Swissalpine 2013: how the Swiss organize a major alpine race

The Swiss have beautiful mountains and brilliant organizational skills. Put those things together and you can have an incredible alpine running event.

Swissalpine 2013 was bloody hot this year (84 fahrenheit, 29 celsius) in Davos and not a whole lot colder on the top despite the odd snow patches. The premier event is K78 (just shy of a 50 miler) which is best characterized as a giant loop starting and ending in Davos,  including a 30 mile warm up followed by a brutal 5000 ft climb, a short dip, another 1000 ft climb to a peak of a nearly 9000ft and then a long 12 mile run down to the finish (starting with a precipitous 2000ft 16% descent over rocks and snow). As the Swiss are particularly precise you can see the exact km marks and elevations here

The exact K42 course profile

The exact K42 course profile

Final approach to Keschhutte - first peak

Final approach to Keschhutte – first peak

Cows on the trail!

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Amazing views up top

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Snow and rocks made for some very technical descents

Having had a ridiculously bad year I opted to downgrade to just the interesting bits via the K42 – see profile pic to right. (The longer explanation of the bad year: over eager training after Boston Qualifying (yay, can’t wait for 2014!) at the incredibly wet and windy 2012 California International Marathon last December set off some persistent left knee issues (jumper’s knee as opposed to runner’s knee) followed by a broken neck (following some ill advised yard work #hiresomeonenextime, #luckytobealive) and then my right knee felt like it was missing out and claimed to be suffering from similar symptoms to the left knee. Despite seemingly endless sports medicine, physical therapy and chiropractic appointments all was not well and preparation was far from adequate and hence K42 not K78)

Those be some big hills up ahead

 

K42 basically skips 20 miles of warm up and “just” does the last 42.2 km (yep a real marathon) of K78. Following a little 5km loop, you do the big climb, dip and descent. No Boston Qualifying times here – add about 30-50% to your current road marathon time (depending on conditions and quality of your preparation)

Coming from the SF Bay Area with a plethora of short (as in 1500-2000 ft) and occasionally vicious climbs, I thought I had some basic level of preparation but the length and steepness of the climbs was certainly both new and challenging. Lets just say there was a lot of “power hiking”

The organization was brilliant – far better than what we typically see in the US. Considering the 9 separate events and probably about 5000 participants there had to be (and I guess the entry fees could fund it).

Highlights included:
1) The amazing number of spectators dotted all over the course in even the most remote locations all clapping or cheering “hopp, hopp, hopp”, “bravo” and/or “superbe” and the big stadium finish in Davos
2) The incredible views
3) The ability to get a massage at the two mountain peaks, following the big descent, and at the finish. Given the cramping brought on by the heat and my lack of muscle endurance this was a huge help in getting across the line without hobbling – never had a massage at 9000 ft before by 2 people at once with a magnesium chaser!
4) Access to showers at the end
5) Extremely clear sign posting at start for all amenities and extremely clear course markings (including ribbons laid on ground on either side of the trail across any trail junctions to avoid wrong turns)
6) starting a marathon at 10:30 (very civilized vs. the usual early waking for nutrition, and concerns about getting to the start)

7) Reasonably-priced day care was available all day for parents who wanted to run but needed someone to look after the kids
8) Return train tickets from anywhere in Switzerland and regional train ticket for 7 days included in entry fee
9) A detailed sheet explaining exactly what would be available at each of the many aid stations (water, bananas, alpine bread, granola bars, electrolyte drinks, soup, coke)

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Celebrating with a beer (burger was on the way)

There were a few things they could have done better:
– more frequent km markers in the final 10km and perhaps at each aid station (there were markers indicating distance to go every 5km and at 2 and 1 km to go.
– more generous provisions at the finish line – non-alcoholic beer, water and bananas does not a finish line party make
– not located luggage delivery (think bag drop) all the way round the back of the building up a flight of stairs (enough climbing already!) and about as far away as possible from the showers
– shuttles to train station for outbound trains (these may have been available but I ended up with an hour to kill after just missing my train)

All-in-all an extraordinary experience to cap off an amazing 2 week vacation. Can’t wait to an the next one!

What’s been your favorite overseas running experience and were there any lessons learned for US races?

If that’s not the version of success we want for our kids, why do we keep pushing for it?

Courtesy of New York Times Op-Ed

Courtesy of New York Times

Attended a great talk by Dr. Madeline Levine as part of the Common Ground lecture series on January 30th.  Her August 2012 op-ed piece “Raising Successful Children” is apparently the most emailed piece in history of New York Times.  My favorite quote from that two-pager is: “In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”

In 2008, when she wrote Price of Privilege she was gaining clarity on the solutions, now she feels she’s starting to make progress on some of the solutions which are reflected in last year’s Teach Your Children Well.  Levine was a teacher in the Bronx, prior to starting a psychology practice in Marin county, just north of San Francisco over 25 years ago, where many an affluent child can be found.  She’s also a mother of three, and sees motherhood as one of her superpowers (more on that later), so she knows children well.

She’s a wonderful presenter, very comfortable in front of a crowd, with only a flip chart “to keep her on track”, and many amusing anecdotes.  Great dinner company, I’m sure. When she presents to crowds like the five hundred or so presumably affluent, well-intentioned parents in Silicon Valley jammed into that lecture theatre at 9am on a Wednesday morning, she likes to ask what is your  goal for your kids?

a) to know themselves well, to have passion for their vocation, something to contribute, to be resilient, to have zest for life, a loving family, etc, or 

b) to follow the linear “classic” definition of success: private schools, Ivy league undergrad, Harvard MBA, Goldman Sachs banker 

Perhaps because the answer is obviously not “b” in this context, typically only 2-4% of the audience admit to “b”.  So if that’s true, why do we keep demanding it of our children?

In the end, success with children is not the outcome of today or tomorrow.  It’s a lifetime.  10 years out, the success rate of those that went to Yale vs. those that didn’t is indistinguishable. Yet, with all of the day-to-day blocking and tackling, it’s very easy to forget the long term view.   She provides an example of one of her own children, who she transferred from public to private school, despite the contrary advice of experts, and yet with no apparent negative consequences in the long term.

Adults have a very well-kept secret from their kids – you only have to be good at a few things to succeed.  When you look at yourself, and ask what are your superpowers, you probably excel at a handful, are good at some, and poor at the rest.  A Gallup poll of executives revealed the same thing – of around thirty management capabilities, each executive only excelled at 3 to 5 things.  The conclusion is the greatest rewards come from focusing on strengths, both for you and your children.  As she says, kids don’t know this.  Rather than trying to raise a kid that excels at everything, let them find what they are good at, and let the other stuff go.  You probably don’t get straight A’s in your life, so why should your kids be expected to get straight A’s at everything too?

The challenge with the narrow linear definition of success is it creates huge pressure for kids to meet this straight-A’s trajectory and with that pressure comes a host of side effects from stomach aches to stress to depression.  As Levine says, “in reality, most of your kids are really quite average.  That’s basic statistics, the bell curve… If two people with an IQ of 140 marry, the likely result is not additive, its more likely to regress to the mean.”

For her, if someone is described as “smart”, she now likes to ask “in what way?”.  She subscribes to Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence : analytical, creative and practical, and says she ended up with a kid of each type.  When the first one come along, with straight-A’s analytical intelligence she patted herself on the back, and thought how good she was at parenting.  Then the second turned up with creative intelligence.  “Creativity is like a river, if just flows, and you can’t stop it.” It took a while for him to find his way, but he did.  The third child apparently had fantastic hands-on skills and amazing emotional intelligence. (A critical overlying capability for all of us, in my opinion).

The challenge is the school system rewards such a narrow definition of academic success.  For kids not gifted with analytical intelligence, the challenge is how to help them develop confidence and high self-worth in a system that doesn’t value what they offer.

Clearly each child is different, and you have to match the school to the child.  Imposing your own wishes on the children doesn’t do anybody any favors either.  In another great quip: “at 16, kids have enough to worry about without worrying abut what the parents want”  Apparently the most common request she gets from kids she sees in her psychology practice is “please help my mother to find a hobby [other than me]”.   She’s not a fan of weekend sports spectating, as she feels it makes adulthood look boring.  Parents should “keep in mind your own needs. Kids need to know its not all about them. Your home is your child’s first community.”

She acknowledges why many of us default to the linear success path in evaluating our kids and others: “we are anxious because the world is tough, and we don’t want our kids living at home after college, playing video games, and hitting the bong.”  Somewhat surprisingly, Levine said that in terms of content and skills American kids are as good as any other.  “In terms of everything else they stink … Kids have a sense of entitlement, a lack of grit, a lack of collaboration, and are so accustomed to external support and evaluation that they can’t evaluate themselves.”

The other reason, she suggests, is the lack of honesty in the “latte line” – all the other parents are hiding problems and saying everything is great rather than having an honest dialogue. In Levine’s view, the two most important developmental tasks for school-age kids are:

  1. exploration
  2. developing friendships

Her solution for over- parenting in a nut shell is: “don’t do what your child can already do, or almost do”.  For example, “if your ten year old forgets a school project – do you bring it in for them? [Answer:] It depends! A succession of successful failures is really good for kids. They have to solve problems for themselves and learn how to cope and manage unhappy things.  This isn’t always the rule, it depends, you have to have each others back. So if its super important, bring it in.  If not, don’t. Every kid in America knows how not to load the dishwasher – “mum, I have an important test tomorrow “.  Yet it’s more important they spend 5 minutes on a family obligation than an extra 5 minutes studying for a test.”

A few other tips from a most thought provoking and entertaining lecture:

  • “Kids say nobody listens to me – you have to listen, really listen.”  In other words, put down that smart phone, get down on their level and listen
  • Don’t over schedule kids – they need space to construct a sense of self – playtime, downtime, and family time are critical
  • Young adolescents love to argue. It may be easier to deal with if you remember it’s really just to practice abstract thinking skills.

Have you read any of her books?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Review: Barnana Bites replace sticky gels, end stomach upset and calf cramps

barnanabitesOver the last 10 years of endurance events, GU and other energy gels appeared to be a necessary evil for energy and electrolytes.  Unfortunately I’ve found they get harder and harder to stomach the longer the race and the harder you are working. I was getting a lot of gastrointestinal (GI) upset and still getting debilitating calf cramps after about 2 hours of hard exercise. I’ve tried more or less water, salt tabs, magnesium, and potassium supplements all to no avail.

The longer and harder the run, the more likely the issues.  At Quicksilver 50 mile race in 2010 I clearly remember knowing I needed to eat, but just not being able to force down a GU, and reaching for PB&J sandwiches, bananas and salted potatoes instead at the aid stations.

I first tried these Barnana Banana Bites about 6 months ago and found it not only was easy and relatively pleasant to eat no matter how hard I was working, it also caused no GI distress and my cramps were gone. Barnana is literally just partially dehydrated banana (which is why it is chewy rather than like the banana chips we all know), so its packed with potassium, which seemed to be just what my body needed to avoid the dreaded calf cramps.

As you can see from the pic above, they do look a little odd (dare I say unappetizing?) as they are little brown lumps. For me, all the other advantages easily exceeded the issue of appearance.  You can also get a chocolate flavor, but I didn’t see any need to add that to the mix while running.  Amazon sells them in bulk if you want to save a few $, and some Whole Foods stores stock them if you want to try a single pack without paying shipping charges.

For me, a full bag is perfect for a marathon – 1 chew each mile from roughly mile 4 to mile 22. Using this strategy , I ran a personal best (almost 30 minutes faster) at California International Marathon in December using them. You can put them in a sandwich bag and there is no mess like you have with the sticky energy gel packets. Price wise its about the same as doing 4-5 gels in a marathon, so it was a no brainer to switch for me.

So if you’re tied of the gels, this might work for you.  Let me know what you think!

(Note: this is an authentic review.  I’ve had no contact with the owners or makers of Barnana Banana Bites and received no compensation or free product)

The Icarus Deception: Seth Godin wants you to fly closer to the sun

icarusdeceptionIf you haven’t made your New Years resolutions yet (as Seth would say “NOW is the time to start”), maybe you should give yourself a prod by picking up a copy of The Icarus Deception and seeing if the prodigious Seth Godin can exhort you to go make some art.

Since writing Linchpin in 2010 (my review), Seth has been on a campaign to get us out of our comfort zones and creating the art that is within each and everyone of us, but we are just to scared to let it free.

Seth is on top of a major movement here – according to the Census Bureau about 3/4 of US firms have no payroll (21.4 million vs 5.9 million with a payroll).  If you add in small businesses with less than 10 employees (77% of 3.6 million of the 5.9 million) the segment is even bigger.  At 21.4 million the self-employed sector is nearly 2x the employment size of  largest industry segment (education at about 12 million).  The change appears to be accelerating too (as a proxy, those working from home grew 41% in the last decade to 13.5 million)

It’s a spin on the old follow your passion line – it’s better to love and lose than to never have loved at all. He argues passionately and persuasively that the people wrongly assume they are taking the low risk path in a “safe” corporate career that they don’t care about.

That’s the clever and unexpected component of the title of this book – the part no one ever talks about is that Daedalus told his son not to fly to low either – because being too close to sea there would be no lift.

There’s a lot of repetition, but there are also some handy ideas and lists and a few (albeit brief) case studies.  Seth works hard to make sure you get what art is and requires:  being vulnerable and honest, relentless persistency (grit), putting your best work out there, realizing those who value your art will find it, and learning to live with the inevitable trolls who won’t value what you do.

Like most of Seth’s books it’s a quick and easy read.  If you’re still procrastinating, this might get you moving.

The one critical flaw that turned my Nike+ SportWatch GPS into a non-functional piece of jewelry

I was so excited to get the Nike+ SportWatch GPS a couple of years ago for Christmas. It was stripped down to key functionality (distance and pace, time, backlight, upload results to cloud), offered some nice options (add a foot pod and a HR strap) and looks cool (one of the few watches I’ve ever owned to receive multiple compliments)

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All show, no go!

The watch has worked well, with one critical and debilitating flaw that has turned it into a piece of jewelry. In technical gear Nike has exhibited the “all show, no go” syndrome (for example, the Nike Running cloud software looks fantastic but has limited useful functionality when it comes to reporting) and this watch has ultimately suffered from this.

Critical Lesson: Design for partial failure conditions (aka, always provide a workaround)

The watch relies on what appeared to be a very clever USB connection hidden in the strap buckle (see photos).

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Now you see it

Now you don't

Now you don’t

This is the only way to recharge the device, and to upload runs, clear memory, update watch firmware and settings via the Nike Connect software on PC and Mac.

Unfortunately the wires between the USB plug and the watch itself are not robust and partially failed (of course about 3 months after the one year warranty) and despite numerous calls to the nice folks at Nike Support and multiple attempts the watch is no longer recognized as connected by the Nike Connect software. It can still be recharged however.

Doesn’t sound too bad right? Can still use it to record runs and manually record the distance and time, right? Well yes, until the memory fills up and one discovers there is no way to delete what is in memory, either through a simple erase capability on the watch (best) a device reset (ok), or running down the power (painful, but doable), and the watch will not record new runs once the memory is full.

Final injustice? Watch is not repairable or serviceable in any way.

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Where the band meets the watch is where the connection failure occurred

So I’m left with a chunky piece of jewelry that tells the time. Another failed piece of running technology (more reviews on more devices to come)

My plea to product designers: think about failure conditions and how your device will work (or not) once those occur and always provide a workaround! Even if that means just making it repairable.

Ever owned a piece of technology with the same flaw? I’d love to hear your stories.

It took Thomas Keller to teach me the secret of beautiful poached eggs

Keller cookbooksI’ve always loved poached eggs ever since my grandma used to make them for breakfast on top of toast and promite (a sweeter version of vegemite).  The splash of yellow as you cut into the yolk and the luscious unctuous sauce the yolk makes.

I never had much luck with making them.  Seemed like there was always strands of white all over the saucepan.

 

Enter Thomas Keller.  Sorry, not in person.  But through two beautiful cookbooks I received for Christmas – the very ambitious The French Laundry Cookbook and the more relaxed Ad Hoc at Home.

Time: 5 mins to boil the water, 2 mins to cook the egg

Start with a deep saucepan. Boil the water, and add 2 Tbsp vinegar.

Here’s the secret:  Create a whirlpool in the saucepan by stirring and break the egg into that gently.  Then drop the heat so it doesn’t hit the bottom and stick but spins beautifully in that little whirlpool.

poached egg whirlpoolRemove after 2 mins with a slotted spoon and you have poached egg perfection.

Repeat for how ever many eggs you want to do.  If you’re Thomas Keller presentation crazy you put them in an ice bath, dress them up by snipping off any straggly bits and reheat them later.  But they look pretty damn good after the whirlpool treatment and I say eat ’em while hot.

If you want to get healthy serve these over some wilted greens and some warmed cannellini beans with garlic, salt, pepper, lemon, chili pepper flakes (or Sriracha sauce).  Asparagus and bacon are great adds too.  Or follow my grandma’s lead and go Aussie-style with some nice thick toast with vegemite.  Below is a tasty Mexican inspired breakfast from the other day.

Egg with black bean and roasted poblano chile salad and avocado

Egg with black bean and roasted poblano chile salad and avocado

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheers.

TSA Pre – The best gift of the holiday season

tsa_preIf you’re a frequent traveller, airport security is a constant pain if for no other reason than the uncertain duration.   Even with premier access lines for frequent fliers, at airports like SFO, EWR and ORD the premier access lines can take 15+ minutes.  For most of last year, I used to head up to the premier line at International to avoid the monster premier access security lines at United Domestic (and the United Club is better there too).

Life before TSA Pre

Along comes TSA Pre.  Suddenly the barcode on your boarding pass grants access to a lane with no one in it.  You leave everything on except bulky winter jackets (no need to take off shoes, belts and sweaters),  laptop and liquids stay in the bag, and no full-body scanner.  It’s just so civilized.   And so quick.

Life after TSA Pre

Flying out of SFO on New Year’s Day my morning looked grim with another monster queue, when all of a sudden I spy the TSA Pre lane, my hopes are raised, and the lady scans my boarding pass and waves me through.  And I’m through in barely a minute, without having to go through the whole uncomfortable undress and unpack business.  Leaving Chicago on Thursday, same fabulous experience. It really does feel like Christmas.  I guess I’ll be annoyed at any airports that don’t have it now…

Very easy to sign up.  Just Google TSA Pre + [Name of your airline] to find the sign up page.  For United, all I had to do was tick a box saying I wanted in and press submit.

Go on, give yourself the gift that will keep on giving.

Safe travels, all!