The Run of the Year (Subtitled: Why Am I Faster in New York?)

Greetings, blogosphere.

I’ve been maintaining some radio silence lately because I’ve been on the road. I’m visiting Rochester, NY where I will be staying for a while. I’m also doing a 10K run while I’m here, and I may sign up for another race or two. This is a great racing town with runs almost every week during the fair weather months, and even some winter races for those who are feeling bold (which I’m not).

Of course, most of my 10K training has been done in the ever-hotter weather of Tucson, AZ. The week before I left town, I started doing all my runs indoors on a treadmill because the heat–which reached 105 degrees on at least two consecutive days–was becoming deadly. Yesterday was actually my first outdoor run here in Western New York, and what a run it was! I tackled 3.5 miles at an average 9:32/mile pace. That is blistering for me, and over :10/mile faster than my previous fastest run of the year. The 5K time of 29:36 was even close to a PR. Even more surprising is that I managed this time despite a hilly course, getting rained on, and some ornery waterfowl crossing my path. This led me to wonder–Why am I faster in New York than I am in AZ? Some possible explanations:

  • Altitude: It’s true that Tucson (2400 feet above sea level) has a higher elevation than Rochester (500 feet above sea level), but I’ve read multiple studies suggesting that the difference would have to be much greater to make any measurable difference in speed.
  • Air Quality: This may be dubious, too. In 2010, Rochester received an “F” grade from the American Lung Association in terms of ozone pollution, but a 2011 study found a marked decrease in pollution from cars, power plants, and the like.
  • Humidity: Here’s a big difference–Humidity in Rochester has been high. Relative humidity right now is about 53% (though I’d imagine it was higher yesterday while I was running in the rain). Humidity today in Tucson is about 10%. Too much humidity can be a hindrance, but overall I think being too low isn’t great, either!
  • Temperature: This of course matters, too. Trading the upper 90s/low 100s of Tucson for upper 60s evening runs in Rochester is bound to impact performance. Even in the early mornings in Tucson, temperatures were in the 70s by the time I got outside to run.

There are many things I enjoy about being an Arizona runner, but right now I’m loving the achievement of being a bit faster. Happily, I have a few more weeks of this to look forward to. Might a PR be in my near future?


Throwing in the Towel

Yesterday my therapist suggested that I quit online dating. In my brief re-experiment with putting myself on the market, I’ve had dates with three guys who were just OK, and corresponded with two other guys who I gave up on after repeated e-mail exchanges that were no more than two sentences long each on their end. The most “success” I had was the guy I went on about five dates with, over the course of a month, who I never even touched. It wasn’t a huge surprise when he stopped calling me after his last business trip, and it didn’t feel like much of a loss on my end either… except that everything feels like a loss or a failure at this point in my life. I passed another birthday this week with no one to share it with. I’m about to go back home to upstate New York where I’ll see one of my close friends get married, meet another’s new baby, and will be the third wheel on innumerable hanging out sessions where husbands, boyfriends, etc. are always present. I, as usual, have nothing new to share about my love life.

My therapist’s advice to quit dating came after I burst into tears when describing myself as “that thing at the store that’s left on the shelf while all the other things get bought, and you just look at it and you know it’s been there forever.” That is truly how I see myself. I have no delusions about who I am–I’m smart, I’m at least moderately attractive, I’ve lost over 30 pounds and don’t drink like a fish anymore. I run half marathons, I almost have a Ph.D., and I’m a good teacher. But that doesn’t seem to be what matters to men. I feel like I’m invisible sometimes; and I’m as bad at meeting people online as I am when I go out in person. As I get older, it doesn’t get any easier.

I think my therapist’s idea was that, by taking myself off the market, I relieve the pressure on myself. I save myself the constant feeling of rejection that I get when online dating–or any kind of dating–just doesn’t pan out. She pointed out that I’m planning to leave Arizona in a year or so anyway and that “it’s probably just not meant to happen here.” But in my heart I’ve started to believe it won’t happen anywhere. My last serious relationship ended almost six years ago back in New York. Before that, I was raped by a guy I met at a bar. The last guy I loved here in Tucson just completely stomped on my heart (as I let him reject me over and over again). At this point, even the thought of going out and meeting new guys who can hurt me again makes me a little sick to my stomach. There’s something called path dependence, and I feel like someone who has been so spectacularly unsuccessful at finding and forming healthy relationships in the past is quite unlikely to do so in the future. The truth is–there’s just not someone out there for everyone, and lots of people go through their whole lives without ever finding a love that lasts.

I just wish I could stop wanting it.

Review: The Weight of the Nation

Last week, I watched HBO’s mini-series The Weight of the Nation. I found this to be a very thought-provoking documentary, but it fell short in some important ways.

The first part of the four-part miniseries, Consequences, is probably the slowest. Focusing on the health risks of obesity, this episode mostly features doctors and other medical professionals addressing both well-known health issues like heart disease and diabetes and some lesser-known conditions like cirrhosis and kidney issues. The episode also follows the links in diseases from childhood to adulthood, emphasizing that the road to problems starts early. Class is also discussed, with obesity higher among lower-class individuals, but growing at all levels. The episode was very informative, but didactic and preachy. Lack of personal stories made this the least engaging part of the series, and it was a curious choice for a lead-off episode.

Episode 2, Choices, improves upon the series with stories and discussions of individuals taking different approaches to losing weight. The focus, with the exception of a segment on gastric bypass surgery, is on individuals who have had some success managing their weight through small, achievable goals.  I particularly enjoyed the section on mindful eating. While I’d heard of this before, I’d never connected the idea of meditating before eating to control appetite and lessen stress.

While episode 2 was inspiring, episode 3–Children in Crisis–inspired anger. This episode focused on children and weight issues. The documentary carries a not-so-subtle agenda, pushing increasing regulation/restrictions on the advertising of junk food to children. While I’m not necessarily opposed to this, I think the episode overlooks the role of parents. Over and over again in the episode, we see well-meaning parents who are clearly not on the ball about what’s going on in their childrens’ lives and diets. Parents seem completely unaware of what children are eating for lunch–we see children grabbing disgusting, pre-packaged lunches and full-sized bottles of sugary sports drinks, and the image is juxtaposed with statistics saying that nearly 90% of parents think school lunches are “healthy” or “somewhat healthy.” At home, we see parent after parent giving their kids juice drinks, which can be just as sugary and calorie-laden as soft drinks. Most infuriatingly, we are told that only about 10% of parents actually seek medical help for an obese child. One parent tells us: “My daughter has a computer and a television and she eats in front of the computer and the television… And that could be my fault.”

Could better regulation of school lunches and advertising bring about change? Sure. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for parents taking responsibility for their children, and I think this episode did not emphasize that enough. At least where I grew up, school districts sent the lunch menu home to parents. At the very least, parents should be asking their kids what kind of food they’re getting. And if you don’t like the answer, pack your kid a sandwich, buy something at the supermarket, do something to bring about change yourself. Changing the demand for gross school lunches may be the best weapon parent/consumers have in changing the supply.

Episode 4, Challenges, ends the series with more discussion on the roots of the obesity epidemic, and finally gets around to policy issues. There is a discussion of the farm industry and subsidies for products like corn, which help keep meat and corn-syrup-laden drinks priced artificially low. Meanwhile, vegetable farmers who are not subsidized struggle to get food to market and to table. Portion sizing also finally makes it into the discussion. It’s unsurprising to hear that as our food gets bigger, so do we. I was unable to finish the last chapter of this episode, though, as the streaming video version of the file was difficult to start and stop. After dealing with freezing/buffering for the first 3.5 hours of the series, I gave up on the last part of the final episode.

Overall, parts of The Weight of the Nation were really nicely done, but the series was uneven. I’d say part 3 is a must-see, as childhood obesity should be an issue of some concern for everyone. Part 4 is also worth watching (assuming you can make it through the technical issues) because it delves further into root causes. Part 2 will likely be of interest to those interested in losing weight–I found it engaging but not overly relatable from the perspective of someone who is already living a healthy lifestyle. Part 1 is worth watching only if you’re into science and statistics. I’d also approach the entire series with a healthy dose of skepticism about the overarching message that more regulation is the primary ingredient in solving the obesity epidemic. There are certainly areas that should be regulated–I’m a big fan of things like posting calorie counts on menus and raising nutritional standards for school lunches–but personal responsibility cannot be undersold. I also think the series does a good a job of demonizing big farming and soda companies, but lets the meat industry and the alcohol industry off the hook. Education is probably a better tool for fighting obesity than regulation. This series is a starting point, but not the end of the discussion. Take its message to heart, then do your own research.

*The Weight of the Nation is available online and can be streamed free-of-charge from the series web site.

Women and Running: The State of the Sport

I’ve been meaning to share this link to Running USA’s State of the Sport 2012 report. If you’re a lady runner (or if you’re just suspicious of what lady runners are up to), it’s interesting reading. Some of the highlights:

  • This year was the 40th anniversary of the first time women were officially allowed to run in the Boston Marathon. Women now make up 42% of entrants, despite concerns that women’s qualifying times are “too soft.”
  • There are now more than 200 “women-only” running events around the country.
  • Women are driving the popularity of the half-marathon distance: 59% of all half-marathon entrants in the U.S. are female. (Of course, my friend Bean is probably throwing off the average!)
  • The first sports bra was invented in the late 1970s… modeled after two jock straps sewn together. Classy. (Also, women were clearly running before that, right? What the heck were they wearing?)

Just… no.


Review: Precious Knowledge on PBS Independent Lens

This week, PBS’ Independent Lens turns toward the embattled (and currently abolished) Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. As a Tucson-area educator, this story was of local and professional interest to me. At the start of the hour-long documentary, we are told that high school dropout rates for Mexican American students are 50% nationwide, the highest of any minority group. In 1997, the Tucson Unified School District approved an ethnic studies curriculum as a way of engaging students and lowering dropout rates. The program appeared to be a success, with over 90% of students in ethnic studies electives graduating, according to a study conducted over the course of six years. Students interviewed for the film, many of them Latino students from underprivileged backgrounds, but some white and minority students as well, express admiration for the program. We are also told that courses were created dealing with Mexican-American studies, Pan-Asian studies, and African-American studies, and all of these courses were available to students of all races.

Tom Horne: Pretty sly, for a white guy

So why did these courses come under fire? Former Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne argued that these courses were anti-American. His basic arguments, as portrayed in the film, are vague. He says that courses were teaching students to think collectively and not as individuals, which is apparently “just not what we do in this country.” More importantly, he also claims that these classes were anti-American, teaching students to “hate America.”

Initiatives aimed at breaking up the ethnic studies curriculum initially failed under Gov. Janet Napolitano, but under Gov. Jan Brewer and with the support of Former Arizona Senate leader Russell Pearce, House Bill 2281 passed in 2010. Courses in Mexican-American Studies in TUSD have ended, for now, but a federal court challenge is ongoing that may eventually bring classes back.

What strikes me about this entire debate, as portrayed in the film, is that there was a lack of understanding and dialogue about the courses. Tom Horne never attended an ethnic studies class, despite being invited. Neither did school board member Michael Hicks, who notoriously said on The Daily Show, “I base my thoughts on hearsay from others.” (Seriously?) In the absence of actual knowledge about the curriculum, Arizona legislators considering the bill make such enlightened statements as, “I looked at the citations of this book and saw Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara.” Looked at the citations? I’m pretty sure a lot of mainstream history texts probably cite Marx as well. Heck, back in New York in the public college I attended, Marx was required reading as part of the undergraduate humanities sequence. But something that wouldn’t have caused a moment’s uproar in New York is apparently an outrage in Arizona.

To his credit, John Huppenthal (later to replace Tom Horne as superintendent) is shown in the movie visiting a class and talking to students. While there was civility on both sides in the classroom, what I saw in these meetings was an air of mutual distrust. By this time, with protests by TUSD students already taking place and attracting major media attention, and in the wake of the passage of SB1070, it was too little too late to hope that a productive dialogue might have taken place. In fact, footage from Arizona legislative debates on HB2281 show Huppenthal presenting his experience in the classroom in a negative light and using a comment made by a teacher in conversation–not as part of a classroom lesson–to support his view that the classes are anti-American. (Incidentally, the comment was about Benjamin Franklin and some racist views he expressed. Huppenthal seems to be making the point that it’s not cool to call a founding father a racist. I wonder if he knows that Jefferson owned slaves. And Franklin had at least one child out of wedlock. And none of them were fans of women’s rights. Just saying.)

The filmmakers’ sympathies here are clearly with the TUSD students, and as a result the lens is a bit soft on them at times. Yes, they got a raw deal, but some of their methods of dealing with the problem–wearing faux military uniforms or invading school board meetings and chaining themselves to chairs–didn’t really help their cause. Ultimately, though, the kids have clearly been the biggest losers in this debate. They can’t design their own curricula or teach themselves, so someone needs to have their best interest at heart. What amazed me about this documentary is that at no point did state education officials, local administrators, and teachers sit down and say, “We have a problem with these classes, but kids are succeeding. Can this program be reformed in a way that preserves the benefits and saves everyone face?” What happened instead was combativeness and bad feelings on all sides. And, unsurprisingly, nothing got resolved to the satisfaction of anyone.

Today, Russell Pearce is out of office after being recalled. Tom Horne is under investigation for campaign finance law violations. Mexican-American Studies classes have been disbanded and teachers reassigned (though, surprisingly, Pan-Asian and African-American studies classes have come under no scrutiny and continue as they did before). And supporters of ethnic studies have taken their fight to court. This show left me wondering (again): Has anyone won this fight? It seems that, in the process of getting rid of “un-American” classes, ethnic studies opponents have only encouraged students to rebel and reinforced the sense of collective identity that they found so objectionable. When you single out and disband classes focusing on one group’s heritage and history, but leave other groups alone, what kind of message do you think you’re sending? I came away seeing the disbanding of MAS classes as a short-term win, but a long-term loss. Any time that the people in power make a decision that sends students the message that school doesn’t represent them, doesn’t want them, or doesn’t care about their levels of engagement or success, the future is in danger.

*Precious Knowledge airs this week on Independent Lens on PBS. Check your listings for showtimes.

National Public Gardens Day

Did you know that today is National Public Gardens Day today? Here in Tucson, that meant free admission to two of our local public gardens: The Tucson Botanical Gardens and Tohono Chul Park. I decided to take a trip to the Botanical Gardens because they are close to my house and I’ve never been. Here are some fun pics from my visit.

A Mexican fan palm is pictured above. Below is the Australian red river gum tree, probably my favorite of the entire garden.

Aussie imports seem to grow well in the Sonoran Desert–there were several in the gardens and an array of Australian plants to the north side of the parking lot. Here is a Forman eucalyptus tree that was also on display.

There were also several citrus trees, including the grapefruit.

In addition to the other animals I saw in the gardens–rabbits, birds, and lizards–the spring blooms put butterflies in the mood for love. Can you spot the just-born caterpillar on this passion flower plant?

A saguaro cactus joins in the loving spirit, embracing a tree.

Straightneck squash was among the plants growing in the various ramadas, where visitors can sit in shade and enjoy the gardens. I love the colors of this plant.

The gardens also include a nod to the area’s Native American heritage. A traditional garden mimics the crops and farming techniques of the Hohokam people, a population whose culture and traditions died out before the Europeans arrived in the Americas. Exhibits celebrating the Tohono O’odham people, a tribe that still lives in the area, include a reproduced roundhouse and several plants used in crafts like basketmaking. The soaptree yucca is pictured here.

A desert willow was also flowering today, and made a nice shot.

The Tucson Botanical Gardens made for a great trip, and I spent about 90 minutes touring around and taking pictures. If you were a real plant or birdwatching aficionado, you could certainly stay longer. There is also a seasonal butterfly garden that closed at the end of April; I was sad to miss that but there were still plenty of butterflies out all around the gardens. I even saw one in the process of laying its eggs on the passion flower pictured above. Magical to watch life happening!

Normally priced admission to the gardens is $8. They also do special “dog days” in summer, lectures throughout the year, and luminaria nights in winter. Check the web site for details. While you’re reading, you can also check out the back story of the garden and the Porter Family, who made this place possible by opening their home to the public. A mosaic honors their family history, and their gift to the city. This was a true urban oasis and I hope to go back some time.

The Best Stories I Didn’t Write

Well, the past week or so has been a bit of a rush for me. Lots of end-of-semester grading to do including a final exam, and I’ve also been finishing some dissertation and research writing. To break up the monotony of research and writing, I’ve been checking out some interesting stories online about my favorite topics. Here are a few I’d recommend to you:

Eat Vegan and Run–Scott Jurek and Steve Friedman for Runner’s World

Scott Jurek is an ultramarathon runner who discusses his running career and his journey toward the vegan lifestyle in his forthcoming book Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. The book won’t be out until June, but this piece in Runner’s World gives us a hint at what’s to come. Stay all the way to the end of the article for Scott’s nutritional advice and a couple of vegan recipes. Given my flirtation with veganism earlier this year, I’m intrigued by this story of a meat-loving guy who wound up embracing the meat-free lifestyle and accomplishing some amazing things along the way.

The Truth About Coconut Water–Yahoo! Health

I’m a huge fan of coconut water, though I recognize that not everyone is. I personally can’t stand fruit juice or any artificially fruit-flavored drinks, so Gatorade, etc., is not happening for me on long runs. Coconut water has been a real god-send to me. I put Zico Chocolate Coconut Water* in the water bottle on a long run and it provides me with calories and nutrients along the way. I believe coconut water helped me to reach my PR at the Lost Dutchman, since I didn’t have to stop for water or Gu along the way. Best of all, it’s also naturally flavored. This article shares some interesting facts about coconut water (including ways in which it doesn’t quite stack up to sports drinks). Sad to hear it’s not making me any younger, but I’ll keep drinking it anyway.

(*BTW, just found out that Zico is now majority-owned by Coca-Cola. Coke must have heard that there was one person in the world who didn’t buy any of their beverages and decided to get my money somehow. Rats.)

Wanna Run Fast? Run UphillMarc Bloom for Runner’s World

Speedwork: You hate it, I hate it, but we could probably manage for 10 seconds at a time… right?

Paralyzed Woman Finishes London Marathon–Nick Schiffrin for ABC News

Just… wow. A great story about perseverance and overcoming the odds. Makes me want to go out and run another three miles today. Clearly, I’m slacking!

Happy reading, everyone!