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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