Thursday, April 30, 2015

Party for your Right to Party

The organization where I instruct spin classes had a recent complaint taking offense at the use of “Ghetto Rap” music in classes. The writer called it misogynist.

I take offense at this complaint. I call it racist.

Ghetto: a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.

By calling it "Ghetto" Rap, the implication is that Rap music is offensive when it is made by poor, urban, minority populations. However if the music is made by wealthy, white people, A-OK. Or the writer might just be suggesting that misogyny is only a problem in the "Ghetto." The complaint was unsigned so it wasn't possible to start a conversation with the writer on biased language.

Today, I thought I’d acknowledge that complaint by playing the Beastie Boys “Fight for your Right (to Party)” followed by Public Enemy’s “Party for your Right to Fight”. Neither song is misogynist, but both are certainly rap. Regardless, I'm sure I'll ultimately get slapped down. The Public Enemy song praises the honorable Elijah Muhammed. That's a big no-no in my small, super-christian town. The Beastie Boys talk about your Mom finding your porno-stash, but I doubt that will push any buttons. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Thursday morning, late winter: "Hey! We need some more up-beat music!" Cara, she's been taking my indoor cycle class for years. She often comments on the workout (always good) and occasionally praises a song. Usually something by the Who or the Stones or Neil Young or the Doors. She's opinionated, but not critical. In fact, she is one of the most polite people I encounter on a regular basis. Her outburst surprised me.

"Those last two songs were Nirvana, so I'm not really sure what you're talking about." This got some chuckles. It lightened the mood. My next three songs, a block of sixties garage rock – Louie, Louie, Wooly Bully and Double Shot of my Baby's Love – actually got people singing along. All was forgotten. Until I introduced a set of speed-work with Sonic Youth's "Purr." This started a mini-rebellion. I closed out the workout with a pair of live Clash cuts and Nirvana's "Molly's Lips.” Then I cooled everyone down with the Cure’ s ”Fire in Cairo.” The room was alive with tension. My music selection had pissed people off. As if I was challenging everyone with my play list. And I probably was. “Deal with it or leave.” As everyone mopped up their sweat at the end of class, I felt guilty. My class starts at 5:30 AM. They get up early for this. This is their workout. "We'll start next week with Pop-Music Monday." I got a little cheer.

I was in a crappy mood the rest of the day. A great spin-class is tricky to achieve. I can rarely tell when the class is going to gel into a something memorable. But that's the bar I set for myself. I want every class to astonish. To elicit a dazed and satisfied “OMG!” as we're walking out the door. But many factors make or break a class. The music, sure. The drills. But it's also the mood of the class, the mood of the instructor. Even the weather plays a role, even though it's an indoor class. I often go into a class knowing it will be good, but will it be great? It will be fine (I hate that tepid word). It will get the job done (not crazy about that phrase either). On occasion, I go into a class with a workout so perfect, I know it will change people's lives.

That Thursday was one of those days. I had already used this workout the week before and I loved it. A twenty-four minute series of three-minute songs – two minutes hard, the last minute, all out. Sucking wind. Each song with more tension than the last. Slowly catching our breath for two minutes, and kill it again. Rocking songs! They needed to motivate. Drawn heavily from my punk/alt-rock library. Clash, Pixies, X. The rest of the workout, hard flats interspersed with sprints, climbs and jumps. Well-choreographed, well-paced. Intense, but doable.

The first time I used the workout, It was a very snowy morning. A shut-down-the-town sort of day. Only two riders showed up. This was an A-list workout, wasted on two people. So I reused it a week later – Thursday. I made some song changes, improved the play list, I thought – swapped in the Nirvana, the live Clash, a Gang of Four song. And you know the rest.

I’ve been leading this cycle class for 4 years. The music clearly isn’t for everyone, but most people seem to like it. Older people primarily, people whose tastes range beyond pop. My class, initially branded “Punk*Cycle” started as all punk, all the time, but that got boring. Not enough variety, the songs too short. My class, usually two or three people. So I started adding in other genres: roots rock, blues, classic rock; Some reggae and alt-country; Even a bit of pop music now and then – generally, eighties new wave. For the most part, not radio music, but I choose songs that are tuneful. Music that should have been popular – if anyone ever heard it.

A rocking mix, songs that grow on people. The reviews are mixed, but mostly positive. I've heard many times that I have the best music of all the instructors. I've also heard that I have “the weirdest.” Once or twice, "the worst." It all comes down to taste. And I'm not very accommodating. I play what I prefer. Now and then, I push to see what I can get away with. Seems like Thursday was one of those mornings.

Music. I spend much of my time thinking about it. There is always a tune bouncing through my head. And the music I like, much of it I love. When looking through the prism of love, you see only the good. You somehow overlook the ugly. I've done this in past relationships, and I do this with songs, too. A good example is the Gang of Four's “I Found that Essence Rare.” I listen to that song and I hear energetic dance music. A song with a clever tune and a catchy beat. My wife hears it and says “WTF?” It is dissonant and grating. She's a good barometer. She loves the Ramones, the Clash, Green Day, but she was raised on Sheena Easton, Michael Jackson and Prince. She can tell me which songs are going to bomb, so I try to avoid asking her.

That fateful Thursday morning was about four weeks ago. Since then, I spend more time tweaking my playlist. More time trying to balance and evaluate songs. A shift in perspective. Will the songs appeal to conservative riders like Cara. Can I still use Blast's cover of “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue?” Maybe. If I lead in with Bruno Mars and chase it with Taylor Swift.

I seem to be entering a new phase in my relationship with spin. More mature. More realistic. Like a courtship that is getting serious. I am finding that I need to compromise a bit. Give up Blast to avoid Taylor Swift. Or recognize that three Nirvana songs in a one hour workout is expending weeks of goodwill. Thinking like this takes extra effort. It even erodes a bit of the fun. Compromise, maturity. Blah. Maybe I should return to my roots. Return to Punk*Cycle. My raw, head-banging class. My almost empty room. 

Now seriously, listen to Molly's Lips. This song rocks.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Don't Believe the Hype

Packet pickup, the day before a race. Old acquaintances see each other and nod. "Hey, are you running the half?"

"No, I'm running the 5K."

"Well, at least you're running."

This didn't happen to me. I read it in Runners' World, in the "Ask Miles" section. He gives advice on how to avoid running faux pas. And this was a faux pas. He eloquently pointed out why. All distances are hard. Hard if they are raced, not run. Anyone who has trained specifically to do well in a 5K knows this. Speed-work, hill-repeats, striders, mile pickups. Four mile high-tempo runs. None of this is as fun as going long on a warm, breezy Sunday morning. But this "Ask Miles" response is practically the only place I see this acknowledged in Runners' World magazine.

With the exception of a rare article about the new collegiate runner to watch, the message I get from Runners' World magazine is that the 5K is an entry-level race. Real runners race longer distances. Specifically half and full marathons.

This has pissed me off for years. Probably because chronic knee and calf problems have limited my runs to under five or six miles for a couple of decades. My only marathon was in the early nineties. At that time, half-marathons barely existed. The next common distance-race was the ten- mile. Which happened to be my strongest distance. Something about the way I'm designed allows me to hold a high tempo-pace for just over an hour. Everything after that is guts. Or at least requires some conscious pacing earlier in the run.

Runners' World is a magazine for the masses. And the masses of runners are in it for enjoyment, not actualization. And a surprising number are in it for weight-loss. Just look at the popularity of the Blerch franchise (also heavily plugged by Runners’ World). I might even suggest that many runners are lazy. It is far easier to build distance than speed. And building speed at longer distances is easier than building *fast* speed for a 5K. For most runners, non-elite runners, improving at the half-marathon or marathon is about gaining comfort with the distance. Not so for 5K. Most runners are already comfortable with the distance. A strong performance means shaving seconds off of a your last time. This comes from strategic training, diet, drills, and the grueling speed-work that even the most hard-core runners hate.

With my injuries, I've raced a lot of 5Ks over the years. And every now and then I decide I want to push out a good time. This makes for a rough month or so. I live in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. For a strong race here, performing well on hills is mandatory. Training includes long hill repeats with quick active recovery. This simulates pretty much every race I've done in my county. Every hill you hit, there is another one right behind it. Some are long, some are short, and they all hurt when cruising at a barely sustainable pace.

It's funny that I'm thinking about this now. I'm running a trail-half on Sunday. Through changes to my form, my diet and my other workouts – and sticking exclusively to trail-running – my knee and calf problems have improved. I won't say they are gone, but they are letting me increase my mileage at a slow but steady pace. I noticed this in January, and I've been pushing my weekend long-run all winter. And I love it.

Just like all of the other runners I know, for me the lure of longer races is omnipresent. After my half marathon this weekend, I'm contemplating training up to a 50K. The shortest "ultra" race. The thought of racing 5Ks just doesn't appeal to me. It isn't that I don't respect the distance. There is just a limited return for the effort and the cost. Why commit twenty-five dollars and an entire morning for twenty-two minutes of racing. Twenty-two minutes of all-out effort, suffering and pain. And that doesn't even take into account a month or two of nasty training.

The other problem, I hate to admit, is the lack of "cred" I get from racing shorter distances. A fast time for me isn't fast enough to impress anyone but me. After a recent race, I was packing up my stuff to head home. A spectator asked me how I did. I said I didn't really run as well as I planned. I missed my goal by almost a minute. She shook her head and said, well you finished, that must make you feel good. Whoever she came to watch – her husband, her child, her sister – for them, finishing was the goal. For me, there were splits to consider, my age-group ranking, my overall time. I came in sixteenth, second in my age group. But I ran a very bad race.

When running a long, technical trail race, to some degree, there is some joy generated in simply finishing. Or at least joy in finally being done. And after two or more hours in the woods, there are many race segments to look back on and evaluate. How did I run the flats. Am I happy with my performance on the hills, on the technical sections. Did I finish as strong as I could have. There will be parts where I can improve, and parts where I impressed myself. It won’t be all good or all bad, but something will be good, pleasant to reminisce. Later, people will see my name in the rankings, and look at the distance, and think "Wow!" And none of it will be as hard for me as a twenty-two minute 5K.

So while I completely discount the Runner’s World mantra that the 5K is an entry level race, now that I’m again physically able to run longer races I will. Not because the 5K is too easy for me, but because it is too damn hard.