Sunday, May 31, 2015


Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the tragic end to Steve Prefontaine's life.  If you don't know about him that's understandable: 40 years is a long time!   Pre was the inarguably the best American distance runner of his era, but in 1975  - the night of a meet where he had brought the Fearsome Finns to Eugene to line up with the best runners in the US  -he crashed his MG on the way home from the celebratory party and was crushed underneath the car, bringing an abrupt end to a career that was assuredly destined for even more greatness.  
The Classic Pre Shot
I was reminded of the anniversary by getting a great link sent to me by Big Alan Meier of an essay done by Jeff Johnson, Nike's first employee and quirky long time track fan.  I won't even try to describe Pre the way that Jeff Johnson does; he knew Pre well and is very articulate, and the essay is so heartfelt - even after all this time - that it's clear that Pre still retains a special place in his heart.  But I will try to describe what Pre meant to me and my cohorts.

I'd love to say that when I was 10 I was a huge fan and followed track and field and distance running and his life- and death- inspired me to take up running, but the truth is that I was 10 and Pre's passing passed me by.  However, I did run my first race a year later, and soon enough I was running cross country and track and someone gave me this great book by Tom Jordan and I think it's safe to say that it changed my life.

There were so many attributes that Pre had that resonated with me:  while it was clear that he was an amazing natural talent, his workout ethics were legendary (he didn't miss a single workout in college, and he was always the guy who wanted to do more, and more.  His pithy quotes were gospel for an aspiring runner:  the "guts" one in the photo, above,  "if someone wants to beat me they've got to bleed to do it", "Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement."  No one will ever win a 5,000-meter race by running an easy two miles. Not against me." and "some people might think that pace is suicidal; well; it's a good day to die!"

I apparently had mostly slow twitch muscles even when I was an adolescent, and if anyone was near me at the end I would lose the sprint, but Pre  - with his famous front-running style - was a big advocate of just pushing people so hard in the middle of the race that they would either not be around for the finish or had nothing left for the finish, something that I tried to take to heart myself (though anyone who can run a 3:55 mile has plenty of leg speed; he just perceived that he wasn't as fast and didn't want to leave the finish up to chance).   15 years after his death, I was still doing "Pre" workouts:  one memorable one was a 3/4 mile that started with a 60 second lap, then into a 65 second lap, then a 70 second lap, then don't even stop and head out the door for a hard 6-7 miles with a harder surge in the middle, and looping back to the track to finish with another 3/4 mile going 70, 65, and then 60 secs.  I never even came close.....

One of the most important aspects of Prefontaine is that he was cool, and he made distance running cool.  For sure, when he started at University of Oregon he was a scrawny little dork, but after an amazing debut season there he ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated:

Yes, there had been milers Jim Ryan and Marty Liquori, and longer-distance (and marathon gold medalist) Frank Shorter:
Pre and Shorter the day before Pre's accident
But Pre - with his trademark "outlaw" mustache, brash behavior (yet seemingly endless capacity to give himself to people, whether they be friends or school kids he regularly gave presentations to), and outspokenness (fighting the AAU to get them to get rid of the "amateur" status of Olympic-caliber athletes so that they could compete with the likes of the state-sponsored Finns and Russians) seemed to take the gawky nature of runners and make it cool; something that is all important when you are an impressionable high schooler (to be sure, our 1982 cross country team was chock full of dorks and misfits who reveled in the lack of hand-eye coordination needed to run with no need to move out of a linear plane!).

And just as important as his influence on the likes of me was the influence that he had in creating Nike (and the subsequent "running boom"); the likes of Phil Knight (still CEO) and Bill Bowerman took the same attitudes of hard work and an unconventional aggressiveness that Pre exemplified into the footwear world and of course has been able to parlay that into being a $20+ billion dollar business (Pre's legacy is well advertised on the Nike Campus:
this is the greeting hall building; other athletes have buildings named after them and are office buildings; this one is basically just a shrine to Pre:
I got this pic off the interweb; I don't know who the dork is with the coonskin cap!
Pre was basically the first shoe company-"sponsored athlete" (aside from Chuck Taylor, of course!), basically paving the way for the likes of Michael Jordan and Lebron James.

And so, 40 years hence, as we lace up our shoes and head out for a run, it's a good opportunity to think about the influence of the brash young "rube" (as Bowerman called him; a good-natured jibe at his humble upbringing) who fundamentally changed running.  Below is part of Bowerman's eulogy:

“All of my life – man and boy – I’ve operated under the assumption that the main idea in running was to win the damn race. Actually, when I became a coach I tried to teach people how to do that. I tried to teach Pre how to do that. I tried like Hell to teach Pre to do that… and Pre taught me – taught me I was wrong.
Pre, you see, was troubled by knowing that a mediocre effort could win a race, and a magnificent effort can lose one. Winning a race wouldn’t necessarily demand that he give it everything he had from start to finish. He never ran any other way. I tried to get him to. God knows I tried.
But Pre was stubborn. He insisted on holding himself to a higher standard than victory.
A race is a work of art. That’s what he said. That’s what he believed. And he was out to make it one every step of the way.
Of course, he wanted to win. Those who saw him compete and those who competed against him were never in any doubt about how much he wanted to win. But how he won mattered to him more.
Pre thought I was a hard case. But he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn’t to win a race. It’s to test the limits of the human heart. And that he did. Nobody did it more often. Nobody did it better.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Floating Hypocrisy?

Last week there was a big protest in Seattle of some 500-odd kayakers surrounding an oil rig of Shell's that is destined for the Arctic; this was the result of President Obama giving the go ahead to Shell to start doing deep water drilling off the coast.

Disappointing at best, considering that a) the US is already the number one oil producer these days, b) oil is already at quite-low prices, meaning that large investments in both real capital, political capital, and environmental risk have a higher likelihood of not paying off, and c) despite the rhetoric that Obama has employed about the effects of environmental degradation and increased global warming associated with non-renewable resources he went ahead and allowed this to happen, without EVER calling for any kind of concept of energy conservation nor being a true visionary, man-on-the-moon style leader on increasing renewables in this country.  I could go on and on about this, but Eugene Robinson nailed it well here and that's not the point of this post.

So what is the point? Earlier this week I saw a facebook post by someone who referred to a picture of the protesters and said "and look!  Their kayaks are MADE OF PETROLEUM!"  To which someone else replied "yeah, and they probably all drove there in their gas-guzzling SUV's too!"  to which some fairly progressive-minded thinkers thought "yeah, that's pretty hypocritical; paddling a plastic boat to decry the extraction of the raw material necessary to make their plastic boats!"  And of course, pictures of a determined, righteous protester like this:
who is clearly oblivious to the irony of having sHell NO" on her plastic paddle blade contributes to the perception of hypocrisy.  

But does hypocrisy preclude activism?  There is no doubt that yes, boats are made of plastic, and yes those protesting recreators (or is that recreating protesters?) did drive there in their cars, sucking down gas because electric cars don't have the range for them to drive all over hell and yonder for their pristine rivers and lakes and Smart Cars don't have roof rack space.  So yes, they are part of the problem, but....we are ALL part of the problem!  Any human being in a developed nation is a resource-suck and a big one:  the average North American consumes ten times that of a African.  Yes, a kayak is conspicuous consumption:

But living is conspicuous consumption!   

So the question is this:  does being part of the problem preclude being part of the solution?  I don't think so.  It strikes me as awfully smug form someone to sit in front of a screen and sneer at environmental activists who "should" be paddling canoes made from Douglas firs that they towed from the forests to the sea behind their bikes (eating moss for sustenance on the way) for their passion to try to stop the endangerment of pristine Arctic waters and nothing themselves, except continue to add to the problem.  

It begs the question:  is hypocrisy worse than apathy?  I think not; at least the former manifests itself in action; the latter is just....lame.  

There is always the opportunity for a bit of self-reflection, habit-reforming, and lifestyle-changing, and hopefully some of those folks in Seattle looked down from the oil rig to the bow of their boats and maybe gave a bit of thought to their own culpability in what was going down.  

Ironically, the day after I saw that exchange, a pipeline blew a hole in Santa Barbara, a beautiful place I used to live and home to tons of sea life.   And 26 years after the devastating Exxon Valdez
spill and a few years after the Deepwater Horizon accident there is not any more assurance that oil extraction/transportation is any safer than it used to be.  

So if you find yourself in an opportunity to be an activist to try to affect some positive change (and if you are into anything, there is opportunity for activism in it!), don't let the concept of "hypocrisy" that will invariably be brought up deter you from being part of the solution.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

An Ode to a classic: Chuck Taylors

 I have been doing footwear my entire career, starting at Nike prior to the introduction of the Air Max and about the time the first Air Jordan was introduced.  I've had the pleasure of being part of the development of multiple iterations of Nike's air technology, worked on shoes for soccer, basketball, football, baseball, road and trail running, hiking, backpacking, cycling, "Cross Training", minimal, low drop/zero drop, orthopedic, ski boots, high heels, work boots, hunting boots, fishing boots, climbing/approach shoes, military boots, sandals,...on and on.  I have a pair of Vibram Five Fingers that I was given by Vibram's CEO at the time because he told me one of his Italian compatriots had designed a shoe that the CEO thought would be good for kayaking and I was the only kayaker he knew; little did he know that he was literally sitting on what would become a running phenomenon.

I fortunately haven't needed to pay for many of them, and as a result my pile of shoes  - that was a bit legendary when I was in Portland working for Nike and it was in full view; it's still big but now I have it somewhat less visible  - is enormous, despite half-hearted attempts at periodic purging.

Here are a few of my faves:

the original Air Huarache.  They reintroduced it recently as a classic
the "Air Current", a step beyond the original Sock Racer.  Way ahead of its time.  
this pattern was called the Air Wildwood; one of the original trail running shoes that Nike introduced but never really supported.  This particular shoe, however, is unique; I made it with my bare hands!  (don't look at the stitching very closely)
The Air Potato. 
An original Nike Snow Boot, circa 1984.  Never been worn outside!  
A shoe that is fully deconstructable. Yes, that's a swoosh on the side.  
size 13 "running" shoes that I used for summertime testing with size 27 ski boot liners in them.
a deerskin slipper with an old-coin button, leather "lace", and conveyor belt material sole.
a slipper I've had since I was 14
a concept we did for a hut bootie
A "real" Tarahumara sandal from Copper Canyon, and the wooden ball that they use in their epic running games
another potential hut bootie, which is really the bottom of a ski boot liner
A crudely handmade proto of a kayak shoe, that eventually became....
the Patagonia CFS, which eventually evolved to become.....
The Play Boot
Indulging Yvon Chouinard's passion for fishing, we did the "Marlwalker" after spending a week fishing for bonefish in the salt water flats of the Yucatan.  
Further indulging YC, we did an organic cotton sneaker
Some Mongolian yak fur slippers that Mike Libecki brought back from a trip, donated to the Utah Avalanche Center auction, and Ash bought for me.
However, despite this myriad of shoes that can and should work for every foreseeable activity, the truth is that I wear one pair most of the time.  And this is it:
the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star.  

Weighing in at a svelte 1 pound  - twice the weight of new-gen running shoes  - cotton upper, no high tech wicking lining, and with a design that has not changed in eighty-three years!   And despite literally hundreds of shoe companies throwing millions of dollars at the design, development, and marketing of new shoes, Chucks are probably still the most popular shoe sold today:  they are doing over $1B of sales/year ($400M last quarter).  For reference, Nike's Lebron James shoe did $400M in the entire year.  And here is a staggering statistic:  Over the course of time, there have been 600 million pairs sold!  

Chuck Taylor was a decent basketball player in the 20's and apparently was an "All Star" more in his personality and salesmanship than in basketball, and he roamed the country with his team doing clinics and demo-ing shoes.  He also helped with the development, pushing the design team to make them more flexible, more supportive, and the ankle patch - for additional support!  -was his idea as well. Probably the first true sponsored athlete, even in the era of Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens,  By WWII not only were many basketball players in them, but soldiers were using them as well in the war  (I'm poaching this from Wikipedia, so you don't have to).  By the 60's they were worn by 90% of all basketball players, and in the 70's they started to get adopted into pop culture by the likes of Andy Warhol:

They were still worn in the NBA, all the way through the 1980 season by Tree Rollins:

And of course Wilt Chamberlain did his 100 point game in a pair of Chucks:

After that Converse tried to compete with Nike et al and make "real" basketball - and other performance shoes; notably they had both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird:

 but en route they got a bit lost, and in 2001 they filed for bankruptcy.  But they were rescued by Nike, who bought them for $300M (considering the $1B sales last year, a pretty good ROI!) and they let Converse do what they do best, which recently culminated in the opening of a phat new headquarters this year on Boston Harbor:
that's what lots of Chucks will do for you
Recently a Merrell exec I know went up to the Tetons for a trip to see what the tourist hikers there were wearing:  Keen?  Salomon?  Merrell?  Nay.  Mostly, of course.....Chucks (and Nike Frees, which I would consider to be the 2010 version of Chucks: originally intended to be athletic shoes, but made the transformation  - via, essentially, artistic renditions on the originals - into pop culture shoes).   

Ironically, I think the reason that people like Chucks so much is exactly what they are not: fancy, expensive, over-built, over-hyped, over-promised, oft-changed shoes that the athletic/outdoor companies continuously feed us, because that's their business model, vs having the WD-40 of footwear.    And ironically, Chucks are surprisingly durable:  the sole is "vulcanized", which means that the rubber sidewalls are put on in strips and the sole is attached with heat in an autoclave, so there's not the gluing of the rubber outsole to the a typical athletic shoe's EVA "midsole" and then to the textile uppers, so you never get sole delaminations and the upper stays attached. 

And the truth is that while sure we'd all love to think of ourselves as getting out and getting after it in our activities and sports all the time, the truth is that most of the time we are just hanging out or going out, neither of which is really all that demanding on footwear, and a comfy, cheap, canvas, zero-drop 1 pound shoe works just fine.  

So sure, when I am running I'm in running shoes, and when I ride I'm in cycling shoes (though Chucks are clearly the shoes of choice for my cruiser):
and in the winter I'm not in them so much, but for pretty much everything else, my considerable shoe pile can really be boiled down to one thing: