Our Lady of the Trails

Posted in Uncategorized on June 24, 2010 by Spenser

Stop it Lady. Just stop it right now. You're too much.

Sup ya’ll.  So as I mentioned, I’m getting dangerously close to enjoying running.  In large part, I enjoy it because it’s getting easier, but what I’ve really enjoyed lately is the thrill of exploration.

Since my weekday running is less serious than the weekend stuff, I get to take Lady along.  For those who haven’t met her, Lady is a ball of energy in dog shape, enemy to all frisbees, and runner extraordinaire.  Once we are safely across Stanyan and into the park, I let her run free, and she will spend the first 30 minutes dashing about like a crazy person, sniffing and sprinting and chasing birds like a cracked-out squirrel with delusions about its size.  She’s an inspiration to all runners, because she can do it faster, longer, and will enjoy it more than you.  Guaranteed.

What I have been doing lately is taking Lady through some of the lesser-known regions of the park.  I spent most of my time along John F Kennedy Drive when I first started training, but now I am taking any and all manner of paths and twists and trails and turns, exploring botanical gardens, redwood forests, lakes, pine trees, and polo grounds.  Lady, who can’t seem to focus for more than a heartbeat, consistently will take the wrong trail, realize her mistake, and sprint full-tilt to catch up to me, only to over-run her target and end up on the wrong trail again.  The look on her face as she pounds the ground to catch up is indescribable.

The net result is that Lady poops out in about the time it takes me to get back home, and we both lie docilely on a giant bean bag, panting and sweating respectively.  The difference is that Lady is ready to go again twenty minutes later, while I will be frying up sausages or microwaving potatoes.

If you’re considering getting into running, and you have a dog that is under reasonable voice control, and you have trails accessible, then by all means do it.  You and your pooch will thank each other, and that’s a promise.


Johnny Paen; More About the World Food Program

Posted in Uncategorized on June 22, 2010 by Spenser

Johnny’s Story

Johnny Paen, from Jacmel, Haiti, is working to clear rubble, which will be transported to help build roads.  Johnny lost his wife, his two children, and his sister in the earthquake.  The World Food Program’s Food for Work project is working with Johnny to help him obtain food, buy clothing, and allow him to save some money to care for his aging, ailing mother.

I want to help Johnny.  I can’t imagine the tragedy that struck him, but I know that if we traded places, I would be unspeakably grateful for the empathy and the assistance of strangers.  And if we can gather enough cash, we can help a few more people like Johnny rebuild their lives.  Your donation will give Johnny the opportunity to help rebuild his town of Jacmel, as well as help him rebuild his life after his loss.

For more about the program, click “Read More”

Continue reading

Dispatch from China; Some Thoughts on Running

Posted in Uncategorized on June 19, 2010 by Spenser

I’m writing from gritty gritty China, where I’ve done the unthinkable: I’ve run on a treadmill.  Beijing air, as those who paid attention to the run up to the Olympics in 2008 will recall, is dismal.  China managed to clear it up by cutting off all of the factories around it and inundating the sky with cloud-seeds, but suffice it to say that they did not do the same for our arrival.  Upon landing I immediately got a headache, and my throat started to clog a bit with some lead-flavored particles.  So besides a yellow-tinted sky and perpetual haze, we also had 95° weather to enjoy.  All of this meant that running in the air-conditioned hotel gym was the only way to go.

I ran for about 40 minutes at 12Km/hr, which is almost identical to the pace at which I ran Bay to Breakers.  It was excruciatingly boring.  I counted my strides and did some mental math, and calculated that over the course of a marathon I would take approximately 34,584 strides.  Running on a treadmill is also unnerving.  If you look away and swerve left or right, or fall behind a bit, you risk deep abrasions and crushing embarrassment.

Thankfully, the air in Lijiang is much clearer.  At 7,800 feet of elevation, this town is nestled in a stunningly gorgeous valley, near Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, an incredible landmark and also home to the southernmost glacier in the northern hemisphere.  This morning, before a tour of the old town, I arose before sunrise and ran for two hours up and down the valley.  I had surprisingly little trouble with altitude, although my run went longer than expected because there are no street signs, and I got lost.  Still a welcome change from running on a treadmill.

I’m on my way home now.  I’ve flown four times in the last two days, and have a 12 hour flight tomorrow.  I’ll be getting in around 9am to SFO, probably sore and exhausted from lack of a proper bed.

Training-wise, not much else to report.  Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to write out my thoughts about why I really look forward to my long runs these days.  One thing I did not mention in my earlier post about running for novices is the pleasure that comes from finally getting comfortable running.  Allow me to explain:

When I get going on these long runs, the first couple of miles are given to finding my stride, getting all the muscles and joints warmed up, and getting a sweat going.  I’m running very lightly at this point.  After about half an hour, the running starts to feel easier.  I’ve gradually sped up, any tightness has been worked through, and I can feel my body getting warmer.  Then, for the period of time between 30 minutes and 100 minutes, I get this feeling like I’m not running, but actually rolling along the ground.  I feel like the marathon will be easy.  The rhythm of my feet pounding the pavement or the trail becomes the beat of life itself, the world bouncing along on its merry way as it passes by my panting perspective.

Something very funny happens in this middle hour.  My mind becomes both busy and empty, as random song lyrics pop in and pop out (I don’t run with an iPod), thoughts about life flash for a brief moment and disappear, and all I really focus on is enjoying the sensation of moving through whatever setting I’m in with the greatest of ease.  Muscles are warm, my body feels strong, and I only really think about where I’m going to take this run, and when I’m going to stop quickly and have another sip of energy goo or electrolyte water.  It’s amazing how the act of running reduces my needs to basic sustenance, and therefore makes meeting them very easy.  All I’m concerned about is keeping fueled, so that this feeling of effortless chugging along will stay around.

After about 90-100 minutes, I start to feel fatigued.  I keep the same pace, the same stride length and frequency, but the effortlessness is gone, and I have to concentrate on keeping form and on a determination to keep the wheels moving.  Nutrition and hydration become even more important at this point.  Also, at this time I’m usually about 5 miles away from home, and getting back to the shower and the refrigerator become extremely prominent desires.  (By the way, I’m not sure I’ve ever typed refrigerator before, and it’s a really funny word when you stop to examine it.)  The satisfaction at this point comes not from detached, airy floating about the world, but from enjoying the anticipation of complete exhaustion, the feeling of burning legs, the fantasy of collapse onto a bed, sofa, or hell, even the floor.  Every minute that I struggle through the pain, the burn, the heavy breathing, is a little bit more rewarding the collapse will be.  I also begin to strongly anticipate cheeseburgers.

Also, I occasionally get funny thoughts.  Two weekends ago I was running along Land’s End trail, and I thought back to a Vertebrate Morphology class I took at UCSB.  Sam Sweet, who was famous for his awesome beard, was explaining that our calf muscles aren’t meant so much as locomotors, but as “batteries” to store kinetic energy.  They basically augment the Achilles’ tendon, vascular rubber bands.  This is primarily responsible for the feeling of “rolling” along the ground when you get into the groove: you aren’t expending energy so much as just using what you’ve already expended to get yourself going.  A horse is an extreme example.  Sam Sweet said that if you could somehow kill a horse that was galloping at full stride, the kinetic energy it has stored in its body would keep it going for about a quarter of a mile.  A kangaroo’s tail is similar in its purpose, and is responsible for a kangaroo’s method of locomotion being among the most efficient of all terrestrial mammals.

What this all means, I realized, is that it actually takes effort to stop running.  In other words, once you start running, it’s harder to stop than it is to keep running.  I could extrapolate this and say that it’s responsible for runners being so damn addicted to the sport (I am beginning to feel that craving as I type), but that might be leaping to conclusions.

So is this what the runner’s high feels like?  I’ve heard people say they get it, but is this similar to what other people experience?  If you’re reading this and you run, I’m curious to get your perspective.  Do your legs feel like wheels?

New Charity; More Long Runs

Posted in Uncategorized on June 14, 2010 by Spenser

It’s June now, and the rainy season has officially begun in Haiti.  It sounds like a bad joke: How do you make one of the worst natural disasters in recent history even worse?  Just add water.  Indeed, Oxfam officials express concern about the situation in Haiti, with over a million homeless people living on unstable and uneven ground.  There is little drainage.  This means that terrible landslides, which have killed hundreds of Haitians in the past, could happen again.  And with the rains, there will be a dangerous amount of stagnant water, an open invitation to epidemic.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’d like to give whatever funds I collect to an organization that is more specifically trying to address both the immediate needs, as well as the long-term economic recovery of Haiti.  Let’s face it: it will cost a lot to get a lot of Haiti back to “inhabitable.”  But after that, there is a lot of infrastructure that will need fixing, work projects to fund, and ongoing development before Haiti can even think about standing on its own two feet.

Instead of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, I’ve decided to work with the World Food Program.  They have a program known as “Food for Work,” in which locals are paid in food and 5USD for a day’s work rebuilding the country.  This article highlights two beneficiaries of the program.  Stay tuned for more stories.

According to Caitlin Masters, $26,000 will fund this program for over 300 Haitians for a week.  This is awesome.  Imagine how much manpower that is, and also how many Haitians will go home with some cash in their pockets to help support their families.  I’m much more motivated about this project.  Nothing against the ex-presidents, but $26,000 feels like a drop in the bucket when it’s going to “where the need is greatest.”  I like the idea of making a big difference in a small area.

Click to expand

And now for a brief update on the training.

I’ve been really enjoying these long runs.  This is a strange sensation for me, but I have to say, I really dig it.  Two weeks ago I ran from my house in the Haight to Ocean Beach, along the coast on the Land’s End trail, past the start of the Golden Gate bridge, down by Crissy Field, and back through the Marina.  It was a stunningly beautiful 2.5 hours.  From the Land’s End trail, I could see another part of the coast with just enough fog to render the view blurry and faint, but not enough to block it out entirely.  Later on as I was running down toward Crissy Field, the sun was shining and there was still fog streaming through the Golden Gate and covering all but the two tower tops of the bridge itself.

Right now I’m at my grandfather’s apartment in Hong Kong, on the hill overlooking Central district.  Yesterday, I got up and ran for two hours around the Peak.  For those who don’t know, Hong Kong is ridiculously hilly.  There is an escalator that goes all the way up from Central to the hills, and a sinuous, windy network of confused roads tacked together to somehow allow for transportation for hundreds of thousands of people that inhabit large apartment buildings perched precariously on steep hillsides.  Another thing: this place is tropical.  Right next to this concrete jungle is a real jungle.  Yesterday was like a San Francisco fog day, but 85°.  I was drenched with sweat, but I enjoyed the change of conditions.  It’s easy to loosen up in this heat, to say the least.  Because of the hills, I spent the first 50 minutes trudging up Peak Road.  I think I will be prepared for whatever inclines the SF Marathon can muster.  BRING IT ON!!!

In other news, my knee hasn’t given me any trouble as of late (knock on wood), and I’ve been doing quite a bit of running lately.  In fact, the training plan AKA Uncle Andy has me running 2.5 hours on the weekends, and four 45 minute runs during the week.  I’ve been managing the long weekend run and about three runs per week averaging around 50 minutes.  This, I have come to realize, is a lot.  That’s around 5 hours, and my sleep/climbing regimens have been compromised slightly.  Not to worry, however, because watching my legs transform from regular legs to runner legs has been fun, like a really cool flipbook in ultra-mega-slow-motion.

On top of that, it’s nice to see steady improvement in something.  It’s rare to observe in the things we are accustomed to, because changes are usually of smaller increments.  But when someone jumps into something new, the learning curve takes on a shape that is very addictive. The so-called runner’s high is pretty sweet too.

I’ll be in China until next weekend, but he running and fund raising will continue.  Stay tuned for a funding update, and more thoughts from a new running addict.

$26,000?!?! How do we raise $26,000?!??!

Posted in Uncategorized on May 29, 2010 by Spenser

Doesn't this picture of pop star Christina Aguilera lending a helping hand inspire you?

I was thinking about how much money $26,000 is.  It’s more than I’ve ever had in my possession, by orders of magnitude.  Now, $26 is a fair amount of money.  It will buy an entree at a fancy restaurant, a cab ride across San Francisco, or two movie tickets (damn, only two?).  Now take that $26 and spend it on two movie tickets every day for three years.  That’s a lot of money isn’t it?  That’s what $26,000 feels like.

In Haiti, it means 5,200 containers for clean drinking water.  It also means 52 tents for a family of 5.  So far we’ve raised nearly 11 tents, and that’s awesome.  We’ve housed 55 people, as the rainy season begins.

So how in the heck are we going to gather the remaining 41 tents?

To be honest, I’m not totally sure, but I have an idea.

Step 1 is hope. I have no idea how much we will raise at the end of this.  26,000 is much more than I could imagine collecting, but why not aim high?  A hundred here, a donor match there, and the momentum builds, snowballing into a large wad of cash.

Step 2 is building a base. I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by the friends and family that I have, and the speed at which we raised over $5,000 spurred me on.  I won’t ask those who’ve already pledged for more money, but I hope I can rely on you all for help in other ways.  Read on.

Step 3 is reaching out. In order to quintuple the current amount pledged, we’ll have to move beyond friends and family.  I’ve made steps to get my story published in some hyper-local places: the Kensington Outlook, the Berkeley Ironworks (climbing gym) newsletter, other blogs.  The hope is that we can push people who are on the fence about donating, by adding the opportunity to support someone in the community.

Step 4 is asking for help. I can’t do this alone, between working full-time with WebGreek and training and catching Vikki up on classic movies she’s never seen.  So with the base that we’ve got, I’m hoping to reach out past my circle, so that we are collectively tapping every resource within the full 6 degrees of separation.

Here are some ways that you can help spread the word:

  • Post something on your Facebook profile.  “Hey guys, my friend is running a marathon and trying to raise $$ for Haiti relief.  If you can help, or knows someone that would like to, it would mean a lot.  Here’s a link.”
  • Send an email to some friends.
  • Phone a rich relative.

Step 5 is finding bigger matching donors. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be soliciting every charitable foundation, every corporation, every collective chunk of money I can think of to see if they’d like to get a piece of this tent-providing pie.

I am asking for suggestions.  If you work for a company that might want to help, if you know a few good leads, and if you can put me in touch with anyone, then please email me at spenser.tangsmith@gmail.com, or leave a comment below!

You know what?  I actually have no idea what I’m doing, besides just asking people for money, and asking people to ask people for money.  Has anyone out there raised money for charitable casues?  What works and what doesn’t?  I’m shooting in the dark here.
Next post will include a quick update of the situation in Haiti, including some funny tidbits about who has donated what so far, and whom we can beat in terms of donations.  I’ll give you a hint: we’ve nearly raised more than Dannon Yogurt was willing to donate.

Goal Attained!; Goal Increased; The Longest Run

Posted in Uncategorized on May 27, 2010 by Spenser

Pop the bottles and spark the stogies, for we have arrived at the promised land!  Back when I first started this whole idea of raising money, I set a lofty goal of $5,000 in pledges before race day.  Thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, we are now comfortably over that mark, as this crazy thermometer now illustrates:

easy fundraisers

“Wow!” is right, and thank you crazy thermometer for putting the superlative on the cake.  Now, if you read this regularly, you’ll no doubt be surprised that we made steady progress from $0 to $1600, and then completely skipped the two-through-four thousands.  A miracle donor?  A pot o’ gold?  Neither, I say unto thee, though nearer the former than the latter.

My parents offered to match every dollar pledged up to $2600.  Then I got an email from my grandfather in Hong Kong, saying that he would match whatever my parents contributed.  A double $2600 match means that every dollar contributed was tripled, and the $1802 that you all had pledged became that $5406 that you see above.  With the double match, we actually could go all the way up to $7800 without too much effort, and there are still 2 months until race day.

But what if we didn’t stop there?  What if we did something to make $5000 seem like garbanzo beans?  What if we pooled more resources from more people?  What if we did something that made a statistically significant difference in Haiti?  What if we tried, I mean really tried on this one?  Well, let’s find out.

In keeping with the Birthday Challenge theme, I hereby announce that I am running the San Francisco Marathon on July 25th, 2010, with the goal of raising $26,000 to benefit the relief efforts in Haiti.

I have to disclose at this time that I’m utterly terrified of this.  I’ve never gone out to raise money for anything before, and $26k is a lot of cash.  In fact, I work for a business that started on much less.  I am extremely anxious about setting this goal and failing to attain it, but I will do everything in my power to try and surpass it.

Even if we don’t reach the $26,000 mark, it will have been worth every stride, every letter typed into this blog, and every solicitous email, as long as a few more people keep the catastrophe in Haiti in their minds a bit longer.  It will be worth every second of time spent if a few more people open their hearts to the genuine, widespread and unimaginable suffering of others around the globe.  In a sense, then, we have already succeeded.

I picked Haiti, but it could be Darfur, Burma, or Tennessee.  It could be HIV, it could be police brutality, it could be homelessness.  My mom has always told me that the way to deal with the overwhelming ills of the world is to pick one area to focus on, and make a difference there.  This focus is something that I struggle with, but I’m getting better, and it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.  However, I would like to add a corollary to my mother’s wisdom: live every day such that your energy and actions improve the lives of those you come into contact with, even if it’s just a complement, or a listening ear, or a random smile.  Everyone’s got a smile to spare, and in this often vitriolic day and age we find ourselves in, a smile can go a long way.

Anyway, with that admonition aside, it’s time to update our thermometer:

easy fundraisers

Honestly, not too shabby.  The red ain’t so far away from the top of the thermometer.

Lest you be skeptical of my ability to finish the race, let me assure you that I am using every mean at my disposal to be as prepared as possible for the “main event.”  Well, everything except getting those skimpy running shorts that track athletes seem to be so bloody fond of.  Me?  I run in Volcom shorts, boxers, and a cotton tee.  But I run a lot.

How much?  Well, this Saturday I went on the longest run I’ve ever been on, 16.5 miles.  I went from a friend’s loft in SoMa along Embarcadero, across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, with the ordeal lasting 2.5 hours exactly.  That puts me on pace to run a slightly less than 4 hour marathon, which would be AWESOME.

Twas a glorious day, and I ran a long way, damn near 'round the bay. Nothing more to say.

I celebrated my feat by going bouldering at Castle Rock State Park for an afternoon with the incomparable Dan Kovner, who bought me dinner because he’s a nice guy.  Thanks buddy!

At this point in my training, I’m trying to make my odometer spin so fast it gets dizzy.  Uncle Coach Andy has me running 4 times a week for 45 minutes, with a 2.5 hour run on the weekends.  I will be beating the pavement like the ground owed my feet money.  And my feet will be paid in blisters.

Anyway, that’s the blog for tonight.  Thank you everyone for your support, kind words, and encouragement.  I couldn’t do it without you.

Bay to Breakers Report; How a Beginner Begins Running

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 18, 2010 by Spenser
This crowd literally goes for miles

From the top of Hayes Hill, the costumed parade stretches from one end of SF to the other.

I know I promised that I would be posting some running tips for the non-runner this time around, but I have to first give a quick recap to what might be the greatest race of all time, the 99th annual Bay to Breakers. Oh yes. The miles fly by when all you see is crazy costumes.

For those who don’t know, Bay to Breakers is a tradition, 3rd Sunday of every May, where tens of thousands of costumed folk get together and party their asses off, under the pretext of racing from the Embarcadero (well, Howard Street and Beale Street) to Ocean Beach.  It is a certified 12K (7.46 miles) race, and apparently wasn’t really a costumed freaky-drink fest until fairly recently. The first costumed runner was actually in 1940, and finished last. Here are some more interesting statistics.

One if by land...

The redcoats are coming!

I mentioned that my cadre of friends was going as cowboys and Indians, and both ends of Manifest Destiny did quite well with their costumes. They gathered at a friend’s house and drank themselves damn near to oblivion, while I was busy trying to gain access to a pre-race port-o-potty at 8 in the morning.

This is for the buffalo!

Custer's last stand?

Since I registered late, I was in the slowest corral. This meant that I was doomed to be in the crowdy crowd for most of the early part of the race, as funneling something like 70,000 people through one street is like trying to flush a combo of hair and marshmallows down the sink drain. In fact, I didn’t even officially cross the starting line of the race until 8:22.

It was slow going until the top of Hayes hill, which is a little before the 3 mile mark. In fact, I had to walk a fair portion of it due to the pure congestion of slow joggers, walkers, and quasi-runners. Dodging folk was a little bit fun, but weaving probably added a considerable distance to my race.

Pocahontas got nothin'

My little squaw, Jello-shotted and ready to race!

Once you hit the top of Hayes hill, it’s all downhill through Golden Gate Park. In addition, it clears out, and it’s my home training ground to boot, so that’s what I started kicking it into high gear. Mile 3-7 took me 29 minutes, while the first 2.8 miles took me 26 and a half minutes.

Overall, I was very proud of my run. I finished in 1:02:03, 3308 out of 24,000+ finishers. It would have been much faster had I run in a quicker corral and avoided the crowds, but who cares…I ain’t no competitive runner, except against myself, and I judge my performance favorably.

Some of the highlights of a crazy crazy day, in no particular order:

– Dressed as a cow, I run under the photo takers three separate times. Once by myself, once with a chicken, and once with a 60 year old guy with a turban on

Does it get any better?

Perfect. Sorry about the watermark, I'm too broke to buy.

Farm animals unite!

Also awesome.

– Standing next to the Jesus-freaks who were yelling at the runners about their sin and nudity, and yelling at the runners to “enjoy your lives!; Don’t let anyone force their beliefs on you!; Sin is fun!” and the like.


Adam and Eve?

– Some killer floats
– The DJs and bands that dotted the course
– Getting free beers from strangers. Many beers.
– Running into a high school mate and getting a 90-second synopsis of her life since 2002 (she’s getting married soon).
– Running into a college friend who had lost her group, drinking champagne with her, and talking about Burning Man
– Getting free drinks and pastries from a few gay men who wanted me to convert. I politely declined (their advances, that is. I kept the drinks and muffin.)
– Seeing not a single fight, or really any problems besides a few overboard drinkers.
– High-fiving a lot of fellow cows.
– …and dozens more fun things.

I can’t wait for number 100.

Dey Took Are JERRRBS!

A political point, perhaps?

Anyway, on to some tips for fellow novice runners.

I would say that one of the most important things that gets you to actually start running is to have a calendared goal in mind. Sign up for some race, even if it’s a 5K, and start running with that in mind. The pressure to perform always gets the motivational juices flowing.

Start slow. Real slow. You might say something along the lines of “my body can’t handle running” or “I don’t think my knees can take it.” You’d be surprised what your body can handle, if you just get in to it real slow. I’ve had knee issues in the past, but I started by running 15-20 minutes twice per week, and very slowly, and my body was able to handle it quite well. Scale up or down depending on your fitness level, and for the first few weeks avoid getting sore.  If you get sore, scale back a little.

Day to day motivation can be hard to come by, so you need to come up with small victories.  One of the most satisfying things to me is running from landmark to landmark, even if it’s just from home to a major intersection and back. If it’s something you typically drive, you’ll be amazed at how easy just running it seems, once you’ve done it. For example, I’ve run from my house to the ocean, around Land’s End trail, and back home. Or from North Beach, across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. Or from my house in Kensington down to San Pablo, up to UC Berkeley, and back. Before you know it, you’ll be covering a lot of ground. There’s no better way to surprise yourself.

Stretch. Seriously. It feels really good. And you’ll actually get more flexible, because your blood is circulating a lot better.

Get ready to watch your legs change. Whenever you start doing a new activity, like climbing, the muscles that you haven’t been using in that particular manner will expand like crazy. If you’ve been stuck in a rut, doing the same workout for years and not seeing much improvement, it’s a pretty cool feeling to see rapid improvement. My calves, for example, would look incredible in heels right now. And given that I live in San Francisco, it’s not too far-fetched.

I can’t really speak to the idea of a training partner.  I don’t like running with other people, as I prefer my own pace, and I don’t like trying to talk and run at the same time.  Then again, I also don’t run with music, and that seems to worry most people.  So do whatever you feel like on this one.

Finally, keep a log of your miles.  They’ll accumulate faster than you can come up with a better acronym for Adidas than that Outkast song, and at the end of the training, you can impress your friends with some serious numbers.  Happy trails!