The Force Awakens: the Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Per my previous post, I thought Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was very, very good but definitely not perfect. Below are my thoughts on the good, the bad, and the truly amazing aspects of this film.


The Good:
  • The original cast actors bring their A game. I was worried that Harrison Ford would mail it in. On the contrary, he, Leia, etc. are in top form.
  • The writing was good too. Han is straight up funny and we get a lot more depth out of Chewbacca than we've ever had before. Even C3PO isn't annoying.
  • This movie was clearly made by fans for fans as there is such care taken to do right by the characters, things, and themes that we all know and love from the original trilogy. The fan service is well done and not nearly as cheesy or over the top as in the prequel trilogy. My favorite example of this is when Leia feels Han die, she clutches her heart and has to sit down - almost exactly like Yoda in Episode III when he feels the other jedi dying. It's a really subtle tie-in but I think it was intentional and it was very well done.
  • As this is something of a "passing the torch" movie, there are many new characters introduced and, by and large, they are compelling, interesting, well written, well acted, and well developed (within the time constraints of a Hollywood blockbuster). I would have liked more from General Hux and Captain Phasma, but hopefully they'll be better in Episode VIII.
  • The movie is visually stunning. I've seen it twice in 3D and once in IMAX 3D (recommended) but I haven't yet seen it in any of the allegedly optimal formats. Still, the focus on practical effects when possible and cinematography result in some breathtaking scenes and riveting action sequences.
  • Kylo Ren is an interesting, complex villain. His conflict between light and dark, his still-to-be-revealed back story, his Solo tie-in, and his inability to contain his passionate emotions (reflected even in his lightsaber, which needs exhaust ports to vent excess heat) are all really interesting. Frankly this is what I was hoping for out of Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy.
  • This movie answers some 30 year old questions about what has happened after the events of Episode VI . . . but at the same time introduces many more questions. The result is something that both satisfies and leaves you hungering for more - well done.
  • The music, my goodness the music. There isn't much new territory covered here, no major new them, but the existing themes we already know and love are masterfully woven into the film. Just thinking of Rey lighting the lightsaber as the theme swells, reflecting her growing confidence and determination gives me chills. Well done!
The Force Awakens is far from perfect, though, so here's
The Bad:
  • The plot is largely recycled from Episode IV and VI. From starting with a droid hiding some secret on a desert planet to ending with a ground strike team taking down shields so that x-wings can make a trench run to blow up a death star and including the defenseless older mentor character being struck down by the Vader-like character . . . it all feels more than a little familiar. I get that they were trying to pay homage to the original trilogy but I would have liked a little more original plot.
  • Even at 2.5 hours, it felt rushed in several places. There were some major events that didn't linger long enough for them to sink in. For example, when the Starkiller base is used to destroy an entire planetary system (and the New Republic fleet), it just moves on immediately to, "OK, how are we going to respond," depriving the scene of the gravitas it might have otherwise had. Similarly Finn just up and decides he's not buying what the New Order is selling and starts shooting storm troopers - the guys he has grown up with his entire life - without a second thought. I would expect some more conflict in him, which would give his character more depth. Finn also develops strong bonds with both Poe and Rey really quickly, with very little relationship development. I suspect that many of these omissions are the hallmarks of cuts that were made to keep the movie under Hollywood's pre-defined blockbuster time limit so I'm hopeful for an extended edition to be released that will fill in some of the gaps.
  • There are also some disbelief-suspending plot holes. R2D2 randomly comes back on and takes a long time to do so because . . . convenience. Poe's sole mission is to recover BB8 and yet he leaves Jakku without him for some reason to head back to the Resistance, hops in an x-wing, and doesn't go immediately back to Jakku because . . . convenience.
Fortunately there really isn't any ugly in The Force Awakens, so here's
The Amazing:
  • I love, love, love how gender is treated in this movie. There are strong female roles; Leia is now a "general," not a "princess" and the stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a woman. The men are conflicted, emotional, and not infallible. It's a much more even playing field than I'm used to seeing in action movies - and especially Star Wars movies.
  • One female protagonist really stands out to me, though: Rey. She is strong, capable, unsure of herself, vulnerable, driven, and - at the end of the day - totally badass. It's the first time I can recall ever being totally inspired by a female hero. Every time I watch the movie I get starry eyed "OMG I wanna be like that!" feelings in ways that have traditionally been reserved for very "masculine" heroes. I wonder what the implications are when an entire generation of boys grows up having had not just male idols but females as well. Workplace equality? Men more capable of doing things that have typically been considered "feminine" in the workplace (things which research shows are incredibly valuable for leadership and teamwork)? Women able to be leaders in organizations without adopting "masculine" traits and being derogatorily labeled for it? I don't know but I have a hunch that, if popular media continue to level the playing field between male and female heroes, it could be tranformative to our collective psychology.
  • Rey's character wouldn't be nearly so compelling without fantastic acting and Daisy Ridley absolutely crushes it (Writing and direction must get credit too.). She's not the only one, though. In the best scene of the movie (Maybe one of the best scenes of all time?), she and Adam Driver deliver absolutely virtuosic performances. During the interrogation scene, let's be clear that he is straight-up raping her. It may be rape of the mind rather than the body but, if anything, that feels even more heinous to me. "You know I can take whatever I want." He is exerting total domination and power over her as she lies helplessly restrained. And then she resists. You can see the determination written all over her face. You can then see her confidence grow - and his shake - as she fights and ultimately overpowers him.There is almost no dialog, special effects, or even blocking - it is an entire journey of psychological epiphany and empowerment told exclusively through the faces of two actors locked in an epic performance. It's glorious and I can't remember the last time I was able to say that about a scene in a movie blockbuster.
So there you have it, my take on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It wasn't perfect but it was very, very good and some of it was straight up amazing. What did you think? Please preface your comments with SPOILER tags if they contain them.


The Force Awakens . . . and It Is Strong

After much waiting and anticipation, I saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (three times!) this weekend. TL;DR: it is very good.

Spoiler-free zone:

It's no secret that I love Star Wars. I was too young to have seen the original trilogy in the theaters but I grew up with it on home video and I loved it. The consummate contemporary mythology of the epic struggle of good vs. evil, it called to me long before I could even understand much of what was happening on screen.

When I was in high school, the original trilogy was re-released in the theater, which was an amazing opportunity to see the movies in a way that I never had before. Funny story: my girlfriend at the time had never seen Star Wars so I took her to see it in the theater. She didn't like it. We broke up. (Not because of the Star Wars directly, but it was a clear litmus test that we weren't a fit!)

The prequel trilogy came out while I was in college. I wanted to love it and for some time I convinced myself that I did, but eventually I came to realize that I did not - much as I did not love the additions in the "Special Edition" of the original trilogy. No matter, I still loved the greater Star Wars universe - so much so that I even gave a TEDx talk about it!

With all that in mind, you can imagine the mixed emotions I had leading up to Episode VII. I really, really, really wanted it to be good, but I had been burned by that before with the prequels. Accordingly, I tried to set my expectations low but, as much hype as there was leading up to the movie's release, that proved impossible.

Opening day I took the day off from work and attended a Star Wars marathon at the theater: 24 hours of episodes I-VI. I actually skipped episodes I-III and got some sleep instead! :-) It was fantastic to see episodes IV-VI in the theater, though - for only the second time in my life. They were the Special Editions but I just turned away during the objectionable parts. :-)

Finally Thursday evening the big moment arrived. My primary hope was that Episode VII simply wouldn't suck. If I dared to dream, though, I hoped it would be amazing. Long story short: it most definitely did not suck! It was very good, maybe even amazing - but I'm not sure about that yet, still processing.

The new characters were well developed, the acting and direction was excellent, the old characters provided good fan service, and the cinematography/action/special effects were all breathtaking. I have some beefs with the plot but overall I was very satisfied. I'll post a separate spoilery review but the take away is that I thought it was so good that I saw it again Friday night . . . and then again Saturday night. It became better each time.

The Force is strong with this sequel.


November Whirlwind

November was a whirlwind! We were barely back from Dubai when we hopped on a plan to Austin, Texas for a dear friend's wedding. It was a grand affair and, although we were only in town briefly, it was long enough for us to get our fix of Tex-mex, BBQ, etc.

Shortly thereafter I was in Houston on business, a trip that happened to coincide with Rice Homecoming. While the outcome of the game was, ahem, less than desirable, the experience of reconnecting with friends, classmates, students, faculty, and the institution I love so much was hard to beat. The weather was perfect and the trip was nourishment for my soul.

The second half of the month kept me in NC and my focus turned (even more so than usual) to . . . food! I attended a wine dinner at Watts Grocery and a beer release at Beer Study that included flights of fantastic stout beers paired with Rise donuts . . . so healthy!

Of course there was Thanksgiving as well. Mom came into town and, in addition to an early Thanksgiving with extended family here in the area, we did a second Thanksgiving at our house with a fried turkey from Time Out . . . I'm still recovering!

Fortunately mixed in with the gluttony were some opportunities to work off the turkey as well. The Saturday before Thanksgiving I ran my third annual Chestnut Ridge 4-mile trail race. It's not super competitive so I finished 6th overall and 1st in my age group. It was a glorious fall day so I celebrated with apple cider and ginger bread - optimal recovery food!

Thanksgiving morning I ran my third annual Gallop and Gorge 8k road race. It's much more competitive so I didn't even come close to placing - but I did improve my 8k PR by 45 seconds, so good deal.

We also did lots of hiking over Thanksgiving weekend and we continue love living in a place where so many hiking opportunities are available.

Through all of my running in November I have been wearing a new toy: a Stryd powermeter. I'm still collecting data and formulating thoughts on it so I'll save additional commentary for a future post.

It's easy to get caught up in all the different things going on this time of year but we have still taken some time to pause, reflect, and be grateful. Each year it seems that we have more and more to be thankful for and this year is no exception. As we head into the holiday season, we are truly grateful for our blessings, family and friends - and we wish you all the same!


IMD Reunion in Dubai

Last weekend Katie and I joined my IMD classmates for a reunion in Dubai. It was our first time to the UAE and it left quite an impression!

We departed Wednesday night and, after the longest flight I've been on in some time - possibly ever - we arrived Thursday evening. We checked in with our hosts and then met a few of the other early arrivals for a drink at a hotel bar.

In Dubai, hotels are the only establishments that can sell alcohol. These aren't your typical hotel bars, though; they are full-on bars/clubs/lounges/discotheques that just happen to be affiliated with hotels. They seem to be pretty loose with this requirement too. In the airport, for example, there are numerous "hotel" bars but I didn't see anywhere to rent a room . . . At any rate, Thursday night we had drinks served up by an award-winning bartender right on the beach with a fantastic night view of the Burj Al Arab.

Friday morning we had a chance to see the city in the daylight and it is hard to describe it in any way other than "impressive." It's a veritable forest of skyskrapers but with a very different feel than, say, New York City. Whereas NYC is populated by buildings with an older, "brick and mortar" aesthetic, these all look like buildings of the future - all chrome and glass. Considering that just a couple of decades ago this was all desert, you can see why the architecture might be more modern.

Still, first impressions were a bit dissonant with expectations. There didn't seem to be any local architectural styles; rather these buildings could have been anywhere in the world. Another difference from a place like NYC is that there is no grid pattern among the blocks. As such, there are no lines of sight along long avenues in any direction; no matter where you go (downtown at least), you are just surrounded by tall buildings.

Another first impression was, "Where are the locals?" Everywhere we went there were expats and all of the service staff seemed to be "imports" as well. Perhaps we weren't going to the right places but I'm not sure we met a single person who was born in Dubai on our trip.

Our first meetup Friday was at The Dubai Mall, the world's largest mall. Walking into the mall was, again, impressive. However, as we looked around, we found that most of the stores were brands that we already knew from the US or Europe. There was a bit of a feeling of, "Did we really fly 13 hours just to find ourselves right back in the US?"

Once we explored a bit, however, we did discover some pretty unique things about the mall, including the Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest building) and the aquarium. Several of us took a tour of the aquarium, which was really impressive and immersive.

In the afternoon we went on a desert safari, taking Land Cruisers offroading and racing up and down the sand dunes. That was a lot of fun and we ended up at a campsite where we rode camels, ate middle eastern food, and were entertained by a belly dancer. Finally we felt like we were getting some local flavor - even if it was clearly just for tourists!

We capped the evening with drinks at 40 Kong, a rooftop bar with views in every direction of downtown Dubai. They tried to sell us an expensive bottle of wine that, when it arrived at our table, was clearly a fake. After that we stuck with more accessible drinks and had a great time.

Saturday we did our own things during the day. For Katie and me that included a stop by the Mall of the Emirates to gape at the indoor ski resort. We all met for dinner along the waterfront of the marina and drinks at another rooftop bar called Pure Sky.

The view from this bar was interesting because we could see the entire Palm Jumeirah. We could also see all the construction cranes working at full speed even into the wee hours of the morning. Clearly one of the keys to building a megacity in just a few decades is 24/7 construction!

Sunday Katie and I met some classmates out on the Palm for some sun, sand, and beach volleyball! It was nice not only to add another country to my beach volleyball list but also to play with some people with whom I haven't played since we were in Switzerland together.

After a lazy afternoon lunch and a nice evening dinner with our hosts, Katie and I departed around midnight for the return flight home. It was a very short trip but it was interesting exposure into a very different place.

As I wrote earlier, Dubai is very impressive. However it is so overtly trying to impress that some of the luster is lost. From villas designed to showcase the owner's Bugatti to a self-proclaimed seven-star resort, everything in Dubai is just so over the top.

From having to have the biggest/tallest/most luxurious everything to trying to sell fake high-end wines to being populated [seemingly] entirely by ex-pats, one starts to wonder where is the real, authentic Dubai, rather than the Dubai that is trying to convince you that it is something spectacular. Does a real, authentic Dubai even exist?

Finally one has to wonder how sustainable Dubai is. From the incredible pace of construction - and not just paint-by-numbers construction but engineering marvels such as world's tallest buildings and man-made islands - to the obscene energy and water (a ski resort . . . in the desert!) it must take to run the place, I found myself considering whether Dubai was here to stay or whether it was a house of cards. After all it seems that Dubai doesn't produce anything per se; it imports everything from natural resources to human capital and it is hard for me to see how that works in the long run.

It was a very nice place to stay for a few days, though, and we were treated like kings - er, Shuyukh. Katie has never been called "Madam" so often in her life! Perhaps the best part was staying with an IMD classmate and his family rather than at a hotel. During our down times we were able to relax and catch up with friends whom we hadn't seen in years.

This may be the true value of the IMD network: it's not having contacts all over the world; rather it is having an open door, a warm meal, and a gracious host all over the world. That's a very important difference and one that truly makes the entire world our home.

Many thanks not only to our hosts but to the reunion organizers and to everyone who came as well. It was a very special experience and we are so glad that the global IMD journey continues on and on so many years after we thought we finished the program.


My Family, the American Dream

Former US President Bill Clinton recently held my family up as an example of immigrants that have done well in - and for - America. In his interview with Fareed Zakaria, President Clinton was making an argument that the US should open its arms to Syrian refugees. As evidence that Syrian immigrants can be good additions to the US population, he cited a Syrian[-Italian]-American family he grew up with in Hot Springs, Arkansas: my grandfather, grandmother, father, and aunts.

My great grandfather immigrated to the US from Syria. His son, my grandfather, who fought for the US in World War II, was stationed in Italy, where he met and married my grandmother. My father was born in Italy but the family returned to the US when he was still a baby. There he and his four sisters grew up down the street from Bill Clinton.

While I have to admit a small flash of pride in having my family mentioned by a US president, the real pride is in America. For all its faults, sometimes it truly does live up to its reputation as the land of opportunity. It is a place where poor immigrants can come, start a new life, and have children who grow up to be physicists, accountants, teachers, nurses . . . or even President of our country.

Both sides of my family came from modest means and both sides have worked hard to create secure futures for their children and grandchildren. I'm not only proud to live in a country where this is possible, but also grateful beyond measure. My family is truly living the American Dream.


International Travel

Over the past month I have been an international traveling machine. First I went to Switzerland for a couple of days. It was early Autumn when I first visited the country so it always feels nice to visit this time of year - like returning to my second home.

The weather was gorgeous so I spent the time running along the lake, revisiting my IMD stomping ground, and catching up with old friends. One of my dearest friends from IMD came in from out of town just to spend Friday with me - what an honor and a pleasure! I wrapped up the short visit Friday night with - what else - a fondue dinner with several friends. It was perfect.

I then took advantage of already being in Europe to hop the train to Paris for my annual Jimmy Buffett concert. He played Saturday and Sunday nights this year so I caught both shows. Each show was fantastic as always and a little different in its own right.

Saturday night Stephen Stills and Graham Nash of Crosby Stills & Nash joined Buffett on stage to sing "Southern Cross." Sunday night, after a full day of champagne tailgating (When in Rome . . .), I wound up right up at the front of the stage. Both shows were incomparable to any of his huge stadium shows in the US.

Last week I went to Costa Rica for the first time. It was for a bachelor party so obviously the details won't be reported here. Suffice to say, however, that we had a wonderful time. Not only did I get to celebrate a dear friend’s impending marriage and spend time in a “green” country (both in terms of its environmental responsibility and in terms of the lush tropical rainforests that extend all the way out to the ocean), but I was able to practice my español as well.

With the Costa Rica trip still large in the rear view mirror, soon I will be traveling to Dubai for my IMD class reunion. I have never been to the UAE before so it will be quite an adventure - I only wish I had more time to learn to speak Arabic first.

As my readers should know by now, I believe in collecting experiences rather than things. Things can be quite burdensome but experiences stay with you forever and no one can ever take them away from you (Plus they pack up quite easily when you move!). Here's looking forward to many more grand experiences through travel . . . and to all the frequent flier miles!


10 Years Since Hurricane Rita

Do you remember what you were doing 10 years ago today? Besides celebrating my half birthday, I mean. I remember it very vividly because it was the day before Hurricane Rita struck the Texas gulf coast.

Just a few weeks had passed since the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina had hit. Houston had opened its arms to hundreds of thousands of Katrina refugees, but it looked like they weren't going to be any safer with a second hurricane coming right at us. Millions of people were evacuating the coast to places farther inland.

Traffic backups on the evacuation routes were turning three-hour trips into multi-day nightmares. People were running out of gas on the road and some were even dying of heat stroke. The situation at the airports wasn't much better. The airports were overrun by people trying to get out and the facilities were understaffed because many of their own personnel were choosing to get the heck outta Dodge rather than report for work.

I was scheduled to depart that Friday morning (September 23, the day before Rita was due to hit) on a flight to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. Given the reports of gridlocked traffic, insane security lines, understaffed airports, etc., I wasn't optimistic that I would make it out so my Plan B was to bunker down in my house and weather the storm.

Thursday night, while tracking the hurricane's path on the news, I watched Downfall, a movie about Hitler's final days in his bunker as the Allied forces closed in on him. The movie's soundtrack featured the constant and crescendoing booms of bombs that were getting closer and closer, which very much echoed the feeling in Houston of slowly approaching, inevitable doom.

After a restless night, I arose very early Friday morning, prepared to make my attempt at the airport.
With a full tank of gas and many non-perishable provisions (in case I found myself stuck on the highway), I hit the road to IAH while the moon was still high in the sky.

Instead of car backups as far as the eye could see, though, I encountered . . . nothing. There wasn't a soul on the road. Everyone who had decided to evacuate was apparently already gone and everyone else was bunkered down. It was eerie, like something out of a post-apocalyptic film . . . and it was the fastest/easiest drive I ever had to the airport.

When I arrived at IAH, once again I anticipated that I would be entering a chaotic free-for-all (as it had been the previous day, according to the news). Instead I discovered that I was one of the only passengers there and that the airport was fully staffed. I breezed through security and reached my gate hours before takeoff. With so much time to kill and with so much relief that things were going smoothly, I decided to have a drink. As cliche as it was, I had a hurricane.

My flight took off a little before noon and we were informed that we were the last flight to depart before they shut down the airport for the storm. When I arrived in Vegas and checked into the hotel, the attendant at the desk checked my ID. When he saw that I was from Houston his eyes got really big and he went back to discuss something with his manager.

The manager came out and informed me that our entire party would have our rooms upgraded and our meals comp'ed - his establishment was proud to welcome Hurricane Rita refugees! Knowing that there were real Rita refugees who were suffering a lot more than we were while we were getting room upgrades and comp'ed meals in Vegas didn't feel great on the Karma scale, but we couldn't see how refusing would have helped anyone.

In hindsight, as charmed as that trip was, I should have gambled! However, I'm just glad that things turned out OK. Although Rita ultimately wasn't as devastating as Katrina, it still exacted a huge toll, especially farther up the coast. 10 years after the fact, my hat is off to all of the emergency management personnel who helped get people to safety before/after Rita hit.


First Obstacle Race in the books!

Saturday I competed in the Legend Race obstacle course race, a 5-mile trail run with obstacles just outside of RTP. With ropes to climb, walls to scale, poles to traverse, logs to carry, etc. every quarter mile or so, it was a lot more interesting (and a lot more tiring!) than just going for a 5-mile run.

The weather was perfect, the competitors were supportive (For example, I was having a hard time climbing a metal pole to reach a rope that I would then have to traverse when a more seasoned veteran pointed out that I could brace my feet on the nearby tree for extra leverage - it worked!), and I had a lot of fun.

My only complaint was an unexpected obstacle - a swarm of bees on the trail - very early in the race. After not having been stung for decades, I have now had more than 15 stings in two weeks! We reported the swarm to the volunteers at the next obstacle (tire flips) and they re-routed the race for subsequent competitors.

I have avoided obstacle course races because most of the big races (Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, etc.) seem cheesy and contrived. Getting muddy just for the sake of getting muddy doesn't hold much appeal for me (I spent years getting muddy on the football field - been there, done that!) so I really appreciated Legend Race's focus on real obstacles.

Today I'm sore in lots of places (especially forearms) but I really enjoyed the race. I can't wait to do it again - especially if there is an opportunity to compete with others as a team!


Weekend in Roanoke

Katie and I took advantage of the holiday weekend to take a quick trip to Roanoke, Virginia, which neither of us had visited before. Roanoke is the economic hub of southwest Virginia and less than three hours from Chapel Hill by car.

We drove up Friday after work/school and arrived in time for dinner. Upon arrival, we checked into the Hotel Roanoke, which we found to be quite charming, despite the fact that it sure looked like it could have been in The Shining!

After settling in we met a friend of mine from high school and his wife (She grew up in the area and they were visiting family for Labor Day weekend.) at Local Roots. Local Roots was a bit overpriced but offered good, inventive fare sourced from local farms.

Saturday morning we went for a morning jog along Roanoke's greenway (along the Roanoke River). It was a lovely way to start the day and we were impressed that Roanoke had so much protection for bikes and pedestrians throughout the city. We stopped by the farmers market on our way back to the hotel and grabbed a southern breakfast at Thelma's Chicken and Waffles.

It was a very nice day so we once again met up with my friend and his wife to hike along the Appalachian Trail up to McAfee Knob. Early into our hike we stumbled upon a swarm of bees. I'm not sure how many there were but I wound up with 11 stings before we finally gave them the slip. The girls were smarter than I was and, noticing the swarm in advance, circumvented it. Ask anyone who ever knew me in my football-playing days and there will be a consensus that I prefer to go through obstacles rather than around them - this time I paid for it, though!

Other than the bee incident, the rest of the hike was marvelous. We encountered friendly hikers on the trail, including many dogs, and reached our destination in two hours. The view of the Catawba Valley was amazing and seemingly went on forever in all directions - very worth the hike!

After a much faster descent (go figure), Katie and I enjoyed a pint and some lunch at Fork in the Market. I don't think this place was quite as locavore-oriented as it claimed to be but the food was fine and the beer was just what we needed after our hike.

Saturday evening we dined at Lucky, a gastropub very near our hotel. We loved it. It was an excellent mix of interesting food and good cocktails. The only downside is that the waitress never mentioned that the kitchen was closing so that, by the time we were ready for dessert (After a run and a long hike, we thought it was justified!), it was no longer available. #1stWorldProblems

On the advice of some passersby on the street, we ducked into Metro, where they gladly served us dessert - and we gladly ate it! It was really delicious, actually; not so sweet that you couldn't taste the flavors.

Sunday morning we met a different high school friend of mine and a Rice friend, both of whom now work at the same Roanoke law firm, for brunch. They brought along their growing broods too so it was nice to meet their families. We hadn't seen either of them for many years but we easily just picked up where we left off.

On our way out of town we detoured through nearby Blacksburg to see a former Rice colleague (and coincidentally also a TJ grad!) who had recently been hired by Virginia Tech. It was good to catch up with him and he also gave us a tour around Tech's lovely grounds on another lovely day.

It was a very short trip to Roanoke, but we had a great time. As we were with Abingdon, we were quite impressed by Roanoke, its friendly culture, and its excellent dining. Southwest Virginia is rapidly becoming a place to which we love traveling - and it's much more accessible to us now than it was when we were in Texas!


Running Smarter Not Longer

This year I've adopted a new running training methodology and so far I've been very pleased with the results.

Last year I was running a training plan prescribed by triathlete coach Joe Friel. It had me running four days a week, cycling through tens of different workouts. I made decent progress and set a few PRs but I didn't love it. My legs were sore throughout most of the week, I had a hard time fitting in non-running exercise, and it frankly took a lot of planning time just to stay on top of all the complex workouts, which ones to do when, etc.

Around the beginning of this year I learned that Aaron Olson, whose Paleo Runner Podcast I had been listening to for months, was promoting a new running training methodology, which is based on his own experience and insights from many of his podcast guests. He recently published a book on this methodology called Low-Mileage Running.

The methodology is pretty straight forward:
  • Focus on few high-quality workouts rather than many low-quality runs each week.
  • Only work out when you feel 100%. Allow adequate rest/recovery between workouts.
  • Frequently return to benchmark workouts to gauge progress.
For me this means:
  • Two workouts each week, one middle distance time trial, and one high intensity intervals workout
  • If I don't feel awesome during a workout, I abort and do a recovery jog.
  • As much easy jogging as I care to do throughout the rest of the week
  • As much beach volleyball, weight lifting, hiking, ping pong, and any other activities as I care to do throughout the rest of the week
In short, I have been loving it. This simple approach, with a relatively small workout menu from which to choose, is trivially easy to administer. I don't have to obsess over training planning anymore; my plan essentially writes itself each week. Also, because I frequently return to the same workouts, it's easy for me to gauge my own progress.

Performancewise, I've continued to set PRs this year and have remained injury free (which is more and more important with every new birthday). Perhaps I would have set the same PRs if I had been following a higher-mileage training plan . . . but I'm glad to hit those numbers with less time spent training.

Perhaps most importantly, I have returned to the joy of running. Instead of viewing running as something I have to do, slogging through it even if it hurts, now running is a real pleasure. My two hard workouts each week feel really good because I'm fresh and fully recovered. Any other running I do throughout the week is with friends and/or just to commune with nature. I can't overstate how psychologically important this is - I guess I had been burning out on running previously without realizing it.

Finally it's nice that I can devote so much time to other things. I'm already slammed for time, so freeing up multiple days a week of hard running workouts has really helped.

At the end of the day, running just has a much more positive place in my life again, which I love. This training methodology may not be for everyone, your mileage may vary, etc. However, if you're burning out a bit on running, plateauing, or even just looking to get started, I'd suggest that you check out Aaron's book. It's a really fast read and offers sample training plans to get anyone going.

The weather looks great this weekend so I think I'll do some trail running in the color-changing Appalachian forests - not because I have to, but because it will be a joy!


Max the Ninja Dog

We had a bit of tense situation involving Max, our golden retriever, on Monday. I let him out the front door to go the bathroom, then ducked back inside for a second to grab a poop bag in case it would be necessary.

When I came back out, Max was nowhere to be seen. That wasn't too surprising given than he likes to wander around to the side of the houses and sniff around. Our next door neighbor had just come out to let her own dogs out and was commenting that she wished her dogs were as well behaved as Max - if only she knew!

I went around to the side of the houses and . . . no Max. Sometimes he'll chase a deer into the woods behind our house, so I looked there . . . no Max. I called out his name . . . no Max.

At this point I started to become concerned. It wasn't like Max at all to wander off. His separation anxiety usually keeps him very close. Furthermore, it was dinner time and he hadn't yet had dinner, which usually means that he races back to the front door as soon as he's gone to the bathroom. So I was concerned but also just confused - something didn't add up.

I grabbed Max's leash and squeaker toy and began running concentric circles out from our house, calling his name and squeaking his toy. Some neighbors offered to help me find him but they hadn't seen him either.

After I had canvased most of the neighborhood, I still had a nagging feeling that Max running off seemed highly improbable so I returned to our yard to look for clues. As I walked around the side of the houses to check the forest again, I noticed a white cushion in our nextdoor neighbor's window . . . a white, fuzzy cushion.

I called out Max's name and, lo and behold, the cushion in the window moved - it was Max! He must have sneaked in while she was letting her dogs out. Max loves her house because there are usually dog treats lying around at accessible heights (Her dogs are much smaller than Max.) so he probably thought he could pull a quick one.

Once our neighbor returned (from helping me look for Max elsewhere in the neighborhood!), she opened her front door to let Max out. All's well that ends well, but it was a pretty tense 30-45 minutes of not being able to find him. Of course it turns out that he wasn't in any danger at all; he was just earning his title of of Max the Mischievous!


Summer Track 2015 PRs

Another summer track season has come and gone so it's time to look at how I did. Below are my PRs from this year's events with last year's PRs in parentheses:

100m: 13.1s (12.7s)
200m: 28.54s (27.69s)
400m: 1:03 (1:04)
800m: 2:31 (2:37)
1,500m: 5:23 (5:21)
1 Mile: 5:51 (5:52)
3,000m: 11:39 (11:57)
5,000m: 20:19 (20:14)
10,000m: 44:20 (44:15)

My shorter and longer distances slipped a little bit but I improved in almost all of the middle distance events.

Once again each Wednesday track night was a fun social event in addition to a track workout. We consistently went to Beer Study afterward for "recovery nutrition" and I'm already missing that weekly ritual. This week the autumn cross country series begins so it's time to shift gears from the track to the trail!


4th of July

This year's 4th of July was one of he best in recent memory. We spent it with family up on Lake St. Clair so it was filled with boating, kayaking, and eating freshly caught fish.

More than just a good, relaxing time, this year's 4th was especially significant given the recent landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. Although I'm generally not very political on this blog, I have been an advocate for marriage equality for years. Katie and I even discussed not getting married ourselves because it didn't seem fair that we should be able to do so while some people were not.

The news of the Supreme Court decision came in while I was in the security line at the airport. The couple behind me was reading the headlines from their mobile phones out loud and I was floored. I hadn't even realized that such a big decision was due so it completely surprised me. I couldn't help it; I actually wept a little right there in line.

I'm not sure why this issue has moved me so much. I'm not gay myself. I don't have that many openly gay friends or family. So it doesn't affect me in a deeply personal way. Rather, it just seems fair and right.

I get that some people don't agree with it for religious reasons, but our country is not a theocracy. If we're going to afford legal and tax benefits to one set of couples, we need to afford them equally to all. Otherwise it seems not only legally discriminatory but, worse, psychologically abusive: "These people over here are OK. You are not." This decision sends a message of compassion and openness - rather than judgment and governmental control - which are values I hold.

I feel more patriotic than I have in years not because I agree with the decision, but because I feel like our system of government really did something right. In recent years I've found myself more and more apathetic about politics as I have become increasingly cynical that our political leaders do anything more than posturing. This court ruling has really re-energized me into believing that our country is able to progress with the times.

Moreover, I'm really happy that our country is asking - and trying to answer - hard questions. Clearly we are a country that is still trying to figure out where it stands on such issues. We have just allowed for one man to marry another man (by a very slim 5-4 margin, hardly unanimous), claiming that, "Love is love." But, if a man wants to marry his cousin, for example, that is not allowed. "Love is love" isn't quite so simple. We (at least in media) rapidly accepted Caitlyn Jenner when she identified with a different gender, but we also vilified Rachel Dolezal when she identified with a different race.

Where do we stand? Where are our boundaries? As a society, what do we think is OK and what do we think we have no right to judge whether it is OK or not? I think it's fine that we don't have all of the answers but I'm glad that we're asking the questions. The answers we come up with today might be different than the answers we provide decades from now - they are certainly different than our answers of decades ago. I think it's key for a well functioning democracy to question itself constantly.

So, congratulations to my friends and loved ones who can now enjoy the benefits of marriage with their loved ones, congratulations to the US women's soccer team on a very convincing World Cup victory, and congratulations to the USA on another birthday. I am feeling very good about the USA today - God bless America!


The Magic Forest

One of the aspects we have loved so far about North Carolina is how wooded it is. Even though we live just down the street from a major university and the commercial hub of Chapel Hill, we are surrounded by trees and creeks and trails, deer and foxes and birds. Although the flora and fauna are different, it reminds me of the magical wooded trails I often walked in Switzerland.

The last two nights, however, Chapel Hill's forests have leveled up their magic. Sunday evening we took Max for a walk at twilight through one of the forest trails near our house. As the stars came out, they were joined by more fireflies than I have ever seen before.

All around us, up and down the trees and as far in the distance as the eyes could see, there were mini strobe lights popping on and off at random intervals. It reminded me of the stands during SuperBowl halftime as camera flashes would go off all over the place. I'm used to a few fireflies being around lighting up at infrequent intervals but this . . . this was something else.

We walked slowly along the trail and then, upon returning home, turned off the lights in our house to see if we could see them in the woods behind our deck. Indeed, deep in the woods there were little fairy lights twinkling everywhere. Truly magical.

I may be 36 now, but I am far from too old to be awed by a little magic in the natural world. Well done, magic forest; well done!


San Diego Day 3

Our final day in San Diego was both good and bad. The bad: I woke up with a sore throat. The good: everything else! Those who know me well know that, in my world, a sore throat comes with an immediate prescription for . . . GELATO!!!

Fortunately for me, San Diego's Little Italy is the real deal. We had multiple options for breakfast gelato (Is there any better way to start your day?) and, upon the recommendation of a friend, we chose Pappalecco. I was able to jaw with the proprietor in Italian and the dark chocolate gelato was just what the doctor ordered - Pappalecco gets two thumbs up in my book!

We then spent the rest of the early morning strolling up and down the Little Italy farmers' market. Lots of good food, drinks, and crafts were to be had but we [mostly] managed to resist temptation and stick to free samples.

As the sun rose, we felt the pull to play some beach volleyball in a part of the world where it reigns supreme. We drove to Mission Beach and were not disappointed by the volleyball scene - row upon row upon row of courts and almost all of them full!

We managed to secure one for just the four of us to play and it was so much fun! We haven't played with these two for years and they have really upped their game - hopefully we can play with them again soon.

While we were there, a friend and former colleague of mine came out to meet us on the beach. I hadn't seen him for years but it was nice to meet his growing family and spend a little time in the waves.

As I was feeling a little subpar, I took the afternoon off for a nap but rallied and caught back up with the group at The Flight Path for dinner. It was OK but not terribly memorable. The best part of dinner was catching up with a classmate I haven't seen since college. We pretty much picked up right where we left off. Unfortunately for the rest of our party, "where we left off" was a pretty nerdy place since we were both computer science majors!

Before we turned in for the night we followed a hot tip to Extraordinary Desserts which was, conveniently, right on our way back to the hotel. Wow, did it ever live up to its name! As we salivated in front of their dessert case, there were easily 30 items I wanted to order. Luckily restraint prevailed and we only got two, the Dame Chocolate and the Truffe Framboise. Oh my, heavenly, rich decadence! That's right, the day that began with dark chocolate gelato ended with dark chocolate cake . . . I'm sure it all helped my sore throat!

It was a quick trip to San Diego but we made the most of it. I'm so pleased to have gotten to know a new area of town (Little Italy) and I must say that I'm pretty impressed. More than perfect weather, an active volleyball scene, and great food, though, San Diego is home to several of our friends and that's what will keep us coming back . . . hopefully soon!

San Diego Day 2

Friday in San Diego began early with a run along the water. My training plan called for 400m intervals but there wasn't a[n open to the public] track around for miles. Fortunately the sidewalk in front of the San Diego County Administration Center (Waterfront Park) happened to be almost exactly 400m long (with a little extra room to slow down). Who am I to spit in the face of destiny? I had a great run and managed to avoid collisions with other pedestrians.

After a day of meetings, I hopped the tram to the convention center, where I met up with Katie. We grabbed a bite at nearby Water Grill (an obvious tourist trap but not bad at all - great oyster selection!) before heading out to Coronado Island.

Here we met some longtime friends of mine for a drink at the iconic Hotel del Coronado. In a previous life I used to spend the 4th of July with them every summer so it was wonderful to see them, catch up, and introduce them to Katie. And yes, the patio of the Del is a pretty fabulous place for such catch-up!

Katie's sister and her husband flew in Friday evening so we joined them and went to see another old friend at the Belching Beaver Brewery. Although our party mostly enjoyed our beers, I was a little disappointed in the Peanut Butter Milk Stout. It wasn't bad; it just wasn't as epic as I would have hoped.

We wound down with dinner at Queenstown Public House, which had been recommended to us by multiple sources. My salmon was a little dry but all was forgiven when the side of bleu cheese sweet potato fries came out!

Day 2 in San Diego was another mostly work day but, now that we were accompanied by partners in crime, the scene was set for an all-play Day 3!

San Diego Day 1

A few weeks ago Katie had a conference in San Diego so I tagged along and set up some business meetings for Smart OES. We headed out Wednesday evening and that night we had two surprises: 1. Now that we are on the east coast, it takes much longer to fly to the west coast than it did when we were in the center of the country. That should be obvious but this was the first time we really felt it. 2. San Diego tap water tastes nasty! It may be temporary and due to drought conditions but we were both blown away by how bad the local tap water was.

Thursday started off well. Katie went immediately to her conference but I met a friend and Smart OES investor for breakfast. There are certainly worse places for investor meetings than the rooftop of a hotel that overlooks the San Diego bay!

Later I had a lunch meeting at Monello, very near our hotel in Little Italy. Although it was hardly traditional Italian, I couldn't help but be impressed by the quality of the food: hand-made pasta, innovative flavors, and all quite delicious.

When Katie returned from the conference, we took advantage of the great weather and walked to/around Balboa Park. I hadn't realized that there were so many museums and other attractions in the park. We could have spent all day there! Instead we wandered around the rose garden and took a nap on the lawn - not a bad way to spend a California afternoon!

Finally we wrapped up the day with dinner at Davanti Enoteca, also near our hotel in Little Italy. For a place that calls itself an Enoteca we were pretty disappointed in its very limited wine selection. Fortunately it more than compensated with fantastic tapas-style plates. Our favorite by far was a savory house-made ricotta served with grilled Pugliese bread and fresh honeycomb. Mmmm!

It was an outstanding first day in San Diego - but there was plenty more to come.


Traveling in Switzerland

Quite often people ask me for advice when they are traveling to Switzerland. Given that I lived there for two years, it is embarrassing how little I know about the country but following are the travel suggestions I usually make:

First, a few notes about Switzerland in general:

1. It is just so incredibly full of abundant natural beauty! It really doesn't matter where you go; it's going to be beautiful. Lakes and mountains everywhere!

2. As a corollary to #1, don't just focus on your destination(s) in Switzerland; also savor the journey to get there. Whether you rent a car and drive winding alpine roads or kick your heels back on the always-on-time trains that cover the entire country, your windows will present more photo ops than you can reasonably handle.

3. Switzerland is very expensive - but you get what you pay for. Everything is very clean and there is very little crime.

4. Swiss people are not exactly warm - they won't great you with a big smile and a, "HELLO," when passing on the street - but they are very hospitable.

5. Just about everyone in Switzerland speaks at least German, French, and English and many speak at least one other language as well. Be prepared to feel inadequate about your own multilingualism but also be prepared never to have a hard time being understood.

6. For the most part, stores close EARLY in Switzerland and are not open Sundays. Plan accordingly.

7. Everything in Switzerland runs on a tight schedule. Make reservations - and stick to them.

8. Because Switzerland is so mountainous, it is easy to change temperature/climate in just a few minutes by increasing or decreasing your altitude.

9. Because Switzerland is so mountainous, many of the lower parts enjoy hours of "false twilight" in the summer. The sun dips behind the mountains, creating a magical twilight that goes on and on until the sun finally sets for real.

10. Fondue is awesome and you should eat as much of it as possible while you are there.

OK, now for some specifics:

1. I don't really know anything about Interlaken but people seem to love it for outdoorsy adventures.

2. On the German side, Zurich is a great city but I don't know how much of a travel destination it is. Nearby Luzern, however, offers a lot for tourists - see my previous post about my trip there.

3. Down in the Italian part, Lugano makes for a fantastic little getaway. It has more in common with Italian lake towns such as Como and Bellagio than it does with the rest of Switzerland.

4. Of course the bulk of my recommendations are focused on Romande, the French part of Switzerland where I spent the vast majority of my time. My principal advice for this region is already summarized in a previous post.

My thinking has matured a bit since that post and I now recommend Le Chalet Suisse for the best fondue and view in town. Also, if you have a car, a full-on Swiss dairy experience is well worth the drive.

I hope this is helpful to my traveling friends and please let me know if I've left anything out!


Doctors in Action

On a flight yesterday I had front row seats to watch two physicians spring into action. An elderly lady in my row fainted when she stood up to go to the bathroom. There was an immediate call over the intercom for any physicians, nurses, or medics on board. Within seconds, two passenger doctors were by her side, checking her vitals, asking her questions, and trying to figure out what happened.

The affected passenger didn't speak English especially well and her voice was understandably quite faint as well. To further confound the sleuthing process, when they asked her if she was on any medication, she pointed to her bag but each of the pill bottles was identified only in Chinese. Fortunately, one of the flight attendants could ready Simplified Chinese so together the three of them were able to piece together answers to the diagnostic questions.

At the end of the day, the woman seemed to be fine, but it was a really interesting experience to watch. It was quite inspiring, actually. In today's litigious environment, I wouldn't have blamed doctors for not treating a patient without several pages of liability waivers in place first. But these two doctors, who had long ago taken the Hippocratic Oath, sprung into action with only a care for the patient.

I am often critical of our overly complicated, misaligned-incentive-driven healthcare industry. However, as long as doctors like these two passengers are around, I breathe a little more easily. Thanks to them and to all the others out there who have devoted their lives to healing!


Tarheel 4 Miler Race Report

Last weekend I took second in my age group on a very hilly Tarheel 4 Miler course. This was my second year running this race and I was pleased with the improvement in performance.

Last year unfortunately my GPS watch wasn't working so, while I had a baseline time (29:03), I didn't have any more granular information about km splits, which would have been especially useful for this race because it is so hilly. As such, my race plan called for a specific average pace and then I adjusted it down for downhill segments and up for uphill segments.

I managed to secure a spot near the front for the start - no small feat with nearly 1,200 runners! There I met someone who described me as his nemesis. Oh, hello, it's not every day that you learn that you're someone's nemesis! Apparently he and I had run several of the same races and each time I had overtaken him right at the end. Exciting - now I had extra motivation to run hard and live up to my nemesis status!

After an outstanding rendition of the national anthem, we were off. The 1st km was flat at first and then offered a steep downhill. Between launching hot at the starting line and flying down the hill, my first km split was 3:52 (Yay!) but my heart rate was pretty high (174) for that early in the race (Boo!). My nemesis was way ahead of me but I told myself just to run my own race.

The 2nd km had even more downhill but I managed to moderate my pace in order to finish in 4:06. My heart rate was down to 172, which was more in line with my goal. The 3rd km was more flat so I finished in 4:27 while keeping my heart rate constant at 172 (average).

My pace slowed during the 4th km, which had a long, gentle uphill: 4:43. My average heart rate was down to 171 so maybe I wasn't pushing hard enough. However, knowing what was coming next motivated me to play conservatively here.

The end of the 4th km marked the beginning of the Laurel Hill Challenge - a full mile of steep incline (Time to pay for those early downhills!) with only a few flat segments. There was a timing mat at the bottom and another at the top so runners were scored not just on their overall times but also their splits for Laurel Hill.

The 5th km was a trudge: 5:11 at a 176 average heart rate. The 6th km was pretty rough for the first half and then flatter and even a little downhill for the second half: 4:38 overall but averaging 180 BPM. I wasn't concerned about the high heart rate at this point because there was very little race left. My nemesis was back in my sights now but I couldn't quite close the gap.

The final half km last year went through the stadium tunnel and then finished in the football stadium. Not only was that a very cool experience, it was a very flat experience as well. This year, due to stadium maintenance, the final half km went back uphill almost back to the starting point - oy, not fun at all! I channeled my inner Rocky and left it all out there, finishing this segment in 2:02, hitting a max heart rate of 187. Perhaps best of all, this is where I passed my nemesis - the streak is intact!

My final time was 28:58, only a few seconds faster than last year but on a slower course due to the final uphill. My Laurel Hill split was 7:28 vs 7:47 last year so it seems that I am continuing to improve at running these very non-Houston hills that Chapel Hill has to offer.

I finished #20 overall and #2 in my age group. #1 in my age group was #1 overall (< 23 minutes!) so I have a loooooooong way to go! Still, it was a great race and I'm proud of my progress!


Spring in Chapel Hill

There's no other way to describe it: spring in Chapel Hill is paradise. Cool evenings, warm days, some April showers but mostly sunny - this is the stuff! It reminds me of summers in Lausanne, except that it's not summer yet and there isn't the same feeling of kids off from school, summer vacation/holidays, etc. yet.

After enduring a very cold February and then a March that couldn't quite seem to let go of winter, April arrived and it has been pretty glorious ever since. Beach volleyball, running, and even just walking the dog are true pleasures now. In fact, Smart Office Energy Solutions has set up offices in Chapel Hill and one of the advantages is that walking to work is really nice right now.

It really is neat being back in a place with four seasons as it creates a much more dynamic environment. When we first moved in, we had no idea that we had so many neighbors because they were all hidden by the dense woods between our houses. As the leaves fell, nearby houses began to appear. Now that it is spring, every time we go outdoors there is more and thicker foliage than before. What was a barren forest just weeks ago is now a vibrant green and is teaming with life. Once again our home feels like an isolated treehouse hidden away in the forest.

There's something about the cycle of seasons that just seems so . . . natural. I'm not sure which is my favorite, spring or fall, but I am really loving the opportunity to experience them both again!


Should Your Kid Be Allowed to Play Football?

The football world was rocked this week when Chris Borland, a promising, young linebacker for the SF 49ers, decided to retire rather than risk lifelong injury. As more and more evidence has been mounting that repeated head trauma (even when protected by a helmet) can have a lifelong, cumulative effect, this early retirement calls the question: is football fundamentally unsafe? For people in my age group (whose playing days are long behind us) the real question is: "Would I let my kid play football?"

I'm really divided on this. football was a really integral part of my development as a young man, as a leader, as a teammate, as a disciplined goal achiever, and (certainly at TJ!) as a prevailing underdog. Lifelong friendships were made on the field and lifelong experiences took place under the friday night lights.

Could the same have happened in another sport or even a non-sport activity? I would assume so, but, for whatever reason, football was just a better fit for me than baseball, wrestling, track, Boy Scouts, theatre, and all the other activities that slowly fell by the wayside as I grew older. I loved football and I was good at it so it became a fantastic "sandbox" in which for me to grow and develop. If I had a son, I would hope for him to have access to that sandbox too.

But we now know much more than we did back then about the implications of repetitive head trauma. I'm not sure I would let a son play today, knowing what we now know. Although I feel blessed to have made it through a college career without any major injuries or surgeries (which I can't say about many of my teammates), lord knows I played through some concussions in my day. And lord knows I dished out many more concussions than I received - something of which I was proud at the time but at which I look back now with regret.

New research seems to be implicating other sports - like soccer - as well in such head trauma, although I really can't imagine that it's at the same level. But it does remind me that the question isn't: "Is football dangerous?" It's "Is football more dangerous than other sports? If so, how much more so?"

At the end of the day, parents can't protect children from all dangers. In fact, it would be a disservice for them to do so, lest their children grow up completely unable to defend for themselves. So I suppose it's up to parents and athletes to make an informed decision about whether the [unique] risks of an activity outweigh its [unique] rewards. One thing is clear, though: in order to empower parents and athletes to make that assessment for football, we need more, better, and more available data.


Fittest Entrepreneur Again

Last Saturday I won my second consecutive Houston Fittest Entrepreneur Challenge! That turns out not to be very impressive as there weren't many entrepreneurs competing this year but I still took second among all male competitors and improved on my performance from last year so I feel very good about the results.

This year's event was much like last year's: it took place at the Houston Dynamo Sports Complex, the events were almost identical to last year's, and I had the same awesome team of my former Rice students cheering me on, plying me with water, etc. There were two main differences, though: 1. there were ~3x as many people competing this year and 2. there were many more corporate teams competing as opposed to individuals. This second factor probably accounts for the dearth of entrepreneur entrants and the glut of executive, professional, doctor, lawyer, and consultant competitors, most of whom were part of company teams.

After warmup, mobilization, and review of my race strategy with my "pit crew," I got after it:

Course 1

Event 1: 30 bodyweight inverted rows on a suspension trainer. I finished in 23 seconds, #5 overall. Last year my 28 seconds was good enough for #4 so already you can see that the competition was stiffer this year.

Event 2:  40 plyo box step-ups while carrying a 25-lb sandbell. Last year I finished in 1:14 (#9) and this year I swear my judge said 1:14 as well. However, in the final results I'm listed at 1:24 (#54, my worst place). I can't think of any reason that I would have dropped 10 seconds in this event since last year. Still, a 1:14 only would have bumped me up to #34, so this still would have been my worst event.

Event 3: 40 had-release push-ups (You have to rest fully on your chest and take your hands off the ground between reps.). Last year I finished the normal push-ups in 29 seconds (#4) but I found the hand-release push-ups much harder. I had to break up 40 into five sets of eight with a 4-5 second rest between sets otherwise my shoulders would get totally smoked. This strategy took me 56 seconds (#31). Given that I was near the top for push-ups last year and so far off this year (The top performers in this event were in the low 30s.) I think there was something I didn't understand about the optimal way to blast through this movement.

Event 4: 40 35-lb kettlebell swings. I finished in 48 seconds (#6) vs. 52 seconds (also #6) last year.

Event 5: 40 arms-behind-your-head to fingers-past-your-toes sit-ups. Last year this was my worst event, finishing in 1:18 (#12). This year I paced myself better and improved my time to 1:11 (but placed worse at #18).

Event 6: 20 burpees. I finished in 44 seconds (#5), pausing for two breaths at the halfway point, vs 45 seconds (#4) last year.

Event 7: two-minute plank hold. This was my undoing last year as I didn't even make it a full minute, tapping out at 52 seconds. This year I worked hard on my plank in an already exhausted state and it paid off: I completed the full two minutes to tie for #1. It's a good thing, too - last year 52 seconds was enough for #8 in the event; this year it would have only earned me #61!

Clearly the field was much more competitive this year: I had improved my performance in almost all of the events yet, instead of placing #8 overall for the first course as I had last year, I was down at #13! Even if my second event time was indeed incorrect, the correct time would only have boosted me to #10.

Course 2

After a rest and some coconut water, I hopped into Course 2. This was completed in pairs and I was fortunate to be paired with someone else who was very competitive. We both pushed each other through each of the four events, which I believe improved both of our scores.

Event 1: agility drills. Up and back through these speed ladders and hurdles took 29 seconds (#3) vs 1:23 (#4) on a longer version of the course last year.

Event 2: 10 15-lb sandbell tosses over a high barrier followed by suicide sprints. 50 seconds (#8) vs 60 seconds, (#9) last year. Already I could feel that I was doing better on this course than I had done last year - and my partner was helping to motivate me as he kept beating me by just a hair.

Event 3: 20 15-lb sandbell slams followed by a 100-yard out-and-back bear crawl. 43 seconds (#2!) vs 1:16 (#12) last year - a huge improvement. My partner was ahead of me heading out of the slams but I caught him at the turnaround of the bear crawl and never looked back.

Event 4: 100 yard out-and-back sprint while carrying a 10-ft, 40-lb sandrope followed by a 100 yard out-and-back sprint while carrying a 50-lb sandbell. 39 seconds (#3). Last year's event was just the second half of this one and I finished in 17 seconds (#4).

I improved my performance in every single event of this course and it showed as I completed this course #2 overall vs. #8 last year. My calf started cramping a bit in the final event so I rested and coconut watered up a bit before the 5k.

Course 3

Last year the course was a bit short, just 4.8k My km splits were:

4:39 (166 BPM heart rate)
4:42 (167)
4:39 (168)
4:36 (171)
3:18 (only 800m)

for a 21:54 (#3) finish.

Two weeks before this event I ran a 5k time trial in Oregon after an intense SHOP workout. My km splits were:

4:36 (163)
4:31 (165)
4:25 (170)
4:23 (172)
3:55 (184)

for a 21:55 finish. That was substantially faster than last year's competition since it was the same time for a full 5k vs just 4.8k. Given that performance in a training run, I was optimistic that I would do even better in a race situation.

This year the race course was a full 5k. Amped up on competition adrenaline I went out a little faster than intended and then had to rein it in a bit as the heat, humidity (very different weather than we had during my Oregon training run!), and exhaustion from the previous courses conspired to make my right calf threaten to cramp. I managed to stave off the cramp, though, and still beat last year's short course time on this longer course. My splits were:

4:27 (166)
4:25 (171)
4:27 (173)
4:27 (175)
4:04 (183)

for a 21:50 finish (#6) overall - much slower than my fresh 5k PR but a new "exhausted" 5k PR!


In the end I finished #13 on Course 1, #2 on Course 2, and #6 on Course 3 for a total score of 21, which was good enough for the top Entrepreneur spot and #2 among all male competitors. The #1 finisher earned #2, #4, and #4 on the respective courses for a total score of 10 so he was way ahead of me and even a correction to my plyobox step-ups event wouldn't have helped me make up much ground on him. Clearly I'll need to improve my performance in Course #1 substantially next year if I want to make a run at the overall title!

Once again this was a really fun event for which to train and in which to compete. I have to offer up huge shout outs to everyone who helped me out along the way:

The SHOP - my go-to source for all matters strength, conditioning, and nutrition
Paleo Runner - my running coach who is helping me improve my running with a less-is-more, smarter-not-harder approach
Unbound Body - my fascial stretching therapist who is helping me work through my mobility limitations
Chapel Hill Obstacle Run Conditioning Group - working out in this group has definitely improved my performance in things like the bear crawl.
Sid - my friend in Oregon who paced me during the 5k time trial
Matt - my Virginia friend who helped me train for courses 1 and 2 in Abingdon
Katie - my devoted wife who timed me on many training run-throughs and was so supportive of my efforts
Vivas and Veronica - my on-site pit crew was so incredibly helpful as I was nearing exhaustion in each event!

Thanks to everyone who helped me along the way! It was a blast and next year I'm thinking of putting together a team!


BBQ and Fitness in Houston

I spent the last week in Houston for business but, of course, managed to pack in social, culinary, and fitness adventures a plenty!

The culinary highlight by far was my first visit to Killen's BBQ, which has taken the Houston BBQ scene by storm over the last two years. To be honest I was pretty skeptical that it would be worth a drive outside the loop and lining up before they opened, but I was willing to give it a shot because . . . BBQ!

I met a couple of friends and colleagues there at 10:30 on Thursday - apparently you have to wait for hours on weekends but weekdays are more manageable. We took a number (which turned out to be meaningless), got in line, and then filed in when they opened at 11:00. Waiting in line outside, we could smell a little of the pecan, oak, and mesquite awesomeness, but it wasn't until we crossed the threshold into the building proper that the aromas really set our salivary glands into action.

Because I wasn't sure when I would ever be back there (and because I was hungry), I ordered every meat they had available: lean brisket (delicious), moist (read: fatty) brisket (more delicious), pulled pork (delicious), turkey (very good but a bit salty), pork belly (aka bacon that hasn't been cured - very tasty but so fatty as not to be my thing), pork rib (kind of underwhelming), jalapeno sausage (delicious), and the pièce de résistance: beef rib. A noted restaurant critic has called the Killen's beef rib "the Mona Lisa of beef" and it did not disappoint. It was the best beef rib I've ever had and much of the rest of the meat was some of the best I've ever had as well.

For sides I had pinto beans and green beans - both very good but not mind blowing. One of the other members of our party shared some of his bread pudding with me and that was pretty outstanding. Overall I have to say that Killen's is definitely a cut above - truly craft BBQ. Craft isn't that important to me when it comes to BBQ, though, so I'm not likely to endure too many long drives and longer waits in line for it. Still, it was fantastic to try - especially that beef rib.

I had ordered so much meat that other people in the restaurant came over to take their picture with my tray. At another time in my life I might have tried to eat it all (including the 2-lb beef rib) in one sitting, but instead I focused on trying a little of everything and then I took a lot home. Like a snake devouring an elephant, I slowly/surely made my way through all the leftovers over the next few days. In fact, I ate so much BBQ that my urine even smelled like smoked pecan, oak, and mesquite - that's a first for me!

Saturday I defended my title as Fittest Entrepreneur in Houston. Results haven't been posted yet but, once they are, I will post a blog entry about that experience. Lots of people have heard of carb loading before a big race but have you ever heard of protein loading? Neither have I! But, given my BBQ binge, that's exactly what I did and it seemed to go pretty well for me.

Saturday evening I attended the housewarming party for some former students of mine (all grown up now!), which featured some of my Houston favorites for dinner: Torchy's Tacos, Madras Pavilion, and Bombay Pizza Company - mmmmm!

Then, later in the evening, I joined a former Rice colleague to continue my Barolo education. We did a mini-horizontal tasting of two 2003 Baroli, one from the Barolo region and one from Serralunga. While they both needed some time to open up, they really developed into very, very nice wines - and they paired perfectly with the steaks that my host grilled up. We ate, drank, and chatted about all ranges of topics until about 1 AM - an excellent way to wind down a very active day.

Sunday started with beach volleyball, a real luxury compared to the snow and frigid temperatures Katie was experiencing back in NC. I didn't have much stamina, unfortunately, due to soreness and recovery from the previous day's exertions, but it was still fun to play with one of my long-time partners.

It has been a great week, full of food, wine, fitness, and friends! Now it's back to work as Smart OES will soon be making a very big announcement!


Weekend Getaway to Abingdon, VA

This weekend I spirited Katie away on a surprise trip to Abingdon, Virginia. She has been working hard on her master's thesis so deserves a little R&R - even if I have to impose it on her!

We stayed at the Martha Washington Inn, which began in the 19th century as a women's boarding school but has since been converted to a hotel and spa. We found the Martha Washington to be a very nice facility with the right mix of older charm and modern amenities. It is a multi-level maze of guest rooms, sitting rooms, spa areas, parlors, dining rooms, staircases, and health club facilities. By the end of our stay we had probably only made it to about 40% of all the hallways.

It took about 3.5 hours to drive to Abingdon from Chapel Hill so we arrived Friday late evening. One of my good friends from high school, Matt, and his wife, Angie, drove down from Northern Virginia and met us for the weekend. Once they arrived, we set out and grabbed a light dinner at Bonafire Smokehouse, just down the street. They offered BBQ, craft beer, and live music - not a bad way to start our trip!

Saturday we began the day with a light jog along the Creeper Trail. It used to be a rail line but was converted in the 1970s into a 34-mile pedestrian and bike path. When the weather is nice you can take a shuttle all the way to the other end of the trail - the top of the nearby mountain - and leisurely bike back down, stopping to take in the scenic views. However, the weather was not nice on Saturday - cold and gray with a very biting wind - so we opted for a short run instead of 2-3 hours with the wind in our faces! The highlight of the run was a herd of horses in a nearby pasture that chose to race Katie and show off for Angie while they ran - apparently Matt and I weren't very interesting, though.

A good, short run deserves a good, long meal so we struck out afterward for 128 Pecan, a fun little bistro, for lunch. We thought 128 Pecan was just great and we feel pretty qualified to judge . . . because, between us, we ordered more than half of all the items on the menu! Pimento cheese crab dip, hummus, sesame fried oyster tacos, black bean cakes, blackened salmon . . . I can't even remember everything we ate but it was all delicious! What a great find in a tiny little town.

After walking around historic downtown Abingdon, we returned to the Martha Washington and spent the afternoon relaxing. Although we didn't avail ourselves of the spa services per se, we did take a bottle of champagne out to the multi-level outdoor jacuzzi and let our stresses melt away as it started snowing. There was something so neat about being in a hot, steaming pool of water while the snow was coming down - I'm going to have to visit my Nordic friends some day and give cold weather sauna culture a try.

Saturday evening we met some friends of mine from Huntsville, Alabama, who recently retired to Abingdon, for dinner at Figaredo's. Although we usually prefer to stay as far away from restaurants as possible on Valentine's Day, this restaurant had a nice little prix fixe menu that wasn't cheesy at all. Once again we were impressed by the quality of the cuisine in such a small town. While the snow accumulated outside, the six of us stayed warm with good wine, food, company, and laughter.

Sunday was much colder than Saturday but also much sunnier. We had a reprieve from the snow so, after a morning workout in the fitness center, we drove over to our friends' house for a true country brunch. I had been to that house once before but it was really inspiring to see the renovations that they had recently made.

Well fed as we were, we returned to Abingdon for a matinee performance of Anything Goes at the Barter Theatre. By now we should have come to expect that everything in Abingdon punches above its weight but, once again, we had modest expectations. We were really blown away, though, by the quality of the performance: the singing, dancing, costumes - everything! I suppose that's how this tiny theater has attracted such talents as Gregory Peck, Kevin Spacey, and Ernest Borgnine over the years.

As the weather became ever colder, we decided to stay in Sunday evening so we dined at the hotel's Sisters restaurant. It was a very nice meal including fried chicken and waffles, fried quail, and fried cheese curds . . . notice a pattern?

After dinner we repaired to the library, cozied up to the fire, and took advantage of our favorite Martha Washington Inn tradition: complimentary port in the evenings! Another couple came in and we wound down the night talking politics, careers, and music.

Monday morning came way too early but we needed to be on the road before the next snow storm struck. We made it out OK and didn't encounter any problems on the [heavily salted] highways back to Chapel Hill. Now there is a a layer of snow accumulating on our deck but we are safe and warm inside. We miss our friends already, but we will just have to return to Abingdon sometime soon - and perhaps during warmer weather so we can do all the things we wimped out on during this trip!


First Trip to Oregon

This weekend I took a quick, but very active, trip to Oregon - my first time to visit that state. I arrived Thursday and was met with exactly what I expected from the Pacific Northwest: gray and rainy weather. One thing I didn't expect, though, was that the drivers would not be very good at dealing with the rain. Throughout the trip my driving travel times were increased due to accidents but I would have thought that, in a place where it rains frequently, people would have figured out how to adapt. Not so, apparently.

My trip began in Portland and my first stop was the Nike campus (technically in nearby Beaverton). The Nike campus is really cool; it simply oozes sports. Every building is named for a prominent athlete, sports fields and running trails litter the grounds, and everywhere you look are banners, statues, and busts of even more athletes from every sport imaginable. Although I am not a huge fan of the Nike brand, I had to tip my hat to them when I noticed a bronze bust of Art Monk, one of my favorite football players of all time, as I was walking by. Well played, Nike; well played.

At Nike I had lunch with two friends who work at Nike, one was a football teammate of mine at Rice and the other was an MBA classmate of mine (and Tug of War teammate!) at IMD. As one might imagine, the cafeteria (in the Mia Hamm building) at a place that is so focused on sports is pretty fantastic. I had steelhead trout, brussels sprouts, greek yogurt, and toasted coconut chips - not a bad way to break my fast!

After stopping to see another Rice friend at Nike, I headed to downtown Portland, where I had a reunion with one of my favorite ex-IMD professors. He is still doing cutting-edge research on entrepreneurship so it was very interesting to hear about his most recent findings. However, it was even more interesting to let him take me on a walking tour of Portland's Pearl District, which finished at Blue Star Donuts. Anyone who has read my treatise on nutrition will know that donuts are definitely not part of my nutritional plan. However, my companion assured me that this was one of the places to try in Portland, so when in Rome . . .

He and I shared a peanut butter donut with blackberry compote (delicious) but there were so many other intriguing flavors that I decided to pick up a box of five more (Valrhona dark chocolate, dark chocolate crunch, blueberry crunch, Mexican chocolate, and maple & bacon) to bring as a gift for my hosts later that night. Some of those flavors turned out to be more exciting than others but I was glad at least to try them. After waiting out the traffic (and more accidents), I finally hit the road and made it down to my friends' house in Eugene.

Friday morning my host, who is not only a great runner but also an avid lover of all things running, took me on a running tour of Eugene, which is known as Track Town, USA. We started in Hendricks Park, which overlooks the city, for some scenic trail running. I hadn't had a chance to see "real" Oregon Thursday because I spent the day in urban areas and it was already dark by the time I hit the road. As soon as we started running on Friday, though, I was impressed by just how green Oregon is. Lush grasses, towering fir trees, and moss, moss everywhere. It just really gives the impression that organic life thrives there.

We stopped by Pre's Rock, the location where Steve Prefontaine died, and then made our way down to the heart of the city. During our pilgrimage to historic Hayward Field, we took a lap around the track and ran the [sizeable] stadium stairs. Then we ran across the University of Oregon campus to run along Pre's bark trail - around the football stadium and then along the Willamette River. Running was a fantastic way to see a city that is so prominent in the US's running culture and I'm extremely grateful to my host for organizing such a unique tour.

After a good run, what do you need? Recovery nutrition, of course! So we went wine tasting at King Estate Winery. I'm not usually very big on pinot noir but they had a couple that really won me over. Afterward we stopped by a local fish market and made a nice dinner of fresh seafood.

Saturday we woke up early for a pre-dawn trail run along the Ridgeline Trail. Gradually the big moon made way for sunrise and we were once again treated to wonderful views of the city whenever we emerged from clusters of forest - truly magical!

At this point I left Eugene and drove up to Corvallis, where I would stay for the rest of my trip. Again I was impressed by just how green everything was on both sides of the road and extending as far as the eye can see.

My second Oregon host has been the subject of previous blog posts. He is the proprietor of The SHOP, which recently relocated to Corvallis, Oregon. Still a bit winded from our trail run, I was excited to see the new SHOP location so I made my way directly there. It's a really fantastic facility: high ceilings, open spaces, top-end equipment, and the best bathrooms I have ever seen at any gym! As expected, Drew treated me to an epic workout (normal for him, epic for me). Then we recovered with local craft brew and local-ish (in nearby Albany) fine dining, both of which were excellent.

Sunday Drew took me through another tough workout and then my Eugene host came up to join me for another running workout. Even with all the strenuous activity, I never felt too beat because Drew kept me plied with huge amounts of high quality - and delicious - nutrition.

Monday morning I snuck in one more awesome SHOP workout and headed back up to Portland to catch my flight. This trip really turned out to be a destination fitness fest and I wouldn't have had it any other way. During and between the workouts I spent time with great friends and I got to know - albeit very briefly - the very green state of Oregon. I hope to be back soon!


Death, Remembrance, and Notre Dame

January 23rd is always a day of celebration in my family. It is not only the day that my wife entered this world but also the day my father did - many years earlier. On some January 23rds, however, the feelings of joy are tempered by feelings of loss - the conspicuous absence of a father's birthday party and a father's age that no longer increases by one every year. He would have turned 70 this January 23rd and I, nearing 36 years of age, would have known him for more than half his life and all of mine. Instead I knew him for 11 years before he died, nearly 1/4 of his life and a little more than 1/3 now of mine.

Perhaps due to the milestone birthday or perhaps because we spent January 23rd this year at a funeral, this was one of those January 23rds that carried more mixed emotions.

Katie and I spent the end of this week in South Bend, Indiana, where her father grew up, celebrating the long life of Katie's recently departed grandmother. Thursday we flew into Chicago, where we met up with the rest of Katie's immediate family, and carpooled down to South Bend. The weather was cold, but not nearly as bad as it could have been in this part of the country this time of the year. Because Katie's grandfather had been a professor at the University of Notre Dame, the funeral service and burial would take place on campus. As such, we stayed in a hotel near campus for easy access.

One thing was immediately evident in South Bend: this was a Notre Dame town. Fighting Irish logos were everywhere: on buildings, on jackets, on cars . . . everywhere. Even our hotel was decked out with pictures of Notre Dame sports legends. This was fine by by me as it included many life size likenesses of Joe Montana, my favorite QB of all time. Seriously, though, I thought Chapel Hill was a UNC town or Austin a UT town but they don't come even close to the single-team mentality of South Bend.

Friday we spent much of the day on the Notre Dame campus, where I had never been before. If I had had my druthers, my first trip to Notre Dame would have been for a football game, not for a funeral, but sometimes life has other plans. Katie's father, Chris, was an excellent tour guide on the Notre Dame campus, having spent much of his youth there. If the weather had been nicer I might have taken more time to walk around and explore but we still got plenty of its flavor from inside the heated car.

The funeral mass was held in Notre Dame's basilica, which . . . is . . . BEAUTIFUL! I have been to some of the most spectacular churches in the world and this is definitely one of my new favorites. The deep blue ceilings with starry motifs were really quite beautiful and it struck a good balance between impressive and intimate - a nice combination for ushering someone into the next world.

After the burial, Katie's family was kind enough to indulge me in a brief stop at the Grotto. I had heard of the Grotto when Rice football played at Notre Dame last year and I saw this story about a Rice football player seeking it out after the game. It's a quiet little enclave just below the basilica with candles and prayer benches. Just as the Rice football player had sought it out, it now turned out to be exactly what I was seeking as well on this day of mourning.

I lit a candle for Dad and spent a little time on the prayer bench (which would have made my Nonna happy!) wishing him a happy birthday, letting him know that we still miss him, and encouraging him to seek out the recently arrived grandmother of another January 23rd baby who now brings me so much joy. It was a very nice moment that was really facilitated by the quiet, spiritual nature of the Grotto. A great deal about Notre Dame's campus impressed me: the basilica, the golden dome, the football stadium . . . but the Grotto was my favorite.

At the wake, most of Chris's siblings and extended family joined him in celebrating Katie's grandmother's life. They told stories for hours on end. Some stories evoked laughter, some evoked tears, many evoked both, but all were helpful for the grieving process.

Later that night we went out for Katie's birthday - not necessarily the one we would have planned but a good one all the same. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter which kind of cake you eat or which presents you get; being with those you love and who love you is the best gift of all. And that, of course, is a lesson that transcends birthdays and is even relevant to funerals:

"... The ones that love us never really leave us. And you can always find them in here [heart]."
- Sirius Black, the Harry Potter series

My father continues to live on in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he touched. This includes several friends from his youth who continue to keep his memory alive by sharing stories about him with me, much like the stories that Chris's family shared about their mother.

On this January 23rd I am thankful for so many things: the 11 years I did have with Dad, the friends and family who help me continue to get to know him through their stories, Katie's family for unwittingly helping me work through my grief even as they were mourning their own loss, Notre Dame for having just the right place that I needed when I needed it, and most of all for Katie - we've celebrated 13 birthdays together now and I hope to celebrate many, many more. January 23rd is indeed a day of celebration!