Saturday, May 23, 2015

There are different ways to win a race

There are different ways to win a race.

One way to win is strategy. Alternating tempos during the race, pushing and testing your opponent, wearing him out and getting under his skin until you make your last decisive move and he isn't ready for it or just doesn't have enough emotional capital left to match you.

Another way to win is through luck, which can play out in a number of ways. The heavy favorite could get tripped up and fall early in the race giving you a comparative advantage. Or the race tempo could just happen to play exactly to your particular strengths, giving you a slight edge over the other racers.

Yet another way to win is just to want it more. Whether its racing in front of the home crowd or coming off of a bad season with something to prove or one of a hundred other personal reasons, you can sometimes eke out a win by digging deeper than the rest of the field.

But the last way to win a race is the most obvious: be stronger than everyone else.

Strangely enough you see this situation less frequently than the others in world-class events because, at that level, everyone is as tough as everyone else. But sometimes there are true outliers.

Next weekend is the Prefontaine Classic, the most prestigious and competitive distance event held on American soil, and it reminded me of last year where Galen Rupp won the 10000 m. It went off at a hot tempo, with each lap in 64 or 65 seconds, and eventually they had whittled it down to just four men.

I had seen this situation before, a group of Africans and one white guy struggling to hang on. But looking at their expressions I could see that the situation was reversed: the Africans were the ones hurting, and Rupp looked easy and relaxed.

With three laps to go Sambu made a move to try to shake the rest of the field but Galen moved right with him. And when Rupp countered with his move (a 59 second penultimate lap!) no one could follow. He was just too strong. Rupp ended up setting a personal best, the American record, and the world lead (the fastest time run that year by any athlete in the world.)

As exciting as this race was I'm hoping this year's Prefontaine Classic brings something just as memorable. Galen Rupp will be there (this time in the 5000 m) along with almost every one of the world's very best. You can watch the event live Friday night on and on Saturday on NBC.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How To Learn Any Classic Recipe

If you like to cook, you've probably had this experience before: you see a dish on TV or in a magazine, it looks great, so you decide to look it up and learn how to make it. The problem is that when you search for specific recipes, their are a hundred different versions, so which one is the best? And how do you find that specific one?

To answer this question you have to know a little about food history. The way a dish develops is that several basic ingredients are combined by different cooks over years, sometimes centuries. At first there are many variations, because each cook has their own specific taste. (This is the far left side of the graphic above.) But with each small change, they get feedback from the people that they are feeding (a mother cooking for her family, a chef for the guests at his restaurant), and the recipe gets altered accordingly. Eventually, all of the myriad versions converge to what most people prefer. (This is the narrow point in the center of the graphic.)

Here's where the story get's tricky. People who cook a lot get bored with even a perfect recipe, because they are cooking and eating more than the average person. So they start to experiment, retool, reinvent, and the recipe diverges again into many distinct forms. (This is the right side of the graphic.) It isn't that there is anything wrong with these new reincarnations; for a seasoned chef, they are probably more interesting. But for most everyone else, the dressed-up version isn't quite as good as the time-tested classic.

The problem that we find ourselves in is that, for most dishes, we are on the far right of the timeline. The perfect recipe was found and then partially lost in an array of flashy re-imaginings. So how do you get back to that sweet spot?

How to Learn Any Classic Recipe

Step 1. 

Read through several recipes for the same thing. Don't worry about memorization, you don't need all the details, just the overall method.

Step 2.

Whatever ALL versions have in common is the classic recipe!

That's it. You've extracted the basic recipe from the many variations. Let me show you an example. In the last few episodes of Iron Chef America someone made a bolognese sauce (a rich, rustic Italian sauce with tomatoes and meat, similar to a ragu.) So I read through five or six recipes and found that most had veal, many had pancetta, and some had cream, but the absolute essentials were these:


  • Cook diced onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves in oil.
  • Add a combination of ground beef and ground pork to the pot and brown.
  • Deglaze the pan with red wine. Then add beef stock and a tomato product (puree, paste, whole tomatoes) and simmer until the meat is tender (about 90 minutes).
  • Serve over papardelle and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

The recipes you find online are what a bolognese CAN be. But this is what a bolognese IS. It may still take a couple of tries to get it perfect, but tinkering is easy once you know the fundamentals. The great thing about learning to cook this way is that you don't need a copy of the recipe any more, because you know what the dish is. You understand it. And you probably learned a lot about cooking along the way.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Night Run

WE HAD A snow/rain storm for most of the day yesterday, so I tried waiting it out, hoping for a break in the precipitation to sneak in a run. It was nearly 8 pm by the time that happened, but once I got out on the roads it was great: 34 degrees, wet, not raining but the clouds were thick and low doing that thing where they reflect the lights from the city so everything has this glossy glow like something out of a David Fincher movie.

A great shot from Fincher's masterpiece, "Zodiac."

I really wanted to do intervals, but the BYU indoor track was closed so I hopped the fence at the High School and ran on their oval. It was my first time running on a track at night. There were no direct lights, but it's right in the middle of town and there was enough ambient light from street lamps and storefronts and cars to allow me to make out the lane lines.

The workout was repeat quarter miles; it started out great, my legs felt strong and buoyant, so I went out a little hard too early. But then the fact that I haven't done any speed work in two months caught up with me and I was only able to do six of the ten reps. (This always happens after a break; I'm zealous to run hard, so I go out a little hot and end up burning out before the workout is over. I guess I still need to learn that lesson.)

But I jogged home and felt good about finally getting some solid miles in. I'll have to do this workout again next week, but go out a little more conservatively on the first few and wait to really ratchet down the speed until the end.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Very Weird Run

I finished a very weird 4.98 miles this afternoon. First, the background: I've been sick for the last two weeks so I haven't run at all in that time. This morning my chest was still tight and I had a lingering cough, but I felt like a bowl of mud so I thought an easy run might lift my spirits.

The first thing I noticed was how smooth my stride was; lately I've been feeling like I come crashing down with each step, but today I was sinking smoothly into the knee and rolling into the push-off in one connected motion. It's strange to feel stronger after a long break, but it hasn't really been a break: I bike to and from school every day, I'm on my feet several hours a day for work, I lifted some big weights last week and I've been experimenting with some more aggressive yoga poses. So I think all of that translated into some extra strength in my quads and glutes.

As per usual after too miles I was fully warmed up and I felt great, so I decided to extend my run by a mile or two. But after three miles, it became harder and harder to maintain the 8-minute-per-mile pace that felt so comfortable when I started. I was trying to figure out what was going on when I remembered an old Joe Friel article about decoupling, which is where your heart race and pace are no longer connected. It's the metabolic indicator of fatigue, and it meant that the rest of my run was going to be tough.

I turned around and headed back to my apartment, but it took another two miles to get back, two heavy-legged, hard-breathing miles. I had a stressful week at school and I'm working two jobs, so I get up early and work late every weekday which takes its toll even without any running added into the mix. So that is the double-edged sword of being busy and doing a lot; you can't train hard every day like you might want, but with two weeks of almost no "exercise" and lungs that were probably a little virus-impaired, I still ran five miles in just over 40 minutes that were mostly easy.

P.S. Another weird thing about the run is that it was nearly 60 degrees out, so I went shirtless, which is bizarre for Utah in February. It was nice, but I read an article about how the warm winter could cause some kind of ecological catastrophe in the region later this year. That may be true, but for today, during my run, I didn't mind.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Hearty Winter Recipes

I don't know what it is about cold weather that makes me so hungry, but after a long run through snow and ice a dainty salad is not enough; so here are two sturdy meals that will warm you, fill you up, and stick to your insides (they also cure insomnia, because they are nothing but starch and protein and slamming a couple of pounds of this stuff right before bed will knock you out better than any pharmaceutical.) Both have the same origin: one night I was tired and hungry and made whatever I could with the only ingredients I had on hand, and necessity is the mother of nearly everything good. Enjoy!

Sausage-Potato-Corn Hash


smoked sausage
frozen diced potatoes for frying
canned sweet corn

  1. Slice sausage and cook in a large pan on medium-high heat.
  2. Remove sausage and fry potatoes in the sausage fat (add vegetable oil if not enough fat rendered from the sausage.)
  3. Add corn, stir until just heated through (do not cook the corn; canned vegetables are already cooked.)
The contrast between the saltiness of the pork and the sweetness of the corn is great, and the potatoes round everything out.


Shrimp and Sweet Potato Risotto


arborio rice
chicken stock
sweet potatoes
raw shrimp

  1. Bake sweet potatoes in oven until it's tender but can still hold it's shape (try 45 minutes at 390 degrees.) While doing that...
  2. Melt butter and olive oil in a saucepan, coat the rice, and cook briefly. Then add chicken stock gradually until the rice is as tender/firm as you prefer. Once the rice is started...
  3. Peel shrimp, toss them in olive oil, lemon juice, crushed garlic and cajun seasoning (I used paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper.) Broil until they just turn pink.
  4. When the three parts are done, stir them all together.
This one really blew me away; it takes some time but as risotto goes it's pretty simple and the flavors blend together perfectly.