Friday, March 21, 2008

My Father Was Right

'Do wind sprints', he advised one day a few summers ago as I was telling him about my then goal to run a certain time for the NYC marathon. My father was an 800 meter runner in Brooklyn in the '50s, and has told me that there was a back page Daily News photo of him beating two guys named Lipschitz and Rosenblatt (who knew there were so many good Jewish runners?) My father is very intelligent and competitive, making him a ruthless Trivial Pursuit opponent. And though I believe he was a fast sprinter five decades ago, I didn't really think his training advise was going to benefit a marathoner. Physiologically, the most important system for a long distance runner to develop is their aerobic capacity. Sprints were anaerobic. The very idea of running a faster than mile pace sprint made my already tired leg muscles spasm. So I continued following the training plan I carved out for myself, ran personal records in the 10k, 1/2 marathon, and did pretty well for my first marathon. But I still had not broken 20 minutes for the 5k. That's something I've been trying to do for the past eight years. A 6:26 pace for 3.1 miles. I came within 30 seconds of it in 2001, and in 2005 within 32 seconds. There's a delicate balance between fanaticism and passion that you have to juggle to keep these goals alive and exciting. My method has been a tactical one of stark patience and determination, combined with some extremely challenging workouts. I believe I am on the path to breaking 20 minutes, and each year of training I'm slightly closer. I've incorporated all the major types of training needed to reach my goal- working on both my aerobic and anaerobic systems, keeping a long run in my weekly workouts, eating a balanced diet, etc. This week I found an article in Running Times magazine about leg speed by Greg McMillan. He said that by doing short intervals of 90% of your top speed with a long enough recovery to clear any lactic acid from your muscles, you will, quite simply, get faster. After reading the article, and the science behind the reasoning, I felt confident that this workout was going to be the possible missing link to my training. I went out the next day to execute my first leg speed workout. Three mile warm up, then 10 x 20-second intervals at nearly all-out sprint pace. Short enough to not fatigue my legs, and therefore maintain form and get muscle memory for fast leg turnover. A 20-second interval feels a little like a joke to me. Just the other day I had struggled with my one mile repeats, hating every labored step of the last three minutes. This appetizer was over before the waiter came back to ask if I'd enjoyed it. And yes, I had. To me, running at a slow pace is healthful, a good habit, sociable- but not beautiful. Running fast is a thing of great beauty. By the time I was done with my final interval, I couldn't believe I'd already knocked off six miles. I had planned on running an additional four miles to bring my days' mileage up to ten. My breathing felt even and smooth as I went through the first of the four miles. My normal running pace when I'm not doing a special workout is around 9 minutes per mile. I glanced at my watch to check what pace I had done that mile in. 7:52! How was that possible? Now, I've run enough years to know that it takes a few weeks at least to witness the training effects of a new workout. But this was astonishing! How could I have run that mile in under an 8 minute pace without my breathing changing? The next three miles were the same result, all under 8. So maybe it was a fluke (there are none in running; you get exactly what you put into it).
I have a good feeling about this year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More Kimchee, please

A few weeks ago, I finally made my way over to my Bruderhofer friend's home. They had been inviting me for weeks, months even, via a friendly voicemail. 'Hello Tamar, this is Caroline Kurtz. Just wanted to let you know that we'll be having a Mexican culture evening, and you're invited for supper.' Since there is only one phone amongst this commune of 300 or so people, I couldn't really return the call. The day I visited them, they prepared a beautiful pot pie, with two decorative hearts made from the crust in honour of Valentine's day. They had saved these Israeli songs that I had brought over last Summer, and to my amazement, they not only remembered the tunes but also the words. These are singing people, a sort of Christian version of the pioneering kibbutzniks in Israel who spent many a desert evening around a campfire singing the old Zionist songs at the kumsitz. I was most impressed with their daughter Grete who had decided for her senior class project to teach herself Korean. I told her I'd look out for Koreans in my travels, knowing that in my secular lifestyle, the chances of me encountering one were far greater than one stumbling onto their isolated compound. Some selfish motives were also at play, as when given the slightest nudge towards an opportunity to learn about a different culture, I am off and running. So within hours of my hunt, I find my first specimen of desire. Well, it's not human, but rather an article in the New York Times about how the South Korean government has finally, for the first time in history, agreed to send one of their engineers into space to become the first Korean astronaut on April 8, to the ISS (International Space Station). And since Koreans are very attached to their native condiment, kimchee, a multi-million dollar project was put into place to produce and package a special edition kimchee that would be safe in space. Kimchee, for those not familiar, is a very spicy fermented cabbage, usually found in jars in Asian markets. According to the article, for this culture, a day without kimchee is a sad day indeed. I can kind of relate to the pickled food addictions. I remember when my brother Josh introduced me to pickled okra. I couldn't believe I had lived as many years as I did without ever having tasted this mouth-watering food! I ate it every day for a month. Then I ran out. I hastily searched some local farmer's markets, and found a new jar. This one was terrible. All vinegar. I was over my pickled okra fetish. But after reading this article, I was determined to test this postulate. Surprisingly, we have an Asian market in a neighboring town. I didn't know what country the employees there were from, but I had a hunch. I walk in nonchalantly, barely containing a grin at my anticipated mission. I head over to the dried fruit section. My dried peaches are gone! This happens every year, yet I'm always shocked and dismayed. This market is the only place that carries these incredibly potent and delicious dried peaches, and they simply run out every March and don't re-order til the following year. I settle on some unknown darker orange fleshed fruit called a 'sharon' fruit. I suspect it's a persimmon. Then I walk over to the sushi display. There are various other delicacies made on the premises. I see a container of kimchee sold by the pound. Wow, it's really expensive. I pass on it. I bring my few items to the check out. The man standing there is the one who is always there. He doesn't smile, and never has. At least not that I've seen. I had a conversation with him the previous year when I tried to find out when they would be re-ordering the dried peaches. It didn't go very well, and he seemed very indifferent. Still, as he rung up my items, I sussed out an opening for me to talk to him. He told me my total. I got out my credit card, and casually asked him where he was from. 'Korea,' he answered. I asked him if he'd heard about this man, who was chosen from a competition of 36,000, to be sent to outer space. He backed up and looked off to the side, trying to gather the words he needed. He told me that he had heard of this, and in fact they had also chosen a woman to pose as an alternate in case something happened to the man. I believe that's what he was trying to convey to me, as it seemed this was the first time in a very long time that he was put in a position to use his English. I was so glad that he had already known this information, because it would have been very tricky for me to convey this via pantomime, and what's more, he didn't appear to be the sort who would have enjoyed the display. Then I mentioned the bit about the kimchee. And how they spent lots of money perfecting a version that would not be harmful in space due to the bacteria. He made sure that I knew that it was good bacteria, lest I think his people were enjoying hazardous snacks. I conceded that it was good on earth, but the effects of radiation in space could render it dangerous, and that was the reason behind the costly research. We both stood there nodding, like we had just solved some weighty political issue. As he gave me my receipt, I said, 'Millions of dollars spent on this kimchee.' He had already gone back to his work behind the counter. I wasn't even sure if he had understood what I'd said. Then as I walked away, he looked up and said to me, 'Koreans have to have kimchee.' We both laughed hard. The sushi chef looked alarmed at this unfamiliar sound coming from behind the counter.