Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The most, least dangerous U.S. cities - Yahoo! News

As if on cue, Detroit is ranked the 370th safest city in America. Reminding me of the person who asked if I finished 38th out of 39 runners yesterday, the rankings are of 371 American cities which reported crime rates. I'm obviously not surprised, but it is nonetheless disappointing. Detroit is heartbreaking; there is so much beauty but taking it in is eerie and, if done on foot, full of trepidation. By the sheerest of contrasts, the only other American city I have visited is Scottsdale, Arizona. I would rather be in Detroit, if only for the charming accents.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The 8-mile mark of both the Detroit Marathon and Half Marathon comes underneath the Detroit River, clearly a part of the experience of going to the Murder City. Not part of the experience of downtown Detroit, by contrast, were the loud, massive crowds present at just about every step of the 21-kilometre course. Between the omnipresent cowbells, spectators with stereos and free Starbucks after the race, it is clear that America knows how to put on a race. This was plain right from the start, when the race went off to the strains of Republica's Ready to Go as opposed to the fourth-rate music played here. I have never run with that many people (supposedly 15,000) nor have I been so excited and full of adrenaline to run a race. I will confess to pumping my fist while shuffling across the start line in a crowd of runners, though a lot of it had to do with the freezing cold and the wind, which really gets me excited for some reason.

The crowds of spectactors were as artificial as they were great. After all, the previous night we had walked around downtown Detroit in search of something to do but found only the Hard Rock Cafe. There was nothing else open and we went back to our hotel. In search of some food for the next morning, I realized that there was literally nowhere to go but a diner in the hotel, which had very little food and couldn't break my $20. This is the closest thing to another person that I saw:

Downtown Detroit is neither dangerous or dirty. Rather, it is spotless verging on sterile with many beautiful old buildings mixing with beautiful new ones. It is very, very, very empty. Waking up in the morning, it was like waking up in a post-apocalyptic twilight zone: there were tall buildings, both old and new, but it was plainly obvious that no one was out there. In terms of architectural continuity and road racing, I would rate Detroit's downtown far ahead that of Toronto, but Toronto wins in every other area.

Returning to the race suspended below the Detroit River, I finished 38th with a time of 1:26:51, almost exactly the same as five weeks ago despite a very, very light training schedule (20 mpw, three days a week) during that time. The twelve-second differential can be attributed to untied shoelaces at the halfway mark, but it won't be. It was very, very cold at the start: three degrees with a cold, persistent wind that stuck around for the entire race. Turning right into a headwind at 18 km took a lot out of me and made the last three kilometres greatly a matter of survival, even though I was gaining places. I don't think I realized how cold and how windy it was while running. All things considered, I have to say that I have never had more fun at a race.

Despite Republica's burst of adrenaline, I hadn't get to my corral in time and started the race too far back. I was at 7:20 at one mile, 19:50 at three, right on pace, a little slow through five, great through seven (45:00), slow through eight and then hung on with a surge at ten miles (66:40). The lack of training made itself evident in the last three miles, when I gained spots but not with the power and fluency I needed or expected. On reading this later, I sound wistful when I was not, so I will reiterate that not only was I thrilled with the time, but the trip was so much fun that any half-decent time would've been acceptable.

Here are some images of Detroit:

This tall, aging tower was captivating for some reason.

This church is right down the street from Comerica Park, the sparkling new baseball stadium, which in turn is across the street from Ford Field, the football stadium where the race finished.

This is a parking lot next to the hotel. Note the complete lack of cars along with the complete lack of anyone in all these pictures.

This is Comerica Park on Saturday night, potentially the site of Game 6 of the World Series had the Tigers not unfortunately lost.

This is the People Mover, a Monorail-like monument to urban decay. It is a tiny elevated train that circles downtown. I have no idea who it carries and where it takes them.

Beautiful old Tiger Stadium, long since closed, is visible in the distance in the centre of this picture. Also note the people. The only location I knew in Detroit was the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where the Tigers played for almost nine decades. The race went right by here, though the stadium obviously looks different from the outside.

Friday, October 27, 2006

TheStar.com - Ad mocking Canada no big deal: Wilkins: "“Just imagine if I registered a complaint every time my country or president was criticized,” Wilkins said."

I just did. I think Wilkins is, for once, in an airtight position.

Speaking of America, for those of you who are unaware or didn't consider it legitimate, I am actually going to Detroit this weekend. Since I want to forestall permanently the pulling of any levers that transport me to Gitmo, I want to make it very clear that I am running this race. I don't think anything can match what happened on this weekend three years ago, which was the last time I went on an overnight trip to run a race.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Neoconservative is a word that gets thrown around far too often today without any understanding, much like 'ironic' or 'philosophical'. When used most meaninglessly, it is a pejorative term for any political conservative. Former Ontario premier Mike Harris was the first person I saw disparaged as a "neo-con", having no idea what it meant. In fact, I don't think anyone has an idea what it means in that the term has probably gone the way of "emo" and realistically is devoid of meaning. I say this because I think it's fair to say that neoconservatism has today diverged from its roots.

There has indeed been a neoconservative experiment, one of following a rigid idealism, both the intentions and functionality of which can be shown in the war on Iraq. Others may scoff, but I think that the attempt to spread democracy in the Middle East is, at least for neoconservative thinkers Charles Krauthammer (to arbitrarily pick one), a genuine goal. To carry it out forcibly is, of course, where the problem lies with neoconservatism, and where it loses many of its members, or maybe many of its members lose it.

The term itself, especially as used pejoratively, often denotes an ultra-conservative, someone from the "far-right", but the first neoconservatives were probably socialists with a strong anti-Communist streak and, most importantly, a dislike for liberalism. The rise of neoconservatism is a counter-counter-cultural response to the runaway liberalism of the '60s. Allan Bloom best articulated this philosophy for me in raging against the meaningless relativism of American youth, though I know him best for his expensive, hardcover translation of Plato's Republic that I didn't buy because I already had three copies (blog parody courtesy of Andrew). This is the sort of soft, pre-political neoconservatism to which I myself probably subscribe, contrasted with my distaste for the anti-government, pro-business obsessions of modern conservatism.

The paradox of neoconservatism is that its idealism, when applied to politics, unfortunately coalesces into an ugly realpolitik. The result is unabashed American militarization of space, which is what prompted me to write this. Neoconservative idealism believes in a world order governed by America, but such a world order inevitably is reduced to the crass world of politics. Ironically, America today has become remarkably adept at advancing its short-term self-interest, but doing so in practice at the expense of morality. Instead, it is done on the basis of national interest or, more familiarly, on the basis of might makes right. Doubling the irony, many of those who rail against American idealism ascribe to some form of liberalism, which accepts America's orientation towards self-interest and isolationism if not its interventionism. I once spoke to someone who had a very passionate, very personal and very juvenile dislike of George Bush for reasons far too numerous to list. This person, admittedly an extreme example, also didn't believe that there were such things as right and wrong. Only politics could have lead to this disjunct in which those who believe in right and wrong act with pragmatism and those who act with pragmatism claim to believe in right and wrong.

Monday, October 23, 2006

What an exciting, bizarre and unforgiving pair of races at the Chicago Marathon. I can honestly say that in all the races I have ever seen, I have never seen anyone slip at the finish line and hurt themselves, but that's what happened to men's winner Robert Cheruiyot (of fire). I was right about one thing at least: Daniel Njenga was second, but I was wrong about how valiantly he battled back, over and over and over as Cheruiyot tried over and over and over to drop him over the last 5 km. In the final straightaway, looking as though he had clearly lost, Njenga kicked hard to close the gap, but he just could not hang on over the last few hundred metres and Cheruiyot strode away to win. As Cheruiyot approached the finish line, he slowed to a jog for the last few steps and raised his hands in celebration and then strangely collapsed. It looked as though he had exhausted himself getting away from Njenga, but the commentators and others seem to think that he slipped on the mat or painted logo. If you watch the fall, it is very painful to see. I hope it doesn't get played around the world, but the last mile or so was a rare moment when it is plain to anyone watching that something very special is happening.

The fall at the end obscures a very dramatic finish to the race, which came down in the last few kilometres to Cheruiyot and Njenga. Though Njenga never took the lead, he tried over and over to stay with Cheruiyot. The women's race was, for the first two hours, the real story: Romanian Constantina Tomescu-Dita went out at world record pace when she could not clearly not hold it. Still, her lead was two minutes at the 30-kilometre mark and it seemed as though all she had to do to win was avert a complete and utter collapse. In the event, she did collapse completely and in the blink of an eye, the story became the battle between Ethiopian Berhane Adere and Russian Galina Bogomolova. Adere would simply run away from Bogomolova in the end, who hopefully had as much fun running the race as we all do in saying her last name. Cheruiyot picks up $140,000 ($125,000 plus a $45,000 time bonus) for his two hours of work today and advances his case very strongly towards the $1 million prize for the World Marathon Majors. The 33-year old Adere wins $170,000. Bogomolova and Njenga both pocket $65,000 as well as time bonuses of $45,000 and $15,000 respectively.

Interestingly, I initially thought that Cheruiyot didn't win the race because he collapsed on the mat with the tape still intact. The commentators and other viewers were quick to declare him the winner and it came out that the timing chip had indeed crossed the finish line. However, given his backward fall, I doubt his body actually crossed the finish line, and some of that does turn up online. I also doubt that the Chicago Marathon wants such a bizarre, inhuman controversy on their hands, so this will likely be a non-issue.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

This is a friendly reminder to my readers, though I know you knew anyway, that the Chicago Marathon is tomorrow. For those who wondering which of Daniel Njenga, Charles Kibiwott and Dejene Berhanu will be victorious, you can find out tomorrow morning starting at 8 am. Local radio station WSCR 670AM will have coverage of the race. Shan, I will probably be up, and I know you will be. Since I mentioned a few of the contenders, I pick Kibiwott, a fast-rising star, to beat a strong challenge from the veteran Njenga, who has a string of strong finishes at Chicago, but no wins. Njenga has finished third or better four years in a row with a best of 2:06:16, set here.

Thinking about this race has to run chills down the spine of any runner, as does this video. It's one thing to run a big race with some great runners, Kenyan or otherwise, but it's another to run in the same race as the best in the world. The field at Chicago is a little weak this year with the withdrawal of favourite Felix Limo and the absence of defending champion Evans Rutto, but world records have been set here. Very few races are worthy of being followed as you would follow sports conventionally; after sanctioned world championships, Chicago, London, New York and Boston are the only ones. In all other cases, you can only go to the race and watch, which is easily more fun, but those races are not world-class competitions. This one is, this is a race that everyone around the world will notice, and so should you.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Whether it's a coincidence or maybe it's God taking care of me is debatable, though I opt for the latter, but I recently found myself taken care of quite handsomely. I have tried hard to be very generous this Ramadan, not for the resultant financial gains bestowed upon me from above, because it felt very appropriate. Part of Ramadan, after all, is to be thankful for what one has. I came to the realization that I am obscenely wealthy and lucky, through little merit on my part, living as I do in the best neighbourhood in the best city in the best country in the world. The worst thing that can happen in The Annex is a short-term shortage of high-priced coffee. The troubles of even the other parts of the city, much less the world, rarely penetrate.

Filled, even burdened, with the knowledge of just how much I have, it was all I could do to hand out as much coinage as possible, especially on days when my round-the-clock incompetence around the clock meant that I didn't fast. I tried very hard to force myself to give something substantial and respectful (e.g., not 37 cents consisting in pennies and nickels) to everyone. I especially gave to those who looked as though they could get by on their own or to those who did not but looked and acted utterly repulsive. I also tried to treat as human beings, making self-conscious small talk, those who asked. I felt aloof and fraudulent the entire time, full of the sort of rapidly-growing panic before you realize just how badly you've overslept or how badly you botched a test. There are so many people who are so poor and not only is there absolutely nothing I can do for them, but I have the gall to consider it a minor accomplishment to even keep them in my thoughts.

And yet, I didn't at all feel poor when I hit a minor financial crunch that would leave me out of money for a week or two thanks to paying rent. I can't say that I've ever had to feel poor and I've been raised with enough luxury and security to know that, if only for the grace of God, nothing bad ever really happens to me. Still, the rare restrictions on my behaviour weighed on me enough until I came home today to find that the government of Canada, as it tends to do, had sent me money and my credit limit had been doubled. Both are, of course, trivial but I don't think that I'm necessarily forcing the pieces of a puzzle here. There was a fair bit of stress in figuring out how I would manage to eat and keep the double-doubles in my veins, but the only two pieces of mail I received in the last two weeks had more than enough money to negate the issue. Again, it's true that these are little things, but if I can be grateful for the little things, I can be satisfied without the big things.

Monday, October 16, 2006

So, in the event, the course at the Zoo was too wild to run a fast time. I got everything I wanted: cold 5-degree weather, stiff winds and a hilly, maze-like course. As a result, I didn't get what I really wanted, a 37-minute 10k, but I did go out and run the first 4 km right on pace (15:12) on gently rolling and winding roads. When the tough sections of the course came, winding hills that really weren't much different from running up a narrow, meandering staircase, I had nothing to spare. Not that they knew or cared, but I finished 38th in 39:07, way behind some really good runners, including a teenaged winner (running 29:56 to win his 15-19 age group by five minutes) and local Congolese stars Giitah Macharia and Danny Kassap. Maybe because they saw that I wore a Reebok sweatshirt and track pants to the race, the race sponsors at RBK were kind enough to give me an award for being the third-fastest male between the ages of 20 and 24 with an odd number of vowels in his first name. I didn't stick around to find out what it was though, so that mystery will linger for a day or two.

I was hardly the most impressive runner on the weekend, having spent time at the Zoo Run as well as the Toronto Marathon today. I spoke to Macharia for a little bit after the race. If you run in Toronto and don't know who he is, it's a real shame because all he does is win. If you organize a race and offer some money anywhere in southern Ontario, odds are that he will come and win your race. Macharia, who finished an uncharacteristic third in a race he won the last two years, won the Canada Running Series for the third straight year, a points-based series of road races across Canada. He has also won the Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon three years in a row, which at least I think is reasonably impressive, though maybe he'd receive more credit with some freak appeal.

Also impressive was Chelle, who ran a stellar 2:58 marathon in Columbus today, crushing me in our race equivalency challenge. Her performance goes to prove that you can do anything if you put your mind to it and then go out and run 80 miles a week.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I went for a run at 4 am yesterday. I couldn't sleep and I had to get up at 5:30 to eat, then sleep briefly before getting up at around 8 to run. When I was still wide awake at 4 am I, lacking the Internet, made the executive decision to go for a run (don't ever live by yourself in a large city) so that I could sleep at 6 and sleep for a few hours before my 10 am class. Actually, I didn't just go for a run, I went over to the track at Central Tech to run 800-metre repeats. I have to admit that hammering out a track workout in the middle of the night is something I always wanted to do, but I thought that it was just fantasy since I couldn't possibly run fast at 3 am.

The streets are empty at 4 am, but I didn't think Bloor Street would be that empty. I was able to run unchallenged in the lefthand lane, facing traffic, from Spadina to Bathurst. When I got to the track, I first swept the area to make sure that no one was watching and, more importantly, that there were no bundles in the corners indicating a sleeping person. I was surprised at how dark the track was. It actually looked bigger in because of the dark, I'm not sure why, and I was a little apprehensive: I was in control of the entire place and the track was mine to do with as I pleased.

The workout was surprisingly great, both considering my knee and the time. I wanted to average 3:02 per repeat with 90 seconds in between, 3:02 being goal 10k pace, while feeling like it was fast but I was holding something back. The first one was in 3:02 and I actually lost focus because the I noticed that the CN Tower was just so big. After that, I dropped it down to 3:00, 2:58 and 2:57, slowing down in the last lap of the last repeat but still running it in 87 seconds. I think I can attribute a lot of the speed to the adrenaline of the situation. Still, I think there's some merit in being able to hit race pace in the middle of the night. I was back home at 5 am, having accomplished more than most people do by that time. I had accomplished almost as much as the street buffer who stared at me so much that I almost thought I shouldn't have been out there.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Just like Chelle, who is a few notches ahead of me as a runner, it's all going down for me next weekend. Unlike Chelle, who will be running in Ohio in about 10-15-degree temperatures, the forecast for Saturday's ZooRun is a high of 4, a low of 1 and winds of 25 km/h, but I'm happier than she is. Now, the 12-week training program that I've been loosely following culminates on Saturday and I'm trying to run the 10 km race in less than 38 minutes. However, there's nothing I love more than a big race in cold weather, preferably with hills thrown in.

Almost on cue, I'm informed that the Toronto Zoo supposedly features many rolling hills, though personally I just can't figure out how they've got the land (710 acres worth) to stage a 10 km race. This maze-like course map sheds some light on the matter. If you can figure out when I go by the ostriches, let me know. At any rate, I'm grateful to be running on Saturday given the frigid weather and too grateful to be running a (moderately) tough race in (hopefully) bad weather to really care too much about the time so long as it's faster than my current best of 38:40.

A love for running in cold weather is something I picked up in high school cross country. When the weather turned ugly and the temperature approached freezing in late October was when the biggest races took place. I can't also discount having grown up on a steady diet of football, in which late season and playoff games took place against the backdrop of cold weather. In fact, I think I went to do something else if the game on television was set in, oh, I don't know, Miami as opposed to Foxboro or Green Bay. I'd say that there's something definitely primal about struggling against the weather as well as yourself and your opponents, but that would just be a vain sociopsychological explanation. I think that throwing out paces, splits and arbitrary time goals means that you just run instead, and run as hard as you can at that. This is the the purest form of the sport that exists, a reminder and a return to what it's all about. I have a bit of a knee problem and I will be both fasting and going for broke; hopefully I'll puke afterwards.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Asked about his vision for the city, former Toronto mayor David Crombie said in today's Globe and Mail: "My wish is that people would get back their sense of confidence. Too many people are writing too many essays about how they're doing it so much better elsewhere." This is, of course, if you've ever spoken to me, one thing that angers me like no other. Discuss Toronto, especially its waterfront or its culture, and be regaled by stories of how much better things are in Chicago, Montreal, Cleveland, Biloxi, Gujranwala and so on. To construct an extreme straw man, Toronto is, I once read, nothing more than a provincial Rust Belt town masquerading as a city, propped up by government subsidies to the automotive industry (sic).

There are, of course, substantive criticisms. I have the same feeling on Toronto's eastern waterfront that I did when reading a ghost story as a kid. There is a ring of slums surrounding the downtown that can be surprisingly prominent at times. Public transportation seems to vanish at many vital locations near downtown. There are, however, many arbitrary criticisms: the city is "filthy", the public transportation is "crumbling" and the people are "dull". Sure, and I think New Yorkers are "charitable", Baltimore is a "cultural mecca" and the Backstreet Boys are the "greatest band since the Beatles"; all you have to say is "no, it's not so". To be hypercritical and uber-dismissive is not at all hard or demanding of intelligence. For proof, just read NOW Magazine or watch MuchMusic's Video on Trial.

Maybe the critics get fed up with those who tout this as the safest, most diverse city in the world. After all, safety and diversity don't make for great cities, they make for safe, diverse places to live. Similarly, what makes a great city is something nebulous. Every city has its dismissive critics, from Atlanta to Beijing to Washington to Yokohama. Part of being great, I'm sure, is to be so secure as to ignore the critics.

What I'm concerned about most not is that Toronto is suffering from an unusually large subset of dismissive hypercritics, but that we in Toronto (meaning the Greater Toronto Area) don't recognize just how great a city we are not simply on merits such as safety, but also on superlative terms. The example I'll use is the Toronto Waterfront Marathon that took place last week. Even those who ran it, serious or otherwise, might be shocked to learn that the winning time of 2:10:15 was the fourteenth fastest winning time in the world this year and (until New York and Chicago better it) the third fastest in North America this year.

Of course, what it takes to win the local marathon doesn't mean much. The point is that no one thinks that way about Toronto, the fifth largest city on the continent, instead focusing on some mundane fact such as the claim that the route is "ugly" (how do you make running 42 kilometres interesting?). Some might say that we are satisfied with mediocrity, which might be true, but Crombie is much more accurate in saying that we lack confidence. Our baseball team these days has long been the best metaphor for our city: a third place team that just doesn't believe it can contend for first. Or, returning to the marathon, Toronto is a gangly young man toeing the line with grizzled veterans, unable and even unwilling to believe that it can run with them. Maybe you've enjoyed High Park on a beautiful day or stared at the skyline from Riverdale Park and been flled with wonder, before quickly catching yourself and reinforcing the belief that Vancouver or Montreal are necessarily better. After all, you're here and they are not.

Confidence neither builds a city nor does it make it great, but an inferiority complex not only does neither, it erodes what the city had to begin with. Toronto needs to be aware of both, especially so in the current climate when there is so much attention directed toward taking a full step forward in the development of Toronto. The development of the waterfront, or at least the eradication of the industrial wasteland currently occupying the area, along with creation of a light rail system over hyrdo corridors, affordable housing for the poor and general beautification of the streetscape are all possible. These, among other things, are why Torontonians may one day remember these years the way we remember the 1950s and 60s as being instrumental to the creation the city as it is today.