Sunday, May 20, 2012

Geek Spasm - Running, the New Style

There have been some relatively recent changes in conventional wisdom when it comes to the technique and footwear that is considered ideal for running.  In the words of the Beastie Boys, "It's the new style."


Executive Summary

  1. Buy these shoes.
  2. Run this way 
  3. Make a playlist of 90 beats per minute music to help your timing (a bpm database can help)
  4. Win

Disclaimer: I Do Not Consider Myself a Runner


And yet, I have run quite a bit and know a good deal about it.  So, why do I have this perception?

Back when I was in the US Army, I had no problem acing the push-up and sit-up portions of the fitness test, but I was usually just happy to pass the running portion.  I preferred to lift weights, cycle, and swim.  Our formation runs in the morning for PT (Physical Training) were more for maintenance, esprit de corps, and discipline than enhancing performance.  I ran enough to do well on my test, but never really pushed and I knew many folks that were like gazelles.  I have run many miles; the longest to date was a 10-mile run, but that was a random "I wonder how far I can run in this many hours" experiment I did one night.

I have never run in formal competitions and have never had an interest in it.  When we broke up into fast and slow groups in the Army, I never yearned to be in the fastest group.  It just did not interest me.  Seven and eight-minute miles were fine.

Currently, I am happy with a 9-minute mile...but I confess that I might try pushing to 8-minute miles soon.  But that is the extent of my current ambition for running.

Running is just another cardio choice for me, and I do it hard enough to get a good workout.

So, I don't think of myself as a runner, but most non-runners might disagree.

The Old Style and the Heel Strike

No, heels have not, nor do they intend to, go on strike.

As it turns out, people are not born with thick, padded heels or orthopedic shoes on their feet.  So, one might question why one would slip on a thick pair of running shoes with all sorts of awesome technology packed into the heel, based on gels, air pockets, etc.  Well, it had to do with how we ran.

For some reason, it had become commonplace to stretch our leg pretty far forward of our midline when running.  This causes your heel to strike first, out in front of you.  When you do that, there are some negative consequences:
  1. It causes a bit of a "braking" motion that opposes forward momentum
  2. A good deal of superfluous shock is transmitted into your heels and often your knees and back
  3. It can lead to a gait in which they are transferring work/shock from their muscles to their joints

Born to Run

About three years ago, Christopher McDougal put out a book, Born to Run, on his quest to understand why an old Native American from the Tarahumara tribe was kicking ass in a 100-mile foot race wearing very primitive/simple sandals.  I saw this guy on the Daily Show, during an interview back in August of 2009.  When I saw it, I thought, "huh, interesting" but that was about it.

The interesting thing to me was that McDougal was being given lots of rationales for why his pain and difficulties running made sense to the sports medicine community.  His age, build, etc.  However, what he learned about running with this tribe allowed him to overcome those things.

There is a group of runners that practice barefoot running, which has been associated with McDougal's book.  There are similarities, but at the same time, I am not a huge fan of trying to run barefoot because I live among other humans, which means sharp, pointy things on the ground every now and then, and plenty of running on unpleasant surfaces.

Adopting Minimalism

I watched as New Balance put out it's Minimus line in Spring of 2011.  Since they put out those shoes, about a year ago, I have probably run no more than two dozen times.  A big part of this is that I live in an area where the nearby streets are all inclines or declines.  This can be a dangerous way to get back into running, because of the extra danger of joint injury, especially running down hills, with the "old" style of running and shoes.  I ran more when I was visiting Doha for three months, because it was incredibly flat, I had limited access to good cardio equipment, and running along the bay was nice.

Then, last week, I decided to take the plunge.  Part of this was due to the recent release, two months ago, of their "Minimus Zero" line.  Basically, there is no heal to mid-foot drop, e.g., it's flat.

Step 1, Get the Gear

I picked up a couple of pair of Minimus shoes, one for road and one for trails, and started researching proper form.  The road shoes:

The trail shoes:

Step 2, Learn the Form

At the recommendation of the gentleman at New Balance, I headed over to and reviewed the pages and videos there.  The keys are as follows:
  • Good posture, straight and aligned
  • Slight forward lean, but again, with good posture, so your body should lean as a unit, not hunch
  • 180 steps per minute, or 90 steps per minute for a given foot
  • Your foot should strike the pavement at the mid-foot, not the heel; and should be approximately in line with your body
The videos are pretty good and cover the form in detail.
Watch the videos at least twice and be 100% sure you understand before you start.  Seriously, it's just a few minutes and your health is worth it.
For me, the pace is key.  When you kick up your pace higher, it's harder to step out in long strides, which means it is more likely you will more naturally shift into the mid-foot strike you are supposed to have.

Step 3, Get 90 bpm Tunes

Go ahead and try to reliably count out 180 steps per minute.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  Sort of a pain, huh?

Well, I have a solution.  Create a playlist of music that has 90 bpm (beats per minute) and time your running off of one foot.  For my fellow veterans, you will probably time off your left foot.  This is great because it also facilitates unconsciously maintaining the proper pace.

You don't know which songs are 90 bpm?  Well, you could Google up some, or you could just head over to a bpm database and see what they have.  Note: Exactly 90 bpm is not necessary, so just get as close as you can.  Me, I went for exactly 90. :-)
  • Maybe Someday (The Cure, Bloodflowers)
  • Down With the Sickness  (Disturbed, The Sickness)
  • Whatever (En Vogue, The Best of En Vogue)
  • (Can't You) Trip Like I Do (Filter/The Crystal Method, Spawn: The Album)
  • Y'All Ain't Ready Yet (Mystikal, Prince of the South...The Hits)
  • Gorillaz on My Mind (Gorillaz/Redman, Blade II)
  • Shoots and Ladders (Korn, Korn)
  • Modern Love (David Bowie, Changesbowie)
  • World Full of Nothing (Depeche Mode, Black Celebration)
  • I Feel You (Depeche Mode, Songs of Faith and Devotion)
  • Rock Me Amadeus (Falco)
  • All Night Long (Stereo MCs, Connected)
  • In My Room (Yaz, Upstairs at Eric's)
  • Closer (Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral)


Step 4, Run and Win!

I took this approach for a spin in my neighborhood, you know, the crappy place to run with all of the declines and inclines that are hard on the joints.  Well, I felt fine.  In fact, even though it has been four months since I last went running, I was able to match my fastest time in Doha and I was not trying to run fast; rather, I was 100% focused on good form and the proper foot strike.

I REALLY like wearing the Minimus shoes too, they remind me of Ninja-esque tabi socks, sans the toe split.  Which is to say...wearing Minimus shoes makes you more Ninja, which should be all of the argument I need.


Have fun!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Doha Diaries: Outtake - VPN Is a Traveler's Friend

So, you may or may not be familiar with VPN, virtual private network.  In essence, it is a secure connection across the Internet between your machine and a network; this results in your machine, for all intensive purposes, acting as though it is just another local machine.  For more information, wikipedia's page is more than adequate.

Those familiar with this have most likely used a VPN provided by their work so that they can safely check mail and access coporate-network-only stuff.

But there are other reasons to do this.
  1. You want greater security
  2. You want to mask your actual location, or convince someone you are somewhere you are not
Those are the biggies, and those are both good reasons to have VPN, whether or not you travel.

However, when you go overseas, there are added benefits.
  1. Security is even more important, especially if you are uncertain of your environs
  2. Depending on the country, you may be locked out content or censored based upon your location (this can be a problem because of where are or where you are not)
  3. Because sites think you are in another country, they may render their pages in the native tongue, as opposed to your own, which can kill your ability to use them effectively (especially if you have your browser set to wipe all cookies every time you exit)
Which brings us to Qatar and why VPN is nice to have here.  You see, there are a few hiccups you might experience.
  1. Content that is unavailable to you because you are in Qatar
  2. Content that is unavailable to you simply because you are not in the USA (e.g., Pandora)
  3. Various pages are too smart and they render text in pure Arabic, often with no link with "English" or a little flag to guide you
So, where does one get VPN?  My colleagues from work swear by StrongVPN, so I tried it out.  Very simple plan, $7 a month for 3 months, detailed instructions with screenshots, and constant instant chat support.

Are there reasons you might not want VPN?
  1. Extra cost, albeit trivial for most
  2. Slight increase in latency, this looks like it varies 200 to 300 Mbps
  3. You don't want to bother turning it on/off (but it's pretty darn easy)

Using Strong VPN

I went with StrongVPN.  There are three protocols - L2TP, PPTP, SSTP.  SSTP is only available on Vista and Windows 7.
  • SSTP is the most secure; only on Windows 7 or Windows Vista
  • L2TP is the next most secure - best for iPad, iPhone
  • PPTP will generally work when the other don't
Here's what I did...

Laptop: On my laptop, I went with the SSTP protocol because it is the most secure.

Mobile Devices: They have two main protocols from which you can choose for your mobile devices, L2TP and PPTP.  Each has pros and cons; they will explain them to you.  I recommend setting up both in your devices because sometimes one protocol will be blocked, but very rarely will both be blocked.  So, with both protocols set up, you can almost guarantee you will be able to use VPN on your mobile devices.  I always try L2TP first, because Strong VPN's staff reports that it is a bit more secure and faster than PPTP.

Still Using It In the USA

Back in the USA, I am still using Strong VPN, because I like the extra security, especially on my mobile devices.

The Point

If you are traveling or just want more security when using your portable devices, Strong VPN is just too cost-effective to not use.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Doha Diaries: Days 92-95, A Fond Farewell and A Decent, Affordable "Blowjob"

[Days 92-93] Sunday, January 29-30

Work, work, work.  These days were spent making sure everything was wrapped up before my return to the USA.

[Day 94] Tuesday, January 31, A Decent, Affordable "Blowjob"

The last day of my assignment!  The day was spent with more wrap up of work.

From work, it was off to the Carnegie Mellon - Qatar campus for a lecture on fostering innovation...which ended up being more of an advertisement for a campus in the USA.  Oh well, I am 0-2 for good lectures in Doha so far.


My fellow team members from work and I had plans to meet at the Old Manor Steakhouse in the Grand Mercure hotel.  I had never heard of the place but one of our team members had a coupon and he was very eager to use it.  So, we planned on that.

What we did not plan on was that everyone would have difficulty finding the place.  Myself and the team member that went to the lecture with me showed up exactly on time, just barely.  Everyone else was up to 30 minutes late.  Google was partly to blame, but the weird traffic and construction in the area played big parts too.

The comical part about this chapter was that at one point I was standing at an intersection guiding drivers in over the phone...

Actual Fun

OK, so we all finally assemble.  The hotel, formerly a Sofitel hotel, has a strange air of aging opulence to it.  We hop in an elevator, go up, switch elevators, and voila!

When we walk in, it looks more like a bar that also happens to serve food.  Here is a long view of the place.


Cultural Interlude - Muslims and Drinking

So, you may notice that the bar has a few men dressed in full traditional garb sitting there.  That is not allowed.  Muslims frown on such things...and yet, here we are.  I guess this place serves a similar role to the tea house for a Samurai - as long as you maintain your public face, who cares what happens in private?  That said, I would probably changes clothes, if it were me.

Now, don't get me wrong.  This was HIGHLY unusual.  This was the first time in my three months that I saw this.  Sure, I did see fellows at some bars that were probably natives and almost certainly Muslim, but they had the presence of mind to at least dress like the rest of the people in the bar.

And thus ends the interlude.

Real Men Straddle

I finally remembered to capture a picture of a men's room door.

Apparently, in Qatar, men strike action poses. Oh, fine, I guess it makes it easier to distinguish from the women's room symbol, but I still find it amusing.

Oh Yeah, The "Blowjob"

We were all surprised to find out that they had a drink called "The blowjob" on the menu.  So I ordered one.  Here I am, about to enjoy my "blowjob".

And if you are having a hard time believing this bar would have a drink with such a racy is exhibit A:

Anyway enough innuendo.

The food arrived, and it was great.  The service was lame, but the "people watching" was surprisingly interesting.

[Day 94] Wednesday, February 1, Back Home

The next day, early in the morning, I flew back to the US.  What an incredibly memorable three months.  I made some great friends and a lot of great memories.  I am not sure I can outdo the novelty and wonder of this trip, given the dramatic change in culture and surroundings, but I sure look forward to trying.

If you have never been to the Middle East, I would definitely check out Doha, Dubai, or Abu Dhabi.  They are all relatively tame and cosmopolitan places, so the cultural whiplash is not too painful.