March Things, 2019

It was about ten years ago when I started to realise how much more allergic to cats I was becoming. I had good days but they were the exception rather than the rule: I felt like I was swimming through congestion most of the time. Whole days and weeks would pass without a clear sense of having accomplished anything*.

Honestly, February felt a bit like that again.

I am in a much better place than I was when we still had cats roaming over our bed, or even last winter when I had the cold that never went away, but I have still felt rather loose and weak all month, even as I have been exercising more efficiently than ever.

So, as we go through this monthly things post (which only really covers a couple of weeks anyway), I expect a lot of “no work” remarks, because I feel like I consumed time rather than produced meaningful writing.

Three Things for February

I made this a short goal list because the post came so late in February. What of even those goals did I manage?

  1. Song fourth draft — prep for crit group feedback session. Completed. The feedback I got was very helpful and enthusiastic, and honestly that might be the thing that helps me most: I have been struggling to find my enthusiasm about anything, even Song. Hanging out with crit group folks brought it back.
  2. short stories — two things:
    1. finish draft of next BSQ story
    2. plan story for submission this quarter

    Neither of these saw any work.

  3. workshop application — write draft of cover letter. Didn’t do this, but did clean up a sample chapter.

Score 1.5/3 — that’s actually better than I expected.

… which was another hallmark of the Bad Cat Fuzz Time — I was always surprised when I looked at what I had got done. It was never “all of it”, but at least it was more than I had imagined.

Three Things for 2019

February was not productive, so obviously my 2019 goals won’t have moved on much. Let’s take an unflinching look.

  1. query A Turquoise Song — a goal in three sequential parts:
    1. prepare a fourth draft — incorporate feedback, make it good. Target is to have this done by the middle of the year. I have collected more feedback which will help here, but I don’t have a revision plan yet.
    2. prepare query letter — obviously the initial targets are the agents I talked to at the conference in 2017, but I also want to prepare for querying other agents.
    3. query — get the book out there.
  2. short stories — I am finding my relationship to short stories becoming much less contentious, even fruitful!
    1. several stories to write for Boundary Shock Quarterly — the first one is begun, but I Need to finish it.
    2. write and submit four stories to other markets. So that’s one a quarter, and I will mark it as such.
  3. engage with the writing community — this is a nebulous label for a group of related goals that don’t warrant a top level item to themselves.
    1. workshop application — I’m going to apply for an intensive workshop. More on that once it’s in hand, which it isn’t yet.
    2. podcast — one of the things that came out of the inconclusive work on producing Livia as an audiobook was a desire to launch a podcast of some kind. This would be audio-only initially, although I am still searching for a good format.
    3. cons & confs — I need to be getting out there more. I just do.

Minor incremental progress only. Looking for better things in March.

Three Things for March

Time to get the train back on the rails.

  1. short stories — finish the BSQ story that is due in a few weeks. Hard deadline.
  2. Song fourth draft — revision plan is needed. Build that.
  3. workshop application — cover letter or sample chapters.

Trying to to keep things a bit punchier this month.

Now to punch harder.

[*] I was accomplishing things, really, but it was reactive rather than effective and I really had no clear awareness of how much I was getting done.

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Long Term Goals

Most of my recent health goals have been centred around eating, or at least my weight. But those are not the only health goals that I have, so I wanted to write a little bit about them.

Wait, Weight?

I should address my weight goals first, though.

I’ve been at or below my goal weight for over three months now, despite Thanksgiving, Christmas, and many other opportunities to launch myself off the wagon in that period.

I am getting used to how I feel.

I have also been weighing daily during that time so that I can get a clear sense of how my weight fluctuates during a week. There can easily be a two pound swing from one of the week to the next, and lots of factors affect it on any given day but those factors mostly lag pretty heavily. Obviously eating a lot of food the previous day makes a difference, but I haven’t seen that weight sticking — it mostly seems to be the weight of the food itself, rather than fat that that food turns into.

The biggest thing is just getting used to new eating routines. I am maintaining now rather than trying to shed, so Weight Watchers gives me more points. They also encourage you to adjust your points allowance if there is a change in weight, and I landed on a pretty effective daily budget within a few weeks. You also get weekly points, although I rarely dip into those — I prefer to have my fit points instead.

Getting Credit

Even the first time I was using a WW programme, fit points were my silver bullet.

My requirement for exercise has always been that it be vigorous and intense. “Going for a walk” rarely feels like exercise, although hiking certainly can if the route is hilly enough or far enough.

With this iteration of WW, I have connected my fitness tracker to my WW account so that WW can pull in my step counts without my even having to type them in. It’s great, and for most of the trundling around I do it captures my activity pretty accurately.

However, when we started doing a spin class it became apparent that the steps I got from my tracker (which is tucked into my sock when I ride) didn’t match the amount of effort I was putting in*. Similarly, for the kind of push running I do I wasn’t getting full credit, which matters a lot when you want to go and get a bun to satisfy your bone hungriness.

Putting in the activity double counts my steps, though: I don’t want 20 points for an hour of spinning as well as 7 points for my spin steps; that’s cheating!

So I pro rate the activity time to discount it by the steps. For spinning and running, this comes down to about two thirds of the time. This way I get credit for the intense exercise, but I also don’t have to abandon my step counter while I’m doing it.

Being Fit

Stephen Fry once wrote that he was fit: fit for the life that he led of cerebral contemplation and creative work.

My criteria for being fit are a bit more specific. I have had these fitness goals for a solid fifteen years, all of these being things I would like to be able to do with regularity and without thinking about it too much before hand:

  1. run an eight minute mile
  2. run ten miles
  3. cycle fifty miles

The one I hit first was the ten mile run: I had this down for about six months at one time, when I was planning a maintenance schedule which included a regular ten. I am not there yet this time around, though: I ran ten today, but it took special effort and it was a particular strain.

The goal I expected to take longest was the eight minute mile, but that is actually the one I have in hand now. I am regularly posting runs in the 8:05-8:15 range on a variety of terrains, and I have had a couple of sub-8 runs. Even on longer and tougher runs my times are coming in much lower: only the most challenging hill runs are posting over nine minutes a mile, and today’s ten — the longest run I have done in some years — came in at 8:52 a mile. That wasn’t flat, either.

Which just leaves the fifty mile bike ride. This seems more than plausible at this point.

I hope you are engaging with your health goals. It’s better to confront them than to ignore them, and I am glad I have finally done so over the last year.

[*] in fairness, I had been suspicious of the mismatch between step count and perceived effort while cycling for some time, but when eating was on the line it suddenly seemed more urgent.

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A Commander Toolkit

Most of the Magic I play is Commander, originally known as EDH: Elder Dragon Highlander. The concept is simple — you build a 100 card deck made up single copies of cards, one of which is a legendary creature called the commander. The first commanders were the original Elder Dragons, and there can only be one of each card*. The cards must be in the same colour identity as the commander, that is any mana symbols on the cards must also appear on the commander. The commander is an always-available creature to cast, and often hints at the theme for the deck.

Maybe it’s not that simple.

What I like about Commander is that anything can happen, and you only need one copy of each card. This comes back to my need to clear out cards: if I only need to keep one of each card, then there is no need to hang on to twenty copies of that draft chaff common from five sets ago.

But if I only need one copy of any one card, how come I still don’t have enough Sol Rings?

Build It Now

The answer to that question is that I have kept too many decks built at once.

In my years of playing Commander I have collected a large pile of decks with different themes. Then there are the preconstructed decks (which truly are one of the best products that Wizards of the Coast sells, even after the disappointing 2018 set) which I have tended to hang onto in their original form.

My current choice of which deck to play in my group is in the form of a farewell tour: I have been giving decks I no longer want to keep intact one last outing before I dismantle them. I am retaining the deck lists, but my intention henceforth is to keep decks together for a lot less time and to keep things more fluid.

The decks I am releasing cards from are either boring (too good, like my life gain deck, or not good enough, like the modified cat deck) or no longer funny (because sometimes I build decks for a thematic joke; the Hammer of Purphoros deck falls into that unfortunate group, but Djinn Palace is another one that wasn’t half as funny as I hoped it would be). There are several decks I plan to maintain in good order, because they are strong but not boring, or continue to be funny.

Build It Later

As I pull apart decks, the cards will either go back into my sorted collection or be put into a toolkit that I can use as the basis of commander decks of the future.

Commander is a singleton format, but the trick with it is to build redundancy into the deck by including multiple cards with similar effects. There are many spells that search your deck for land, or counter an opponent’s spell, or destroy a single target creature. I want to build a toolkit which gathers cards for a particular function and sorts them by colour. The categories I am going to start with are:

  • ramp: mana rocks and land ramp. Also, discount effects
  • card draw
  • removal: destroy a single thing
  • board wipe: destroy everything
  • recursion: bringing things back from the graveyard
  • counter spell
  • tutor: general or specific card search
  • lands: utility lands, multicolour lands, land tutors
  • tribal: things that support decks built around a common creature type

Other categories exist, of course, and if I am building a particular kind of deck then I will collect cards that fill those: life gain payoffs, for example, or stealing other people’s things, or chaotic effects. Those are much more specific and ephemeral classifications though, so they will just live in the collection. These toolkit categories will be used in many different decks so collecting them centrally makes a lot more sense.

End Game

As I said above, I am aiming for a single copy** of most cards in my collection. The commander staples in the toolkit categories will be duplicated more freely, and there are some things I want to keep playsets of for specific purposes, but I am expecting to be getting rid of some thousands of cards.

There will be more room in the storage boxes, at least.

[*] apart from basic lands, and cards which explicitly say you can have as many as you want in the deck.

[**] or at least a single copy of each art for a card.

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February Things, 2019

I don’t like burnout. The worst thing about it is that I don’t see it coming: I am diagnosing January’s burnout in retrospect. In the moment it just felt like I was overwhelmed and tired, but in hindsight it is pretty obvious that I had taken on too much and wasn’t getting any of it done.

So this is not going to be a positive Things post, as should be obvious from the way I am not getting it done until two thirds of the way into the month.

Let’s lift up the rock and see what’s underneath.

Three Things for January

With the understanding that I basically didn’t do anything, what did I complete?

  1. Cinnamon Harmonies — no work. I will come back to this later in the year, April at the soonest. The trick here is going to be closing it out. No points this time though.
  2. Song fourth draft — I need to develop a revision plan, but I didn’t do that. This is probably the second most important thing I need to do this quarter. Marking this incomplete.
  3. blog — obviously not, although I have done more blogging than anything else. Half a point.
  4. workshop application — I have done some work on this, with thoughts on the cover letter and the sample I want to send. Calling this half done, although that might be generous.

What I have done this last few weeks is some wildly overdue card sorting. The Konmari spirit is upon me still, and clearing out cards to make space for other things is still pretty important to me.

Still overall, I am going to rate that two halves out of four, or 1/4 once the fractions are simplified.

Three Things for 2019

This is not the vigorous start to 2019 that I had hoped for, but this has not been vigorous month so that’s just where I am.

  1. query A Turquoise Song — a goal in three sequential parts:
    1. prepare a fourth draft — incorporate feedback, make it good. Target is to have this done by the middle of the year. No progress on this first part yet.
    2. prepare query letter — obviously the initial targets are the agents I talked to at the conference in 2017, but I also want to prepare for querying other agents.
    3. query — get the book out there.
  2. short stories — I am finding my relationship to short stories becoming much less contentious, even fruitful!
    1. several stories to write for Boundary Shock Quarterly — I have started in on the first of these.
    2. write and submit four stories to other markets. So that’s one a quarter, and I will mark it as such.
  3. engage with the writing community — this is a nebulous label for a group of related goals that don’t warrant a top level item to themselves.
    1. workshop application — I’m going to apply for an intensive workshop. More on that once it’s in hand, which it really isn’t yet.
    2. podcast — one of the things that came out of the inconclusive work on producing Livia as an audiobook was a desire to launch a podcast of some kind. This would be audio-only initially, although I am still searching for a good format. No work this month beyond some sorting to make space.
    3. cons & confs — I need to be getting out there more. I just do. No progress on  doing so, however.

As I say, not a great start but I still think this is going to be a good year.

Three Things for February

Not that there’s much left of February, at this point, but…

These month goals are predicated on the truncated amount of time remaining in the month. That necessarily reduces the volume of work which can be completed, as well as the scope.

Still, there are real tasks that can still be accomplished towards my goals for the year.

  1. Song fourth draft — I’m expecting to receive more feedback on the 3rd draft from my crit group, so I need to prep some questions to help provide prompts for discussion.
  2. short stories — two things:
    1. finish draft of next BSQ story
    2. plan story for submission this quarter
  3. workshop application — write draft of cover letter.

Note that I am not putting in work on Cinnamon Harmonies this month. I plan to come back to that in April.

Alright*, let’s get back to it.

[*] US English convention is “all right” but I grew up with “alright”. For some reason I have suppressed that British usage for most of the time I have been writing seriously, even while I use other British usages without compunction or mercy: armoured trousers are are my speciality, for example.

I am reclaiming this part of my upbringing.

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Burnout or Laziness?

A few weeks ago I wrote that I was taking a break from writing to let myself spend time working on clutter.

And that time has been successful in that I have done no writing at all. I have worked on some Magic decks, and sorted cards, but basically I have taken a break from anything. In truth, I have been feeling creatively drained — I have taken time to actually read a whole book rather than vomitting out words.

I needed this break, just like I needed the break over Christmas.

However it was beginning to feel like laziness.

Then on Monday I got up at my usual time and had my usual breakfast and I mooched around as I usually do — it always takes me a while to wake up, so the mooching is necessary. But even after a cup of tea and all the other routines I found that I was still basically asleep.

So I went back to bed, and slept for another six hours.

I am feeling better now, I’m glad to say. It seems to have been a minor fever based on how other members of my family have suffered the same way, but I am still pretty flattened. I would usually run from the office but I deliberately left my gear at home.

More significant is that I can feel the flickering flames of the creative urge. The burnout was real, but it was not just laziness that led to my not writing.

Time to get back on the horse. Probably just a trot, just yet. Let’s keep the cantering in all directions for when the flames are burning hotter.

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Mental Weight and Misdirected Energy

When I wrote about Marie Kondo and her method I thought I would be able to wait. I thought then that I could fit the decluttering in around other projects.

But I was wrong. I am having enormous trouble focussing on my writing work because the mental weight of the tidying work is blocking me from thinking about it.

There are practical considerations about this block. When I have time I am so distracted by the febrile energy of the clutter that I cannot enter the right mind set to write. There is a card table that I took into my office as a temporary work space but it’s been in there most of the year now; it’s taking up half the space on its own.

But even when I am away from my usual workspace I cannot separate myself from the drag of the need for tidying.

And so, with that, I am going to officially Not Write for the next week or so — maybe the rest of January — to allow me the mental space to approach the tidying wholeheartedly.

If I am not going to write I would rather make that a deliberate choice. What I am doing now is close to hell.

I won’t be finished in a week, but I believe I will have cleared enough space (physically and mentally) to work again.

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2018 Awards Eligibility Post

To expand on this a little bit — anything that’s been published in 2018 is eligible to be nominated. That’s all I’m saying here.

But, with that said…

The two stories are:

  • Better, published in “Captain’s Log” (Boundary Shock Quarterly #1). A prisoner wonders at her choices. 8300 words.
  • Feelings, published in “Robots, Androids, Cyborgs, Oh My!” (Boundary Shock Quarterly #4). An android realises who she has been working for. 8200 words.

The word counts for both of these just push them out of the short story Hugo category (which has a 7.5k ceiling) and into Novelet.

I am proud of both of these stories for different reasons. Better is a story that I had thought of a long time ago but struggled to come up with a viable structure for. Feelings came much more easily but has a more difficult subject, and I am proud both of how the story is told and of how I handled the content. I think Feelings is the better story, for what that’s worth.

Anyway, I present these for your consideration.

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The Name of the Beast

I don’t hate social media.

Staying in touch with friends is nice, and low effort sites like Facebook are quite good for that.

me stepping away from Facebook

me stepping away from Facebook

Or at least they used to be.

I started using Facebook to play games — word games, specifically, but long distance board games in general. I might not even have made an account at the time if Scrabble wasn’t mired in intercontinental rights issues.

And it was fun: I kept my Legally Distinct Word Game skills fresh, and I stayed in touch with people I liked.

That continued as I reestablished contact with schoolmates and folks from other parts of my life over the years: I got to say hello to people I liked but without the considerable effort of a phone call or letter — frequent glancing contact rather than infrequent (or, more likely, absent) deep contact. This really is the genius of social networks.

And as a social network I have no issue at all with Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+ *, or any of them. You are interacting with people, you are being notified about things that people you know are doing or saying.

Honestly, I don’t even mind advertising, not really. I don’t enjoy it, and autoplay video ads with sound can die in a fire**, but I understand the need for it. Hyperefficient server farms don’t run for free.

Where I start to have trouble is with algorithmic feeds, and with forced engagement.

A Brief Digression About Time Management

I’ve tried lots of systems to manage my time and the things that I want to fill it with. The structure I am using now, Three Things, is more robust than anything else I’ve used.

Previous efforts have floundered either because they were too complex (ie there was too much overhead to maintain) or too overwhelming (ie they made explicit the existential dread that I experience when I think about how much there is for me to do). The best of these failed systems were paper-based but in trying to capture my world I ended up flooding my inbox, which triggered the existential dread.

But the worst system for me was the Palm Pilot, because not only did it make terrifyingly manifest how many things I had to do, but it automatically carried incomplete tasks forward.

That automation meant that I did not need to dig into my lists to make them: the huge lists were created for me. It also meant that I didn’t remember to look at the list. And a todo list you’re not looking at is a waste of everybody’s time.

Automation and Attention

I love automation of work. If I can write a short program to perform a task then I can repeat that work in an error-free way indefinitely.

Automation which shortcuts attention seems profoundly flawed, however. It’s too easy to lose connection with the work you’re doing or the life you’re trying to lead. That’s the problem I have with an algorithmic feed — what you see is not decided by simple rules that you can navigate (eg newest first) but by unscrutinisable knowledge systems whose rules no one understands.

Even the word “algorithm” is a misnomer here, because an algorithm is a repeatable, explicable set of steps to perform a task. The neural networks trained to show us what will keep us on the site for longest are not explicable, and they are only repeatable inasmuch as the same training inputs can be fed to them.

Algorithmic feeds are an answer to a question that users of the site were not asking, and they are too easily manipulated and subverted. I’ve heard people complain that friends thought they were dead because they hadn’t posted on Facebook in so long, when they had been posting every day but those posts weren’t being shown in the friend’s feed.

For users it is better to keep the rules simple, and have searches and filters to let people find the content they want.

Make It So

Facebook’s users are not its customers. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers and the consumers of user data.

The job of Facebook is to keep you on the site as long as possible to show you ads and gather information about you. You might have just gone in to check on your reading group page, but Facebook will show you things in your feed that will distract you from that task. If you like reading, maybe you will want to see ads for reading glasses. Or maybe you’re in your seventies: perhaps your hearing is failing? Perhaps you’re susceptible to right wing media?

That post from your old schoolfriend yesterday — you liked it, but you didn’t comment. You commented on that media story about the whales causing global warming, though. Maybe we’ll show you more of that instead of your schoolfriend’s post from today; you spent more time with the whale story, after all.

And so many of the posts you see aren’t lovely stories from your friends, or jokes, or things they’ve actually said: they’re bad memes, or reposted nonsense about how it’s the chemtrails really, or miserably derivative surveys.

I like the people I am friends with, but I want to interact with them as friends not as media repeaters.

Unsocial Media

Calling Facebook just a social network now is wrong; even the term social media is a little behind. Facebook is a digital media platform with a social component.

In other words it’s not the concept that’s a problem, it’s the automation. Having a site to send messages amongst your social group is fine — laudable, even — but having an algorithm choosing who your friends are (ie whose posts you see) is not.

[*] what a missed opportunity Google+ was!

[**] those intrusive video ads are the explicit reason I installed an ad blocker.

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Clutter Conflict

Marie Kondo is the originator of the Konmari method, a tidying and decluttering system which has many adherents. She is also the host of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo on Netflix, where she and her team go to the houses of people with poorly organised stuff and helps them see their floors again.

She also makes some people lose their minds on Twitter over her edicts about getting rid of books.

My Cluttered Life

I am not now, nor have I ever been, any kind of minimalist. I accrete hobbies and collections like a caddis fly larva making its shell: I like my stuff. My stuff is my memory.

But my stuff drives me crazy because there’s piles of it everywhere and I can’t always find what I need. It drives my wife crazy because it’s in her way and presses down on her psyche.

My stuff is both a protection and a weight; an anchor and a barrier.

A Respectful Process

I have yet to read Marie Kondo’s book, but her Netflix show is notable to me for the level of respect it shows to its participants. The people on the show are ready to clear stuff out or to move on with their lives in some important way, and their problem is that they do not know how to work through all of their possessions.

They are overwhelmed and Konmari is a set of tools they can use to approach the task.

But Marie Kondo herself does not order or hector; she is flexible in applying the method. When someone is not ready to work on a class of items because they are stuck on another then she will relent. There is no overt blaming or shaming for having a pile of clothes that actually reaches the ceiling, nor a wall of baseball card boxes that obscures the sun.

Some Areas of Concern

The most effective criticism of Konmari that I’ve seen is that it is a system born of privilege: those who can afford to apply it are those who can afford to buy the thing that was discarded when they need it later.

I agree entirely with this criticism. I hang onto things because they might be useful later all the time, and sometimes they are useful later. But there is also an implicit assumption about any hoarding, that there is space to live in amongst the stored necessities* — if you have a smaller home then Konmari might be helpful in learning to make better use of that space.

And then there are the books.

Most of the harshest criticisms I have seen are about Konmari’s requirement that you only keep things that spark joy, including books, but that books are better in volume: to borrow Napoleon’s phrase, quantity has a quality of its own.

My reaction to that is: maybe don’t do that then.

I see Konmari as a set of tools, and you don’t have to use all of those tools all of the time. I have a table saw in my workshop. It terrifies me whenever I use it, but sometimes it is the right tool for the job. Most of the time it is another assembly table, though, because not every job needs it.

The same applies with particular areas of your possessions which you do not want to be rigorous with: you choose not to apply the tools. I mean, for me, books and comics and games fall more into the “sentimental items” category anyway, and maybe that’s the key here — books are more than just things; they are cultural and personal memory.

Personally, I like to know what I have so that sorting through the books has survey value**, but if the search is part of your process then who am I to judge.

Where I Am

I am not in a place where I am ready to go full Konmari on my life, but there are elements of it where I need to winnow.

There are also aspects of the tools that I like a lot, such as the vertical folding of T shirts to make them visible and more effectively use drawer space (or luggage space). So at some point I will be going through my clothes to dispose of stale and no longer wanted items.

But books and games and comics… That is both a daunting and deeply unsettling prospect. I will need to be sure of my goals going in.

[*] this is also a fundamental cruelty of being poor: you only get good prices on things bought in bulk, but that requires both that you have the money to spend on large quantities and that you have a place to store what you don’t need immediately.

[**] I do not currently know all that I have.

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Continuing Improvement

I went for a run the other day.

That’s not so unusual, of course. I run several times a week, because despite still being a cyclist who runs I do rather enjoy running.

When I got back I found that I had run a personal best for the route — indeed, I had clocked my fastest mile (downhill, I should say) which is at least a good thing to show my body how to go that speed.

That isn’t so unusual either, as it happens, but it’s one of four personal bests I have run this week.

Cycling vs Running

I started running because I wasn’t cycling, but even when I started riding again I found that running was a more time-efficient way to get the intensity of exercise that I look for.

But whenever I get back on a bike I always remember that while I like running, I love cycling.

Like A Record Baby, Right Round Round Round

As part of our continuing health journey, we’ve joined a local gym. Well, more precisely, my wife joined the gym and I go to one class a week.

It’s a spin class. While I’m not getting out on the bike at this time of year, the spin class gives me almost every part of cycling* that I love best. It’s an hour of intense riding where I don’t have to work to stay upright and it wears me out in the best way.

Spinning is also reminding me what turning my legs over quickly is really like, hence all my recent personal bests on my running routes.

The Bests

Over the last week I have run:

  • a hilly four miler from our house in sub-nine minute miles, roughly ten seconds faster per mile.
  • a flat five down by the river in 8:24 miles. For context, I ran a 4K two years ago on waterfront there in 8:22. This is also 40s a miles faster than the previous best on this route.
  • a hilly four from the day job in 8:19 miles, including a new downhill record mile, twenty seconds faster per mile on average.
  • a hilly trail seven miler from our house in sub-ten minute miles, which is about a minute and a half faster per mile than my previous best.

It’s a good week for health goals.

[*] the thing that’s missing is bombing down a forty mile an hour hill.

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