Saturday, January 30, 2010

So you want to be a downhill racer?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ski faster than most people drive?

Well thanks to former Austrian ski racer Hans Knauss, we can get a sense of what it would be like, as he streaks down the Streif course in Kitzb├╝hel, Austria, before the famed Hahnenkamm downhill race last week with a camera in hand.

The Hahnenkamm is easily the most difficult — and dangerous — course on the World Cup circuit. Racers hit speeds of up to 90 mph, and crashes there have nearly claimed the lives of a few men and ended the careers of many more.

Keep in mind as you watch that Knauss is not going nearly as fast as the racers would be, because he's not in a full aerodynamic tuck and is carrying a camera, which he deftly swings backward a few times to give us an interesting perspective.

His trip does not start until about 53 seconds into this video, and his narration is in German. But the adrenaline rush will be universally understood.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The power of tunes

Those who know me are well aware that I'm not an early adopter of technology or trends. Still, it might surprise even some of them to hear that I only recently discovered the joys of working out while connected to an iPod.

I was probably so late to the party because I don't like to be plugged in and tuned out; in other words, I like to be fully aware of my surroundings at all times. I'll never understand why people think it's OK to ski or ride a bike, for example, while listening to an iPod. It's simply not safe, in my opinion.

But at the gym, what harm could come of it? Besides, I was tired of listening to some of the drama being played out there, as well as the obnoxious grunts and the sound of dumbbells slamming to the floor. (Note to dumbbell-tossers: If you have to throw them to the floor when you're done with your set, they're probably too heavy for you.)

So last week I finally plugged myself in and was amazed at the difference it made in my gym experience. Not only could I no longer hear the aforementioned annoyances, but I felt stronger. I was lifting more, and tiring less quickly. It was like an auditory injection of steroids. (Note to the metaphor-impaired: Let me state for the record that I am unequivocally opposed to the use of performance-enhancing substances, including all those dubious over-the-counter supplements that so many gyms hawk.)

Afterward, I decided to put together a playlist of "power tunes," favorite songs that I thought might give me a boost while working out. I'll share my list here, and feel free to share yours, too, if you have one. Or, you can register your opinion on the subject of music-enhanced workouts with the new poll you'll find at left.

My list is admittedly a bit dated, because my favorite genre is classic rock. And I should note that there is one favorite song missing from my list, AC/DC's "Who Made Who." That's because AC/DC is not available on iTunes, and I lost my AC/DC "Live" CD to a rental car in Las Vegas a few years ago. (Note to rental car guys: I've had your stupid car for a week. Do you think you could spare more than 30 seconds to allow me to retrieve my belongings from it before you shove me aside and drive off?)

Without further ado, here's my power playlist:

"The Rising," Bruce Springsteen
"Houses of the Holy," Led Zeppelin
"Lessons," Rush
"I'm the Only One," Melissa Etheridge
"Lawyers, Guns and Money," Warren Zevon
"Back in the Saddle," Aerosmith
"Cream," Prince
"Jealous Again," The Black Crowes
"In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," Iron Butterfly
"Until it Sleeps," Metallica
"Pretend We're Dead," L7
"Beast of Burden," The Rolling Stones
"Won't Get Fooled Again," The Who
"It Can Happen," Yes
"Sweet Child O' Mine," Guns N' Roses

Monday, January 25, 2010

This story shouldn't stay in Vegas

I don't normally channel-surf, but fortunately yesterday was one of those rare exceptions, because I stumbled upon an amazing bit of history being made. It was ESPN's live broadcast from Las Vegas of the Professional Bowlers Association Tournament of Champions, in which Kelly Kulick became the first woman to win a PBA title.

Kulick was already something of PBA trailblazer, having become the first woman to qualify to compete on the men's tour, back in 2006. She went into the record books in resounding fashion yesterday with a 265-195 victory over Chris Barnes that included 10 strikes. Even Barnes looked choked up by what he was witnessing, and not because he was watching $40,000 and a prestigious title slip from his grasp.

Kulick's feat should bode well for the future of women's bowling, which has struggled since the Professional Women's Bowling Association folded in 2003 due to a lack of sponsorship.

Bowling is a sport in which the best women should be able to compete well against the best men. It is, after all, a sport that rewards focus, accuracy and consistency over power. Still, it would be nice if there were enough interest and sponsorship to support a women's tour again.

Kulick's win yesterday should go a long way toward ratcheting up the interest.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Words to live by

Inertia can be a powerful force. Have you ever been in a job or a relationship or some other situation that wasn't making you happy, but yet found it hard to leave, if for no other reason than things had "always been that way"?

If not, consider yourself lucky. But I've been there, done that, so maybe that's why I found myself chuckling at the following comment from Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, as quoted in the Jan. 18 issue of Newsweek, explaining why has was leaving the Senate after four decades in politics.

"I don't want to be here at 80 sucking Cream of Wheat through a straw."
— Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The tarnished gold standard

This was pretty predictable, given the great American obsession with success in the Olympics, but I saw a story the other day with the headline "Will 2010 Games become the Vonncouver Olympics?" The play on words was a reference to Lindsey Vonn, the talented American skier who is currently battling it out with her close friend Maria Riesch of Germany for the lead in the overall World Cup standings.

"The what standings?" you ask. Don't worry, you're not alone. Even if you're a skier, if you're not a fan of ski racing, you probably have no idea that there are a whole host of races and events every year, and not just every four years when the Winter Olympic Games come around.

This is especially true in the United States, where it's almost as if ski racing didn't exist, except for the Olympics. That's one reason why that headline bothered me, because we've gone this route before, mostly notably in 2006, when Bode Miller arrived in Turin, Italy, as a favorite — at least as far as the American press was concerned — to sweep all five Olympic skiing events, but left without a single medal.

So was Bode a failure? There's no point in delving into that question, particularly since all things Bode can get a bit complicated. But I do know that were I to ask any male racer on the World Cup circuit which prize in skiing he covets the most, he might just as readily answer the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzb├╝hel, Austria, as any Olympic gold medal. Female racers would probably say it was the overall world cup title, something Lindsey Vonn has won the last two years.

If Vonn doesn't win a single medal in the mountains near Vancouver next month, she will still rank as the most successful female ski racer in U.S. history to date.

So if you're not a skier, you're probably saying, "Who cares?" Well, like most of my seemingly obscure posts here, I see a parallel to our everyday lives. This occurred to me a couple of nights ago when my partner's niece called to tell us that she had made the dean's list at the University of Vermont. While I was genuinely happy for Chrissy, I said to her, "Congratulations, but we were very proud of you already."

Chrissy reminds me of my own niece, Stephanie, who recently completed graduate school and embarked on a career as a physical therapist. They are both highly intelligent, talented, genuine and compassionate young women whom I admire — the sort of people who make you think, "If only there were more like them in this world, the world would be a better place."

My point is, I think we focus too much on outcomes, the "gold medals" in our own lives — the high test score or job promotion or whatever marker of success we happen to be striving for — and not enough on the process, the small accomplishments that make us who we truly are. Gold medals are perhaps overrated.

Lindsey Vonn is a ski hero no matter what happens in the upcoming Winter Games. And my nieces Chrissy and Stephanie are everyday heroes, dean's list or not.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some thought for food

The New York Times recently resurrected a post that had originally appeared in 2008 called "The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating." The headline might have overstated the case a bit, because as it turned out, I regularly eat 6 of the 11 foods.

The ones on the list that don't at least occasionally make it to my plate were beets, cinnamon, prunes, turmeric and canned pumpkin. Of those that I do eat, Swiss chard happens to be my favorite vegetable and typically accompanies my meals once or twice a week. The other foods on the list that I enjoy were cabbage, pomegranate juice, pumpkin seeds, sardines, and frozen blueberries.

As I read the list, it occurred to me how easy it is to incorporate most of these foods into our diets, with very little effort and expense.

I started thinking about convenience foods, and how we so often turn to them because they seem easy. But really, how hard would it be to open a can of sardines and steam some Swiss chard, and then serve up a dish of frozen blueberries for dessert? It would provide a quick meal with far more nutritional value than that frozen dinner loaded with sodium.

Of course in order to do such a thing, you would have to have sardines in the cupboard, Swiss chard in the refrigerator and blueberries in the freezer. Healthy eating is in many ways about preparedness. When we're caught with our guard down, it's too easy to make bad choices.

Take those late-afternoon cravings for sweets at work, for instance. If we're not prepared, they too often end up in a trip to the vending machine or the nearby doughnut shop. But make sure you don't leave home without some sweet raisins, or a juicy piece of fresh fruit, and those other options no longer seem as tempting.

Healthy eating doesn't require a lot of work, just a little thought.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Whatever happened to Vinko Bogataj?

"Who?" you ask. OK, what if I said the "agony of defeat" guy? "Oh right, him," you're probably nodding — the unfortunate ski jumper who became the iconic figure of failure in the opening footage of ABC's Wide World of Sports for many years.

Vinko Bogataj never came back after his 1970 crash to achieve success as a ski jumper, but he is apparently still alive and well, living in his native Slovenia and enjoying a tamer pursuit — painting.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Soaring with the men

With the 21st Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, less than a month away, it will soon be time to showcase some of the world's best athletes, right? Well, not exactly, because there's one group of highly skilled athletes who you won't be seeing in these games: female ski jumpers.

A group of female ski jumpers filed suit in 2008 to be allowed to participate in the Vancouver games after the International Olympic Committee voted not to include women's ski jumping in 2010. The women pursued redress in the Canadian courts based on the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which, among other things, bans discrimination based on gender. In the end, they were denied when Canada's Supreme Court declined, without comment, to hear appeals of lower-court rulings that the charter does not apply to the selection of Olympic events.

The International Olympic Committee based its decision not to include women's ski jumping in Vancouver on what it said were technical criteria, in that there were two few elite competitors and too few countries that would compete to justify its inclusion. The committee left the door open to including women's ski jumping in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Let's face it, ski jumping is a pretty obscure sport, at least in North America. If they were asked to name a jumper, most people, including myself, would probably be hard-pressed to name anyone other than perhaps Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, the British jumper who made a name for himself in the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary by being endearingly bad.

Ski jumping has been, since its first inclusion in the Olympics in 1924, largely a sport of European men.

Among the other compelling theories that have been advanced about why the women were not allowed to compete in Vancouver is that there would be no money to be gained from it. The Olympic Games are a big source of advertising dollars, and those dollars usually chase the biggest events and the biggest names in sport.

But when all is said and done, I have to wonder, too, whether the women were not included because they pose a threat to the good-old-boys network. In most sports, were the best women allowed to compete against the best men, in almost all instances the women would lose — and lose in a pretty sound manner.

Ski jumping could have a very different outcome, however. Lindsey Van (shown above), an American jumper and one of the plaintiffs in the Canadian court case, holds the North American distance record — 171 meters, or 563 feet — and also has jumped farther than anyone — man or woman — on the 90-meter jump built for the Vancouver games.

Is it just coincidence that the IOC denied her bid to compete on the very hill on which she holds the record? We probably will never know. Van is now 25 years old, and it is doubtful that she would be a participant in the 2014 Games, should women be included by then.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Time travels

As I have previously mentioned, I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions, but I have to admit, there is something about a new calendar year that triggers some innate desire in me to become more organized.

This annual ritual manifested itself this past week in my going through old photo albums, weeding out photos that had become so faded as to be unrecognizable, those that were redundant, and even a few that reminded me of times I'd rather forget. I had long been concerned about the strain that this ever-growing collection was placing on the closet shelves.

As I sorted through my photos, something became immediately apparent: I have traveled a lot over the years. This started early in life, when I was a mere passenger on my parents' journeys, but continued throughout my adulthood, when I was the one charting and steering the course.

I still travel as often as I can, now with my partner, but in looking at my old photos, I found a special satisfaction in recalling the trips I took by myself. Maybe this is nothing more than a bit of smugness, since so many of my friends have lamented that they'd like to travel, but have no one with whom to go. But I think it's more than that.

I have always had a case of wanderlust, that delightful word of German origin that means a strong desire to travel. I am often thinking about, and planning for, that next trip, even if it's years away.

There was a brief time when I became concerned that I was using travel to escape something, but I soon realized that was not the case. Escape is wanting to know less, not more. Travel allows us to learn — about other people and places, and if we permit it, ourselves. There is so much to learn, and I want to learn more.

My period of solo travel took me to some places that would be at home on any list of tourist destinations: Toronto, Ontario; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the stunning national parks of Utah.

But there were a few trips that raised some eyebrows, such as that week in October when I rented a cabin in the woods in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, or the year I flew out to Winnipeg, Manitoba for a week of exploration (I was told more than once that even Canadians wouldn't think of vacationing in Winnipeg!).

A lot of my friends didn't understand why I wanted to go to some of these places, or why I wanted to go anyplace by myself. They would utter that word — "You're going alone?" — as if it was some sort of medical condition to be avoided.

But what I found over the years was that if you want to truly get to know yourself, it's best accomplished without the company of others.

Along the way, I met some wonderful people, learned about different places, and saw many beautiful sights. Others may have scoffed at some of my choices of destinations, but I will never forget the simple beauty of the Manitoba prairie as seen from a train, endlessly reaching toward the equally expansive sky.

Nor will I forget the mournful sound of the wind whistling through Frijoles Canyon in New Mexico, as storm clouds gathered on the horizon and I sat alone, feeling so insignificant and so powerful at the same time.

And then there was my stay in a tiny cabin alongside the Spanish River in northern Ontario, where I had gone for a retreat. I had the privilege of seeing the aurora borealis light up the night sky and the next morning was awakened by the sharp crack of a beaver's tail slapping the water just a few feet from the cabin's door. I looked out into into the early-morning fog, feeling utterly content in the solitude of the moment.

I am enjoying travel now from a different perspective, with my partner, and I hope we will be fortunate enough to continue to travel together throughout our remaining years.

Travel is exercise for the soul.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

'Hey Jude' makes it better in Newark

I love those feel-good moments when adversity brings out the best in people. It seems like such moments don't happen often enough, or maybe we're just more likely to hear about the bad than the good.

So when a Transportation Security Administration officer let his guard down at Newark Liberty International Airport last Sunday and some jerk decided to duck a rope and enter a secured gate area through an exit, things could have ended very badly. As it was, passengers in Terminal C were forced to leave and be re-screened, prompting a seven-hour debacle in which police hunted in vain for the man, flights were canceled, and strangers were jammed together in some pretty uncomfortable places. It's the stuff of travel nightmares.

But instead of the usual fistfights or shouting matches one might expect to break out, some passengers broke instead into song. This video gives me hope for humanity.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tired of just sitting around

Unfortunately I saw the old year out and welcomed in the new one with a case of bronchitis that has sidelined me from work and play, and, of course, working out.

Day Ten of doing absolutely nothing finally got to me. I could almost feel my muscles withering away, so I wanted to do something, anything, for exercise that wouldn't cause my lungs to explode or my heart to feel like it wanted to leap out of my chest. Just something to get me up off the sofa or out of bed and moving again.

So I was mentally going through all of the exercises I could think of it when it hit me: wall sits. What better exercise for someone who's supposed to be recuperating than sitting, only without a chair!

I remember first hearing about this exercise many years ago, while reading about how some of the U.S. ski team members would have wall-sit contests to see who could endure the longest. I was impressed at the time that some of them could go for as long as 45 minutes or an hour. I had tried it myself and was lucky to last a minute.

Well it turns out that while 45 minutes might be quite impressive for the average person, or even the typical world-class ski racer, it's nothing compared with what the world-record-holder accomplished. That would be Dr. Thienna Ho, who managed to perform a wall sit for 11 hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds in San Francisco in 2008. The mere thought of that makes my quads scream.

Here are some photos of her as she sat for the record and visitors stopped by to wish her well and pose with her.

Dr. Thienna went for the record to honor her late mother, who spent the last three years of her life confined to bed because of an autoimmune disorder. Dr. Thienna, incidentally, also holds the record for the most sumo squats performed in an hour — 5,135.

It you want to learn more about how to do a proper wall-sit, take a look here. It's not as easy as it looks, so take it easy at first while building up endurance.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Are you an apple or a pear?

I suppose immediately after the holiday season isn't the best time to bring up the subject of waist and hip measurements.

Or maybe it's the ideal time, as those who have overindulged over the last month or so head to the gym in droves, at least until February or March. Most are probably going to be watching the numbers on a scale, but there are a couple of other numbers that are even more important to pay attention to.

You've probably heard that old saying that it's better to be pear-shaped than apple-shaped, but what does it really mean? It refers to the fact that excess body fat around the abdominal area has been shown to be a greater health risk than fat around the hips.

Studies have shown that people who carry a lot of excess abdominal fat (the apples) are at much greater risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other serious health problems than those who carry excess fat around the hips (the pears).

To perform a little reality check of your own, all you need is a tape measure, a mirror or an assistant to help you place the tape measure in the right places, and an online calculator, such as this one (it introduces yet another fruit analogy, the avocado, which is somewhere between pear and apple).

So go ahead, and don't be afraid. Calculating your waist-to-hip ratio is a useful tool to help you assess potential risks to your future health. There's no better time to do that than the present.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year — every day!

I've never been a big fan of New Year's resolutions, although I have dabbled in them. I eventually swore them off after noticing an unsettling pattern involving both my resolutions and those of my friends.

Our resolutions always started off positively enough — we were going to get in better shape, eat better, do a better job of staying in touch with family and friends, etc. — and we for some reason saw the new year as the perfect time to commit ourselves to changing our ways.

Now don't get me wrong: I applaud anyone who is aware enough to realize that their life could probably be improved in some way. My problem with New Year's resolutions is not with the resolutions themselves, but with their timing.

I can remember sitting around in mid-December, contemplating the arrival of another new year, thinking about what I would like to change, starting when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31. Why was I waiting? I could have just as easily started working on my resolutions on December 15 or 19, or even August 15. But I didn't. I waited for the new year.

Another thing I noticed was that once the new year had begun, should the effort to change whatever it was that I or my friends were working on falter, the resolution would be completely tossed aside. "Oh well, there's always next year," seemed to be the unspoken sentiment.

When it comes to bettering our lives, I don't see the relevance of the Gregorian calendar. If we instead regard a year as a period of 365 days, then every day is a new year, and a chance to accomplish our goals and realize our dreams.

So happy new year — today, tomorrow, and every day.