Look Up, Look Down

Look up. Look down. Look at my thumb …

Remember the end of this rhyme from when you were a kid? That’s what we’re talking about this week – except we’re leaving out the part about you being dumb. For now, think of it as a mantra to remember good running form, and to have fun or learn something while exercising.

Conventional wisdom says you should keep your eyes straight ahead while running. However, the two of us are anything but conventional – so here is our own advice, based on the aforementioned rhyme.

First, for proper form, try to look at your thumbs while you run.

Keep your hands loosely closed with thumbs pointing up at about a 45 degree angle toward the midline of your body. Pretend you are holding an egg in your hands to avoid clenching. This relaxed position will translate to your forearms, shoulders, and neck, which will help your body run more efficiently.

Now for the fun parts – that’s where looking up and looking down come in handy. Some of our most memorable running experiences have come when we let our eyes wander above and below, as the following examples show.

Look down: to find money! Areas like subdivisions or commercial districts often have all sorts of spare change lying in the roads or sidewalks. Shopping mall parking lots are great for finding coins – just be sure to look up every now and then to avoid cars.

Sure, it’s not exactly a gold mine out there - what you find is usually just a dime or a few pennies – but over the course of 20 years or so, you might save enough to buy a can of soda someday. Either that, or just do what we do - put the change in our kids’ (Donald’s) and grandkids’ (Mike’s) piggy banks.

Look up: and gaze upon the heavens. Dr. Jim Eagle, operations research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, is the perfect running partner on dark morning runs under the starry sky. Jim knows exactly where and when to look for space shuttles, satellites, space stations, meteor showers, and other celestial objects.

A typical Jim comment is, “At 6:14, look east 21 degrees above the horizon and you’ll see the latest Soyuz”. Thankfully, he also points his finger in the direction we should look – and sure enough, the objects are always right where he says they are.

Look down: for sporting goods – especially around local country clubs. If you ever need used tennis balls for playing fetch with your dog, just run around the perimeter of a tennis club sometime. We’ve found dozens of balls over the years on Corral De Tierra Road, and usually thrown them back over the fence. We just hope the golfers there have better aim than the tennis players.

Look up: for birds of prey. As the dawn breaks on local trails, we frequently see owls, hawks, or vultures. Seeing vultures when you are tired and thirsty and a long way from home is somewhat disconcerting – but it’s an impressive sight nevertheless.

Look down: for mile markers. Many commonly used roads have cryptic markings in chalk or spray paint, sometimes with strange initials near them. Some of these are from local runners marking their courses. For example, WNLR 3 means the local club has placed a third mile mark. If you keep going, you are bound to find a WNLR 2 or WNLR 4 a mile down the road. These are helpful to judge your pace during routine workouts.

We have both run in the Las Vegas desert west of the Strip, following the old LVM (Las Vegas Marathon) mile markers. Sometimes those markers are the only interesting things to look at besides the tumbleweeds.

Look up: for architecture. Running in downtown Monterey or any urban area is a great way to take in the design and decorative features of historic buildings. You’d be surprised at how many gargoyles there are around here, in places you wouldn’t expect.

Look down: for history. Historical markers are abundant on city streets. Last week, Mike was in San Francisco near AT&T Park, and saw a bronze plaque marked Rammaytush. Initially, he had no idea what it could possibly mean – until he gave himself a history lesson.

It turns out that Rammaytush is the name of an indigenous people native to the Mission district of San Francisco. The word is from a combined dialect of the Mitsun people and the Awaswas. Their language consisted of only 173 words, and each one is embedded in a sidewalk in the city, along with its English translation.

Perhaps the strangest and most famous street markings are the “smoots” on the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. The smoot is a distance measure named after Oliver Smoot of the MIT class of 1962. Smoot was a fraternity pledge who was used by his brothers to measure the bridge. One smoot is equal to Oliver’s height (five feet seven inches), and he repeatedly lay down on the bridge so his classmates could mark each unit in paint.

The bridge's official length was determined to be "364.4 smoots plus one ear". Today, anyone running across the bridge can still see the smoot markings, thanks to the incoming fraternity pledges who repaint them each year.

It is interesting to note that Oliver Smoot later became the President of the International Organization for Standardization and recently retired as chairman of the American National Standards Institute. Today’s Google’s calculator even uses smoots as an optional unit of measure.

These are just some of the fascinating things you can learn as a runner – but only if you happen to look up or down.

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THANK YOU!

Thank you very much for your purchase of The Running Life. We hope you find it helpful to begin a running life of your own, or to enhance the one you already lead. Feel free to contact us at any time with your feedback, and if you're a new runner, we'd love to hear your story of success!

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Betrayal of Character

Less than five months ago, a runner named Jay Zubick was doing early-morning hill workouts with the two of us, and talking about his plans to race at Ironman Coeur d’Alene this summer.

Today, he’s sitting in a jail cell, leaving a family behind, and a wide trail of devastated victims in his wake.

This tragic story played out in the news over the course of the past several months, culminating with his sentencing two weeks ago. After hearing the statements of victims who lost retirement accounts, college savings, and health care funds, the judge sentenced him to almost 25 years behind bars.

The entire saga sent shockwaves through our athletic community, because as far as we all knew, Jay was one of us. He was a veteran marathoner who served for many years on the Big Sur Marathon Board of Directors. He had done several Ironman events over the past several years, and moved comfortably between the local cycling and running clubs. He was one of the friendliest guys any of us knew, and we were always happy to see him show up at group workouts.

Runners often feel like bonds are forged with the shared toil of our mutual endeavors. We spend hour after hour talking to each other on the roads and trails, developing camaraderie amongst ourselves, and believing we have a sense of each other’s character.

But sometimes, we learn that we didn’t really know a person at all. Jay clearly had many positive attributes – and yet, somewhere inside him, a destructive force lurked. Unfortunately, none of us recognized this side of him until it was far too late to make amends.

Many of his victims are members of our extended family of runners, as well – and watching the pain and betrayal they have suffered seems almost too much to bear.

When we first started hearing these sordid details last February, we didn’t want to believe them. We wanted the accusations to be a misunderstanding, hoping that somebody simply got some facts wrong. We wanted there to be a reasonable explanation for all of our friends who believed their lives were ruined.

We wanted these things, because Jay was one of us. Scandals and crime shouldn’t happen in our utopian fraternity of runners. We’re supposed to be better than that.

Of course, we were mistaken. In reality, runners – even at the amateur level - are collectively no better than any of the other athletes who fell from grace this summer.

More than any year in recent memory, the summer of 2007 was a season of overwhelming immorality in the sporting world. Barry Bonds. NBA referees. Michael Vick. The Tour de France. These were the headline stories, and they all represented what is wrong with sports.

Deep inside, many runners feel like they live to a higher standard than most people. We believe that our sport is more “pure” than the high-profile professional sports tainted by scandal. We feel that the discipline, work ethic, and self-restraint we develop through our workouts will carry over to our personal lives as well, making us role models within the community. It’s a notion that athletes often take great pride in.

But clearly, no group of athletes is more or less honest than another. They’re all populated by humans who struggle with the good and evil forces inside them, with varying degrees of success. No sport can honestly claim moral superiority over another.

Most likely, there are just as many crooked people in the sport of running as there are in the general population. There are elite athletes who test positive, age groupers who cheat by various means (including drug use – which is a growing problem at amateur races), and role models who turn out to be criminals.

In other words, the bad guys are very likely to be one of us. Far too many people, with the exact same interests and goals that we have, decide to venture down the wrong path - and the consequences are universally heartbreaking for everyone involved.

Obviously, we realize that our former training partner isn’t an accurate representation of the larger population of runners. But on the other hand, we know his dark side isn’t merely an isolated case. And that’s what frightens us the most.

We all make our own choices in life. We decide which path we want to travel. Some choose a way of integrity, others choose to be destructive. And - as the two of us have learned this year, to our great disappointment - whether or not we happen to be runners is really quite irrelevant.

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