Sunday, June 13, 2010

Strikes and Gutters

Amazing what can happen in a week...

A week ago today I had a fantastic run. It was one of the most enjoyable 20k runs I've ever done. I dropped in to an easy quick pace and never felt tired. It was one of those runs that makes me love running, a scenic out and back from my house past Kitsilano Beach. I was passing people effortlessly and it didn't even seem like work to hold a good pace.

Then on Tuesday, another good run. This was my out, back and to work run with hills. Not quite as good a pace, but with the hills and so soon after a fast 20k I was pretty pleased with it.
Somewhere between then and now it has all fallen appart. After this decent morning run in to work, and a bit of a deadline-driven stressful work day, we went out to see Joe Cocker and Tom Petty. Both bands were surprisingly good and we were up pretty late. But I was in good shape to handle another busy day at work on Wednesday. I think Wednesday is where things started to go off the rails. That evening Nora bumped her head. Hard. So Katie ran her to Children's hospital and I stayed home so we didn't have to wake Eliza up. But I couldn't really sleep, and Katie and Nora didn't make it back until morning. (Nora is fine, but it is good we brought her in). So I was in terrible shape Thursday, running on a two night sleep deficit with extra helpings of stress.

But having had a fantastic string of runs I thought I should get in a lunch run. It might even make me feel better, I told myself. Heck the ultra-marathoners go without sleep that long and never even stop running, so buck up! So, off I go on my 7k loop around Lost Lagoon. It wasn't even raining, all that hard. Yet. But rain it did. What started as a refreshing cool mist turned into a dump. I wound up with my shirt and shorts stuck to me like a Corona T-shirt on a girl-gone-wild. I spent the first half of the run trying to keep my pace high and shield my iPod Touch from the deluge by holding it face down, cupped under my left hand. 

That didn't work. Almost exactly half way into my run, on the other side of Lost Lagoon, my iPod turned itself up to eleven and could not be adjusted. Moisture had found its way into the volume rocker switch and shorted out the contact that turns up the volume. I paused the run and started playing with it to see if I could get it to work, but my stomach dropped as the iPod spontaneously rebooted. Losing the run data was the least of my worries. A water-soaked iPod spontaneously rebooting can't be a good sign. I tried to power down, but it rebooted itself again. 

Thinking the iPod was likely fried, I figured I'd hoof it back to work and see if I could dry it out. Unfortunately, as soon as I started to run my left calf knotted up really bad. It was all I could do to make it back to work. I had to run/walk just to make it back in. It was the worst run I've had in years, after nothing but improvements for a couple months.

So the iPod works fine once it dried out (pro tip: put wet electronics in a bowl of dry rice to draw the moisture out). I gave myself a couple days rest, and my calf has been fine. So, I figure it's time for a repeat of last Sunday. I gear up for a long easy run. It is a beautiful day and I have a fresh soundboard recording of the Phish concert they played last night. I was excited to zone out and cover some miles. But two kilometers in I felt a twinge of pain. It got progressively worse. After pausing a couple of times, it was clear that there was no sense in pushing myself, and I hopped on the SkyTrian by Science World, and then a bus up Commercial. Run over...


I'm thinking lack of sleep and stress caused the calf problem in the first place. I hate to call it an injury; it is just some soreness and inflammation in a muscle. But then I guess that is what an injury is, isn't it? I'm wondering if the high stress and lack of sleep could have elevated cortisol levels in my system. Or maybe I was just so tired and distracted by the rain and malfunctioning iPod that I was running with terrible form. Maybe I was just pushing too hard too soon after long mileage.

Either way it is going to keep me from running. I think I should lay off until Thursday or Friday. Guess we'll see how it goes.

As a wise man once said "Sometimes you eat the bar. And, well, sometimes he eats you."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pace, Phish, Evolution and Data Addiction

Considering how slow I am, some will find it comical how much I look at the data around my pace and distance. Some of it is from a genuine desire to know when I'm improving, and to be able to predict how well I could do in a race. That certainly is motivating, at least when the numbers show I'm getting faster. But, the painful truth is I might have a bit of a data addiction. As a case in point, I'll allow myself a bit of a digression from what has so far been a barefoot running blog (where are all the Non Sequiturs, anyway?).

Anyone who knows me well knows I like live music. While I like all kinds of music, from electronica to country to hardcore, the band I've seen the most is Phish. How many times have I seen Phish? Funny you should ask... I've spent the last couple of weeks obsessing over just that. I had kept a record of all the shows I had seen. I had an old copy of a book called the Pharmer's Almanac that listed all shows and their related setlists up through the Spring of '98. I'd gone through and marked the shows I had been at so I could thumb through and reminisce. As I kept seeing shows after the date where the book left off, I kept count but did not keep a record. Until recently I was completely convinced I had seen 90 Phish concerts. Since I will be seeing a couple shows this July (for the first time in 6 years) I thought I'd figure out exactly which shows I've seen. After spending a little time at the the excellent site, I came up with this list. I think there is one more show I haven't accounted for, as I don't think I would have counted the 8/14/1998 soundcheck as a show. It bugs me that I can't find the missing show. Was it Chula Vista, in 2003? That may just be it. But really, why would I care? Because it is fun to play with the data. For instance, the song I've seen the most is Maze. I've seen it 30 times. It is a good song, but I could never figure out why they play it so much. Turns out they don't. If you look at the Overplayed/Underplayed statistics on my own personal Phish Stats, you can see it is an anomaly. In the 89 shows I have listed, I should have only seen that song 18 times. Strange.   I can also see that there are 52 songs that I saw the very frist time Phish played them, including some classics they play all the time.

It is fun to think about, and makes it easy to play with, but it is probably a pointless addiction to plow through all that data.

Which brings me back to running, and trying to interpret the data from my Nikeplus iPod attachment. While I've been encouraged by my recent pace improvements, a run last week made me think that, maybe, the calibration is more off than I would like. According to the data I ran 7.75 km at 4'37"/km pace (4.82 mi @ 7'27"/mi). Looking back, I think this is the fastest run I've ever logged since I started using the iPod to track pace in 2006. This was certainly a fast run for me. No doubt. And I've ran a certified 10k at a faster pace than this in the past, so it isn't completely out of the realm of possibility. But outliers like this make me nervous about the calibration of the equipment. Can it really be my fastest run in years? Is barefoot and minimalist running driving that much of an improvement? Really?

If the pace is off the distance will be off, right? So, I went out and mapped my lunch run on the site.  It comes out to 7.34k, while my logged run reads 7.75k, roughly 95% accurate. So, plugging in the numbers at an online pace calculator, my pace may well have been 4:53/km rather than 4:37/km. It is still a good pace for me, but not as good as I had thought: 16 seconds per kilometer slower, or more than two and a half minutes over the course of a 10k. It is not the fastest run I've ever logged, as I had thought. The good news is, looking back at the data, it is still impressive. The last time I matched that pace was during a short run on May 17th, 2007.

My seat of the pants feelings about my runs are correct. I'm seeing improvements. Now to see if I can feed that data back into the iPod to improve accuracy. When I complete a run, the iPod offers a calibrate option. That way you can set a completed run to a known distance. I did that for the Sun Run 10k. It is not a well documented feature. I don't know if it simply calibrates that one run, or if it feeds that data back for future runs. I guess we'll have to find out. Next time I do the Lost Lagoon run I'll stick strictly to my mapped route and calibrate it to 7.34 after the fact.

So I'm obsessing about details of both my runs and the concerts I've seen. I'm not really OCD, but I do like to pour over all this data. And just how does this data addiction relate to running in general? Does it? Well, I just finished reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougal (a fantastic book everyone should read) and came across an interesting idea. Stick with me here... (Wait, WTF?!? You are still here?)  A major premis of the book, besides being an interesting story about an obscure ultra-marathon that was staged in the Mexican wilderness, is that humans evolved to run. We are better distance runners than any other animal. Our build allows us to conserve energy while running steadily, while our hairless body covered with sweat glands helps us cool and recover on the go. No other animal in the world can beat us at a marathon or longer, not even a horse. We evolved that way for persistance hunting: chasing and tracking animals until they overheat and die. Obviously running is a big part of that, but when researchers attempted it they failed. The animals would disappear, fold themselves back into the herd and the hunters would wind up chasing fresh animals. But a South African man named Louis Liebenberg found the answer. He became interested in the origin of logic and scientific thought in human prehistory so he dropped out of society to go live with the Kalahari Bushmen, who were as prehistoric a culture as still exists. During his time with the Bushmen, Louis learned persistance hunting. Running was only half the equation; it turns out it takes a lot of brains as well as running.
"When tracking an animal, one attempts to think like an animal in order to predict where it is going," Louis says. "Looking at its tracks, one visualizes the motion of the animal and feels that motion in one's own body. You go into a trance like state, the concentration is so intense. It's actually quite dangerous, because you become numb to your own body and can keep pushing yourself until you collapse."
Visualization... empathy... abstract thinking and forward projection: aside from the keeling-over part, isn't that exactly the mental engineering we now use for science, medicine, the creative arts? "When you track, you're creating causal connections in your mind, because you didn't actually see what the animal did," Louis realized. "That's the essence of physics." With speculative hunting, early human hunters had gone beyond connecting the dots; they were now connecting dots that existed only in their minds.
Speculative tracking and persistance hunting probably drove our evolution; made us who we are by rewarding efficient running bodies and the ability decipher almost random scratches in the dirt. While running was a huge part of why we survived, the other half of the equation was the ability to collect and collate data.

So not only are my running and my data addiction related, they are at the core of who we are as a species. Beter than any other land animal on the planet, we can settle in to a nice comfortable run and cover huge amounts of ground. Similarly, we can take disparate information from multiple sources and see patterns, connections and causalities. We can take two seemingly unrelated points of data, non sequitors in the conversation between us and our environment, and fill in the blanks and find causal connections. You see what I did there?