Winter Grand Prix XC recap

Last Saturday was the third race in the Winter Grand Prix (WGP) race series. I like and dread WGP and it’s a fun and different kind of race than most community races I do.

Foremost – it’s more competitive. There are a lot of fast club people (primarily from Club Northwest, who sponsor it), high school kids, and others who I just don’t see as much at other races who show up. Running is an interesting competitive sport this way. Among people who are in good shape, run regularly (>3 times / week), and apply themselves I think there is a fairly clustered range of performance and often that’s all the work you need to do to finish in the top 10% or so of competitors.  This isn’t always true, but it’s not super far off.  The majority of the field in most races are people who run much less often than that and don’t do structured work to try to improve their performance and, moreover, are there to have a good time more than to try to beat their prior times.  But if you decide to aspire to the lofty level of “spend a lot of time doing it and get to high-mediocre at it,” where I am, that’s when you start to see the difference between your plateau and that of some others and there is a big difference between how fast you can get with some modest effort and how fast the people at the front of the field are.  There’s probably a combination of talent, effort, and passion separating you (me) from them, but it’s pretty easy to say “I could never come close to that person’s times” and you’d probably be right.  You’ll definitely be right if you believe that, but it’s probably right anyway.

So a fair number of those people show up at these races.  This is actually one of the good parts because I feel like I push myself harder.  I’m unlikely to win any half-way respectable race ever so I don’t mind being pushed down in the standings.  But the part I really dread is the short distance. Two miles is about the shortest distance I’ve really raced and it’s hard the entire time.  Even in a 5k, the first mile feels kind of comfortable, but in a two mile race you’re working pretty hard from the start (it’s hard for me to imagine what racing a 400 must feel like).  And especially on one of these cross country starts / courses with a huge, wide field where you get funneled after ~400 into a narrow chute. I learned from Joe during this series a couple years ago that you need to go out almost uncomfortably hard in a race like this to get yourself seeded somewhere decent because the group will definitely slow when you hit that first chute, and this is true at WGP.

So at the race last weekend I got there plenty early, did a couple warm-up miles with Io and then stashed him in the car before the race.  I met Kem, who’s running with Seattle Anti-Freeze and just signed up for the race and pretty soon it was show time. I did start out hard, or as hard as I could, but this day wasn’t feeling kind to me.  I got a decent position heading into the fins at Magnuson and pushed respectably up Kite Hill to the turnaround.

I don’t have many key strengths as a runner. I’m not an outstanding climber (though I think I’ve developed from “abysmal” to “passable” over the years), I can descend OK but I’m not terrific and I think my kick is about on par with Elaine Benes. But I’ve convinced myself I’m not terrible at anything and I can pass people here and there in different technical sections of races where I convince myself they don’t want to work as hard as I do.  I don’t remember passing many people the whole race at WGP, though.

As we made the final turn in the first lap, we entered what Max Fischer would have called “the shit.”  This was some rough-going, shoe-stealing mud and slop.  It feels a little dangerous and I definitely love running in conditions like this.  I don’t know my first split but I soldiered on to the second loop which had a couple moments of false hope.  First, after one guy I’ve seen at a few races crushed the climb up Kite Hill, I caught him about 30 seconds later, bent over and sucking wind.  He caught me in the flat section back down by the road, though.  Then in the twists in the final ~800m, I caught one of the high schoolers who was out for the race and passed him, telling him “good job.”  Apparently, he decide “that’s what you think, hippie” since he started letting loose in the last ~500 and put a good 80 yards on me by the finish.

So I crossed the finish in 11:51 – my worst time on the WGP XC course and in 32nd, 8 places back from my standing in the 2 mile road race a couple weeks earlier.  This was a hard, good race and every time I race I learn something about my limits, fitness, other runners, terrain, and running in different conditions. These short races are hard, but it’s a different and good challenge compared with the longer distance runs I’ve been doing over the past year. I guess it’s good I enjoy them since there are still three to go!


Last Chance Marathon recap

This past year I did some volunteer work coordinating the pacers for the Seattle Rock n Roll Marathon and the Seattle Marathon and while recruiting for the different pacer legs I met some more runners.  One is Terry Sentinella who, like a lot of ultrarunners I’ve met, has a great and inspiring back story that’s worth reading. Anyway – Terry is the president of Skagit Valley Runners and race director for a marathon on New Year’s Eve called, appropriately, the Last Chance marathon. I hadn’t run a marathon in 2011 and told him I was thinking about it though I hadn’t really prepped at all.  So on December 16th the race reached the 200 entrant cap and he sent me a note on Facebook asking if I was interested. That night I was also deciding to sign up again for the 2011-2012 Club Northwest Winter Grand Prix series of 2 mile and 3k races and all of a sudden I had 28 miles of racing to do before closing out 2011! So, I started training (and by training, I mean tapering).

The race starts at Fairhaven Park in Bellingham, about 90 minutes from Seattle and I drove up the morning of. The weather was chilly (highs in the 30’s) but overall really not that bad – considerably better than the snow and ice that some people told me they’d had in past years. Checkin at the park was pretty straightforward and efficient. They had a large shelter reserved for the day and simple timing system outside.

Going into this, I knew this wouldn’t be a good marathon and also knew that I didn’t want to trash my legs because if I focus on the Winter Grand Prix I have a shot at placing in my age division, so I committed to trying to learn something about the marathon and simply “run 26.2 miles” rather than “race a marathon.” The course is a 6.5 mile out and back – once for the half and twice for the full. Terry’s family staffed an aid station at the turnaround and some volunteers from the Leukemia and Lymphoma society staffed another aid station about halfway out. For a mom and pop race like this with such a low registration fee – I have to say the aid and support were terrific and dramatically exceeded my expectations.

Anyway – on with the race recap…

Just before 8AM, Terry gave a short talk about the race then he lined up with us and at about 8 everybody was on our way.  I was a little surprised to see the leader taking everybody out at a fairly fast clip – this isn’t a competitive field or a fast course, so I settled into a nice comfy pace and was just out jogging with the group.  After winding through the parking lot the course runs about a mile on a paved regional trail before winding down through a ravine in Aroyo Park.  I thought this might be a nice sociable run, but nobody really seemed too keen on talking (I had accidentally followed the Chuck Bartlett advice of not brushing my teeth before the race) so after fumbling a while with a broken zipper on my vest and screwing with getting the headphones from my iPod out, I had Jonsi taking me out nice and easy and was soon enjoying the run.

After Aroyo park you come out on a mostly flat gravel trail which is very wide and easily handles a couple runners in both directions. To the right of the course is Chuckanut Bay and Bellingham Bay. It was kinda foggy, which was good because (I told myself) the clouds were keeping what little heat there was trapped low.

This was definitely the coldest race I’ve run in. a lot of people were really bundled up and I wore my 2007 Seattle Marathon pacer vest over a short-sleeved tech shirt over a long-sleeved tech shirt.  I also had my earband and gloves on, but stuck with shorts.  That was probably just about right for most of the run (but by midway I was feeling comfortable enough to ditch the gloves and earband). The whole time I just tried to keep staying relaxed and not pass too many people.  I had to stay focused and avoid race mentality – the last race I did was a 2 mile road race where I ran at about a 5:40 pace and I didn’t want to go faster than an 8:00 pace and regardless of how small it is or what my goals were, it’s hard for me to to pin on a bib, line up for a gun, and be in a race and not want to push.

About 43 minutes in, the leaders (most of them from the half but a couple from the full) came cruising back and I knew that I must be getting close to the turnaround.  Naturally I was still sizing up who I thought was in the full vs. the half and tried to get a sense of my placement, but there were a couple early starters making it hard to really keep track.  Anyway, we got to the turnaround and I took my time, had a gu, understood why the Mandarin Orange gu’s were on sale at the running store in Austin, had a salt stick, filled my bottle and left the aid station at 54:19.  I wanted to leave no earlier than 52:30 (for an ~3:30 final time), so that was fine.

By now I’ve got the greatest poet of our generation, none other than Kanye West accompanying me on my run.  This is a fun part of the run, too, because now I’m seeing a ton of the other people from the full and half.  I noticed two guys from ChuckIt I haven’t seen in a while and whose names I’ve long since forgotten.  Pretty soon I’m blown away by Kanye’s lyrical mastery.  What are you going to rhyme with “okay,” maetro? “okay“!!!  Indefatigable!  I’m feeling pretty good around now – a couple tweaks from earlier are shaking out and I started to appreciate the course:

Before long I’m getting back into Aroyo Park. I realize this will be by far and away my favorite part of the course so I try to enjoy it.  These descents and climbs twisting on single track and with a couple sketchy, muddy steps – just enough to add a little element of technical (and judging from the people I’d seen a couple miles back, enough to take a few people down) – this is fun and why I run.  And Kanye’s belting out my favorite jam from 808’s and Heartbreak and all is right.  Then I need to climb out of from the park on the far side.  Shit.  Guess this will be a little work.  It’s not a hard climb, though, and I’m still feeling totally good as I hit the paved trail back to the parking lot.

As I get to the midway point, some guy is screaming at me and the woman coming in behind me “HALF OR FULL?!  HALF OR FULL?!” while Kevin Douglas relaxes taking down times.  I wasn’t quite ready to respond but suspected the right way for me to go was the aid table / course and *not* the finish chute (I was right!) and I hang out briefly, grabbing a drink, some potato chips, and a wedge of PB&J before I fill my bottle and head out again – leaving the table at a 54:24 split.  The second leg is more of a mixed bag.  The first couple miles are fun, again, and Aroyo Park is especially fun – this time I’m seeing people I passed a couple miles ago who are clearly struggling just to get through the half. I’m not a sadistic person, but I bet it’s pretty universal to running that if you’re feeling strong, well ahead, and seeing people struggle that it raises your confidence.  Or maybe I’m sadistic.  Or maybe it was Les Savy Fav.  But I was feeling pretty great.

But by the time I left the park and got back to the paved trail it was clear that I’m going to see WAY fewer people out here now.  There were a couple people for me to keep my pace behind and I could tell I’d run a long time by now so I’m getting a little fatigued by the time I hit the gravel trail.  The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society had volunteered to support an aid station about midway on this leg and I’d run past them the first time, but this time I stopped for a few of their chips and some Chomps and chatted with them. They’re in good spirits and I’m still feeling good but I’m definitely questioning my decision to run a marathon on new year’s eve so I tell them they made the right decision to volunteer rather than run. Before long, I’m off to the last turnaround. The leaders in the full have passed me by now, too, and I realize the guy who’d been leading has slipped to #2 but I don’t have a great sense of where I’m placed because now the trail is starting to get a couple people on it who are running well, but aren’t involved with the race.  I’m probably about 12th though.  I stick with, but behind, a couple guys as we’re getting to the turnaround and I really take my time with the smorgasbord and company this time – runners who got to the aid station probably a full minute after me have left before I finally get going – this leg split 57:52 and my total time 2:46:36.

I know on the way back that I’m not going to get 3:30 and am feeling perfectly fine about that. I want to not trash my legs so that I can run fast at the 3100m race the following Saturday, so I’m hanging behind a couple guys who’d left the aid station before me. I notice Takao Suzuki is out kindly documenting the race and try to give him my best game face.

~21 miles into the Bellingham Last Chance Marathon (credit: Takao Suzuki)

There are a couple dips in the interurban trail where you descend probably 50 feet and climb back up.  These aren’t particularly easy and in one of them one of the guys I was following starts walking and this is when I decide that it’s OK to start pushing a little.  I pass him on that uphill and slowly start reeling in the next guy.  About 3 minutes later I realize he’s not in the race.  OK – next up…is that Leukemia and Lymphoma aid station.  Here I do pass the next guy who was ahead of me as he stops for some support.  Robyn has served me well the last ~45 minutes and as I’m getting back into Aroyo Park I can’t remember what I queued up next.  The surprise of a long playlist is one of the nice bits of variation you leave for yourself in something like a marathon or ultra. I should mention that for the most part I’m pretty opposed to headphones in races. I think it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to keep yourself and others safe. Despite this, in some particularly long races with low registration numbers, you can be out for at least an hour between aid stations with nobody around and it can really help break up some monotony, so in some long races where I haven’t thought much about my mile splits, I’ll wear headphones.

So now I’m probably ~3 miles from the finish and Terrible Love comes on.  I thought I’d queued up Monument to Thieves but it’s probably better not to go straight to the endorphin clinic and I start dropping the hammer anyway.  You’ve got a pretty clear view from one side of the ravine down the switchbacks of the course ahead and on the other side for the climb back up and I can’t see anybody ahead of me so I just push as much as I comfortably can and keep going.  This is the first time I’ve ever run this hard after 24 miles without some seriously debilitating cramping so I’m definitely appreciating that.  After getting back up to the trail after a bit I notice a couple guys ahead of me and realize they’re probably ahead of me in the race (later I’ll learn that I was 9th right here).  I look at my watch, project I’m probably a little over a half mile from the finish, possibly within striking distance of breaking 3:40, queue up my favorite song from High Violet and decide to catch them.

Getting close to the end of a marathon is a great feeling.  This is the fifth one I’ve done and it’s pretty different every time, but this is the first time I’ve been going out just to cover the distance and having sandbagged the first 26 miles probably made me feel even better.  As I caught the guys ahead of me I told them we were all really close to 3:40 and we were probably going to all make it or just miss it, trying to see if they wanted to go for it and if we could help push each other.  All three of us started pounding pretty hard but I wound up edging ahead and by the last turn to curve back to the finish I knew I wasn’t going to hit 3:40, but damnit, this was the finish and I was on a bloodbuzz.  So I almost killed some toddler who’s idiot parents let him hobble around on the last 100′ strip of sidewalk on the course (they were there for the race so they understood my situation and were not furious at me) and I crossed the finish in 3:40:37 – a 54:01 leg split.  The two other guys came in 8 and 12 seconds behind me, the guy I passed at the aid station was 5 minutes back, and the guy I caught in the ups and downs shortly after the turnaround was 12 minutes back.

I hung out for a bit after the race, chatting, eating snacks that other runners had contributed to the giant goodie table (doritoes, Christmas cookies, a grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of tomato soup, one of Terry’s IPA’s, a Coke Zero, some Red Vines and a lot of stuff I’m sure I forgot) before changing and eventually heading back to the car and driving home.

So overall, I think this race was really, really good.  The field was small and though the course got a little narrow in parts in Aroyo Park, it seemed just about right and there was enough lead-up to that part for us to get stretched out and not have to fight one another for placement.  The gravel trail out along the main stretch of the out and back was easily able to handle groups up to about 8 runners or so.   The placement for the support made this much better supported than I expected (basically with support every 3 miles). The weather this day was chilly but totally OK (and apparently a LOT better than some past years).  Overall, I think I’ll have a hard time not wanting to sign up again next year.


Blue Scholars and Tuba Man

First – probably for today only, the Blue Scholars new album, Cinemetropolis, is available for $5 from Amazon MP3. Everyone should buy this. If you’re unimpressed by the beats in the first cut you need to check your pulse.

While listening to their homage to Seattle’s neighborhoods and unsung heroes, Slick Watts, I went looking for information on Slick and found this short form video they made for the song and featuring the ex-Sonic.

The video seemed a little weird to me because I can’t pretend I’ve got the sports or local roots to fully appreciate it. But toward the end of the video while they’re sitting around a gabling table reflecting on the games, Saba nails it:

…out of all of that – nothing’s gonna compare to seeing Tuba Man playing outside the game.

Tuba Man (Ed McMichael) was practically a Seattle institution. He was this awesome, friendly guy who you’d find outside almost every sports event in the city and usually inside the game, too. Before the games, he would sit outside the Kingdome, Key Arena, or Safeco gently tooting his tuba. A lot of the time it didn’t really sound like music, but that was well beside the point – his bleating was the perfect soundtrack to a dark Seattle night before an NBA game or even in the summer. He played for money and was always happy to talk with anyone who approached. If I was on closer terms with him he might have shared some of the giant jugs of juice he always seemed to surround himself by, I don’t know, but I definitely remember introducing to my dog, Io, one winter while he was playing near the fountain at Seattle Center. Io was VERY curious what animal was making the noises coming from Tuba Man’s horn and wanted to go up and say hello but as soon as he heard Tuba Man’s booming voice he decided they wouldn’t have a lasting friendship. Tuba Man laughed about this and kept playing.

My other memory about Tuba Man is that trying to find him inside the games was always like a real life “Where’s Waldo?” He was usually there – I remember during Mariner’s games he had a big foam M he would put on his head and whenever the home team scored he would get up and dance (march) in his seat until they stopped playing the “we scored” music over the PA. He was awesome. His story ends sadly and if you’re interested, you can read about his murder on the wikipedia page. I think he’d be happier to be remembered as he was in life, like in this video:


Kim Jong Il is dead

Perhaps you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps you just haven’t been connected to something electronic for the past hour, but Kim Jong Il died today at the age of 69. A couple months ago I started researching North Korea (or the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea / DPRK) and found the whole thing fascinating. Here are some semi-structured collected thoughts on some of the things I found (and conclusions I drew).

  • North Korea is a wildly crazy country, unlike possibly anywhere else on the planet right now. My sense is that the control of information, propaganda, and quasi-abuse of the people living there is, on an ongoing basis, just about as bad as anywhere in the world. Consider that there is essentially no internet connectivity in the country and there are approximately 1 million telephone lines in a nation of about 24 million.  The “no internet” thing seems a little over the top, if not entirely surprising considering the amount of control over information that most people realize the government exercises, but the idea that 19 in 20 people do not own a telephone is just hard to fathom.
  • Vice TV, which is apparently some offshoot of MTV, went there a couple years ago and produced a multipart Guide to North Korea. I feel this is very much worth the time investment to watch. You can’t simply decide “I’d like to go to North Korea” and book a flight on Delta to Pyongyang, but it is possible for Americans to visit (and at least a couple flickr users have). There are a couple sites that describe how this works, but my impression is that the Vice guide has it right: applications are screened heavily, people who are likely to cause trouble are usually rejected (it’s a surprise Vice got in), and the itinerary is highly, highly controlled.
  • Pyongyang, despite its population of >3 million, seems like a ghost town.  By all accounts, if you walk around the city at any time of day, you’ll encounter no one.  People just don’t seem to go from place to place, out for lunch, out to shops or restaurants, walk pets, or socialize.  “Accounts” are sparse, so maybe this isn’t quite like it seems, but if you consider that this is probably a bigger city than Chicago and the capital of a state with nuclear bombs, I find it a little surprising and alarming.
  • People who visit North Korea seem to all wind up on a very tightly controlled and scripted tour of the country. I haven’t researched this too closely in a couple years, but it seemed like a couple organizations would help field your application that would go to the government and it seemed that most of the people who visited brought back artifacts that indicated that most of them had the same tours as one another and the same tour as is documented in the Vice video series. The tour inevitably leads to an incredible performance of “mass games” (emphasizing what can happen when millions of people perform in unison or some kind of Marxist dystopia / Stalinist wet dream) with hundreds of thousands of North Koreans performing for a couple international tourists.  It’s wildly, wildly crazy to think “this didn’t just happen ‘some time’ – one of these performances might be going on right now and there is an entire nation of people raising children whose greatest life memory might be a performance in one of these shows.”
  • Finally – you can’t get much information on North Korea.  For instance, what’s the hotel that every international tourist stays at?  Well, it’s here on this (easily controlled) island in the middle of the river in Pyongyang – but where is that?  Why can’t you find any hits for “Hilton Pyongyang” if you search Google maps?  In part, it’s because North Korea is essentially the only place on the planet where there is no information of this sort in the public domain. Even the Gaza Strip and Monrovia have some street, but as soon as you get to the border between South Korea and the North, it’s like you hit the astral plane and no one knows what’s there.  There is a project, though, at nkeconwatch where you can download a huge Google Earth database of roads, place names, and place markers of sites within North Korea.
This is enough for now.  This is a fascinating place on the planet right now from a social, political, military, and technological perspective. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll find some of these links helpful for further research.


Why is gmail so good at spam filtering?

Today I posted a message indicating gmail’s spam filters are good and Greg mentioned that it sounds like gmail is much better at this than the University of Washington.  This reminded me I like blogging and I wanted to write short background on what I know about this topic (which isn’t an incredible amount, but it’s a fair deal and more than most people probably want to know). Before talking about why gmail is good at spam filtering, it’s worth identifying a couple entities involved in junk email, or spam.

  • Spam is unsolicited junk email.
  • Ham is the email that gets through spam filters. Not all of this is email you want – it’s just what gets through the filters.
  • A false positive in spam filtering means something gets tagged as spam and gets filtered from your regular view of email but it was email that you wanted to see.
  • A false negative is a miss in spam detection.
  • A spam filter is a system used for sifting through your incoming email, applying a set of rules, and identifying its likelihood of being spam or not and taking an action based on that.
The title of this post asserts that gmail is good at filtering spam and I think most people who use it would agree with that.  Before switching to gmail, I maintained my own POP3 server with a private hosting company and immediately learned that doing this without some spam filtering system yields a totally unacceptable email experience.  It’s absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to use email (and not get overwhelmed with junk email and doesn’t try very, very hard to live “off the grid” in some sense) to not have some spam filtering.
So at the time I used SpamAssassin – it was very good. Most spam filters evaluate email messages against a set of rules that give the message a score indicating its likelihood to be spam or ham. These scores are evaluated with Bayes’ theorem to get some aggregate likelihood that the message is spam or not and a tolerance is defined in that system for ultimately deciding whether the message is shown.  I may be oversimplifying some details, but that’s the general approach and I suspect something like it is at least a part of gmail’s spam filtering (if not all of it).
So I mentioned SpamAssassin was good – why move away from it?  I don’t really think there is a good reason and if I were still maintaining my own mailserver, I would almost definitely continue to use it. But I’m not, and I don’t want to and there are tons of great engineers who work at Google who are trying to tempt me to not care about stuff like this and let them do that work for me and I let them.
Now to get to the point – why is gmail’s spam filtering good and why might it be better than a lot of other systems out there?
  • When you use gmail, you agree to give google a LOT of your personal information.  And they are very good at turning semi-unstructured data (like multiple GB of email) and finding patterns in it that can be useful for building rules that simpler systems don’t have access to.
  • Your mail and contacts are one. In most personal or hosted mail systems, your address book might seem like it’s in the server, but it might not be.  It might be stored on another server that sits right next to the server that your mail is on, but the spam filters might only have access to your email and not know who are the people in your personal address book that you want to always allow to send you email.  Google and gmail definitely know this, so even if your brother sends you a message that fires 10 alarms that make it look like spam to most spam filtering systems, Google might be able to have the “contact” rule trump those other rules.
  • Google has all the other email in gmail to use to identify spam, too. Say some spammer crafts a clever message and it gets through every spam filter in existence.  Now 5,000 gmail members all see it and mark it in their inboxes as spam – you are customer number 5,001.  I don’t know that google/gmail *do* this, but they could certainly use that as a filter, too, to retroactively identify the message as spam and yank it from your inbox and push it to the spam folder.
To summarize: Google have tons of engineers working on this.  They’re good at aggregating data.  They have a lot of data about you to pull from beyond simply “what’s in the email” to determine whether a message is probably spam.  And they have a lot of data from other people, too, to tell whether something is spam.  All of that adds up to, for me, almost never seeing spam and almost never having legitimate messages flagged as spam.’_theorem

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Adventures in stupidity

OPENING SCENE : our protagonist sits at his desk, working

ENTRANCE cheap RC helicopter and operator

OPERATOR (in the style of Butt-Head)

huh huh ... huh huh ... huh

The helicopter comes to rest on the edge of the protagonist's workspace.


If that gets within arm reach, I'm going to break it.



Here’s thing: I’m not good at hiding when I’m annoyed. And my body language is so clear that sometimes people shield their eyes when they walk past. But this fucking idiot can’t pick up on it even though I offered to break his toy.


Marathon pacers matter (Seattle Marathon 2007 to 2011)

Update 12/3/2011: Unfortunately, the information below can’t quite be trusted. I’ve taken a closer look at the results I pulled from the Seattle Marathon site at the time and the results today and I can definitely say that the data I pulled was not official and the results today are also incomplete. I’ll need to make an update to this post and all this research some time when official, complete results are available. What’s wrong? In the data I initially pulled, I see things like women’s winner, Trisha Steidl’s splits as 1:10:29 for the first half and 1:34:09 for the second half for a 3:03:38 (which is wrong and doesn’t add to that final chip time) – today the results say 1:29:32 and 1:34:09 (which seems right). This suggests today’s results are closer, however today the pacer chips are missing from the results. Anyway – I’ll work on this again when I can…

I’ve started collecting the data from the Seattle Marathon, 2007 to present and am doing some analysis on it, specifically from the perspective of the marathon pacers since I organized the pacers this year and we just finished the race. If I find the time to keep analyzing the data, this will probably be the first of many posts on the subject. If I don’t, this might be the first of one.

Assuming I’ll keep writing on this – here are the methods I’m using for the data source…

  1. I pulled down all full and half, male and female results from 2007-2011 and dumped the data into Excel.  This represents over 45,000 finishers over that period between the races.
  2. I did a little data cleansing – many records contained no data for the first split and just turned these into 0’s for processing in an Excel PivotTable.
  3. I used an Excel 5 minute rounding function to approximate the pacer that some finisher would be behind (e.g. a full finisher crossing the finish line at 4:13:35 evaluates to a 4:15 pacer, a full participant crossing the midway point at 2:02:41 would be behind the 4:10 full pacer, and so on).

Through 2010, the Seattle Marathon only offered full pacers for 3:30, 3:45, 4:00, and 4:45 (unhappy with this, in 2010 I lobbied for us to add 3:10 and paced that myself).  In 2011 I organized the pacing and changed the pacer structure to offer more times3:00, 3:10, 3:15, 3:20, 3:30, 3:40, 3:45, 4:00, 4:15, 4:30, and 4:45).

When trying to process this in the past, I had frequently tried to look at the finish result. This is pretty impossible to make any conclusions off of because (if you hadn’t heard) a marathon is hard and there are all sorts of reasons people do or do not make their results.  While it’s a lot more important to ultimately answer “did people make their goals?” without a questionnaire that’s fairly impossible to tell.  It *is* pretty easy to tell from the first half split, though, where people were setting their goals, and looking at some of that data, I see a clear indication that the pacers and pace groups matter.

The following chart shows a plot of full finishers over these 5 years of races and highlights the pacers that were offered for the races in those years.  The data shown is based on what 5 minute group they were running with at the first half split (not the finish) and the red rings highlight the 5 minute segments for which we had a pacer.

  • 2007-2010 there was some pretty clear clustering in most years of a large group clustered around the pacer segments. Sometimes the spike is a little outside the circled block, but I believe there is some pretty clear visual correlation (this includes 2010 when I had a group on track for 3:10 at the half)
  • 2007-2010 looking at the distribution of the field outside the pace groups shows a fairly smooth distribution of finishers. I think this further suggests that when there isn’t a pacer to associate with, runners tend to just distribute themselves more evenly.
  • In 2011, the distribution is much more choppy with more clusters of runners in the race with most clusters inside a pace group and most of the rarefied sections outside the pace groups.

This doesn’t help understand whether people are achieving tougher goals and there is no sophisticated analysis in here at all (maybe I’ll get to some of that in a later post) but I believe that it definitely indicates that runners will choose to run with a pace group if one is offered in the race.


Life in the northwest

A couple weeks ago as I was leaving my house and walking down the steps I felt and heard the familiar, distinctive, and disgusting sound of a snail shell being crushed under my shoe. At the time I had no reason to doubt my intuition that: “This was the single most disgusting thing I will experience all month.”

Fast forward to going out on a cold winter night and finding a fresh, live slug “incorporating” some of the crushed remains. Fast forward a couple minutes later to the time where I forgot that replacement slug was devouring its ancestor.

I was wrong.


emacs – the only guide you’ll ever need

I use emacs every day and for as much work as I can on a computer and have for about 9 years. It was not easy to learn, though, and I used it casually for about 8 years before starting to use it seriously and all the time in about 2002.

Learning was harder than I think it should have been – primarily because the main tutorial (invoked with C-h t) focuses on lesson after lesson of basic file and editing operations instead of trying to teach you just a couple very basic and core lessons about emacs itself. So, I attempt to present:

The only emacs tutorial you’ll ever need

Emacs does a lot and new users definitely needn’t try to understand all of it. I really ramped up dramatically faster in my learning curve once I discovered and mastered a very short list of basic functions that help explain the major interactions with the software.  Before this, I was very, very often feeling trapped by it and it convinced me (many times) to turn away (to vim, TextPad, WinEdit, notepad, and other software). Now I can’t imagine trying to use something else to get work done.

The short version: I believe that if you start by learning describe-function, describe-key (and where-is), apropos, modes (and describe-mode), and ctrl+g, you will ramp up on emacs much, much more quickly than if you do not.

  1. Every key press in emacs executes a function. Whether you press the “a” key or some key sequence involving the control (“C-“) or Meta (“M-“, usually by pressing ALT or the Escape key) keys, you are running some function. This is probably different from most software you normally work with.
  2. Every function has documentation. You can see this documentation by executing the function “describe-function” and typing the name of the function you want to get documentation on.
  3. Many functions can be invoked by name. You do this by pressing “M-x” and entering the function name in the minibuffer.  For example, if you type “M-x describe-function [ENTER]” emacs runs “describe-function” which asks you for a function name. Type “describe-function” and you will see the documentation on “describe-function”.  I said “many” and not “all” functions can be invoked by name – in the function’s definition it must be declared to be interactive for this to work. Emacs has a lot of non-interactive functions (e.g. basic lisp functions like car) which cannot be executed interactively.
  4. “describe-key” (and its close sibling “where-is”) can help you explore keymappings. I mentioned that when you press “a” it runs a function – to see what function that key sequence runs, type “M-x describe-key [ENTER] a”. This tells you pressing “a” executes “self-insert-command” and shows the documentation of self-insert-command (that it will “Insert the character you type.”). Similarly you could use “M-x describe-key [ENTER] M-x” to see that M-x is bound to execute-extended-command (which opens up the minibuffer and asks you for a function to run). Cool!  So let’s say that you know there is a function called “goto-line” which lets you jump to a specific line in a file.  You’re lazy, though, and don’t want to type that whole thing out whenever you want to use it.  “M-x goto-line” – so much typing!  Instead, you can type “M-x where-is [ENTER] goto-line [ENTER]” and emacs will tell you what keysequences goto-line is mapped to. In my setup, they are: M-g g, M-g M-g, <menu-bar> <edit> <goto> <go-to-line> – so I have three ways to get to it.  Another invocation of “where-is” and I learn that “describe-key” is bound to “C-h k” – so the quick way to do the first operation in this section (“what function is run when I press ‘a’?”) is: “C-h k a”.
  5. “apropos” can help you find (or remember) useful functions. Say you didn’t know that goto-line was the function to jump to a line in a file. If you type “M-x apropos [ENTER] goto” you’ll get a list of (interactive) functions that include “goto” in their name. Personally, I find this more useful to remind myself of a function I can’t quite remember than to find a function I don’t know at all, but it’s very useful. (short way: “C-h a goto”)
  6. Your major mode sets up a number of default behaviors about your interaction with emacs. All interactions take place in a single major mode and you can see this mode in the modeline it might be (“Lisp Interaction”, “Apropos”, “Shell” and others).  Depending on your mode, your keys will behave differently!  This can be very confusing to new emacs users.  For instance, when I press “C-h k <TAB>” (to inspect what the TAB key does) in Lisp Interaction mode it runs indent-for-tab-command (to indent some line for lisp programming), in Shell mode it runs comint-dynamic-complete (to try to tab-complete a function or file name), and in Apropos mode it runs forward-button (to navigate to the next linked entry in the apropos output).  “describe-mode” will tell you what mode you are in (and what minor modes are enabled) and what many of the major keybindings are for that mode. (short way: “C-h m”)
  7. Minor modes can be mixed in to add more customizations. Most of your keymap will be defined by the major mode you’re in, but there are some editing conveniences that can be put on top of this that may transcend any particular mode.  A pretty good example is “folding” – a behavior that lets you collapse large sections of a document and see a larger structure.
  8. Ctrl+g runs “keyboard-quit” You may find yourself locked in the minibuffer or with emacs trying to get you to complete some command you don’t understand – ctrl+g can frequently get you out of this.  (note: it’s not perfect – you might wind up in recursive edit but that’s another story).

These are the things I wish I knew before I started any of the tutorials.  The tutorials *are* good and the reference cards *are* handy, but I was frequently frustrated and confused why the keyboard didn’t react in the ways I wanted (I didn’t understand modes in general, least of all the one I was in), I didn’t understand how keys worked anyway (didn’t know about describe-key), didn’t know how to increase my proficiency once I started getting a little more comfortable (didn’t know about where-is or apropos), and didn’t know how to learn more about many of the functions (didn’t know about describe-function or apropos). Those are commands I still use every day when using emacs today.


New music, November 2, 2011 edition

Music is my life. Well, then again, not really – there’s friends, family, pets, computers and running.  But music is way up there.  And lately I’ve got a few things I’m newly into.  Here’s a short rundown – in no particular order. Every link is to a song that I think is worth listening to.

  • Male Bonding – I just posted the youtube clip of their incredible track – Bones – from their most recent album. I was on a training run about two weeks ago listening to their new album for the first time when I first heard it and it’s one of those incredible experiences when you first hear a song and it just stuns you. Previously I’d seen their video for Year’s Not Long, which I guess would probably be called gay-positive in the sense that it winds up with all the guys in the video making out with each other.  But Bones – *6 minutes* of pretty serious (if poppy) thrashing. There’s not a lot of complexity to these cats and you’ll probably immediately know you love them or they’ll bore you to tears.  I saw them play at Chop Suey as part of City Arts Fest and they were great, but it was a little strange to see a show so poorly attended (I’d say there were 50-100 people there and we basically all fit on the main floor).
  • Jay Reatard – died ahead of his time.  He looks and acts like a reject from the carny and the “pool-party-gone-wrong” theme of It Ain’t Gonna Save Me are an inspiring testament to someone I wish I’d gotten to see live.
  • Frank Turner – speaking of testaments – Eulogy is easily the most perfect <1 minute song I’ve ever heard (I was never a big D Boon fan). I saw him at Neumos and then, like in the linked clip, they led into “Try This at Home” which has some of the most perfect sing-along choruses I’ve heard in years. By the end of the show, he insisted on and succeeded in getting every member of the audience to sing along to Photosynthesis – and it was magic.
  • Carissa’s Wierd – It’s hard to know what to say about this band. Listen to Heather Rhodes and lines like “saw someone today who looked exactly like you – it’s funny how the years go by” or One Night Stand and “please don’t ask me what my thoughts are cause I don’t care about yours” and you’ll find tragic desperation that is just destined to be the soundtrack for sad memories and for the discount bins. Which is really unfortunate because they made incredible music and S still is.
  • Pajo – Keeping that thread going, David Pajo played guitar for Slint and apparently he’s still making music but as far as I can tell pretty much flying beneath the radar of everyone.  At least I just found a copy of “1968” used at Sonic Boom in Ballard and it had been getting marked down for the past 3 years.  When I listen to his cover of Where Eagles Dare or basically anything from 1968, I think “this must be what people got out of Elliot Smith.”
  • The Gglitch – this is hard to write about because this is the band that my excellent and incredibly talented cousin was in before he died of cancer. I just visited with his brother and he travelled a little this summer and was pursuing an excellent effort to try to get their last album into some public libraries. Anyway, my cousin’s keyboards on the lead track from their last album (which is Angeldust if you have Spotify) shows their amazing range. I don’t even know what style to call it, but I know that I love good, passionate music and that beyond missing my cousin – I believe this is it.
  • Jay-Z and Kanye – somewhere this post turned very melancholy and I want to turn it to an uplifting note and that comes from the Frank Ocean cut off Watch the Throne – Made in America. I could listen to the layers they put down on this over and over – and have. And I can do all that and look past the Big Ghost Chronicles review which trashes this track pretty hard because even Big Ghost has to eventually concede that “its still a pretty tight project son”

Give me some advice on what to listen to next!


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