Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Mileage Awakens

It’s late at night now, and I am still recovering from this week’s 18 mile run. As soon as I got back to my apartment, I went straight to bed and slept for several hours. By the time I woke up it was already 5 pm and dark outside (thanks a lot daylight savings time). I had to work to do but I was totally unmotivated to do anything other than rest. You all know that I have trained for the Los Angeles Marathon for several years now, but all that experience doesn’t keep me from feeling completely winded after pounding the asphalt, and at times the pavement, through Burbank and Glendale.

For once I got to Griffith Park before any announcements by the coaches were made, and that felt like a tremendous accomplishment considering how I like to sleep in most days. Coach JC told us once again to take it easy on this run and reminded us that this was not about being fast but completing all 18 miles. Knowing the impact that all these miles were going to have on us, he made it clear that if we wanted to do maintenance walks or other cardio exercises instead of runs through next week that would be fine. Having been through this marathon training before, I came into this particular run with an alarming amount of confidence. I’ve ran 18 miles before, but I seem to have forgotten the effect that has had on my body. I treated this run as if it was no big deal, but it sure was.

This run comes just after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” finally arrived in theaters everywhere, so us runners tried to talk about it without spoiling any important plot details. This proved to be even more challenging than the run itself as those of us who had seen the most anticipated movie of 2015 were ever so eager to talk about its most pivotal moments in extensive detail. As for myself, I was curious what people thought about Jar Jar Binks’ sex scene with an ewok as it raised a few eyebrows… Okay, that didn’t happen in “The Force Awakens.” I just wanted to make sure I had your attention.

For the record I did do my two maintenance runs before this 18 miler, so I was certain that I would keep up with my fellow pace group runners throughout this run. For the most part I did, but just like in any LA Marathon I eventually got separated from the rest of the pack and found myself once again experiencing the loneliness of the long distance Kenber. Fortunately I did have a map of the course, one that I did not lose for once, so I wasn’t about to go in the wrong direction. Have I done that in the past? I’ll plead the fifth on that.

We were not inundated with hills even though we had to run part way up Grandview Avenue, but we did have to watch ourselves more than usual as we ran downhill more often than not. I did my best to run on the asphalt as much as possible, but there were times I was forced to run on concrete which did not do my joints much in the way of favors. During the LA Marathon we spend most of our time running on asphalt, so it’s important that we run on it now so that we can fully prepare for what’s coming up in two months.

Despite the fact that I ran by my lonesome, I found myself running at just the right pace even as the temperature rose from a frigid 49 degrees to a temperature that just had to be unseasonably warm. I had more layers of clothing on than usual, but it was no surprise that I shed some of them way before the halfway point.

I did have a few packs of gel blocks handy in case I needed more of an energy boost, and it didn’t take long for me to need them as I could tell when I was low on fuel. Coach JC told us that this 18 mile run would be the first one in our training that would have us hitting “the wall.” Now hitting the wall means we’ve reached the point where we feel like we can’t go any further and we go into some sort of collapse. Getting up from there and forcing yourself to get to the finish line back can be a mighty challenge, and I’ve been there several times before.

Towards the end I found myself slowing to a crawl, and I knew my fellow pace group members, who had long since left me in their vapor trails, would not be waiting for me back at Griffith Park. Not that I’m holding it against them; I wouldn’t even wait for me. Just as I started running again, I found myself losing speed to where my feet were telling me, “Fuck this!”

But crossed the finish line I did, and the coaches were on hand to greet with applause and endless praise. As you can imagine, I was one sore mother fucker and eager to stretch my legs for all of eternity. What was really bothering me, however, was my back which felt a lot more sore than usual. 

Throughout this run it felt like I was slouching a lot and I kept trying to stay in the present moment so that I could keep my back straight, but my mind always wanders. If anyone knows any good back exercises or stretches, please let me know.

So, I survived another 18 mile run and now have a 10 mile recovery run to look forward to next week. I will be out of town for Christmas but I do plan on continuing my marathon training. In the meantime I got a lot of resting to do. Seriously, I was too tired to even get a bag of ice from Ralphs Supermarket so that I could have an ice bath. I got to the store and even then I was ready to pass out.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

We’ve been down this road before. A new “Star Wars” movie is announced and it quickly becomes the most eagerly anticipated motion picture of all time. I’ve lived through this phenomenon many times before and have always been desperate to keep my expectations in check. While I didn’t hate the prequels and enjoyed them for what they were, many fans did to where they looked at George Lucas as some heartless bastard who utterly destroyed what was most cherished to them. So with “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” I tried to keep my anticipation to a bare minimum as I felt any excitement I could ever have for this installment could easily undo it all in my own eyes.

Well, now having seen it, I can say that director J.J. Abrams has not only awakened the force with this movie, he has also reignited our childhood innocence with this “Star Wars” movie by bringing the franchise back to basics. Like the recent “Creed,” a spinoff of “Rocky,” it takes the story of its famous predecessor (in this movie’s case, “Episode IV: A New Hope”) and spins a new take on it with old and new characters joining forces to keep the dark side from destroying the light. Even if you feel like you’ve seen this before, what results is a highly entertaining and exhilarating motion picture that gets many of the things right the prequels messed up on and reminds us why we love going to the movies in the first place.

No one wants to spoil “The Force Awakens” for anybody as doing so would be like Homer Simpson ruining the big reveal of “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line to see it, so don’t expect this reviewer to do that as everyone should come to this movie fresh and experience it all firsthand instead of being forced to read the entire plot on its Wikipedia page.

What can be said is that it takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” That one ended with the Galactic Empire being vanquished, but just like John Carpenter once said, evil never dies. What’s left of it has come to form the First Order which is once again hell bent on crushing every single part of the Rebel Alliance. As for the Rebel Alliance, it is now known as the Resistance which is backed by the Republic and features many veterans including Princess (now General) Leia Organa. Whatever peace was achieved in the 1983 movie has long since been undone by some Darth Vader wannabes, and those wannabes are now more ruthless than ever.

Into the mix comes Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger struggling to survive on the Tatooine-like planet Jakku who comes across a droid called BB-8 which has, you guessed it, secret information that the First Order is desperate to get their hands on. From there she joins forces with Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience and abandons the First Order without hesitation, and heroic fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to get the droid to the Resistance before the First Order crushes them without mercy.

Revealing anymore of the story from there would be hazardous to my health, but many characters from previous installments like Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker are back to once again fight the good fight against an enemy that is hopelessly drunk with power.

The first thing I have to point out is how good the acting is. This surprised me a lot as the actors had to be acting opposite a number of things they couldn’t see, and the prequels were notorious for the wooden performances that came out of them. But each actor cast in “The Force Awakens” gives us characters that are not just mere archetypes the science fiction genre calls for, but interesting people who we want to follow right from the start. Many “Star Wars” fans get edgy when it comes to new characters being brought into the franchise (R.I.P. Jar Jar Binks), but the ones introduced in “The Force Awakens” are very welcome additions.

One major standout is Daisy Ridley who, before starring in “The Force Awakens,” was largely unknown outside of her native England. As Rey, she gives us a new female action hero for the ages who is self-sufficient and needs nobody to rely on, and she infuses her performance with tremendous heart and passion to where this character is not just another token female. Ridley makes Rey stand on her own from so many other female sci-fi heroes that came before her, and that’s quite the accomplishment.

Matching Ridley in one scene to the next is John Boyega who left a strong impression on audiences in the highly entertaining “Attack the Block.” As Finn, he spends a good portion of this movie in panic mode to where his performance could have been irritating to take in, but Boyega gives this reformed stormtrooper a cutting sense of humor and an energetic personality that makes him very entertaining to spend your time with.

Oscar Isaac proves to be a combination of both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker as x-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron, making him into one of the most charismatic characters you could ever hope to find in the “Star Wars” universe. At first it seems like a weird career move for him to do a “Star Wars” movie after giving unforgettable performances in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Ex Machina.” But he makes Poe a wonderfully heroic character you want to travel all over the galaxy with, and he looks right at home in this franchise as a result.

Adam Driver provides “The Force Awakens” with its most fearsome antagonist, Kylo Ren. Some will dismiss the character as a Darth Vader wannabe, but that’s kind of the point. Kylo seeks to finish what Vader started as we saw from the trailer, and even he sees he has big shoes to fill. What Driver does is not make Kylo into a simple villain, but instead a character with some serious issues to sort out and who is dedicated to a struggle he has essentially been manipulated into. As a result, Driver makes the character into an unpredictable menace and one who is very dangerous to our heroes as a result.

Then there are the veteran actors who return to this franchise with more enthusiasm than they would have 10 years ago. It’s great to see Carrie Fisher back as Leia Organa, and that’s even though Leia’s accent has changed yet again. Peter Mayhew hasn’t missed a beat as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels reprises his C-3PO role as though time never passed, and all Mark Hamill has to do is give a look to remind audiences there is no Jedi better than Luke Skywalker.

But this movie’s biggest thrill is seeing Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. It’s no secret that Ford has had a lot of edgy feelings about his involvement with the “Star Wars” franchise to where he distanced himself from all the fandom that came with it. But thanks to an unforeseen miracle Ford is back, and he actually looks happy to be reprising one of his most iconic characters. While Han Solo has only changed so much, Ford still imbues the character with a humanity that made him such an integral part of the original trilogy.

For a time it looked like it was not worth the trouble to do another “Star Wars” movie as what was once fresh had long since become the model for just about every science fiction film ever made. That’s what makes Abrams accomplishment with “The Force Awakens” all the more commendable because he makes us feel like kids again as we watch the action unfold onscreen. And just as he did with the “Star Trek” reboot, he puts as much attention on the characters as he does on the spectacle, and that makes us fully engaged in the way we should be when we go to the movies. “Jurassic World” may have been entertaining, but it can only dream of being as good as this.

Does “The Force Awakens” get a little too nostalgic at times? Sure, and the movie’s ending doesn’t quite give us the same elation as “A New Hope” did when the Death Star blew up. But Abrams and company have managed to pull of the impossible here; they made “Star Wars” seem truly exciting again. While we can’t resist picking away at the flaws inherent in the prequels, we couldn’t care less about any of the flaws in this one because watching it is just too damn much fun.

Whereas we came out of “The Phantom Menace” hoping that its follow up would be better, we’re coming out of “The Force Awakens” infinitely excited for what will come next.

* * * * out of * * * *

Monday, December 7, 2015

Weiland and Dealing with 16 miles

After a week away in Northern California to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family and do a recovery run on a treadmill (don’t worry, I increased the grade on it to 4%), I am now back in Los Angeles to continue my training for the 2016 LA Marathon. I did my best to keep up with my maintenance runs as this week’s run had us going 16 miles through Burbank and Glendale. But once again I was reminded of how all my years of training for the LA Marathon mean only so much as it always feels like I’m starting from scratch.

I had the music of Stone Temple Pilots blasting out of my car speakers as I drove to Griffith Park for the latest Team to End AIDS run. This past week, the band’s lead singer Scott Weiland passed away at the age of 48 which was very sad to learn about. Weiland was a vibrant lead singer who commanded the stage with a highly energetic presence, but his talents were long overshadowed by his battles with substance abuse. Like many, I hoped that he would beat his demons down to a bloody pulp, but there were a few demons left that served to end his existence at far too young an age.

I’m happy to say that I actually kept up with my pace group for the majority of this run to where I was convinced I would cross the finish line with them for a change. But thanks to a stop light which they understandably defied and me “dropping the kids in the pool” a little more than usual, I was once again by myself. While Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” keeps playing through my head during these runs because of all those “turn around” signs the coaches leave out for us, I instead had Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” flooding my memory banks as I was once again enduring the phenomenon known as the loneliness of the long distance Kenber. Plus, people made great use of the song on “Friends” and the movie “Shrek 2.”

I’m not sure why I went to the bathroom a little more than usual on this run. Maybe it was that tasty chicken cobb salad I had the other night at The Counter. That’s right; I ate something other than a burger there. Lord knows I don’t enough green stuff these days, and I figured all that protein would be of great benefit for this run. Well, maybe I should stay away from salads on the night before the marathon. That’s just a thought.

The weather was perfect and we all managed to finish our runs before the temperature rose up to the mid 70’s. It wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold, and there was a nice breeze going on which kept things bearable even as we ran up the hill on Grandview. As a result, I got to focus more on my surroundings which were full of leaves and dogs barking at us in excitement as if they were saying that they wanted to run with us. There was one dog who kept barking in a metronome fashion to where we runners started barking back. As Rowlf the Dog said in “The Great Muppet Caper,” it helps to know a second language.

I even got to see a dog chase a squirrel, and that immediately brought the great Pixar movie “Up” to mind as all those talking dogs were always easily distracted by the squirrels they thought they saw.
Among the conversations my fellow pace group runners involved themselves in was how the big twist in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” was spoiled in a recent film class. Apparently a friend of a friend had to take a scene from a movie and use it to explain certain aspects of filmmaking, and that person ended up showing the scene from “Gone Girl” that spelled out what was really going with a certain character. Now I am not about to spoil that twist for anybody reading this, and that’s even though the threat of doing so might actually make for a good fundraising opportunity, but I felt for those runners who had “Gone Girl” completely ruined for them. Some secrets should not be revealed until it is absolutely necessary, and that person who spoiled the one from that movie should be arrested for revealing that among other things.

Running on this day reminded me of why maintenance runs are so important. I did do mine before this particular run, and it helped to keep me from slouching and crossing my arms in front of my chest, both of which take from me as a runner. I’m always convinced that I am slouching while running, and doing this marathon training is a strong reminder of what I need to watch out for. I’m happy to say that I did great work in keeping my arms moving forward instead of in front of my chest, and now I feel like I am on track to run a good marathon.

Granted, I lost a lot of steam before I crossed the finish line back in Griffith Park, but I crossed it all the same. My pace group members had long since gone home but I didn’t hold that against them because everyone has their life to get back to. I did however get to partake in a couple of cups of chocolate milk, the perfect answer to a runner’s hangover, but I can never drink enough of it. Still, the Bolivers did bring a cake for us runners to share in. Granted, it was for the Honolulu runners as their marathon is coming up next week, but they were kind enough to leave us some leftovers. It didn’t matter if it was still early in the morning; this cake was going to taste fantastic no matter what. Heck, anything tastes great after you have ran many miles!

While I had other work to do after this run, those 16 miles still took me for a loop and left me drained of my energy. Still, I did have enough enthusiasm to drive to a nearby McDonald’s for a Sausage McMuffin with Egg sandwich and a Dr. Pepper, but the rest of the day left with a large level of justification to do little to nothing. You all know by now that I’ve trained for five LA Marathons before this, so no excuse is needed to justify how I feel.

From now on I plan to increase my cardiovascular activity in the hopes that I might actually finish a run with my pace group, and that’s of the utmost necessity because the LA Marathon will be here before we know it. Once again, I have to thank every single volunteer who took the time to give us water, Gatorade, pretzels and whatever else we needed to survive this especially long run. They never get enough credit, and that’s regardless of whether or not they have the last name of Boliver.