Category Archives: Health & Wellness

Talk to Your Heroes

One of the most pleasant surprises about living in Glen Ridge is that it's home to some serious runners–including one Horace Ashenfelter, who won the gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.  Dan Murphy–another serious runner–took over the organization of the town's Thanksgiving Day "turkey trot" and renamed it in Ashenfelter's honor.  Ever since I first did the race in 2006, I wondered about Ashenfelter–where does he live?  Does he still run?  What was it like to compete in the Olympics?  I asked around–and got some answers.  Ashenfelter was still running strong and is friendly.  After being Ashenfelter_web
encouraged by some fellow Essex Running Club members, I wrote him a note and pitched a story–which appears after the jump.  I got the impression that Ashenfelter was accostomed to answering questions from curious runners and was honored that he granted the interview.  When he competed in the Olympics he was an FBI agent and defeated Vladimir Kazantsev, from the USSR when the Cold War was going hot.  Have you had a chance to meet someone you deeply admire?  How did it go?  I'm glad I had a list of questions and that I recorded the conversation.  I have to say, running a steeplecase sounds like fun.  It's great to have folks share their stories.   

Horace Ashenfelter: An 8K Classic

On Thanksgiving Day at the Ashenfelters, four children and twelve grandchildren don their sneakers and run an eight-kilometer race before sitting down to dinner. The 1952 gold medal winner, Horace Ashenfelter, for whom the race is named, is still going strong and inspiring runners of all ages.

Fifty-six years ago, Ashenfelter competed in the Helsinki Olympic Games and brought home the gold in the steeplechase. He was the first and only American ever to win this event, defeating Vladimir Kazantsev of the USSR. How did the kid from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, wind up competing in the Olympics? What keeps him running?

Ashenfelter ran cross-country in high school and en- rolled at Penn State University as an agricultural student or, as he likes to say, an “aggie.” He befriended other runners, who encouraged him to try out for the team. So, he went to the coach, who asked him, “Can you run two miles?” Ashenfelter replied, “I can run two miles.” The young man would go on to make the two-miler his specialty at Penn State.

World War II interrupted his running career and studies. He served three years as a lieutenant in the Air Force. When the war ended, he returned to Penn State to completed his education. After graduation, he married his high school sweetheart, Lillian, and went out in search of a job. With anticommunist fervor near its peak in the late 1940s, the FBI recruited Ashenfelter as a field agent and placed him in Newark, New Jersey. He and Lillian, now expecting their first child, settled in nearby Glen Ridge, on a street not far from Watsessing Park.

Ashenfelter’s job and his responsibilities as a new father didn’t leave him much time for training, but he managed to run for the New York Athletic Club, and he competed as well. He worked out on Watsessing’s cinder, fifth-of-a-mile track and surrounding paths. He says he never trained more than 35 miles a week. “I figured I had about an hour each day that I could run. I would get home at six o’clock and take my trot. I got my schedule lined up so that at the end of that hour I was tired. I had worked out hard. It was intensive work, as intensive as I could do.”

Building on his New York Athletic Club successes, he competed in the Olympic trials and, with his brother Bill, made the US team. The event was the steeplechase.

The 3000-meter steeplechase race, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations, includes 28 hurdle jumps and seven water jumps. Different stories about the origin of the event have sprung up. One legend has it that, with English villages about two miles apart, the only thing visible from one to the next was the steeple of the church. Competitive villagers raced from one steeple to the other—scaling walls and jumping streams along the way. In another story, two men on horses were racing. When one of the riders was thrown about two miles from the finish, he left his horse behind and ran the rest of the race on foot.

Ashenfelter’s FBI managers supported his Olympic bid. As the race neared, he was relocated to the Princeton, New Jersey, field office so he could do three workouts a day. Nevertheless, he arrived in Helsinki as the underdog, with the Soviet Union’s Kazantsev favored to win. But Ashenfelter had confidence in his training and abilities and set his sights on winning the gold.

He started out slower and stayed with the pack but knew he had the race. “There was no question that I was going to win.” When Kazantsev stumbled at the final water jump, Ashenfelter sprinted away to finish in a time of 8:45.4. Not only did he win the race, but he smashed Kazantsev’s unofficial world record and, in breaking nine minutes for the first time, set both a personal record and a US record.

Ashenfelter returned to Glen Ridge a hero. He later set records for the indoor two-mile, and from 1952 to 1956 was the indoor three-mile champion. Then, in 1957, at age 35, he announced his retirement from competitive running.

Horace Ashenfelter stopped competing 50 years ago, but he still runs through Watsessing Park several times a week. “It’s such an easy way to keep in shape. I don’t think there’s any question it’s promoted my longevity. I enjoy running. I enjoy being out, and taking a trot.”

CC – Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License 

Originally appeared in the Essex Running Club Newsletter, December 2008. Thanks to Chris Jaworkski from the Essex Running Club for editing this article.

In Defense of Food

In his newest book, "In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto,"  Michael Pollan sets out to resolve the "Omnivore’s Dilemma,"  where if you ate industrially produced food you were killing the environment, if you ate industrial organic, you were doing slightly less harm, but the carbon impact of your consumption remains an environmental killer.  You could hunt yourself, and become a killer or you could eat food produced on places like Polyface Farms— if you live near such a famed place.  Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma was like eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge, it brought an uncomfortable awareness to every meal.  I wanted back into the Garden of Eatin’.  An Eater’s Manifesto both raises awareness about how we got to a place where food needs to be defended and sets out an alternative path.  His advice:  "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

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One Twisted Path to the NYC Marathon

The legend goes that in 450 B.C., Pheidippides ran from Marathon to
Athens, a distance of about 26 miles, to bring news of Greece’s victory
over Persia in the eponymous battle of Marathon.  Upon arrival in
Athens, Pheidippides cried "Victory!" collapsed and died.  Last
November, along with 39,265 others, I ran from Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island
to Central Park in the New York City Marathon.    Pheidippides had some important news to
deliver and was under orders.  Why would anyone else run 26.2 miles? 

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This Omnivore’s Dilemma

I pride myself on being an omnivore–at least I did until I read Michael Pollan’s,"The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals."  In it, he explains how the food that’s on our plates–whether it’s a Big Mac from McDonald’s, an organic meal purchased at Whole Foods, a local meal produced by a sustainable farm or one that you might hunt for yourself makes it to the table.  The book lives up to the dictionary definition of dilemma, "a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives."  The story of how food arrives on our plates is complex–but Pollan explains it in heartbreaking detail–the amount of carbon fuel required to produce organic crops, the bushels of corn required to fatten a chicken to the guilty pleasure he gets from hunting–it’s all in there, in wonderful, engrossing detail.

Having read the book, I almost wish that I had not eaten from Pollan’s tree of knowledge–I want back into my ignorant Garden of Eatin’ where I was happy with the stories I purchased from Whole Foods or the convenience of my McDonald’s Egg McMuffin.  Though I must continue eating, it’s impossible to revert to ignorance–instead, I have to live in denial.   It won’t be the first time.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived close to Pollan’s ideal.  My family had a garden, kept animals, and prided themselves on growing everything without chemicals and preserving foods through natural processes.  When I wanted a turkey for an American style Thanksgiving celebration, they introduced me to my neighbors who introduced me to the turkeys.  I thought, "I didn’t want to meet and greet you, I just wanted to eat you." but there I was holding the squirming bird to see if he was big enough.  (He was.)   I must admit, those were some of the most delectable birds I’ve tasted, but still I longed for the familiar seemingly antiseptic Butterball.  They were so much less messy. 

All of the sudden those folks who are trying to eat local seem a little bit more rational, and I’m longing for the days when my Lithuanian hosts would go out and grab the eggs from the chicken coop in the morning.  I used to fret when I met an animal, and they told me when he was going to expire–"oh, the pig?  Easter."  I was still living in my saran wrapped cocoon of ignorance.  Now my cozy cocoon’s been torn again–and I’m thinking, heh, isn’t New Jersey the Garden State?  Maybe there’s an answer on a local farm…

Training with Paula Radcliffe

This morning when I finished my run, Paula told me "Congratulations, you’ve just set a new personal record for the mile."   No, I’m not in England training with world class marathon runners, but I did recently get a nike+iPod sport kit.  (No, you don’t have to buy the special Nike shoes–if you were wondering–I did the pouch from Marware)  Anyway, one of the many easter eggs is that when you set a new record for the mile, Paula congratulates you.  I had no idea that this feature existed.  I’m secretly hoping that Dean Karnanzes is going to be talking to me some day. Congratulations.  You’ve logged 100 miles in 7 days, and set a new personal record for covering that many miles.  I salute the Nike+iPod design team.  This has been a very fun $30 purchase.  (And it automatically keeps track of how far I’ve gone, how fast and even where.)

Knowing When To Fold

What’s the fastest and most fun way to get to work? I’ve been commuting in New York City for over 8 years–from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn (6 out of 8 in Brooklyn) and can say hands down that cycling is the fastest and definitely the most fun. However, it presents its own challenges–where do you lock your bike? What if you work up a sweat on the way in? How do you avoid injury?

My new commute from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to SoHo is anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes on the F Train. However, I noticed that I missed starting my day by riding into the office. Bromptonstypeblack

My previous job was very bike commute friendly–I had a place where I could leave my bike indoors, a gym on the premises for showers and a dedicated bike lane for 7 miles of the route. My new gig at MOUSE presents different challenges–it’s much closer but there’s no bike parking and also no easy place to shower. Moreover, as of May, we’re also going to be in Glen Ridge, NJ–though only 13 miles from Lower Manhattan, the best bike route would take me over the George Washington Bridge, bringing the daily milage to 60–and rendering it very unlikely on all but the longest of summer days. So I needed a bike that I could easily stow on the train–enter the Brompton.

I hadn’t heard of them until Eddie Rubeiz, a former Columbia colleague raved about his folder. After taking one for a test ride and seeing that it does in fact fold and unfold in seconds, I was sold.

As a test, yesterday I rode the bike from Cobble Hill to the Puck Building and back . The trip, one-way, door to door took 15 minutes, plus a minute, thirty seconds for the fold. The ride over the Brooklyn Bridge was swift–the Brompton has a 54 tooth front front chain ring and a mini-2 speed derailleur which makes it easy to get up to speed, cruise as well as crank uphill. I was pleasantly surprised by how stable the Brompton feels and how easy it is to balance at traffic lights. The bike is also easy to handle when one’s not riding it–whether it’s picking it up when it’s folded, or moving it around in while it’s on its real wheel and “parked.” The bike is well-designed and well-built. It’s sound engineering has made an alternative morning commute possible.

Perhaps the most appealing aspects of commuting by bike is how independent I feel. I am not waiting on a subway train, stuck in traffic or thinking that I should have gone to the gym. I’m out and about, riding–which is just a ton of fun.

Continuous Partial Attention? Hey you, listen!!!

I was blown away by the ideas in Linda Stone’s talk at O’Reilly’s e-tech conference, summarized on Radar.  In a nutshell, she talks about the limits of "continuous partial attention" and urges that we use employ "quality of life" as the benchmark for adopting new technologies.  It reminded me of an idea expounded by Frank Moretti at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning in his History of Communications class.   In sum, modern, web connected society may herald a return to pre-literate, oral cultures–where the notion of the self was something that existed outside of us–where we responded like a chorus and pinned our actions on the furies.  Does continuous partial attention really mean that we’re not paying attention to what’s important to us?  Or is it just adaptatation to new tools?  Like Stone, I’m inclined to agree about smarter technologies really being able to help us manage what’s important and what’s not.  Just being able to create a master feed on Bloglines is a massive improvement on surfing from one site to another–of course, it means that one can consume even more, which brings me back to her question:  how is this technology improving my quality of life?

Triathlon Training Log Templates

Peter Drucker said: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” and while I’m sure he wasn’t referring to triathlon or even athletic training, his wisdom still applies. I’ve created a simple template to track two workouts a day per week, including data on time, distance, resting heart rate, physical and mental exertion and workout notes. The templates are based on concepts outlined in Joe Friel’s “Triathlete’s Training Bible” and Chris Carmichael’s “The Lance Armstrong Performance Program.” I was inspired to create them by Douglas Johnston, who created an amazing set of DIY planner templates that I use every day. This is the first version of the Triathlon Training Log template. Please drop me a line with constructive specific ideas. Enjoy!


The Gates and a 15 K

orange gate in central parkFor the last few weeks the New York Road Runners have been saying that the race routes may be altered to accomodate Christo and Jean-Claude’s "Gates" project.  I’ve been watching the pieces be put into place over the last few weeks, but today, the Gates and their saffron banners waved at runners all along the 9.3 mile race route.  The Gates made me realize just how many miles of path there are in the park; the saffron banners were just low enough so that I could jump and touch them. Gorgeous!

Why Run?

I did my first race in Central Park with the New York Road Runners–the NYRR Fred Lebow Classic 5 mile run. The night before the race, Deb (my partner) asked why I’d want to take the train into Central Park to run 5 miles when I could just as easily run that distance in Brooklyn.  I just said "it’s different"–not a great answer.  What makes it different?  Normally running is a solitary activity.  It’s me, my iPod, stopwatch, some days, a heart rate monitor, other days, our dog, Hazel.  Yesterday it was me and 2,700 like-minded runners.  I felt like a member of the tribe. (Eons ago, I reckon fleeing predators was not fun–now we do it to exercise the parts of our body that atrophy from knowledge work.)  It’s motivating to see so many people who share in the passion for running and sport.  It was a perfect day for a race, sunny, 36 degrees.  Unlike a morning run, for which I have estimates for distances these scored races are provide an accurate fitness snapshot.   Knowing that I have a race on the calendar is a great reason to get out and train.  The race is the reward for the work I put in on training days.  Oh, and most important of all, it’s great fun.

New York Road Runners is an amazing organization–they organize races, classes and even have a community foundation to get kids in the city to start running.  To learn more or join, visit their website