Sunday, April 21, 2013
Six weeks ago, I received my official Boston Marathon "Runner Passport," complete with my race number. I registered for 2013 edition of the world's oldest annual marathon last September, at the time thinking I would run. I had qualified for the fourth year in a row, and you can never be sure if or when you'll qualify again, so I thought I should take advantage of it.
But as fall turned into winter, I realized that I was burned out on running marathons, and I decided to skip Boston '13. I needed a break--I had run 10 marathons since I took up the sport in 2007, and I had run five in the previous 14 months. To say I was lacking motivation would be a huge understatement. To keep myself in some kind of running shape, I ran a couple of days each week, but nothing long, and all of it unstructured. After six straight years of constantly being on a training program, I started running only when I felt like it, and always without a watch--and I was so unmotivated to run, it was hard to even do that.
But when I got my race packet in the mail in March, I was hit by a huge wave of desire. Just seeing my bib number--7496--and reading the runner's race bible, I got all fired up to run Boston again. I planned a four week crash-training program, and was ready to go to Beantown on limited training, just to keep my modest streak (I had run the last three) alive. I wanted to again be a part of the greatest race in the world.
My enthusiasm was short-lived, however, as later that week my plan was snuffed out. At work, we weren't sure if we were going to be able to pull off our "Musers Tour of Texas" road trip due to a number of logistical issues. But near the end of March, we got word that our trip was all-systems go, and we would be departing Dallas on April 15th, the morning of the running of the 117th Boston Marathon. Oh well, maybe next year, I thought. I wasn't properly trained anyway, so it probably would have been ugly. It was just as well that I couldn't go.
I had no idea how lucky I was that work had interfered with play.
During day one of our road trip, we stopped in Dublin, TX. We were touring the quaint Ben Hogan Museum, when Gordon got a news alert on his phone. He interrupted our tour guide by delivering the chilling line "there have been two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon." My heart stopped for a second, and I got sick to my stomach. I first thought about how close I came to running this year--thank God I was in a small town in Central Texas instead. Then I immediately thought about all of my friends that were running Boston. My stomach got a little worse. I tried to do the math, wondering about each one of them, hoping that they had finished ahead of the blasts, or hoping that they were still out on course negotiating the Newton Hills.
Right away, I called my friend Matt, whose wife Melissa was running her first Boston. He said they were fine, but that they had been at the exact site of the explosions five minutes before the bombs went off. He was waiting for his wife at the finish line, holding their two year old daughter and standing with his brother and sister-in-law. If Melissa had been five minutes slower...
One by one, I called and texted everyone I could think of who was running Boston that day. One by one, I got good news in return. After a while, only one of my friends was unaccounted for, and he remained so for several hours. Finally, his son called me tell me that pops was OK--what a relief.
Then I thought back to last year, and my wife's attempt to qualify for Boston. She missed by just a few minutes--at the time we were both disappointed, but in hindsight, that miss may have turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to either of us. Had she qualified, she certainly would have run this year, and I certainly would have gone to support her. I've gone to watch her in other marathons before, and I like to jump all over the course and see her as many times as I can. Knowing myself, I would have certainly tried to be right at the finish to see her cross the line. I would have positioned myself on the west side of the street, where the bombs went off, because it's less congested than the east side. It's very possible that she would have been finishing right around the time of the blasts. It's possible that I would have been standing right where those monsters placed those backpacks.
The finish line. That familiar blue and yellow paint job on Boylston Street is perhaps the most iconic spot in the running world. Every runner dreams of qualifying for Boston, and every runner dreams of crossing that line. For many, that moment, that spot, is the fulfillment of a life-long ambition. I've experienced such joy at that finish line, from my own when I completed my first Boston in 2010, to the tears of joy streaming down the cheeks of strangers around me as they embraced their loved ones. To see that finish line splattered with blood and shrapnel didn't make any sense.
The finish line at Boston is a symbol of human sacrifice and achievement. It's crowded with family and friends of runners, waiting to share the moment--family and friends who understand the sacrifice and achievement. It's crowded with volunteers who spend 10 hours standing there, putting medals around the necks and blankets around the shoulders of weary finishers--volunteers who understand the sacrifice and the achievement. Family, friends, and volunteers who suddenly found themselves targeted by two brothers who thought that mass-murder was somehow their calling.
After watching the moving images from Boston last week, from the heroic efforts at the finish line of those helping to save lives, to the incredibly moving singing of the National Anthem at the Bruins game, it's made me want to be a part of that great race again. One of the many wonderful things about the endurance sports community is the sense of charity and comradery within its ranks. Untold millions (maybe billions?) have been raised by runners and cyclists and swimmers to help a myriad of charitable causes. The running world has pledged to help the victims of the bombings, and pledged to make next year's 118th running of Boston a statement event.
Patriots' Day in Boston is a true celebration of this country. 25,000 run the marathon, another million cheer from the roadside, another million cram the local bars and parks, and it seems like another million cram Fenway for the annual Red Sox day game. It's a special day to be a part of. But to race again, I'll have to qualify again, which is part of the beauty of the Boston Marathon. And next year's race promises to be the most beautiful of them all. So, excuse me while I go for a run. Lack of motivation is no longer a problem.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Colin Kaepernick ended up five yards short of winning a Super Bowl. He would have become the first option-type, dual-threat quarterback to do so. With the emergence of Kaepernick, RGIII, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, there is a new thought in the NFL that this is the quarterback of the future--that in football's new age, you'll have just as good of a chance to win a Super Bowl with one of these guys as you would with a traditional pocket passer. I don't believe this. I think the pocket passer will always have the ultimate advantage.
I call it my "Quarterback Decision Fatigue Theory." For reference, you may want to read more about decision fatigue--none of us are immune from it. My theory is that the dual-threat quarterback is being asked to make more decisions than he can perhaps handle. In high school and college, the great option quarterback can dominate because he's facing high school and college defenses, where there are few, if any, NFL-caliber players or schemes, so the constant decisions he has to make are easier. But once he gets to the NFL, the defensive talent is immense, every week, and the schemes much more complex, and his decisions become more an more difficult, more and more stressful.
On our radio program, we talk a lot about Jason Garrett being overloaded as a head coach and offensive play caller--that he's got too much on his plate during a game to operate at peak efficiency at either job. We also recently discussed Bill Walsh, who said he had to retire because he couldn't keep taxing his central nervous system in the way that he was, since he was GM, coach, administrator, psychologist--he did everything for the 49ers, and it became too great a burden to handle. I've also read numerous studies about athletes, young and old, and how easy it is for those who do too much or train too hard to end up taxing their CNS to the point of diminishing returns.
So, my theory focuses on this question: are coaches asking too much of a true, dual-threat quarterback in today's highly complex NFL?
There is no question that Kaepernick, Wilson and RGIII had terrific rookie seasons. They outplayed and defeated traditional pocket passers many, many times. Except, of course, in the ultimate game. Is it possible that these dual-threat QB's will never be able to win titles because by the end of game, or the end of a season, the odds say that they'll be more worn down than a pocket passer because of all they're asked to do?
Consider the average pocket passer. During a game, his offense will typically have 60-70 snaps. In a perfect world, he will throw it half of the time, and hand it off to a running back half of the time. So, for 30-35 snaps per game, the pocket passer basically gets the play off. Yes, he still has to execute the snap, or audible a run call, but once he hands the ball off, he can already start thinking about the next play--getting himself together.
The dual-threat QB (DTQB) doesn't have that luxury. The DTQB has to be fully mentally and physically engaged for just about every play. If it's one of the typical 30 pass plays per game, he has to go the normal read of the defense at the line of scrimmage, and then through his progressions as the play develops, just like the pocket passer. But the DTQB is also asked to run the read option, which means that for an additional 10-20 snaps a game, he's got to make more big, split-second decisions--from the time he breaks the huddle, to the time the ball is snapped, reading the defensive end, and deciding to keep or hand off. And, if he keeps, he's then got to shift into running back mode. He might be 15 yards down the field, take a big hit, and then he's responsible for immediately getting back to his feet, getting focused, and leading the next play. It never stops for the DTQB.
The pocket passer doesn't tax his body, mind, or CNS the way the DTQB does. The DTQB doesn't get the 30-35 snaps a game off the way the pocket passer does. The pocket passer doesn't take the physical abuse that the DTQB does (unless the pocket passer has a terrible offensive line and gets sacked a ton). The DTQB is also a running back, but the difference is that after a big run, the DTQB has to go right back into battle, while the RB often trots to the sideline for a breather. There are no breathers for the DTQB, and I think eventually it wears them down.
There has been much written on the "Information Overload Theory," and how it applies to fighter pilots and battle field commanders. Why, then, couldn't the same theory be applied to the DTQB? Isn't it at least a possibility that the DTQB is being asked to do too much, to be too engaged for too many snaps? Isn't it possible that by the time the end of the game comes around, that the the DTQB has taxed his CNS to the point that he's unable to make the right decision or the correct throw that might be necessary to win the game? If we all agree that every player is more worn down by the end of the game than they were at the start, then why isn't it also possible that the player that the most is being demanded of would be more worn down than anyone else on the field, thus compromising his decision making and effectiveness?
Much is also made of the DTQB being more injury prone. Isn't it logical to assume that the DTQB is more injury prone not only because he's running more and exposing himself more to hits, but also because he's more taxed mentally, which can lead to poor decisions when it comes to protecting himself? Maybe by a certain point in the game, the DTQB is so worn down physically and mentally that he's not able to process exactly when he needs to slide to avoid a big hit, or his senses aren't quite sharp enough to pick up the weak side defender because his senses have been overloaded?
Add to all of this the fact that, at least according to offensive coordinators around the league, NFL defenses are much more complex than they were even five years ago. The hardest position in sports is that of NFL quarterback, and now we are to believe that by adding the read option to his already difficult job, that the DTQB is simply going to continue to run and throw all over these defenses? My guess is that next season, defenses will be much better prepared to face the read option, which means the DTQB's will be eventually forced more into a traditional pocket passer role in order to succeed. I won't say that Kaepernick or RGIII will never win a Super Bowl, I just think that if they do, they'll do it as a pocket passer, not a DTQB. Each of those guys has a great arm, and could easily win games as a pocket passer, running only occasionally on a scramble--more like Aaron Rodgers.
The Quarterback Sensory Overload Theory allows for the possibility that Kaepernick or Cam or RGIII could turn out to be a truly transcendent athlete--a Michael Jordan-type who is the exception to any rule. But even Jordan had Scottie Pippen to help take some the the load off. It may end up that one of the new wave of DTQB's wins a Super Bowl running the read option and throwing the ball equally well, but I don't see it, and I don't think the DTQB will ever dominate the NFL. Steve Young is the closest thing we've ever had to a running QB winning the Super Bowl, and he wasn't running the option. Colin Kaepernick was all the rage one week ago, but pocket passer Joe Flacco is the one who got his first ring. The Super Bowl is the domain of the pocket passer. It's an exclusive club, and the sign on the door still reads "Option Quarterbacks Not Allowed." I think there's a reason for that--the Quarterback Decision Fatigue Theory.
Private author footnote: Please don't be surprised if I win some kind of major award for the development of this theory. It could be something really big, like a Nobel Prize. If it indeed ends up being a life-changing-type award, I can't promise that I will continue to write these blog posts, but that's a decision that I will only be able to make after experiencing what life is like after winning a Nobel Prize. Hopefully I won't be paralyzed by decision fatigue, which would be the ultimate irony.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
In his attempt to comeback a third time in his life (from cancer in '97, and to bike racing in '09), Lance Armstrong has already made one big mistake: the Oprah interview should have been five minutes long, not 2 1/2 hours.
All anybody has ever wanted to hear was Lance admitting that he doped--that's it. And he did that in the first minute of the interview. It was surreal to see the guy who had denied so strongly for so many years finally admitting what the rest of the world already knew. But as the interview continued, a funny thing happened: everyone wanted more. Just confessing wasn't enough. Had he stopped the interview after a few minutes (in hindsight, maybe it shouldn't have been an interview, and instead just a statement?), I think the public would have been OK with things, for a while. We all would have gotten our confession, and then waited to see what Lance would do next on his road to redemption.
But the interview went on, and on, and on--which gave Lance plenty of opportunities to revert to his normal, defensive nature. After making everyone happy and confessing, he then pissed everyone off by qualifying things. He said "I just took a tiny amount of EPO" and "I thought I needed the testosterone because of the cancer" (even though he admitted to taking testosterone before he had cancer). He played the semantics game when asked if he had demanded that teammates dope. The worst moment was the very strange "I called her crazy, called her a bitch, but I never called her fat" defense of his steamrolling of Betsy Andreu. Nobody wanted to hear his qualifications, nobody wanted to hear him playing word games, and all he had to say about Betsy was "I'm sorry." But he couldn't, because he's still not living in the real world--he's still on planet Lance, where all things revolve around his image.
I've always maintained that this interview was about two things. 1) He is the ultimate control freak, and his life is completely out of control. He went from a world where he was revered and in control, to a world where everyone was laughing at him and there was nothing he could do about it. This interview was a way of taking back some control of the situation. If you noticed, many times during the interview he specifically referred to things being "out of control." 2) He desperately wants to compete in triathlons again, and he knew that he had to confess to start the process of getting his lifetime ban reduced. Last summer, Lance was two months away from competing in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii--a race some thought he would win, and a race I believe he deeply covets--before he was slapped with the lifetime ban. One of the few times he really lit up during the interview was when Oprah asked him if he wanted to compete again--he said "Hell yes! That's what I am, that's what drives me." He then made sure to point out that everyone else who had testified had been given six month suspensions, but he was given "the death penalty." It was his way of telling the world "this isn't fair," which the world doesn't want to hear from a guy who hasn't played by the rules for almost 20 years.
Lance had some good moments during the interview. The best, of course, was him finally admitting that he doped. No athlete in the history of sports had denied doping as strongly and for as long as he did. Admitting that he was a ruthless bully was also a good step forward for him. When he talked about his oldest son, Luke, defending him at school against kids who were saying that his father had doped, he broke down--and that seemed like an honest, difficult moment for Lance, which is something we never see from him. And, saying that he would be willing to help clean up the sport was a big olive branch from Lance to the cycling world, which was a positive.
He had bad moments, too. The qualifications, the semantical games, the defending of the evil Dr. Ferrari, and his insistence that he rode the 2009 and 2010 Tours clean. During the interview he said that he never felt like doping was cheating--that it was as natural as putting air in his tires. He also said he didn't think it was possible to win the Tour clean. So why would he suddenly not dope in his comeback attempt? The biological passport may have given him pause, but it's hard to imagine that, at age 38 and after three years away from the sport, he could come back and finish third in the Tour on bread and water. Many think he's looking for an eight year ban from competing, retroactive to 2005 (his last Tour win) so that he can compete in triathlons this year, thus he wants everyone to believe he's been clean since '05. However, it's hard to believe that he was clean, given the sport, given his history, and given his manager during those years (Johan Bruyneel, who is as dirty as they come). On the flip side, it seems like a huge gamble for a guy who is supposedly now telling the truth to lie about '09 and '10 and risk others coming forward and saying that they saw him doping during those races. But right now it's easier to believe that he would risk getting busted again than believing he rode those Tours on nothing but pasta.
Throughout the interview, I had the feeling that Lance was not sorry about doping, nor was he sorry about the way he destroyed people in defense of his lies. Instead, I had the feeling that Lance was sorry only that he'd been busted. Many think he's hit rock bottom, but I don't think he's close to that yet. I think he's in shock right now--shock that his world has crumbled. He'll get to rock bottom, one day, and perhaps only then will we see true contrition.
In the end, this was about as much as we could expect from Lance as he begins the long and maybe impossible task of repairing his image. For now, I'm happy that we at least got a confession. The rest of the world wanted much more--but they wanted the impossible. Lance wasn't going to suddenly flip a switch and cry for two hours and say nothing but "Im so sorry, I'm so sorry"--egomaniacal control freaks don't change overnight. Lance was correct when he said "it's going to be a process." For those wanting more--like names, doping details, full apologies and complete contrition--I think you'll eventually get that. He's got massive legal concerns preventing a lot of that from happening at this moment, and he's got massive personal issues preventing a lot that from happening immediately, too. His therapist may very well be a more important figure in his life than his lawyers as he attempts to move forward.
It was hard to feel sorry for him at any point during the Oprah interview, but afterwards I did--although maybe I was feeling sorrier for the sport of cycling and it's beautiful events like the Tour de France than I was for Lance. The general public, unfamiliar with the nature of the sport, is going to think that Lance just took some pills and then won the Tour, which is far from true. His doping overshadows the amount of work that he--and all of the cheating champions in cycling--still had to put in. Doped or clean, Lance is a phenomenal athlete, capable of doing things very few have ever been able to do. Lance doped, but he also still had to go punish himself on the bike for five hours each day in training, and turn himself inside-out during races to win. But that's the bed that Lance has made for himself. Before, most people looked at Lance and said "freak of nature," which he is. Now, most people look at Lance and say "greatest fraud in sports," which he also is.
(A great cycling hypothetical is the question of birthdays. There is no doubt that Lance is guilty of being a prick and guilty of doping. But can it be argued that he's also a victim of his era? My all-time hero is Greg LeMond. I would bet a lot of money that LeMond was clean during his Tour de France wins--in fact, it's widely acknowledged that LeMond was the last clean Tour winner. But I've always wondered what would have happened had LeMond been born ten years later? As a child, LeMond was driven by the thought of winning the Tour de France and the World Championships. He was at his peak during an era that was pre-EPO. If LeMond had debuted in 1992, when Lance did, would LeMond have tried EPO? The only way to win the Tour in the 90's would have been to dope. By the time EPO hit the peloton full-force in 1991, LeMond had already won three Tours and two World titles, and was set financially for life--he didn't need to dope. But would a 22 year old LeMond, or Hinault, or Merckx, have taken EPO if they had started their careers when Lance did? I think it's easy for riders of past generations to look down on the dopers of the 90's and 00's, but it was a much different game then--a game the older guys never had to decide to play or not.)
For Lance, step one is complete. He's confessed to doping. What will step two look like? Or step three? Will there be any more steps? I believe that, at some point, Lance will testify under oath about everything he knows about doping in cycling. He'll do that not to help the sport heal, but to help reduce his lifetime ban from competition, to increase future earning potential, and to help restore his good name--as well as some scene control. Competing and controlling are at the heart of everything Lance Armstrong does, and I don't think that will ever change.