Friday, September 26, 2014

Donkey Kong and a Fistful of Bicentennial Quarters

It was the summer of '82 when I became somewhat of a subject matter expert of the arcade video game called Donkey Kong. It wasn't easy, because there wasn't a bonafide version of the arcade game within striking distance of my yellow Schwinn Stingray Jr. The closest Donkey Kong was at a pizza restaurant some six miles away. Getting there involved crossing a major inner state freeway and traveling hilly roads with no shoulder. I could only hope and pray that one of my classmates was going to have a birthday party or sleepover or something at that pizza place so I could get my chance to square off with Kong.

Yet while Donkey Kong was miles away, there was a decent knock-off version called "Crazy Kong" nearby. Crazy Kong, or "Monkey Donkey" as it was sometimes referred, was discovered by my older brother Matt at a cut-rate gas station called "Fas-Gas" about a mile from our house. After he told me about it, you could spot my yellow bike leaned up against gas station's pane glass many afternoons while I honed my skills on Crazy Kong. Sure, it wasn't the real thing, but it was close enough. And I became good at it a dollar a time. Sometimes, when I was broke, I just watched others play.

Inevitably, the day arrived when a friend invited me for a sleep-over, and we were going to the pizza place that had DK. I was finally going to get my chance.

Now, I have a confession to make. This admission of my guilt is directed to my dear ol' Dad. The rest of you can be my witness. Public confessions are always the best way to handle such things. Just get the mess all out there in public and everything. It's yucky, but sometimes it needs to be done. Anyway, here's what happened.

Before I left the home that day, I raided my Dad's top dresser drawer -- the underwear one -- where a small (single) goldfish bowl had been re-purposed for use as a cache of quarters. Now, they were not just any old quarters. They were commemorative 1776-1976 Bicentennial quarters.

Granted, they were in circulation (not mint), but still. He was collecting them because they were special one-off versions of quarters long before the US Mint had the notion of creating one for each of the 50 States. Back then, and for as long as anyone could remember, there were just two valid quarter dollars: the standard, and the Bicentennial quarter. The former were meant to purchase a postage stamp, the latter, apparently to hoard and treasure.

The fishbowl was Dad's temporary holding queue until he had the time to roll and deposit into the safe in the basement. At any rate, my Dad had a trove of them.

That night, before heading out the door, I purposefully went into the master bedroom and stuffed fistfuls of those Bicentennials into my pants pockets. It felt dirty, but 'Kong was waiting.

And with that, it was on like Donkey Kong.

It took about 40 of Dad's Bicentennial quarters before I blew up the machine's high score that night. There must have been ten kids watching me as I made a mockery of Kong, cycling through his world seven times while he stomped and made futile attempts at tossing barrels at my tiny, pixelated-head. When I finally stepped away, my initials, BCM, were above all the rest. I was the top dog, the #1 Donkey Kong killer at that place: 89,000+ points of pure mastery--

Oops, I got a little carried away there. I believe that I was in the middle of an unfinished confession.

Dad, I regret all of these years having passed and I have hidden this from you. Please know that this was the only time I can recollect taking anything from you. Not that it makes it right. Once is bad enough in itself. It felt as dirty then as it does now. I mean, except for the glory of destroying Donkey Kong for an hour or so. But, uh, other than that hour of joy, it was all wrong. All of it.

So here goes: Dad, I own you an amends.

I was wrong for stealing those Bicentennial quarters from you.

I am sorry.

Please forgive me.

Wow, I feel a lot better now, like having a load of bricks lifted from my chest. Indeed. For the first time in three decades, I think I should sleep peacefully tonight.

Well that brings us to the end of another post. Thanks for reading, especially you, Dad. :-)

Happy Friday everyone.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Omaha Corporate Cup 10k: The Party Is Over

I raced the Omaha Corporate Cup 10k again this past Sunday. After thinking about it for a week, I'm afraid to report that when it comes to running in Omaha, the party is over. At least at this race.

I wish I didn't have to wax nostalgic, but running used to be sexy in Omaha. There used to be lots of races, real races, not those so-called color runs, or mud runs, or dressing up as gladiators, vikings or warriors and pretending to run. Those events may have their place; just don't call them "runs" or "races", because they are not those things. It's actually a disgrace to real running. Real running is where grit in the soul matters more than grit in your teeth from crawling through a sand pit. Ugh.

Anyway, where a runner's true grit used to matter most was on Omaha's largest running stage, The Omaha Corporate Cup 10K.

The Omaha Corporate Cup 10k used to be able to claim they were one of the premier 10K races in the country, let alone Omaha. It used to draw over 10,000 participants. It used to be televised locally in the running heydays of the '80s. But even as recently as three years ago, professionally sponsored runners, and several former UNL runners used to duke it out with local amateurs for cash and all the glory. It was quite a scene, and I can attest how electrifying it was to toe up to the starting line.

Unfortunately, those years are now long gone. The run has since moved from downtown. It now features a course filled with hills and off-camber turns. It doesn't flow well for a 10k course. As a result, attendance is dropping: only 2,630 finished this year's 10k. That's down from 3,116 in 2013 and 3,901 in 2012-- the last year the race was downtown. I could only find numbers going back to 1998, but the trend is telling:

10K finishers (data:
Year 2003 was an aberration due to a heavy thunderstorm. The uptick years between 2008 and 2012 was a result of larger cash prizes for winners and/or breaking course records. Years 2013-2014 coincided with relocation/new course and the decision to drop the cash prizes.

The Omaha Corporate Cup used to be a fun race because it rewarded the runner with a 10k PR on the flattest 10k course most will ever run on. There was no better place to get a PR than the downtown course. The best runners regularly ran under 31 minutes (4:59/mi avg). It didn't matter if you were elite or not. If you wanted to know your fastest 10k, that's where you got it done.

Fastest Male/Female times (data:
While the original downtown course was flat with one turn (a turnaround), the new Aksarben course is the exact opposite, featuring 19 turns greater than 90 degrees, and seven hills having a grade of at least 5%. As a result, the fastest male/female times are off by 90 seconds from the downtown course.

The Omaha Corporate Cup used to be a fun race because it awarded prizes. There used to be a cash purse: $500 for the male/female winners and $1000 for the course record. One year, they had a Fiat as a door prize.

Now, without cash prizes or 10k PRs, runners are deciding not to do this race anymore.

One thing for certain: it isn't due to a lack of running interest. There aren't any less recreational runners out there than there used to be. At least it doesn't appear to be so. But the trend for 10k races has been slowly declining for several years.  For some reason, either shorter distances (walks) or ultra-distances: half-marathons and above, are more popular. That, and the color/mud/warrior events.

The decline of the Omaha Corporate Cup 10k is a harbinger of bad things to come for the Omaha running community. Unless the race organizers redesign the course and infuse prize money back into the mix, this race will fade away from its once greatness.

I hate to wax nostalgic, but the Omaha Corporate Cup 10K used to really be something. Judging by this year's lackluster attendance and mood at the starting line, I'm afraid this party is over.

Thanks for reading. Happy Friday

Friday, September 12, 2014

Knowing That You Have Already Arrived

Earlier this summer, my buddy Fred gave me a hill-climbing tip. He said to simply go light on your pedals and you'll spin right up the hill. He swears by it.

Now Fred's a smart dude. I'm quite sure he's aware that this pedal lightness/uphill paradox is in dire conflict with the general theory of relativity. Though skeptical, I tried it anyway, and to Fred's credit, having a lightness-on-pedals mindset seemed to help get up that hill faster. There might have been a stiff tailwind that day. Who knows?

Lately, I've been training my mind to cope with the challenges of cyclocross. Here's something that works for me: mentally picturing the next feature before arriving there. When I'm on my 'cross bike, 80% of my focus is on the here and now, and the other 20% is scanning my memory of what's up the road. If for nothing else, it allows me to be prepared for a snarky feature, a needed gear shift, some wheel-rubbings from Shim, etc..

Cyclocross is an obsession. To be good, really good, requires a single-minded focus on the sport. It can consume you, if you let it. When in season, I can make a cyclocross connection to almost anything.

Take this as an example. On a recent taco ride, I randomly pulled this can of coke from the cooler:

A "Soulmate" is something that Richard Bach wrote extensively about in two of his novels: Bridge Across Forever and One. Finding his soulmate was his obsession. But before that, Bach wrote a short story about the titular character Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In it, Jonathan (a seagull) is obsessed about the art of flying. His preoccupation with flying, and not doing other seagully things like eating, ultimately gets him ostracized from the flock. He wanders for a bit before eventually finding other gulls who are equally consumed with the passion for flying. It's there where he meets his mentor, Chiang. Chiang then takes Jonathan under his, uh, wing --

-- Timeout. I just realized that Richard Bach missed a golden opportunity here by NOT stating that Chiang simultaneously took Jonathan literally AND figuratively under his wing. I mean, this is quite possibly the only place in all of literature where one could argue the case that literally and figuratively are both plausible at the same moment. Pfff, what a shame.

Back to our story. Chiang then enlightens Jonathan with super secret knowledge that will enable him to fly ludicrously fast, so fast that it enables him to instantly travel to any point in the known universe. The secret, Chiang tells him, is to "begin by knowing that you have already arrived."

Now the other day I was practicing my cross skills at Roberts park. There's this hill that isn't particularly long, nor steep. But because it's immediately after a speed-scrubbing, off-camber turn, the hill demands one's respect. On approach, I pictured the sweeping turn-hill combination. My brain then called up a motivation routine. It was Fred's, "light on the pedals uphill" program. I shifted weight towards the back of the saddle and leaned into the turn. But just as I was going to go light and easy on the pedals, my mind jumped to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I had a vision of Chiang, and he was speaking these words directly into my soul: "begin by knowing that you have already arrived." I did just that, focusing 100% of my brain into believing that I had already arrived on the hilltop. At that moment, a flash of searing white light engulfed me while I felt my atoms scrambled and reassembled from the every point in the universe. When the veil of light receded, I was cresting the top of the hill.

Now here's what really happened. Before I even took a single pedal stroke uphill, Lucas came around me and dropped me like I was standing still.

Cyclocross is difficult, my friends. There are no short cuts. Just grit and cowbells.

Now excuse me, a bowl of steel-cut oats and a cup of black coffee awaits at the breakfast nook opposite of my soulmate, the exquisite Ms. Katherine.

Thanks for reading. Happy Friday.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Triathlon Vs Cyclocross

I'm going to attempt to do what very few, if any, have ever attempted.

Now I know what you're thinking. Sorry to disappoint, but it's not going to be attempting to perform a 3 1/2 back flip into an ordinary eight ounce glass of water. That's too easy.

What I'm about to do to your bewilderment is to compare triathlons to cyclocross. Be forewarned, your smart phone/PC monitor could blow up in your face at any moment.

There are so many differences between these two sports, where do I begin? The only commonality between them is that a bicycle is involved in most of both races. Aside from that, there is nothing. The two sports couldn't be any more different.

That said, we'll stick with the bicycle comparison.

In triathlons, one gets on the bike after nearly drowning for 20+ minutes beforehand. It's a horrible way to start a bike ride. Sometimes I wonder if this is what the onslaught of death feels like. I'm not kidding. Especially those first few steps out of the water. Oyi.  Anyway, once you're on your bike, it usually takes a few minutes of ramping up to your functional threshold power (FTP) before your body has adapted to the demands of cycling. For those who don't have a power meter, FTP is the point at which your quadriceps begin to burn, and you have shortness of breath. Since everybody who's ever ridden a bicycle knows what that burning sensation and shortness of breath feels like, we have established a common reference point. Good. Now imagine that while pushing the crank for the next 5,400 revolutions. And as a bonus, run a 10K after that. Meanwhile, the course is so flat and straight, it's as if the scenery never changes. What that means is that it's boring. Really boring. Therefore, you must distract your mind with things like bunnies, or bow hunting carp, or my recent favorite -- pinkzilla cyclocross bikes --  to keep the agony from shutting you down. In conclusion, the overall feeling of triathlon goes like this: nearly drown, then suffer while cycling and running for the next 90+ minutes.

In cyclocross, there is zero ramp-up time on the bike. It's simply mad-as-hell, full-throttle burn right from the whistle to the first turn. Congratulations, if you're smart and disciplined, you've managed to prevent burning your entire book of matches on that first 200m sprint. That's important, because you still have about an hour to go, and you need as many matches as you can get your grubby mitts on for turns, barriers, fly-overs with stairs, hills, gravel, mud, heavy mulch, sand and snow. And whereas triathlon's cycling time trials require distracting one's mind from pain and boredom, cyclocross involves mentally picturing the challenging sections ahead. Now, you still suffer in cyclocross. But because the mind is engaged so much, there isn't enough brain power to account for misery. In conclusion, you just keep burning your matches until there's none left. It's at that point when your body says no more. If you've timed it right, the finish line is around the next corner. Otherwise, head for the beer and dollar hand-ups. Either way, you're good.

Both racing requires thinking and strategy. But while triathlons are more steady-state and proper, cyclocross is more beastly and chaotic.

After a summer of being conventional, I'm ready for some chaos.

Somebody ring a cowbell already.

Thanks for reading. Happy Friday