Monday, May 22, 2017

Threshold intervals are hard + not hip enough "for the Insta"

Let the actual training commence!!

Friends, I love running fast. Over the last couple of years I've also learned to love leisurely long runs and chunks of slow, easy base training, but letting loose for some heart-pounding intervals on the track or a comfortably-hard-but-not-TOO-hard tempo run is still my favorite part of training for a goal race. In fact, this is how I knew I needed a break back in February/March--when I'd see those workouts on my plan and feel dread, and wiping the training schedule clean felt like such a relief. And that's how I've known I'm ready to get back to work--starting to feel a bit bored with slow, easy jogging, and excited about scary-sounding paces.

Don't get me wrong, though; those first few post-base training workouts are never easy, and this week was no exception.

It was a short one since we didn't get back from Hawai'i until early Wednesday morning. Like most runners, at this point I know what all my funny little biomechanical things are, all the places that are injury prone if I don't tend to them with stretching and rolling and strength work (and let's be honest, I really have not been as of late). For some reason I still have this idea in my head that if I take a few days off or take a break from running due to vacation or recovery from a big race or whatever, all those things will heal up and I'll feel fresh and healthy and ready to run when I go back to it.

Except it's completely not true. Almost without exception, my cranky feet and gimpy right hip and curmudgeonly SI joints ALWAYS feel worse after a vacation or a week of post-race rest. It's actually getting back into running (and weirdly, running longer or faster or both) that settles them down (as long as I'm doing the work to take care of them).

So, it probably should not have been a surprise to me that after a week+ of not running and then six hours on a plane, my entire body hurt, and kept hurting, to the point that when I finally laced up on Thursday for a few easy miles, I was nervous and not at all certain that this run would last more than a couple of miles. (It did, but it took my feet and hip about 1.5 miles of threatening to implode before all the muscles kind of went, "Uggghhh, FINE" and loosened up a bit.)

I have been super slacking on the strength work during my little base training interlude these past few months, so I dragged myself to the gym Friday morning for my first post-vacation strength workout. I promised my body I wouldn't overdo it but knew I really needed to at least get back into the habit of doing *something* 2-3 times per week. I didn't overdo it, but I probably did just about as much as I could have without overdoing it (10 sets of deadlifts, 4 sets of weighted lunches, clamshells, a hundred-some-odd crunches, and some arm stuff). The legs were like, "Seriously why," and continued being not happy for the rest of the day.

Which was AWESOME because Fridays are tempo/threshold days!

Friday's assignment was a 2 mile easy warm up, 3 x 2 miles @ HM pace w/ 2:00 jog recoveries, and a 2 mile easy cool down. Usually these are my favorite sorts of workouts, and when I get into the swing of training, it's really no big deal to do strength work in the morning & then 10-15 miles of tempo/threshold in the afternoon. Except I am definitely definitely not into the swing of training yet, and was also still kind of sleep deprived, and sure enough, I could tell as soon as I started my warm-up that this one was going to be rough. 10:30-11:00 pace felt like work, so internally I was sort of cracking up at the absurdity of ratcheting down to 7:30-7:35. Then again, that's happened plenty of times before and I've almost always managed to get through it somehow, so I stuck to the cardinal rule of "If you can't do it, you can't do it, but you have to PROVE you can't do it."

And WOW. Definitely the hardest workout in recent memory. Like I can't even remember a CIM training run that felt this hard. In addition to my having base trained only for 2 months, being underslept, and running on unhappy post-strength work legs, it was warm and windy and the first interval was uphill, and the 7:46 in which I ran the first mile felt like the absolute fastest I was capable of cranking out. With the exception of that first uphill-and-into the wind section, I did manage to hit the pace but felt like I was working WAY harder than the workout intended. The cool-down was miserable and other than showering and eating dinner, I pretty much did not move from the couch for the rest of the evening and then proceeded to sleep for 12 (much-needed) hours.

Needless to say, my Saturday plan changed a bit:

  • Plan A: 13-14 mile long run, since Saturday will be logistically easier than Sunday this week.
  • Plan B: Short easy recovery run since threshold intervals are going to suck so much.
  • Plan C: Screw it, recover, recover, recover.

I just found out recently that it's apparently super trendy to brag about your really stupid-ass training/racing decisions on social media, to the point that there's now a COUNTER-trend of social media-runner-people getting really hand-wringy & castigating others about it. I really wasn't aware of any of these trends until now, but I did recently discover the @restdaybrags Instagram account, which I can 100% get behind. #MakingRestGreatAgain

(Story time: Because I am old and not that hip, I also only recently learned of the phrase/concept of doing something "for the Insta," usually something really dumb or dangerous or otherwise ill-advised in order to get lots of likes, since apparently we are all still in high school and doing really stupid shit for the approval of our peers/strangers on the internet is still a thing. I was explaining this concept to Don on our vacation &, despite not even having an Instagram account, he's now taken to using the phrase "for the Insta," completely straight-faced, any time he wants to take a kind of cheesy picture of one or both of us. I don't know why but it cracks me right the hell up.)

"Hold on, I have to take a selfie for the Insta. Am I millennial-ing right?"

* * *


Grand Total: 32.4 miles + 1 hours strength & 1.5 hours karate (& 2 hours snorkeling if we're counting that). A short week but pretty decent for having been on vacation for half of it if I do say so myself.

* 12 easy
* 6.4 tempo/threshold
* 14 long

Monday 5/15: Vacation

Tuesday 5/16: Vacation

    Wednesday 5/17: Karate

      Our plane landed in Oakland at 12:30am Wednesday morning & we didn't get to bed until around 2:30am, so Wednesday pretty much sucked. I slept until 10am & then worked from home & called it good. At one point I thought about getting in a short easy run between work and karate, but I was still a) so behind with work and b) so freaking exhausted that it didn't really make a lot of sense. We wouldn't even have gone to karate had we not had to teach.

    Thursday 5/18: 8 easy

      Still not feeling great. This 8 mile "easy" run was a lot harder (and slower) than usual, and way more things felt sore and unhappy than seemed reasonable to me. I had been kind of excited about my first threshold run in two months the next day, but after this I was feeling a bit nervous.

    Friday 5/19: a.m. strength / 2 warm up, 3 x 2 miles @ HM pace / 2:00 jog, 2 cool down = 10.4 total.

      See above.

    Saturday 5/20: #MakeRestGreatAgain

      Spent most of it cleaning & shopping. No regrets.

    Sunday 5/21: 14 long through the raging dumpster fire that is the aftermath of Bay 2 Breakers

      There are things I will never understand in life, like doing really dumb shit "for the Insta," why we have to set the city on fire every time one of our sportsball teams wins some kind of championship, and why we must trash the Panhandle every damn year during Bay 2 Breakers. It's so gross. Freaking put your shit in a trash can, or take it home with you. Also extra special kudos to the drunk girl who dropped an entire six pack on my foot and everyone who yelled, "THE RACE WAS THIS MORNING!!"

    I guess that's enough curmudgeonly bitching for one week. Next week we start cranking the mileage up & do some 200m's on the track! Hell yeah 5K training!

    Friday, May 19, 2017

    Pretty Sunsets + My First Track Meet ( ~20 years)

    Hello again!

    We made a valiant effort at coming up with some sort of plan that would keep us from having to return to the mainland, but alas that whole pesky bill-paying thing kept coming up, so finally we surrendered and shuffled onto the plan. I'll post a few more Big Island pics here & there once I've had some time to go through them, but there are a few down at the bottom of this post.

    But let's be real, you don't come here to read about my vacations. The big news lately is that I just signed up for my first track meet in nearly 20 years, the 10th Annual PrideMeet on June 17, put on by the SF FrontRunners (the same group that puts on PrideRun 5K/10K every year in Golden Gate Park).

    There are shockingly few all-comer track meets in the Bay Area, at least that I've been able to find. (If you know of others, please share!) I've wanted to run on the track again for years but it's never worked out schedule-wise. In the future I'd like to try my hand at some of the shorter distances I've pretty much ignored for these same 20 years, but as I'm gearing up for 10Ks & half marathon(s?) this summer and fall, I thought it might be cool to try to jump start things with 5000m on the track. (The fee covers as many events as you want to run, but honestly, if I'm going to go all-out, I'm not sure I'll be good for much after the 9:00am 5K. If I were doing shorter things like the 400m, 800m, or mile, I'd probably opt for multiple events.)

    To be honest I'm a little scared out of my mind, BUT I am also feeling rejuvenated and ready to get back to training after a week off. I ran 40+ miles for each of the three weeks preceding vacation, which is a lot for my body right now, but I figured three higher volume weeks followed by a mini-break was probably a good balance. We also managed to stay pretty active in Hawaii with lots of hiking, walking, swimming/snorkeling, and a bit of cycling, so I'm feeling fairly ready to gently amp up the speed & tempo work & also get back into a consistent strength work schedule.

    So, having not raced on a track since ca. 1997, I may completely tank, but that's okay! It'll be a new (low-stakes) adventure, so I'm still excited to give it a shot.

    Meanwhile, please enjoy these shots from Big Island. We mostly stuck to Volcanoes National Park and Kona, with brief forays into Hilo/Puna & down the Saddle Road, so there is definitely plenty left on that particular island to see, but I can't recommend the parts we saw enthusiastically enough. We were only there for 8 days but we packed it so full that I swear it felt like a couple of months.

    (Apparently I took 1,375 pictures, not counting the ones on my phone, which, if you're curious, is the equivalent of, oh, a little more than 57 rolls of old-school film. I promise not to post them all here.)

    Haume'uma'u Crater, Volcanoes National Park

    Hiking Kilauea Iki Crater

    Petroglyphs in Volcanoes National Park

    Cycling out to the Pu'u O'o ocean entry

    At Pu'u O'o ocean entry (just outside Kalapana)

    Pu'u O'o vent flowing into the ocean, making more Hawai'i

    Spelunking at Kaumea Caves (outside of Hilo)

    Rainbow Falls (outside of Hilo)

    Rainbow Falls Hike

    Onomea Bay, just outside Hawai'i Tropical Botanical Gardens

    Hawai'i Tropical Botanical Gardens

    Onomea Falls

    Sunset outside our condo in Kona

    On our way out to a night snorkel with manta rays

    Snorkeling in Honaunau Bay ("Two Step")

    Place of Refuge, Honaunau Bay (~20 miles south of Kona)

    Place of Refuge, Honaunau Bay (~20 miles south of Kona)

    One more sunset (because, sunsets)

    Aloha, Hawai'i. See you again in, oh, two weeks or so....

    Friday, April 28, 2017


    I think one of the reasons I had such a hard time getting motivated after CIM was because I just couldn't get excited about any particular goals. I'm not really interested in trying a different kind of event (no ultras, triathlons, or trail running beyond maybe the occasional just-for-fun morning with friends, and DEFINITELY nothing involving monkey bars or barbed wire). I'm not going to run another marathon this year, and I haven't been able to get that excited about apocryphal distances like 8K or 10-milers.

    The logical thing to do, it seems, would be to focus on the shorter, canonical distances and work on closing the gap between my recent times and old PRs. Ie, shoot for a sub-1:40 half this year, or a sub-44:30 10K. Destroying my marathon PR suggests it's entirely possible, and I've got a good, long chunk of time before I need to start thinking about marathon training again. In a way, it's a no brainer--a couple of completely safe, reasonable goals, definitely doable with some work.

    And...also completely unmotivating.

    It's not that I wouldn't be pleased to run times around my PRs this year; truly, that would be awesome and I would blog the heck out of it. But right now, that's not enough to get me out on the roads more than 20-30 uninspiring miles a week. No matter how hard I try, I just can't get excited about it.

    I've been trying to figure out why, and while chatting with a friend one day about my lack of enthusiasm for what should be pretty cool accomplishments, she asked me, "But have you ever thought about shooting for a 1:35 half?"

    Of course I was appropriately scandalized by the very thought.

    Because while I do feel pretty confident that if I had a 3:31 marathon in me after all these years of being injured and not 27 anymore then I've definitely got a couple more sub-1:40 halfs in there, I am not at ALL confident that I could *ever* run a 1:35 half. That's 7:15 pace, which is the pace at which I ran my recent February 10K, and even my PR 10K pace is only 7:05. Frankly, it just sounds like crazy talk.

    But days after this conversation, the number stuck in my head




    Completely unreasonable. My best recent half was 1:42. I haven't run a sub-1:40 in 4 years.

    But in the back of my mind, a small voice whispered, "But...what if...?"

    And since then I haven't been able to shake it.

    Five years ago I thought that if I really trained hard, I could probably qualify for Boston, but 3:30 felt entirely out of the question; then it turned out that doing more aerobic running, increasing my mileage a bit, and getting more consistent with long runs brought me within spitting distance of that number, and I really do believe that if I'd run less conservatively, I probably could have broken it. So maybe I shouldn't write off 1:35 so quickly?

    If you know me at all, you know where this path leads: To math.

    First, I looked at any time I raced a half marathon and a full marathon close enough together that they could reasonably be said to reflect the same (or reasonably close) fitness level. There were four such instances:

    • October/December 2011: 1:47 and 3:47
    • October/December 2012: 1:38 and 3:55
    • March/May 2013: 1:39 and 3:35
    • March/May 2016: 1:54 and 3:53
    • October/December 2016: 1:42 and 3:31

    What I learned from this exercise is that there is no discernible pattern whatsoever in the relationship of my half and full times. Really just not useful AT ALL. Of course in a lot of ways the half and full are really, really different races, so looking for a predictive relationship there might not actually be all that useful anyway.

    So what about 10Ks and halfs run in reasonable proximity?

    • February/March 2012: 44:49 and 1:43:15
    • August 2012: 44:21 and 1:44:42
    • March 2013: 44:29 and 1:39:30
    • October/November 2013: 45:31 and 1:44:09
    • February/March 2016: 46:01 and 1:54:53
    • September/October 2016: 44:38 and 1:42:45

    A little more consistency here, but still not really enough to give me an accurate idea of what kind of 10K time I'd need to run to predict a 1:35 half. (This data predicts anything from 38:00 to 43:30 which is sort of not really helpful.)

    So I asked the internet. 10K seems like the most practical predictor of half performance, so what say you, race time predictor calculators? If I want a 1:35 half, what sort of 10K times should I be shooting for?

    Chicago Endurance:

    Runner's World:

    McMillan Running:

    Running Ahead:

    Sure, race time prediction based on other race times is always a bit of an art that can vary hugely for different individuals, but it does seem like if I want to have any hope of running a 1:35 half, I really need to get myself down in the vicinity of 43:00, at least. That's ~80 seconds of my PR, ~100 seconds of my fastest recent time, and a full two minutes off the time I ran in February. Not impossible, but certainly not insignificant, either.

    And I think that is part of the allure of the Big-Hairy-Audacious Goal, or BHAG, as we used to call them at my last school. The phrase comes from the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. People talk a lot about setting realistic, incremental goals that are just challenging enough to push you out of your comfort zone a bit, but not so challenging that it's discouraging. The entire point of the BHAG, though, is pretty much to drop kick your nice, comfortable ass right out of reasonable-safe-incremental land and smack into the middle of WOW THIS IS SUPER SCARY AND I AM MORE THAN A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH IT-sville.

    By definition, a good BHAG borders on the ludicrous. It's not actually ludicrous to those in the know; just sort of ludicrous-adjacent.

    A good BHAG is "audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible." It shakes the entity in question (a company, a country, a mediocre recreational distance runner) out of a business-as-usual mindset and forces it to consider entirely different strategies. Improve sales by 10% this year? Sure, it'll take some extra work, but you can probably get there by doing what you're already doing just a little bit better and a little more consistently. Improve sales by 200%? An entirely different ball game. Chances are, you can't get there using your current set of strategies, no matter how well or consistently you do them. Realistically, improvement that dramatic will require coming up with a completely novel strategy. Maybe multiple such strategies. You can't stick to business as usual, just a little bit better, and accomplish big, hairy, audacious things.

    An example people use a lot is President Kennedy's 1961 declaration that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At the time, the idea seemed crazy to most people. To quote Collins,

      "President Kennedy and his advisors could have gone off into a conference room and drafted something like 'Let's beef up our space program,' or some other such vacuous statement. The most optimistic scientific assessment of the moon mission's chances for success in 1961 was fifty-fifty and most experts were, in fact, more pessimistic. Yet, nonetheless, Congress agreed (to the tune of an immediate $549 million and billions more in the following five years) with Kennedy's proclamation on May 25, 1961, 'that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.' Given the odds, such a bold commitment was, at the time, outrageous. But that's part of what made it such a powerful mechanism for getting the United States, still groggy from the 1950s and the Eisenhower era, moving vigorously forward."

    Now, to be honest, once I went back and started reading about this stuff again, I started thinking, "Maybe a 1:35 half when 1:38 is your PR isn't actually a big, hairy, audacious goal. Maybe 1:35 is only hard-but-doable and I'd have to be thinking 1:25 or 1:30 to qualify as a BHAG." But to be honest, 1:35 at this point, 7:15 pace for 13+ miles in a row really does scare the shit out of me. I feel like fifty-fifty odds is a generous assessment of my chances of running such a race this year. So to me, 1:35 still does feel very, very BHAG.

    More to come as I get my head around this.

    (Related: I ran 42 miles last week. That's the most in a while.)

    Wednesday, April 19, 2017

    Hi, hello, I am not dead yet

    Hi friends,

    I figured I should pop in, however briefly, to assure you all that I a) am not dead and b) have not lost all interest in running. Mostly I've been traveling way, way too much these last few weeks & just generally ultra busy with work and family stuff. I've been getting a run in here & there when & where I can, but it's nothing to write home about, really. (Logging runs publicly has fallen completely by the wayside.) My weekly mileage has been as high as 40 miles and as low as zero, just depending on my travel schedule and what else is going on.

    On Monday Mar. 27 I flew to Orange County for work, then flew back two days later on Wednesday night, madly threw in a load of laundry, & started packing three different bags for three wildly different locations. (I'd started on Sunday but there was some stuff I couldn't do until after laundry on Wednesday.)

    Orange County does not lack for sidewalks :)

    ...though some are nicer than others. :-/

    Three different climates, three different sets of gear & clothes.

    Thursday morning we drove up to Tahoe for a long weekend of skiing, which believe it or not has been on the calendar for a couple of years; Don's parents have a timeshare there that they knew they wouldn't be able to use this year so we'd agreed to take it years ago. (Twist our arms, I know.)

    Things started old cold-ish & gradually warmed up

    By the last day he was sweating in a T-shirt.

    One of the days I got a snowy(-ish) trail run in

    Trail shoes were the right call.

    Then Sunday evening we drove back to SF, where I had about an hour to unload the dirty clothes & switch out the ski bag for the work suitcase before Don drove me to the airport to get on a 12:30am flight to San Antonio for a conference where I was presenting the next morning. (Herewith kicks off several weeks of less-than-stellar sleep.)

    Going on two hours of sleep, *maybe*

    Fancy talk-giving math ladies! #obligatory

    My boss & co-speaker at the Alamo. Never forget!

    Don't miss the Riverwalk if you're in San Antonio. It's a bit touristy in places but other parts are super pretty & peaceful. (Narrow with lots of stairs & pedestrians, though, so I would not recommend for running.)

    The view from dinner one evening

    Friday afternoon I hopped a plane from San Antonio back to SF; this time there wasn't even time to go home, & Don just picked me up at the airport with yet another bag for our drive down to Paso Robles for some wine pickup events.

    I took no vineyard pictures so please enjoy this one from last fall.

    Wine pickup!

    (Yes, I know you're feeling REALLY sorry for me right now. One endures, somehow.) It was a fun weekend as always, but we got home later than we planned on Sunday night & pretty much came home & crashed.

    Then three lovely days at home! By which I mean, three lovely days of both of us suffering from mild food poisoning (the cause of which remains mysterious). YAY. :-/ Then Thursday morning it was back to the airport for a flight to Dallas, where we were celebrating his Grandad's 100th birthday (genuine YAY!). This was also a fun weekend, and I even got a couple of (verrrry humid) runs in with Don's dad & cousin, but I also never really adjusted to the time change and didn't sleep great for most of the trip.

    There IS some nice running in Dallas, including a lovely trail that runs around White Rock Lake.

    Now I'm back for an entire, blessed week (!) before I have to get back on a plane to LA next Monday. (Though, thankfully for only two days.) Ten days after that it's off to the Big Island for a genuine, real life vacation (WOOHOO!!), & ten days after THAT (and you will not believe this) it's back onto ANOTHER plane to Hawaii for a week, Oahu this time, for work. Then I'm finally home for two solid weeks, then a week in SoCal for work, and SWEET JESUS after that I actually think I'm not getting on a plane again (as far as I know) until September.

    So maybe you can see how getting anything consistent going running-wise has been, if not impossible, at least beyond my meager capabilities.

    The good news is that, although my travel schedule is not necessarily cooperating with the idea of starting to actual for-real train for a thing again, my motivation is starting to come back. I actually started getting excited about running a 5K or two in June and hitting the pavement hot & heavy this summer in hopes of rocking my goal half (Rock N Roll San Jose) in October. At this point I'm actually feeling not-terrible about committing to 6-10 easy miles most days & something in the 10-15 range on weekends when possible, and I'd also like to start adding in things like clamshells and lunges and single-leg squats and planks and other ab things here and there, even if it's only 10 minutes a day or a half hour a few times a week for now.

    Odds are I haven't seen your blog in weeks, sooooo what's up with you?

    Monday, April 3, 2017

    More Race Discounts!

    You guys, I can barely keep up! D:

    The Giant Race, August 7, San Francisco, CA. Save $10 on all adult distances (half/10K/5K) until midnight Tuesday or 1000 registrations sold with code OPENINGDAY17TGR

    Santa Rosa Marathon (+Half/10K/5K), August 26 & 27, Santa Rosa, CA. Save $15 with code NEWYEAR until April 6

    Rock Tahoe Half Marathon, June 17, Lake Tahoe, CA. Save $15 with code WEROCKTAHOE until April 9


    Sunday, April 2, 2017

    Books 2017: Quarter 1

    No, it's not about running, but heeeyyyy I finally wrote a real post!! You're welcome.

    As you probably already know, I've been reading a classic a month for the last two years. It started as a one-year project in 2014, but I've enjoyed it enough to keep going with it & will probably continue until it starts to feel like a chore. You can find my past reviews by clicking on the "books" tag at the end of this post, or be my friend on Goodreads. (You can also just go to the site & hunt down my review feed without being my friend, if that's more your speed.)

    ICYMI, the classics I selected to read in 2017 are here.

    On to the reviews!


    January: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman (1974, 278 pages). 4 stars. Towards the end of the 20th century, humans are engaged in an interstellar battle with a mysterious alien race known as the Taurans; the book follows the military career of Private William Mandella, who enlists to help fight the mysterious enemy. Both races have light speed travel, though, which makes the logistics of planning and fighting a war extremely interesting if you think all of it through to its logical conclusion. For example, Mandella and his fellows may travel weeks to fight a particular conflict, only to find when they arrive that many years have passed and not only are their knowledge, skills, and equipment potentially outdated and useless, but the very situation itself may have changed as well. As a result, Mandella's years fighting Taurans in space equate to centuries passing back on Earth. I'm not usually much of a hard sci fi fan, but I really enjoyed how well thought out the story was, particularly the issues around light speed travel. It was also decently well written. Some spots felt a bit dated 43 years later, but it actually surprised me how much of it didn't. Worth reading.

    February: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt (1994, 386 pages). 4 stars. This book was worth a read for the sheer entertainment value. It's less of a story and more of a brilliant, hilarious--and mostly true, as I understand it--character portrait of a collection of Savannah residents between roughly the mid-70's and mid-80s. In it we meet an eccentric lawyer, a glamorous drag queen, a voodoo witch, a dodgy socialite-cum-antique dealer, & many others. At the heart of the book lies the mystery of what really happened to Danny Hansford, a young man with a rough reputation who ends up with a bullet in his chest. Definitely one of the most unique books I've ever read, and extremely entertaining. I'm not usually much for character studies but I enjoyed this one & I can see why it's become a classic.

    March: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (2002, 328 pages). 4 stars. I'm not really sure what took me so long to read this, but it was an enjoyable and lovely read, in spite of the fact that it begins with a (somewhat graphic) depiction of the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl. The story is told from the perspective of the dead girl, watching her friends and family from her own personal heaven as their lives go on and they attempt to deal with her death, each other, and everything else. Sweet, heartbreaking, and beautifully written.


    It has not been a terrible quarter for good reads. Also, as I reread this, it's clearly the quarter of "Mmmmm that's all I can say without getting into spoilers," so if you like those sorts of books, oh man. Go to town.

    Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle. (2017, 214 pages) 5 stars. In a rural town in Iowa, circa 2000, a woman returns a video to the clerk at Video Hut. "There's something on this one," she tells him uneasily. "You might want to take a look at it." So he does. And finds some bizarre, mildly disturbing footage spliced into the middle of the film. A few other videos with similar scenes show up as well. The clerk informs the store manager, who starts looking into it. And that is just about all I can tell you without spoilers, and I would highly recommend that if you're going to read this one, you avoid learning anything else about the story. (And no, it's not like The Ring.) At barely over 200 pages, it's a short read, but the writing itself is utterly masterful, wringing out every last drop of meaning from every sentence, without a wasted word anywhere; taking my time over the poetry of the writing was as much a treat as the story itself. That said, it's definitely not for everyone. Some people will finish it & go "I don't get it," & others will outright hate it. But if you like cerebral, hazy, edge-of-your seat, what-is-going-on fiction in the vein of Paul Aster, Haruki Murakami, and David Mitchell, it might be for you.

    Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters. (2016, 327) 5 stars. The premise of Underground Airlines asks, What if instead of becoming our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated soon after his election? As the story opens in the early 21st century, we learn that four states known as the "Hard Four" still have legal slavery, and we get a vision of what legalized Black slavery could have looked like in the modern age. The protagonist was born a slave on a livestock farm but is now a free man--a free man who works for the US Marshals as a bounty hunter, using his considerable talents to locate "Persons Bound" (or P.B.s) who attempt to escape slavery via the Underground Airlines, because {reasons which are spoiler-ey}. But something about his current case feels off, and suddenly our protagonist is in deeper than he bargained for. This was just an amazing, brilliant book on so many levels. The writing is excellent, the characters rich and three-dimensional, the logical conclusions of the Crittenden Compromise so deftly and methodically thought out. Yes, it is dark and horrifying on a number of levels, but I raced through it anyway, unable to put it down. Highly, highly recommend as long as you're not going through a beach read/escapism kind of phase at the moment (because it is definitely, definitely not that).

    The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. (2010, 290 pages) 5 stars. And hey! As long as you're eschewing beach reads in favor of socially conscious reads, you might as well move right along to The New Jim Crow, which is just as dark and disturbing, except real. Personally, I put this one up there with "books you should have to read in order to stay a citizen of this country." This is one of those subjects where I knew a lot of the facts (though certainly not all), but having someone place all those facts in a historical and sociological context and spell it all out for you is utterly horrifying. If you're one of those people who thinks racism is over, or that "sure, we still have racism, but it's WAY better than it used to be," this book is probably for you. Do your civic duty & read it (or listen to the audio book like I did).

    The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp. (2016, 336 pages) 5 stars. Guys, you're going to love this one or hate it. Basically this book is like if David Mitchell and Paul Tremblay had a creepy and amazing book baby. The book is presented as the last work of (kinda-sorta) journalist and (kinda-sorta) author Jack Sparks before his mysterious and troubling death at the age of 36, with a foreword, epilogue, and annotations by his (skeptical and defensive) older brother. After writing several stunt books like Jack Sparks on Drugs and Jack Sparks on Gangs, he'd begun working on Jack Sparks on the Supernatural, openly approaching the subject as a non-believer. (Indeed, the book opens with our narrator basically chortling his way through an exorcism in rural Italy.) And then...Things get weird. Like. Really, really weird. But in the way I find chilling and entertaining and creepy but also *incredibly* clever and imaginative and well-written. But like I said, it will definitely NOT be to everyone's taste, particularly if you have issues around the religious/supernatural/paranormal. (But if you do enjoy it, may I humbly recommend Paul Tremblay and Grady Hendrix.)

    Use of Weapons (Culture #3), by Iain M. Banks. (1990, 411 pages) 4 stars. The Culture are looking for a particular man to stabilize a dangerous political situation, and that man has as his price the location of a particular woman. While extraordinarily gifted in some ways, he's also much, much older than he seems, and much more broken, with a back story that's anything but straightforward. In the universe of Culture novels, for me this one fell in between Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. Brilliant writing and character development as always, a bit more abstract and less strictly plot-driven than PoG, but not quite as bleak and WTF as CP. The structure was cool (though I didn't notice exactly how it was laid out until more than halfway through, and that would have clarified some things), and I absolutely 100% did not see the "big reveal" coming until, like, less than a page before. Not giving up on the Culture yet!

    The Girl Before, by JP Delaney. (2017, 320 pages) 4 stars. My quest to read all psychological thrillers with the word 'Girl' in the title continues. This book follows the story of two women, woven together chapter-by-chapter although the events of each woman's story occurred a year apart. Both are similar in age and appearance, and both have suffered a personal trauma, and as a result both have moved into the shockingly minimalist, smart-house architectural wonder at One Folgate Street. In both cases, the women are only able to afford the house because the sober, austere architect rents it cheaply to those who are willing to open it to the public occasionally and live by its 200+ draconian rules ("No personal effects," "Wash, dry, & put away dishes immediately after using," "Wipe the shower dry immediately after every use," "No pets/children," etc.). Erie similarities emerge as both women find themselves enmeshed in trying to make sense of what is happening and who they can trust. The use of symmetry is interesting, and I have to admit that I did not see the vast majority of the twists and turns coming. The end felt a bit sappy, but it was still an entertaining and well written read. (And yes, if you liked Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, All the Missing Girls, etc., you'll probably enjoy this one as well.)

    The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow. (2016, 264 pages) 4 stars. (While we're on the subject of girls.) Not exactly my usual cup of tea, but still a really excellent, well-written debut. After a horrific (and mysterious) accident, Rachel--the daughter of a Black GI father and Danish mother--comes to live with her (rather strict) paternal grandmother and aunt. Having mostly grown up in Europe, Rachel has never particularly thought of herself of as Black, but in 1980s Chicago, she is quickly forced to confront her racial identity while also dealing with the emotional fallout of the accident. Short, insightful, & beautifully written. To me this reads a lot like older, literary young adult; file in the same mental bucket as Number the Stars and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

    Dreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill. (2013, 448 pages) 4 stars. I don't know how to explain the premise of this book without writing paragraphs and paragraphs, so I'll just say that it's what the kids I think call "urban fantasy," set in present-day Austin which hides a secret world of faeries and monsters and what have you, including cigar-smoking, leather jacket-wearing genies and whiskey-drinking fallen angels and returned-from-the-dead changelings that live off the pain and anguish of their unsuspecting foster parents. This type of book isn't really my bag but it was well written and sort of imaginatively brilliant in terms of weaving together the modern world and a bunch of old folklore, and I agree with the reviewers who said that it might be just the thing for fans of The Magicians or Neil Gaiman's more adult works.

    Dear Mr. M, by Herman Koch. (2014, 400 pages) 4 stars. I didn't LUUUURRRV everything about this book, but I thought it was extremely well-written and cleverly structured. The story revolves around a Dutch novelist (Mr. M) and is mostly written from the perspective of his downstairs neighbor, a younger man with shall we say strong-ish opinions about M's work. As the book unfolds we learn more about M and the downstairs neighbor, their pasts, and mmmmmmm to say more would really just spoil everything. There is a bit of a twist at the end and I did NOT see it coming until maybe that same page. If you like long-game, character-driven mysteries with subtle bits of cleverness, you might enjoy. If you like more heavily plot-driven books where Things are always Happening and the story proceeds in a clear, chronological fashion, it may not be exactly your bag.

    Alice (The Chronicles of Alice, #1), by Christina Henry. (2015, 291 pages) 4 stars. This was a good, if not earth-shattering, read. The story begins with early-2os-perhaps Alice locked in a mental hospital, with disturbing, fragmented memories of a rabbit and a tea party and a missing friend. "She and Dor went into the Old City for Dor's birthday.... Two weeks later came Alice, covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit, wearing a dress that wasn't hers." I'm a fan of sinister re-imaginings of classic fairy tales, and this one was well written and entertaining. My only real complaint was that it felt a bit rushed and the conflicts too easily resolved (especially given how dark and graphic it is, definitely DEFINITELY not for children). I was glad to see it's actually the first in a series, which may give the story and characters more room to play out. Fans of Gregory McGuire should enjoy.

    Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1), by Jeff VanderMeer. (2014, 195 pages) 4 stars. It's hard to really say anything about this book without getting into spoilers, but let's see. #1) There is a place called Area X, which is top secret or highly restricted, or something. #2) It's kind of in a coastal area, with a swampy, jungly sort of vibe. #3) An agency called the Southern Reach is in charge of periodically sending small teams of scientists on "expeditions" into Area X to...investigate? #4) Strange and/or concerning things happen when people go there. It is the twelfth expedition, a team of four nameless women: a psychologist (the leader), a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist (the narrator). Essentially the book tells the story of the twelfth expedition, which gets really, really weird. But the writing is excellent, and the suspense and intrigue made me desperate to learn what happened and get the whole story. (Also...I know that you'll probably ignore my advice, because you have to know what happens, but if you really, really love this book, just stop after the first one. Trust me. Just...stop.)

    * * *

    Currently Reading:
    Tell The Wolves I'm Home
    , by Carol Rifka Brunt

    Currently Listening To:
    The Wanderers
    , by Meg Howrey

    Up Next:

    And who knows, whatever else tickles my fancy. (Taking future suggestions as always!)

    Saturday, April 1, 2017

    Discount Codes UPDATED!!

    They're coming in fast & furious!

    (As always if you try one & it doesn't work please let me know so I can remove it.)


    Water To Wine Half Marathon & 10K, August 6, Sonoma County (starting and finishing at Kendall Jackson Winery). Save 10% with LUCKY10 through March 30. I haven't run this race, but I've run the other two in the series (Windsor Green Half & Healdsburg Half) & they've been quite well done.

    SACTOWN 10-Mile & 5k, April 2, Sacramento, CA. Save $5 with code LUCKY5 until ???. This race has a great reputation -- I've never run it but it's on my list.

    The San Francisco Marathon, July 23, San Francisco, CA. Save $10 on the full or half with code TSFM2017STEPHANIEL or TSFM2017ERIN until ??? or $10 off the 5K with code TSFM2017STEPHANIEL5K or TSFM2017ERIN5K. (You should also check out Erin's blog!)

    The Hollywood Half Marathon, April 8, Hollywood, CA. Save $5 with code STAR until ??? ***OR*** save 25% with code NEWSTAR (thanks Mike!!!).

    Race to the End of Summer, September 3, San Jose, CA, . Get 25% off your registration for any distance with code NOJOKE17 until ???. I ran the 10K at this race last year & it was great, & I'm signed up again this year!