April 17, 2014

On April 15, 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers set off two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Here we are, one year later, overwhelmed with memorial events, commentators, and articles struggling to put it all in perspective. Ready or not, here’s another.

My name doesn’t show up in the results from last year because I was guiding Mike, a visually-impaired runner from Texas. We crossed the finish line on Boylston St. just under 4 hours after leaving Hopkinton. Of course, the end of the race wasn’t the end of the story, not for hours, not that day.

Seven minutes later, at 2:49, we were maybe 50 yards past the finish, freshly bemedaled and moving slowly forward in step with the rest of the crowd, when we heard a loud bang. I turned to see greasy grey smoke rising from the other side of the line. None of us, especially the blind guy, knew for sure what had happened. Gas explosion? TV power transformer? A bomb?

Then the second explosion went off. We didn’t know yet that they were bombs. But we knew.

Much later, after miles of walking and hours of uncertainty, Mike was on a plane heading back home and a flurry of emails and text messages had confirmed that everyone we knew was safe.

My focus that day was on doing the next thing to make sure Mike and, to the extent possible, everyone else was OK. After that, I was overwhelmed by exhaustion. The one thing I knew for sure was that I would be back for the 2014 race if I had anything to say about it.

Once the bombers were caught, I thought it would be like after 9/11; something horrible had happened, but my day-to-day life would soon go back to normal. That wasn’t the case. For weeks following the bombing, I had trouble sleeping and I flinched every time I heard a siren or a loud noise off in the distance.

The problems lasted for a month after the marathon, until we went to see Iron Man 3 at the IMAX theater in Reading, a theater with a powerful sound system  and “butt kickers” built into the seats. The movie’s first few explosions had me fearing that it would all be too much to take. But by the end of the movie, after relentless series of blasts, I was taking them in stride. The worst of my reaction was over after that. Apparently, the immersion therapy helped me settle down.

Since then, denial, or avoidance at least, has been my main tool in dealing with ongoing reminders about the marathon bombing.

It hasn’t been easy to bury the feelings. I’ve skipped reading most of the articles and I’ve only watched snippets of the video from the scene. When I wrote an article about guiding Mike, I left out the aftermath of the bombing, choosing to focus on what in conversation I usually label as, “a great day, until the bombs went off.”

Nevertheless, reminders of the event are unavoidable, especially for those of us living in the Boston area, and especially for me, since even under normal circumstances I’m obsessed by the Boston Marathon.

The stories in the media often seem like people pontificating to get attention, make money, or fill the airwaves with chatter about the latest sensation. For the most part, they’re just people doing their job, often while honestly working through their own feelings. I’m still annoyed by much of it, especially the security theater, but I know that’s just my personal defense mechanism.

That makes it especially ironic that I’ve spent a good chunk of the last year discussing the bombing to promote the One Fund benefit anthology (obligatory link) I put together. The inherent contradictions between that effort, and for that matter writing this piece, and the way I feel about other reminders of the bombing aren’t always comfortable for me.

On the other hand, I’ve been genuinely touched by some of the things people have done, starting with the living memorial that arose spontaneously in Copley Square after the race. The sanitized version currently on display at the Boston Public Library isn’t as powerful, but I was still moved, almost to tears, when I turned a corner and saw the crosses memorializing the four who died.

I also get a little emotional at unpredictable moments when something causes me to reflect on how close I came to dying. Seven minutes isn’t much. A blister or one porta-potty break, and Mike or I could have first-hand memories of bloodshed to deal with, or worse, crossed the finish in the arms of a fireman instead of on foot.

My most fervent desire for the 2014 Boston Marathon was that it would be just another race. That, of course, was never going to happen.

Yet Monday, in spite of everything, I’m going back to Hopkinton, this time under my own name as a qualified runner. 9/11 didn’t keep me from flying; the marathon bombing won’t keep me from lining up in Hopkinton. I’m not doing it to prove anything to anyone – running is just what I do.

I can’t imagine ever understanding how anyone could think that killing random bystanders at a public event would ever solve anything. The knowledge that these people exist is nothing new – ask anyone in Ireland or Israel, or in New York City for that matter. But until the marathon bombing, it was all at a distance, something only in the news or on TV.

My nature is to try to explain things and to solve problems by following logical processes to the best of my ability wherever they might take me. That won’t work here. The actions of the Tsarnaev brothers are just as inexplicable today as they were while I was standing in the finish corral with Mike, watching the smoke rise.

So I’m going to Hopkinton a little confused, wondering what I‘m going to feel when I’m standing at the starting line. I know there’s no right way to feel, no one thing that I, or anyone else, should be experiencing in this situation. My denial isn’t strong enough to believe that I won’t feel something. With luck, maybe some sense of resolution. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.

Marathon Record Timeline

April 10, 2014

The image below contains five marathon record timelines: course records for Boston (men and women) and New York (men), and world records (men and women). Each colored block marks a year where a record was set. Darker blocks in the world record timelines represent years where there were multiple record-breaking efforts.

Marathon record timeline

Click image to embiggen

The chart below summarizes the data.

Marathon record rate chart

Race courses have changed over time, and not everyone agrees on whether a particular effort was worthy of world-record status or not, so any comparisons aren’t necessarily apples-to-apples. Even so, the timelines still provide some interesting information.

The first running boom, centered around the 1970′s, shows up clearly in the data.  A closer look shows that the boom started earlier, in the post-WWII years. It might be that easier travel and post-war prosperity for the middle-class created larger, stronger fields at Boston and other marathons around the world, filled with runners who set records more frequently.

In the late 60′s, women joined in the fun. Then New York became a major event (along with Chicago, Berlin, and many others). Records fell fast and furious through the mid-80′s.

The second running boom hasn’t resulted in a similar wave of marathon records. If you squint, the world record timeline might reflect the boom somewhat, but the recent timelines for Boston, New York, and women world-wide show a relative dearth of records. Maybe Color Runs aren’t much of a breeding ground for record-breaking marathon efforts?

One thing is for sure: there’s only one way I’ll ever hold a world record.

I’m an Athlete On Fire

April 7, 2014

athleteAnd it’s all because of the red jockstrap.

Find out more, if you dare, by listening to my chat with Scott Jones for his Athlete On Fire podcast.

It’s the last of six interviews Scott did with some of the contributors to The 27th Mile. That should be enough to keep your ears occupied for the next week or two of runs.

The Unicorn’s GOAT

April 4, 2014

In a couple of weeks, the BAA will bring out their Unicorn banners for the 118th time to mark the start of the 2014 Boston Marathon. Those of us running the race are in taper mode, which leaves us time to discuss the issues of the day, and gives us the need to discuss those issues to distract us from the wait for Patriots’ Day.

One question that’s always open for discussion is, “Who’s the greatest Boston Marathon runner of all time?” It’s not an easy choice. There are just too many great runners and too many things to take into consideration. But that never stops people from having an opinion.

Ideally, we can agree on a set of objective criteria to use to help us pick one Boston Marathon runner as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). We all have our subjective favorites. Runners my age are likely to favor Boston Billy, while barefoot running fans might favor Tarzan Brown, who won in 1935, even though his shoes fell apart at mile 21. But marathon racing isn’t subjective – the first to cross the line is always the winner. We should mirror that as much as possible in our search for the greatest marathoner.

First of all, to be the GOAT clearly you have to be the GOOD, Greatest On One Day. You can’t be the best Boston Marathoner ever without winning the race at least once. And it’s Boston you have to win. In this case, all that matters is what you do between Hopkinton and Boylston Street, not what you do in some other marathon.

Some of becoming the GOAT is just luck. You don’t become the GOAT solely via effort. Obviously, you can’t win Boston without training hard, but the runner who works the hardest and gets the most out of his potential could be the runner who finishes in 8675th place. You have to be born with the proper physical gifts.

Unfortunately, that lets out all the women. As great as Rosa Mota, Uta Pippig, and Catherine Ndereba have been, they were never the fastest runner on the course on any Patriots’ Day. Call me sexist if you want, but when a woman beats me (happens all the time!) it counts. When choosing the GOAT, the converse is also true.

That also lets out most of the age-groupers. Come back to me when you win at age 41, like Clarence DeMar did.

I also leave out Ernst van Dyk, Jean Driscoll, and the other fine wheelchair racers. I admire them greatly, but racing in a wheelchair doesn’t compare directly with running.

To me, the choice for GOAT comes down to three people: Geoffrey Mutai, Clarence DeMar, and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot.

Mutai at 2011 BostonMutati’s claim to the GOAT title is based on his record finish of 2:03:02 in 2011. For many people, it’s just that simple – the fastest runner is the greatest runner. And that’s not unreasonable.

But a lot of things can affect race times on any particular day. The weather and the level of competition have an enormous impact. And winning race times in general are getting faster, due to modern training methods, equipment, and lifestyle changes. Is it fair to mark Clarence DeMar down because he had to hold a full time job in addition to training for marathons?

Also, when picking a GOAT, shouldn’t we consider not just “how fast” but “how often”? Sustained excellence should count for something.

Clarence DeMarThat’s where Clarence DeMar’s claim is strongest. DeMar won Boston 7 times between 1911 and 1930. 16 men have won Boston more than once, but only DeMar has won it more than 4 times.

However, back when DeMar was winning, Boston was a much smaller race. In those days, the sport of running was much less popular than it is today. On top of that, commercial air travel was still in its infancy – Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing was in 1927. Merely getting to Boston was a major challenge for most runners.

The travel required a significant time commitment in itself, and got in the way of final preparations for racing. And since races were limited to amateurs, the expense of traveling to Boston was often enough to keep a prospective runner away.

So the size of the field when DeMar was winning Boston was limited to one or two hundred runners. His competition just wasn’t as strong as Mutai’s or other modern runners.

Perhaps the GOAT should be someone who fits both criteria – a multiple winner with a fast time.

Cheruiyot at 2008 BostonAll three men who have won Boston four times, Bill Rodgers, Gérard Côté , and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, set the course record in at least one of their victories. Of the three, Cheruiyot ran the fastest and beat the largest, most inclusive, fields.

We could consider other things, like multiple high placements for runners in years when they did not win. Maybe if I had all the data I could do something fancy with trends, standard deviations, and regressions, and develop a formula to choose among these men. I might even discover that the numbers pick someone else as the GOAT. But failing that, and in spite of the solid arguments you can make for all three men, I’m happy with the choice of Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot as the greatest Boston Marathoner of all time.

Who’s your choice for the GOAT? Leave your pick in the comments!

Live TV! New England Cable News – Monday Apr. 7 @ 10:45AM

April 4, 2014

NECNlogo_newI’ll be making a live appearance Monday, April 7th at 10:45AM on New England Cable News to discuss The 27th Mile and the Boston Marathon. Watch for it, if your dentist has a TV in the waiting room or you happen to be otherwise unoccupied.

Sharing is Caring – Help us help The One Fund Boston

April 2, 2014

The 27th MileAnother month has gone by, bringing the total donation to The One Fund Boston from sales of The 27th Mile to $2855.

With less than three weeks to go before this year’s Boston Marathon, I’m asking you one last time (promise!) to see if we can generate some additional more money to help the victims of the bombing at last year’s race. Please, share a link to the book with your friends, post a review on Amazon or another book site, and maybe even buy another copy or two (they make great gifts!).

Thanks for all your help so far – let’s see what more we can do.

The 27th Mile

One Last Long Run before Boston

March 29, 2014

The weekend three weeks before Patriots’ Day is always a busy time in the Newton hills. Thousands of runners, most of them running for one charity or another, head to the course to get their last long training run in before the Boston Marathon.

This year, between the expanded size of the race field and the threat of a storm on Sunday, there were probably more runners doing their training on Saturday than ever before.

I spent some time with my video camera at the start of the hills, just past the firehouse turn, finding out what the runners had to say:

And don’t forget to check out the One Fund benefit anthology, The 27th Mile!


Let the Spinning Wheel Spin

March 28, 2014

A story I’m working on is about running a marathon in a space station, one of those old-school science-fiction wheel-shaped living spaces that spin to create artificial gravity for the inhabitants.

One way I procrastinate while waiting for ideas to pop up from my subconscious and move the plot along is by playing with some of the implications of running in that environment.

In some ways, running along the rim of a rotating torus is like running on a treadmill, in that multiple frames of reference come into play.

When you run on the spinning belt of an earth-bound treadmill, within your personal frame of reference, you can be running at quite a clip, but because the belt is spinning in the opposite direction, to the world beyond the treadmill, you aren’t moving at all.

Of course, this assumes you’re running against the direction of the belt’s spin. It’s a fairly safe assumption in most cases. If you try it the other way around, there’s a short, happy moment where, to the outside world, you appear to be zooming along twice as fast, until you abruptly run out of belt, fly off the back of the treadmill, and gravity brings you to an unceremonious, and often painful, halt.

There is no gravity when you’re in outer space, running along inside of the rim of a toroidal space station. Well, to be picky, there is gravity, but because it acts equally on both you and the space station, from your point of view gravity doesn’t exist. Instead, your inertia and the centripetal force generated by the spinning station create an artificial gravity effect that keeps you connected to the rim.

You may remember the formula for centripetal acceleration from high school physics (I had to look it up):

ac = v2 / r

where ac = centripetal acceleration, v = velocity, and r =  the radius of the circle.

You feel that as a force directed away from the axis of rotation, which you calculate using this familiar equation:


where f = force, m = your mass, and a = acceleration.

editedNow let’s run a few numbers. Since we’re in space, we should use the metric system and be all science-y, but since I’m in a road runner in the US, I still think in English units, miles and the like. I’m going to switch willy-nilly from one system to the other, and you’re just going to have to trust that I do it accurately.

If we want to create an earth-like feel on our space station, we’d want to spin the wheel so the centripetal acceleration is equal to 9.8 meters/second2, the acceleration due to gravity on the earth’s surface.

Runners usually think about distances in miles, so let’s start with a space station that’s one mile in circumference and see what we get. A circle with a circumference of one mile has a radius of 256.1m.

When you plug those numbers into the centripetal acceleration formula and solve for v, you get 50.1m/s, which a pace of a little over a half-minute per mile.

The runner’s speed adds to or subtracts from that velocity, depending on whether he is running with the spin or against it, just like the earth-based treadmill.

Suppose our runner is traveling in the direction of the spin. That means when you calculate the effective centripetal force, you have to add his speed to the rotational speed of the station. More speed = more centripetal acceleration. More acceleration and the runner feels like he weighs more.

More assumptions:

  •          Our runner weighs 150 pounds on Earth (Pounds-force actually. “Weight” is force, not mass, but since gravity is a constant on the Earth’s surface, we tend to disregard the distinction).
  •          He can run a 5 min/mile pace on Earth (a 2:11 marathon; he’s pretty good), which is about 5.4m/s.

So his v is now 55.5 m/s. That means ac now equals about 12m/s2, which means when he’s running with the spin at his usual pace, he feels like he weighs about 183 pounds.

But as our runner gets “heavier”, he won’t be able to run as fast. By one estimate, runners lose about 2 seconds per mile for every extra pound. We have to take that into consideration in our calculations. At 183 pounds, our runner would slow to about 6:06 pace, a 2:39:48 marathon. But at a slower pace, he wouldn’t “weigh” quite as much, so the actual pace is somewhere between 5:00 and 6:06/mile. I’ll leave the exact numbers as an exercise for the student (because I can’t figure out exactly how to do it – my calculus is rustier than a ’67 Nova).

Now let’s turn our runner around so he’s running against the spin of the space station. Now we subtract his speed from the rotational speed, so v= 44.7m/s, ac=7.8m/s2, and his subjective weight drops to 119 pounds.

With the 2 seconds he gains for every pound he loses, now he’s running a 3:58 mile, a 1:43:56 marathon. Actually better than that, because now the change in speed is working to make him even lighter, and thus, even faster. Take that Kenya!

astronautrunning2This is where it gets really cool. Remember how our Earth-bound treadmill runner has to be careful which way he runs? Go back to ac=v2/r. Imagine spinning the station a little slower, or making the radius a little larger. It wouldn’t really take all that much to get to where our space-bound runner can totally counteract the centripetal force and run in zero gravity! Finally! A marathon you can run in complete comfort!

OK, long before he gets to zero-G, our runner would start bounding, lose traction, lose control, and mimic our earth-bound treadmill runner with an embarrassing crash. But it was fun to think about, wasn’t it?

Security Hints from the Jerusalem Marathon

March 21, 2014

One of my Facebook friends, Rachael Toor, just came back from the Jerusalem Marathon. She called the race “by far the most spectacular urban marathon” that she’d ever done. Over 25,000 runners participated in the weekend’s events, which included races covering distances from 800 meters up to the full marathon.

Moses splits the runners at the 2014 Jerusalem Marathon

Moses parts the runners at the 2014 Jerusalem Marathon (Fitoussi photo)

In the context of the new security procedures for this year’s Boston Marathon, I had been curious about how Jerusalem addressed the issue of runner and spectator safety. Israel, of course, has had to deal with much more in the way of terrorism over the years than we have here in the US.

One controversy among Boston runners is the new bag check policy, which requires runners to check their clear, BAA-provided bag at the finish before getting on the bus to Hopkinton. In previous years, runners, many of whom have to spend 4 hours or more outdoors in potentially nasty weather waiting for the race to start, could check their bag on a bus in Hopkinton just before their run.

Meanwhile, according to Rachael, Jerusalem has “a bag check with no regulations at all.” Perhaps they realize that the runners aren’t the problem.

Rachael also says that there was “way less visible security than in most other major cities.” Jerusalem had 1000 police along the course, while Boston will have over three times as many. The Jerusalem course twists back and forth within the city and the whole area is basically shut down for the race. That could make security easier than it is for Boston, where officials have to cover a 26-mile corridor for the point-to-point race.

On the course, an Israeli runner pointed out to Rachael that much of the city, and certainly most of the marathoners, were trained in security. The mayor, an experienced marathoner who ran the half, said, “We do this [security] all day, every day.”

Boston could learn from this. I’m confident that most runners can tell the difference between pre-race jitters and “I’ve got a bomb in my bag.”

Of course, it’s not all just Manischewitz and anemones. A report on the 2012 edition of the race complains that most Palestinian West Bank residents would never be given permission to enter the city for the race. Another reporter discussed his thoughts on running only a day or two after reporting on bombings in the city.

But so far, Jerusalem has managed to strike a reasonable balance between safety and celebration for runners and spectators. Let’s hope Boston learns to do the same.

If You Print It, They Will Come

March 14, 2014

Sure, you’ve got a closet full of race shirts. But how many of you have a shirt from a race that doesn’t exist?

The imaginary race has theme music too. But you have to imagine your own lyrics:


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