Running for fun & medals: it's been (and still is) a long, good race

Sunset Runner
Image by joshjanssen via Flickr

We’ve come a long way since Chariots of Fire, as Denver runners, coaches and serious peak-performance guys Jon Sinclair and Kent Oglesby point out in a report for Coloradoan.com.
Their column was inspired, in part, by the FireKracker 5K which was part of the weekend festivities in Ft. Collins. As commonplace as it now is to see joggers and runners on the trails, in the parks and (sometimes noisily, I regret to say) on the urban sidewalks just below your bedroom window at 6 AM, it was not always thus.

Everyone stand up. All of you that began running after 1976 can sit down. Those that still are standing can smirk proudly at those sitting.

I’m (Jon) sure there aren’t many of you standing. For us “pre-boomers,” or pbers, the current state of running is amazing and we should all feel happy about it.

Pbers, remember when there wasn’t such a thing as a running store? We bought our running shoes at the sporting goods store, which usually was manned by some guy named Al or Bill and the selection consisted of two to three different shoes. The guy selling those shoes was (absolutely, definitely) not a runner and knew nothing about the sport but made some money off of the local high school kids who ran track.

Not only were the shoes different (and under $50), Sinclair and Oglesby point out, but the timers and timing devices were different, the attitudes (sneers from onlookers, not runners) were different and the races were few.

In the early 70s, the entire yearly road racing schedule for the Denver area could be easily printed on an 8.5-by-11 piece of paper. Really, all of it. In summer, there might be two or three races per month. That’s why to a pber, any race older than 30 years, should be treated with great respect. Pre-boomer races weren’t certified and most were measured with some guy’s old pickup … accurate to within 400m. Oh, and no meters or kilometers back then either; we used good old miles. Races in Denver might attract more than 100 runners, but a field like that was out of control big.

But about this “pre-boomer” business. This runner/writer was delighted to discover the designation. There is even a pber who blogs regularly on pbers. And all this time I thought we were just Children of the Depression, or, in a word, Geezers.

By whatever term, some of us who were running before 1976 had experiences that are a little hard to imagine today. Especially the distaff side of the aisle — we were few and far between for some time there.  Once, following a neighborhood 10k in Atlanta, I hung out watching the awards ceremonies. I was still in the high school PTA mode, feeling myself both fit and acceptably chic. “Oldest Male Finisher” was called to the front for his plaque, a balding, gray-haired gent on rather wobbly, spindly legs. We clapped loudly. Then they called out the “Oldest Female Finisher” plaque and — you guessed it — my name. Last year I paired it with my lady geezer award from the Rabun Ramble 5k, about the same time I decided a brisk walk beats running these days. The Rabun Ramble people (OK, my daughter Sandy started this nifty Lake Rabun, Georgia charity event) wised up after a few years of too many medals, too little time. My award is a generic medal on a blue ribbon proclaiming Best in Class. I’ll take it. Some things never change: runners are pushovers for prizes.

Sport of running has traveled a long distance since the ’70s | coloradoan.com | The Coloradoan.

Food for brain-healthy thought — and Happy 4th of July Picnic to you

Ketchup alongside French fried potatoes
Image via Wikipedia

Just when you start thinking hot dogs, french fries and toasted marshmallows for the summer, along come other viewpoints. But this space is all about dialog.

Reader Cato, in response to the alcohol cause-for-harm tax referenced below, suggests a fat tax — which would surely tax the enjoyment of your 4th of July potato salad and homemade ice cream. More useful is a new feature just instituted over at the Posit Science folks’ blog site: Brain Healthy Recipes.  French fried potatoes need not apply.

But as it turns out, there are plenty of foods — spinach, nuts, garlic (!), carrots and more — that can shape up your brain. Research has shown, says blogger Marghi Merzenich, that foods containing certain nutrients can boost memory, alertness, and have other benefits for brain health.

As it further turns out, a lot of brain-healthy items make pretty tasty dishes. Over at the Amen Clinic site (that’s Daniel G. Amen, MD, certainly a fine name for a brainy doctor) you can find recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner including Dorie’s Truly Amazing Lamb, Beans and Rice, or the Homemade Turkey Jerky which Dr. Amen professes to eat all the time when he’s writing. He’s got a LOT more published books than this writer, so perhaps I should whip up a little turkey jerky.

The EatingWell folks also have an assortment of brain-healthy recipes, plus menus in groups beginning with prenatal and extending through geezer.

Some of these even fall within my three basic food groups: caffeine, ice cream and chocolate — or at the least, allow a dollop of espresso. Hope your picnic is a merry, and brain-healthy time.

Alzheimer's: old music, new songs

Think nursery rhyme. Sing the words. How long is it since you learned that ditty?

Years ago a friend of mine named Alice suffered a stroke that left her with the ability to say only two words: “one, two.” Or she may have been saying “want to.” In the months ahead she developed a skill for packing more meaning into that phrase than most of us can manage in several paragraphs. “ONE two!,” she would fairly shout at her husband, expressing displeasure (something she did with regularity before the stroke.) “OnetwoONEtwo?” she would ask, in a “Do you really like it?” voice. Still, it was tough on friends and family, and had to have been more than frustrating for her.

Eventually Alice and her husband moved into an assisted living facility. Though she was a woman of limited education and resources, she was able to resume a minimal degree of activity within that community. I saw her about once a week there, for a period of months.

At Christmas time, a group of us went caroling in Alice’s building. Midway through one old, familiar song, as we stood facing an assembled group of residents, someone noticed that Alice was singing merrily along, word for word. There was a lot of nudging and head-nodding, and by the end of the last verse not a dry eye. As we left, Alice smiled and said, “One two, one two.”

Now comes another interesting word about music and the mind, from a Science Daily article posted on the PositScience blog. It cites results from research by the Boston University School of Medicine showing that people with Alzheimer’s retain verbal information better when it comes within the context of music. The findings appear online in Neuropsychologia, an international journal to which I admittedly do not subscribe.

To determine whether music can enhance new learning of information, AD (Alzheimer’s Disease) patients and healthy controls were presented with either the words spoken, or the lyrics sung with full musical accompaniment along with the printed lyrics on a computer screen. The participants were presented visually with the lyrics to 40 songs. Twenty of the song lyrics were accompanied by their corresponding sung recording and 20 were accompanied by their spoken recording.

After each presentation, participants were asked to indicate whether or not they were previously familiar with the song they had just heard. The BUSM researchers found accuracy was greater in the sung condition than in the spoken condition for AD patients but not for healthy older controls.

The blog elicited responses ranging roughly from “that’s very interesting” to “so what else is new?” I come down on the “that’s very interesting” side of the issue, because it is.

And the more we know about connections of this sort, the more we begin to understand about the workings of the mind and the broader the possibilities of unlocking its secrets. Those pesky memorizations of yore, set to music, still manage to survive all manner of afflictions.

I still can’t figure out where I put the keys… but I can sing you every line of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

The Year of the Tiger Roars in

Quick! Sweep the floors and clear the bad spirits away. Once the Lunar New Year arrives you’ll want to put off housekeeping so as not to sweep the good spirits out. February 14 marks the coming of the Year of the Tiger.

The Year of the Tiger, sandwiched in between the Year of the Cow (2009) and the Year of the Rabbit (2011) is the third sign in the Chinese Zodiac cycle. Its New Year’s Day brings with it — as all new year’s potentially do — hope and truth, good fortune and peace. Not bad for a day that this year falls on Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love and affection.

If you’re a Tiger (skip the puns, this is a serious report) you are strong and lucky but prone to trouble. Brave and courageous, caring and thoughtful but a little rebellious at times. You are in the company of tigers Jon Stewart (1962), Jay Leno and Gary Larson (1950), Judy Blume and Kofi Anan (1938), Alan Greenspan (1926), Joe DiMaggio (1914), Agatha Christie (1890) and who knows how many other brave and courageous, occasionally prone to trouble good folks.

In New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta there are celebrations of the New Year with parades and festivities, dumplings cooked and feasts shared, red lanterns lit and red paper envelopes of money distributed. Around the world — one nice thing about this holiday being the fact that we share it with China, Indonesia, Hong Kong and other festive sites — there will be marching music, tiger hats and lion dancers. On my block there are always fire crackers, thanks to the grandchildren of our Chinese neighbors George and Annette, popping in the street to ward off the evil spirits. Which is clearly why you will find no evil spirits around our neighborhood.

So bring in the oranges and tangerines (symbols of good luck and great wealth) and hang the red paper hearts. Kick back, nibble sweets and enjoy a good excuse to put off housecleaning.  Who knows whether it will roar or rebel, we might as well welcome the Year of the Tiger with joy… and hope.

Time flies when… or does it really?

In case you’re wondering what happened to 2009 — personally, I misplaced December, and have some real doubts about several weeks in March and August — maybe you were indeed having fun. Or having too much caffeine. According to an article seductively headlined “Where Did The Time Go? Do Not Ask The Brain” in the New York Times our perception of time can be linked to good times or bad, and the nature of events we peg time’s passage to affects whether it flew like the wind or dragged like a wet mattress. Science Times writer Benedict Carey assembles enough esoteric theories, along with the down-home speculations, to make a few moments vanish while reading.

That most alarming New Year’s morning question — “Uh-oh, what did I do last night?” — can seem benign compared with those that may come later, like “Uh, what exactly did I do with the last year?”

Or, “Hold on — did a decade just go by?”

It did. Somewhere between trigonometry and colonoscopy, someone must have hit the fast-forward button. Time may march, or ebb, or sift, or creep, but in early January it feels as if it has bolted like an angry dinner guest, leaving conversations unfinished, relationships still stuck, bad habits unbroken, goals unachieved.

I think for many people, we think about our goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” said Gal Zauberman, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business.

Studies of what makes time fly, or seem to, come up with opposite views: too many events that you’re pegging the past 30 days to might telescope them into 20 days. Or maybe your brain does have some control over your perception of time. You didn’t get that project finished on deadline? Well, the day just zoomed by.

In earlier work, researchers found a similar dynamic at work in people’s judgment of intervals that last only moments. Relatively infrequent stimuli, like flashes or tones, tend to increase the speed of the brain’s internal pacemaker.

On an obvious level, these kinds of findings offer an explanation for why other people’s children seem to grow up so much faster than one’s own. Involved parents are all too well aware of every hiccup, split lip and first step in their own children; whereas, seeing a cousin’s child once every few years, without intervening memories, telescopes the time.

On another level, the research suggests that the brain has more control over its own perception of passing time than people may know. For example, many people have the defeated sense that it was just yesterday that they made last year’s resolutions; the year snapped shut, and they didn’t start writing that novel or attend even one Pilates class. But it is precisely because they didn’t act on their plan that the time seemed to have flown away.

By contrast, the new research suggests, focusing instead on goals or challenges that were in fact engaged during the year — whether or not they were labeled as “resolutions” — gives the brain the opportunity to fill out the past year with memories, and perceived time.

My father, who spent his entire life in academia, used to speak of time as “the element that doesn’t exist.” Maybe he was right after all. Maybe that’s what happened to December.

Mind – Research on How the Brain Perceives Time – NYTimes.com.

Goodbye to all that — & hello 2010

It’s hard to mourn the passage of 2009. Jobless friends struggled to survive while our own family income took a dive. Gay friends watched meanness triumph over decency in equality battles. Friends of many stripes lamented choices made by the president we elected with unrealistically high hopes. And my hometown paper this morning lists, among the top stories of the year, teenage gang rape, government insolvency and a bunch of senseless killings.

Other front pages aren’t much different: my second-favorite city winds up the year in the red and worried about the shadow of 9/11 (New York Times.) Murder and assault — specifically assault compounded by injustice — are among today’s concerns in Chicago. And a couple of other former hometown papers lead off the year’s last day with stories of car crashes, shootouts (Atlanta Journal Constitution) and a tragic, child-abandoning, now dead, alcoholic mom (Richmond Times-Dispatch). Plus another doozy about four or five hundred dead animals found in one house — and that happened in Philadelphia.

Optimism, these days, is a full-time job.

But hey. We’re inching toward health reform. Umar’s bomb didn’t go off.  Some of those bad guys (above) went to jail, and a few good guys who’d been jailed as bad guys for a very long time got out of jail thanks to the Innocence Project.  And even if the best we can do for employment optimism is note that the rate of jobs lost is getting smaller — can the country’s jobless find hope in that? — the jobless recovery seems to be happening. Surely jobs will follow.

Plus: even if we don’t like all of his choices and decisions, we have an articulate president who comes across, still, as thoughtful and decent — and doesn’t make you cringe when you see him on TV. There’s hope.

And True/Slant, which you’d never heard of this time last year, is closing in on a million readers.

Happy New Year from the Boomers and Beyond page.

Making Sport of Boxing Day

Today is Boxing Day, a good day for good deeds. Beginning either some time in the Middle Ages or when Queen Victoria reigned — depending on whose history book you read — Boxing Day is a time to box up holiday leftovers for the hungry, or take-out lunches for the hired help, or alms for the poor. It is traditionally observed on December 26, though sometimes moved around to avoid a Sunday happening.

But now, reports Joel Millman in the Wall Street Journal, it is being taken over for sport.

In some places, Boxing Day really is about pounding on an opponent in the boxing ring. For some fans of fisticuffs, Boxing Day is the biggest boxing day of the year.

That’s certainly the case in Ghana, where tonight Accra’s Ohene Djan Sports Stadium will be rocking with fighters and their fans. The nine-match program starts at sundown. Six bouts are for all-Africa titles, three of those featuring a Ghanaian hero facing a rival from Nigeria. Ringside seats cost 10 Ghanaian cedi, just under $7.

Boxing is a Boxing Day staple across Africa. Besides Ghana, it’s a tradition in Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania — all places where Britons once ruled and left a Boxing Day legacy, if not quite the one Queen Victoria envisioned when she made Boxing Day an official holiday in Great Britain.

Somehow, the insertion of boxing into Boxing Day seems ominous. I went to a boxing match once. Some sports-writer friends of mine at the Richmond Times Dispatch, where I was working in the very olden days, invited me to join them in ringside seats. We got there early, people were skipping around just about at my eye level, beer-drinking was going on with enthusiasm and it boded to be a fine time. Soon, however, the action began. The blue-trunks guy opened a cut above the eye of the red-trunks guy, a tooth may have been knocked out, terrible sounds were heard in the land. When blood started splattering from the cut over the eye, I am still embarrassed to admit, tears starting coming from mine. I was never invited back. I think that was when I started dating a guy from the radio station across the street.

Maybe, we can still hope and trust, people somewhere are boxing up donations for the peace and goodwill of humankind. But this latest news about a once-goodhearted holiday does not bode well for the future.

Season’s Beatings: ‘Boxing Day’ Takes a Pugilistic Turn – WSJ.com.

Of COURSE there's a Santa Claus

We are, it turns out, born to be believers. And that’s a good thing. According to a recent article by Wall Street Journal reporter Shirley S. Wang, imagination is a valuable asset, beginning in childhood:

Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up.

“Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you’re using your imagination,” says Paul Harris, a development psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies imagination. “The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”

So we start out with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and grow up to comprehend health reform. As my daughter, a nurse, said to me today, “Really, Mom, I just have to take everyone else’s word for it; there’s no way I can read those thousands of pages.” Nor I — but we are people of (varying) faith.

Although we grown-ups may have gotten realistic about Santa, studies say most of us have faith. Faith in God, Allah, the teachings of the Buddha — doesn’t make a lot of difference. But faith — belief in some power that controls human destiny, belief that doesn’t rely on logical proof — is worth having at any age. Mary McLeod Bethune, a great lady who was smarter than most of us, said, “Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”

Many of us celebrating the babe in the manger this week, along with many who celebrate other happenings and symbols, cling to the belief that there will actually, someday, be peace on earth. Even if it seems impossible.

My son (who is now 50, so don’t tell him I’m still repeating this story) was a true believer child. We had, at our house, a little green elf who arrived on December 1 and spent the next 23 days perched on light fixtures, curtain rods and high cabinet tops; Elf moved around a lot. He watched to see if everyone was good or bad, and on Christmas Eve he flew off to cruise with Santa. One December night, when my son was about 8, possibly older, I was turning out the light as he posed one last question. “Mom,” he said, “I know about Santa Claus, and I know Dad is the Easter Bunny, and all that — but… but how does the elf get from one room to another?”

You gotta believe. We have a health bill, not what we wanted, but the biggest reform in generations and something to build on. The jobless recovery means millions of kids belong to jobless parents, but Santa will come to many of them with the help of a host of community groups. All over the country, Muslim and Jewish volunteers are pitching in to relieve their Christian friends at soup kitchens so the latter can go home and read The Night Before Christmas to their kids.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.