Did you know...
The word "blog" is a constriction of the words weB and LOG?
That still doesn't excuse it for me.
See, I hate the word blog. Sounds like someone threw up. In fact, I distinctly recall, back in 1998, when there was no such things as blogs, a friend saying to someone at a particularly raucous party, "Oh, man, why'd you just blog on my shoe?!"
Personally, I think of "blog" more as that big, disgusting lump of STUFF at the bottom of the kitchen sink that you have to throw away when your mom makes you do the dishes for your allowance.
Anyway, I've been told that I have to keep this journal here, and that I have to call it a Blog. Why? "Because that's
what the cool people do," is the best explanation I've heard. Since I've never been a cool person, I realized probably all that was missing was a blog of my very own.
But if I have to call it a blog, I'd rather make it sound even worse, by changing it to micro-blog, which sounds to me like a particularly heinous infectious disease.
Yeah, let's go with that.
Okay, since I have to call this a blog, and I decided to use the prefix "micro," I'm left to now decide whether to use a hyphen or not. Most would say, yes, I should, since it makes the term easier to read. Face it, "microblog" makes you want to say "my-Krob-log," which is even more disgusting to say than My-kroe-blog. And that, my friends, is exactly why I'm not hyphenating.
So, without further adieu (because there's only so much adieu a person can take)...
When I was seven-, eight-, nine-years old, I was one of the first of what they once called “latchkey kids.” The circumstances of this fact are not important, but every day after school I walked myself home along through the streets of Newark and Bloomfield, let myself into the apartment and spent most of my afternoons occupying myself by listening to horse races in the radio (yes, that was a thing in the 1970’s) and, mostly, by playing imaginary games of baseball or football in the backyard.
Before every game, the national anthem. Yes, really.
The few but regular sporting events my father could afford to take me to were always special events. The bus or car ride to the venue, the popcorn, hot dogs and pretzels at the stand (Dad and I were always big eaters), even the ticket stub that was invariably saved, was part of a cherished ritual, a time of togetherness. To culminate the actual start of whatever event it was, there was one more ritual that galvanized the whole affair and was thus very special for me: the national anthem. Dad would touch me on the arm, and that was the sign, to stand. There was something special about thousands of people pausing whatever they were doing to rise en masse to honor a flag and country with a song. Back then most also remembered that holding one’s hand over ones heart was part and parcel of the experience, as well.
The games themselves were memorable, or they were not. But everything up to and including the anthem was. So much so that, when it came to my own imaginative backyard sporting events, I was sure to convert my indoor blackboard easel to an outdoor stadium scoreboard, complete with American flag draped carefully off the right hand side. I think a real estate agent stuck the thing in our easement on Memorial Day.
Before each afternoon’s sporting event, I brought my sister’s fancy cassette player outside with me, placed my special cassette inside it (I don’t remember when or how I made it), and pressed play. I stood at attention, right hand over my heart, and sang the National Anthem out loud with the tape.
Yes, every day. All by myself.
I loved the whole ritual that was the national anthem.
As I grew, and subsequently realized that I would be mocked (or had I already been mocked?) for playing The Star-Spangled Banner just to throw a baseball against a wall or a football in the air to run under it and catch it, I stopped playing the national anthem when I went to the yard to play.
But I still loved the song and the ritual. I always stopped to listen when it was played on television (which was happening less and less for sporting events. I guessed it didn’t bring good ratings).
When I went to games as a teenager or young adult, it was still a big deal to stand for the anthem. It bothered me a little (not a lot) when people stopped putting their hands over their heart. I guessed that wasn’t cool.
Once, when I was 19, there was an outcry over people burning the flag in protest. The idea of something that was sacred to me (and, I had thought, all Americans) being desecrated appalled me. I recall writing a letter to my congressman (who, in the great spirit of American progress, I believe is still my congressman now), urging him to support legislation that would ensure protection of the flag. At the time, I felt empowered that at least I could do something to show more support for an American ideal. I'm not going to say I was wrong then. I'm not sure I was. I know it disturbed me and I needed to say something about it to someone who had the power that I didn’t.
As a single adult, my friend Rob and I subscribed to season tickets for the New Jersey Devils for several years. We both loved getting there early, buying a King Kone (Rob’s favorite) and Devil Dog (mine), and getting to our seats in time to finish eating and stand for the national anthem.
I noticed as the years went on, American sports fans found that it was incumbent upon them to cheer before the anthem finished, and the cheering started earlier and earlier, sometimes before the singing was even half over. I always wondered why these people bothered standing at all, wondered if they thought about why the National Anthem was still the official beginning to every communal sporting event. In short, it bothered me.
As an avid runner, I still appreciate the ritual of the national anthem, and sometimes the song has a wonderful communal effect: for a minute or two, it unites the various runners who are going to take part in a competition where they are otherwise very much alone. Some of the time, it’s a disappointing affair. Often, runners fail to take off their caps or head-coverings, talk or stretch during the song or ignore the anthem altogether. Sometimes, however, it reminds us about community.
In fact, my favorite recent memory was during a small event in my hometown. The mayor always shows up for this fall 5k and brings an extremely outdated cassette player oddly very much like my sister’s, depresses the button and points the speaker at the microphone for all to hear. It’s low-tech and unimpressive, but it is sincere.
A couple years ago, something went wrong with the cassette player. Its batteries were drained, or it finally gave up the ghost after decades of usage. The mayor looked around at the race officials, helpless. Did anyone have a solution? No. Seconds passed. He opened the battery pack, pressed more buttons. Nothing still. There was going to be no Star-Spangled banner that day. Unless…
I looked to my left at one of my running companions, Tom. We didn’t speak, but somehow we understood. It wasn’t a big deal; we knew the words. So,
we opened our mouths and sang. A few people next to us joined in, then people near them, and soon the whole crowd had joined in to share an a capella version of the anthem. When we finished,
there was no one there who didn’t stand a little taller, didn’t feel a little prouder. It wasn’t a life-changing event, but it was our anthem that day.
It meant something then. It means something still.
The National Anthem and I have a long history together, a wonderful relationship. And while I don’t think any of this qualifies me as an expert of flag decorum or arbiter of what is or isn’t respectful, it does identify me as someone who cares and has considered why I do care. I like to think, still, that I am just one of many thousands, maybe millions (but probably not) of Americans who do have a personal relationship with the flag. So, I really do understand when people are upset about the treatment of the flag and/or our National Anthem. Only I have learned, for me, that it is not what you do when it is played; it’s what you think about.
Someone thoughtfully kneeling with a hand on his heart while the national anthem plays is not a demon or a son-of-a-bitch. To me, the act is a patriotic one. It’s the huge number of people I have encountered through the years who do not remove their hats, do not look at the flag and do continue their conversations while the anthem plays bothers me much more. They disrespect the flag, the anthem and the country by refusing to even pause to think about what any of it might mean. It's not thoughtfulness that should offend us; it’s thoughtlessness.
Because I like to keep my reviews brief, and because I can't do that when it comes to some writers, I let myself ramble and put those reviews
by Andrew Smith
I no longer believe that Andrew Smith intentionally breaks the rules of literature. Instead, I think he just writes the books he wants to write, conventions be damned.
Either way, he continues to rewrite the definitions of 21st century Young Adult literature, and the world's readers (there's a reason he's translated into so many languages, you know?) are all the richer for it.
Case in point: Stand-Off, a sequel to Smith's magnificent, hilarious and heartbreaking tour-de-force, Winger.
Without giving too much away (because if ever there were a book you wanted to unfurl a chapter at a time, it's that one), Winger was a stunner of a novel--a seeming teen sex-and-humor genre piece at first, then subtly but increasingly insightful, occasionally maddening, realistically romantic, obsessively biological, then absolutely hilarious before finally being--well, what it really was all about in the first place, though you didn't realize it the first time you read it. Winger was, in being a somewhat schizophrenic book, a perfect model of 21st century life. It didn't try to be a single consistent narrative (let's not forget the intertextual comic panels and letters throughout), but a stirring example of indeterminacy, mutability, morality and accident. It also left the reader, when its climactic scene occurs (or rather doesn't occur: it happened outside the narrative of the protagonist, Ryan Dean West) without the climax that English teachers like myself have been trained to teach students to identify in stories. It left readers, to use a cliche that this time works, breathless.
Winger's ending also left the reader certain that, if any book didn't need a sequel--in fact, couldn't sustain a sequel--this would be it.
So, naturally, Andrew Smith produced this, Stand-Off, a sequel. Ryan's Dean West returns with girlfriend Annie Altman, and pursuing their relationship might be the traditional, expected course of a sequel. But what do you do with a relationship once you've achieved boy-gets-girl? Lesser writers would indulge in misunderstandings, the required breakup and finally reunion. Ho-hum.
Remarkably, Ryan Dean and Annie stay together as maturing young lovers--against all convention, expectation be damned--and for the rest of the book! No, that’s not a spoiler, so that’s why I didn’t alert you.
But where's the drama in a reasonably successful relationship, right? Lesser writers, again, wouldn't care, because once boy and girl find each other, it's either Happily Ever After or You Don't Understand Me. No novel has ever had to endure actually showing two teenagers dealing with what life would otherwise tell us is a normal relationship. But for Ryan Dean and Annie, life does go on after their eventful junior year of high school, just as it does in--dare I say it?-- real life.
So, now it is senior year of high school at Pine Mountain High, and, since Andrew Smith continued to write about him, Ryan Dean is forced to continue living, learning and loving (I know, it sounds corny, but perhaps the hardest thing to learn is how to live once the best and worst things you can imagine have already happened to you). How to make everyday life compelling in a novel, well, that's Smith's challenge with Stand-Off.
In his senior year, Ryan Dean is finally in the unique position of no longer being one of the youngest kids in the school (for newcomers, he had skipped two grades earlier in his education). Being a fourth year player on the rugby team, however, he is now looked upon as a leader, so he has quickly jumped from being a new teenager who had to prove himself on every level to a team leader... in fact, captain. And as a leader, he also must do what is best for the team, which means leaving his position as winger and taking on the role of Stand Off (don't worry, Smith explains it sufficiently).
Also as a leader, and the only student at Pine Mountain HS who could possibly identify, he is forced to room with newcomer Sam Abernathy, a 12-year-old freshman. That's right, Sam is the Ryan Dean of three years ago. The difference between the two is, Sam has in Ryan Dean a role model that he, Ryan Dean, never had.
But Ryan Dean never asked to be team captain, or role model to a neurotic 12-year-old. He'd been through a lot last year, and all he wanted to a little continuity and a smooth, easy senior year. Like it or not, however, growing up means you can't easily blend into the background.
In Winger, we were introduced to a Ryan Dean we immediately felt sorry for (he had his head in a toilet bowl, after all), wanted to like, and even rooted for, but as an immature young teenager, he made some choices that frustrated us (and the delightfully limbed Joey Cosentino). To some degree, because Joey liked Ryan Dean, and because he made some wonderful choices, too, we stood by Ryan Dean as he pursued Annie, and new friendships, and a sense of self that he himself didn’t despise. By the end, Ryan Dean rewarded our faith in him, and he felt a little less like a loser.
That, too, presents a typical sequel dilemma. We already appreciate Ryan Dean, so how can he earn our appreciation again? Answer: throw him into a new role. He perhaps earned our respect as a fourteen-year-old, but now he's a year older and presumably more than a year wiser. He can't remain where he was. We have new expectations of him, just as his rugby coach does, his friends and classmates do, and even Annie does. Oh, yes, and Sam Abernathy, too.
The problem is, and if I've stated the problem before, it's because Ryan Dean restates it too: he didn't ask for these expectations and responsibilities, and he certainly didn't ask for a claustrophobic prepubescent roommate to ruin any positive reputation he may have had coming into this year. Quickly, he learns to resent young Sam, and spends much of his time abandoning the kid as Sam totes around after him in search of guidance. The more Sam idolizes him, the more Ryan Dean resents Sam. And THAT's how Ryan Dean returns to the role of protagonist we adore but are repeatedly frustrated by. Once again, we return to repeatedly saying, "Why doesn't he..." And "Why can't he just..." And of course, we answer ourself with, "He's not yet ready." Ryan Dean is who he is, and will only become more than that when he becomes—well, more than that.
In Winger, Joey was there for him as father figure who taught him how to expect more from himself and how to act like a man. In Stand-Off, Smith remarkably has the 12-year-old Sam, as a wide-eyed idealist, act as much as Ryan Dean’s teacher as his pupil. Teenage life can be full of weighty melodrama, but Sam is a delightfully young kid who time and again steals the show with his extreme lack of sarcasm and irony. He alone makes this an even-funnier-than-Winger sequel. (By the way, it could never be as heartbreaking, so don’t expect it to be.)
Okay, so I know this has been more of an essay than a review, the kind of I thing you read after reading a book, to help identify why you liked it, rather than before it to get you to want to read it in the first place. And I know it seems like the book concerns so many "lessons" that are "learned." But Ryan Dean’s story is, in fact, so much about growth and self-awareness. Smith's talent--and frequently genius--is that a good review of Winger and/or Stand-Off would talk nothing of awareness and growth and maturity and still do a fine job of explaining the books. Such a review would go something like this:
Ryan Dean West is back for his senior year at Pine Mountain, and this time he's paired with a 12-year-old neurotic roommate named Sam, who needs his guidance as much as Ryan Dean needed it when he was a freshman. But Ryan Dean never had a role model to hold his hand. Why should he have to lead little Sam around with him wherever he goes?
Besides, Sam is so claustrophobic that the pair will have to sleep with their door or window open all through the winter. And whenever Sam has to use the bathroom, Ryan Dean has to step into the hallway. And his classmates have started teasing Ryan Dean about his constant companion, which is the last thing a senior trying to cement his reputation needs.
Annie Altman is still here, too, and now 15-year-old Ryan Dean doesn't exactly know how to take their relationship to the next level--yes, you know, sex. Of course, Annie might know a little more about that, being 17, but he's always had issues with being the younger partner in that relationship. Besides, at Pine Mountain, how could they ever find free time alone, anyway. That is, if Sam Abernathy would ever stop following him around like a puppy.
Last year's senior class cast of characters is gone, so the book brings us evolving returning characters like former best friend Sean Flaherty, and brand new ones like horny bisexual Swede Spotted John, who has the hots for Ryan Dean. Yes, you heard all those adjectives correctly. And Joey Cosentino's brother is here now, too, but he is as reserved and reticent as Joey was outgoing and approachable. But Ryan Dean needs to talk to him. He's not sure what he'd say, but so much seems to have been left unsaid with Joey. And then there's wide-eyed Sam again, popping up at every corner at the worst possible moment.
Throughout, Ryan Dean is sure the Next Accidental Terrible Experience is about to happen, and draws the personified NATE in all his latest comic strips. The fact that nothing terrible happens as time passes doesn't change Ryan Dean's attitude. He's clearly not over last year's calamities, and all he wants is to slide by his senior year—oh yeah, and to sleep with Annie. But there's Sam again, and, well, sometimes you can’t avoid your responsibilities, especially when you don't want them. Damn that Sam!
Stand-Off is an absolutely delightful book about an absolutely delightfully flawed fifteen-year-old whose struggles to accept his twelve-year-old roommate mirror his struggles to accept himself.
My rating: Four-and-a-half out of five pair of Wonder Woman boys’ underpants.
Andrew Smith is not my friend.
He is my Facebook friend.
Like 1000 other people who claim him as such.
In short, he is not my friend at all, really.
I do believe he knows that I am a defender and proponent of his writing. I have taught his novels in my Young Adult Literature courses at Montclair State University for the last three years, and four times he has been the recipient of Boy Book of the Month honors on my site, BoyBookoftheMonth.com. But I can’t honestly claim him as a friend.
I say this because there are people who believe that social media gives them certain rights, like the right to claim a stranger as a friend, or the right to bully said stranger personally and professionally. That has happened recently to my Facebook friend Andrew Smtih. It should not have happened. It happened because Andrew Smith writes books for boys (there, I said it), though in no way do I think there’s ever any intention of excluding girls from his readership. They just often tell stories about boys trying to learn about themselves, the world around them, and girls. And so boys often gravitate toward these books. So, someone who read ONE of his books some years ago decided that he was a sexist somehow. I won’t belabor that point, mainly because I don’t understand it myself.
In short, a Andrew Smith got railroaded out of the virtual world because he dared to honestly answer a question. What did he say? He answered the contention that “there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers” by saying “I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself comletely ignorant to all things woman d female. I’m trying to be better though.” What an awful thing to say, right? No, of course not! But to some people, apparently, this makes him a sexist.
After this online event, Andrew Smith cancelled his Twitter and Facebook accounts and his website is down, which means I have no way to tell him that I support him, and I’m sorry about what happened to him yesterday, and that it was the work of the ignorant who think they are arbiters of taste in the world. Right now I wish there was no social media, so people like Andrew Smith, who have done nothing but try to be a voice to disenfranchised young people (yes, usually teenage boys: you got a problem with that?), wouldn’t be hurt by people who think that because they are allowed to speak on social media that they actually have something worthwhile to say. I am not his friend, but I know enough about his life to know he is a sensitive human being who writes books about sensitive boys because he wants to help them understand their world better.
Anyway, if you are looking at anything posted on the internet today, Andrew, please read this: Do not let them silence your voice. Stay off social media if you must (although, where am I going to get new independent music suggestions?). But do not let them keep you from writing for those of us who were left out by mainstream trends that told us we had to fit our square edges into their round holes.
I was first introduced to Andrew Smith’s work four years ago by M. Jerry Weiss, the man who discovered Paula Danziger, and
always finds writerly gems for the world. “Here, read this,” he said, putting a copy of Stick in my hands. “There’s not
a school in America that can teach it. It’s wonderful!”
In short, Stick is about a boy who suffers at the hands of abusive parents and is forced to make his way through the world on his own. It’s about every kind of taboo—verbal, physical, sexual and psychological abuse; teenage sex; bullying; drugs; prostitution. After reading it, I understood what Jerry meant. It’s not a book that maybe anyone would want to read, but it’s a book many people need to read. It’s the kind of book that Andrew Smith has been writing ever since—a book for kids whose lives aren’t sitcoms. I could go on to more reviews, but that is not my aim here. All I can tell you is that Winger is, in my estimation, one of the four most important Young Adult novels of the 21st century, one which just might have the chance to change teenagers’ attitudes about—oh, hell: sexuality, homosexuality, bullying, friendship, open-mindedness, education, love, responsibility, loyalty, and maybe three or four more themes.
He is a writer who makes a difference, and I want him to continue to make a difference, despite some ignorant people’s claims that if you aren’t writing for them personally (whoever they think they are), you aren’t worthwhile. So, Andrew Smith is not my friend, so I can't call him, I can't email him. If one of his friends is reading this, though, maybe you can tell him for me:
The loud-mouthed bullies of the virtual world are wrong. You’re right. Keep writing, Andrew, and if you never return to social media, I’ll miss you, but I understand.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the MegaBookStore and move more Andrew Smith (and David Lubar, Jason Reynolds, Benjamin Alire Saenz and Alex London, Matt de la Peña and a few others’) books to the top row of the first shelf so more people can see that there are writers who speak for them.
Mark Strand was, for me, the greatest living poet writing in English. Those who don't love literature will not know the excitement at having one's favorite writer release a new book of poems. Ah, good times indeed…
I devoured every work of Strand's from the 1980's onward, and consider myself very lucky indeed to have met the man and worked with him in writing my first book, Reading Mark Strand. He was patient and engaged and engaging, honest and forthright, and just a joy to have a conversation with. No, that is not entirely true. In fact, often he was so engaging, honest and forthright that I found myself pedaling intellectually hard to keep up with him.
I recall having to negotiate dueling conversations between Mark and my editor and mentor Harold Bloom, repeatedly returning to one or the other to reveal what the first had said about Strand’s work. “I’m a bit of a mystic,” Mark once admitted to me, and when I repeated the contention to Harold, there was, at first, silence.
“Well, honestly, I don’t know where he could have come up with that,” Harold responded, “My boy, do us a favor and ask our dear friend Mark where he sees that in the poetry, because I don’t see anything that really approaches mysticism in the work.” Mark’s response was that warm small laugh of his. I suppose we started talking about mysticism, but as we delved deeper into the structure, sound and sentiment of his magnum opus, Dark Harbor, we quickly left mysticism behind. I loved leaving things behind in our fast-moving conversations, and those who love Mark’s early poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” will understand why, for the poem is more than merely a clever trope.
Mark Strand’s participation in my book exceeds those many conversations, however. Literally, the book would not have been possible without him. When I asked for permissions to use lines from his poems in my book, wasn't I surprised when the publisher wanted $9800. (Those who don't know about scholarly publishing, unless you are Harold Bloom you will likely not see $800 from sales, let alone $9800; it was a prohibitive fee in the true sense of the word). When I called Mark for his insight, it didn't take more than a minute for him to say, "Let me call some people." Within 24 hours, he had informed his publisher that he would waive all his royalties on permissions and asked the publisher to do the same. (The publisher, by the way, refused, but Mark’s royalties being the lion’s share, I was able to scrape together the money to receive permission to quote from the poems).
But that is my small personal debt to Mark Strand. The larger one is the work itself, which I can say made me a scholar. As a poet, he was one of a vanishing breed who believed in the power of the written word. To hear him speak his poems, in a dry, well-enunciated but completely unaffected tone, was to understand that words have power. This is in direct contradiction to much of today’s poetry that excels really as performance art but does not stand up to quiet solitary readings. One would laugh out loud at one of his lines, but before the chuckle had ended, a subsequent line (or often the very same line) would knock you to earth with sadness. This is what Strand’s poetry, especially his later, less populist but stronger, poetry did. It reminded you that words were something to consider, that words were responsible, that words never come close enough to “the thing itself.” Words were easy to say, but hard to say exactly what one meant. Words were all we had.
For me, Mark Strand’s poetry is best
summed up in his loose translation of an Italian poem, “Leopardi.” Strand disavowed himself from the poem because, as he said to me in
an interview, “it revealed too much.” He didn’t even include it in his collection, New Selected Poems, wishing, I believe,
it would be forgotten. But I will never forget it, and I repeat the concluding words of it here for you because they speak for me at
the loss of this tremendous poet:
Once when I was a boy, and the birthday I had waited for
was over, I lay on my bed, awake and miserable, and very late
that night the sound of someone's voice singing down a side street
dying little by little into the distance,
wounded me, as this does now.
I just responded to someone's Facebook post. It was a very funny picture, so I responded with my usual answer to something that makes me laugh out loud… specifically, "Bwaahaahaa!"
I know, some of you are saying, "If you laughed out loud, shouldn't you have just written 'LOL'." My answer to this is: no. My experience with that acronym is threefold:
1) Some people write LOL indiscriminately, so even if they write it as a response to your post, you are correct to wonder if they even read what you posted.
2) Even if they really mean it, EVERYONE writes LOL. Therefore, it doesn't even mean that much any more. It's like "love" and "hate." What do they mean anymore? "I love broccoli; I hate the Kardasshians; I love my car; I hate my boyfriend."
3) You can never tell for certain if someone is writing it sincerely or not, so whenever you read LOL, you can pretty much assume they're doing little more than clicking the "Like" button, which in itself could mean anything, too—anywhere between "I honestly, sincerely enjoyed what you wrote in such a way that it improved my day and/or made me think seriously about something I had not previously considered" and "I read your post."
So what am I saying? I'm saying, if you really laughed at something, you could come up with a response that is uniquely you, and takes maybe 1.3 seconds longer to type than LOL. You know, something like, "Holy sh*t, that's funny" or "That's g--damn hilarious, bro!" Your friends will love you for it, and we'll be a better world because of it.
That is all.
Is there such a thing as a "Boy Book," as in, just for boys? Of course not. I never said there was. As the incomparable John Green said (or was it his brother) in one of his great vlogs (an even uglier word than "blog"), human sexuality itself is not a duality (one isn't merely gay or straight), but rather each individual is somewhere on an infinite line between conceptions of typically heterosexual and homosexual behavior. (Okay, so maybe Green said it better!)
Our conceptions of what a "boy" or "girl" is needs to be reconfigured this way, as well. Is a "traditional," sports-loving male more of a "boy" than one who likes to cook? Of course not. Is a soccer-playing girl with short hair less a girl than a princess-loving one who likes to wear pink? Of course not.
My decision to create this list several years ago was never with any intention of marginalizing anyone. In truth, I think of these books as books for anyone, and say so elsewhere. My first goal as parent and teacher, however, was to keep the dialogue open for teachers and librarians to remember that just because they loved a book didn't mean their students (boy OR girl) would love it. Males and females do share more things in common than we have differences, but those differences can be difficult to conceptualize. As such, I'm always trying to make my student teachers aware of the fact that, just because, say, The Good Earth worked for them does not mean it will work for their students. I'm idealistic in believing there are books that can appeal to both genders, though I also recognize that no book will appeal to everyone.
That being said, we need to address the fact that reading materials have traditionally excluded male readers in the recent, oh, century or so. Is it enough to say, "Well, they're just going to have to read it?" I don't think so. I think there's a reason why so many boys are what we call "reluctant readers," and those educators who ignore their role in creating the gender reading gap are as guilty as those in the last half of the 20th century who believed girls had less aptitude for science and math. Of course they didn't. Okay, maybe a little. But not nearly as much as we thought. And so, we didn't try to create mathematicians and scientists out of little girls. Shame on us.
But now there are some who say boys have less aptitude for reading than girls, because they can't sit still, or something like that. Of course they don't have less aptitude for reading! Okay, maybe a little. But not nearly as much as we think. And so, many of us don't try to create readers out of boys. We just throw books at them and hope they'll stick. Shame on us.
Hence, my list. I hope the list contains books that appeal to both genders, to be truthful. Almost all the best books do. Is Harry Potter a boy book? The Lightning Thief? The Hunger Games? Well, do boys like them? Yes. Then they're boy books. Do girls like them, too? Yes. Then they're girl books, too. Wonderful. Everyone's happy.
But are there books that are more likely to appeal to girls than boys? Of course. Go to the local mega-bookstore and see how many covers have girls-kissing-boys, girls-pining-for-boys, girls-staring-at-boys-from-afar. This pains me. Oh, don't get me wrong. Some of them are wonderful, and I personally love them. Gayle Forman is one of the finest writers alive, and I'm sorry to say I have yet to recommend her books for boys. Lin Oliver is another... okay, okay... getting off the point here. Now look for books that have a boy who is not merely a gorgeous hunk of flesh being adored by a girl. A lot harder isn't it?
Is there such a thing as a "Boy Book," of course. A boy book is for everyone.
There’s nothing like a cold, snowy run in a park or along the trails with a personally selected group of songs playing in
my ears from the iPad shuffle I borrow regularly from my son.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those runners who always has to be plugged in to enjoy a run. In fact, I probably only listen to music while running at most once a week, and that’s only for those long, lonely solo runs of 10+ miles.
But there ARE people who can’t bear to be alone with their thoughts and need music to carry them along. I empathize with them, I really do. During most of my races, my brain is constantly yelling at me to slow down, speed up, relax my arms, use that big guy over there to shield me from the wind. Or it’s telling me how tight my calves are, how heavy my body feels, that my hamstring isn’t as healed as I thought it was, that trying for a sub-7:00 opening mile was a bad idea, or that running in general is a stupid thing for a fortysomething guy to endeavor. It can be maddening. I understand why races forbid personal listening devices. It’s as close to cheating as anything I can conceive of.
But on those aforementioned long training runs? Yeah, that kind of cheating is sometimes exactly what you need to get you to forget how much your body doesn’t want to do what you’re making it do.
There are some people who can (and do) listen to any kind of music, and are happy to do so. I envy those people. I really do. Okay, no I don’t. I can’t stand most contemporary pop music and feel that anyone who eats what the music companies are shoveling them are more or less brainwashed by the equivalent of fast-food music. But that’s a different story, and my wife will be the first to tell you that you don’t want to get me started on that topic.
So then, what about the rest of us—those of us who are bored with the same old music over and over again? Especially those of us more, er—mature runners who still enjoyed 80’s music more than any of the decades that came afterward?
What was that? You want to know the SCIENCE of music as it pertains to running? Well, of course I’d only be happy to oblige! You see, studies have shown (and even if they hadn’t, pay attention the next time you’re listening to music and exercising and see if you’re stronger or weaker when a certain song starts or ends) that there are at least two, maybe three important variables to consider when pairing music with exercise.
The first, and most important is rhythm, or beats-per-minute. Strangely enough, most middle-of-the-pack distance runners tend to take a similar number of steps per mile, and that pace translates to a musical beats-per-minute pace of roughly 180. Now, there isn’t an abundance of songs written at that speedy rate, but halving that rate (90 BPM) also result in success. Whether we like it or not, we tend to run to the pace of the music in our ears or on the course in the case of running series like the ING Rock-and-Roll races.
Now, in truth, you can find TONS of lists of songs on places like jog.fm, spotify and itunes, but what I found was that no matter what the list, you’re going to find the same Big Hit Singles on each one of those lists. If you’re not a fan of the same 100 songs you hear on the radio in the first place, you’re out of luck. (But that’s where I come in).
The second variable to consider when selecting music I can label tone. This is where people’s tastes vary. Some like smooth, easy-flowing jazzy (or soft rock) sounds that allow them to float over the ground. Others prefer the angst of hard rock, metal or industrial music to fuel them with a kind of aggression as they pound out the miles.
The last variable is vibe, and while this often overlaps with tone, this concept takes into consideration the lyrics of a song. I know, some of you want to say that you don’t even listen to the lyrics. And others say the lyrics don’t matter. But every study ever done about positive reinforcement has shown that it matters in every way. (After all, don’t most of us engage in positive mantras while running? You know, like The Little Engine that Could? I think I can, I think I can.) The National Geographic series, Brain Games, recently aired an episode that revealed just how successfully positive words can affect someone trying to perform even the simplest tasks. (By the way, it’s a fantastic and engaging show that will teach you a lot about the world in the most fascinating experiments!)
Now, while I can’t guarantee that you’ll like all of the songs that I like, my hope is that at least you’ll find an artist that can make your training runs a little more enjoyable and/or successful. This is the playlist I’ve been using lately. For the sake of explanation, I’ve divided the songs into four categories, but most of the time I don’t mind shuffling between moods. If you like a less schizophrenic running experience, you might stick to one category at a time. (The lists are alphabetized by artists’ first names: sorry, that’s the way iTunes does it).
The first group let’s call Happy Music. These are the songs that serve to get your mind lost in the running, pacing your feet with an upbeat rhythm and lyrics that either don’t get in the way or lighten your footfalls. If you want to glide over the ground, these are the songs to listen to. Oh, and there are plenty of instrumentals here, too. They’re also good highway driving songs, too—the kind that allow you to happily battle the traffic without getting stressed.
Acoustic Alchemy (pop-jazz fusion):
Flamoco Loco 4:05 2001
So Kylie 4:22 2005
Angel Of The South 6:41 2000
Tete A Tete 4:44 2000
The Last Flamenco 4:20 2000
Kidstuff 4:20 2000
Catalina Kiss 4:36 1989
Evil The Weasel 5:38 1988
Homecoming 5:36 1991
Ambrosia (light rock):
Apothecary 4:53 1978
Andrea Mingardi (Italian rock—yes, really):
Sai Ragazzo 4:54 1994
Andy Narell (jazzy World music with steel pans):
Disorderly Conduct 6:40 1992
Down De Road 3:17 1992
Andy Summers (melodic pop-jazz from the Police guitarist)
Easy On The Ice 4:36 1990
World Gone Strange 6:31 1991
Arto Lindsay (smooth Latin pop-jazz)
Habite Em Mim 4:35 2004
Kamo (Dark Stripe) 4:46 2004
Average White Band (70’s funk-rock)
Pick Up the Pieces 4:00 1974
Aztec Camera (catchy pop)
Black Lucia 4:00 1993
Vertigo 4:54 1993
Valium Summer 5:54 1993
Beautiful Girl 4:50 1995
The B-52's (80’s party rock)
Channel Z 4:50 1989
53 Miles West of Venus 4:53 1980
Bob Marley & the Wailers (reggae, mon)
Jammin’ 4:42 1977
Could You Be Loved 4:27 1977
Waiting In Vain 4:16 1977
Crowded House (alternative pop-rock)
Saturday Sun 3:26 2010
Either Side of the World 4:35 2010
Twice If You're Lucky 3:33 2010
David Byrne (alternative rock with a World twist from the former Talking Heads leader)
Angels 4:41 1994
Don't Want To Be Part of Your World 4:58 1989
Office Cowboy 3:42 1989
Strange Overtones 4:16 2008
David Cullen & Michael Manring (virtuoso jazzy guitar/bass duo)
Shuffle In 4:45 2001
Buenos Dias 6:03 2001
Depeche Mode (new wave kings of the 80’s)
Enjoy the Silence 6:13 1990
Devo (still dishing up catchy pop with a beat)
Monsterman 2:09 2012
Fresh 3:00 2010
What We Do 3:17 2010
Cameo 2:50 2010
Later Is Now 3:52 2010
March On 3:51 2010
Knock Boots 3:36 2010
Donald Fagen (you know, the guy from Steely Dan)
New Frontier 6:21 1982
Electric Light Orchestra (70’s Beatle-esque champions)
Shine a Little Love 4:41 1979
Last Train to London 4:30 1979
Genesis (70’s-80’s British art rock)
Turn It On Again 3:51 1980
Haircut 100 (upbeat 80’s jangly-guitar pop)
Love Plus One 3:34 1982
Fantastic Day 3:13 1982
…and the rest of the Pelican West album!
Imogen Heap (hoarse-voiced electronic pop)
Swoon 3:54 2009
Jamiroquai (psychedelic rock)
Virtual Insanity 5:41 1996
Jane Siberry (ageless singer/songwriter with a great voice)
Bound by the Beauty 4:42 1989
Everything Reminds Me of my Dog 4:20 1989
Begat Begat 6:36 1995
John Cale (former Velvet Underground singer with a great gravelly voice
Zen 6:03 2004
Bicycle 5:05 2004
Face to the Sky 4:57 2012
December Rains 4:23 2012
Joey Fehrenbach (electronica that sweeps you away)
Being Around You 7:35 2006
Behold 5:19 2006
Jovanotti (the king of Italian hip-hop/rock)
Bella 4:36 1997
Il Futuro Del Mondo 4:29 1994
Viene Sera 4:35 1994
Un Uomo 7:40 2002
Salato Parte Uno 3:59 2002
Il Quinto Mondo 4:32 2002
La notte dei desideri 3:27 2011
Safari 4:24 2008
The Judybats (quirky 90’s pop with jangly guitars)
Our Story 4:34 1992
She's Sad She Said 3:18 1992
Kate Bush (ageless and quirky singer/songwriter)
Why Should I Love You? 5:02 1993
Laurie Anderson (even more quirky experimental songwriter with a great sense of humor)
Only an Expert 7:26 2010
Level 42 (80’s dance-pop)
Lessons In Love 4:06 1986
World Machine 5:17 1985
Something About You 4:27 1985
Luca Carboni (smooth Italian adult pop)
Ex. T. Blu 4:11 1995
Ho Visto Anche Degli Zingari Felici 3:44 2009
Lucio Dalla (gravel-voiced Italian songsmith)
Nun Parlà 3:53 1996
Io Tra Un'ora Sono Li 4:23 1999
Masayoshi Takanaka (the king of Japanese jazz-pop)
Blue Lagoon Surf 4:23 2010
LAGOON DAYDREAM 5:44 2010
月と金星 5:24 2009
Nightmare 5:07 2011
Blue Lagoon 'K' 4:38 2011
Matmos (electronica with a dance beat)
Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan 5:21 2006
New Order (80’s-90’s alternative Brit-dance-pop)
Fine Time 4:43 1989
Round & Round 4:32 1989
New Orleans Night Crawlers (New Orleans jazz)
Pick Up The Pieces 8:15 1997
Nick Heyward (singer from Haircut 100)
Atlantic Monday 5:12 1983
The Kick of Love 4:36 1983
The Ocean Blue (90’s British upbeat pop)
Mercury 4:13 1991
Ohio Players (funk, man!)
Fire 4:32 1973
Oingo Boingo (quirky, edgy, adventurous alternative rock with xylophones)
Just Another Day 5:13 1985
Same Man I Was Before 3:24 1985
Islands 4:41 1982
Orange Juice (80’s New Wave pop)
Rip it up 3:45 1982
Paolo Conte (gravelly voiced smoky lounge singer)
Gli Impermeabili 3:55 1984
Pat Metheny Group (the king of American jazz)
Here To Stay 7:39 1995
Patrizia Laquidara (Italian lounge pop)
Ziza 3:53 2007
Sciroppo di mirtilli 3:52 2003
Kanzi 3:37 2003
Perpetual Groove (jazzy improvisational stoner pop)
Three Weeks 9:17 2003
Pino Daniele (Italian pop-jazz guitar virtuoso with a woodwind voice)
Alibi Perfetto 4:24 1999
Viaggio Senza Ritorno 4:34 1999
Stella Cometa 3:52 1999
Continueremo A Navigare 3:54 1997
La Mia Emozione Più Forte 4:20 1997
Back Home 3:31 2007
…and many others
Poi Dog Pondering (quirky pop-folk-alternative rock with upbeat lyrics)
Complicated 4:09 1995
The Shake of Big Hands 5:21 1995
Watermelon Song 5:15 1990
The Police (come on, you know The Police!)
Voices Inside My Head 3:53 1979
Roddy Frame (silk-and-honey-voiced songwriter)
Here Comes the Ocean 3:23 1998
Roger Hodgson (from Supertramp)
You Make Me Love You 4:59 1988
Spandau Ballet (edgy dance music)
Chant No. 1 4:08 1982
Split Enz (New Zealand alternative rock)
I Walk Away 3:50 1984
Doctor Love 4:17 1984
Make Sense Of It 3:34 1982
The Choral Sea 4:39 1980
Steely Dan (timeless smooth keyboard pop)
Hey Nineteen 5:07 1993
Glamour Profession 7:30 1993
Time Out of Mind 4:13 1993
Talk Talk (eclectic alternative post-rock)
Living In Another World 6:55 1986
Talking Heads (kings of the punk/New Wave era)
I Zimbra 3:09 1979
Animals 3:30 1979
Blind 5:00 1988
(Nothing But) Flowers 5:36 1988
Moon Rocks 5:05 1983
Todd Rundgren (ageless pop music)
Tables Will Turn 8:51 1995
Truth 5:13 2004
Living 5:36 2004
Parallel Lines 4:25 1989
In My Mouth 4:17 2013
“Healing, part III” 5:30 1981
Was (Not Was) (very fun, fairly weird R&B pop)
Are You Okay? 4:30 1990
Wax UK (easy pop)
Bug in the Machine 4:22 1991
Way of the West
Don't Say That's Just for White Boys (12") 7:28 2008
Zucchero (the Springsteen of Italy)
You Make Me Feel Loved 4:00 2004
Occhi 3:39 2006
Ahum 4:44 2001
The second group is Aggession-Music, or “Dammit, I’m getting up that hill no matter what” Music. Sometimes you need a kick in the pants, a heavy dose of attitude to keep you from giving up. These are those songs. If you don’t like hard rock, you’d better skip this section entirely (but there’s very little with any objectionable lyrics):
Bob Mould (angry hard rock from Husker Du’s frontman)
Stop Your Crying 4:30 1990
Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace 5:32 1990
Trade 5:24 2002
Whichever Way The Wind Blows 6:26 1989
The Clash (if you don’t know The Clash, you’ve missed something)
London Calling 3:20 1977
Clampdown 3:50 1977
Lost In The Supermarket 3:48 2003
The Magnificent Seven 5:33 1977
Rock The Casbah 3:43 1977
That's What I Call Love 3:40 1986
Danny Elfman (yes, the soundtrack composer)
Sucker For Mystery 5:19 1984
Lightning 3:46 1984
New Dress 3:44 1986
Gates of Steel 3:28 1980
Through Being Cool 3:19 1981
Front 242 (repetitive, angst-fueled industrial music)
Tragedy (For You) 4:32 1990
Front Line Assembly (danceable angst-fueled industrial music)
Iceolate 5:16 1990
Exhale 5:28 2013
Final Impact 6:04 1992
The Blade 5:51 1992
Gary Numan (danceable angst-fueled industrial music)
Metal 4:04 1979
Films 4:11 1979
A Question of Faith 4:52 1994
Big Noise Transmission 4:20 2012
God Lives Underwater (guitars and drum machines)
All Wrong 4:55 1995
Harry Connick, Jr. (no, I’m not kidding; this is a song that moves)
Mind On The Matter 4:09 1996
Helmet (harsh but talented jazzy metal)
Wilma's Rainbow 3:54 1994
Unsung 3:58 1992
Fbla II 3:22 1992
See You Dead 3:48 2004
Last Breath 3:03 2004
…and most of their other songs
Jean Leloup (quirky French rock)
Le Monde Est A Pleurer 4:51 1996
Tanto 3:31 2005
Attaccami La Spina 3:44 1994
The Knack (great guitar solo; NOT the single version)
My Sharona 5:06 1979
Trash 5:06 1999
Marillion (British art-rock; think angrier Genesis)
Incommunicado 5:17 1987
Michael Manring (possibly the world’s best bassist)
Dromedary 4:15 2004
Helios 4:21 2005
Big Fungus 3:36 1994
Disturbed 3:05 1994
Midnight Oil (one of the original grunge artists)
Blue Sky Mine 4:16 1989
Sell My Soul 3:37 1988
Read About It 3:53 1982
Nitzer Ebb (heavy-on-the-rhythm industrial music)
Control I'm Here 3:53 1988
Rope 3:27 1990
Poi Dog Pondering
Jack Ass Ginger 5:33 1992
Message In A Bottle 4:51 1978
Synchronicity I 4:58 1979
Primus (metal that defies description)
Jerry Was A Race Car Driver 3:11 1991
The Spent Poets (quick-paced alternative rock)
Mr. Einstein 4:19 1992
Your Existential Past 3:53 1992
St. Vincent (Annie Clark) (scratchy guitars and piercing lyrics)
Birth In Reverse 3:16 2014
Digital Witness 3:22 2014
Cruel 3:35 2011
Sugar (see Bob Mould)
Tilted 4:08 1993
JC Auto 6:13 1993
Feeling Better 6:22 1993
The Act We Act 5:10 1992
A Good Idea 3:47 1992
Therapy? (Irish hard rock when you’re in an angry mood)
Living In the Shadow of the Terrible Thing 3:56 2012
Enjoy The Struggle 4:11 2009
Crooked Timber 5:52 2009
Low Winter Sun 4:19 2010
Stories 3:11 1995
30 Seconds 5:25 1995
Rise Up (Make Yourself Well) 2:49 2004
Teethgrinder 3:27 1992
Little Tongues First 4:25 1999
Femtex 3:14 1994
Unrequited 3:03 1994
Brainsaw 6:28 1994
…and most of their other songs
24-7 Spyz (ska-hard rock)
We'll Have Power 3:42 1990
Espresso (All Jacked Up) 5:52 1995
Mercenary 4:03 2008
Strike 3:30 2008
Ultravox (80’s new-wave Romantic rock)
Accent On Youth 4:45 1981
The Ascent 2:20 1981
Utopia (see Todd Rundgren)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 4:19 1979
Communion with the Sun 6:56 1978
The Earth Dies Screaming 8:21 2010
White Zombie (er, um… hip-hop metal?)
More Human Than Human 4:29 1995
XTC (new-wave meets punk meets pop)
Down In The Cockpit 5:28 1982
Poor Skeleton Steps Out 3:28 1989
Across This Antheap 4:52 1989
Music In Me 3:21 2001
Porca L'oca 3:28 2001
Datemi Una Pompa 4:14 1998
O.L.S.M.M. 3:33 1998
The third group is the Vibe group, those songs that inspire you with their positive attitude and often have some attention to running itself. This is the feel-good category, kind of like having a coach inside your head constantly telling you “You can do this. Keep up the good work. Atta boy. Atta girl!” Though many songs from the first group could fit here, I only listed the most inspirational and/or fun.
Oblivious 3:12 1983
All I Need Is Everything 5:50 1985
Topaz 4:21 1989
Born To Run 4:31 1975
Don't Stop Now 3:54 2007
Turning the World Around 3:16 2002
Hinterland (Scottish rock)
(Racing up this) Dark Hill 4:31 1999
Jamiroquai (psychedelic rock)
Use The Force 4:01 1997
Coraggio (Courage) 4:18 2005
Running Up That Hill 5:04 1985
K.C. & The Sunshine Band (70’s dance pop)
That's The Way (I Like It) 3:07 1975
Keep It Comin' Love 3:55 1977
Childhoods End? 4:33 1985
White Feather 2:25 1985
New Radicals (90’s pop)
You get what you give 5:02 1993
Newsboys (almost too catchy Christian rock)
In the Belly of the Whale 3:05 2002
The Ocean Blue (90’s British upbeat pop)
Peace Of Mind 3:01 1993
Bliss Is Unaware 2:24 1993
Mercury 4:13 1991
Poi Dog Pondering
Everybody's Trying 5:03 1990
Big Walk 4:48 1990
Bigger Brighter Better 3:27 1998
Steven Curtis Chapman (contemporary Christian rock)
Dive 3:59 1999
Happiness Is Easy 6:31 1986
Air 3:34 1979
Tears For Fears (80’s alternative rock)
Everybody Wants to Rule the World 4:12 1983
Todd Agnew (Christian rock)
Grace Like Rain 4:22 2005
Courage 3:44 2008
Reap the Wild Wind 3:50 1982
The Song (We Go) 3:31 1982
Say Yeah 3:04 1982
Was (Not Was)
I Feel Better Than James Brown 4:45 1990
Walk The Dinosaur 4:22 1988
Will Powers (self-help dance music; weird but strangely effective)
Smile 6:28 2004
The Woodentops (80’s rockabilly on steroids)
They Can Say What They Want 4:15 1988
Jason and the Argonauts 6:09 1982
Garden Of Earthly Delights 5:03 1989
The Mayor of Simpleton 3:58 1989
We're All Light 4:39 2000
The fourth group may be a surprise: Floating on Clouds. These are songs that don’t fall within that 90-180 BPM realm. Many of them are at the halfway mark of 45 BPM, but most have no discernable beat at all. This kind of music doesn’t so much propel you as it does lighten you. Because of the songs’ ethereal nature, you’re likely to lose yourself in them, and (hopefully) forget any pains or troubles as they carry you into the clouds. Slow music for running? Yeah, try it. It works! (Just don’t run in traffic while listening to these):
Lullaby for the First Born 3:36 1991
Alaska & Halloween (see Talk Talk)
After the Flood 5:34 2012
Andreas Vollenweider (yeah, harp music)
World Inside a Grain of Sand 5:15 2009
Still Life 5:38 1989
Moon Dance 4:11 1986
The Secret, The Candle And Love 3:44 1986
Streets of Philadelphia 3:17 1994
David Hykes (meditative voice music)
Anything from Harmonic Meetings, or before 2000
Franco Battiato (gravelly voiced, soaring music)
Anything from Shadow, Light
Howard Jones (yeah, that uber-positive guy from the 80’s)
Hide And Seek 5:39 1984
Loscil (ambient music)
Diable Marin 4:15 2002
La Nostra Storia 4:52 2001
Luis Bacalov (orchestral composer)
I Suoni Dell' Isola (& others from the Il Postino soundtrack)
You Offered Only Parabolas 6:13 1994
Pino Daniele (haunting elements of a cappella)
Africa A Africa E 5:55 2001
Arriverà L'Aurora 2:31 2004
Riley Lee/Gabriel Lee (Japanese meditation music)
Anything from Satori.
Vito's Ordination Song 7:07 2003
Oh God Where Are You Now? 9:24 2003
The Sugarplastic (90’s quirky alternative mellow punk)
Soft Jingo 5:27 1996
Medley: Ironbound/Fancy Poultry 6:19 1987
Time It's Time 8:11 1986
New Grass 9:40 1991
Tears For Fears
Famous Last Words 4:31 1989
Thomas Dolby (yes, the guy who did those kooky songs)
The Flat Earth 6:40 1985
Coming Up Close 4:44 1986
Todd Rundgren (meditative)
Healing, Pt. 1 7:32 1981
Healing, Pt. 2 7:51 1981
Chalkhills And Children 5:00 1989
Now, while I don’t consider this list to be in any way complete, my hope is that there might be something useful to many of you. I can’t even say that’s a definitive list, only my favorites right now in 2014. But there is one thing I can say for this collection: it’s not full of everything you’ve heard before. So, take a chance. Let the music lift you up, and, as always, have fun!
If you’re like me, you want to know as much about running now as you can, because you’ve reached a point where PR’s no longer mean beating your best time by a minute. Now it’s more like three seconds. And, for that matter, your PR’s are coming few and far between. Maybe you even confronted that existential moment when you considered why you keep running if you aren’t even getting consistently better any more. But then you decided that running wasn’t just about PR’s, but about the sense of satisfaction you get from completing a difficult run, or the camaraderie of sharing the running experience with old and/or newfound friends.
But you still feel like there’s room inside you for improvement. But how to achieve that improvement is the big question.
Yes, you’ve gone to those speed sessions at the track with the rest of the club on Tuesdays. And they’ve helped. Those weekend runs with the team have helped motivate you through the cold winter months, as well.
But what about all those, you know, scientific things? Maybe it’s time to consider that you can get more from your body if you actually buy shoes because of how they work biomechanically for you instead of the fact that they’re a kick-ass design and you’ve always loved the color orange. And maybe you shouldn’t do a long run without any water or nutritional supplement.
That’s where I want to go today.
Gels and chews and drinks are almost certainly unnecessary to most of you who are running no more than 5k’s, and you might not ever need them for a 10k, either. I’m no scientist (and truth be told, the only A I ever received for a science course in my life was a college Acoustics course), but from what I’ve researched, the body only starts depleting its stores of glycogen (that sugary-carbohydratey-type-substance that your muscles need as fuel) after about an hour of intense activity. So, somewhere along the way there, when your muscles deplete that, they’ll start to use up whatever else they can find as fuel, including consuming themselves. Any of you who have hit “The Wall” know what it’s like when your body has exhausted everything it can find as fuel.
That’s where these supplement things come in.
Now, I’d like to say I’ve tried them all, and have definitive evidence that one or the other is The Thing That Will Shave 10% Off Your PR and Make You Feel Invincible, but none of that is true. I have, however, tried many flavors of almost every brand, and can give you SOME insight. You’ll have to settle for that.
Category One: Bars
The most important thing you need to know about this, and anything you put into your body, for that matter, is you have to read the label for yourself! The problem for us newbies to Running Science is we don’t know what we’re looking for. In bars, gels and drinks, the one thing you must always seek is The Almighty Carbohydrate. Despite what the current dietetic trends say, as a runner, you must understand the following four-letter-word equation: CARB=GOOD. There’s more to it than that, but we’ll get to that later.
The second ingredient to check for in the nutritional allowance is protein. While protein is good for building muscle, in no way is any runner building muscle when he/she runs. Furthermore, protein takes a long time to digest and may cause gastro-intenstinal distress. I learned this firsthand when I tried using Snickers bars (yes, I’m serious) halfway through some long runs. Peanuts, I discovered, were kind of like gastroliths (any dinosaur fans out there?), tearing away at my stomach as I churned through the last six miles. When I switched to Milky Ways, I had no such problems.
The third item, and potentially most deadly is: Fiber. Unless you enjoy stopping at each and every port-a-potty on a course, I advise you to avoid eating anything that has fiber in it! As Forrest Gump used to say, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”
Recommendation: Milky Way bars, but only at the end of longer runs, and only if you can’t stomach gels and chews. The purportedly “nutritional” bars almost all have protein or fiber. That’s for weightlifters, not runners.
Category Two: Drinks
You know these. Gatorade, Vitamin Water, etc. Almost all of the choices available correctly identify carbohydrates as the necessary component. Some are sweeter than others, most have sodium to restore the salt that we will inevitably sweat out of us during our runs. I’m not going to tell you what flavor to use. That’s entirely a personal choice.
The pet peeve I do have is with these increasingly ubiquitous sweeteners that aren’t sugar. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has decided to classify sucralose as a natural sweetener, and foods with the stuff in them don’t even have to list it as such. In this case, you not only have to read the labels, but you have to interpret what it might mean. Sugars (whether sucrose, glucose or fructose) and corn syrup will likely be listed as such. If, however, you see the following wonderful phrase: “natural sweetener,” you are likely looking at sucralose (the ingredient in Splenda). Okay, aside from the fact that I’m a bit of a nutritional snob here (I like organic milk and eggs, wild fish and non-antibiotic meats), I personally hate the taste of sucralose, find that its aftertaste lingers more than sugars, and frankly, just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it isn’t bad for you. I say stay away from the stuff.
Recommendation: anything that doesn’t have NutriSweet or sucralose. Sugar is not the enemy.
Category Three: Gels and Chews
Alright, so here’s when things get complicated…
I envy those of you who don’t need to augment your long runs with some kind of carbohydrate supplement. Of course, the most commonly imbibed form of these things is the dreaded “gel.” (I actually have to suppress my gag reflex to write that word.) Okay, and I know some of you can actually ingest those things without a problem. But I bet you’re also the type of people who have no problem with the taste of diet sodas and Twinkies, either, eh?
For the rest of us, gels are a necessary evil. Yes, we’ve tried running our half marathons without the aid of the “energy kick” of gels, and it just didn’t work. The wall hit, and it hit hard.
But did you know that all gels were not created equal? Now, I don’t claim to corner the market on gel technology, but I’m still paying off credit card bills for gel purchases from 2012, so I think I have done enough research, with my eyes, with my taste buds and with my wallet to feel like I can offer the rest of us middle-of-the-packers some insight. Maybe it’ll save you a few dollars.
First, we start with calories. Like carbohydrates, calories are also GOOD! The word calorie comes from Latin, and actually refers to heat, so when we athletes say we are “stoking the fire” with food, it’s a fairly literal statement. There is, of yet, no low-calorie energy supplement besides caffeine, and though caffeine is effective, it is an addictive drug. (Don’t believe me? Try going without for a day without your morning mugs of Starbucks and see how you enjoy your afternoon headache.) Besides, caffeine primarily aids in your brain’s perception of tiredness, without providing you with any of the actual calories that your muscles require to perform optimally. In other words, those five hours of energy are a way of depleting your body without your body recognizing it. When your hamstring pops or your Achilles aches for months on end, maybe you should wonder about the intelligence of depriving your body rather than fueling it. (Did I scare you? Good. Stop with the peppy-zippy stuff!)
Of course, I’m not one to say that all caffeine is bad. Okay, maybe it is. But I’d be a hypocrite to say it, because I’m a big morning coffee drinker, myself. As such, it’s actually important for me to not cut back on caffeine on race day. Half the gels or chews I choose have caffeine in them, and I’ve found that my body (or is it my mind?) responds a little better to the caffeine, especially in the second half of a half or full marathon. If you’re not a coffee drinker (tea doesn’t count, by the way, because caffeine is delivered in tea much gentler and more gradually), you shouldn’t be adding caffeine to your regimen unless you’ve tried it during long runs and have found it gives you the mental clarity and euphoria that is sometimes connected to caffeine use.
But let’s get back to the muscles, shall we? Your muscles, like nine-year-old boys, are particularly fond of sugars, because during activity they are regularly depleted of glycogen (think glucose).
And now we’re getting close to the topic of carbs. You see, most carbs are converted into sugars, but at different rates, and in different measures. Here’s where it gets scientific. If you examine the nutritional information on a pack of gel or chews, you are generally looking for as many calories as you can, and as many carbs as possible. Yes, really!
Most athletes seem to know that carbohydrates in general are what give you the energy kick for an event. What many don’t realize is that all carbohydrates are not created equal. What you really want are “the right kind” of carbs. If you look at the nutritional information on any supplement, carbohydrates are divided into two subcategories: sugars and dietary fiber. You’re left to do the math in your analysis of a gel. Dietary fiber is not the right kind. We’ve already mentioned the hazards of too much fiber before a run. Well, then, the only other item listed on your traditional nutrition label is “sugars.” Sugars are good for the muscles, make no mistake about that. They are processed quickly by the stomach, and are turned into glycogen by the muscles quickly, as well. However, just like they are processed quickly, they are used up quickly. Hence, there is the “crash” that is often associated with gels (and with Milky Way and Snickers bars, too, which is why I only use them at the end of my runs).
The same crash can occur with honey-based supplements. If you’re part bear like me, you love honey, especially exotic Italian honeys like Buckwheat honey and eucalyptus honey. Well, you need to go no further than Honey Stingers. I find them excessively sweet, but I find almost every gel excessively sweet. The danger in the Honey Stingers is that the recipe contains more sugars than other gel brands. What’s the problem with that? Well, here’s where it gets a little complicated.
Science Warning: the following paragraphs contain detailed scientific analysis. Let’s start with the dietary fiber.
Products like Honey Stingers, while natural tasting and really quite enjoyable experiences, are almost entirely sugars. Translate: big boost, big crash. Even if you replenish regularly and quickly, you are likely to experience very large fluctuations in your energy levels over the course of a long run, as your body accepts then exhausts these sugars.
Ultimately, it’s the “other” category of carbohydrates (the one that’s usually not listed) that is essential to sustaining energy levels from a gel. So, let’s take two products, say a GU Energy Gel, cherry flavor, and a PowerBar gel, cherry flavor.
Both give you 100 calories of fire for the furnace.
Both offer 25 grams of carbohydrates.
Where PowerBar gives you 20 of them in the form of “Sugars,” for a quick boost, GU only provides 5 grams of “Sugars.”
Now you have to do the math (Yes, really).
Okay, I’ll help you. I’ve got a calculator right next to me. For GU, we start with 25 grams of total carbs minus 5 grams of sugars. That means the fine folks at GU give us 20 grams of non-sugar carbs. Those carbs are processed somewhat slower than sugars, but also last longer before being depleted in the muscles. The PowerBar people have given us a quicker boost by making 20 of its 25 grams of carbs in sugar form, but your Pep graph would be much steeper, and you’d likely feel noticeably revitalized for three or four minutes before returning to exhaustion.
This is the essential science behind most runners’ preference for the GU brand. They do not seem to offer the same kick to runners that Honey Stingers or PowerBar, but also do not leave the runner with as much of a crash. The Hammer Brand, by the way, offers a similar carb profile to the GU. While slightly more “dietetic,” at 80 calories, it provides 21 grams of carbs, and only TWO grams of sugars. I’ve only used these a few times, but so far I’ve been pleased. All the other brands fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between GU and Hammer on one side and HoneyStingers and PowerBar on the other.
Chews seem to follow the same paths, with GU having less sugars than most, but it’s important to note that almost all chews have a higher sugar quotient than the equivalent gels. If you haven’t tried these delightful confections, you might want to experiment. I remember the first time I tried GU chomps. They were given out at the 2011 Superhero half marathon, and I figured, “What the heck. Why not try it out?” I was only running the race to keep my friend Alex Heredia company. Well, I opened the pack (which was a bit of a chore, I might add), and threw two in my mouth.
A half-mile later, I was still chewing.
At the next water stop, I was still chewing.
A mile and a half after putting the things in my mouth, they finally dissolved in my cheek. Whew.
Now, this might have been a blessing, or a curse. On the one hand, I was getting a bit annoyed by my inability to get these gelatinous chew-toys down my gullet. On the other hand, for the entire 1.5 miles, I was solely focused on my chewing, and ran my best splits of the morning.
You can decide for yourself if the experience is a worthwhile one for you. Truth be told, I’ve learned how to run and chew at the same time, and sometimes will take the gummy-bear-chew route when I just can’t stomach another gel.
Recommendations: GU and Hammer Gels. GU Chomps.
What? You wanted me to discuss flavors, too?! No way. Oh, yes, I’ve tried almost all of GU’s and Hammer’s and PowerBars and one or two other brands. I think most of the gels are fairly inedible and disgusting. But in talking with most of you good folks, I’ve found flavor is entirely preferencial. Chocolate lovers choose the chocolate and coffee flavors, though for me I’ve found they all leave a thick, chalky aftertaste in my mouth that I don’t enjoy. The very nature of gels, by the way, is cloying sweetness, so don’t expect anything less than a gulp of gooey paste. For my money, the tarter ones are the least unbearable, so lemon and lime and cranberry flavors go down less miserably than all the others. I did, however, find a rare, seasonal release from the good GU people, called Peppermint Stick. It only comes out around the holidays and tastes, well, pretty much like a melted candy cane. Just delightful. But good luck finding any in North Jersey, because I buy up all the ones I can find and use them throughout the year. Sorry.
For any of the above, it’s vitally important that you don’t try them out when you’re going to be far from home, a park, a bathroom… and NEVER use something for a race that you haven’t tried multiple times. It’s just like wearing new shoes to a race. You really don’t want to discover anything new about your body on race day.
Oh, and just in case your brain hasn’t exploded from all the science and math, there’s one more thing to add: you don’t want to combine gel/chomp use with sport drink use. You see, all those ratios go out the window when you add the sugars from sport drinks to the mix. It’s more likely to wreak havoc on your belly than your times, but the excess sugar could cause trouble there, too. I’d like to say there’s a simple formula for dealing with THAT quandary, but there isn’t. The way I approach it is this: while training, if I’m using a gel or a chew, I won’t use any sport drink, just water. In a race, I might take a sport drink (so long as it’s one that doesn’t have artificial sweeteners or sucralose), but never at a drink station before, during or after I’m imbibing in a gel. I wouldn’t want to spoil the lovely taste of concentrated carbohydrates!
Here’s how I’d rank the most popular gels, based upon personal efficacy, with a little bit of attention to general taste and composition:
GU Energy Gel
Now that’s only for pre- and during-running nutrition. After running is a whole different story, but we can save that one for another time. I think that was complicated enough for one month. But isn’t that what being a MoP-head is all about: making ourselves crazy trying to get an extra second out of our bodies?
You know you’re a MoP-head if:
• You understand what the word biomechanically means.
• If someone asked you to define the word biomechanically, you’d say, “Er, um, well, it has something to do with, um, the way your body works, but, um—oh, go ask Tom Allen. He can explain it!”
• You buy your shoes at a running shoe store.
• You actually know more than one running shoe store.
• You try on at least three pair of shoes every time you go to the running store.
• When you enter your favorite running store, you’re sure you hear the salesperson say, “Oh, damn, not him again.”
• You ran a race, or trained on any of the following days: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day.
• You try really hard to understand science even though you were always a C student in science, because you really want to be a better runner.
Just finished The Hunger Games trilogy (or watching the films?) and suffering from withdrawal?
Proxy should be next on your list.
Plot-wise and stylistically, it’s nothing like Suzanne Collins’ series, but the technocratic, classist world created in Proxy will be familiar ground for those who loved The Hunger Games. Similar themes of friendship and betrayal and social awakening amid a whirlwind of violent escapes and pursuits also pervade Proxy. But I don’t want to misstate myself here, either. This is no easy reconsideration of Collins, and there are few similarities otherwise. But it will (or at least SHOULD) make you think about a wide variety of things like loyalty, friendship, values, societal norms, governmental power, the role of technology in our lives, and more!
I admire writers like London and Collins for their ability to create complex futuristic worlds that hold little in common with ours. Too often, however, sci-fi and/or dystopian writers are so focused on the creation of such worlds that I find myself disconnected from the story. I can’t tell you how many such books I have put down because they’re just so hard for me to read. Yes, I admit it, and I suspect that other reluctant readers do the same thing. They want to be brought into a world, not work hard taking notes to try to make sense of it.
London avoids that predicament by presenting a lightning-fast, heart-stopping opening and keeps the foot on the accelerator through much of the novel. That’s always the challenging part in these kind of books—how to teach your reader about this society without a) boring the reader and/or b) overwhelming him/her with complicated details. London allows the reader to hang on by moving the plot quickly along even when the reader isn’t completely indoctrinated into the setting. It’s that willing suspension of disbelief thing that your English teachers taught you about, and London is very good at navigating the line between showing what’s happening and revealing why the characters are doing what they’re doing. As a reader, you follow along, appreciating what’s happening and telling yourself, “Okay, I don’t exactly understand it all, but I trust the writer will reveal it to me in time.” London does not disappoint.
Oh, I haven’t told you what the book is actually about? Well, you know I don’t really do that here. I just provide the recommendations and tell you whether it’s worth your time. Your dedication to this one will pay off. In fact, I would say, more than any book I have read in years, the story grows increasingly more compelling as it proceeds, and you read it faster and faster, unable to put the book down, right up to the eye-opening (for the characters as well as the reader!) conclusion.
What's that? You still want some plot explanation? Okay, fine:
Knox is a teenager in a not-too-distant American future, a rich dude who has spent much of his life acting out against his father for reasons we don’t yet know. You won’t like him at first (probably). In fact, you probably won’t like him for most of the novel, and while it’s hard to read a novel about a spoiled kid you don’t like, that is quickly redeemed by his proxy, Syd. Proxy? Well, it’s complicated, but think of it this way: Whenever Knox does something wrong and/or illegal, Syd is punished, often violently and always cruelly. All the rich kids have one; it’s just the way things are. Syd is everything Knox isn’t, including likeable, and it’s for him you read the story at first. When the boys are brought together and set on a mutual escape plan, London remarkably allows you to appreciate Knox more and more even as you’re recognizing that Syd isn’t the perfect human that lesser writers would have made him out to be. They spend the last half of the novel with a third, female co-protagonist who I won’t tell you much about because it would spoil one of the book’s many surprises. But she provides a fulcrum for the seemingly polar opposite boys, and helps them slide toward each other. She also helps flesh out a little sexual tension (many readers can’t bear to read a book devoid of romance).
What? It still doesn’t sound like The Hunger Games to you? Well, sure it does. There are varying arenas for violent struggles between the kids and their various pursuers. The technocratic society is nearly absolute in its power over the people. And the resistance groups are not often the idealistic saviors they’re made out to be. Ultimately, Proxy teaches the lesson that the only people you can trust are your friends, and your friends are never adults. What kid doesn’t like the message that the hope for the future is in the hands of his/her own generation?
In a recent study posted in The Wall Street Journal, male and female marathon runners were shown to run quite differently. That is, women finishers were distributed fairly evenly across the spectrum of time.
"Male finishers, however, tended to bunch around whole-number times such as four hours. This suggests that their primary focus is finishing under a particular time, rather than running their all-out best."
This is fascinating. In many studies men have proven to be more goal-oriented in general. I know I usually shoot for a particular time
in my races, and if it becomes clear I'm not going to make it, I usually lose a LOT of my incentive, and drop off the pace. If I'm on pace, it gives me the inspiration to push harder.
While the last sentence of the article states that women might run too conservatively and not strive to reach goals at all, I'm not sure that estimation is fair. Perhaps women in general just consistently push to do their best regardless of time? In that way, it might be a "purer" running intention than men's aims. Of course, the more we make a dialectic out of these things (black/white; this/that; men/women), the more danger there is in oversimplification. But there IS something to be said for the data.
Ultimately, the important thing to recognize here is there is a difference, and that maybe we could all learn from each other.
There are differences between everyone's learning style, and boys ARE "treated like defective girls." It's a shame that, in general, we hold ONE style of behavior up as the gold standard and ask ALL children to behave that way. It creates the myth of "bad boys" and "good little girls," and I'm not sure either one is a good thing. Let's find a way to acknowledge everyone's differences and allow for creative boys and boys, each of which we find hard to define because they are so amazingly wonderfully complex...
Hi, my name is Jim, and I’m a middle-of-the pack runner.
There, I said it. It wasn’t easy to admit, but these things never are. Now, the first thing to acknowledge is that there are more of us than there are the elite runners who inspire us but make us feel shy about ever revealing our 10k personal best. And there are more of us than those people who walk half-marathons in seven hours (which is wonderful by itself), but then seem unimpressed by our hard-earned two-hour accomplishment.
Before I get to the meat of this debut column, which I hope will introduce many more monthly columns to come, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we? My beginning, that is.
I started running in high school. Sophomore year to be precise. My friend Robert had run in his freshman year, claimed it was “fun,” and, well, I didn’t have any friends on the baseball team and I liked both of the track coaches, so I figured, why not?
At the time, my attitude about running was pretty much what you see on those bumper stickers, you know, the ones that say, “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” That sounded about right. I’d always thought of running as a component for other sports, and from what I guessed, I was decent at it. Never the fastest, but somewhere at the front of the pack.
Little that happened that first day of practice changed my perception. There was lots of stretching, lots of new terminology (tempo runs, intervals, Fartleks—which to this day still sounds funny to me), and then this seemingly arbitrary splitting up into two groups, one around each coach. I waited with a shrinking pool of kids as Robert joined in with “the sprinters.” Just like that, I was ten again, the new kid at school, waiting as unfamiliar kids were picked for teams while I was left behind. This time, before it grew too demoralizing, I was brought into the group with some other kids, the ones Coach Steve happily called “my distance folks.”
“We’re going up around and back today,” the coach said. The older kids groaned, but once again, what did I know? How was I to suspect that “up around and back” meant two miles up Valley Road and Normal Avenue, then around the reservoir there, and back to school? Six miles total. Six miles?! Had I known that at the time, I might have quit right then and there. Maybe that’s why Coach never did get around to telling us how long it was.
I looked over at Robert and the sprinting crew. Maybe today’s temporary, I thought. Then I noticed the height of the sprinters. Some were muscular, some were bean-poles. But they all had long, very long legs. I inspected the kids around me, frowned at my own boringly average frame. Nothing close to a sprinter’s body there. No, I was a distance runner.
I followed a group of runners that included this razor-thin kid Paul that had been in several of my classes. He knew what he was doing. Paul acknowledged me with a nod. So, I shadowed him out of the parking lot, down the street, toward the first hill.
The first half-mile was fun. Running was easy! My legs ate up the ground. I loved the wind rushing past as I left the road behind. I was going to like this track thing. A few younger kids had slowed behind me, but I was still there on Paul’s heels! Then the hill hit me, hard. My dash through the city turned to a shuffle as we headed toward the top of that very long hill. That’s when I realized there was so much more to being a runner, and I hadn’t a clue what it was. Running was hard.
Paul turned, I guess when he recognized he was alone. “Relax,” he shouted to me, jogging backward. “Shorten your steps and pump your arms forward, not across your body.” (I still do that). I nodded, struggled on, watched Paul grow smaller as I ambled on ahead. When I reached the top, I found Paul running in large circles around a raised flower bed waiting for me. I made it almost all the way around the reservoir that day when Paul told me to head back and he’d catch up to me. I was grateful for the reprieve.
That was my first indication that I was a middle-of-the-pack runner, or MoP-head, if you will.
My second was during our first practice on an actual track. Brookdale Park, to be precise. Back when it was still composed of finely packed gravel usually referred to as cinder (there, I’m dating myself!). We were running quarter-mile sprints.
“Sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy!” Coach Steve called out.
One boy crossed the finish line, then a second, a third, two or three more.
“Strong finish, Raposo! Keep going, guys! Seventy-three, seventy-four. Good job, Nicosia! Seventy-six! Seventy-seven! . . .”
The last runner crossed the purple line, bent over to recover.
“Alright, folks,” Coach said. “Half-a-lap walk. Throw up if you have to, then we’ll try it again.”
Seventy seconds. That was what Coach Steve had said. Four hundred meters. Seventy seconds. That was the target time for us middle-distance runners. I knew nothing of the 400 then. I figured 70 seconds was a good time, wondered whether I could shave off the four seconds Coach required. Mostly, I was just satisfied to not cross the line last. That freshman—what was his name, Franklin Peters?—had that dubious honor.
“Alright, folks. Line it up. We’ll try it again, target time, seventy seconds.”
I lined up with my teammates, looked over at Robert practicing his starts with the sprinters.
“Go!” Coach Steve called. Right away, the taller, older kids sprinted to the lead, leaving me to chase them. Three-hundred-eighty meters later, Coach was calling out, “Seventy, seventy-one. Alright, Nicosia. Seventy-three . . . .”
It took several more attempts before I finished in 70 seconds. Coach seemed happy. I basked in the satisfaction of a job well done. Seventy seconds, must mean something, I thought. Anyone who can do it in 70 seconds must be a good runner. I wondered what it would take to win a 400-meter race. Sixty eight? Sixty six?
Seventy seconds, I rolled around in my head, at practice, during trial runs, even in the classroom. Seventy seconds.
Skip ahead to that first meet of the season. I was assigned to run in the second heat of the 400. I had guessed that, with three teams there, if each had a couple of fast runners like the two blond seniors on my team, I had a chance of making the finals. And once you make the finals, well, who knows what could happen? Seventy seconds, I kept telling myself.
My assignment was lane eight. I thought little of that, but recognized that in a staggered start, I’d get a nice five yard head start. I liked the concept. I’d start off in the lead, pace myself, and hold off the others at the end.
When the gun sounded, I got off fast. Really fast. Faster than my short legs had ever run before. Why, I was downright flying! I even had a little trouble keeping control of my balance, I was going so fast. I felt like I was flailing, but through the first turn I was satisfied. I was in front.
As I came out of the turn, runners entered my field of vision. As long as they stay back there, I thought, I’m in good shape. They can’t pass me. I’m moving too fast.
The surprise came on the backstretch. Coming out of the turn, one runner caught and passed me. Then a second, a third. How could this happen? Even as I adjusted my expectations to fourth place, more runners came into view. I tried to summon more speed, but by the final turn I trailed the entire field.
I crossed the line ages later, turned toward where my teammates were gathered in the infield. “Sixty-seven four,” Coach Steve said. He patted me on the shoulder. “Good work.”
Sixty-seven four? Sixty-seven four?! My fastest time yet. Good enough for last place. The winner was, what, eight seconds faster?
Yes, I was a Mop-head.
But I don’t plan for this to be a column about failures. No, not at all. In fact, while I never won a high school race, I earned my letter as a junior and senior, running the 800 and 1600 in acceptable times. I could take handle a relay baton better than anyone, too. After a few starts and stops through the years, I returned to running consistently about four years ago, and have been rededicated ever since. I’ve learned a lot these past four years, a lot from intense studying (oh, did I tell you I was a nerd?), a lot from the amazing, dedicated, caring folks who are our captains, leaders and companions on the road. Most of these things I wish I knew when I was younger, so I plan to pass on to my fellow club-members in the hope that you might benefit from the wisdom of someone “just like you.”
But first, we have to determine if you, too, are a MoP-head. So, with all due respect to Jeff Foxworthy, we give you:
You Might Be a MoP-head if:
• You thought GU gels were pronounced “Gee-You.” (Why would anything you ingest be named “Goo?”)
• You actually use gels.
• You dedicate almost as much time to running as the RGR’s (Really Good Runners), but because you aren’t 6-feet tall, 111 pounds, or your body just doesn’t move that fast, when you cross the finish line, Ben Teixeira and Anthony DiFiore aren’t even out of breath any longer.
• You spend at least a half-hour a week studying your running schedule.
• You get excessively excited to share your expertise with your friend who says she’s going to run her first 5k this year, taking her under your wing and giving her all sorts of unsolicited advice.
• You feel sad when your friend doing her first 5k doesn’t religiously stick to the ten-week schedule you personally created for her.
• You have to wait for race officials to post the SECOND page of 10k results on the bulletin board near the bathroom before your name appears.
• Your team captain puts you on two teams and you finish sixth on the A team, but first or second on the B team.
• Your PLP is somewhere between 45 and 65%.
• You know what PLP stands for. (For those of you who don’t, the PLP, or Performance Level Percentage is an approximate grading of runners based on age and gender. So, someone whose PLP is 50% is right there smack dab in the middle of all runners for his or her age and gender, while someone five years younger with the same time will have a lower PLP. It’s a bit like a golf handicap, only not as generous… There, now that you know, you might be a MoP-head!)
• Once a year, you earn a second-place medal in your age group in some obscure race in Middlesex County.
• You don’t tell anyone about this obscure race in Middlesex County, because that might increase your competition, and then you might not get any medal.
• You forget how miserable you were in the last six miles of the marathon, and one week later, you’re signing up for next year’s.
• You get upset at all the RSRs (the Really Slow Runners) who line up at the front of races and you have to maneuver around them the whole first mile.
• You get upset at yourself when the RGRs start passing you around mile two.
• You get excited at the end of a race when the announcer calls out your name from your bib, because it’s probably the only time you’re going to hear your name called in front of hundreds of people.
• You save your first half-marathon bib.
• You don’t like the name “bib,” because it sounds childish.
• You don’t like the term “half marathon” because when you tell someone you ran one, you see that look in their eyes that says, “Oh, only a half marathon, well, that’s not so impressive.”
• You bite your tongue every time someone asks, “How long was that marathon you ran?”
• You get excited when you break the top 100 in the state’s USATF points list.
• After you break the top 100 in the state’s USATF points list, you sign up for several USATF-sponsored races.
• Ultimately, you stop going to only USATF-sponsored races because a) they’re too far away, b) you get tired of finishing in the back of the pack at those highly competitive races, and/or c) you can’t get excited about the numbers game because it kind of ruins the experience for you.
• You read a technical article that states, “A hundred fifty-eight pounds is large for a marathoner,” and realize that, tipping the scales at 168 pounds, you must be considered clinically obese.
• You realize that, tipping the scales at 168 pounds, you don’t come anywhere near qualifying as a Clydesdale, either. Oh, well…
• You can spell and pronounce Keflezighi without looking it up.
• You smiled every time those Ryan Hall AT&T commercials came on television.
• You know what the words footstrike, heel-toe-drop, minimalist, barefoot running, insole, outsole and toebox mean, but you still can’t quite put them all together to find The Perfect Shoe for you.
• You spend as much time trying on running shoes as you do trying on regular shoes (or, if you’re male, the closest female in your life does).
• Your husband/wife/significant other bought you a 13.1 or 26.2 magnet for your car, but you didn’t put it on the car until you finished that first marathon. Not because you didn’t think you could do it, but because you didn’t feel you earned it.
• When you did put the magnet on your car, the whole family had to come outside to witness the event.
Make no mistake about it. MoP-heads should celebrate our heritage. If we didn’t take pride in our accomplishments, if we didn’t reap the benefits of the running experience, there wouldn’t be so many of us. And we far outnumber the RGRs and bucket-list runners, who try anything once just to say they’ve done it, but don’t plan to make an effort to transform themselves into a runner!
I tend to think that maybe we, more than they, can extract the purest sense of personal pride and satisfaction that the running experience can provide. The bucket-list runners who want to do one marathon and then retire will never know the joy of bettering a PR that they didn’t think was possible. They’ll never know the joy of being able to do something a second time. It was only after my second 5k when I felt I honestly could say, “Yes, I am a runner,” only after my second marathon when I could say, “I am a marathoner.”
The RGRs, on the other hand, will never know the kind of fortitude required to keep to their running schedule when there is no chance at public recognition, an award, or even a potential for a PR perhaps. We do it out of the sheer challenge we put in front of ourselves each and every run. Each time there’s a doubt inside of us whether we’re going to make it or not. And when we finish the run, hands raised or dragging at our sides, we tell ourselves, You know what? You’re okay. And tomorrow we put that challenge in front of us again, and start the whole process rolling once more. It’s all for us. Only for us. I’m convinced it must have been a MoP-head who said, “Every run is a good run.”
So, if you’re a MoP-head, or think you might be one, join me on the voyage.
Yeah, those little energy drink shots? A very bad idea. Don't buy them. Don't use them.
A couple thoughts on energy/carb gels for long distance running...
1) MOST of them are truly awful, barely palatable. The more you indulge in them, the more nauseated you grow. Unless you're good at suppressing your gag reflex.
2) I was very excited to discover the Peppermint Stick flavor that GU released for the holidays. It was quite palatable. A nice Christmas present! Now I have to search online for leftover boxes, so I can stock up for the year.
3) The honey-based ones? WOW, ARE THEY SWEET! I'll give it another shot, maybe on the road, but as a pre-running gel, it took quite some time for me to get it down!
4) NEVER use a gel if you're running less than a half-hour. It's just not necessary, and can get your body in the very bad habit of feeling it needs something when it really doesn't.
Just saw a new list of books for reluctant readers, by one of the otherwise respected literacy organizations of America. I have to say, it's got me upset.
They should really call it "More Books that Adults Think Kids Should Read, with No Concern for What Kids Really Care About and No Understanding of Why There Are Reluctant Readers in the First Place."
Okay, maybe that was a little harsh. I know the intention was good, but there's an inherent problem with consensus lists of any kind. When it comes to books for reluctant readers, the problem is magnified.
You see, when you ask ten, or a hundred, or a thousand people who LOVE books to create a list for people who DON'T love books, you get increasingly further away from the goal. You get a list, my friends, of reading-lovers' favorite books for people who love reading.
I'd much rather see 100 individual lists than one; so would reluctant readers and their parents and teachers. Then they could find that one reader whose sensibilities are similar to their own and go crazy from that list. That's where my hope for my lists lies...in reaching those individuals with whom I share the same sensibilities...
We're looking to help each other as Individuals, folks. Keep that in mind.