Monthly Archives: October 2009

Not the Only One Enjoying the New Piano.

Unfocused Girl hasn’t started lessons yet, but she’s starting to learn to read music and plunk out some of her favorite melodies, including this rendition of “Davy Crockett”:

New Piano! Day 22.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I’m still working on the same piece, a dumbed-down version of Beethoven’s Für Elise, three weeks into piano-ownership. It’s not the only thing I’m working on, but it’s the one consistent piece I play every time I practice.

I don’t know if I’m getting any better, but I’m definitely getting faster. On Day 2, it took me 3:46 to play it; on Day 10, 2:12. Tonight, I finished the piece in 1:49. I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to improving my speed, although I’ve also fixed that errant D-natural from the last play-through.  Here’s the video:



I said I wouldn’t do NaNoWriMo this year. I wanted to do it last year, but was burned out from finishing the first draft of Meet the Larssons in October.  This year, I’m too busy at work, and the Siren has been called for grand jury duty in November which will turn everything upside down here at home. But I need a kick start for my writing, and I have what I think is the perfect idea for a NaNoWriMo novel.

So I’m making a half-assed commitment to make a half-assed effort at NaNoWriMo, with a goal of writing 25,000 words (instead of 50,000) of a new novel in the month of November. That would require less than a thousand words a day, but will be a respectable start to the new project.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year and care join me in my half-assed attempt, add me as a writing buddy on the NaNo website. My user name is the same as it is here, Unfocused Me, and my author ID number is 261488. You can also just click here to add me.

Race Report and Review: 2009 Urbanathlon.

Sorry in advance for the long post. It was a long race.

Yesterday, I ran the Men’s Health Urbanathlon, an 11.76 mile run and obstacle course along the Chicago lakefront. This is the third year they’ve held the race in Chicago (it started in New York, and I think they are adding London and Singapore as well), and I have registered each year and then had some last minute problem — I think work-related, in both cases — that prevented me from participating. This year, nothing came up, and off I went.

The course:  The Urbanathlon is an 11.76 mile run mostly along the lakefront path – not much in the way of closed streets after the loop around Navy Pier in the first few miles. Here’s a map of the course. As you can see, spread out along the course are six “Urban Obstacles”:

  • the tire obstacle at Navy Pier, two columns of tires, seven deep, you have to step into each one, then jump onto a monster truck tire, then move onto the next set of tires, for three sets;
  • monkey bars around Roosevelt Road, you have to go hand over hand for all 12 bars – if you fall, you have to start over, if you still can’t do it, you have to do push ups;
  • marine hurdles on the 31st Street beach, three 5-foot high hurdles (the picture shows five, but that’s wrong), you have to jump up and pull yourself over each one;
  • Soldier Field stair climb, (I did the yellow route in the picture), the equivalent of climbing 52 stories up and then back down;
  • taxi hurdle, about 20 feet before the finish, over the hood of a Yellow Cab;
  • the wall, between the taxis and the finish line, about 8 feet tall. The picture is misleading, in that the ropes were not anchored at the top but a little below.

Here’s a picture I took (before the race started) of the final two obstacles and the finish line:


From what I can see of the photos of past Urbanathlons, the Soldier Field steps, taxi hurdle, and wall are the same every year, and the others change.

The weather: Cold, although not as cold as last weekend. It was about 40 degrees when I left the house, and a few degrees warmer at the start.  In the 90 minutes I was at the race site before the start, the weather went from overcast, to hail, to rain, until finally, just as we lined up at the starting line, the sun broke through and stayed out all through the race.

On to the race report:

I didn’t really know what to expect from the obstacles. I hadn’t specifically trained for them, and was a little concerned about the Soldier Field stairs.

We hit the tire obstacle about two miles in to the race out on Navy Pier. I didn’t do any specific training for this one — it’s not like I can easily pull together 21 car tires and three monster truck tires in the backyard — but thanks to our taekwondo instructor’s agility drills, I managed to get through them without tripping and falling on my face.  I finished the first 4 mile leg of the race in 32:05, just over 8:00 minutes/mile, a pretty good pace considering it included the tires.

The next 4 mile leg started just before the monkey bars and ended with the marine hurdles.  The monkey bars were no trouble, thanks to following Unfocused Girl on the monkey bars at every playground we’ve been to for years. The marine hurdles took a little more effort – it took me two tries to get over the second one — but still weren’t too bad.  I was a few seconds faster in the second leg as the crowd on the path thinned a little (a very little), finishing in 31:43.

The first three obstacles were pure fun. It was energizing to work different muscles in the middle of a race, and they even gave my legs a little (very little) rest from the repetitive pounding of the road.

Then, two miles into the final leg (a little shorter than the first two at 3.76 miles), we got to Soldier Field. As we neared the stadium, we went through a water stop. One goateed runner with the hunched, rounded shoulders of a guy who spends way too much time doing bench presses loudly complained that there was only water and no Gatorade. Like the volunteers freezing their keisters off to hand us drinks had anything to do with the decision.

We entered the stadium for the stair-climb obstacle: four times up and down the stadium steps, the equivalent of running up and down a 52 story building. There was a logjam at the entrance, and goatee man kvetched loudly and bitterly until we were directed to the entrance to the alternate route and the real obstacle began.

How’d I do? The stairs kicked. My. Ass. There’s no other way to say it. I was completely unprepared for this obstacle — I live in America’s Flatland, a landscape so featureless that the Park District had to build toboggan slides because there are so few decent sledding hills. I don’t use the stairclimbers at the gym, and I don’t do nearly enough hill work on the treadmill.  In a burst of optimism, I ran up the first 3/4 of the first trip up the stairs, and from then on it was a long, plodding walk.

Up. Up. Up.

Over to the next section.

Down. Down. Down.

It was like a Fritz Lang silent picture from the 1920s about the dehumanizing repetition of the industrial revolution, with long lines of us trudging up and down the stairs in an endless snake of polyester-clad humanity. I did, however, manage a smile when I ended up next to the loud-mouthed goatee man, and he was CRAWLING.

There were chip readers at the entrance and exit, so we got our time for Soldier Field separate from Leg 3. It took me 14:05 just to do the stairs, including the stop at the end to stretch out my spasming calves. I had to stop and stretch again 50 yards out of the stadium as they kept cramping, but once I started running again they loosened up enough for me to slog through to the finish.

I finally made it to the taxi and did the Starsky and Hutch slide across the hood, and then there was the wall. Watching the guy in front of up try to climb the wall with the rope and slide down because his shoes were too muddy, I decided the ropes were a red herring. It took me a couple of tries, but I got over in what I think was really the only way to do it, by jumping up, grabbing the top, and pulling myself over. Kind of like this:

Luckily, the finish line was only a few feet away. I staggered across and my legs immediately started shivering, and didn’t really stop until I got something to eat. I finished Leg 3 in 38:35 (including the time spent in Soldier Field), and my final time was 1:42:22.

Final impressions: This race was a lot of fun, and offered a terrific change from pure long-distance running. It pointed up a couple of things I think I’m doing right, like the box-jumps during my too-infrequent strength workouts at the gym. Even more clear, though, was the main deficiency in my training: lack of hill and stair work. Almost 36 hours after the race, my calves are killing me, and going up or down a flight of stairs is excruciating unless I do it backwards. If I’m going to do this race again — and I’m going to do this race again — I need to incorporate a little stairclimbing and hill work into my routine.

If you’re used to distance running and you’d like something a little different, I really recommend this race.

Running Update and World Wide Half Marathon Race Report.

I took most of the summer off from regular updating, but now it’s well into fall (or, as we call it here in the Midwest, “winter”) and it’s time to start holding myself accountable again.

My last running post was my race report on the Chicago Half Marathon. Since then, my training has been pretty inconsistent and low energy, which showed in my dismal performance for the 4th annual World Wide Half Marathon, part of the World Wide Festival of Races, which also includes a 5K and 10K. The WWFOR has runners all over the world, each running his or her own race, either alone, with a few friends, or as part of an organized “official” race.  I finished in 2:00:07, 13:30 slower than my time for the Chicago Half three weeks earlier and 24:21 slower than my time for the 1st World Wide Half back in 2006. I don’t know why I was so slow, except that my running has been off and on lately and my legs still felt pretty wiped out as late as Saturday evening from a workout I did on Thursday morning. It was also damn cold, 29 degrees at the start, but I don’t think that would have had much effect.

Probably the biggest factor, though, was that as a virtual race, the World Wide Half is a race you run alone. I had a beautiful run on the North Branch Trail starting in Caldwell Woods, one of the Cook County Forest Preserves; I’ve never run that trail before, but I certainly will again.  The trail was wonderful, but I did miss the energy of other racers.

And last but not least, were the two trains that crossed my unstructured imaginary racecourse, and probably cost me four minutes.

This coming Saturday, I’m running what will probably be my final race of the season, the Men’s Health Urbanathlon, an 11.76 mile race and obstacle course.  I’m particularly looking forward to the Taxi Hurdle.

New Piano, Day 10

Day 10 with the new piano, and I’m still working on Beethoven’s Für Elise.  Here’s today’s practice video:

After I recorded this, the Siren pointed out a place about 2/3 of the way through where I was hitting D-natural instead of D-sharp, and explained that when a note is sharp at the beginning of a measure, it’s sharp all the way through unless there’s a “natural” symbol at some point. Who knew? I’ll get that right the next time.

New Piano! Day 2.

It’s been a busy few weeks at the Unfocused Family compound, with a new taekwondo instructor, a trip to the emergency room, travel, surprises, and all kinds of chaos. I don’t have time to discuss any of it right now, but I will soon. Right now, I’m really excited about our new (to us) piano, a rebuilt 1971 Mason & Hamlin upright that was delivered yesterday.  I took piano lessons from age 8 through 10, so it’s been 30 years since I played anything more complicated than the first few notes of the Star Wars theme.  My mother said at the time that if I quit I’d regret it when I was older, and she was right, although my lessons were really, really dull.  My piano teacher was kind of a young hipster, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he taught.

For now, I’m just screwing around with it.  I’ve ordered some fake books off of Amazon, and I found a simplified version of Beethoven’s Für Elise on, which I’ve started practicing.  I’d like to get good enough to play it on Halloween as creepy incidental music, so I’m going to practice it every day for a month.  Here’s a recording from my Flip video recorder of me playing it — slowly, badly — tonight. It’s a little long because I play so slowly, but I’ll keep at it and post more recordings as I get better, sort of like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.