Starship Troopers, because why stop with the cheap scifi just when I’m hating myself?

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1987. First published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.

Not like a Cyberman at all.
Not like a Cyberman at all.

I have become enamored of reading bad science fiction late at night when I am feeling anxious for whatever reason. In this case, the cat’s health issues over the past month have certainly been a constant source of stomach-churning fun.[1]

Short story shorter, a few weeks ago I found a copy of Starship Troopers in the Alex P— Immemorial Wing of the library. I’d recently had a discussion with my youngest brother about politics in literature, so I decided to take a little look through it. So let’s summarize the plot!

Juan “Johnnie” Rico is an immigrant from the Phillipines (or the area formerly known as) to the US (or the area—you get the idea—the book isn’t super specific about world geography in a lot of ways) who grows up in luxury, the son of a rich businessman. He’s living in a futuristic society (post-20th century, date not specified but seems pretty far into the future, since there’s faster-than-light travel and various other gadgets) in which military or other civil service is a prerequisite for becoming a full citizen (of what is referred to as the Federation). Most people don’t bother—you can live a perfectly fine life without becoming a citizen; the main drawback is that you don’t get to vote. Still, come their 18th birthdays, Johnnie, his best friend Carl, and a girl in his class named Carmen all go down to the Army/Navy office and sign up. Carmen, who is very good at math and has good reflexes, goes to piloting school. Carl, who we are led to believe is pretty smart, winds up in R&D. And Johnnie, who has no particular skills other than being a pretty engrossing narrator, joins the M.I., or Mobile Infantry. They are basically like the normal infantry, except they have rocket-powered jumpsuits that allow them to bound over a lot of terrain relatively quickly. This turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise for him, as he is able to gain discipline, martial skills, insight into why a person might become a soldier and why it’s important that only those who have served have the vote, and other pressing societal issues. After a while, the Federation gets into a war with the bug people. Juan makes up with his estranged father, then goes to officer training school and winds up as a lieutenant leading his own platoon.

Heinlein writes about military life with a certain familiarity—he went to the naval training academy himself, though he was discharged in the 1930s with TB and never saw combat. Still, his descriptions of boot camp have a vividness to them that will be somewhat familiar to anyone who has taken part in physically demanding activities.[2] In fact, while the book is set in the future, it’s a future that smells a lot like the 1950s. We have air cars, yes, as well as faster-than-light ships and an elaborate body armor for soldiers that enables them to fly, but people still read newspapers and receive telegrams, fill out forms by hand and receive paper letters. Perhaps more striking, all the fighting is done by boots on the ground rather than, for example, drones.[3] Of course, the book would not have been as exciting had our hero been training to fly drones rather than fight himself.

Philosophically speaking, there are a few other interesting points to be made. In many ways, Rico functions as a cog in a machine, and he implies that everyone in the army functions in the same way. This is, on the one hand, bureaucracy taken to its natural extreme; on the other hand, it’s confusing to think of an army where everyone has to fight, including people who might otherwise have incredibly important skills that would dictate that they should be kept alive (like code breakers/linguists/etc.). Interestingly, despite having many friends die in training and combat, Rico never questions 1) the training he is receiving, 2) the war he is fighting, or 3) the overall necessity for war (he sees it as a biological necessity based on the availability of habitat). And for all his pro-MI rhetoric, Rico never really gets a triumph. He succeeds in a lot of things, including rescuing his Buck Sergeant[4], a man called Zim, from the bugs, but he is injured during the rescue and doesn’t really recall all of it, negating and distancing him from what would otherwise have been quite a victory. In this way, Heinlein sort of acknowledges, obliquely, that while war may be rationalized with a variety of pretty, noble tropes, its actual execution is quite a bit uglier, and much less noble.

This book does a good job of developing the world in which it’s set gradually; by the time you get to the end, you’ve gotten a fairly good idea of what life in it is like, but Heinlein doesn’t rush to dump information on you at the beginning. The book also features a fair amount of diversity in terms of race compared to most science fiction. And, at least compared to Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s treatment of women here is much less aggravating; yes, Rico repeatedly remarks at how pretty women are, but he’s unable to get off with anyone—in general because all the women he meets are way smarter than he is. He’s not bitter about this, which is refreshing, and the women, as I mentioned, are genuinely intelligent and good at their jobs (c.f. the constant parade of large-breasted bimbos in SiaSL).

My brother, mentioned mere paragraphs ago, reads this book as a satire. His reasons for this seem to be rooted in a few things about the book–for example, the way the the “bugs” are dehumanized/caricatured and some things about the way the bureaucracy functions, as well as the fact that later on, Heinlein commended the author of The Forever War, Joe Halderman, on having written such a good novel, and The Forever War is widely regarded as being about its author’s experience during the Vietnam War (in Vietnamee, Kháng chiến chống Mỹ). Having read the book, I’m not sure I believe him; Heinlein is a competent writer and a good storyteller, but I don’t know if he’s good enough to pull off that kind of unflinching satire.

I think that’s about all I have to say about this one. I’m told there’s a film version, but I looked at the plot, and it looked like the director didn’t actually read the book so much as steal the character names/title. Interestingly, there are a lot of articles suggesting that the film version is satire. So there’s that.

Next time: Something with women in it.


It's now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.
It’s now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.

[1] For those not following along on Facebook, the cat had an adenocarcinoma of the small intestine. She is currently doing well following a bowel resection, but the cancer isn’t really cured and will return, probably within the next six months. But there have been a few anxious nights, mostly because I’m still a hypochondriac.

[2] Like ultrarunning.

[3] Drones are weird, aren’t they? At any point in the last ten thousand years of human history right up to, oh, the mid-1990s, that war will always have to be fought by people was a reasonable assumption to make. Now the elimination of people from offensive combat could totally happen.

[4] Good luck figuring out the ranks discussed in the book. Lieutenant is higher than sergeant; that’s all I can tell you.

9780804139021

Getting Back Is Half the Problem: The Martian, by Andy Weir

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, 2014.9780804139021

I first heard about this book when it was mentioned in this XKCD comic. For whatever reason, that description, plus the film’s trailer, made me want to read it. AND SO HERE WE ARE, AT THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER REVIEW.

Hurrah?

Okay, plot summary: Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, is accidentally left behind after the Ares 3 mission to Mars. In case you don’t know anything about interstellar travel, the distance between the Earth and Mars is roughly 140 million miles; it’s only 92 million miles from the sun to the Earth (a distance known as 1 Astronomical Unit, or AU), so the distance from the Earth to Mars is roughly one and a half times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. If you could travel the speed of light, you would be able to send a rescue mission across that distance in about 15 minutes, more or less. If you lived in the far future where there were ships waiting on the launch pad in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately for Watney, he lives in the more-or-less present, where technology is about what you’re familiar with and it’s going to take upwards of four years to get him rescued. And he has the rations sent for himself and five crew mates for thirty days, so all in all he has about one hundred and fifty days’ worth of food. Also, he has no way of communicating with NASA (the communications devices were damaged during the storm that caused his mission to abort). So he’s in what might be called a real pickle.

That’s the setup. I won’t give the ending away, since this is a relatively recent book, but if you haven’t read it and plan to, you should be aware that I will refer to details of the story later in this review that could potentially spoil parts of it for you. Consider yourself warned.

Watney faces his situation with a certain amount of nerve and a sense of humor. Most of the book is essentially epistlatory in nature, playing out through a series of log entries and email exchanges, although there are some narrative sections as well. Going beyond Watney, a lot of the supporting characters are not strongly drawn personalities; there’s Annie, the NASA media person, who cusses a lot; Venkat, the administrator who is in charge of the Ares project; Teddy, a higher-ranking administrator at NASA; Bruce, who is in charge of Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL); and some other astronauts who have various jobs. They are a mix of races and genders, but their characters didn’t feel distinct enough to be able to say, “This character’s drive is x, this one’s is y.” Perhaps because they all were working toward the same goal, and no one had any underhanded motives. It’s actually pretty easy to see why this book was picked to become a film[1]—the plot is really straightforward. There are certainly a lot of events that befall our hero as he scrapes through each day, but the goal—survival, getting off Mars—remains the same for the entire book, and with this sort of Man vs. Planet plot, there’s no need to humanize the opponent in the third act to set up some sort of gray area. And, as I said, the characters have only a few characteristics given—this one likes disco, this one likes old mystery novels—so for an actor, they might be a lot of fun to add more details to and really bring to life.

One thing this book does really effectively is teach the engineering mindset. This is something I’ve been getting into myself, since I’ve been learning how to write code the past few weeks. Basically when I say engineering mindset, what I mean is a step-based, iterative approach to problem-solving. You have a particular large issue—“How do I stay alive on a hostile planet for four years?”—and break it down into pieces. What do you need to survive? Food, water, shelter. Okay, what methods can you use to get food? (Hint: The hero, conveniently, is a botanist.) Once you have a method, if you can use this method to produce x amount of food, where the total amount you need is z and zx is > 0, how can you start to increase your yield? And so on. It’s not necessarily super thrilling, but it actually feels like how an astronaut might approach a problem like this, which is kind of neat.[2] I can tell now, looking at the film’s trailer, that a lot of stuff has been added in to provide emotional interest, whereas the book was heavy on the science and low on the human stuff (second trailer: super funny). I hope they don’t get rid of too much of the science stuff, since one of the neater sides of the book was getting to see something about how NASA, the JPL, and the various astronauts work on problems and think through things. For example, I didn’t realize that they were so concerned with mission failures that a 4% margin of error is considered unacceptably high. (Or perhaps it’s not, but the book is fairly accurate about a lot of space-related stuff.)[3] Somewhat unfortunately, during the times Watney is in contact with NASA/JPL, a lot of his narrative is reduced to “Did what NASA said. Awaiting next transmission.” He doesn’t go rogue or rebel. He just wants to do right and live through this. But his willingness to cooperate is really a hint at the intriguing central question of this book.

The soul of this book, the question it really grapples with, is not a scientific one but a human one: Why spend so much money and so many resources (both physical resources in terms of food and technology and ephemeral resources like time and manpower) to rescue one guy? A few of the characters in the book bring this up sort of peripherally—by expending all their efforts to get Watney, NASA is giving up a lot of other research projects that could be providing data (and they’re not the only one—NASA’s Chinese counterparts bemoan the loss of data a probe was supposed to bring them even as they hand it over to be used for this mission. Reporters, whose constant presence seems unfortunately very realistic, question whether the expenditure of money is worth it. The book’s answer is decisively yes, and it’s not just because Watney is such a winning character. As Watney puts it (you can hear him saying this if you go watch the trailer), people’s natural instinct is to pull together in a disaster—giving blood or money, volunteering to help in some way. The book is not about man’s inhumanity to man, as is the case with so many works, but about man’s humanity to man in the face of adversity. It’s a thought that feels startlingly naïve, and yet one that’s welcome in this age of strife.

I’m not usually a hard scifi person, but this book was an exciting and quick read. Weir is a good writer; he’s not poetic by any means, but he’s funny and has a solid grasp of his craft. His characters are smart. I’d say on the whole there aren’t enough female scientists represented—most of the characters are male—but that actually feels kind of petty here. And the women who do appear are as strong and smart as their male peers; in all the depiction is much more satisfying than the one in Dune. Sorry, Frank.


[1] In addition to the other things, the film being set on Mars, a very red-orange planet, gives the filmmakers a chance to make everything as orange and teal as possible.

[3] How dangerous it is to be an astronaut depends on how you look at who exactly is an astronaut and what exactly counts as an astronaut-related death (for example, a test pilot flying a plane at sufficient altitude could be considered to have entered space without actually being an astronaut; there have been a lot of deaths during training missions, both spaceflight-related, as Apollo I, and unrelated, as various plane crashes that have killed astronauts). Wikipedia says there have been eighteen in-space deaths in four incidents, thirteen non-space (training) deaths, and also lists a bunch of non-astronaut space-program-related fatalities, such as NASA personnel who got caught in the wrong place when things blew up. There have been 536 people in space as of November 2013, meaning that astronauts have a death rate of something like 5.78%. Yikes.

“Spice must flow”: Dune Reviewed

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Ace Special 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Ace Books, 1990.

Dune is apparently the most popular science fiction book ever published. I’m not kidding—you can google that shit. Anyway, this year is the 50th anniversary of its publication (1965–2015), and I had never read it. Then one night I was having a discussion with B about world building in scifi/fantasy and he said, “Every universe has one thing that it’s centered around. In Star Wars, it’s the Force. In Dune, it’s the spice.”

I was unfamiliar. Having just finished Solaris, I decided I would rectify that and dug out our copy.[1] Soon I was deep into to the world of the gom jabbar and the kwizach hadarach, the reverend mother and the melange. Many a night in the last few weeks I was up far past my bedtime, tellling myself I’d read just a few more pages before I turned out the light.

In case you, like me, have been living under a rock for the last my entire lifetime and then some, this is the plot (spoilers ahead):

Duke Leto Atreides, his concubine Lady Jessica, who is a highly trained Bene Gesserit adept, their fifteen-year-old son Paul (who has also been trained in his mother’s weirding ways), and the duke’s entire entourage pick up and move from Caladan, a normal-sounding planet with lakes and rainfall, to Arrakis, also called Dune, a desert planet where it never rains and the native Fremen wear special stillsuits designed to reclaim all bodily moisture for recycling. Arrakis was previously ruled by the Harkonnens, who are the mortal enemies of the Atreides, and the switch got made basically because the Padishah Emperor decided it should happen.

Not long after their arrival, the duke receives notice that there is a traitor in his midst. And then, returning from a night of supervising his troops, Duke Leto finds that the Harkonnens have engineered a plot to land highly trained imperial troops on the planet, kill him and his family, and take the place back.

After a daring escape and a lot of running around in which nearly every character you’ve come to care about dies in rapid-fire succession, Paul and the Lady Jessica wind up getting adopted by a band of Fremen led by a man named Stilgar. Lady Jessica actually takes Stilgar in close combat (unarmed) to gain their acceptance, and later on Paul knifes a guy, so it’s not like this part of their journey was easy. After they return to the Fremen home base, Lady Jessica (who is pregnant with the late duke’s child) is tested with the Water of Life and becomes a Reverend Mother (a type of religious leader), which means that she gets certain powers primarily related to communicating psychically (in a sense) with the band’s previous Reverend Mothers. This isn’t good for the fetus (who will grow up to be St. Alia of the Knife), but what can you do.

Meanwhile, Paul falls in love with a Fremen woman named Chani, and they will have a son together in fairly short order, because I guess condoms don’t exist in the year 10,191. Paul, now known by the Fremen as Usul (privately) and Maud’dib (publically), to say nothing of his other titles (Lisan al-Ghaib for one, and Kwisatz Haderach for another) is able to see the future to some extent because of the spice, his natural inclinations, and the Water of Life. Eventually, he leads the Fremen to freedom from the Harkonnens and bullies the emperor into abdicating and letting him marry his daughter in a political alliance, making him at about age 17 or 18 the emperor.

Whew. So it’s a long book. I actually haven’t touched on about 90% of what goes on, because there’s a ton of subplots. The gist of it is that everyone has a plan. The Bene Gesserit, for example, have been manipulating the various nobles in a breeding program to try and get the Kwisatz Haderach. What they intend to do with him is not clear.[2] Baron Harkonnen has a plan to get his nephew Feyd-Rautha on the imperial throne as well, which somehow involves his other nephew (“Beast” Rabban) taking over Arrakis as ruler and running it into the ground; that’s to say nothing of his initial plot to kill Duke Leto, of course. The emperor has his own plots involving control of the spice market and the nobility. The Guild (the ones who fly everyone around through space) take spice from the Fremen in exchange for preventing weather satellite and other disturbances, giving the Fremen time to execute their plan—the very gradual terraforming of Dune. I think there might be even more plots than that, some of which don’t really play out until the sequel.

This is an interesting and problematic book for a number of reasons. First, there are the women. I’ll just say that Lady Jessica is basically one of the best female characters I’ve ever encountered. Super smart, unflappable in the face of danger, highly deadly in hand-to-hand combat, and capable of undergoing the spice agony and transforming the Water of Life within her body—basically a bad ass. Highly determined and difficult to control, too—did I mention she’d originally been ordered by the Bene Gesserit to produce a daughter for Duke Leto rather than Paul? She does what she wants. She also has two kids who are highly trained Bene Gesserit adepts, trained by herself. I should mention at this point that Herbert evidently based Lady Jessica on his wife, which makes me pretty happy because in other respects he was a little bit shitty (I’ll get to this) and I feel like it redeems him for me a bit.

Unfortunately, the other women in the book are not quite as exciting as characters go, mainly because there is a strong male/female divide throughout the text. Not just within the Reverend Mothers, as I mentioned earlier, although there is that and it’s explained away by the fact that men take and women give and it’s hard for the two sides to look at each other, which would be an interesting sentiment if Herbert followed it to its natural gender-deconstructing answer in Paul, but he doesn’t. Beyond that, women are largely confined to the home and sietch (the Fremen settlements); they counsel and advise, and they have children, and they plot, but they have to have men to listen to them/to manipulate in order to actually achieve anything. Chani, the woman Paul falls in love with, is out on patrol with a group of Fremen when he meets her, and she actually knifes a couple of people over the course of the book . . . until she has kids and gets sent to a safe place for most of the rest of the story. Also, after she meets Paul she basically has no concerns besides his well-being throughout the rest of the book. Within the Fremen society, if you kill a guy, you are asked to take care of his wife and kids—and you’re given the option of marrying the wife or taking her as a servant for at least one year, and it doesn’t seem like she gets much say in the matter. The woman Paul inherits in this way seems very practical and totally willing to marry a guy who knifed her husband not 24 hours before. Women in the sietch basically exist to produce children; they do a few other sietch jobs but they’re there, and the men care for them. The other major female character is Reverent Mother Helen Mohiam, who is scheming and manipulative—scary and powerful, but only by acting through others, primarily the emperor.

In a somewhat related vein, we have the Harkonnens, who are the enemies of the Atreides and very evil. We know they’re evil because—and this is where the writing of Frank Herbert sort of fails to come into its own—the second chapter involves Baron Vladimir Harkonnen basically telling us his evil, evil plot to kill the Atreides through devious underhandedness while he strokes his mustache and laughs maniacally. If that weren’t explicit enough, we also get all these signs (and by signs I mean, I guess, stereotypes) that tell us the baron is a bad dude—he’s super fat, for one (he has to wear suspensors to maneuver his bulk around) and is a glutton for food and power. He’s homosexual, or at least seems to prefer men; he also expresses lustful thoughts about then-15-year-old Paul and not only buys slaves but has them drugged so he can have sex with them more easily. He makes his nephew, Feyd-Rautha, kill people—and okay, it’s not like his nephew was a good guy either, because we see him displaying his killing talents by fighting gladiators with a poisoned blade.[3]

Both of these things—the women’s rather distinct position in society and the rather heavy-handed “clues” to the Baron’s evilness (fatness, homosexuality)—feel like relics of the time period of the book’s initial publication. I’ve talked before about the feeling one gets, reading old science fiction, that while writers (inevitably men) were sort of sure that women would exist in the future, none of them are exactly clear on what they’ll be doing. “Women doing science? Having thoughts? Why would these things ever happen?” they seem to think, and so you see women along in various situations—spaceships and what have you—in which they serve as some sort of more or less sophisticated window dressing. I’m looking at you, Uhura. The Baron’s indicators of evil just feel dated. First, I have to wonder, given the average size of people in 1965 compared to 2015, how fat Herbert thought was so fat it needed anti-gravity devices to move around. Second—and this is what I mean when I said this is kind of shitty of Herbert—he had two sons. One (Brian Herbert) has made his living clinging to Dune’s coattails; the other, Bruce Herbert, was a gay activist who died of AIDS in 1993. Now, at the time Dune was published, Bruce would have been 14, which at the time was very young for a kid to be out of the closet, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that Herbert was mostly reflecting the unconsidered opinions of the time and may have changed his tune later on when he found out his son was gay. But still, kind of shitty.[4]

The book has a bunch of really interesting themes that Herbert addresses with varying levels of sophistication. For example, the tendency of people to follow leaders rather unquestioningly, the uses (and problems) of being able to see the future, the idea of fate and whether or not it can be avoided or changed, the question of the greater good, and different systems of government and their benefits and drawbacks. Perhaps most interestingly, Herbert is concerned with the intertwining of religion and politics; Paul benefits from the Bene Gesserit’s propagandists, who basically primed the community of Fremen to believe in him.

Actually, there are a lot more questions I have to ask about this book, like is it another example of the “White guy joins a foreign culture and becomes its most awesome member” genre (surprisingly hard to answer briefly), as well as the converse position, “Is everyone on Dune White?” (films say yes), but this review is already well over 2,000 words, so I don’t have time here. So to wrap up: Herbert’s writing is exciting if mostly unpoetic (he has his moments), and the text is very engrossing. This particular edition of the book is nice in that there’s a dictionary at the back as well as some other appendices that try to explain the world Paul’s living in. It does suffer from less-than-perfect typography, which includes not just quotation marks facing the wrong way, but also lines of text printed at different sizes and sometimes even randomly repeated. I’d guess that there’s been a better reprinting since 1990, so if you’re looking to read the book, seek that out.


[1] I was given my copy of Dune by a friend I’d lent a calculus textbook for a semester to as a thank-you present.

[2] Basically,when the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers look into their minds, they can see a sort of hallway with all the Reverend Mothers along it, and they are able to receive advice from those who came before—so history is preserved within them, as a sort of living racial memory. But there’s a male side to the corridor too, and none of them can access that information. So they have embarked on a breeding program to produce a man who can. Why they want that information and why they thought such a person would be someone they can control is not revealed.

[3] Part of this scene reveals that it’s typical to fight the gladiators when drugged, which seems unfair. Feyd-Rautha instead fights them undrugged, but with a conditioned “stop” word that he can use as a distraction to stab the guy. In one of those awesome literary parallels, Feyd also has a similar word implanted in him, but during their final combat Paul refuses to use it . . . and yet, his saying “I’m not going to say it” makes Feyd freeze enough that Paul can stab him. So. What happened.

[4] One always wants to believe that writers have more considered opinions than other people and think the “right” thing even when others are still against it. Of course, this is clearly not the case—there have been plenty of racist/sexist/homophobic writers who were still great writers (see the line about “The Earth, that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views” in the William Butler Yeats farewell poem written by W. H. Auden). Auden later removed that stanza, which makes me wonder if he actually decided that the Earth does not pardon Kipling . . . but regardless of his [Auden’s] thoughts on the matter, there are a lot of people who have forgiven Kipling.

Aliens Are Weird: Solaris Reviewed

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. San Diego: Harcourt, 1987.

I have to make one admission here up front: I have been reading late at night to help my brain calm down so I can get to sleep. That isn’t really even a problem, and I’m sure a lot of people do this—see Joyce’s quip about how Finnegans Wake‘s ideal reader was the “ideal insomniac”[1]. But when you have a book like Solaris that is sort of moderately hard scifi, it does mean that I’m not super well equipped to give you an evaluation of the science-y aspects of the plot. I mean, not that I could really evaluate partical physics—or what passed for that in 1961 when the book was first written—on my best days, my published work notwithstanding. But I’ve noticed that when reading late, when I see something that would normally look off to me (some of the myriad mentions of neutrinos, for example, which I believe are uncharged charged particles that come from radioactive decay), I am just really accepting of what the author is telling me. Neutrinos? Sure, sounds good.

Don’t let my reference to the classiest subatomic particle of the 1960s frighten you away from Solaris, though. This book is not primarily a hard science one. Instead, it’s an attempt to construct an anthropology of a life form that would be completely alien to human beings.

Kris Kelvin arrives on the Solaris station to conduct research on the planet the station hovers above: a rather peculiar place called Solaris. It circles two suns, a red one and a blue one, but despite what physics would dictate, something is modifying its orbital trajectory to prevent it from crashing into either one. The planet is covered almost entirely by an ocean that appears to be alive, some sort of vast brain that is studying the researchers as they study it. On Kelvin’s arrival, he meets another researcher named Snow, who tells him that his mentor, Gibarian, has recently committed suicide. The ocean, it seems, has begun digging through the subconscious minds of the researchers to produce copies of loved ones from their pasts; it is unclear if the copies exist as a, perhaps hostile, response to an x-ray bombardment experiment, or if they are part of some sort of sophisticated research being conducted by the ocean, or if there is some other explanation entirely. For Kelvin, the only researcher whose “copy person” we see, the copy is of his deceased wife, Rheya, who committed suicide ten years before the mission began. The book alternates with Kelvin coping with the reality of having his former partner returned to him and with giving us a summary of research done concerning the planet.

This book was originally published in 1961 (in Polish), and there are certain aspects of it that remain highly rooted in the past. The characters contact each other as often through written letters or notes as by video phone, for example. The character of Rheya exists in the sort of gauzy, out-of-focus light that always seemed to me to accompany women in scifi in the sixties—she’s not a researcher, though clearly not dumb (she becomes aware of her own doubleness quite early on). Yet for the most part, her opinions on her doubleness, on Kris’s behavior, or on any other aspect of the situation are not given; Kelvin’s internal journey is what is important. (Well, he is the narrator, but for how much he professes to love her, he’s remarkably uninterested in her.) Like Uhura and other women in scifi of that era (and even still today to an extent), she’s very much in the background, existing primarily to give Kelvin someone to moon over, but also to prompt his failed hero’s journey. Which is to say, Joseph Campbell sees the hero’s journey as first interior, requiring the defeat of inner demons before facing down the outer ones; here, Kelvin’s inner journey taking precedence over anything the exterior world could offer. He is, in effect, a stunted hero, unwilling to complete the first stage of the journey to begin the second. In this respect, Snow is the real hero who, having conquered a similar visitor from his past (who is never seen), is willing to stay and try to make contact with the ocean.

Many of the film adaptations have focused on the Rheya–Kris relationship, much to Lem’s apparent displeasure. The real subject here is the alienness of the planet,how humanity is to approach such an object, how contact might possibly be able to take place (or might not). But at the same time, it’s difficult to blame the filmmakers entirely for the shift—despite Kris’s real lack of attention to Rheya, at the end, after she has left him again, his attention is still focused entirely on her and the possibility of her return.

The book makes an excellent point about the presumed humanness of alien lifeforms—looking at popular culture, we have always seemed to hope that we were going to meet Time Lords, or Vulcans, or Klingons, all of whom look largely human. Even Wookies and Ewoks are humanoid, as are the various species in the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and the most bug-eyed of bug-eyed monster, the Dalek, is descended from the human-looking Kaled, with their divergence from the human form serving as a shorthand for their descent into evilness. If we ever actually go into space and meet life, Lim says, will it be in a recognizeable form? It has been suggested that there could be fish, or fish-like lifeforms on Europa.[2] Suppose they’re intelligent—would we be able to recognize them as such? The answer is no. Perhaps because we’re too caught up in ourselves, as Lim suggests, unable to describe the behavior of non-humans without anthropomorphizing. Or our lens, our expectations, are just too strong.

Concerning the translation: Apparently, Lem was fluent in English and didn’t like the Kilmartin–Cox translation. I had never really felt like there were any deficiencies with it, but I have not compared it to the French edition, and of course I don’t read Polish. As I write this, I’m listening to a sample of a new (well, newer) edition translated directly from the Polish by Bill Johnston. Perhaps this is just because it is an audio book, but it feels very different. Rheya is called Harey, and some of the details are quite different from the edition I read. All in all I will probably not have time to go back and read or listen to the Johnston edition right now, and clearly I don’t have enough information about the original or the French version to really make a comparison, but I will note that it seems like it is a well-regarded edition.

One other note concerning the film adaptations: There have been three major film adaptations—one directed by Nirenberg and Ishimbayeva (1968), one by Tartovsky (1972), and one by Soderbergh (2002). For some reason, I thought that Event Horizon, one of the scariest and least comprehensible films of the mid-1990s, was also an adaptation of the text—I even told this to a friend at a party. It turns out that, although Event Horizon was clearly influenced by Solaris, they’re not related. However, going into the book believing this made it actually pretty tense; the first few chapters are already full of tension because of Kelvin’s arrival on the station, his immediate suspicions about Snow, the revelation of the death of Gibarian, and so on. Waiting for the characters to start ripping their eyeballs out just made that worse.


[1] This is attested in Herschel Farbman, The Other Night: Dreaming, Writing, and Restlessness in Twentieth-Century Literature, Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 91, but the page with the references isn’t shown on Google Books, and tracking it down this far is about as much as I’m willing to do for a book review. However, it looks like it came out of Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, which is kind of a warmup for the Wake in the same way The Crying of Lot 49 was a warmup for Gravity’s Rainbow . . . or possibly in a totally different way. As an aside, I highly recommend the letter of protest written by “Vladimir Dixon.” (Actually, that may be the only one that’s a warmup. It’s the only one I actually read.) Or, looking more closely at the quote in The Other Night, it may actually be in the Wake itself. I don’t know and I’m tired of chasing this down. Sorry. This is the longest failed footnote ever.

[2] Attempt no landing there.

After Emma Carlin, some single track.

Doing Something Stupid at the Kettle Morraine 100

My training cycle for this race was an exercise in restraint. Or laziness. I ran 20 miles only once, and did only a few runs in the 16–18 mile range. Instead, I focused on keeping my overall volume high (about 50 mi/week, with my peak weeks hitting 60+) and doing longer runs on both Saturday and Sunday, trying to get 25–30 miles across two days. Since the KM 100 is a trail race, I also tried to get out and do trails at least once per week if not more frequently, and I did my hill work on trails at a park near my house. It was kind of an experiment—in the past, I’ve experienced injury when running a lot of runs over 18–20 miles, so I wondered if there were a way to avoid that. If only there were a way to do such an experiment without, you know, actually putting down all the money for the entry fee and training for and running the race. But at least my point has now been empirically proven. Sort of, anyway.

I should note that I did a two-week taper for this race. I usually hate tapering, and this time was no different. Somewhat amusingly, I decided to use my extra time from running less to go to aikido three times in the week before the race. By Friday night I was wondering why I was so sore. Oops.

Fruitless Pre-Race Nattering

Okay, so the morning of the race, I got up late and kind of hung around, reading and having a cup of coffee. The race actually started at 14:00, but I had to arrive at the Nordic parking lot (the finish line) by 12:15 in order to get a bus to the start. I had toast with butter, peanut butter, and a banana a bit late in the morning, then dithered around for a while before finally leaving a bit before 11. When I arrived in La Grange, one of the two race directors recognized me, which was really nice. Seriously, if you ever want to flatter/impress someone who is face-blind (and while I’m not as bad as some, I’m pretty bad), just recognize them.

From the bus ride into the Scuppernong trail head.
From the bus ride into the Scuppernong trail head.

The bus to the start was a good chance to rediscover how school buses have no shocks. I sat quietly, listening to the guy next to me talk about how he treated his plantar fasciitis, his knee issues, how he had never run farther than a marathon but was expecting to finish the 50K in time to run the 38-mile fun run or at least pace a friend doing the 100 miler. He had brought with him, among other things, salt caps filled with Himalayan sea salt, pills filled with hydrolized collagen[1], pickles, smoothies, and venison sausage. I had brought: five salt tabs in a small plastic baggie and a Clif bar (as well as some sunscreen and bugspray I wasn’t bringing on the run).

The starting line was at the 31.6 mile aid station, which marked the turn-around/halfway point for the 100K runners and the almost one-third of the distance complete point for the 100-mile runners. We were starting eight hours after they were, and a lot of the middle-of-the-packers were trickling in. Actually, it looks like most of the people who finished the 100K finished in 13–15 hours, so these would have been the back-pack 100K people and the mid-pack for the 100 miler. I was both nervous about the race and kind of unsure of how to time my pre-race eating for such a late start. I had brought a bag with sunscreen, bug spray, body glide, and other similar sundries with me to the starting line; I put my race shirt in and tied the top. I was told that it would be treated as a drop bag and taken to the Emma Carlin aid station (at mile 15.9) and then to the finish line provided that I remembered to move it to the “done” pile at Emma Carlin. Okay, well. Mental note.

Cooling my heels before the race. I think my phone did something funny to this picture--my arms aren't that skinny.
Cooling my heels before the race. I think my phone did something funny to this picture–my arms aren’t that skinny.

After all the sunscreening and bugspraying was taken care of, I still had an hour to wait, so I ate my Clif bar and read a short story by Salman Rushdie that was in last week’s New Yorker. Highly recommend it.

Clif bar and Salman Rushdie.
Clif bar and Salman Rushdie.

Shortly before we took off, the aid station played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which was pretty awesome.

The First Half

At 2pm (plus a few seconds) we took off. I had discovered a few minutes before the start that my watch was claiming it was low on batteries (despite being charged for a full 24 hours before the start!). I decided to use the stopwatch setting on my cell phone to time my progress between aid stations. This meant that while I had a general idea of my pace, I didn’t really know from moment to moment how fast I was running or how far I had gone, which is an interesting position to be in when you’re running 31 miles. Probably as a result, I took off going quite fast. After a while I fell into step with a woman from northern Illinois named Shelly, who was using the race as her last long run before Western States in three weeks. Wow! She was really moving, and pulled me along and provided awesome conversation for almost the first 20K. We hit the first aid station (mile 5) after 48 minutes, a 9:41 pace (it felt much faster than that). I was pretty aware that I was paying a lot up front that I might not be happy about later, but I really wanted company, so I pushed. It was probably a good idea, because after some rolling hills, the race headed out over some meadows, which were 1) grassy 2) beautiful 3) humid 4) unshaded and hot. Getting through those as quickly as we did (I lost Shelly right toward the end, before the Antique Lane aid station, which was mile 12ish) probably helped me a lot in the long run; left alone, the monotony and heat would probably have reduced me to a walk.

The meadows. Pretty to look at.
The meadows. Pretty to look at.

Antique Lane was an unmanned aid station, meaning there was just water jugs and some other necessities, like ice and a big tub of Vaseline I used on some chafing spots. It was only three miles from Antique Lane to Emma Carlin, but it felt like more, especially because I was beginning to develop some hot spots on my feet.

Kismet!

There were a ton of people at Emma Carlin—it was a big trail head with good access roads, so there was a little party going on. I ate some (M&Ms and boiled potatoes dipped in salt, I think) and found my drop bag. Originally I’d been just intending to move it to the “done” pile so it would get back to Nordic in time for me to leave, but I remembered I had body glide in it and put some on my feet. Amazing. I didn’t have problems with them the rest of the race, and when I got home and took off my shoes and socks, I found only one blister.

I spent a good nine minutes at Emma (I got there at 16:46, left at 16:55 or so), just trying to get as situated as possible. Up until this point, in an attempt to control my body temperature I’d been putting ice down my sports bra, and here I rolled some up in a wet bandana and tied it around my neck too. On the whole, ice down the bra cools one much faster, but it also melts faster. Ice in the banana lasts a surprisingly long time.[2]

The Second Half

After Emma Carlin, some single track.
After Emma Carlin, some single track.

Between Emma Carlin and the finish line, there were three aid stations: Horseriders, Bluff, and Tamarack, with legs of 3.1 miles, 5 miles, and 2.7 miles. The section between Emma Carlin and Horseriders was not too difficult to run; it was nice to be out of the meadows and on to some shaded single track. I have actually started to quite enjoy running morraines, which are both pretty and runnable if you’re in pretty good hill condition. The sun was starting to sink here, so I wound up taking off my sunglasses and stowing them. I knew that there were three women ahead of me, and I hadn’t seen anyone in a while coming up behind me—and also, on such a hot, humid day, you don’t make a move at mile 18. Thus it was with some shock that when I stopped to take off my shoe and clear some brush out of it, a woman in a pink shirt doing the 50K passed me by. No fair!

I put my shoe back on and sped after her. It didn’t take long before I caught and passed her.[3] Then I had to put a gap in between us to prevent her passing me back, so I started to run up the smaller hills and run/walk the bigger ones. Every few minutes, I’d hear something and think it was footsteps, or look behind me and think I saw pink, but after a while I decided I was hearing/seeing things. At any rate, you can’t run at mile 18 like you’re sprinting for the finish, so eventually I reconciled myself to possibly getting passed by her. I passed some people in here (mostly 100K runners), and made it to Horseriders 48 minutes later. I had been running for 3:34, making it just after 5:30pm.

The Tough Bit

I knew that the section between Horseriders and Bluff was going to be the hardest of the race. I have run it before as part of the Ice Age 50K, and it involves some stuff that is technical (i.e., roots and rocks you have to watch out for), some stuff that is sandy and unpleasant to run in, and a long hike up Star Mountain (also called Bald Bluff), which has somewhat old, rocky, difficult to descend stairs on the other side of it. Initially I figured I was just going to take my time with this section and that the 5.2 miles would take me an hour. Although the technical sections were not as bad as I’d thought they were the first time I ran this section during my first trail 50K (I have learned something about trail running!), it was still pretty slow going in parts. A guy in a yellow shirt cheered me on briefly as he passed me. Actually, I leapfrogged with Mr. Yellow several times during the second half of the race; other than him, no one passed me after I left behind the lady in pink. And he somehow passed me three or four times.

Sandy horse path from between Horseriders and Bluff. Not good running.
Sandy horse path from between Horseriders and Bluff. Not good running.

It took me 1:10 to get from Horseriders to Bluff, and I was so stunned and excited to be there. I came around a corner to be greeted by a pink lawn flamingo, and then walked into a party. The song “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage was playing when I came in, which seems entirely appropriate for an ultramarathon. Before I left, the song “Sister Golden Hair” by America came on, which would stay in my head for most of the rest of the race. I got yelled at for grabbing the ice here (“We’re trying to keep it clean!” the lady said). Maybe she was actually speaking quite reasonably, but I felt like that time in the second grade when I tried to touch a sculpture at the Art Institute and got caught by a docent. Yikes.
Bluff was actually a pretty intense aid station to be at because there were a bunch of 100-mile and 100K runners trying to collect themselves. The 100K people had as far as I did left, while the 100 mile people had nearly 50 miles to go. While I thought I was suffering here—my hip flexors were sore, my core had gone entirely to hell, my back hurt, and my quads were just done—seeing them reminded me that while my suffering might feel like a lot in subjective terms, it was probably objectively not that bad, comparatively speaking. I don’t know, maybe most people don’t find it necessary to remind themselves in the middle of a race that they’re not doing that much, but it kind of put things in perspective. Anyway, I should note that in a race like this, where I was pretty tired and out of it, having actual people and music and so on at an aid station made a big difference in psychological terms. If you ever decide to volunteer at an aid station for an ultra, know that you can really make a big difference in psychological terms to the runners. (This is probably true for long-distance tris too, like the half or full IM.)

The top of the hill just before Bluff.
The top of the hill just before Bluff.

The Last Bit

The Nordic trail--a big difference from the Ice Age stuff.
The Nordic trail–a big difference from the Ice Age stuff.

Bluff was mile 24, meaning I had about 7.6 miles to go. The first leg, Bluff to Tamarak, was 2.5 miles. Here we finally got off the Ice Age Trail and onto the wide, piney trails of the Nordic Trail, basically the same area I ran in a month ago when I did the Ice Age Trail half marathon. But nothing looked too familiar, either because it was starting to get dark or because we were running it backwards from the direction I did at Ice Age. Or we were on different trails, I don’t know. At this point, I was focused entirely on just running the distance to the next aid station. I pushed up a lot of the hills, passed some more runners doing the longer races, and eventually made it to Tamarak in 34:08, or at 7:21pm. I had originally hoped to be finishing the race at 7:30pm (and Shelly, my companion from earlier, actually did!). Oh well. I was still pretty confident that as long as I held my place, I was going to finish in the top 10 (my overall goal). I also really wanted to finish before 20:30, because that was when the sun set, and I didn’t have a lamp except the flashlight on my phone.

I was a bit dismayed to see at Tamarak that I still had 5 miles to go. My grasp on time and distance were pretty ephemeral here, even though I was sort of ostensibly tracking both. A mile outside the aid station, I passed a number “4” written in marker on a little ground sign. Four miles to go? I was excited. I started to run faster. (Or, really, “faster.”) This section had a good number of rolling hills that I had to walk all or parts of, but I still made good time. I had reached a point where stopping running and then starting again was much more painful than just running straight through, so that is what I did.

Coming into Tamarak. You can see it was starting to get to be twilight.
Coming into Tamarak. You can see it was starting to get to be twilight, so the exposure was blurry.

The signs seemed way farther apart than I thought they should be, so I tried to forget about distance and just focus on how pleasant it was to be running in a pine forest in the gathering twilight. The temperature was finally dropping, and I didn’t feel terrible except for the pain. I crossed the finish line to a gigantic cheer at 8:17pm, after 6:17:03 of running, and shook hands with the RD.

Somewhat amusingly, I stopped just past the finish line to stop my phone timer and try to take a screenshot, and while I was standing there, the woman who tracks results came over and said, “Emily, you were the first woman in the Masters division” (masters: ages 40–49). I was baffled, because I’m not 40, and told her so. Then I looked at the plaque she was holding out. “That says ‘open division’ ” (open: 39 and under). After some confusion, she confirmed that I had actually won the Womens Open division. This was a shock—remember I knew that there were at least three women ahead of me, so I figured at least one of them was young. As it turns out, there were actually four women ahead of me. One of them won the race overall (her name was also Emily![4]), and she was slightly younger than I am. The other three women were all Masters. Races typically don’t double up on prizes (you win either overall OR your age group, not both), so I got the Open award. Nice!

I won.
I won.

Aftermath

At the point I crossed the finish line, the drop bags had not yet returned from Emma Carlin. I wandered around a bit, felt dizzy, had a cup of Coke, and then realized I was freezing (all the ice down my bra all day had left everything I was wearing wet, and when I get done running my body abruptly stops generating heat). Luckily, I had my warmups in the car, so I changed and went back to the Nordic aid station for a cup of coffee with hot cocoa mix in it. There were at this point a lot of 50K finishers (as well as some 100K folks and a really chipper guy who had dropped from the 100 mile after 100K) who were all milling around, looking for their drop bags. The aid station actually closed at 8:40pm (so about 20 min after I finished), and a truck with the various supplies came back around 9pm—but no drop bags! Rather than hang around complaining, I got up and asked him if I could help unload the truck. Movement helped the shivering die down.

The finish area after dark.
The finish area after dark.

Finally, around 9:30pm, the drop bags arrived, so I helped unload those too, then headed out around 9:45pm. Yikes, what a long day. I called B to say hello, and he was a little worried that I would run into trouble driving when I was so tired, but I had The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett by the Eels to blare as I went. And the dogs were happy to see me when I got here. The cat also wanted to be fed.

This is already way too long, but to summarize, a few notes:

  1. Moving steadily in the later stages of an ultra is important. Even slow jogging is superior to hiking it in.
  2. You are passing a lot of people who may be having a rough time, so try to be happy and cheerful—tell them they’re doing a good job and looking good, even if they’re not. Also, be nice to the volunteers. They’re so important.
  3. Helping is better than sitting around when you’re freezing your arse off, even if you’re sore. I would not have thought to jump in and help if I hadn’t spent some time volunteering at races earlier this spring, but I’m glad I did.
  4. Gear: I had a 1-liter hydration pack, which proved to be a good size, and there were enough pockets to carry everything I needed to carry. I eventually got really sick of water though. I didn’t carry any food and probably didn’t eat enough.
  5. Food: This is what I ate: one-half a Hoho, some potato chips, one-quarter of a pbj, a handful of M&Ms, two or three boiled potatoes dipped in salt, possibly a piece of peanut butter cookie (I remember looking at them but not eating any), a cup of Coke, a small piece of watermelon. I think that’s it. Rather unusually, I drank a ton of water (probably three liters). In retrospect, I wish I would have started drinking calories as fluid earlier, because I wasn’t really hungry and I would have gotten some more in. (Post-race, despite how sick of fluids I was: a cup of Coke, a cup of coffee with cocoa mix, another cocoa from a gas station.)
  6. Clothes: I had only a little chafing and didn’t feel too warm. Didn’t get sunburned either. Probably would have chosen a different pair of socks in retrospect, but I survived fine, no big foot damage.
  7. I need to plank more. My core was a mess after 24 miles.
Post-race (pre-shower) selfie.
Post-race (pre-shower) selfie. I’m exhausted.

[1] He claimed that his chiropractor, who was also into ultrarunning, had recommended the collagen pills and that he take a bunch hourly during the race (he had settled on two per hour, which he said was a lower number). I didn’t lean over and tell him what I thought of the whole idea, which smacks of pseudoscience, but I’m hoping he learned something about that during the race. Hydrolyzed collagen, also known as “gelatine,” is the “active ingredient” in marshmallows.

[2] The downside is that it’s hard to gauge one’s perspiration level with all the ice melting all over. I was taking one salt cap per hour, and eating some salty things in each aid station, and that seemed to be enough. Although I had a headache when I finished, it was from caffeine withdrawal, not hyponatremia, despite having drunk probably three liters of fluid over the course of the race.

[3] I am almost totally sure this incident occurred between Emma Carlin and Horseriders rather than Horseriders and Bluff, just because the terrain of the second leg is so much harder to run. But I want to admit, in the spirit of transparency, that I was in a little zone and don’t quite remember.

[4] A total of three Emilys finished the 50K. Only one of the three of us was young enough to have been named during the whopping fifteen years (1993 to 2008) that the name spent on the “Top Five American Names for Girls” list. Actually, my suspicion is the woman in pink who nearly passed me was also named Emily. Or at least, the next woman to finish was also an Emily and was about 45 minutes behind me. Late edit: The next woman to finish was not the woman in pink–I couldn’t find her when looking through the race photos. She may have dropped; although 96 people signed up, it looks like only 76 finished. Or I suppose I could have hallucinated her.

The finish line taken by a professional photographer (credit to Focal Flame Photography

Pacing the Madison Half Marathon

Recently I was asked to pace the Madison Half Marathon. This means, for those unfamiliar with the running world, that in exchange for free entry to the race and a free singlet from the store that sponsored the pace groups, I was asked to run at a specific pace (2:30, or 11:27 minutes/mile) for the entire race. By running even splits, we both help people trying to run a specific goal time achieve that goal and serve as a moving time mark for other runners to gauge their times off of. I also heard spectators pointing to us as a way of figuring out where the runner they were waiting for might be.[1]

Many people asked me what my strategy was going into this, since my normal pace for a race like this would be something like 1:50–2:00 (8:24–9:10 min/mi).[2] It’s not a bad question—when you are used to running at a pace at least 30 min faster, it can feel very strange to slow down so much. In order to ensure that my legs were tired enough, I accidentally ran every day during the past week, culminating in 14.73 miles on Saturday. Then I accidentally stayed up until midnight, so I only got about five hours of sleep the night before the race.

I say “accidentally” because I’m aware that these behaviors are kind of risky in terms of injury; at this point in my running life, I almost always take Mondays and Fridays off. But this week there were things that came up—running with B, running with my fellow pacer—and I couldn’t skip out on them. I also wanted to get a hard weekend ahead of the KM 50K in two weeks. So now I’ve officially peaked, having run 63 miles this week and 28 in the last two days, and will do a little taper. I am actually really excited to taper. I’m tired.

So let’s see what I have some photos of. First off, here is my carb-packed dinner from the night before. Thanks to Costco, from which I purchased approximately five pounds of five-cheese ravioli. Unfortunately, they’re not super amazing—the texture is fine, but the flavor is not strong. Still, it was a pretty good dinner. I cooked the ravioli up with some mushrooms and onions and a white sauce with a little pesto in it. Next time, I will fry the ravioli in butter after boiling them,[3] and maybe throw some blue cheese in the white sauce rather than cream cheese. The salad was your standard Cesar with spinach instead of romaine. When Bryan came home from gaming, he brought me a piece of tiramisu, too.

Carb loading. I'm not a food photographer, sorry.
Carb loading. I’m not a food photographer, sorry.

The next morning, I struggled out of bed at 5:15, having had weird dreams all night about making hard-boiled eggs in tea. I don’t get it either. I got my stuff together (more of an achievement than it sounds like), told the dogs to go back to bed, and scrambled out of the house. I was supposed to meet the other pacers at a hotel on capital square at 6:20 to be ready to get in the corrals at 6:30, so I ran from where I parked (about half a mile away) to get there on time. Instead, this turned into hanging around the lobby waiting and asking each other, “Where is [whoever we noticed is missing]?” Around 6:40 we took a group photo and then dispersed to line up.

At this point, walking down the hill to where the back of the pack will be, things were starting to feel kind of intense. I got the feeling—and I don’t know if this is legitimately what was happening or not—that the runners on the sidewalks were watching us. When we got into the corrals, that would be their signal that it was time to line up. Such pressure.

Pre-race selfie.
Pre-race selfie. My hair is amazing.
Looking up the empty corral at the pacers.
Looking up the empty corral at the pacers.

At 7:00 precisely we took off. Prior to the gun, my pacing partner (also named Emily) and I sort of looked around to see if anyone was willing to declare they were sticking with us, but aside from one shy, noncommital wave, no one was. I don’t know if this means that a lot of people were unsure of what time they might finish in, if they were all planning to run with their iPods (I saw a lot of this), or if they were just shy. We tried hard to be happy and approachable, and as the miles ticked past a few people tried talking to us. One fellow, who I thought might be from India or Bangladesh, stuck with us the whole way; although he seemed to be working pretty hard, he was happy enough to chat when we talked to him:

Em: So, where are you from?
Him: [Something I didn’t really catch]
Em: Where is that?
Him: On the east side of the city.
Other Emily: Wait, did you say “Sun Prairie”?
Em: To be fair, I live near Middleton and never go over to the east side.

Did I look like an ass? I don’t know, maybe. I laughed, he laughed. We high-fived after the race, so I think there were no hard feelings.

Skipping around in time, after about a mile and a half, it started to rain, which was actually not terrible. The rain never got strong enough to really soak us, so my feet stayed dry, and it kept us cool and kept the heat down.

The corner by Camp Randall where the route turned onto Monroe Street was the first place we really started to encounter a bunch of people cheering for us. Some of the people the other Emily and I run with were out to spectate, so it was fun to hear the occasional “Go Emilys!,” but there were just a lot of people who would shout “Go 2:30 group!” Things got quieter as we turned into the Arb, and then as we went up the hill near Edgewood it got crazy again. I was starting to feel like a rock star. Probably the best part of this was when we came past the Berkeley orange stand (just past mile 12, I think); since Berkeley organized the pace groups, they gave us a real good cheer. And from there it was just a few blocks up Dayton (past my old haunt, Ofek Shalom Co-op), then up to State Street and the finish at the capital.

Running through the Arb with Other Emily.
Running through the Arb with Other Emily.

In the aftermath of all this running, I went home and brunched it up with B, then passed out for a solid two and a half hours. Now (writing this the day after), I feel pretty good—my right calf has been a bit sore, but no worse than one would expect from strenuous exercise. Why only the right one? Don’t know. Let’s not dwell on it too much.

So, to finish this thing up, what advice for future pacers? There is some law of nature that states that although your Garmin may work perfectly every time you step out the door, when you really need it to be accurate for a race, it will fail. My watch was off at almost every mile marker by up to 15 seconds or more. I hit the lap button as we passed the markers to try and compensate. Although I had it set up to give a current pace, an average pace, and a lap pace, the most useful way of telling where we were was the total time elapsed plus knowing that we were supposed to be running 11:27s (round to 11:30 for ease of math-doing). If you are running weird splits, like 6:52 or something, write your split times on your arm.

Finally, if you are a spectator and want to have a boombox playing some music to encourage the runners, let’s go with the Foo Fighters rather than Miley Cyrus. (I heard both yesterday, but I just want to make my preferences clear.)

The finish line taken by a professional photographer (credit to Focal Flame Photography
The finish line taken by a professional photographer. Credit to Focal Flame Photography.
A picture of me looking much more uncomfortable than I felt at the finish.
A picture of me looking much more uncomfortable than I felt at the finish. Credit to Focal Flame Photography

[1] In addition to pacing, or pace groups, being a thing that is provided at many major marathons, there’s another role for pacesetters—rabbiting. Rabbiting, often used for world record attempts, involves a fast runner who is typically paid to set a hard pace and act as a wind-break for the frontrunners and then drop out halfway through. There are, to my understanding, some pretty specific rules about what events can use rabbits and who can rabbit for what race (men can’t rabbit for women’s events, e.g.). This kind of pacing also has some ethical issues, because it moves the focus of a race to breaking a record rather than actually having an entertaining (competitive) race. On the other hand, rabbits do count as official entrants, and occasionally when the elite runners don’t follow them, they don’t drop and just go on to win. (Here’s an entertaining video of that from 1981.) But since the race was won in 1:13 for the men and 1:26 for the women, these questions don’t really apply to our 2:30 group.

[2] Since I did a 2:03 at the Ice Age half marathon two weeks ago, I think I could go sub-2 in a road half right now, except for all the various things I did to myself this week, as detailed above.

[3] Postscript: I tried frying the ravioli in a combination of avocado oil and butter. They were awesome.

Post-race.
Post-race, back at my car. My hair has calmed down due to rain.
Red trail, green grass.

Ice Age 50 half marathon, take three

One of my favorite spots on the trail.
One of my favorite spots on the trail.

This was my third time running the half marathon here. My times have been very closely clustered:

  • 2012: 2:00:59, 2nd in AG
  • 2014: 1:56:50, 5th in AG
  • 2015: 2:03:51, 10th in AG

Some race is always going to be your personal worst time. That’s just how it works. Interestingly, while I haven’t always gotten slower, I’ve consistently placed lower in my AG. Also, my AG has changed; I do get the feeling that for the half marathon distance, the women’s 30–34 age group is more competitive than the 25–29.

I feel like I’ve recapped this race before (here; looks like B was with me that year—the photos suggest I didn’t have a GPS watch yet, and I had a lot less definition in my shoulders…). Anyway, to avoid boring you, I’ll just hit the highlights this time:

  1. The first loop, I thought most of the hills were not as gnarly as in previous years. Also, unlike 2014, my legs weren’t trashed when I finished the first loop. Perhaps I am becoming a stronger hill runner?
  2. Unfortunately, I did notice I was pretty tired on the second loop (I stopped picking up my feet as well and stumbled a few times, almost falling). And the hills were a lot more pronounced.
  3. I felt like I pushed myself all the way through. This and last week’s race confirm that I’m probably in about 4:10 marathon shape.
  4. After a while, I fell behind all the fast people and was ahead of the slow people, and I found it quite hard to maintain my pace/focus. I knew I wouldn’t win, and I didn’t really want to go into the “pain cave.”
  5. Toward the end of the race, I passed a woman with some Thai tattooed on the backs of her arms. Ungrammatically, I shouted “คนพูดภาษาไทบได้” at her as I came up behind her. She was startled, and responded, “I have eighteen miles to go” (she was in the 50K) before realizing what I’d actually said. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to talk to her.
  6. My bad ankle hurt almost all the way through, which is weird because it didn’t hurt Thursday or Friday before the race and it doesn’t hurt now today (Sunday). Just one of those annoying things, I guess.
  7. I finished 10th in my age group. I’d been hoping I could still pull off a top-10 AG finish, so I guess that’s okay. Disappointed I couldn’t go sub-2, but it wasn’t my day. The weather was cool enough, but very humid. I miss being fast enough to pull off a sub-1:50 half marathon. I wonder if there’s a way to get back there without injuring myself doing speedwork.
  8. Probably not.
Grassy meadows, rather unpleasant when it's sunny.
Grassy meadows, rather unpleasant when it’s sunny.
Red trail, green grass.
Red trail, green grass.

As a warm-up for my 50K that is coming up in . . . four now three weeks and is also held on these very trails, it was reasonably good. I brought my hydration pack along and wore the clothes I thought I would wear for the upcoming race (about halfway through the race, the shorts, which are new, started to chafe, so those are off the menu. Good thing I tried them out.).

  • How annoyed were you with your performance, on a scale of 0–10 with 0 being totally fine and 10 being pretty hacked off? 2.
  • What mid-90s song was stuck in your head almost the entire run? “Gangsta’s Paradise,” by Coolio.
  • Last year, you got disoriented leaving the park, drove to Fort Atkinson, then later started to crash and had to stop at a random gas station outside of Edgerton and buy chocolate milk and potato chips in order to make it home. Did you experience those problems this time? Nope. I had a mini-sized energy bar before/during the race (pro tip: not a great choice of snack if your nose is stuffed up while running, like mine was). After the race, I grabbed a salt cap and some pieces of fruit before I headed out. When I got home, I had some peanut noodles, then later went out for (veggie) sushi with my family.
  • Did you accomplish anything after the race? I slept on the sofa for 90 minutes.
Post-run selfie (post-runfie?).
Post-run selfie (post-runfie?).

Next week, I am co-pacing the 2:30 group at the Madison half marathon, something I’ve never done before. (I’ve never even made it all the way through a race with a pace group, so it should be an interesting time.) I’ll be hanging out at the expo on Saturday around noon, so come say hello if you see me, or catch me at the starting line. Unless you’re going to be weird and awkward and make both of us feel uncomfortable, in which case feel free to continue stalking me quietly from a distance.

Also, speaking of quietly stalking me, if you missed it (and I don’t know why you would have seen this, since I didn’t announce it or anything), I’ve blogged a bit about ultrarunning over at Technically Running. It’s at least slightly humorous and has a picture of a skull I found attached to it for some reason.