Saturday, November 29, 2008
This Town Is Surely A Noble Place
Somehow I managed not to drive the 8 miles out of my way to visit this sacred site in the South Dakota prairie.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Mountain Lions Repopulating Their Old Range
This is from a century of recorded attacks, and as you can see, there's barely enough data to infer a trend. For what it's worth, it's rainy here in January and warm and dry in September. Yes, it's NorCal-centric, but that's where I'm most often trying not to get eaten by mountain lions.
I agree that mountain lions are beautiful animals - you'd have to be a fool not to see that the fearful symmetry of the great cats sets them at the pinnacle of predator evolution at this point in Earth's history. Their unwavering focus on predation extends from their nervous system and musculature straight down to their hemoglobin, specially engineered to allow quick-release bursts of oxygen for explosive speed and power (and in the kind of biochemical arms race we often see in evolution, ungulates have developed the same trick). But the cliches of savage nature's grace won't reassure you very much when you're going for a little walk with your four year old and you see one. It's odd to think that, like Africa, we still have enough powerful land predators to pose a threat to lone humans, and mountain lions are definitely around. I have seen two in a four year period, the first within 32 miles of the San Francisco city limits, the other within five miles. There have since been confirmed sightings even closer to the city than that, and five weeks ago I saw a classic track in mud on a trail in East Bay public watershed land within less than two miles of the Oakland city limits (not our photo - from sierraphotography.com):
Current estimates of the California population run from four to six thousand; presumably the density is similar throughout the West. If you spend any time in the great outdoors in this half of the country, even if you've never seen them, they've seen you. Of course, they typically would rather eat deer, but it's more than a little disturbing that the relatively small number of interactions is a result of their choice, not ours.
Unfortunately their decision process seems to be changing. Interactions are unquestionably on the upswing. For well over two centuries North America's mountain lions were on the run, hunted as dangerous vermin with the new weapons brought by European settlers on the East Coast; my home state of Pennsylvania is a microcosm in this regard. Still today mostly covered with temperate forests and tasty deer, Pennsylvania was apparently overrun with the things (hence Penn State's mascot) until pioneers like Daniel Boone began seriously hunting them out in the mid eighteenth century. Ironically enough, the last known kill in PA was in Boone's home county of Berks in 1874.
(As it turns out, mountain lions were already exterminated from North America once, by the first Native Americans across the land bridge, then recolonized the continent from South America. That is to say, the lions we now have haven't even been here as long as Native Americans. For more on the soap opera of mountain lion biohistory check out this seriously cool blog post.)
Today, like other East Coast residents, most Pennsylvanians are shocked to learn that there are even coyotes anywhere in their state, let alone that 150-lb. predators were once running around. It shouldn't be such a shock; they still have plenty of Appalachians and plenty of bears.
One of the main reasons that we twenty-first century citizens like going out into the wilderness is because we're inspired and humbled by a world which is, in its untamed-ness, at once beautiful and indifferent to us. You're reminded that the world exists independent of human inanity. But this experience is best appreciated by people who endure danger and physical discomfort only by choice, to inject a thrill into an otherwise very safe and even life (like the ones modern Americans have). When I'm out on those trails, it's to have fun. When Daniel Boone went out the door to hunt, he was protecting homesteads and earning a living. Even a twenty-first century trail addict like me gets spooked sometimes, and I have to admit that I enjoy running when I visit Pennsylvania because I can banish all thought of two yellow eyes coolly tracking me from twenty yards back in the brush. (Yes, I know the odds of getting hit by a car at a road crossing are worse, but it's psychology. Cars don't have sharp teeth. The same argument applies to tides vs. great whites in the channel between Alcatraz and San Francisco, and let's see you go swimming out there and not worry about them.)
The East Coast of North America does in fact still have mountain lions - in the Everglades, and in Quebec and New Brunswick. Of course the next question is, if they live in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, why wouldn't they also be in Upstate New York? Passport problems? In fact in several eastern states - Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Kentucky - there have been a slew of mountain lion sightings in the last decade. That said, people are excitable, and until you see a photo or an expert can inspect wounds from an alleged attack, you're better off believing the fish & game authorities.
Unfortunately fish & game authorities in some places have denied reality even where there was medical or photographic evidence. In Pennsylvania there is no such evidence, but the reports were enough to get the US Fish and Wildlife Service to open an official inquiry. This is more than can be said for the authorities in any number of states further west, where it seems only embarrassingly concrete evidence will force the local agencies to admit the presence of mountain lions. The Black Hills of South Dakota are openly acknowledged as mountain lion territory. Think that they won't re-cross the plains? Check out this camera-trap photo taken near Duluth, Minnesota in 2007. Since 2001 there have been attacks on humans in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. Lions have been killed (by guns and cars) in Iowa, and been seen repeatedly (and even attacked horses) in Michigan (take your pick on Youtube). And of course there was the "CNN" mountain lion, the one in suburban Chicago, which was related to the ones in the Black Hills. That lion crossed more than 900 miles. The confirmed lion population in Quebec is about 900 miles from Washington D.C. That horse attack in Michigan happened about 400 miles from central Pennsylvania.
The problem is not so much that the lions are recolonizing their old range, but rather that they're doing it in a place where citizens and authorities are in denial that they exist. (See this article by a former Fish and Game official in Arkansas.) What's more, in Daniel Boone's day, lions knew that when they saw humans, they either got shot at with an arrow, or they got shot at with a gun. Either way, they knew we were bad news. Today, their attitude is changing. When they do see humans, for the most part we're not hunting, and we really don't pose a threat. This is especially the case at urban-wildland interfaces - classic cases being Boulder, Los Angeles and Phoenix - where the lions are accustomed to the people who live there, but where the people who live there might not be aware of the lions.
I'm posting this not as an exhortation to charge into the wilderness with guns blazing, but as a call to awareness to avoid exactly that. A confirmed attack on a human in an area that didn't think it had mountain lions is one sure way to create a cougar lynch mob. Here in the Western states, we may not always agree on exactly how to use resources (especially water), but we're fortunate enough to have public lands management that's typically transparent and rational, and where there are mountain lions, there are signs saying so. In the Midwest, the mountain lion re-colonization is coupled with authorities who for whatever reason refuse to acknowledge the evidence, until there's a tragedy - and there already have been some.
I'm no wildlife expert, just a runner obsessed with mountain lions and wanting to make sure people know that there is another apex predator in North America besides us. If we all know they're there, then both species are less likely to get in trouble with the other, and less likely to react with a mob mentality that endangers wildlife when there's an encounter.
So what's the solution, besides awareness? I'm really not sure. The following story suggests one method: once I was near the Idaho-Oregon line, about to run down to the bottom of Hells Canyon. First I scrambled up to the fire look-out at the summit and chatted with the look-out guy. When I told him about my planned run, he asked "What are you carrying?" I said "Well, water, some Power Gel -" "No," he cut me off. "What are you carrying?" And then patted the 9mm on his belt that I hadn't noticed. He went on to tell me that several mornings before, when he got up at dawn, there was a mountain lion watching him through the glass walls from about 25 feet outside the look-out window, and he'd worn the weapon since then. For someone whose profession keeps him or her in the equivalent of mountain lion-Manhattan (and human-Idaho) for months on end, that's a legitimate option. For city-boy and -girl hikers, probably not so much.
Here's another one: in Denali National Park, when there is a grizzly-human interaction (even if one gets into your food when you're away from your tent), the National Park Service shoots the bears with rubber bullets, scares them with noises broadcast from helicopters, and generally makes the bear(s) in question associate human interactions with unpleasantness. The difference is that grizzlies are much more frequently seen in the open than mountain lions, so that deterrence programs can be more "personalized" to them. Maybe parks and open space authorities could put out deer meat once or twice a year that has some sort of human scent on it, but is loaded with some kind of emetic - not to kill the lion, just to make it sick. Lions that show interest in humans often seem to be young ones that don't know any better, and indeed it's been shown from spoor analysis that they do have a learning curve - for example, you're much less likely to find porcupine quills in the spoor of a lion older than two, because they finally get smart and realize porcupines are no fun to eat. That's why the young ones are good candidates for amygdalic programming this way.
In the meantime, remember: with all the trail users around the Bay Area, and all the lions that must surely have seen them, that there has never, ever been an attack. There have been lions that made the fatal mistake of meandering into cities (like Palo Alto), fatal because tranquilizer darts are only instantaneous in movies, and if the lion won't leave town on its own, you don't have much choice. It's worth pointing out that even during the in-town encounters they didn't bother anybody. And even though the chances of being attacked are remote, they are still not zero. Keep kids and small dogs near you in mountain lion areas; if you see one, look big, don't run, and fight back if attacked. And make sure you tell people as far east as Michigan that yes, they definitely do have mountain lions.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
How to Improve Your Workouts: Don't Stretch
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Twelve is One of the Connotative Meanings of Seven
Monday, November 3, 2008
Alameda County: Vote Yes on WW
Unfortunately a small but loud group of mountain bikers is opposing it. The main advocacy group for bikers in the East Bay (the BicycleTrails Council) is for measure WW, as is anybody else who enjoys the parks. But one group has essentially thrown a political temper tantrum because they don't think there are enough trails for bikes, and unfortunately they're organized, and they've had some press, and they're trying to stopthe park system from expanding and improving at all. And now they're within reach of stopping WW and limiting enjoyment of the parks for other mountain bikers and everyone else.
From the article: "'It's the most important park measure that's comebefore East Bay residents ever,' said Jim Townsend, Trails Development Program Manager for the district."
Vote YES on WW.
The Stupidest Marathon Ruling in the World
Art Devany Has No Clothes
Full disclosure: of course I am a distance runner, though I am not the Darth Vader distance freak that Devany assumes all distance runners must be. While I have run probably twenty marathons, I am certainly not a serious competitive marathoner, and I currently average 25-30 miles a week. This moderate program is not atypical even for repeat marathoners.
Devany frequently conflates claims that distance running is not the best workout for everything (which it's not) with claims that it actively hurts you; he has a clear and severe bias against running, to a point which makes me wonder if it's not associated with some tragedy in his life. Here are some major issues with Devany's claims:
I know a lot of other runners, and I don't know a single one who thinks it's a good idea to be like, or look like, the Paula Radcliffes and Alberto Salazars of the world; no one is surprised that the kind of training they put in hurts them. Similarly, a casual neighborhood softball league player doesn't get rotator cuff or knee injuries like many professional baseball players do (who overtrain), unless of course said casual player suddenly undertakes a major-league type training regimen (and bites off more than he can chew). Furthermore, there are many, many injuries that result directly from the type of training that Devany advocates. This is not an indictment of Devany; injuries can result from every type of training, Devany's included. I should add that after 17 years of distance running, the worst injury that has ever happened to me is a sprained ankle suffered when an air pocket blew out of a shoe.
In contrast, if a fifty year-old man hasn't trained adequately and keels over during his first marathon, he has no right to be surprised; just like I would be risking injury by jumping right into one of Devany's advanced upper-body regimens without building up to it. Extreme-anything hurts you, and under-training for any big athletic event hurts you. This should not be a revelation to anybody.
(2) Devany argues from an evolutionary standpoint, essentially boiling down to "when you behave in ways inconsistent with our hunter-gatherer heritage, you risk disease and injury". Evolutionary thinking is powerful, but it clearly does not support Devany's argument against distance running.
(Image credit to Alex Gregory and the New Yorker)
This idea is at base a good one and it's been around for awhile - in the 90s it was referred to as evolutionary medicine; it's also known in anthropology as the mismatch hypothesis, and in many cases it gives good results. Unfortunately, in Devany's case it falls apart on several levels. That is to say, the theory is falsified. To wit:
a) Hunter-gatherers frequently did go through periods of gorging themselves and starvation, forced on them by the whims of nature (otherwise how can you justify the fasting that is often part of Devanian regimens?) It therefore becomes difficult to argue that our ancestors would have adapted in such a way as to always require for optimum health a more discretely divided, continuous supply of good nutrition than most Americans now have. For example, the need to gorge occasionally is why we have a (now vestigial) appendix. Devany has claimed that eating a huge meal (like Thanksgiving) has a long-term negative impact on our metabolism. He either has to drop this claim, or get major points off the evolutionary basis of his theory (or just explain why something that happened to us constantly for hundreds of thousands of years would now start hurting us).
b) During a discussion on Devany's website about how distance-running was never seen among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, one contributor on his website (an anthropologist who had actually hunted with the classic hunter-gatherer Maasai) stated "I've actually hunted with the Maasai, and they run for hours after their prey," Devany's response was "No they don't. They stop and start." (I'm paraphrasing, but fairly.) So now we have Art Devany, Economist, and Fitness Guru, AND Maasai anthropology expert. Interestingly, his response is a classic economist position: either my theory is right, or my theory is right but your're giving me the wrong data.
c) One evolutionary theory for the growth of brain surface area during the evolution of hominids is that the brain grew to dissipate heat during running (the radiator hypothesis). This is evolutionary evidence that distance running is a part of our evolutionary heritage, not a perversion of it.
d) The Khoisan (less PC term, Bushmen) sometimes run for days to get to game herds whose dust plumes they see on the horizon. The Khoisan are studied by anthropologists precisely because they are thought to be the closest in lifestyle to our African hunter-gatherer ancestors. Again, it seems that distance running plays a part in our evolutionary heritage. And again refer to my comment about overtraining before: even the Khoisan don't engage in this behavior as much as Paula Radcliffe and Alberto Salazar.
e) There's also an Apache hunting technique of running down a deer for several hours until it's too tired to walk anymore. The technique works because deer (as animals) are not good distance runners, and we are. Again, the burden of argument is on Devany if he claims (as he must, to support an evolutionary basis for his theory) that the non-agricultural Athabaskan-speakers of the Four Corners area are atypical hunter-gatherers. Note that here I've pulled out three groups of people from two continents in only five bullet points, off the top of my head.
3) Many, if not most, cyclists and runners are cycling and running for different reasons that those for which Devany is exercising.
For many runners, it's a relaxation sport. For me, running is not "for" anything, except enjoyment for its own sake. It's my treat. It's like dessert to me. It makes me feel great, in a way I've never heard even one high-impact lifter say their workout made them feel. I don't have it on a to-do list, but rather I look forward to it all day. I would still do it even if I believed Devany's claims about its effects on my health, much like I know I shouldn't drink beer or go out in the sun without a hat. But both of those are fun too, and I enjoy running for its own sake.
And finally, I can't imagine how miserable it must be to equate your workouts with being indoors, and sitting on machines that have been sweated on for years, around other miserable people watching CNN on the screen in the corner, instead of in a gorgeous forest or meditating while you run through the mountains. Even Art said in one of his posts, "Run because you love it." Note that I'm not making an argument that running is a better training program than Devany's because I don't care. I would react the same way if you told me that I should stop drinking wine because it's not making my biceps bigger. It's just not relevant to my reason for drinking wine.
4) To put it bluntly: I don't know of any personal trainers who have offered me an analysis of the global credit market meltdown.
The truth or falsehood of Devany's assertions are ultimately independent of Devany's background - they're dependent on whether the data supports or falsifies them (and based on the counterexamples above, I think that's clear). Devany is an economist, not a physiologist. In fact he takes an Austrian school/libertarian viewpoint on economics that I happen to strongly agree with, largely because guys like Devany who know more than me about the subject often take that viewpoint and argue coherently, with data, in its favor. But in a nutshell, when a young specialist within a field of study contradicts received wisdom, s/he is often right; when someone from outside a field of study contradicts received wisdom, s/he is usually wrong.
A big red flag is that medically speaking, Devany's attempts at synthesis of already published exercise science results are highly selective and oversimplified to the point of being flat wrong. To wit:
a) He cites high CK levels in runners after marathons. The medical-jargon response to this is "Duh." CK is creatinine kinase, an enzyme fouund in muscle tissue. Finding it outside muscle cells (that is, circulating in your bloodstream) used to be regarded as evidence of a recent heart attack; now we look more specifically at the form of the protein that's found in the heart (CK-MB), but it's STILL not part of the differential diagnosis for cardiac trauma, that is to say, it's not meaningful enough that you include it as part of the observations required to conclude, "Yes, this person has had a heart attack." Know why it's so nonspecific? Your CK levels go up any time you do anything to exert yourself; the assay is just measuring damage to muscle fiber by looking in your bloodstream for an enzyme that normally exists only inside muscle cells (and therefore if you see it in the blood, all it means is that those muscle cells have been torn open). Guess what - after a lifting or tennis session, your CKs will be just as high. What's interesting is that the person who first explained this to me years ago was a cardiologist who was also a serious weightlifter, and he used the example of weightlifting as providing a false positive. And what's a little embarrassing about this is that it's common knowledge in sports medicine.
b) Devany likes to claim a link between running and brain cancers, and points out a high tumor marker rate in the blood of some marathon runners after a race. Here the mistake is cause-effect rather than specificity. Yes, the markers he cites are indeed used in cancer diagnosis, but in non-cancer settings they have no known link to cancer. That is to say, if you have cancer already, they're a good indicator of the severity of your disease; if you don't have cancer, there's no evidence that levels of these markers mean your cancer risk is higher. And these indicators are used for lots of other, non-cancer assays too. And even in cancer no one knows what most of them do (certainly not that they're causative or indicate some sort of pre-cancerous state). To illustrate by analogy: imagine a murder case that led to a conviction because the police officer on the scene found the still-warm gun in the suspect's car. Imagine the same officer later goes over to a friend's house and finds a still-warm gun in the shed, and accuses him of murder, regardless of the fact that the gun is sitting on top of a stack of used shooting-targets and (more importantly) no one has been found dead or turned up missing.
It's worth pointing out that pharmaceutical companies often use tricks like this when they have a drug with data that doesn't really bottom-line show that the drug does a good job of treating the disease. Their marketing people will draw your attention to some proxy indicator or pharmacokinetic endpoint and say, "You should buy our drug because it has the best concentration-over-time area-under-the-curve." Such claims are literally true and sound impressive, but it doesn't matter what else is going on as long as the competitor drug treats the disease better. You're interested in the outcome, not a proxy indicator that doesn't necessarily translate into outcome.
5) Heredity matters. A lot.
Devany jihadists often demand that I look at the results of his program. And indeed, Art Devany appears to be in good shape, especially for a man his age. Unfortunately for his theory and fortunately for him personally, he's probably just lucky (and the few such jihadists I know personally don't look as good). Many, many studies (here's one) have suggested strongly that genetics, not exercise and diet, is far and away the best predictor for obesity. We all know that there are people who stay lean throughout their lives, regardless of what they do, and Devany may well be one of those. Were other people in his family lean? I bet he had a good set of genes to start with. One of Devany's better-known advocates is Nicholas Nassim Taleb, who wrote Fooled by Randomness. It's an incredible book, and I would love to think more like Taleb; I would not love to look more like him. No, you can't count one guy as evidence against the theory, but you can't count evidence from one guy for it either.
Why did I write this article poo-pooing Devany's program? Because I've gotten tired of his disciples poo-pooing me for running. It's really getting very smug and even cultish; but in Devany's defense, the people I've encountered have been much more aggressive in their evangelism than he has been himself in interviews and on his blog. It really comes across as exactly that, evangelism, and it has almost religious overtones of "my way is the right way, and if you won't submit to the will of Devany the compassionate and merciful, you are morally inferior". So I'll say this: if people would rather do weights, squats, rapid-movement exercises in a gym, whatever, then that's fine. People exercise for different reasons. I know several people who do Crossfit training, and they don't enjoy it nearly to the degree that I enjoy running. Maybe they don't care; maybe that's not why they're in there, and that's fine too. I just ask that if you're part of this fitness subculture that you don't a) try to take away an enjoyable pastime from the rest of us who are actually happy with our exercise while we're doing it, b) try to generalize the health problems suffered by an over- and under-training minority to the activity as a whole, and c) dress up the theory in evolutionary and biomedical clothes that don't fit.
Good Performance in Golden Hills Marathon
As it turned out, Baldwin didn't make it to the start on time due to a series of hilarious (to everyone but Baldwin) mishaps, including accidentally running eleven miles from Castro Valley to Pleasanton. As a result he was a little tired at the starting line, where he arrived a full hour and five minutes late (he may post the full story at his blog). Despite this handicap, he says I would have beaten him soundly anyway, but I would rather have done it in a race that was more enjoyable for both of us. Even still, on the course I could only know that Baldwin must have started at least one minute behind me; assuming anything more would have been baseless speculation given the limited information I had. So in the last two miles where the trail around Lake Chabot sometimes offers good views of the trail behind, and the runners on it, every single runner for a full mile behind me started looking like an Asian guy with a crewcut. So the competition did help my time, even though it was imaginary!
I paced myself very well, and felt fantastic at the end, despite checking my voicemail after the finish to find a confusing 7:06am message saying that Baldwin was in Pleasanton. (Huh? Why would he be in Pleasanton? That can't be right.) Several other runners commented on my pacing, which isn't usually my strong suit, so here are my ruminations on why I turned in a strong performance.
1) I trained on the course, and only on the course. I think this was the single biggest factor; in a marathon with 5800' of elevation, you have to do this. That way I knew which hills would kill me in advance. Macdonald Trail, an extremely rude climb of 500 feet in a mile (at mile 18 no less) had done me in back in 2003. This year I passed at least a dozen people both going up and coming down and felt great when I topped out. A lot of it is psychological too. From the starting line to about the halfway point in Redwood Park, the race is going through my home territory - places where I never have to consult the maps. Once I get to the southeast part of Redwood I don't have all the trails memorized. Except this year I did, because the majority of my training was in the northern part of Lake Chabot.
2) I noticed about two weeks before the race that if I eat honey on bread in the morning then head out for an afternoon run, I don't get tired. In my few conversations about training regimens with other people, I don't know of anyone else who uses honey, but I do know there's a product from Japan that consists of weird sugars that wasps produce, and a few people I know swear by it. I had honey the morning of the race. (Update: thanks to Mike Palmer for engaging the ultra community in a discussion about everyone's routines with odd forms of complex carbohydrates.)
3) Two days before the race I hiked to the summit of Mt. Charleston near Las Vegas (11,918'; check out my summit log entry; photos came out pretty nice too.) I wondered if the altitude's effect on my RBC count would offset the tiredness of my legs. My legs weren't noticeably tired when I started the race.
4) While I was in Vegas I consumed a carne asada burrito which at the time of this writing is still playing games with my GI tract. I had to stop twice during the race as a result. The second time I stopped was around mile 15; when I sat down, I felt terrible. When I got up, I felt great, and I kept feeling great until the end of the race. Maybe it was taking a break and sitting for five minutes that did it; I hope so, because I'm not deliberately getting diarrhea any time soon to shave 2 minutes off my time.
5) Typically in marathons I take 2 x 200 mg ibuprofen and 2 x 200 mg caffeine at mile 12. (Doping scandal!) This time I waited until mile 14 for no good reason other than until then I was enjoying French Trail and started feeling bad on the descent into the canyon to get to Stream Trail. At the mile 20 aid station I still felt great and took 2 x 200 mg ibuprofen again. I'm putting this here in the interest of full disclosure, but then again, since I always do it, I'm not sure why it would have had a Popeye-eating-Spinach effect this time.
Once I was on the flat trail around Lake Chabot I was banging out at least 8 (if not 7!) minute miles to bring it in; I was actually a little annoyed at myself for having so much left. I also noticed at mile 19 (the descent on Macdonald Trail) my hands were tingling, which I only experienced once before, in the 2004 Ohlone 50k. Enkephalin release? In any event I'm not sure how to engineer this so it happens every time.
Most importantly, it was a fun day, the weather was perfect, the views were outstanding, the racers were all enjoying themselves (even the 50-milers - shout-out to Whitney, Mike, Jerry and Mark) and it was great to see everyone out there on the course. Thanks to the RD and volunteers who made it happen.