Getting ready for my first-ever road race

As I posted a while back, I signed up for my first-ever road race! The big day is tomorrow! The pic you see above is my racing bib for the big event!

I’ve never run a road race before. This definitely qualifies as stepping out of my comfort zone.

Wish me luck tomorrow. We who are about to die salute you!

My first road race

A while back, I wrote that to be successful, you need to step out of your comfort zone.

I just stepped out of it in a big way.

I just registered for my very first road race: the 2019 CDPHP Workforce Team Challenge. I have never run any kind of registered road race* before. This will be my first.

(*I have, however, participated in a registered bicycle tour before. But I feel a lot more comfortable about my bike riding than I do my running.)

I will say that running and I have never really gotten along. It is not, I repeat, not one of my favorite physical activities.

I’ve been active in CrossFit since 2015. I’ve made big strides since I started. Although I still have a lot of things that I need to improve, I can do a lot of things now that I couldn’t when I first started.

And as it turns out, one of the things upon which I’ve improved is running. One particular coach tends to push me pretty hard (in a good way). Whenever a 5K run has come up in a CrossFit WOD, I’ve toyed with scaling it down to a shorter distance. It was this particular coach who said to me, “nope, you’re not scaling it. You’re running the full 5K!”

And it’s for that reason why I feel I’m capable of participating in this event.

Granted, I use air-quotes when I say “run.” It’ll probably be more like some jogging, some walking, and some stumbling. (And this event is longer than 5K; it’s actually 3.5 miles.)

If you want to get better, you need to step out of your comfort zone. I’d say that this definitely qualifies.

For reference, my best 5K time is 50:18. We’ll see how this goes. Wish me luck.

Don’t fear the CrossFit

(Photo source: https://www.endlesscrossfit.com)

“I gotta run a little faster; I gotta reach for the sky; I gotta come a little closer; even if I lose, I gotta try…”
— Kansas, “Inside Of Me”

“Try not.  Do.  Or do not.  There is no try.”
— Yoda

Every Saturday, my CrossFit gym invites friends to join members for workouts (“Bring A Friend Day,” as it’s called).  It’s a little bit of a misnomer, as guests don’t necessarily have to be friends — as one coach likes to describe it, “bring your friends, neighbors, coworkers, colleagues, enemies, ‘frenemies,’ whomever.”  It doesn’t necessarily have to be by invitation; anyone interested in trying CrossFit can come to these classes — a type of “try before you buy” session, if you will.

I’ve tried to get friends to go to these sessions, with mixed success.  Those who do enjoy the sessions, but I have yet to have one friend (other than my wife) try it out and join the gym.  (Admittedly, there are fringe benefits for me to get someone to sign up — a month of free membership, for example.)

What’s interesting is those who don’t try it and outright refuse my offer to join me.  (As I tell people, joining me in these sessions pretty much guarantees that I will work out on Saturday!)  I tried to tell one friend that I thought CrossFit might benefit her.  Not only did she outright refuse to take me up on it, I got the impression that she was actually scared to try it.  She would not even keep an open mind about it; she just said, “I will NOT do it.  Don’t ever ask me about it again.”  End of conversation.

My question: why???

I would never twist anyone’s arm into trying it (well, okay, maybe friends with whom I know I can get away with it), but what I don’t completely understand is why people fear it.  I get why people won’t do things like go bungee-jumping (disclosure: I am deathly acrophobic), eating exotic foods (I’ll try almost anything, although I draw the line at anything that has more than four legs, shellfish excluded — Andrew Zimmern I’m not!), or do something on a dare.  But why are people afraid to try CrossFit?

I think part of it is that it’s human nature to fear what you don’t know.  People will see these images of CrossFit (I often post what I do on Facebook) and immediately get the impression that they’re expected to be able to lift large amounts of weights, be pushed to do double-unders, or be able to do pull-ups right off the bat.  The fear of “gymtimidation” comes into play.  People who fear it are likely afraid of being embarrassed or injured.

First, one of the selling points of CrossFit is that anyone can do it.  I’ve seen people as old as eighty (and even more!) in the gym.  I once saw a guy who had the use of only one arm in a workout (it was interesting watching him on a rower and an Assault bike).  I’ve seen newbies who struggle with weightlifting form.  Even I have my own struggles; I can’t (yet) do any moves that involve pulling myself up (pull-ups, muscle-ups, rope climbs, etc.), I have trouble with movements that involve squatting (I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my knees), and I’m not exactly the fastest runner (for me, there’s almost no difference between a jog, a sprint, or a fast walk).  Heck, even some warmups can sometime leave me out of breath.

However, one of CrossFit’s selling points is that it is scalable.  You are never asked to do anything you are not capable of doing.  If you have trouble with pull-ups (like I do), you can do barbell pull-ups or ring rows.  Unable to do a certain type of weightlifting movement?  Don’t worry about the weight; instead, use a lighter weight, an empty bar, or even a PVC pipe, and practice your technique.  Whatever movement gives you trouble, there is always a way to scale it that will allow you to perform it to your capabilities.

I’m sure the fear of being injured comes into play.  As I just said, you’ll never be pushed to do what you’re not capable of doing.  But one of the selling points for me is that CrossFit emphasizes technique.  If you are not sure about how to do a movement, coaches will teach you how.  If your form has issues, coaches will tweak it so it is better.  Technique is key to anything: the better your form, the less chance you’ll be injured.

I also think the intensity is a factor.  CrossFit can get very intense.  Admittedly, there isn’t a lot that’s enjoyable about working your tail off to the point where you’re gasping for breath and end up lying on the floor.  That’s something that can scare people off.  However, how hard you work out is up to you.  Intensity is what you make of it.  But why is it so intense?

I think it’s because the majority of people who take CrossFit seriously want to improve.  People push themselves because they want to get better at what they do.  Did a deadlift weight of 305 pounds?  Next time, I’m going to try 315.  Run 5,000 meters in under ten minutes?  Next time, shoot for nine.  CrossFit is about making yourself better.  While you are not asked to do anything you can’t do, you are asked to challenge yourself and push the limits of what you can do.  Even my own gym’s motto is “(Be)tter” (as in, “be better”).  I wrote before that you have to get uncomfortable in order to improve.  Making yourself better involves going out of your comfort zone.  How much discomfort — intensity — you decide to put into it is up to you.

Finally, there’s the phenomenon that Planet Fitness refers to as “gymtimidation.”  People are embarrassed by their lesser skill level and are often intimidated by performing in front of other people who are in much better shape.  This attitude does not exist in CrossFit.  Everyone — even the elite athletes — roots for everyone else to succeed.  I remember one time watching the CrossFit Games on TV and hearing the commentator say, “CrossFit is probably the only sport in which the person who comes in last gets the loudest cheers.”  Even in events where athletes are finished, they will often go back out into the field to cheer on and encourage those who are still working through the event.  Here’s a secret: everyone, at some point in their lives, was a beginner at something.  Someone once said that one of the worst phrases ever coined was “do it right the first time.”  It’s almost never done right the first time.  Fear of embarrassment should never be a factor in trying something new.

I wrote before that CrossFit is a supportive community.  I have made a large number of friends in CrossFit, and even though I look more like a couch potato than an elite athlete, I feel as comfortable with this group as I do as any group in which I’m involved.

Although people have their reasons why they don’t want to try CrossFit, fear should not be one of them.  CrossFit can be a fun and exciting way to keep fit.  Give it a try.  Who knows?  You might just get hooked — like I did!

And if any of my local friends are interested in hitting a Saturday “Bring A Friend” WOD, hit me up!

Instant decisions


(Source: New York Times)

A NY Times recap of a ballgame got me thinking about instant decisions.

I watched this game on a TV at a restaurant where I was having dinner with my wife.  I remember watching Brett Gardner getting thrown out as he was caught in a rundown between third and home.  I remember thinking, “now the man on third is erased.  What were you thinking, Brett?”

As the Times article points out, it ended up being a fateful decision by (Orioles pitcher) Dylan Bundy.  Had he thrown the ball to the shortstop instead of his catcher, he potentially could have turned a double play to get his team out of the inning.  Instead, the Yankees, with an extra life, rallied in the inning to go up by a score of 5-0 (highlighted by a Tyler Wade grand slam).  The Yankees ended up winning, 9-0 (making me, a Yankee fan, happy).

But this article isn’t about the game.  It’s about the instant decision.  In this case, a quick decision ended up affecting the outcome of a ballgame.

Think about all the times in your life when you’ve had to make an instant decision on your feet.  We’ve all had them.  How did they turn out?  Good?  Bad?  Did they end up changing the course of your life, or were they just blips on your lifetime radar screen?

I’m sure there’s some kind of psychology as to how your background — upbringing, education, etc. — might play a role regarding the kinds of split-second decisions you make, but this is a subject about which I know nothing.  Rather, it got me thinking about the idea that quick decisions can have consequences.  In the scheme of things, many of them might not have any effect.  But depending on the time, place, and circumstances, such decision-making could have disastrous consequences — or result in the opportunity of a lifetime.

#BI101: An introduction to BI using baseball

Edit: This is the first of a series of articles (I hope!) in which I’m trying to teach myself about BI.  Any articles I write that are related to this, starting with this one, will be preceded with “#BI101” in the title.

As I stated in a previous article, one topic about which I’m interested in learning more is business intelligence (BI).  For those of you who are new to BI, it is a broad topic.  In a nutshell, it can probably be described as “consuming and interpreting data so it can be used for business decisions and/or applications.”

I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about BI (at least the fine details, anyway).  I did work a previous job where I touched upon it; I was tasked with performing some data analysis, and I was introduced to concepts such as OLAP cubes and pivot tables.  I’ve gotten better at creating pivot tables — I’ve done a few of them using MS Excel — but I’ll admit that I’m still not completely comfortable with building cubes.  I suppose that’ll come as I delve further into this.

A while back, my friend, Paresh Motiwala, suggested that I submit a presentation for Boston SQL Saturday BI edition.  At the time, I said to him, “the only thing I know about BI is how to spell it!”  He said to me (something like), “hey, you know how to spell SQL, don’t you?”  Looking back at the link, I might have been able to submit (I didn’t realize, at the time, that they were running a professional development track).  That said, Paresh did indeed had a point.  As I often tell people, I am not necessarily a SQL expert — I know enough SQL to be dangerous — nevertheless, that does not stop me from applying to speak at SQL Saturday.  Likewise, as I dive further into this topic, I’m finding that I probably know more about BI than I’ve led myself to believe.  Still, there is always room for improvement.

To tackle this endeavor, once again, I decided to jump into this using a subject that I enjoy profusely: baseball.  Baseball is my favorite sport, and it is a great source of data for stat-heads, mathematicians, and data geeks.  I’ve always been of the opinion that if I’m going to learn something new, I should make it fun!

Besides, the use of statistical analysis in baseball has exploded.  Baseball analytics is a big deal, ever since Bill James introduced sabermetrics (there is some debate as to whether James has enhanced or ruined baseball).  So what better way to introduce myself to BI concepts?

For starters, I came across some articles (listed below, for my own reference as much as anything else):

I also posted a related question in the SSC forums.  We’ll see what kind of responses (if any) I get to my query.

Let’s start with the basics — what is BI?

Since I’m using baseball to drive this concept, let’s use a baseball example to illustrate this.

Let’s say you’re (NY Yankees manager) Aaron Boone.  You’re down by a run with two outs in the bottom of the 9th.  You have Brett Gardner on first, Aaron Judge at bat, and you’re facing Craig Kimbrel on the mound.

What do you do?  How does BI come into play here?

Let’s talk a little about what BI is.  You have all these statistics available — Judge’s batting average, Kimbrel’s earned run average, Gardner’s stolen base percentage, and so on.  In years BS — “before sabermetrics” — a manager likely would have “gone with his gut,” decided that Judge is your best bet to hit the game-winning home run, and let him swing away.  But is this the best decision to make?

Let’s put this another way.  You have a plethora of data available at your fingertips.  BI represents the ability to analyze all this data and provide information that allows you to make a good decision.

If Aaron Boone (theoretically) had this data available at his fingertips (to my knowledge, Major League Baseball bans the use of electronic devices in the dugout during games), he could use the data to consider Kimbrel’s pitching tendencies, Judge’s career numbers against Kimbrel, and so on.  BI enables Boone to make the best possible decision based upon the information he has at hand.

I do want to make one important distinction.  In the above paragraphs, I used the words data and information.  These two words are not interchangeable.  Data refers to the raw numbers that are generated by the players.  Information refers to the interpretation of that data.  Therein lies the heart of what BI is — it is the process of generating information based upon data.

What’s there to know about BI?

I’ve already mentioned some buzzwords, including OLAP, cubes, and pivot tables.  That’s just scratching the surface.  There’s also KPIs, reporting services, decision support systems, data mining, data warehousing, and a number of others that I haven’t thought of at this point (if you have any suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comments section below).  Other than including the Wikipedia definition links, I won’t delve too deeply into them now, especially when I’m trying to learn about these myself.

So why bother learning about BI?

I have my reasons for learning more about BI.  Among other things…

  • It is a way to keep myself technically relevant.  I’ve written before about how difficult it is to stay up-to-date with technology.  (For further reading regarding this, I highly recommend Eugene Meidinger’s article about keeping up with technology; he also has a related SQL Saturday presentation that I also highly recommend.)  I feel that BI is a subject I’m able to grasp, learn about, and contribute.  By learning about BI, I can continue making myself technically valuable, even as my other technical skills become increasingly obsolete.  Speaking of which…
  • It’s another adjustment.  Again, I’ve written before about making adjustments to keep myself professionally relevant.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you want to survive professionally, you need to learn to adjust to your environment.
  • It is a subject that interests me.  I’m sure that many of you, as kids, had “imaginary friends.”  (I’ll bet some adults have, too — just look at Lieutenant Kije and Captain Tuttle.)  When I was a kid, I actually had an imaginary baseball team.  I went as far as to create an entire roster full of fictitious ballplayers, even coming up with full batting and pitching statistics for them.  My star player was a power-hitting second baseman who had won MVP awards in both the National and American leagues, winning several batting titles (including a Triple Crown) and leading my imaginary team to three World Series championships.  I figured, if my interest in statistics went that far back, there must be something behind it.  Granted, now that I’ve grown up older, I’m not as passionate about baseball statistics as I was as a kid, but some level of interest still remains, nevertheless.
  • It is a baseline for learning new things.  I’ve seen an increasing number of SQL Saturday presentations related to BI, such as PowerBI, reporting services, and R.  I’m recognizing that these potentially have value for my workplace.  But before I learn more about them, I also need to understand the fundamental baseline that they support.  I feel that I need to learn the “language” of BI before I can learn about the tools that support it.

So, hopefully, this article makes a good introduction (for both you and myself) for talking about BI.  I’ll try to write more as I learn new things.  We’ll see where this journey goes, and I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride.

Unite the world

“Hey you, don’t tell me there’s no hope at all; together we stand; divided, we fall…”
— Pink Floyd, Hey You

“An eye for an eye only makes the world blind.”
— Gandhi

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
— John Lennon, Imagine

“I have a dream…”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Just for this one article, I am breaking my silence on all things political.

As is much of the country, I am outraged with what has happening at America’s southern border.  I have my opinions regarding the current administration, and what is happening to our country and around the world.

However, that is not the point of this article.  I am not going to write about my politics, my opinions, or my outrage.  Today, I want to write about something else.

It occurred to me this morning that, more than ever, we are being divided.  We are identified by our divisions: Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, and so on.  And that is the problem.

There have been studies performed in which individuals identify closely with groups to which they relate.  In these cases, people in groups will defend their groups, no matter what the groups are doing, and regardless of whether the groups’ actions are perceived as being good or bad, right or wrong.

I am not a psychologist, so I won’t pretend that I know anything about these studies (disclosure: I did do research on groupthink when I was in grad school).  Nevertheless, what they seem to reveal is that we relate strongly to the groups to which we relate.  And we will defend our groups, no matter how right or wrong the groups’ actions are.

I do understand the effects of group dynamics.  I say this because I am a sports fan, and few things test our group loyalties more than sports.  I root for the Yankees, Syracuse, and RPI.  As a result, I stand firmly behind my teams, and I tend to hold some contempt for the Red Sox, Mets, Georgetown, Boston College, Union, and Clarkson.  Many of my friends are Red Sox fans (heck, I’m married to one!), Mets fans, Union College, and Clarkson University alumni.  Yes, it is true that we will occasionally trash-talk each other when our teams face off against one another, but at the end of the day, they are just games and entertainment.  I will still sit down with them over a drink and pleasant conversation.

Likewise, I have many friends who are on both sides of the (major party) political aisle.  I have friends of many races, religions (or even atheists), cultures, and creeds.  However, no matter where they stand on their viewpoints, I respect each and every one of them.  And there, I believe, is the difference.  No matter where we stand, we need to listen to and respect the other side.  One of the issues regarding group identification is that we do not listen to the other side.  We lose complete respect and empathy for anyone who is our “opponent.”  That is where communication breaks down, and that is where divisions occur.

What we need is something that unites us.  We are not Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, white, black, yellow, or brown.

What we are is human.

Nelson Mandela united a divided South Africa behind rugby, a story depicted in the movie Invictus.  What will be our uniting moment?  For those of us in North America, I was thinking about something like the 2026 World Cup, but that is a long way off.

I don’t know what that something is, but we need to find it, and fast.  We are being torn apart by our divisions, and it could potentially kill us.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at our past history regarding wars and conflicts.  The American Civil War comes to mind.

I don’t know how much of a difference writing this article will make.  I am just one voice in the wilderness.  But if writing this contributes to changing the world for the better, then I will have accomplished something.

We now return you to your period of political silence.

The mystique of March Madness


(Photo source: sports.cbslocal.com)

It’s March, which means college sports junkies are in nirvana.  As I write this article, the first of the First Four games of the NCAA tournament are on the TV in front of me.

For the benefit of those of you who either live under a rock, know nothing about sports, or refer to all things sports generically as “sportsball,” a brief primer: “March Madness” (a.k.a. “the big dance”) is a reference to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where 68 schools compete for the national championship in a single-elimination tournament format.  It generates a great deal of excitement for students, alumni, and sports fans.  It creates a conversation topic as millions of people fill out tournament brackets, trying to predict (mostly, in vain) the outcome of all tournament matchups.  To put it mildly, March Madness is a huge deal.

I played in a pep band for a power conference NCAA Division 1 school, so my sports loyalty and school spirit are, to put it mildly, very strong.  (Side note: GO ORANGE!!!)  Those of you who know people associated with college pep bands realize that our school spirit tends to run deep (this might be another article for another time).  I’ve had friends and colleagues comment that they almost never see me without wearing an article of Syracuse gear.

However, I was spoiled at Syracuse.  We are a major conference school.  When I was a student at SU, we expected to make the NCAA tournament every year.  Anything less than a tournament bid was a disappointment; for us, NIT stood for “Not In the Tournament.”  Our ultimate goal was, and still is, to win the tournament, finally reaching the NCAA basketball summit in 2003.

There are 351 schools (as of this article) that play NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball.  68 of them make the NCAA tournament.  That’s 19% of NCAA membership.  Of those 351 schools, there are 42 schools that have never played in the NCAA tournament.  (That number had dropped by one from 43, after Lipscomb won their conference tournament this year to make it for the first time.)

I currently live in a metropolitan area that hosts two Division 1 basketball schools (Siena and UAlbany), both mid-major conference schools.  Unlike the power conferences, the mid-majors usually don’t harbor realistic expectations of winning the national championship.  For them, just making the tournament is a big deal, never mind actually winning it all.

This is a frequent conversation topic with my friend, Jim, who is an alumnus of the University of Maine (and one of the 42 schools that, as of 2018, has never made the tournament).  He has told me that he dreams of watching the selection show and seeing Maine appear in the bracket.  I understand his sentiment; for him, it is a source of school spirit and regional pride.  Seeing your school’s name come up for a major sporting event in front of a national audience is a source of pride and excitement.

Only one school will win the national championship; the other 350 will be left saying “wait ’til next year.”  For the vast majority of those schools, the possibility of winning the championship is far-fetched.  But for the 68 schools that make the tournament, it’s the idea that you have the opportunity to play for a championship, regardless of your team’s odds of winning it.  It’s like playing the lottery; as long as you get a ticket, there’s a possibility, no matter how small, that you could win it.  This is the mystique of March Madness; the majority of schools in the tournament likely will not win it, but they at least have the opportunity to compete for the big prize.