the "hunger" button has most definitely been pushed. A few weeks ago, while trapped relieving the front desk when I mentally materialised pizza.  I was sitting there aching for something to eat despite the fact that I'd had breakfast, an arrival snack (a boiled egg), morning tea (a banana) and it was just 1 hour till lunch.The front desk always needs someone there so if no-one relieved me, I couldn't leave; and it's an exposed place so it's not the place to chow down on something anyway. But I just wanted something else to eat. Pronto. And it was just then that Cristian, a lovely Chilean student, came around the corner with a slice of pizza and offered it to me (they had a group meal and had too much). It was divine and satisfying. For a couple of minutes. And then lunch wouldn't come soon enough. Since then, that prize chocolate has again taken a beating. I'm feeling all rather guilty.

And now I'm blogging partly on the inspiration of food. In the wee hours of this morning, 4:41am to be precise, I stirred and awoke and it was my tummy that stopped me from returning back to the land of Nod. I had been planning a long run this morning but I usually do my running without breakfast (as it delays departure because I wouldn't feel comfortable digesting a solid meal and running). Fortunately, my tummy had woken me up so early that I could fit in breakfast, a blog, digestion before the dawning of a new running day.

On a completely different side-note I just witness something truly eerie. A trick of the (lack of) light. When I started this blog, whenever I searched for a word or phrasing to use, I would look out the window, where the city lights and even the edge of Sky Tower are visible. I looked over just moments ago and could see only darkness. It could have plausibly been a massive power cut but I believe a thick moving fog, invisible in the absence of light, has sludged its way into downtown Auckland. Looks like it will be a humid morning run!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Maraetai Half

I came; I ran; I ran out of gas. After a couple of weeks of good signs from my training, I raced and got a reality check. Reality: I'm not that fast... yet. I had my race plan based on what I thought I could achieve and followed it but after 5km with pace slipping I knew I may have gone too fast. In fact, Then there was the "Hill" in Duders Regional Park. I took it slowly up and quickly down but at the bottom felt there wasn't any energy left. The final 8km were slow even though flat. People regularly passed me but eventually with a kilometre to go I picked it up but barely enough to keep it under 1:39.

It was the inaugural event at Maraetai, which is a great leveller. Very few people would have had experience with the course. The maps all implied that the start would be relatively flat for 10km before entering Duders Regional Park where you run to the highest point and then down again for a flat 8km to finish. However, the first few kilometres, and thus the last few kilometres, passed through another regional park, Omana Regional Park. Although Omana didn't have anything major, it did have some nuisance hills and I think one of my racing sins was to hit these hard early on. Those nuisance hills were cruel tricks as we approached the finish and had to again press hard to maintain speed.

The race also boasted views, which were excellent. The coast is dotted with beaches and when you get up high it's quite outstanding to look over them as well as out to the city. Though the track in Duders was a mixture of metal and gravel, the path wasn't at any stage dangerous. The tracks were easy to follow and even in the closing of the race, there wasn't a huge convergence of different race types so there wasn't much in the way of people dodging.

Although I have some disappointment from the race, it's important to know exactly where one's fitness is and racing is the best way to know. The Waterfront Half is in four weeks and so I have a final bite at the cherry.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Disgust

I've mused about the possible terrorism in New Zealand before. In the thick of attacks in England, France, the United States, Belgium and even Australia, many sought refuge in New Zealand. "It just takes one attack," I thought aloud. And in the moments after the attack, I look back on those words with sadness. We were never immune and today our moment of darkness arrived.

Of course I've read and followed news items of such acts abroad. When it happens at home, in a place where I was less than three months ago, a place within one hour drive of where my father will move to, it puts the outrage of it in perspective. I cannot fathom what kind of perversion can make minds wilfully take the lives of innocents, taking them out one at a time, despite the raw human sound of terror, pain and suffering. Thirty people were slaughtered in one place. Ten at another. Forty lives extinguished with deliberate intent. David Gray took thirteen in our previous worst shooting and that was horrid enough in scale for our small country.

I'm not one to quote the typical shock words of officials after these things. Even in grief it's often boilerplate hopes and prayers. But Jacinda Ardern's words I find rather apt:

"They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand." 
There is so much global angst against immigrants. I hope this stance in the minor and in the major scale of things is what I hope can last.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Don't catch you slippin' up!

The modern world churns, creativity spurts and the culture pops. Memes, dreams and stars blaze and burst. Well, it did before, when I was young. And it does ever more, not that I am ever looking. 

I remember back when back during my Guangzhou days a new teacher from Minnesota came and at his welcome dinner was referencing some Korean song taking the world by storm, and even got up to whoops and cheers and danced that dance. Gangnam Style, at that time, was a sensation. Perhaps before I went to China I vaguely kept up with at least some of the latest froth. At that time in China though, I realised I didn't follow much at all. I had to go home and check out the video for myself and found myself several months too late. Since coming back to New Zealand, with my freedom of Internet again unchained I'm not much more in the know. I still don't know my "smh" from the Sydney Morning Herald. When my little brother talks of memes, or even our younger teachers, I make nothing more than mental notes on very disposable paper.

Now most of it is not worth the mental post-it note I scribble it on. They never stick anyway. Most things come and go. But like every age there are some things that are pretty worth seeing or, in the case I'm about to mention, experiencing. What I'm talking about is This is America. It's a song by Childish Gambino, a singer I only vaguely had heard of, and the song has been around for almost a year. Yet I didn't register then and 10 months and 500 million views from one specific upload alone on YouTube. And it's work of art that I'm disappointed to have missed. It might as well be the Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows, for its time has passed me by.

If you haven't seen This is America, experience it now, preferably with someone else you can talk to about it. And most preferably before you read any further. 

In fact accompanying the YouTube searches for this video, you'll find tonnes of videos of people being filmed watching the music video. The video is such an experience that observing people watching the video is enough to attract millions of views per upload. And with good reason. It's both a visual feast and a smack in the face (or two). I just watched my wife watch it and her responses matched the faces of most when they see the opening. Delight, curiosity and the shock.

The sensualist side of me finds the video compelling just in the visual sense. The choreography alone is enough but the theatricity of the dancing, from the expressiveness of the face, from the cheekiness of his movement when he enters from a sidedoor and scoots past a choir, to his eyeballing of the camera for the duration. This is the foreground though. In the foreground it's mostly pomp and energy and occasional atrocity.

But the song is lathered in symbolism in the details and the background. In fact the more you watch the more you sense that the song is a deliberate inversion. The background is the blurred focus and the foreground is just a distraction. Based on the videos of the people watching the video, most viewers are immediately pulled into unpicking the sense of what they're seeing. Everyone has their own conclusions and the singer doesn't provide any annotation to the song. The details are worth a bit of reading. His unique dressing is a pair of Confederate style pants. So, though the protagonist is acted by a black rapper, his This is America refrain identifies him as an embodiment of the larger American history and modern day with its historical racist baggage. His actions identify him the same. He can do slaughter with impunity, walking past police cars, because that is America. Police haven't been held responsible for the deaths of complete innocents. (And if you are unaware of a new trend in "stand your ground" laws, pretty much anyone can kill another if they feel threatened, not if they are actually threatened.)  

Lyrically it also leaves you to your own conclusions. There are some themes that are more apparent than others. Don't catch you slippin' up sounds like it talks about the margins of error. For a black man's experience of life in America, it's famously risky to do anything in the presence of the police no matter how benign. And humorous cases of the police being called on black people just being people.  

The closing scene of him running is a bit of an mystery. My only conclusion, if the protagonist is consistent with the earlier parts, is that that America is losing. It's fighting for its survival. In fact it could be lynched. The lyrics though go against that reading. 

You just a black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayy
You just a black man in this world
Drivin' expensive foreigns, ayy
You just a big dawg, yeah
I kenneled him in the backyard
No proper life to a dog
For a big dog

I'm compelled by this song and wish more songs and their videos approached the level of art. But of course they might have been but they might have all passed me by.... smh.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Groove 2 - counting the numbers

One week out from my next event and another nice confidence boosting landmark: I ran 100km in a week for the first time in 2019. The trend of a gradual build-up from my surgical recovery is quite picturesque so I thought I'd add it as a picture. It's dented only by that one week when I had evening fevers. It'll be dented again next week as I'll have a mini-taper so that my legs are fresh for the Maraetai Half on Sunday, before again ramping it back over 100km for a few weeks prior to my next event. Last year I had four 100km weeks and this year I'm expecting to do many more. Most of them preceded my half marathon personal best (1:31).

100km means something else to me that is almost more important: resilience. It usually requires six days of running in a week as I did from Tuesday to Sunday. To be able to do that means that all the ligaments, tendons and muscles have been toughened and pretty numb to the whole enterprise. This morning's run, 14.5km after the 32km yesterday was gentle but a lot of hills my muscles, core and joints were still pushed. But I was fine the rest of the day. We went to Rainbow's End and no-one would have been any wiser.

The total mileage shown for the year in the picture is a little incorrect; it's actually 600km. (For some reason it takes a while to update.) This rate will easily have me achieving my goal of 3000km for the year.

Of that 600km, just a little over 10% was done on two runs the last two Saturdays. They were my first 30km runs I'd done. 30km runs, for most training plans, are the key long run work-outs. My 10km personal best (40:50) was achieved the week following my first 32km run last year.

In that 100km this week, I also ascended 1500m, which isn't bad going. It was very much inflated from a run this morning which included 400m near by father's home. Last year I managed 46,000m of ascent in total, almost 1km ascent per week. I like the idea of aiming to break 52,000m of ascent if only for the pleasant thought that I run a kilometre upwards every week.

So, Maraetai awaits. The course is interesting. It's a very flat coastal run except for a hill inside the regional park. I'm expecting to be able to break 1:35 comfortably, probably in the 1:33-1:35 range. Just like my last half, Coatesville, I'm prepared to run on feel and potentially push closer to my PB. I'm really keen to break the 1:30 wall. In this half marathon series there is just one more opportunity to do so if not here, the Waterfront Half, which is certainly the most likely considering it's as flat as possible. At Coatesville on a hilly course, I somehow managed 4:38min/km without much specific training.To break 1:35, the speed is easy to calculate and I shouldn't find it too taxing now: 4:30mins/km. For 1:33, I need to average 4:24mins/kilometre; which is imaginable, though at this point still a little daunting for 21.1km. To break 1:30, one needs to average 4:16min/km. This kind of speed I've managed but only for shorter distances. It feels "all-out" "breakneck" speed. But possibly with the stimulus of other runners and a course that suits, who knows.

I'm so glad to be on track. Regardless of the result, I'm really enjoying my running.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Groove

At ease. At will. In control. In the driver's seat. There is a certain feeling when you are feeling in full flow and master of your destiny, relatively speaking. Some aspects of the life might have this more often than not; for other aspects it could be temporary. Work for me at times feels like that. Cooking once did, too. It's always nice when one side of life has gone a little awry that something else is humming.

Work in this case has been a lot of work, to the point that it wakes me up. It is, on some days, so much work that it keeps me from noticing I haven't eaten, or from remembering that I already have. There is a lot to do. At least running is there to keep me sane.

And it wasn't long ago that I was paranoidly doubting my recovery from surgery and now I feel once more, relatively speaking, on track and at ease. Every week I have runs which match in part the best of last year. This morning my mind stirred at 4:22am. I tried to return to sleep but thoughts got to me first and so I'm upped it, geared up and outed the door. Yesterday morning I'd had an intensive run so I initially had planned to go easy, but by the time I'd finished the second kilometre I turned onto the motorway cycleway and I just felt good. I increased my pace to just under what I'd run my last marathon at. It was a stiff pace but I felt like I could maintain it, and then I turned onto the undulation of Mt Albert Road.

Mt Albert Road and Remuera Road both represent the toughest regular roads to run in Auckland. They just don't let you take it easy. The downhills don't feel down while the hills inclines hit you one after the other. But this morning they didn't bother me. In fact I sustained the same speed despite the hills. Then when they ease I sped up further to run the next three kilometres faster than I had run the Coatesville Half marathon two weeks ago. Then I sped up further to run two kilometres faster than any of the mile intervals I had run yesterday morning.

And then I slowed down to a cool down jog to take me home.

All the pace was instrumental - without going fast I would have been late home. I'd miscalculated how long the route was to be and realised three quarters of the way through that I'd have to pick up the pace anyway. But the fact is that I could. At will. At comparative ease.

Two and a half more weeks remain before the Maraetai Half Marathon. Six and a half till the Waterfront Half Marathon and nine and a half till the Rotorua Marathon (my earliest marathon in a year ever). Things are in the groove and I'm feeling rather confident that my training is triggering all the right changes and a few little habits are really helping progress things.

Now about work...

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Rage in the name of

We as a society have a long way to go to the utopia of "not seeing colour" and recognising the collective experience of minorities and weaker groups. For what it's worth, sometimes the discourse though often well-meaning doesn't seem to serve us well.

There have been a few high international profile cases. The first one is almost unintentionally comical in its aftermath but worth reflection on. In the US state of Virginia, the newly elected governor, Ralph Northam, had a scandal erupt. There was a photo from one of his school yearbook which had him either dressed up for a Halloween costume party in either a Ku Klux Klan hood or blackface. (Humorously at one point of his defence, he could not be sure which one he was, which, though understandable as it was over 30 years ago, made things worse; in the final wash, it would appear that he went to a party in blackface but not that one; but his answer also revealed that it probably wasn't the only time he'd done so.) There was uproar and near universal pressure for him to step down from the governorship. He has refused. Without going into the comedy of what he said and did later, I think the case bears some thought.

I don't believe someone should have to step down from their job on the basis of an uncontextualised photo, utterance, belief or action. Even the most despicable things can be viewed differently in any of the diverse contexts we find ourselves within. And time is one of the big contextual factors. The KKK hood and blackface are in our current time clearly in bad taste, and even at the time probably not the best. But university is a time when you might try to do edgy things. Blackface is an interesting case because it takes some knowledge and cultural maturity to see how it could be seen by those who are sensitive to it. If there were no people at the party who would be offended by it, nor was done with the knowledge of its offensiveness, nor the intent to be offend, is it really in bad taste? (Almost sounds like that unaccompanied falling tree in the forest.) Of course, ignorance or claims that doing blackface is "just a bit of fun" surely show someone whose beliefs are not as magnanimous to the full range of people he would be leading which, as a governor, is perhaps the biggest consideration. 

If you asked me whether I'd ever dressed in a way that could offend someone, I'd say I probably had. Not because there is a particular case I can remember, but that I'm not aware of all symbols and themes that could have associations. I've almost certainly said things that with a different audience would have come off in bad taste. And even with the audience I had, I have probably incidentally said things in bad taste that others copped without telling me. I'm pretty sure I haven't painted my face black but in NZ, we don't have some of the baggage of other countries - some people might paint our face black to support the All Blacks with no intent of offence. We have our own words, symbols and attitudes. In NZ we use the terms "crackers" and "wop-wops", without the racist meanings those words have in the US. A traveller here might get the wrong idea from seeing or hearing either.

To interpret correctly you would need to know the context something was in, or intended to be seen in; and if you have any doubt about how you're presenting something you might need to think widely how something could be seen from people who are in a context very different from your own.

This is quite clear in an example just this week where one of our regular cafes, Eiffel on Eden, also walked right into a wall of outrage. Like many cafes these days, they have a little sign outside with something witty, usually coffee-related, outside. On Thursday, they decided to put: "On Valentine's Day open the car door for her. After Valentine's Day open the car boot for her." I'm not sure whether they created this themselves or they picked it up somewhere else. I think if I'd run past this sign that day prior to hearing about any of the hubbub, I would say that it was a peculiar statement. I'd assume, probably in line with the person who penned it, that Valentines is all romantic chivalry, and after the day it transforms into a more banal, everyday chivalry, perhaps with a hit that she's just been on a shopping spree but perhaps just the groceries. If I someone were to ask me whether it could be seen as offensive, I'd say it definitely has a scent of sexism about depending what you think of chivalry, or pitching it from a man's perspective, or associating women with shopping. 

Overall, I would give the sign two stars out of five and not give it much more thought. But I'm a man and I didn't think much more about the juxtaposition of wife and car boot which. If you check the article, became a cause of outrage for its association with domestic violence and putting a murdered spouse in the boot. To be honest, I think the outrage is still a bit unfair but, like anything, a little bit of discussion would have ironed this out. For those aggrieved: it is Valentines Day. There is no hint of intention to associate violence so when it's read you'd normally think of romance, consumerism, gifts and chivalry. Wives and car boots both exist in ordinary life, too. As do toasters and bathtubs, cats and microwaves, Lime scooters and uncovered manholes, cucumbers and condoms, and teachers and whiskey bottles. The cafe in my mind didn't do anything wrong in putting out such a sign except for trying to say pithy and failing. Compare that with the horrid "joke" that I bumped into back-checking this story: "Wanna know who loves you more? Put your spouse and your dog in the trunk of a car and drive around for an hour. When you open the trunk, who's happy to see you?" That would be surely in bad taste to most audiences, unless you really know the person well. I asked my wife to interpret the sign without allowing her to know about the kerfuffle about it and she was confused exactly what it wanted to say, then abruptly said, "What are you going to kill her and put her in the boot?" with a laugh. Maybe it depends on who reads it and whether a case of a body in a boot had come up. 

That all being said, when there is an unintended response, it's always good to be humble, receptive and to listen. The cafe didn't do that the first time round. Probably not the second time round either. A lot of the "blackface" accused do not often seem to approach the offence in the right way either. There is no effort to understand, only to defend or explain their own intentions. 

The last example that is on my mind is that of Liam Neeson. In the promotion of a movie with a vengeful theme, he decided to reveal a very dark 40 year old secret to the public. After a close friend was raped by a black man, in anger he'd apparently gone through a very primal phase of wanting to kill a black man in retribution. The commentary has been a mix of criticism and some compassionate interpretation, and whether he was surprised by the response he has dug a deeper hole. To be honest, I'm not going to stick a knife into someone who is upfront and volunteers a dark secret. No one would condone the thinking that he had then, but it is understandable. Part of coming to terms with a dark secret is to put it out into the sunshine. Most people let their darkness fester. The question seems to be whether it was racist or just primal rage back then and whether he is racist now. When his friend told him about the rape, he apparently asked "what colour" the assailant was, which some have taken to mean that he approached things from a racist point of view, regardless whether it was primal rage or not. I guess I'd just think that it was 40 years ago in a particular moment of his life. We all evolve and should be given the chance to evolve our ideas. 

As for racism itself, almost every still "sees colour" to an extent, even if a bit blurrily. I remember a comment I made mid-last year which may have bothered my senior teacher. He was teaching a small class with some Indians. The room lacked good air conditioning at that time and when I covered a bit of the class the scent of unwashed men was rather overwhelming. It was a likely factor that they were living in an overcrowded situation to save money for courses such as the one that we were providing, without easy access to showers and regular clothes washing. I made what I thought was an objective comment on it, and also the need for them, in an interview situation to learn timeliness and not forget hygiene. He looked at me with an odd look. He might have thought I was being racist. Perhaps it was a bit racist. But the student stunk and if he came to me looking for a job, I wouldn't take him on. Chinese students also elicit many generalisations, too. But when we accidentally speak in generalisations, even when we acknowledge a more nuanced truth, it can come across as racist and offensive. 

Life is difficult and a little understanding and humility can go a long way to avoid offending and misinterpreting offensive behaviour and language.  



Sunday, February 10, 2019

Mark

I was rather selfish when I had scheduled my surgery. My main consideration was my running, not my work (for which I should have chosen almost any other time), nor family (as it became the time my parents-in-law were here). It was timed so it'd be shortly after the Omaha Half but leave enough time to be ready for the Coatesville Half, which was held this morning. Omaha was a disaster (the Half that is, not the landing during WWII which was a victory ;-). I fell pre-race and struggled to a rather disappointing 1:37:25.

Times are very relative. I cruised into the finish this morning at 1:37:53 which I'd take as a victory. I had plotted a minimum target of 1:45 last weekend, when I did my first long run since surgery. I was filled with more confidence from some mid-week runs to the point I thought I was capable of something in the range of 1:40-1:45. On the morning, after an initial hill I felt good enough for better and managed to keep up the effort to the end.

The Coatesville Half course is notorious. It is the hilliest course of the series with one significant incline at 3km, another at 10km, another at 14km and another at 16km. Last year with less preparation I pulled the pin at about 15km and started to walk. This year I observed the 15km marker and knew I was still strong. Last year it took me till the 5 May to record as good a performance so it has set me up quite well.

There was a humbling factor. During my convalescence my rival Jonno has switched to a structured training plan and is pretty strong now. He beat me for the first time. I'll say it's due to my recovery but it is quite possible that I won't be beating him again. With minimal training he was a handful. The good news is that considering the change in the perception of my progress just within a week, I might also be able to get on par with him. We're both competitive people so if I can keep my improvements coming I'll at least keep him honest.

The next event is the Maraetai Half in 5 weeks, which I'll say I'd like to get a 1:30-1:35 time and aim for a sub-1:30 in the final half marathon of the series, the Waterfront Half, in mid-April. Pre-surgery I was also thinking of an early marathon, the Kirikiriroa Marathon in Hamilton, which is just four weeks away, but considering the state of my training, it might be a waste of time. 

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Getting back on track

January and running have never really gone together for me. January 2015 was in Guangzhou and after a period of running along the Pearl River in the December cool, January got hot too quickly and I only ran once; January 2016 we'd just got back from China and I had tendonitis ever since a gym incident and it took me till May to get running again; January 2017 got off to a good start but perhaps too ambitious: by the 21st I went around a corner and gave myself a calf tear that put me out of running action for two months; January 2018 was impacted by an aggravated knee; and January 2019 I was coming back from both a fall and surgery in December. The fengshui is all wrong in January, it seems and is always a month of recovery. 

That being said, even with a gentle increase in mileage since the surgery, this January has been the most successful January of the lot - with more running than the previous four years combined, 178km in all. Even though that isn't much compared to an average month last year, I'm still more than satisfied that I've gotten off to a start. 

February will be a month of really getting back into it. In just eight days, I'll be running in the Coatesville Half, which will be more of a training run for me than an actual race. I've only run this course once which was last year, but in March briefly after returning from China. I had barely trained and recorded my worse half marathon time 1:54. Fortunately even though I'm undercooked I'll definitely be able to do better than that this time, and much earlier in the year. This morning in preparation I ran the same distance over a similarly difficult hilly course and got 1:48 so I'm feeling like I'm strong enough to get 1:45. While that is nothing glorious compared to past events (in fact it'd be my third slowest time), I'm pretty happy with the revival of my running.

The subtext to all this is that my recovery from surgery is mostly complete. Less than two weeks ago I finally got to see the surgeon as a standard post-surgical check. To be honest I was still filled with doubts, which I expressed. I respect her opinion but it felt that the check was a bit too routine and perfunctory. She was basically saying all the things I was experiencing were within the range of expectation, that things were fine, which of course could be right but after six weeks of recovery and still to be having discomfort and impact on some of my activities. Now of course I find her judgement to have been correct.

The biggest impact on my running right now is that during the recovery period I had the habit of not using my core to move, and relied on locking my spine and using my arms for a lot of everyday actions like getting up out of chairs, beds, etc. And in early January it was clear that I'd developed "a tummy". Of course part of that was probably the festive period's effect on one's weight. But it was also that a lot of the core muscle atrophied too. Core and glute muscles are important for being able to generate speed and I think that is the main trouble I'm experiencing. Once I'm confident enough I'll focus on those areas and I believe I'll be quickly up to pace and ready for a successful year.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Whangarei

It was not the first place I would have thought of, but when it was decided that we'd go to Whangarei for the Auckland Anniversary long weekend I was quite happy. It was one place that I'd only passed through without stopping at anything more than a petrol station. Quite often I find myself with a Aucklander's condescension of some of the smaller "cities" of New Zealand. Besides the outstanding feature of Whangarei Heads (and the piece of rock that is Mt Manaia), in my head I had thought it to be something of a backwater.

On arrival though at the Town Basin, it showed itself to have scrubbed up pretty well. There was a decent family friendly open space along a waterway that parked boats. Boats were a feature - even the flash looking Te Matau o Pohe bridge can open in the middle to allow yachts through. Whangarei Harbour is close to both recreational fisheries as well as marine reserves. Now, I'm not the seafaring type but I like the feeling of almost being in this natural canal-like environment. We didn't do that much on the only full day we were there: a visit to Whangarei Falls, which isn't bad, and a dip at Ruakaka Beach (average waves, but at least not a safety hazard), but it still felt a good place to be.

People were nice. Even the out-of-towners. Our hotel was mostly taken by a wedding party on the first day but the guests instinctively and proactively accommodated when we went over to the pool. They were a mixture of locals and guests. Since they'd spread out, they quickly offered space up. One guest started talking to my wife with relish. She had been born in the north but had been living in Sydney for decades before returning for this wedding, apparently. And another moment, at Ruakaka Beach, our car was briefly spinning its wheels in sand, when the guy from the neighboring car popped out immediately and offered to push the front of the car. That's all it needed. There were quite a few other small moments which made me remember the small town niceness I'm familiar with from my youth.

The only backwateriness I got was on a run, where there was a loose dog that decided to run after me on both my run away from the hotel and then on my return. Fortunately, he was just a curious dog, even though he looked of a breed that if raised in a less loving environment might have done more than nip at my heels. But loose dogs are quite a detraction for me, even if it is one person who may have accidentally not chained up their canine.

The distance to Whangarei was not too bad either - once a bypass is finished at Warkworth it and the rest of the north would be so much more accessible. This being a long weekend, we learned more about the "alternative route". Both the to and from journeys were made through part of SH16, which though longer is often as fast or faster than SH1 when there is a lot of traffic. It's a bonus that it also avoids toll charges that you'd get on the main SH1 road.

Would I go back? Well, I've wanted to walk in Whangarei Heads and that desire still remains. The beaches are worthy of exploration, too, and having been travelling in a bigger group with its own needs and wants, I missed out on some interesting places. So, if given the chance, I'd be back.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Six weeks

Yesterday marked the end of my six-week recovery period from hernia surgery. It's felt a long time since that very interesting experience in hospital and the time since has been loaded with doubt, impatience, imprudence, angst and regrets. The first week I knew I was doing too much even while I was doing too much and then the second and third week I was wondering whether I'd harmed myself by doing too much, while still doing a lot at work and play and travelling with my parents-in-law.

"Six weeks" is a puzzling length of time for someone who hasn't had surgery. Even the two weeks' complete rest period after surgery had been rather odd to me. Perhaps it's because I've had "wounds" before that never took too long and not really understand what surgery meant. Open inguinal hernia surgery, to be clear, has many steps from cutting through skin and muscle, to inserting mesh, to sewing the mesh in, then sewing the muscle together and then the skin together. Precision Stab Wounds + Plus.

At the two week mark I went to a GP in an agitated state. I was a jittery mess both physically and mentally. I couldn't wait for some guidance or insight, or just the assurance that things were on track. (I still don't know if what I got was good advice. I believe I had a mild infection at that time that wasn't noticed or treated at that point that caused a lot of discomfort.) She gave me a couple of gauze bandages and the assurance that surgical recovery is often a case of two steps forward and one step back. That wisdom which applies to so much was some relief.

Six weeks should signify the opposite of quick recovery - progress is slow and sometimes imperceptible. And that's where the doubt creeps in. Between week 4 and week 5 there was still discomfort that arose during both weeks. Even with a gentle run in the fifth week the "healing ridge" from the surgery pounding and swollen. It hadn't done that and felt "wrong". In the fifth week how could it still feel so swollen.

I now have a belly. It's not your usual belly - it's a result of my core muscles all going flabby as I used my limbs rather than my core for getting out of bed, chairs and automobiles. Even though most of the discomfort has gone I still instinctively prevent any use of core by locking by spine and hips and using my arms to level myself around. Running, which uses the core when done right, has been odd without the core that I had. I have to reprogram my habits and do regular exercises to build it back up. 

Now that the six weeks are up I still feel I have some time to go. I still feel twinges at odd times for odd movements. The healing ridge, while not protruding out from my body, is still evident to touch. I still don't want anything pressing on the area. On the plus side, I'm running although still mostly at an easy pace. I'm 18 days away from a series race that I'll likely just cruise rather than race. One little sign I'm close to recovery is my resting heart rate. This goes up when you're sick, drinking, tired and down when you're body is well, without much inflammation. These two days it's sunk back to 52 which is pretty much in the normal range for me.

Tomorrow I'll be meeting my assailant, the surgeon who cut me, for a consultation. She seemed nice enough before she wounded me. I'm looking forward to it.

Running-related curious addendum: I've mentioned here previously my dicky heart rate while running. It went low going uphill and rose downhill which is rather counter-intuitive. It had patches of random lower heart rate (115bpm) and rates higher than 180bpm with no factor of speed, effort, ascent or descent. Post-surgery, I noticed my running blood pressure is much higher than my previous running, but with fewer troughs but more peaks. Interestingly, my recent runs have been more similar to how it's meant to be: the more effort I put in, the higher my heart rate would be. A pattern that normal people have. It might be temporary normality but something that I'll watch and reflect on.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Corny?

It's hard to know whether the world is getting more cynical or skeptical. The democratism of views through online media certainly amplify all views, but on the flip-side, the targets for cynicism are also amplified. Facebook is after all replete in "feel-good" messages, as well as the views that make fun of them. It'd be interesting to count the number of positive memes versus negative memes - if you count cats, it might be a dead-heat. 

We were at a company training yesterday where a session was delivered about how to stay above the line. It's just another way to look at how we can look at our responses to incidents and improve them. The facilitator had some aphorisms written on paper placed on a side table which she had laid out but not actually used in her talk. At the end she just said they were there for reference. Some looked at it and took them as a keepsake but I don't think most really looked. They were all the standard "truths" you'd see on a nature background shared on Facebook, etc. They were these kinds of lines: "Accept what is, let go with what was, have faith in what will be" "Opportunity is missed because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work" and the like. Those ones may have pricked the facilitators ears but I thought they were all pretty ordinary. However, three caught my eye.

"Start each day with a grateful heart" seem pretty much the same sort of stuff as the others but perhaps it was something that I'd been thinking about quite recently. So much dissatisfaction arises in a banal way that takes a whole lot for granted. There is so much to be grateful for, and the more you realise how contingent your happiness and success is on everyday factors both within and without, people and circumstance. If you forget all the positive things that have helped you you can only experience the world negatively, as well as being something of a dick to those whose actions have allowed you to be above what you could have been. I remember in my China days that a manager Jake also told me that he had a prompt on his phone to help him think about the things and people that he is grateful for. 

The flipside quote was: "Being told you are appreciated is the simplest and most uplifting things you can hear." If every time you rationally thought about what you are grateful for you'd either in action or words express your appreciation to people. Perhaps this is timely because I haven't generally been one to verbalise genuine appreciation. I have though tried to make sure it is part of my language during chats with staff.

The final one is "What you allow is what will continue" which is a huge test for managers. It makes for a judgement call on what you tell team members about some habits that are not conducive to a happy office or successful, effective work. Difficult conversations are difficult and they aren't to be shrunk away from.

Some people say you become more cynical with age but I'm not so sure any more. Some millennials seem to be gullible disbelievers. Though older sometimes are weary of reflection and change as well as wary of philosophical bunkum, some also realise the wisdom that comes with age and the importance of values.