Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Right, I'd forgotten

How terribly wheezy and generally out of control my asthma gets as the summer heats up. This is why I rarely race in July and August. My training is going sharply downhill as the summer wheeze sets in. Last week I ran a 38:38 10 km tempo in training without too much hardship. Today I couldn't even manage 3 X 3 km @ 3:55 pace. But it's all due to summer wheeze. So, I guess I have to not get frustrated with my times and liken it to altitude training i.e. even though I might be running slower, because I am doing it with less oxygen, it still has the same training effect. Right? I hope anyway.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Race Report: 3000 m on marathon training

I thought I would take small break from being D&G PPC (Doom & Gloom Piccola Pine Cone) by writing up a quicky race report.

In 2006 when I was training for the Chicago Marathon, which takes places in October every year, I ran an 800 m race in July just for giggles. As it turned out, I wound up running a 2:16.05 which was/still is my 5th fastest time ever. I'm not saying that to brag... okay, truth? I'm TOTALLY saying that to brag because I think running a 2:16.05 800 m on marathon training is probably my favorite running accomplishment EVER - even better than my actual 800 m PB or the Chicago Marathon that came after it. So, bragging aside, I was hoping to pull off the same thing today at a local 3000 m track race.

I have not, of course, been training for short distances. I have been working my butt off to get ready for the Montreal Marathon but I am naturally better suited to 1500-5 km than I am to anything longer so I hoped to pull off a 10:10 or so... During a run this week I threw in 1 km in 3:22 that felt awesome and easy and I figured, maybe even sub-10:10 for the 3 km.

Then the heat sheets came out, or, as they are called here "battle sheets". First, the women and men were being run separately. Argh! Why? Why? This isn't national championships or even regional championships, it's just a local fun 3 km on the track, why not organize people by speed instead of gender. Anyway my seed time of 10:30 was the fastest in my heat by 50 seconds. There were three women between 11-12 and everyone else was over 12 minutes. Did this make me feel like a super speedy runner? No! Not at all. It made me feel like this race just didn't happen to attract women around my time and that the organizers should have mixed the heats especially since the first men's heat had a fastest seed time of 10 minutes and a slowest time of 12:30!!

Okay, grumbling aside, I did find it very interesting that this 3000 m race attracted 3 heats worth of women with 15 women in each heat with an average age of about 40! Talk about cultural differences, in Quebec it is rare to find athletes over the age of 18-20 running middle distance. A typical women's 3000 m race will have fewer than 5 athletes in it or will be cancelled altogether due to lack of participation. Given that Trieste (yes, I live in Trieste) has 1/10 the population of Montreal, this is a startling difference.

So, on the the race itself. I felt great during my warm-up, I had to hold myself back from running too fast. It felt fabulous to be on a flat, softish surface again. It has been 4 years since my last track race! I went out in what I thought was a conservative 3:29 first km (I had thought my self chosen seed time of 10:30 was probably a good bit slower than I could run). By the end of the first km I was already lapping women, not a great experience for me or them. I tried to pick things up in my second km but only managed a 3:30. Then the asthma took hold in full force and I remembered why I had put aside middle distance for longer distances. However I was able not to panic or give up - I really have become mentally tougher this year. I told myself to "float" for 600 m and then try to kick. I ran the 600 m float section in 2:11 (or 3:38 km pace) but was feeling far from fiesty at the bell lap. Nevertheless I managed to bring it home in 82 seconds for the last lap, 3:34 last km, 10:34 total time.

What can I say. Eh. A so so race, 37 seconds slower than my personal best. I am not training for 3 km of course, I did not taper for this race and I did have breathing issues. Yet, I am still dissapointed, I was hoping to pull a great one out of the bag. Oh well.

[Update] The race was chip timed and I just noticed that there are splits on the website:

200 m: :42
600 m: 2:07 (85)
1000 m: 3:30 (83)
1400 m: 4:53 (83)
1800 m: 6:18 (85)
2200 m: 7:44 (86)
2600 m: 9:12 (88)
3000 m: 10:34.48 (82)

Here's a photo of me looking awfully tired for being only 100 m into the race :)

800 m to go, feeling bad


Friday, June 25, 2010

Are we really running out?

As I continue to read and learn about the specter of peak oil, my first step is figuring out what are the fundamental questions to ask about this situation. It seems to me that they are as follows:

1. How many years are we from peak oil or are we indeed past it?
2. Are there feasible energy alternatives and if so, how close are they to coming online?
3. What can we as individuals do the alleviate the situation?
4. What will life in a post-oil society be like?
5. What can we as individuals do to prepare for living in a post-oil society?

Ideally I would like to answer all of these questions in a series of posts through my reading for my own peace of mind, scratch that because I don't think there is any peace of mind to be had on this topic. I would like to find answers to these questions for my own mental health but some of them, I fear, are unanswerable.

The first question, which I would like to deal with in this post, addresses a comment that mmmonyka left for me yesterday essentially asking if she was the only one who thinks our oil reserves are underestimated. So I thought I would start with that.

The question of how much economically viable oil remains is a difficult one to answer mostly because any given country's oil reserves are essentially considered a state secret of that country. There are published oil reserves from the major oil producing countries however one must bear in mind that there is heavy incentive to exaggerate one's reserves because greater oil reserves = greater power for the country. Saudi Arabia, which is by far the most important oil producing country in the world with approximately 1/4 of readily extractable reserves, has not published any data on their reserves since 1982. This, of course, has raised concerns that their wells are past peak. I cannot think of any incentive for them to hide the fact that they have far MORE oil than the global community thinks they do. A study done by an energy investment banking firm concluded that Saudi Arabia's production likely peaked in in 2004. In addition, there have been no major discoveries of giants fields in that country since the 1970s. Those three facts together i.e. that Saudi Arabia has 1/4 of the world's proven oil reserves, that they likely peaked 6 years ago and have had no new discoveries in 40 years are enough to convince me that no... the world's oil reserves are not underestimated, quite the opposite.

Here is a widely cited figure which I swiped along with the analysis from here that is disturbing on a few levels:
As you can see there is a step increase in reported oil reserves in all the countries around the mid-eighties. This happened despite there being NO major discoveries during this time. In addition, the reserves plateau after 1988 or increase... despite the fact that the world is drinking up 85 million barrels per day - nowhere on these graphs is any depletion shown! How can we trust data that does not reflect the depletion of oil caused by consumption in the absence of new oil discoveries?? These numbers are largely based on figures from oil companies and oil producing countries both of whom have strong incentives to bloat their figures. Again, no, I don't think the world's oil supply is underestimated.

So that is my reading on the proven, economically viable reserves of traditional reserves. There are tons of peak oil debunkers who optimistically allude to various rosy scenarios such as abiotic oil (oil that originates from reactions in the earth's crust, not from organic decay) and the Bakken formation in the western US with its 3 trillion barrels of untapped oil (more than the rest of the world combined). Unfortunately these are essentially bedtime fairy tales being told to reassure the human psyche which is programmed to reject bad news. The Bakken formation  is far from the dream solution that people want to believe in. The very best case scenario is that if it can be fully exploited, it would reduce US imports of oil for one year (source). As for abiotic oil, this seems to be complete and utter nonsense though I have to admit I have not read on this topic yet.

In a sense it is a little ridiculous to talk about how much we have left. For one thing, it is not the amount left that impacts our life as much as the timing of  peak production, as I stated last time, once production peaks prices go up, economic downturn and all its accompanying hardships results on some time course yet to be determined. For another thing, we know that we have finite oil left, 5 years worth, 10 years worth, 50 years worth... yes it makes a difference from the selfish perspective, essentially is this going to be a problem in our particular lifetimes or not. But it is going to be a problem for some people sometime in the not too distant future. Yes, if we have more time rather than less it gives us time to conserve and adjust and find new solutions. I guess I am just not optimistic about people's abilities to make changes especially to solve a problem of which most people are ignorant or deluded. I am especially not optimistic about the abilities of politicians to legislate to address an issue that may occur outside of the time frame of their term in office. I am just not optimistic. Not about this.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


This deliberately, deceptively titled post is not about peaking for optimal race performance. This has nothing to do with running, babies or Canadians far from home. In fact, the original title of this post was going to be "Terrified and Depressed". Cheery. Anyone still reading?

The peaking in the title of this post refers to peak oil theory. Previously I thought that the largest problems facing humanity were dwindling clean water and global warming. However, I have recently started reading about peak oil. I haven't been living in a cave, I did know that our fossil fuel dependent society was destined to run out of its primary currency sometime before the end of this century depending on which source you trust. What I had never understood was the concept of "peak oil" and its potentially devastating impacts.

What I have read over the past few days has completely floored me. I always thought that... well actually never mind what I always thought about peak oil and global energy; I was ignorant and naive. In case I am not the last person on the planet over the age of 18 who was/is uninformed about peak oil theory here it is in a nutshell:  Peak oil is defined as the moment at which the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached after which point oil production enters terminal decline (from wikipedia). Once oil production starts to fall, prices continue to go up until oil becomes unaffordable and, to be blunt, the world as we know it is completely altered.

The global economy is frighteningly dependent on cheap oil. This is not just a matter of paying a few extra bucks at the pump. The food we eat is produced using oil, the fertilizers - oil based, the energy to run the farm equipment -oil based, the energy to transform the raw components of food into more refined food - oil based, its transportation from producer to market - oil based. A little factoid, the average piece of food is transported 1500 miles from producer to consumer in the US and 5000 miles from producer to consumer in Canada. We need oil to eat, move, clothe ourselves, have access to clean water, build infrastructure, power cities, hospitals. We use oil in almost every mundane aspect of our lives. Most of our high tech gadgets like the laptop I am writing on are produced using oil. This morning on my run I was imagining the world around me and trying to imagine how many of the little scenes unfolding before would be affected by a lack of oil - the truck delivering food to the supermarket, the cars driving by, the woman drinking clean water out of the community water fountain. It's staggering.

Of course this oil dependence means that not just the individual person will be affected. Companies will go bust as the cost of acquiring the resources they need to produce their product drives them out of business. This could lead to global recession and depression. Ultimately all of this will lead to a massive re-organizing of society. Our globalized economy is notoriously sensitive to small fluctuations in supply - I don`t remember the oil crisis in the 70s but apparently oil prices tripled. We have no way of knowing how precipitously the oil supply will drop after peak oil but some geologists are suggesting annual declines in production grave enough to send the economy into a tailspin.

So of course there are alternative energy sources, the infamous oil sands in Canada, biofuels, wind, solar etc. etc. The problem with these, as I have been reading, is that their EROI (energy returned on investment) is far lower than traditional oil and some of them, depending on how you do the math, actually have negative EROIs, in other words the energy invested into them is greater than the energy extracted. In addition, we currently do not have the major infrastructure needed to generate, store and transport energy from these sources. We could build this infrastructure but that requires, you guessed it, energy. If we don't start making the switch to other viable sources of energy soon we are going to run out of the oil needed to do so.

There is a lot of speculation regarding WHEN peak oil will occur and some people speculate that we are already past it. The "peakers" seem to think we passed it in 2005 while others talk about 2020 or 2030. Regardless of whether this happened 5 years ago or is happening now or will happen in 15-20 years, this seems to me to be an intractable problem because its solution will require people to think ahead something humans are notoriously bad at and somehow overcome the classic tragedy of the commons dilemma (I don't think we've ever managed to do this in the past). Meaning is EVERYONE pitched in and drove less, switched to diesel cars (one aspect of European life I really appreciate), switched to LEDs for lighting etc. etc. we could conserve enough energy to perhaps buy us time to implement solutions (this sounds very vague partly b/c I am still reading and learning) but to be blunt this requires humans to act in a way that history shows is not very human.

Some of the descriptions I have read of a post-oil world are straight out of a hollywood, block buster movie about armageddon. Famines, fresh water shortages, wars, desperate people in desperate situations... I have no idea how sensationalistic some of the scenarios are but there can be no doubt that there will be suffering and a massive lowering of everyone`s standard of living.

There is no shortage of well-written, well-researched information on this topic available on the web. I highly recommend Matt Savinar's well researched, well written summary can be found here. For a think-tank summary look here, there are also various articles on the topic from this network of European scientists to name just a few. It would not be an understatement to say that these readings have fundamentally altered my outlook on life and in all honesty I have spent the past few days in a state of dazed and stunned disbelief. I am still reading and learning about this topic so I apologize if I have done a piss poor job of summarizing the issue.

Yup, I'm depressed. Scared. And avidly reading on this topic.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Here at St. Clouds

Our time here is dwindling. In ten weeks we fly home. I am closing up shop: packing, shipping, throwing out, giving away (treadmill anyone?). I have spent much of this year pondering the bottomless question: how is life different on this side of the pond? It is hard to know exactly what I am trying to compare as my life changes were so confounded. North America to Europe? Canada to Italy? Quebec to Trieste? Big city to small city? Professional woman to stay-at-home mom?

I guess I feel I know enough of North American culture, having lived in 4 provinces, 1 state and visited over 30 states for work, to make a comparison between North America and the small piece of Italy in which we happen to live. I don't know how well the generalizations I have made about la vie quotidienne here port to other parts of Italy let alone other parts of Europe.

I find the pace of life here very slow. Whether this is a function of being in a small town (250,000), being a stay at home mom or a function of being in Italy or Europe, who knows? I don't have the frazzled sense that I had in Montreal, which FYI I miss!, nor do I have the sense that I need to be efficient and quick when dealing with people because otherwise I am wasting their precious time. How can one be efficient and quick when most interactions start with 3-5 minutes of baby admiration, followed by half a dozen questions about the baby before actually turning to the business at hand? The rhythm of the days has been hard to get used to with the 3-4 hour siesta in the middle of the day and on Sundays (and often Mondays) things just don't happen. Period.

Work-life balance actually seems to exist here. People do not define themselves by what they do. The perennial North American question "what do you do for a living?" rarely comes up here. Family time is precious. Precious to the point that people are rarely invited to the family home, it is a bit of a sacred place. People seem to socialize in restaurants, piazzas, bars, but invitations to dinner at home are rare and extended mostly to the extended family and very close friends.

Opportunity, on the whole, seems to be less. I do NOT have the sense that if you work hard enough you can be/do anything you want. I have the sense that if your family is important, and you know the right people and you work very hard you can rise to the level to which you were expected to rise. The economy seems to be much more service-based than in North America so there are simply fewer jobs available in high tech fields or innovation or research and development. I have met far more people here who work in bars, restaurants, hotels, stores, factories than anything else and I think that is simply a function of these jobs being the most numerous, by far.

Doing things right: in seeming contrast to the slower pace of life is the notion of doing things right. Hobbies are not undertaken casually here. There is a society for almost every pursuit no matter how esoteric and the sense that if one undertakes an activity it should be done rigorously. I have certainly seen this in the bureaucracy and ceremony surrounding even the most local of road race around here. 

Money is not spent frivolously here and my impression is that consumer debt is low. I have, on numerous occasions, been told by a sales or service person that the option/object/service I am considering is too expensive without even being told the price. On these occasions I did not interpret this as the salesperson thinking I was too shabbily dressed to possibly be able to afford the item in question but rather that no reasonable person of normal income would be irresponsible to enough to spend that shocking amount of money on that item. People do not tend to carry a balance on their credit card and typically loans are taken out only for the purchase of a home.

Leaving the nest: children do not leave the nest until quite late in Italy. The concept of going to a different city/province/region for university is largely unheard of due to the cost of housing and living. This tends to happen only if pursuing the education of one's choice is not possible in one's home town. Perhaps North Americans are so entrained to the idea of taking on debt for education that the additional burden of food and housing is not considered a barrier. Regardless the result is that Italians live at home typically until at least their mid-twenties often moving out when they get married. This, I feel, is quite different from the typical North American dorm/university apartment experience. 

The stereotype that Italians love babies is absolutely true. As far as I can tell, the social hierarchy here is: newborns, infants, toddlers, dogs, primary school children, all other children, all other people. I will certainly miss having my baby fawned over. When I walk into a restaurant/bus/other public place, I can see the anticipation on people's faces as they hope the baby will sit near them. In Montreal I see the dread on people's faces as they hope the baby will just go away.

After almost a year here I have grown to love and appreciate many aspects of life here. I have made far more friends than I expected to and feel fortunate that they were all so welcoming to me. I have achieved a higher level of Italian than I expected to (though it is still definitely cringe-worthy). Ultimately though I am a new-worlder at heart. I am sure I will miss our time here and look back on it with great nostalgia. I do wish we had more than 10 weeks left as there are so many beautiful places we have not explored but I will be ready to cross the pond and go home.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Marathon Training Week 4: Two long runs, coca cola & gummy bears

Monday: 18.4 km 87 minutes with baby jogger (and baby)

Tuesday: Long run # 1 - 27.4 km in 2 hours 5 minutes with last 8 km @ marathon pace, averaged 4:11/km. More importantly, ran at 5 pm, temperature 33 deg C. Good heat training. Did not feel as horrid as I feared.

Wednesday: Off.

Thursday: 16.8 km in 81 minutes.

Friday: 6.3 km in 30 minutes (logistical difficulties interrupted what was going to be a 14 km run)

Saturday: 17 km in 85 minutes.

Sunday: Long run #2 brought to me by flat, warm coca cola (my favorite long run fuel) and gummy bears. 18 km @ 4:35/km followed by 12 km @ 4:05 per km. Followed by 4 km @ 5:00 per km (uphill to get home). Good, solid run. Marathon pace felt very manageable. 34 km total in 2 hours 35 minutes 26 seconds.

Total: 119.9 km
Total quality: 20 km.

Why two long runs in one week? The first "belonged" to last week which was cut short by my fall down the stairs (see previous post). Maybe not strategically the smartest thing to do but in my mind the long run work-out is the back bone of the program so I didn't want to miss one. That coca cola was the finest tasting thing ever at 18 km and then 28 km. Am I the only one who uses coca cola instead of sports drink? It's got water, sugar, salt, caffeine, what more could a thirsty distance runner ask for?

I have to say I am feeling pretty strong. My body is handling the long runs and the heat far better than expected.

12 weeks to go.

Marathon Training Week 3: XVth century convent and a fall down the stairs

This post is a week late (I actually just finished week 4's training about an hour ago). Have been having wrist problem so will keep this brief... but, for my own personal record, here we go:

Monday - off

Tuesday -  15 km 71 minutes. felt good for 2 days after 32 km.

Wednesday - off, fighting cold.

Thursday - yasso 800m: 2:52, 50, 50, 47, 48, 49, 49, 51, 50, 50. hard but not egriously so. 18 km total.

Friday - am:16.2 km, 84 minutes. tired, very!. 
pm: fall down staircase at 15th century convent. develop severe bruising on ass & tailbone.

Sat - off, ass hurt too much to run.

Sun - ditto.

Yes, we were staying at a gorgeous XVth century convent during a conference. I fell down a flight of stone stairs on my first night with... horror.. la cocotte strapped to my chest. Falling while marsupialing la cocotte has been one of my biggest fears (and I never even contemplated it happening down a flight of stairs). Very, very luckily for me, only my ass, tailbone and shoulder blade were bruised. La cocotte, whose comment on the event was "gayga!" was completely unharmed. It took me about 5 minutes to stand up. I tried to call for help but was drowned out by a horny peacock who was repeatedly crowing, and it was night so no one could see me at the bottom of the staircase. I got back to our room, handed hubby la cocotte and, for the second time EVER in 35 years of life, fainted. I consider myself very lucky and lesson learned.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Oh dear

I think I have been doing too much hanging out on the blogs of ultrarunners because this is starting to look tempting. It is a 6 (or 12) hour race that is run around a 2.25 km loop that is a 20 minute jog from my home in Montreal, in fact it is a loop I often use for intervals. It is run in January typically on snow and in the freezing cold. Not surprisingly it is called the Frozen Ass run. I find myself strangely intrigued.

My record to date for 6 hours is 46.6 kilometers. This consisted of jogging 2 km to warm-up, running the Chicago Marathon, walking 1.6 km to the nearest Irish Pub for lunch and finally walking 800 m back to our parked car. It all hapenned within 6 hours so does that count?