Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Where are we going?

You know that whole five-year plan thing? I used to have one - too many years ago. Ever since I've preferred to be flexible working most things on a smaller time scale (like weeks and months instead of years); rolling with the punches, walking through open doors and accepting opportunities when they knock.

Sometimes an adventure race can be like this; and relationships; and orienteering; and cooking.

Yesterday a lass called me for a reference for a chap I know from AR that she's planning to join for Odyssey. She was worried that she'd slow him down and all those usual worries. I told her not to stress 'cos he is one of the most chilled guys I know. Lots of experience, knows how to pace and what to pack but above all he takes the most pleasure in the journey and opportunity to just be there and to run.

And then I saw this cartoon, by Edward Monkton (

Sometimes we need to remember that we don't always have to have a fixed direction of travel.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Taking the Pis...

Oscar Pistorius missed out on qualifying for the Olympics 400m event on Wednesday. And I can't say that I wasn't pleased. While I wish Oscar, the person, PBs and athletic achievements, I maintain that Oscar, "the fastest man on no legs", should not be competing with able-bodied athletes. Oscar is able, but he is not, and will never be, able-bodied.

First of all, when the whole Oscar Pistorius saga started too many months ago, the IAAF and other athletic governing bodies made a fatal error; they hesitated and entertained Oscar's request for the prosthetics to be tested to prove that they give him no advantage. The studies were done, the word was given that they do and then a back and forth legal and emotional rally ensued. It has been a long saga.

For me, the bottom line - advantage or not - is: Oscar does not have lower legs! This fact alone makes him different to able-bodied runners. He cannot tear his Achilles tendon. He cannot get a lower leg stress fracture. He cannot get plantar fascitiis and he can't even get a calf cramp; afflictions not uncommon to sprinters.

Unfortunately Oscar has shamefully played on the emotions of public perception; on people who are too politically correct to say, "the guy has talent but he's a disabled dude with no lower legs and so he can't compete against the other children". Instead the story of the child whose lower legs were amputated pulls on the heart strings and the general public is swayed by the awful adversity that the young boy overcame into cheering for him to run on the Olympic track.


The Sports Scientists have done a fantastic job of covering the scientific elements of Oscar's case since it began. I've included links to their postings below.

Forgetting for a moment that Oscar DOESN'T HAVE LOWER LEGS, let's consider the Cheetah blades he runs on. Quantitative scientific study has found that the blades do give him a performance advantage (for various biomechanical reasons). In a brief summary (by Ross Tucker) the IAAF found:

  1. Oscar loses less energy in in the phase of foot motion between the foot striking the ground and pushing off (9.3% vs 41.4%). Thus he has more power per stride.
  2. When your foot strikes ground, energy is sent into the ground and some is received in return, which helps to properl you forward. The stiff Cheetah blades produce three times more energy return than a human ankle.
  3. Because of this energy return Oscar can run the same speed as an able bodied runner using 25% less oxygen. That's why he speeds up in the second half of a 400m race, where most sprinters slow down.
  4. Faster runners bounce up and down less than slower ones (vertical oscillation). Therefore they waste less energy. Cheetahs produce less vertical force than the human foot. The energy return from the blade pushes Oscar in the right direction - forward instead of up.
  5. The loss of propulsion that Oscar has by not having lower leg muscles is made up for by the fact that Cheetahs can't fatigue. Plus they weigh far less than a lower leg. Each Cheetah weighs around 99g, which is 6-7kg less than a human lower leg.
I have included the following links for you to buff up your knowledge so you're not led down the mass media garden path. Believe facts, not emotions. This is a scientific issue and has no bearing on Oscar as a person. I've put them in the order to be read from top to bottom.

They've also posted a comment tonight on Oscar's failure to qualify and how Oscar is contemplating legal action against the IAAF for trying to exclude him from selection for the SA Olympic team ("They're all out to get me!").

How much difference does 0.7s make?

Another interesting topic came up on the radio this afternoon. Oscar missed qualifying by 0.7-seconds. Yes, not even a second. It seems those emotional individuals in Oscar's camp think he should be allowed in; afterall, it isn't even a second...

Oscar ran 46.25s and the qualifying time is 45.55s. This was a new personal best (PB). Arnaud Malherbe, South African sprinter (and SA 400m record holder), came on air to talk about just what that 0.7-seconds means.

If I was running against you and you were 0.7-seconds faster than me, you'd be about six to seven metres ahead of me on the track in a 400m race. Yes, at an average pace - not considering starting or the faster finishing speeds - a 400m sprinter covers just under nine metres per second. Being just over 6-metres behind you at the finish doesn't even require a photograph to judge the winner. When 0.7s equates to distance the difference is marked.

Something else Arnaud mentioned was very interesting.

I remember many years ago when I ran my first sub-60 10km. Over the next two years I took over 13-minutes off this time without too much effort. To get a sub-45 took decidedly more effort. Now, years later, having gotten into distance running, I've paid little attention to speed. I've managed to drop my time down from where it was 4 years ago, but getting consistent sub-50's is now hard and to achieve faster times I need to put in speed work. It will take months - and even a good year or two - to get back to my 1999 form.

The moral of this reminiscence is that it's easy in the beginning; later shaving off those minutes and milliseconds is hard, hard work.

Arnaud mentioned how he was stuck for months in the low-46's and then the mid-45's. He said there seem to be certain times you just get stuck on. It took 18-months to knock a few milliseconds off to get him sub-45. And then another 1 year of intensive training to get him from 44.81 to 44.59!

It could take Oscar two years to shave off almost a second from his PB to get to Olympic qualifying. 0.7 is really not a small fraction and Arnaud mentions that there are easily 40-50 athletes sitting within this time gap, all of them aiming for the qualifying time.

Training aside, if we forget for a moment that Oscar DOESN'T HAVE LOWER LEGS, then you'll realise why it has been so important to prove whether the blades provide an advantage or not. Even 0.5-seconds makes a BIG difference.

But, the fact remains; OSCAR DOESN'T HAVE LOWER LEGS and in my mind this alone excludes Oscar from able-bodied competition and I can only shake my head in bewilderment that the IAAF and other athletic bodies let this saga get this far.

Playing B.I.N.G.O. with Team Dew Point

Almost two weeks ago the ladies team, Dew Point, held a fundraising BINGO evening. The girls (Lauren, Daleen, Tammy and Kelly) will be racing Bull of Africa next month as an all-girls team. And because they race starts on Saturday, 9 August (Women's Day), they decided to support a related community initiative in the Eastern Cape area.

The team selected the Masimanyane Women's Support Centre to benefit from their fundraising initiatives. The Centre, located in East London, is a non-profit organisation giving support to women and girls. They focuse on awareness programmes, counselling, educating and interventions dealing with domestic violence and sexual abuse mainly of women and girls. They also educate women about their human rights and promote gender equality in the communities. HIV/Aids is also a large focus of their programmes.

As much as society has progressed in the last sixty years - like equal opportunity employment and voting rights for women - some things haven't changed; women and girls are too often subject to abuse (emotional, physical, sexual). This Centre and others like it, play a vital role in educating, protecting and empowering women in these communities.

Dew Point has been publicising and raising funds for this Centre since earlier this year. They also paid the Centre a visit when they went to the Eastern Cape in April to take part in Wartrail.

While supporting a charity through your sporting involvements is nothing new, I admire the amount of work this team has put into their support of the Centre. As many of you know, it takes enough effort just to get yourself prepared for a multiday race but to put additional work into organising a fundraising evening...

Although I work in the non-profit sector I am fairly cynical as I see endless gimme, gimme, gimme emails daily. But, I've also met incredible people with hearts of gold who pour time, energy and money into initiatives that enrich and benefit the lives of others. Team Dew Point and the sponsors and helpers involved in the Bingo evening have generous and kind hearts of gold too.

The good news is that the team has raised almost R13,000 from this Bingo evening for Masimanyane. It was such fantastic fun with delicious dinner. And I just love silly sayings like, "lucky legs eleven" and "two little ducks" (22).

I wish the team further success with this project and also BEST BEST wishes for a successful and rewarding race at Bull next month.

Follow the team's activities online at:

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Fitting shoes into your pocket

I'm currently working on the Spring Shoe Buyer's Guide for the September issue of Runner's World magazine so I have piles of shoes (road and trail) spread on every available floor space. Prices for summer's shoes are up with models offering superb cushioning for longer distances (15km and up) coming between R800 - R1500.

Consider this: if you are running 40km a week, you'll hit 800km (average shoe lifespan) total distance in 5-months, which means you're up for two-and-a-bit pairs a year. For a R800 pair of shoes that R1/km and close to R2/km for super-delux models. Averaged out, that's at least R160 per month - cheaper than gym memberships.

The price of running (and trail) shoes can melt your credit card, especially when you're buying two or more pairs a year. High-mileage runners clocking over 100km a week will need to replace their shoes every 6-8 weeks. In this light, running - a low-equipment sport - becomes a very expensive sport.

Do you plan your training according to your wallet's padding?

Do you say, "I can only afford 2 x R800 pairs a year thus I mustn't run more than 30km a week..."

This is a serious reality because running with shoes that are past their sell-by date can lead to injury; and buying a new pair of shoes will always be cheaper than physio sessions.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Format changes to Le Tour

Tour de France began yesterday and with only two stages down (out of 21; 19 racing days, 2 rest days) I'm totally captivated. This year's Tour is quite different to previous editions due to a number of rule and format amendments.

  1. Stage 1 began with a mass start instead of the customary prologue time trial. This is the first year, since 1967, that there has been no starting time trial. I usually enjoy this first time trial because then I get to see who is who, the team colours and I scope out favourites to cheer for over the rest of the race. I love watching the guys blasting off the starting ramp. This year I feel like I've been dumped into the deep end. The commentators said that 42 of the 180 starters have ridden Le Tour before )the rest must be newcomers); so at least some names are familiar. The other thing is that the time trial shows us, and the other riders, who is in top form and fitness. Without this time trial they were thrown into a 197km road race with a sprint finish.

  2. Something else new is the elimination of time bonuses. When a rider crosses the line first, they used to get 20s off their overall time (remember: the person with the fastest overall time wins - yellow jersey winner); even if they cross the line five millimetres ahead of the second person. Second got 12s and third got 8s. Without these time bonuses your real time means that much more. Often when riders had a 2-minute lead, much of this time was made up from time bonuses, not real time.
    So, I think it is likely that the yellow jersey will change hands quite often, even in the mountains and teams will be working incredibly hard to get their guy up to the front with enough time for him to get some lead time over the next guy; this will count a lot in the mountain stages.

  3. There's now a short (29.5km) individual time trial on Stage 4 (Tuesday). It's usually held in the second week and 10-20km further. The shorter distance is bad news for the climbers as they're better over greater distances but could be good news for all-rounders, like those aiming for the yellow jersey. There is a longer (53km) individual time trial on the second-last stage (Stage 20, 26 July), before the riders head into Paris.

  4. There is no team time trial this year. I also enjoy this stage because the teams look so sexy all together in their matching outfits and fancy helmets. In the team time trial the entire team (9 riders) rides together; working with and for each other. The team’s finishing time is recorded by the fifth rider across the line. As long as all the riders finish together, they get the same time. So, a strong time-trialing team can advance their yellow jersey contender. With this stage excluded from this year's event, the yellow jersey contenders will be closer to each other in timings.

I get absolute pleasure from listening to the Tour commentary by Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen. I enjoy the little bits of trivia about the sport of cycling, the participants and the towns through which the race passes. I'm not a road cyclist and I don't intend to be one; but I just love their chatter, especially when it comes to race strategies and the technical aspects.

Supersport has a slogan for the short promos where they offer trivia and information on sports. It goes something like, "the more you know, the better it gets". As I learn more about the intricacies of cycling, I'm drawn even more into the sport. Cycling isn't just about guys riding bikes; there's strategy and planning and riders with different strengths (sprinters, climbers)... Running is not that different with its pace-setters and break aways.

Now imagine if running- specifically marathon and ultra distance running - had this calibre of commentating? Perhaps non-runners - just as I'm a non-cyclist - would be captivated by runners logging sub-3 minutes per kilometre and the simple magic of running.