Sunday, December 02, 2012

Frequent purchases

As a reward for scanning my customer-loyalty card, Tesco has sent me some coupons to "help you save on the things you buy most often." Once I figured out what the best things were to buy, I basically bought the same things every time I went shopping.

Of the 10 things for which they sent me coupons, 7 are things I frequently bought and 3 are things I rarely or never bought (depending on how you define the category).

  • whole melon
  • continental pre-packaged cheese
  • biscuits
  • fresh salad
  • bananas
  • jams or preserves
  • fresh potatoes
  • home baking products
  • breakfast cereal
  • bread
It can be a fun game to guess which are the 7 and which are the 3. 

As a bit of a cultural lesson for you, "home baking" is the way British people say "baking." Oh, and "biscuits" means "cookies."

And isn't "fresh salad" redundant?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

American luxuries

Luxuries of living in the United States that I will appreciate more when I go back there:
  • Toilets that flush on the first try (without having to lift the handle up before pushing it down)
  • The option to wash your hands with warm water (rather than very hot or very cold)
  • Lamps that have a switch on the lamp itself
  • Eating dinner without worrying that you're wearing the wrong thing
  • Milk that is still liquid the day after the date printed on the label
  • More than 8 hours of daylight per day
  • Pedestrians often have the right of way
  • The ability to buy life essentials (food, transportation) without depleting one's life savings
  • University buildings that you can walk into without needing to prove your identity
  • Roads that are wide enough for two cars to drive on without one driving up on the sidewalk
  • Air that is largely free of cigarette smoke, even in crowded areas
  • Public parks that are illuminated, rather than locked, at night
  • Being able to understand people even when they mumble
  • Internet access even when it's raining
Well, you get the idea. Living in England is more different than living in "the States" than I expected. There are many wonderful things about it, and several annoyances.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Journey to the Domaine Royal

It was my second (and last) run in Brussels. The first day, I'd gone to a rectangular park with a 0.8-mile perimeter and run around and around and across and around, and I was ready for something new. I had found a nice park on the map, about 1.5 miles north of my hostel, so I ran there.

It looks nice, doesn't it?

I could see the park, on the opposite side of a 10-foot-high brick wall, but there was no entrance. No problem; I would just run along the wall until I found the entrance. I ran along the wall for a few minutes, and saw no entrance. Hmmm. 

I asked a woman I passed, "excusez-moi, Madame, ou est l'entree du parc?" (where is the entrance to the park?) "Tout droit," she said (straight ahead). I must have looked surprised. "Tout droit!" Fine, I believe you. I went straight ahead, and there was a basketball court, but no entrance to the park itself. I kept going. Maybe it was further along, straight ahead. 

As I ran, I saw an entrance that had been completely bricked up. Hmmm, weird. Then I saw another bricked-up entrance. Very weird. I started to think that maybe the park didn't have an entrance. 

I passed some men doing yard work for the city. "Excusez-moi, monsieur, est-ce que il y a un entree du parc?" (is there an entrance to the park?) He pointed in the direction opposite the park, toward some houses. "Le parc?" "Non, ce parc." I pointed to the park that was 10 feet away on the other side of a high wall. 

He laughed. "Non!" He launched into a long explanation that I only understood about half of, including the word "roi." Wait, seriously? "C'est le parc du roi?" I asked. "Oui." "Seulement le roi peut utiliser le parc?" (only the king can use the park?) "Oui." 

Oh, man. That is so weird. He told me there was another park nearby. I went there. It was basically a long thin strip up a hill. I ran up and down it twice and then ran home. It was okay. 

Moral of the story: I have excellent taste in parks. 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Amazing manhole covers of Oxford

A classic interview question is "Why are manhole covers always round?" Whomever created this question has clearly never been to Oxford. Oxford has the most amazing variety of manhole covers I have ever seen.

I first learned to look at manhole covers when reading the part of the book Count Down about my friend Tiankai as a baby:

Tiankai was extremely interested in the sizes and shapes of the manhole covers on the ground... When he discovered a new cover, he would become very excited... He would call out in Chinese, "Circular cover, square cover, big cover, small cover, big circular cover."

I was surprised, because I had never seen a non-circular manhole cover. Then I came to Oxford.

As a pragmatist, I wonder, "Why do they have rectangular (etc.) manhole covers?" because this allows the manhole cover to fall into the hole. Hardly practical.

(In order for a shape to not be able to fall into its own hole, it should have constant width. A circle is the simplest example of this.)

As a lover of symmetry, though, I am fascinated. So come with me, dear reader, as we explore the wonderful symmetries of the ground beneath our feet in Oxford.

Three.

Three is my favorite. It's completely unexpected. Who would think of making a hole in this shape?

It makes me wonder if this shape also has the property that it cannot fall into its hole.
It does not appear to be a constant-width curve, but it reminds me of a bicycle polygon.

The shape has 3-fold symmetry, 
while the circles of square dots have 8-fold symmetry. Hmmm.

Four.

As discussed above, this is a little silly, because a square can easily fall into its own hole. Most of the square manhole covers go one step further and are cut into two isosceles right triangles, which makes it even easier for them to fall in.

I tried to open this to see if there is a support across the middle, but it was too heavy.
I guess that is why there is space for a crowbar on each side.

This one has a nice pattern, but is again cut into two triangles.

This one has an even nicer pattern, but is marred by the foul word FOUL.

Five.

A round manhole cover! But don't worry; it still has awesome symmetry. It has five circles, with a cute little star in the middle to emphasize the point.

Inside each of the five petals is a circle with 6-fold symmetry. Cool!
It is basically the reverse of the awesome window I saw in Exeter, UK, below.

This window has 6 petals, each of which has 5-fold symmetry inside.

If you thought the ones we've seen so far were cool, your mind is about to be blown.

I was running in the dark with a group when we ran over a pentagonal manhole cover. That's right -- a pentagon. It was probably the most exciting thing that happened to me all week. It is about two miles from my house, and I ran back with a camera to photograph it in the light.

In the light, it turns out that it actually has six sides. 
However, the sixth side is pretty small, so I'm still calling it a pentagon.

The pentagon seems quite sensibly have a hinge, so that it can't fall into its hole.

Six.

Circles pack well into six-fold symmetry. I think the manhole cover below has 50 circles.

It's almost like two levels of a fractal. Pretty nice.

This one is kind of dark, but it has 6-fold symmetry as a wagon wheel or ship's wheel shape.

Seven.

Wow, seven! Actually, these are not as rare as you might think. I have seen these same manhole covers with seven circles in several places around England.

Seven is surprising. You rarely see things with 7-fold symmetry.
Well, uh, unless you're in the UK and you pay for things with coins.

The 20p and 50p coins are constant-width curves with 7-fold symmetry.
Very cool.

Eight.

Octagons have a special place in my heart. Unfortunately, there are not very many octagonal manhole covers. The one below is the closest I have found.

Picky people might even say this only has 4-fold symmetry.

This is not an octagon, but it does have nice 8-fold symmetry.

Nine.

I haven't found anything with 9-fold symmetry yet. I'm still looking.

Ten.

This one is pretty cool. It reminds me of Islamic mosaics.

10-fold symmetry! 
With a little square in the middle that really should be a star or a pentagon.

Infinity

Yes, I did find a manhole cover that's just plain round. However, it has some pattern on it, probably for traction, which still exhibits (3-fold) symmetry -- that's a relief, isn't it?

A plain old round manhole cover

I hope you have enjoyed counting from 3 to 10 with me, as we walk through the streets of Oxford looking at the ground and not paying attention to pedestrians, cycles and cars. Please let me know if you have seen any awesome manhole covers, especially if they have 9-fold (or more) symmetry.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

A dictionary for talking to British runners

Here is a quick guide, in case you happen upon some British runners and wish to make yourself understood, or wish to understand what they are saying to you.

American: My goal is just to finish.
British: My aim is just to get 'round.

American: The course is hilly, with a muddy part.
British: The course is undulating, with a boggy bit.

American: Wear your team singlet.
British: Wear your club vest.

American: Good job!
British: Well done!

American: How did you do?
British: How did you get on?

American: I was fifth.
British: I came fifth.

American: That race sucked.
British: That race was rubbish.

American: There's a workout on Tuesday.
British: There's a session on Tuesday.

American: They gave me lots of running clothes.
British: They gave me loads of kit.

American: Race against Cambridge
British: Take on the dirty Tabs.

Merely so that others will understand what I am saying, I now talk like this as best I can. I will try to change back when I return to the U.S., or else I'll be both trendy and annoying.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Long tempo ≠ Elite (Great South Run)

This past weekend I ran at the Great South Run. I was not 100% happy with my performance at the half marathon, so I wanted another chance. I couldn't find a half marathon, so I figured a 10-mile race was close enough. I wrote to the "contact us" link on the Great South Run web site and asked for an elite number. Five days later or so, they wrote back and said I could have one!

Unfortunately, I didn't recover very well from my half marathon, so I was feeling pretty bad in the few days before the race. I couldn't even do two-minute pickups in my regular runs. For the race, I decided to try out my "shoulda, woulda, coulda" plan from the half marathon: I felt I had gone out too fast, and I ran the last few miles significantly slower than the first few, so in this next race I would go out slower and then pick it up.

When I checked in, I got this awesome bracelet. It would soon become clear that the other elite athletes were far more elite than I.

Lies!

I had a bit of a crisis in the morning. When I woke up, my Garmin watch was frozen at 7:29:44. No matter what button or combination of buttons I held down, I could not get the screen to say anything else. I was afraid that using it as an alarm clock (set for 7:30) had messed it up somehow. This was a significant problem, because I was depending on my watch to know how fast I was running. Big races in the U.S. often have time clocks at the mile markers, but this one didn't (probably because of the multiple-wave start). So without this watch, I would have no idea how fast I was going. Luckily, one of the elite men said "the same thing happened to my friend's watch this morning; I can fix it" and he did. Apparently, the time change (Daylight Savings Time ended) had messed up many people's Garmin watches. It turns out that if you simultaneously hold both left buttons for 15 seconds, it shuts down. Whew!

I warmed up with Sophie, a runner from near Oxford. (You may recall that I placed second in the Witney 10 and in the Oxford Half. Sophie was first in both.) We ran back and forth in the closed-off starting area, because there was a sea of humanity everywhere else. (There were 25,000 runners.) One minute out, one minute back, repeat.

All 28 elite women went to the starting line. It was cold and windy, near the ocean. There were a lot of cameras, and it was apparently on live TV ("on telly"). When Kelly Holmes fired the gun, everyone just took off. I was last by about 10 meters, and according to my watch I was still going 5:35 pace. Seriously, people, you are not all going to run 56 minutes. There was a helicopter getting the view from above. All the spectators I was running past probably thought I was in the wrong race.

Anyway, I started off in last. I soon caught up to the second-to-last woman, around the mile mark. Just before that, I passed the woman at whose house I had stayed the night before. She cheered for me very quietly, just after taking the picture below, and I waved. That was nice. Otherwise, no one in Portsmouth knew me.

About to go from last to second-to-last

The bad thing about passing that runner was that there was a huge gap ahead. We were running through the seaport, past the historic ships (the H.M.S. Victory and others) and around corners, and I couldn't tell which way the course went until I got there. I could only occasionally see some people way ahead. I was trying to keep a tempo effort at the beginning so that I wouldn't go out too hard, and my HR was about 170 for the first few miles.

The water stops at this race, and at the half marathon, gave out bottles of water. The nice thing about this is that it's easy to squirt it into your mouth, much easier than with cups. One bad thing is that it creates a lot of waste. The other bad thing is that you have to take off the cap and pull out the nozzle thingy before you can drink. At the half marathon, they handed out water bottles with the cap off, ready to drink. At this one, the caps were on. My fingers were cold, and I actually couldn't do it. I tossed the intact bottle back toward a volunteer. I tried again at the next water station and managed to take off the cap and drink. Small victories.

I was slowly reeling in the third-to-last runner, and finally caught up at the 5-mile mark, when we were back near the start/finish area. The fourth-to-last runner was not too far ahead, and I recognized her as the one who had said, on the starting line, that she was aiming for 60-62 minutes. That was apparently not going to happen (she ran 63:51). Even though so she was not that far away, it took me two miles to catch her. When I did, right around mile 7, she stayed right next to me. We ran side-by-side for a while, until I finally pulled away a bit.

A few minutes later, I was a little confused because from the way the crowds were cheering, it sounded like she must be right behind me. I was pretty sure that she would be farther back at that point. All became clear when the wheelchair competitor passed me. That was a first! We turned onto the final two-mile straight part along the ocean into a headwind, and I briefly wondered if it would be possible to draft off of a wheelchair competitor, or for him to draft off of me. However, I passed him and then didn't see him again.

The last two miles were not very much fun. It was a long, straight road with a stiff headwind and no spectators. My feet were feeling pretty beat up at this point. I was simultaneously thinking two things: "This pavement is so rough; it's really hurting my feet" and "This pavement is probably totally normal; my feet are the problem." That idea of starting off slower and picking it up totally failed, as it is not possible to make up lots of time when you are running into a headwind. Also, I didn't have anyone to chase. I could barely make out the next runners in the distance (they finished a minute ahead of me). Solo time-trialing does not lead to my best performances.

I crossed the line in 63:12, almost two minutes slower than my 10-mile splits from the Oxford and the RnR half marathons. The officials indicated for me to leave through a gap in the fence, where the rest of the women were standing and sitting. Some of them were collapsed, having run personal bests. I was fine, having essentially done a tempo run. It was anticlimactic, for sure. I watched the finish of the men's race, which was close, but not that exciting.

I went with some women who were cooling down, and made a new friend. She commented that we didn't get a race goody bag. I commented that we didn't get a medal. I asked her if she would like to try to obtain these things with me, since after all we had done the race just like the other 25,000 people. We found the place where they were handing out goody bags to the masses streaming across the finish line, and though we were separated from it by a fence, we got someone to throw us goody bags with size-small shirts over the fence. Success!

Then we wondered where they were handing out medals. Maybe 1 in 20 people was wearing a medal. That seemed really strange: usually, either everyone is wearing a medal, or no one is (if the race doesn't give out medals, or if they haven't gotten to the medal-giving-out location yet). So I asked someone where she got her medal. "It's in the bag." That's brilliant! The volunteer hands out a bag, and it contains your shirt, your medal, and a bunch of free food and promotions. Three in one!

The only thing left to do was to get pictures with famous people. I got this awesome picture with Abel Kirui in the elite tent. Oh, by the way, the elite tent was actually a temporary building, inside a medieval castle, which looked more like a fort or barracks than a castle. Pretty cool.

With Abel Kirui (silver medal in London Olympic marathon)

Then my new friend and I found out that we were allowed to eat in the VIP tent. Sweet! We had delicious shepherd's pie, couscous, hummus and copious desserts. We waited around a while and finally the women's winner, Briton Jo Pavey, came and was interviewed about her race. And we got pictures with her! I was going to leave, but then my friend said I should also get a picture with Kelly Holmes. I didn't know who she was (not being British and all) but I did get a picture, and I looked her up afterwards.

With Jo Pavey (British Olympian)

With Kelly Holmes (won gold in 800m & 1500m in Athens)

After the race, I returned to where I had spent the night and got a lovely massage from my host, who is a massage therapist. If I am ever in Portsmouth again, I will certainly get another one. If you are ever in Portsmouth, you should strongly consider getting a massage. It was awesome. Then I took the train back to Oxford. The end.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

How to avoid getting cancer

Even before one of my favorite people died of cancer two days ago, I was obsessed with how to avoid cancer.

Everyone has their thing they're worried about. Some people have a family history of heart disease and heart attack, and try to eat a low-cholesterol diet. Some people have relatives with Alzheimer's disease, so they try to eat certain foods and keep active minds. Some people just don't want to get fat. In my case, almost everyone I've known that has died has died from cancer, and other people close to me have had it and survived it, so I'm somewhat obsessed with avoiding cancer.

Here are some strategies for avoiding cancer that have been clearly shown to not work.
  • Eat lightly of mostly organic vegan foods, exercise every day, be skinny, enjoy your job.

  • Eat lightly of hearty American foods, exercise every day, be skinny, and live in a close-knit community.
Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. I have a bone to pick with cause and effect.

Lately my strategy has been to eat foods without ingredients. Tomatoes. Apples. Nuts. Milk. I think this is a good first step, because processed foods are kind of weird. You never know exactly what's in there. (Corn derivatives, most likely.) Of course, single-ingredient foods can still be bad for you.

I think the other part of the solution is to live a happy, stress-free life in a close-knit community. I don't know how feasible that is in our society, but I think that (like running) it would add years to one's life and also life to one's years.

Anyway, this is my current question. I don't know if the answer matters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tang potato salad

Once upon a time, I refused to eat potato salad, because I thought mayonnaise was disgusting. About a year ago, I started making potato salad and eating it because I realized that potatoes are delicious and mayonnaise is not all that bad.

During my time in England, I have discovered a way of making extremely delicious potato salad by using sweet potatoes and vinegar. Here it is.

Ingredients:
2.5 pounds of white potatoes (about 12 small and medium)
1.5 pounds of sweet potatoes (3 or 4)
3/4 cup or 150 ml sour(ed) cream
an equal amount of mayonnaise
vinegar
6 eggs

Cube the white potatoes and boil them until soft. Meanwhile, liberally stab and then microwave the sweet potatoes about 10 minutes until thoroughly soft.

Scoop the hot orange potato part out of the sweet potatoes into a bowl. Mash them and then mix in the sour cream and mayonnaise until it is smooth and creamy.

Drain the white potatoes and then pour vinegar liberally all over them. Stir and repeat until you have poured in a lot of vinegar. I have poured in more every time I have made this recipe, and it has never been enough. If you are using 100% real British potatoes, I recommend 100% real British malt vinegar. Otherwise, you can use whatever vinegar you want.

Boil the eggs and chop them up.

Mix everything together (white potatoes with vinegar, orange mixture, eggs).

Delicious potato salad

My housemate calls this "Tang potato salad" because it turns out orange.

I think this is the most delicious potato salad because the sweet potatoes make it... sweet. I have to stop myself from eating more than is prudent in one sitting.

By the way: Because I have lots of friends who are vegan or allergic to dairy, I tried modifying this by mixing olive oil with the sweet potatoes and eliminating the sour cream and mayonnaise. Epic fail. It was not at all delicious. I am sure that it is possible to make a vegan potato salad, but that is not how to do it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My 15 minutes of fame

Well, folks, my 15 minutes of fame has officially come to an end. I think it's time to step back and review (i.e. document for future reference) what has happened.

This pretty much sums it up 
(views of the video during my 15 minutes of fame)

Here is a rundown of all the awesome things I have been fortunate enough to experience due to my PhD video over the past few months.

June 15: I showed the video to about 60 early-career mathematicians at the AMS math research community on discrete and computational geometry in Snowbird, UT. The entire audience burst out laughing when the sentence "My theorem works!" appeared on the screen. A friendly audience indeed.

June 22: I showed the video to the undergraduates at the Summer@ICERM REU, to explain my research to them. Definitely more effective than a whiteboard explanation.

June 26: I showed the video to a group at the Exeter math conference. We tried to come up with other theorems that could be demonstrated through dance, which was difficult, but the Sentry Theorem was an obvious choice.

July 2: The GeomBlog mentions my video in a guest post by a mathematician from the Snowbird conference.
Finally a shout out for my favorite screening of the session- Diana Davis showed us her entry for "Dance your Ph.D thesis", which drew much approval from an audience worn out by the excessive number of dry beamer and powerpoint presentations we've seen.

July 2: Someone submits the video to reddit/math. It gets 118 votes and 25 comments, most of which are math-related ("what is the genus of the double pentagon surface?"). The YouTube version of the video got over 1500 views in one day.

July 5: The Aperiodical writes a post about the video.
As a mathematician (and not just any kind of mathematician – a PURE mathematician), I heard of the “Dance Your PhD“ contest and immediately burst out laughing. As much as there is some nice pure mathematical dancing out there, the idea that someone’s mathematical PhD research could be conveyed via bodily gyration was both fantastical and hilarious. However, like any good scientist, I’m happy to be proved wrong and in this lovely clip, Dance Your PhD 2012 entrant (and pure mathematician) Diana Davis explains some lovely maths [...]

July 9: Math Munch, written by a participant from the Exeter conference, mentions my video in a post about how mathematics and mathematicians take many different forms.
Let me point you to the “Dance your Ph.D.” Contest. It’s exactly what it sounds like—people sharing the ideas of their dissertations (their first big piece of original work) through dance. Entries come in from physicists, chemists, biologists, and more. Below you’ll find an entry by Diana Davis, a mathematician who completed her dissertation at Brown University this past spring. Diana often studies regular polgyons and especially ways of “dissecting” them—breaking them up into pieces in interesting ways.

August 11: The Williams College math department posts about the video on their web site (later edited to include the contest result). The Brown math department also links it from their web page.

August 23: My friend Dan Katz posts about my video on Facebook. 18 people re-share it, which is way more than when I posted it myself. He is well-connected among mathematicians and this really gets the video out there. Several hundred people watch it embedded on Facebook.
This video, created by Diana Davis, a grad student at Brown, is her entry into a "dance your thesis" competition. It is probably nothing like what the organizers are expecting, and probably much much cooler. You should watch it, and then watch the potentially even awesomer FAQ video she posted later (it should appear as a link up top when you load the first video). Great job, Diana!

August 25: howthebodyworks writes a short post about my video.
“Dance your thesis” by Diana Davis, is the first interpretive dance of group topology I’ve ever seen. Homework: do an alternative take as a slamming dancehall track.

August 30: A mathematician emails me to say he likes the video, and suggests making video games that take place on surfaces similar to the double pentagon.

August 31: PhD+epsilon links to my video in her post about "performance math":
A friend of mine recently shared with me a video of an interpretive dance of a theorem in Diana Davis’ Ph.D. thesis. As her note under the video says, this was created for submission to the “Dance your Ph.D.” competition. I haven’t seen other submissions, but I really love this one.

September 5: A mathematician emails me to ask if it is okay if he puts the video on his web page. Yes!

October 1: The contest closes. I start to get nervous.

October 4: The Brown Daily Herald wrote a front-page article about the video. Several hundred people watched my video embedded on the BDH web site.
Imagine walking in a straight line on a torus, a bagel-like geometric shape. It would be possible to go through the hole and end up where you started, walk around the perimeter and end up back at the beginning, or to walk in spirals and zig-zags. These are the surfaces that serve as the subject of thesis research for Diana Davis GS, who is studying in the Department of Mathematics.

October 5: A shortened version of the BDH article appears in Russian.
Представьте, что идете прямо по валику, по форме напоминающему бублик. Можно пройти через дырку «бублика «и прийти, откуда начали путь, пройти по периметру и оказаться в начале, или же идти по спирали или зигзагами. Такие «бубликовые» поверхности служат предметом диссертационной работы для Дианы Дэвис с кафедры математики университета Браун на Род Айленде.

October 5: Brown Graduate School posts about the video on their Facebook page.

October 9: The 12 finalists are announced (3 in each category). "Cutting sequences" is among them. Whew! Several hundred people watch the video.

October 12: I was secretly notified that I had won the Physics category and had not won the entire contest. The contest organizer and I went back and forth with many emails. He told me that I should definitely go to TEDx Brussels since Oxford is so close to Brussels, and he got me a free ticket (TED, not plane).

October 14: The winners are revealed to the world. 1,000 people per day (!) watch the video.

October 14: I do a phone interview for BioTechniques.

October 14: hyperbolic crochet writes a long post about Veech surfaces, including pictures of models she made to better understand the double pentagon.
By now it is 3 am, and I am still thinking of Veech surface. That dance gives a very nice illustration how this surface can be otained by identifying sides but I cannot visualize. I am trying to get back to sleep but I am still puzzled with what I read in Hubert's and Schmidt's paper: " An easy Euler characteristics calculation shows that it has a genus two. As a genus two surface it has a hyperbolic covering."

October 15: BioTechniques publishes an article based on the previous day's interview.
To create her winning submission, Davis screened multiple versions of her video to family and friends without backgrounds in mathematics to ensure that her research was being explained in a clear manner. “With earlier versions that I thought really explained my theory [well], other people would say, ‘What is going on?’” said Davis. “I was sort of discouraged. It went through a lot of iterations.”

October 15: I email a mathematician to ask about a postdoc job for next year, and he already knows about me because a colleague shared the video with him.

October 16: W.A. Veech, the mathematician who discovered Veech surfaces, sends me an email. (!!!)

October 17: Brown University posts about my winning the contest on their Facebook page. Almost 100 people like it and 51 re-share it.

October 17: I do an interview via Skype for the Physics Buzz podcast. It hasn't come out yet. I just hope I don't sound like a jabbering idiot.

October 18: Marlborough School posts about the video on their Facebook because Libby Stein, the wonderful dancer, went to high school there. She told the school about the dance and the video:
"Last fall, I took a multivariable calc class taught by a Ph.D student here at Brown ... She told me about a contest called 'Dance Your Ph.D.' where any graduate student can submit a dance explaining their Ph.D. She asked me if I would help her compete and of course I agreed ... I just wanted to let you all know about this because my love of math really started at Marlborough. I would not have even considered taking a college math course if not for the amazing experience I had with Marlborough's faculty and staff."

October 19: A mathematician emails me to ask if he can use clips and stills from the video in a colloquium talk. Yes!

October 21: Brown University features the video on the home page just above the Dalai Lama, and writes a press release about the video.

In conclusion: The video has been watched about 10,000 times, which is probably 1,000 times as many  people as read the math paper where I proved the result. This video has spread the word about my research far further than I ever could simply by proving theorems and writing papers, or even by giving math talks. All of the mathematicians I have heard from seem to love the video, which makes all the hard work we put into it pay off. It has been a wonderful experience.

Thanks again to Libby and the rest of the dancers for making this possible.

Update: Brown linked to the news article about the video in the Brown Insider, an email sent to all alumni. Over 1,000 people watched the video as a result.

Spike in views due to Brown's email

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to run a 51-second PR and still feel like a loser

I almost never write blog posts about races that went poorly. If you read through this blog, you probably get the sense that my racing career consists mostly of winning small races and setting PRs, and I never have a bad race. That's because it's really hard for me to sit down and spend time writing about things I did poorly. Well, here goes.

In reality, the Oxford Half Marathon didn't go that poorly. As mentioned in the title of the post, I ran a 51-second PR. I improved my time to 1:21:10, which is certainly no jog in the park.

However, I spent more than three months training for the race, so I didn't just expect it to go well. I expected it to go really well. I wanted to run under 80 minutes. I wanted to win the race.

Neither of these things happened. One reason I didn't achieve my goals is that I ran the first mile too fast, which is a rookie mistake. To have done three months of hard training and have it compromised by poor decisions over the course of just five minutes is tough to swallow.

Anyway, the race.

Conditions at the start were perfect: sunny and 40°. Conditions in the several hours before the race were decidedly arctic. I could see my breath. There was frozen mist floating through the air. I had not prepared for this, so I shivered for a while.

In this news video you can see me twice, standing on the starting line.

Roger Bannister sounded the air horn and I ran what I felt was a reasonably quick, yet not difficult pace. Many men passed me, but no women. The first mile was gradually uphill, and it didn't feel too bad. Just before the mile mark, Sophie caught up and passed me. I got to the mile marker in 5:44.

I am in the middle, in a green singlet and sunglasses

I assumed that the mile mark was wrong and decided not to worry about it. I got behind Sophie and ran just behind her for the next few miles. She was going about the pace I wanted to go, so I just tucked right in and let her set the pace. We went through the next few miles in 11:54 (6:10), 17:57 (6:03), 24:01 (6:04). My goal pace was 6:06, so this seemed pretty good to me.

This is how it was from mile 1-4

Between mile 4 and 5, a gap opened between Sophie and me. I wasn't sure if she was speeding up or I was slowing down, but I felt I was exerting the right amount of effort.

I missed the 5-mile mark, which I am mad about because I really wanted to know how fast I was going. One thing I didn't like about this race was that the mile signs were attached to fences or posts well off the road, so you really had to be looking for them to see them. I didn't see mile 5.

The sixth mile was a gradual uphill. Even though I didn't feel like it, I got my Gu Chomps out and ate three of them (I dropped the fourth on the ground accidentally).

I got to the 6-mile mark in 36:43. What?! Did I really average 6:20 miles for the past two miles? That would be horrible. I had decided not to start "racing" until mile 8 or 10, but I was determined not to get stuck in a 6:20-pace rut, so I injected some purpose into my running for the next mile.

I got to the 7-mile sign in 42:10, meaning that I was averaging 6:01 pace since the beginning of the race. You have got to be kidding me. Either the 6-mile sign had been late, or I ran a 5:27 mile (not likely). I was pretty sure the 7-mile mark was in the right place, so the good news was that I was apparently running a fast half marathon, and the fact that Sophie was well ahead of me was not my problem.

At this point I was really, really wishing I had just worn the darn Garmin. I didn't wear it because during my previous 10-mile race it beeped well before each mile mark, and beeped earlier and earlier as the race went on, so I didn't want to deal with the discrepancy between an actual mile and a "Garmin mile." However, an "Oxford Half Marathon mile" apparently has a huge standard deviation and sometimes does not exist at all. Not cool.

Running along the towpath

Miles 8-10 were my favorite part, around the towpath along the river. I was running alongside this guy, and I would alternately pass him and he would pass me, based on who was feeling good. I missed mile markers 8 and 9, but I knew where 9 should be, and I got there in 54:57. At this point I didn't know what to believe, but I can believe I had slowed to 6:20 pace (which, it should be noted, is still not that slow).

I was hoping I would get to 10 miles in a good time, because I knew the 11th mile would be difficult: it had a switchback, which always slowed me down when I practiced it, and most of that mile was a long, gradual uphill. I got there in 61:20 for a paltry 4-second PR over my RnR split from August.

Running along the scenic towpath

At this point, Sophie had disappeared into the distance. I could still see her until about 7 miles, but now she was gone. Fortunately, there was still room for me to achieve my goal of a PR, because I had purposely run slowly in the last 5k of the RnR half. The half marathon is basically 10 miles plus a 5k, so if I ran 20 minutes for the final 5k, I would run 1:21:20 for the race and beat my 1:22 PR. I basically did exactly that.

The last few miles were not very much fun. I ran around the switchback, up the long hill (6:40 for that mile) and then through the roundabouts in the last few miles of the race. I was mad at myself for running too fast in the first few miles, because that mistake was clearly affecting me now. Finally we approached the stadium.

Seeing 1:21:06 on the clock; finally finishing the race

I was happy to see 1:21 still on the clock as I approached. That's not that bad. I crossed the line and it was over.

Just after I finished, I met up with someone I knew from a local running group. He was happy I had finished second lady. On the starting line, he said he wanted to run 1:25; he had run 1:19. I wish I had exceeded my goal by six minutes!

As I walked out of the stadium, several people congratulated me for being the first lady. I temporarily entertained the notion that Sophie might have dropped out, but it seemed unlikely (she didn't).

I got my race T-shirt from the volunteers. As I have mentioned, in the UK, T-shirts are for finishers, not entrants. The nice thing about this is that the faster you run, the more likely you are to get the size you desire. I got a small. They were all men's cut, though. Apparently women's-cut race shirts do not exist in the UK yet.

Then there was a crowd of people standing around these machines. You type in your race number, and it tells you your time and place!

The cool device to see your race time

And if you touch your name on the screen, it prints out a receipt with this information. Very cool. This is a great benefit of chip timing, and it eliminates the huge crowds of people around the results taped to the wall. This is mostly because there are no results taped to the wall. We should do this in the U.S.

Well, actually the big crowds in the U.S. around the results on the wall are replaced by big crowds in the U.K. around the magic machine. But at least it's instantly available! No waiting for the timer man to get a full page of results, print them out, and tape them up! And you can take it home! More dead trees for everyone!

I ran 1:21:10 and I have a receipt to prove it

Then I was thrilled to see that Sir Roger Bannister was still around! I thought he might have gone home after finishing his duties starting the race, but no, he and his wife were still there. I ran to the baggage claim, got my bag, fished my camera out, and went back to where he had been. He hadn't gone far; luckily for me, he is a little slower now than in 1954. He said he was looking for the women's winner, but since he couldn't find her, he was happy to talk to me. He asked me a series of questions that seemed prepared -- what was your time? are you happy with it? what do you do? what are you doing in Oxford? how many miles a week do you run? -- which seems to me a brilliant method for dealing with frequently talking to people who want to meet him. And he let me take a picture with him!

With Sir Roger Bannister!

Then I cooled down a bit and went to the awards. I was surprised to learn how close behind me 3rd and 4th places were. If I hadn't run a PR, I would have been 4th. The 3rd lady could almost certainly see me for much of the race.

The long and short of it

The prize was the most money I've ever won in a race: £200 (about $323)! Unfortunately, it was in the form of a gift certificate to a local running store, to buy Brooks products. Well, I'm sure I'll find some good things to buy there, and I'll just tuck them in the closet to wear far in the future when I am no longer a New Balance athlete. I also got a very comfy Brooks sweatshirt. Don't worry; I only wear it indoors where no one can see me.

I briefly entertained the notion of finding another half marathon in two or three weeks, and then wearing the Garmin and sticking religiously to 6:10 pace for the first 8 miles. However, I've decided to move on. It's cross country season. I'm going to break out the spikes and see what happens on the muddy fields. See you out there.

Update: I did find myself a 10-mile race (the Great South Run), and stuck to 6:10 pace for the first few miles. The result was a 63:12 10-mile, almost two minutes slower than my 10-mile split from this half marathon. I started at 6:10 pace and slowed down from there. So in retrospect, I am pretty happy about my performance at the Oxford half marathon, and I'm not that mad about my 5:44 first mile. If you're going to slow down, you might as well slow down from a faster pace than from a slower pace.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Exact change

Everyone likes exact change. If you're buying something that costs $2.57, for instance, it's nice to give the cashier $3.07, instead of a $10 bill.

That makes sense. However, British bus drivers take this logic way too far.

Crazy change experience #1: Taking less than the price, rather than making change.

Shortly after I arrived in England, I decided to do a race about 15 miles away. Happily, the city bus had a route that would take me within a mile of the start. Great! I tried to look up the fare online, but to no avail. All I could determine was that the maximum possible return fare was £4.80. So, just to be safe, I brought all the change I had (£3.80) and £50 in bills besides. I had learned that England is really expensive, and I was not about to take the chance that I would a 10-mile race and then have to run 15 miles home due to running out of money.

I got on the bus and told the driver where I wanted to go. "That'll be £3.90," he said. I handed him a £10 bill. 

"Don't you have any change?" he asked. I poured all of my change into my hand and held it out to him.  He quickly counted it up. "That's only £3.80," he said, "not enough."

"Right. That's why I gave you the £10." I held it out again. "Don't you have any other change?" he asked. "No. This is all I have." (What, would I hide coins because of some secret agenda?) He sighed and took the £10 bill. Then he changed his mind, handed it back, and took the £3.80 in coins instead.

Crazy change experience #2: Taking all my money and not giving me change.

I was going to meet my parents in London for the day, so I got £20 from the ATM. The return bus ticket cost £13, and I figured that the remaining £7 would be enough for my expenses during the day in London.

I got on the bus at the head of a line of people and handed the bus driver my £20. "Do you have £3, so I can give you a £10?" he asked. "No, sorry, this is all I have." "You don't have any other change?" I poured all the change out of my wallet into my hand and held it out. "You don't have any pound coins?" "No, sorry." 

He sighed, took my £20, and handed me two receipts, then started to move on to the next person.

"Excuse me, I need £7 change," I reminded him. He took one of the receipts back and showed it to me. "Give this to the bus driver tonight, and he'll give you the £7," he said.

I looked at the receipt. It was essentially an IOU from the Oxford Tube to me, for £7 (about $11). 

Really? Is this even legal? They just take my money, and then instead of giving me change, they give me this slip of paper. Awesome. So if I lose it, then they never have to give me my change. Also, I now had no money for my day in London. (Of course, I could still use a credit card -- which is not as simple as it seems, and provides enough material for its own post.)

That evening, I got on the bus, showed the driver my ticket, and then gave him the IOU for £7. 

"Do you have £3?" he asked. 

"No! If I had £3, I would have given it to the driver this morning!" I was getting a little fed up with this racket.

"But you must have spent some money in London today, and gotten change," he said.

"No. The bus driver took all my money this morning, and just gave me this piece of paper."

He literally argued with me for another 30 seconds, expressing disbelief that I didn't have change, and refusing to give me my money. Finally, he gave me £7 -- a £5 bill and a £2 coin. Was that so difficult?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Let me help you with that

In the past week or so, it has happened twice that people have asked me math-related questions for which I felt unqualified. Both times, it ended up being awesome. Here goes.

My housemate: "Hi, Diana. I really need your help. I can't understand the T-statistic that Excel is outputting for my data analysis."

Me: I don't even remember what a T-statistic is. I guess I can look it up online. "Sure, I can take a look at it."

Housemate: "I spent six hours today looking it up online and I still have no idea."

Me: Oh, no. "Okay, show me."

Housemate: "See, it says here 2.58E-10. What could that possibly mean?"

... so we had a little discussion about scientific notation, and he was good to go.

Dinner guest: "So, you basically do knot theory, right?"

Me: Um, no. "Well, I do geometry, and I study surfaces, which is kind of similar."

Guest: "I have a knot theory question for you. You might not know the answer, but I've been wondering this for a long time."

Me: This is highly unexpected. "Okay."

Guest: "Can you explain, in layman's terms, what an unknot is?"

... yes, that I can do. (It's a circle.)

That's all for this time! Diana's wealth of high-level mathematical knowledge, improving the world one question at a time!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

How to run faster

There are two ways to run faster. They are very simple.

1. Increase your stride rate, so you are taking more steps per minute.

 2. Increase your stride length, so you go farther with each step.

Your speed is (stride rate) x (stride length). Very simple.

Some months ago, Alan noticed that I have a very high stride rate, or cadence. The rule of thumb is that you should take 180 steps per minute, or 90 with each foot. Most people take fewer than this, and try to increase their stride rate up to this apparently ideal 90. Alan noticed that my cadence was approaching 100 when I was doing strides. That's pretty high.

Now that I have a super-fancy GPS watch with the associated accelerometer foot pod, I can collect data on this stuff. (Thanks, Gary at Garmin! Thanks, Rhode Runner!) As you can see from the graph below, I usually have a cadence of 95-96, and the faster I run, the higher it goes, up to 104.


This graph just shows averages for entire miles. I actually have a cadence over 110 when I am doing strides (sprints) sometimes.

A high cadence is not necessarily bad. However, it could be bad, if I were taking lots of tiny steps when I run fast. In particular, it would be bad if I were increasing my stride rate without increasing my stride length.

Luckily, I can figure out my stride length from the copious GPS data as well.


Did you think the first graph had pretty good data? Did you think it was pretty linear? You hadn't seen nuthin' yet. This is some of the most linear data I have seen. And it came from real life!

From this graph, we can see that as I run faster, I also increase my stride length, from a normal length of about 3.5 feet to well over 4 feet when I am going fast. By the way, that means my footprints would be 3.5-4 feet apart (it's not measuring right foot to right foot).

So, I don't need to worry: I'm increasing both stride rate and stride length as I run faster. That's exactly the way it should be. As for the high cadence, it's much better than low cadence, and it puts me in good company with many elites who have cadence near 100.

Pretty cool.



GARMIN Forerunner 210 GPS Enabled Watch with Heart Rate Monitor Bundle Pack, Black - (Google Affiliate Ad)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Every day is an adventure

"Every day is an adventure" -- I've been saying that a lot recently, because I'm living in a different country, and every day I'm going places I've never been, often places that I've only seen on the satellite view on the computer.

Left: Oxford Half Marathon course (one of two sides).        Right: OUCH Handicap Run course

When I go exploring in a new place for the first time, I bring a map. Usually it looks like one of the maps above.

"You might get lost," someone said to me. "Don't worry; I have a map," I said. "Let me see the map," the person said. I handed it over. "I don't think this map will do you much good," I said.

These maps make perfect sense to me. They are completely topological; one inch equals 100 feet in one places and two miles in another place (which is why I often put in mile markers). They are covered in road names. A squiggly line means a river crossing. A shaded area means a hidden footpath through trees. A circle with lots of lines coming off of it means yet another (!!!) roundabout.

I have a ton of these little maps on scraps of paper, because of my project running all the roads in Deer Isle. I decided I liked them, so I kept them in a pint glass. Maybe someday I will make them into something. Some people cover a wall with paint or wallpaper, others with race bib numbers; I may cover them in crumpled scrawled maps.

The aftermath of 8 laps around Christ Church Meadow

"Oh my god! You're covered in mud! What happened?"

(it was true)

"Well, I ran through a puddle, and then I ran through it again, and then I ran through it again and again and again."

"Sounds like a psychological issue to me."

The plan was repeats of some distance like 2k or 1.5 miles, so I chose to run around the perimeter of Christ Church Meadow (1.33 miles, as it turned out). I like running around Christ Church Meadow because it's a dirt path, it's a beautiful place to run, and there aren't too many people (especially when it's raining). I put off my interval workout until the afternoon, conveniently after a few short rain showers had turned the dirt path into a long ribbon of yellow puddles.

Puddles don't really bother me. I noticed that my feet occasionally got wet, but it did not occur to me to check my legs and back for mud. As it turned out, I was covered in yellow mud, which turned into caked-on dried yellow mud. It must have some special properties, because it stuck on pretty well. When I took a shower after the run, the washed-off mud in the bottom of the shower was approximately 3 inches deep. (I actually got stuck in it and I am writing this post from the shower.)

Let me tell you a funny story about Christ Church Meadow. I ran in it one of the first days I was in Oxford, and found it to be a lovely shady park. I ran along the river, beneath a canopy of trees the whole way. I thought it was a great park full of trees.

Then I looked at the satellite image later, and discovered that the park actually has barely any trees:

The blue marker is the garden where Lewis Carroll told fanciful stories to young Alice.

As it turns out, Christ Church Meadow is a meadow. They graze longhorn cattle in the middle of it. English longhorn cattle, not Texas longhorn cattle, if you were wondering.

There is another lovely park in Oxford, whose perimeter is coincidentally exactly the same 1.33 miles. The experience of running there is also of a tree-filled park. In fact, it also has barely any trees. It boasts a cricket pitch and multiple rugby fields. However, all the paths are lined with trees. Very misleading.

The park is called "University Parks." When people refer to it, they use the plural. "Let's meet at Parks." "I did some lovely loops around Parks." "Parks is good if you want to run on the dirt."

No dodo birds were created or destroyed in this Parks

See you all later. I'm going to go run around a Parks.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cutting sequences on the double pentagon, explained through dance

This past spring, I spent some time "dancing my PhD." I created a video that explains my PhD thesis through dance. I am really happy with the finished product. Watch it and understand!

 
Cutting Sequences on the Double Pentagon, explained through dance from Diana Davis on Vimeo.

 I created this video to enter in the contest "Dance your PhD," sponsored by Science and TED. The contest closes on October 1, and the winners will be announced thereafter.

No matter what the judges think, I'm really glad that I made this video. It's a great way to explain my PhD work to people; I plan to use it in math talks in the future; and it's spread the word about my research in ways that simply writing papers and giving talks never could. I've received emails from many people I've never met, praising the video. It's been a great experience!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Leave your body on the earth

Three people with dogs are ahead of me. As I pass them, one of the dogs runs to the other side, its leash stretched across the path. I trip over it and go flying across the gravel.

"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." I am laying on the dirt. I stop my watch. I close my eyes, put my forehead down on my arms, and wait.

"Let me help you up."
"No. Just leave me here. I'm fine."

It's best if, when I leave the earth, my body is on the ground. I wait.



"Are you okay?"

I open my eyes. I'm laying on the ground. The dogs -- the leash -- that's right.

"I'm fine." I get up, assess the damage to my skin, brush the dust off my clothes. We exchange a few more words, then I start my watch and start running again.



That mile is 7:55, but the next two are 9:30 because I am telling myself that I know how I will die.

Some day, as it has happened a hundred times before, something stupid will happen -- I will trip and fall, or bang my knee on a table -- and, knowing what is coming, I will lay down, put my forehead on my arms, and wait. And as it has happened a hundred times before, my breathing will slow down, and my heartbeat will slow down, and that which is me will cease to exist. For how long? I never know -- ask the people who have watched it happen.

And then someone says -- "Are you okay?" And a hundred times, I say, "I'm fine," and I get up. And what if, the hundred and first time, my breathing slows, and slows, and slows, and then ... ?


Also see: vasovagal episodes.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Running vignettes

I think of vignettes as line segments approximating a curve. The curve is your life. The line segments are the stories. They start off of the curve, come in and just barely kiss it, and then veer away from it again. One segment doesn't approximate a curve very well, but if you get a couple of them, you get a good idea of what the life is like.

"The loop starts here, right?" I asked the man who has run with this group for 30 years.
"No." He pointed to a spot 30 feet away. "The loop starts there."

I am running in a park. "Excuse me," a teenage boy says, so I stop. He mutters something breathily, in a thick English accent. "What?" I ask. He breathily mutters the same thing again. I still have no idea what he's saying, but now I know it's something lewd. I start running again. "Sorry, I don't speak British," I shout back over my shoulder.

I passed the same old man twice, on the way out and on the way back. Each time, he stood well off the path, motioning for me to go by. As soon as I was past, he made loud farting sounds with his mouth.

I ran past a man who was feeding the ducks. "Well done!" he shouted, "Well done this morning! That's why we're the best!"
"USA! USA!" I shouted back, and pumped my fist in the air. Just so we're clear on who, exactly, my running is making the best.

I am running along the canal, and a woman in a rowing single is going the same speed, just ahead of me. We travel together for a few minutes at the same speed, until I turn off of the path into the woods. And I wonder, if I had a friend who rowed, could we exercise together like this, her on the water and me on the path, chatting back and forth?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mile repeats at Iffley Road

Mile repeats are my favorite workout. Unfortunately, I only do them about once a year. Fortunately, today was one of those days.

I am currently in the process of molding my body to the task of running 13.1 miles at 6:00 pace. So I ran six mile repeats with 90 seconds rest, in 6:00 or just under.

Well, that's not quite true. In the middle of repeat #4, I took an unscheduled pit stop. So repeat #4 was more like a 1009m, a several-minute break, and then a 600. Then 90 seconds rest, and back to our regularly scheduled program. I was kind of annoyed about this pit stop, occurring as it did in the middle of an interval, and giving me too much rest. However, it was non-optional. That's just the way it goes sometimes.

On the bright side, I had been really working hard during repeat #4 and was thinking of stopping after 4, but after my excessive rest interval, I felt nice and recovered, so I went ahead and did two more miles and finished the workout.

Previously, the most mile repeats I'd ever done was five, in a workout a few years ago with my friend Melissa. That time, we also did them in just under 6:00 -- but we had more rest, and I think they were 1600s. My workout today was on the Roger Bannister track at Iffley Road. I did miles. To do 1600s would have been disrespectful.

Well, that's not quite true. I once did nine mile repeats. But it was really just a way to break up a 20-mile long run.

I like this idea of "molding my body to a task." I think it's the right way of looking at the goal. So I am working on teaching my body to relax and enjoy hanging out at 6:00 pace. The more time I spend there, the better. Six miles in the books.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Do not fear the rain

Suppose that you are in Providence, and the following sequence of events occurs:

- The sky gets kind of dark.
- The wind starts to blow.
- You feel a few sprinkles of rain.

What should you do?

The answer is: run. Wherever you are going (and you must be outside going somewhere, because you felt a few sprinkles of rain), you should start running, because it is about to start pouring rain.

In Oxford, this is not the case. Several times now, I have been outside and those three things happened, and I thought, "oh no, I'm going to get soaking wet," and then -- nothing. A few sprinkles, and then nothing more.

On the other hand, I was doing a track workout on Wednesday, and during the workout the sun came out, and it was evening, so the horizontal rays of the sun made beautiful colors on the buildings and the track, and it was so bright shining in my eyes that I thought about sunglasses. Then, during my cool down run, it suddenly started pouring rain and I was soaked immediately.

I brought all of this rain gear -- a nice light raincoat, an umbrella, knee-high rubber boots, and full foul weather gear. But the only times I go outside are to run, to go to the grocery store, and to meet with my advisor. I'm not going to wear any of that stuff to run. I'll postpone my grocery trip if it's raining. So I brought all this stuff to England in case it rains while I am walking to my once-weekly meeting with my advisor. Hmmm. Maybe I should start going to the library (but only when it's raining), to have an excuse to wear this stuff.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Run in circles

Today I showed up for "cross country training" with a local running club, the Headington Road Runners. The workout could be basically summarized as: run around a very small loop, then run in a larger loop, then run in an even larger loop, and finally run around the largest possible loop.

I loved it.

Before I went, I wasn't sure what to expect. "Cross country training" -- does that mean that we just do a distance run across a heath? The email said to bring spikes, which I thought was an excellent sign.

First, we did a group warm-up around a small circle. You can see it in the GPS track below (it's the small circle). We jogged, and did butt kicks and high knees, and short sprints, all around this circle. At first I felt a little ridiculous -- it was maybe 20m in diameter -- but then I understood the purpose, which is that everyone can warm up together, regardless of speed.

The tiny loop is the warmup; the heart-shaped is the first set; the large loop is the second.
The time trial was around the whole park, outside this picture.
I just knew this workout would look awesome on the GPS track.

The workout consisted of three 10-minute "efforts." The first was around the heart-shaped loop, which was so designed to make us run uphill twice within a very small loop. We just ran around it continuously for 10 minutes, passing and lapping other runners at will.

Then we rested for 5 minutes. This meant just standing around and listening to instructions for the next effort. The biggest difference from running at home that I have found in both this workout and the track workout I did the other day was the utter lack of non-interval running. Mile warm-up, half-mile cool down, and stand around between intervals. These people clearly do not pad their mileage like I do.

Mile 1-1.5 is the warmup, 2-3 the heart loop, 3-5 the medium loop and 5-6 the time trial loop.
I just knew this workout would look awesome on the elevation graph.

Then we ran around a bigger loop for 10 minutes. Then 5 minutes standing around. Then we did a "time trial" consisting of a loop around the entire park. My time was 9:00 for 1.43 miles (6:18).

It was simple, and I liked it. I ran hard, and I was tired afterwards. It was great cross country training; we ran through thick grass, around tight turns, through marshy spots, under trees, up and downhill, in spikes. I am definitely going back next Saturday.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Negotiating gates

The first week or two that I was running in Oxford, I was very concerned about all the slow running I was doing. Before I left, I ran 82 minutes for the half marathon, and I came over here planning to train some more and then run under 80 minutes in a half marathon. That's about 6:00 pace for 13 miles. However, it was taking a huge amount of effort just to run 8:00 pace. This was a bad sign.

I tried to attribute this slowness to all the gates I had to pass through during my runs. Let me tell you a little about the gates around here. Some of them are normal gates, like a door in the middle of a long fence; you lift the latch, go through and then latch it again. But then they also have these other kinds of gates, which I had never seen before I went to Ireland in February. Here is one:


This (above) is the first gate of this type that I ever saw, at Tara, outside of Dublin. I thought it was so amazing that I took a picture. It effectively lets people through, but prohibits everything else. Also, only one person can go through at a time, so if a bunch of people all want to pass, it takes a while.

Some of the parks here in Oxford have taken this style of gate to a whole new level. Unlike the one in the picture above, these things are like eight feet tall. Good luck passing a bike or baby stroller over them.

In case you do not fully understand how this sort of gate works, here is a top-view diagram I have made for you, showing how you can enter at the bottom, flatten yourself against the wall on the right, and then swing the door across so that you can exit out the top:
This evening I showed up at an OUCH group run, thinking that they would go about 8:30 pace, which is what they did when I showed up to their Tuesday lunch run. Instead, I ended up running with this one 50-ish guy, who ended up being really fast. We averaged just over 7:00 pace, including passing through several gates of the type exhaustively described above. It was amazing. It revolutionized the way I think about gates. Now I think: just open it and move on, preferably at breakneck speed (and preferably with a nice man who darts ahead, opens it, waits for you to go through, and then closes it). Never again can I blame gates for my slow pace.

Cow grates, on the other hand...