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?

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