Does Doping Violate the Social Contract if All the Elites Do It?

I did something stupid and time-wasting last week: I argued with someone in the comments section of a blog I follow. We were debating libertarian philosophy, and it took me about three exchanges with him (I’m assuming him, but twits come in all shapes, sizes, and genders) for me to realize I was arguing with a child. The tipping point was a blanket statement by said twit that there can be no social contract between individuals because all such contracts are enforceable. He further stated that, Paul's social contract is NOT voluntary because it considers -existence- to be 'agreement'.

For a child, this is completely true. An adult recognizes that there are three options available to him. First, he may comply with all the tenets of the social contract like 'murder is bad and will be punished'. Second, he can leave. Third, he can accept that the social contract prescribes certain penalties for failure to comply to the contract and accept the consequences for consciously violating them.  In each case, the individual maintains his sovereignty, with the understanding that each decision carries with it concomitant consequences and responsibilities.

I got to thinking about this while I was out on the trails yesterday, specifically within the scope of doping in the running community. When you step to the line to race, you operate on the assumption that you are doing so in the fairest of environments. The rules are published and understood by all. We all face the same wind or rain or heat. The running surface is the same. The clock or the first chest to break the tape declares the winner. These are part of the social contract we hold with each other for races.

Doping shatters that shared covenant. Or does it?

The thought that crossed my mind yesterday dealt with the rampant cheating that occurred on the Tour de France (and is rumored still to be happening) as highlighted by Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race.

It was accepted practice inside the peloton that there were cheaters, even specific individuals that were expected to cheat at given points to help the team win. Based on the fallout from the scandals, every single team was involved.

So, was the social contract actually ruptured in this case? If all the competitors are engaged in the same behavior, who is harmed?

This becomes an important point in the running world as the Olympics approach. Kenya has been cleared by the IAAF to compete. The status of the Russians is less secure. Certainly, based on the reports we see in the news, I’d have to say not a single prominent Russian athlete is clean.

A plethora of articles in the last five years make the argument that we should just accept that the athletes are doping and legitimize performance-enhancing drug use.

Yascha Mounk, writing in the New York Times in 2012, suggested exactly that, writing, “The distinction we currently draw between which substances should be allowed, and which should be prohibited, ultimately says a lot about our own arbitrary assumptions – and precious little about anything else.”

Early in his article, he blurs the line between food and drink and drugs, treating them all as performance-enhancing. While good nutrition and hydration are necessary for proper athletic performance, they are just as valuable to the rest of us. Not so with the cocktails of PED’s some athletes are ingesting, inhaling, and shooting.

In his opinion, so-called dangerous drugs should be banned but relatively safe drugs such as EPO should be permitted. Since we haven’t been able to successfully moderate PED use now, I don’t see how his plan would be any sort of improvement if the goal is ‘clean’ athletes. He clearly has surrendered to the ‘everyone-does-it’ belief. He isn’t alone.

Runner’s World provided a more balanced approach in 2013. In Sports Medicine Experts Debate: Should Doping Be Allowed?, sport ethicist Julian Savulescu offers two interlocking rationales for allowing drugs. First, that detection of PED use is woefully inadequate. Second, that we are hard against the limits of human performance so cheating is inevitable in pursuit of new records. He wrote a longer piece, again at the NYT, that also pointed out that cheaters have an advantage over clean athletes—the obvious solution in his mind seems to be to encourage those clean athletes to dope.

Interestingly enough, he starts the NYT article with a statement that “We should allow drugs in competitive sports for three reasons. First, the ban is ruining the mood and spirit of the game. It’s hard to enjoy any sports narrative if we don’t know who is clean and who isn’t.” It is a paradoxical concept, one that I think undermines his premise. Of course we want to cheer for clean athletes. We do so because at a fundamental level we want to “Be like Mike.” Hero worship is ingrained in our DNA and has inspired generations to strive and succeed. PED’s tarnish the image, leaving it with a scummy film that we all can see.

The other side of the debate leans less on the practicalities of testing and PED use and more on the dangers and moral implications of such use.

The dangers are well known. Multiple studies demonstrate that steroid use causes cancer, heart attacks, and liver disease. The best known of these is testosterone, one of the controversial steroids at the master’s level where aging athletes get treated for low-T.  Even EPO, considered reasonably benign, is estimated to have caused twenty deaths in cycling.

The trade for improved performance pits the risk-taking strategy of winning now with drugs against the principle of personal performance, integrity, and good health. The master’s runner who compensates for a lack of testosterone with pills or one who ups his oxygen uptake with EPO may win the race but denies a level playing field to a competitor who might have more natural talent and has trained better. Athletic performance is not entirely, or even mostly, about winning. It is about competing, within the rules, and striving for excellence. As Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, said, "The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Elite athletes should not be able to endanger other runners, either, by competing in a fraudulent manner, yet they do. Coubertin’s sentiment has been abandoned with a win-at-all-costs mentality. In the case of Russia, they do so with state sanction, making a mockery of the Olympic ideal.

Galen Rupp was not an aging athlete when reports surfaced (via Steve Magness) that he may have been taking substances to boost his testosterone at age 16, which, if true, would have been quite unusual. Rupp and his coach, Alberto Salazar, deny that he took a banned substance but questions remain, not just of Rupp but the entire Nike Oregon Project.

This is where the social contract shows its frayed edges. It is one thing to propose, as Savulescu and Mounk do, that athletes be allowed to openly choose to use PEDs. We presume that these athletes are adults, capable of making informed decisions. We treat them the same way we treat boxers who think having their brains battered is sensible. (Boxing, by the way, has its own rules and problems with drug use.) We might consider altering our rules to permit PEDs and thus adjusting the social contract.

Children, however, cannot legally consent to use drugs. Parents and guardians are responsible to provide the consent. As a society we have a social contract that provides for care of children. We mandate that the children receive basic education, get proper nutrition, that they have shelter. Are we perfect in accomplishing these? No. Our efforts fall short of our ideals. They always will.

Altering the social contract on PEDs requires we alter the contract for our children, too. We cannot espouse an ideal, striving for excellence, and simultaneously advocate for legalized cheating. When excellence is redefined as having superior dope, we devalue the components of human effort and heart. Changing the contract within the narrow confines of the sport conflicts with the greater contract we hold as a society.

The overarching social contract encompasses the entirety of our society, not just the elite running community. I asked a question above, If all the competitors are engaged in the same behavior, who is harmed? The answer is the next generation and those who place long-term health over short-term glory, sportsmanship over placement. In other words, nearly everyone but the doped elite athlete or the doped master’s race winner at the local 5K.

The PED-using athletes set a terrible example for the sport and to our young. In the last year, four high school runners— Maton, Fisher, Hunter, and Slagowski—have broken the four-minute barrier for the mile, nearly doubling the total. This worries me.

Audiobook Reviewer on Finishing Kick!

AudioBook Reviewer, run by Paul Stokes, took a listen to Finishing Kick and posted their opinion at the site, AudiobookReviewer.

They said some nice things about the story and my writing - always one of those 'hold-your-breath' moments as you just never know how a book will hit someone. They also said very nice things about the narrator, Annette Romano, who did such a fabulous job.

There is also a giveaway, so if you want the audio version of the book, head over and enter. Also, I don't ask often, but would you please, please, please share the giveaway info with your friends? Share this out on Facebook or Twitter. Annette and I would be very grateful.

Longer, more nerdy blog post coming, hopefully later today.

The Running Boom is Dead! Long Live the Running Boom!

The Wall Street Journal, in a fit of hyperbolic excess, has decreed the running boom dead—and painted millennials as the killers.

One tiny problem. It’s not dead.

Let’s deconstruct the WSJ and see where they go wrong.

“After two decades of furious growth in footrace participants, the number of finishers dropped 9% in 2015, according to industry-funded research group Running USA.”

The first bit of evidence that Rachel Bachman, the author of the article, offers immediately seeks to conflate running with racing. I don’t doubt that the total number of finishers dropped substantially. Have you checked out the entry fees lately? You would think that the basic law of economics would be applied to everything produced at the WSJ, but they apparently did not bother to do so in the case of race entry fees.

As the fees become increasingly expensive, the participation rate is going to drop. When I signed up for my first marathon, the fee was about $50. That same marathon now charges $145 for the same race, an almost three-fold increase in a seventeen year period. The 5K, held on the same day, is $45, nearly as much as my first marathon. No wonder finishers are down. They aren’t entering in the first place because the races are much too expensive.

Bachman addresses the racing versus running argument in her next paragraph:

“A sport traditionally dominated by young adults, running is losing its hold on 18- to 34-year-olds. Millennials, in their late teens to mid-30s, recently passed baby boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. In footraces and other running events, however, their presence is shrinking, to 33% of finishers in 2015 from 35% a year earlier.”

This is just laziness on Bachman’s part. The two top participation groups are 25-34 year-olds and 35-44 year-olds. The former account for 25 percent of racers. The latter is actually bigger at 26 percent. The group that lags? The 18-24 year-olds at 8 percent. Where did the push that overtook boomers come from? Yep, the newly minted adults. (Stats from RunningUSA)

The fact is that from age 18 to 34, people are at one of the most active periods of their lives. They are going to college, starting first jobs, forming families. I have daughters in this age cohort. They would like to run, but they are moms with young children. One, with a daughter, works full time and goes to school, the other is working on a degree in electrical engineering and has two children. As anyone with kids recognizes, getting out the door is an ordeal. We won’t even bring up sleep deprivation, when new parents celebrate four consecutive hours of sleep as a Hallelujah moment.

Their children will get older, they’ll graduate with degrees, and I am quite sure that both will return to regular running. Of course, they might be in the 35-44 cohort by then, though I suspect they’ll find a way to get there sooner.

By the way, the third largest participation group is the 45-54 year olds at 19 percent, which lends credence to the influence of life events on running.

Bachman then presents stats from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association showing a shocking decline in running.

But the larger pool of noncompetitive runners also is shrinking—especially among millennials, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Overall, the number of adults who run 50 times a year or more declined 11% from 2013 to 2015.

In the same span, the total number of frequent runners ages 25-34 dropped 19%. Runners ages 18-24 dropped 22%. That translates into about 2.5 million fewer young people who run consistently.”

The SFIA information built from polling does not include critical data such as confidence levels, margins of error, and response rate. Given the rate of decline in racing is less while having a solid economic argument for the decline calls this number into question. I’d dig into the report that SFIA wrote but the price tag is a little spendy for a modest blogger.

I’d also like to address response rate for just a moment. Pollsters in nearly every field are having a notoriously hard time getting accurate samples and the response rates have tumbled to somewhere south of ten percent. And this is relatively old data on polling. The newer numbers are likely much, much worse.

Moving on . . .

Millennials aren’t sedentary. Rather, they’re fueling the proliferation of studios that specialize in everything from cycling, CrossFit and boxing to ballet barre workouts, boot camp and weight training. Their hunger for variety is reflected in the success of ClassPass, which offers entry to a range of fitness classes in 31 U.S. cities for a monthly fee. The service has booked 18 million reservations in less than three years, most of them for people in their 20s, a spokeswoman said.

More silliness. Take the 18 million figure. Divide by three. Divide again by the ‘consistent runner’ number of 50 above. That leave a total of 60,000 people – of all age groups, not just millennials, a virtual drop in the bucket. Still, I would love to see the demographic breakdown for the membership. I suspect that it not support the argument that the millennials are driving growth. The fees for ClassPass, while reasonable, price it out of reach of the majority of that age group. I have a request for information from ClassPass. I’ll update here if and when they get back to me. The fee issue applies to Crossfit studios and the like, too.

Novelties also have a big initial push (see Color and Mud Runs) with declining participation later. This applies to the night-time glow-in-the-dark yoga events mentioned in the article. Not a surprise that the same company that developed the Color runs designed Soul Pose. Bigsley Event House is not a running sponsor; they’re a purveyor of novelty events.

That younger people are experimenting with different workouts and sports and yes, novelty events, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Personally, I’ve tried running (racing, road running, ultra-running, trail-running), martial arts, weight training, cycling, racquetball, basketball, hiking, and more. Just because they try other things doesn’t mean that they won’t be back later.

We’ll finish with a quote from the article by Rich Harshbarger.

“Once these millennials start their families and hit their professional stride in terms of earning potential, they’re going to come back to this sport.”

In the meantime, let’s stop blaming millennials for something they didn’t do and hasn’t happened. The running boom lives.

Sometimes you gotta get a little dirty

My shins look like midgets took razors to them, but I cian't blame anyone but myself for the twenty or thirty cuts.

The first batch I self-inflicted while gardening. Over the weekend, I built two new garden boxes. Into these I planted onions, five kinds of peppers, and tomatoes. These join the kohlrabi, broccoli, potatoes, garlic, leeks, lettuce, and shallots already growing in the other boxes. Also, bending to the inevitable, I put some flowers, primrose and pansies, into the small box by the sidewalk.

I had company while I worked at filling the new boxes with fresh soil. Miss Jane, a doe that first came to visit last year during the fires and drought, apparently has decided to make herself at home in downtown Asotin. She ate the new leaves off the Brady's apple tree a dozen feet away while I put the tomatoes in and I'm pretty sure the look on her face could be interpreted as "Are they ready yet?"

Short answer for Miss Jane, "No."

Longer answer - I need to build a fence.

None of that left me scarred. Dirty, yes, because I derive a great deal of pleasure in working with the soil. The slashes on the shins came from tackling overgrown roses. The roses need to go to make room for other plants.

Roses don't like to be messed with. They bit right through the pants I wore, stabbed through gloves, and were generally a pain to remove, but I'm stubborn and don't mind a little bleeding for a good cause. The roses and the baby walnut tree are kaput, ready to go to the recycling facility.

So to are the raspberry canes. I thinned those while I was in a blood-letting mood, removing most of the dead canes to give the new ones room to fill the void. Last year, we got quarts and quarts of raspberries, with the grandkids helping harvest. It will be more gentle on little hands with the bed opened up a bit. Meanwhile, I added innumerable tiny scratches to my forearms to the ones on my shins.

Then, yesterday, I decided - which might be the wrong word as it implies thought when what I felt was need - to go trail running instead of attending a track meet.

Every once in a while, with a force as strong as an addictive compulsion, I have to get onto trails, to feel earth and rock and leaves under foot, the slap of wet brush against my skin as I head into the woods to visit the wild. Yesterday that hit and hard. I had plenty of daylight and good running weather with cool temps, clouds, and a spritz of rain. I drove up to the North Asotin Creek trailhead, changed into run gear, and gave myself permission to play.

This early in the season the trails around here tend to be a bit overgrown. Well used ones will naturally define themselves with the increased people traffic clearing the path and edges. I tend to avoid the well-travelled paths, so I get the trail grabbing and stabbing as I pass. Sometimes I abandon the trail for a bushwhack if I see an interesting feature I can't get to otherwise. Invariably, my shins and thighs take a beating though I don't notice until I get back to the parking lot.

At least one scratch came after I elevated to avoid stepping on a garter snake. In his defense, he was hustling out of the way, too. A pretty slitherer, the snake fled but not before I dodged into a dead shrub. No harm, no foul. As the Black Knight would say, it's just a flesh wound.

The wild turkey pecked around for fodder at the end of the canyon where the basalt formations back off the creek. This is where I've encountered bears and bear cubs, elk, deer and, high on the bluffs, big horn sheep. The turkey ran at speed when I got close.

The sun made an unexpected appearance after I hit the turnaround. With no one to laugh except the animals, I ditched the shirt and let the heat baked into my back as I careened my way back. I ended up running much faster than I intended - or than I thought I could. The return trip was nine minutes faster than the outbound leg, nearly two minutes a mile faster. Most of that was in the final two miles.

The goal for the day was to stay steady, but the feel of rocky soil interspersed with pine needles and the warmth on my skin lent a sensation of pure pleasure. Since I don't train any more, I surrendered to the trail and let my stride open up.

By the time I got back to my car, I had burned that 'need' feeling out, replacing it with peace. I don't get to this point often enough. As Emerson wrote, Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air. I highly recommend it.

You don't need to run, either. Walking will do it to.

For those looking for a good book to get introduced to trail running, take a look at Lisa Jhung's book TRAILHEAD. Alternately informing and funny, she's written a wonderful book for newbies and gristled veterans alike. Hjung delves into mud and snow and how to make cleats for handling ice, the different types of trails, gear, food, first aid, animal encounters (those two chapters are next to each other), and trail etiquette. It's easily the most comprehensive yet accessible book I've read on trailrunning.

Better yet from my perspective, she counts anyone who shuffles faster than a walk along a piece of dirt as part of the club. Worth checking out.

If you're into gardening, my favorite book, written by an aerospace engineer is New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. It's designed for those of us that love fresh produce, enjoy playing in earthy soil, and are inherently lazy. I plant stuff. I don't weed. Then I harvest by the bushel. Unless Miss Jane beats me to it.

Need to figure out how to fence the garden without making it look like Stalag Thirteen.

Posting at InlandXC

Track season has started and I finally got to a meet. The write-up is over at InlandXC. I had decided that the work involved in the write-ups was a little too time consuming, so I discontinued the site.

Then, at the State Cross Country meet, I had some Pullman parents tell me how much they missed the articles.

So, the write-ups are back. Each one takes about two hours to put together, not counting the time at the meets. Blogging may pick up, now that I have something I feel like writing about.

For those looking for a fun documentary on running, check out The Barkley Marathons. You can watch it on a range of streaming options, including Netflix and Amazon. Pretty amazing race. It's a bucket list item for the masochist at heart.

120,000 of elevation change over the race, mostly as a bushwhack.

Sounds fun.

A nagging feeling . . .

Trips to Kenya should come with a warning label. “Caution: individuals traveling to Kenya may experience unexplained disorientation and confusion on returning to their homes. Inattention may lead to hazardous driving, long silences, and immoderate consumption of alcoholic beverages. Individuals having experienced in small measure life in the Third World may also note a lack of patience with the trivial problems peculiar to the First World.

I've been idling along since I got back from Kenya, going to work a lot, doing a (very) little bit of writing, and occasionally going for a run. Writing has suffered from a rather confused idea of what to do next, having finished one book and having a dozen waiting in the wings.

I started the novel about Grace, the main character in my future novel about Kenya. Started and ground to a halt over a bit of conversation. Meanwhile, the characters from the last book chattered away inside my head and the opening scene of the sequel popped. Eventually those voices overwhelmed Grace which means that her novel gets put on hold until I finish the series.

Or maybe not.

I'm toying with the idea of writing both at the same time. This morning, I happily spent an hour mapping the general outlines of the sequel. I have two possible endings for it, one pretty standard, the other a bit off the wall that I really need to understand before I try it. Tomorrow I'll try mapping Grace's story and see what happens.

To do both, I'm going to need to make a few choices. The biggest will be to deliberately forego income which is darn near Un-American. To make it happen, I'll need to focus on working with people that I like or on projects that I think are interesting. Those should generate enough to pay bills while I write, read, and run more. The second change is a deliberate effort to spend time in activities that are rewarding emotionally. That's more time with family, friends, and outdoors, less with bores, natterers, and nincompoops.

Life choice decisions like this aren't possible for the vast majority of Kenyans. For the small middle class, work is six days a week, a far cry from the American ideal 40 hour work week or the European 30 hours. For the rural areas, work is a seven day a week activity for everyone. When they aren't at their jobs, picking tea for example, they're working the family garden plot or tending to the cows. Cooking is still done over a fire for many women, laundry done by hand in a bucket.

We – you, me - live fundamentally comfortable First World lives which we are disinclined to disturb. That we can blame on evolution, which has hardwired us to be risk-adverse. As a survival strategy, it is highly effective. Surviving, though, doesn't translate to living fully, to rising up to meet our higher aspirations. For that, we need to take chances. More accurately, I need to take some chances.

It might work as well as the first, and last, man who thought domesticating a lion would work. If so, consider it an object lesson on what not to do.

Until I try, I won't know and that not-knowing will nag at me.

Volunteering at the Snake River Half Marathon

The Palouse Road Runners held their annual Snake River Half Marathon yesterday. Weather for the race was an unseasonable comfortable 50 degrees with light winds, a welcome difference from the year that we cracked ice off the water jugs to fill cups. The Asotin High School runners crewed the turnaround aid station, also an annual event.

As every race director will attest, finding enough volunteers for a running event is like panning for gold, slow and tedious. Nominally speaking, the Asotin team gets paid for their efforts, the funds going into the cross country program, but Coach Tim Gundy is a fan of supporting runners, in all venues, so the bigger payoff for the team is the opportunity to volunteer.

This year, we only had three kids that have helped before, so we conducted an impromptu training session on how to hand out cups. Sounds simple, hand the runners cups, but the fact that said runners are in motion makes it like passing a liquid-filled baton on the track. They played, taking turns at both roles. Surprisingly little water hit the ground.

The race started at ten and, at 10:33, Jimmy Oribo went by, looking very strong. He was the men's winner in 1:09. Just behind him came the rest of the leaders and then, we got busy. The turnaround aid station sits at the six mile mark and gets hit twice as the runners grab a cup on each side. It's the most intense of the three aid stations.

It took a while for the kids to figure out that it's okay to shout encouragement to the athletes - they might have been the quietest group we've had there - but they got the hang of it pretty quickly, with their indefatigable coach leading the way. 

Since my self-imposed job is to keep the cups full and in plentiful supply, I couldn't take pictures. As it turns out, Miss. Taylor, one of Gundy's runners, is pretty darned good with a camera. In addition to handing our water, she took a bunch of terrific pictures.

The first female came through at 10:41 by my watch, and seemed very comfortable. As it usually the case, there were more women runners than men. A lot of writing has been expended in various running magazines trying explain why that should be the case. I'm not sure anyone has the answer. Me, I'll celebrate the folks that got off the couch to run.

The main pack kept us jumping but, having done this a time or two, we had our systems set up and handled it. We brought extra tables and water jugs and set up the station on both sides of the road. That saved a lot of effort crossing the road to serve the return group of runners.

The sports drink was Heed, a point that the runners made to the kids when the latter called it Gatorade. I suspect that the PRR will get a request to change to a more palatable drink next year as it didn't seem to be a big hit with the runners. Having used the stuff myself, I can sympathize. Good product, but the flavor . . . . well, let's just move along.

The long tail of the race arrived and the work tempo dropped off. The folks at the back of the pack are almost universally grateful. We told the kids up front that they might find a cranky runner or two - it happens - but that most of the people would thank them for being there. I'm not sure the first-time kids believed it. By the end of the race, they knew it. The quiet kids were laughing and cheering and enjoying themselves, feeding off the energy of the runners.

The Awesome Crew at the Turnaround Aid Station, Snake River Half Marathon 2016

DSC_0186.JPG

Epiphanies at 63 Miles per Hour

The Great Courses are now on Audible. Actually, I think they've been there for a while, but it took me some time to recognize it as I am a sporadic audiobook listener. The problem isn't with the medium - the quality is great. It's me - my mind drifts when an interesting concept comes up. Also, driving time, especially with music leads to pretty vivid daydreaming, a major source of story ideas.

I gave my brain a vacation from creating last Friday and listened to Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques. The discussion turned to the differences between flat and round characters, as first proposed by E. M. Forster. You're right, it's nerdy inside-writing stuff. Except, I thought it was interesting, with a dozen different lessons embedded into the concept. I turned off the audio so I could think while I drove and spent the next fifteen miles, rolling over implications, though not other motorists, pedestrians, or squirrels. With my brain, I get plenty of practice at driving, quite successfully, while distracted.

So, there I was, bubbling over with ideas, alone on the road. When my daughter or her future husband worked with me, I had some one to lob ideas at, to get reactions, objections, a sounding board to riff off. (My daughter hated the fact I would constantly stop the book to talk it over. Her brain works . . . differently.)

Friday I had no one, just the inside of my own head. Most of the time, that's plenty good enough. At the top of the Lewiston grade, with home nearly in sight, I came to what, for me, is a startling conclusion.

I needed a group to work with, study with. A writer's group.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you say, people are social creatures, everybody needs their own gang.

Not me, not exactly. My gang is family and a couple of close friends, but most of my activities are solitary. I work alone, run alone, write alone, read/learn alone, so when I decide I need to join a group, it is atypical behavior.

Having reached the conclusion that I needed like-minded people around, I went looking for writing groups. The internet possesses a metric buttload (I'm using European measurements today) of information on writing groups. Most of them are established, some online, many in person. I checked for the Lewiston area. Right town, wrong state though, as they met in New York. A bit far, plus one other big problem.

They critique each other.

As a matter of fact, every group I found critiqued. Some set up rules on doing it nicely, some seem to be a bit more Genghis Kahn in their attitudes. They also had rules on what to do with people who didn't get any writing done - boot them from the group, set them up on a 12-step writing programs, verbally flail them at the next meeting.

Oh, and they focus on craft, too. Many online groups focus the how-to bits of writing. The majority preach the same hoary aphorisms. Occasionally, you'll find a James Scott Bell or Orson Scott Card (must be something about that middle name) who explain in more depth, but that doesn't seem to trickle down to the local level. I see an awful lot to thou shalt not's offered as precepts rather than guidelines. 

What I didn't see was a group that looked at the why, that was devoted to studying writing by looking at the underpinnings of art, not from the viewpoint of pure craft but a more philosophical level before applying it to the actual work. Techniques are very nice, but understanding why the techniques work as they do strikes me as much more interesting. Going back to Forster, the concept of flat and round for characters is not fully developed as (per the professor) Forster never had a working definition of a round character. Likewise, the adages "show, don't tell" or "never use an adverb" which are used to beat new writers into compliance with their elder's or editor's diktats begs investigation at a deep level. Fiction writing is, after all, also called storyTELLING and, last I looked, adverbs were still parts of speech in the English language, suggesting some degree of utility.

The second problem with a critique group is that I don't play nicely with others. If you have a critique, it better be based on something more than "I would have done it like . . ." In my experience, that's the way most critiques play out, even if they choose their words differently. Worse are the fools who believe that there are infallible rules to writing, the precepts I mentioned above. With one exception, there are no absolute rules though you better be darned sure of your skill if you violate normal tenets of writing craft, and know exactly what effect you seek in doing so.

So, not seeing the types of groups I wanted to hang out with, I'm going to have to start my own. Since it will be different from the others, I'll have to spend some brain power on figuring out exactly how it should run, how often it should meet, how many people should belong, etc.

That parts easy. Finding the like-minded people? That might be a little tougher. 

Best get started, hey.

PS. The one rule that really is inviolate? Don't bore the reader. Ever.

How Can You Tell The Governing Bodies of Track Are STILL Corrupt?

Justin Lagat linked over to an article at the Guardian yesterday that had a line in it that simply astonished me. We'll get to that in just a second. First, here's the whole article. Wada warns Kenya to comply with its anti-doping rules or risk Olympics ban

It's pretty clear that the WADA has decided to target Kenya. Justin is pretty adamant that the Kenyan athletes are clean - and superior. Me, I agree with the latter. I do think they are superior runners, for a host of physiological and economic reasons. I also think that Kenyans are still people, and people come in all flavors. Some wouldn't cheat ever. They're the 'Goody Two-Shoes' of the world. I, quite fortunately, married one of these people.

Some people, though, will cheat despite the risk and even knowing that they absolutely will get caught. Their lives are usually a rolling disaster and everyone near them recognizes it.

Most of us are in the middle. Given incentive enough, we might 'bend' a rule if we think no one is looking. I see no reason why the Kenyan population would be different in this regard to any other on the planet so on the matter of Kenyans doping, I come down on the side of - Some are. Most probably aren't, the same as elsewhere not named Russia.

To the Kenyan athlete's credit, they have been at the forefront of the battle to get the country's programs in compliance with WADA and trying to drive out the corruption they see. In November, they briefly took over the offices of Athletics Kenya to deliver a message. Thus far, it hasn't been heeded, but there are good people in the fight. They'll keep pushing.

And that's where the governing bodies proved that they have not reformed yet. WADA is deadly serious about cleaning up Keyna, enough so that some European and American athletes have high-tailed it to Ethiopia. Yes, I'm casting aspersions. No, I don't trust the management of the runners or of the governing bodies.

The article states unequivocally that Kenya must have a testing program in place no later than early April or face having athletes banned from Olympic competition. Now part of this is posturing on the part of WADA. Per the article, no national body has ever been banned from the Olympics for not having an anti-doping program. IOC (International Olympic Committee) is the organization that has control of the participants.

Buried deep in the article is this admission: "It is up to the IOC to rule on any Olympic suspension. In November the IAAF banned Russia from international competition following the scandal of state-sponsored doping, but they are expected to be made eligible for a return before the Games in Brazil."

I'm tempted to curse, but this is a PG-rated site. The Russian ban amounts to losing the indoor season. Meanwhile, their athletes are continuing to gear up for the quadrennial event that dominates the sports world and won't be subject to in-competition testing. Out of competition testing isn't even happening - per the WADA press release of January 20th, 2016, "During this period of non-compliance, RUSADA is unable to conduct anti-doping activities." Even if they were, though, out-of-comp tests are a joke, as exposed by Tyler Hamilton in his book, The Secret Race.

Russia shouldn't be allowed to enter a team in international competition for at least four years. That is the penalty assigned to an individual knowingly using banned substances. The Russian Federation engaged in systemic cheating, allegedly bribed IAAF officials, and have done the absolute minimum to avoid further sanctions. To permit them to enter the competition makes a mockery of the efforts of every clean athlete on the planet, so naturally that's what the IOC will do, with the silent acceptance of the IAAF.

In the meantime, Kenyans may forced to stay home? Really? We're cutting some slack to known cheats and criminals but penalizing a great number of innocent Kenyans?

And what about all the European and North American athletes that are training in Kenya right now? Are they subject to the same proposed ban? If not, why not, since they are training right along side the Kenyan athletes in Iten. If we're to be suspicious of one, we should be of all. That won't happen, of course. There's too much money involved.

When I read articles like this one, I'm reminded of a piece written over on VeloNews, Seven Things Track and Field Can Learn From Cycling.

Regretably, T&F is proving to be a slow learner. With the scandals associated with doping, state-sponsored doping, bribery, the no-bid contract for the Worlds in Eugene in 2021, the reports of Nike bribing people, it is amazing that the hammer is poised be dropped on Kenya while the Russians might skate.

The easy answer - that WADA wants to clean up the sport - gets negated by the fact that WADA ignored Russian whistleblowers until the 2014 documentary forced its hand. The IAAF and IOC have demonstrated their fecklessness, but all three need to prove that they possess the integrity to continue to lead.

How better to demonstrate that integrity by clobbering a relatively small and poor nation who's athletes dominate the long distance field, while letting in the known drug cheats, the Russians, and the white folks that trained right beside the Kenyans.

Color me skeptical. Probably cynical, too. I hope the Kenyans get their program built, test clean as a whistle, and embarrass the powers-that-be with a terrific performance on the world stage. 

Audiobook Giveaway!

Giveaway time! I have one copy of the audiobook version of Finishing Kick  If you’re not familiar with this Running Times recognized novel, go check out the reviews at Amazon (I don't beg for reviews so these are from real people/verified purchases). 

To enter the giveaway for the audiobook, simply send an email with subject line “Finishing Kick” to thatguy AT paulduffau DOT com with your full name and email address.

One entry per person per option please: multiple entries for the same prize will result in immediate disqualification. However, please feel free to tell your friends, and following/liking me on the Twitter and/on Facebook is always appreciated, should you feel so inclined! 

I don't know if Audible is available for my Kenyan friends. If you enter, we'll find out. If not, I'll try to find a way to make it up to you. (Maybe mailing a signed paper copy of the book?)

The drawing will be on 2/13/2016 at noon. The winner will be notified by email.

Home Again

I'm finally getting over trivial things like jet lag and a touch of a stomach bug that waylaid me the last week I was in Iten, so life is returning to Paul-normal, which is not necessarily what most people count as normal. As my sweetie puts it, the closest we get to normal around here is the setting on the dryer.

One advantage of getting caught up on sleep is being able to start putting my whole Kenya experience into perspective. At least for me, that wasn't something that I could do while I was there. I was so busy trying to learn so much that the mental energy required to sort the ideas and experiences and sensations exceeded my capacity then. 

Now, though, I have that chance.

The biggest surprise to me was that I didn't particularly like Iten. That likely counts as heresy to the running community which considers the town to be the 'runner's Mecca.' Typing 'Iten', 'running', and 'Mecca' into google or bing with bring you a slew of results like this, or this, or this. Yet, the truth is that while runners come here to train, especially North American and European runners, the great Kenyan come overwhelmingly from Nandi County and many of them train in places like Kaspabet, Eldoret, and (for marathoners) Kapng'etuny. Iten has a different flavor than the other Kenyan towns I visited and I have to assume it's because there are so many (relatively speaking) white people there.

It was not evident at the cottage that I stayed - Felix and his wife Lucy were wonderful. When I had a day where I didn't venture out, focusing on writing, Felix made it a point to check in with me and make sure I was okay. The difference was out on the roads. I got used to the children's cries of "Mzungu!" (white man!) early in my adventure. In Iten, though, the next two phrases, almost as regular as the sunset, were "How are you?" and "Give me money?" In the three weeks prior to getting to Iten, the demand for money happened exactly twice, both times from drunk men. It disconcerting, made more so when an eleven or twelve year old girl followed up with "Give me sweets?" Coming from an American background, offering little girls sweets is the sort of behaviour that triggers a response from the parents and police.

Still, the running was good when it wasn't raining - I seemed to have brought the wet stuff with me even though it was technically the dry season. The people in town had a little trouble grasping the fact that I wasn't there to train or to paraglide, the other big tourist draw for a town sitting on a 5,000 foot escarpment, but were generally really nice as befits a former sleepy farming town.

Eldoret, in contrast, bustles. It's a manufacturing center with grain processing plants, major textile mills, and a pipeline manufacturer. It also has the second oldest university in Kenya, Moi University. It's a blue-collar city and the fastest growing in Kenya. I ran nearly every day there, and walked every evening. For the most part, the people of Eldoret gave me a nod, said "hello" or some variant, and we went our separate ways. 

Of the two, I preferred Eldoret, though I would take either over Nairobi.

The other realization, now that I'm home, is how much I appreciated the company of Justin Lagat and Winny, his wife. Their kindness and trust exemplified the best of the Kenyans. Few people would allow nearly a total stranger to stay in their home for two weeks, much less take him to the homes that they grew up in and take him to visit the people important in their lives. Justin and Winny did that.

Justin understood my goal is to eventually write a book, an honest one, about a Kenyan girl who wants desperately to go to school, and helped me find the experiences and details that would make the book authentic. More though, I got to see how the Kenyan families interact. Even when I asked awkward questions, Justin and Winny answered with grace.

When I decided to truncate the trip due to things breaking at home (literally, in the case of the main sewer line), Justin was the second person I told, my wife being forever first. He was upset, and worried that he had somehow disappointed me. He couldn't have been more incorrect. He and his family were easily the best part of my trip.

Now I'll start figuring out when I can go back. It won't be for research this time, or to see baboons and elephants, or the stark rise of the Rift escarpment, or even a random dozen world recordholders.

Friends are all the reason you need for some things.

Clear the Course!

On Saturday, Justin and I headed to Eldama Ravine town where one of the regional cross country meets was being held for juniors (under 18) and seniors (over 18). The town is 100 kilometers- about a two hour drive - from Eldoret and we watched the dawning of the sun on the trip. The GPS had a ridiculous notion that maintaining a steady speed of 80 kilometers an hour is possible. Not if you want to have your car survive the journey. We averaged considerable less, but still made it to the meet early enough to grab a quick breakfast of tea, samosas, and chapatti.

The races, four total, were held at the fairgrounds. Pulling up, it reminded me of nearly all the small meets that the Asotin kids run, with the limited flagging and small but vocal crowd. As you'd expect for a regional, the officials did a nice job of keeping things organized, and there were race marshals out on the course. The crowd helped shoo cows and little children from the raceway.

The course was a two kilometer loop with open ground through the fairgrounds, some single track out on the far end, and enough turns to allow for some tactical maneuvers. It didn't have much in the way of hills. The juniors girls were running 6k, the junior boys were running 8K, and everyone else was in for five laps, or 10K.

The biggest difference between the local races I attend in Washington State and here was the speed (though this was a regional championship, so more like our state meet than a local district meet.) The races started with a simple whistle and the runners left the line like quicksilver on a downhill slope.

Nandi County ended up very well represented in the finishes, sending three girls to the next meet. Similar results for the boys race. Both races were relatively competitive for the first couple of laps until the winners made moves and gapped the fields. 

The senior races, on the other hand, weren't nearly so competitive. The woman's race was won at the beginning of the second lap when the leader made a move past the pair next to her and never looked back. She ended up winning in dominating fashion by over a minute and a half. There's always a concern when someone breaks early that they may have made the move too soon. This young lady dispelled that notion by crushing the last lap and showing a hell of a kick to the finish.

The men's race saw an early lead by a runner who expected to win. Rather than play a conservative game, he left the line hard and maintained that. Unfortunately for him, another young man had a bigger engine. He chased the leader and, on the third lap, made a move to go past him. Like the lady in the race before, he didn't look back, building a commanding lead. The first man continued to run hard and will be moving on to the next race, having taken second.

The finish line was old-fashioned, with runners given placement cards to present as they exited the chute. I didn't get results or names to go with the faces. It's a different feeling watching races where you don't know half the athletes personally. In most of the races I attend in Washington, I've been watching the same kids, whether it's Tiegens and Egglestons/Dykstras at Asotin, or Ward and Vanos from St. George. Anyway, an odd juxtaposition of familiarity and disconnection.

Justin was hustling after every race, getting interviews so that he could write stories for freelance sale.