Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Competition: Everyone Can't Be A Winner

Academically, one of my main complaints is the existence of weeded-out courses. These are typically introductory level courses, often in the sciences. They are intended to lessen the number of biology majors and show pre-med students what they are in for. This fosters an unhealthy competition within the class, and the difficulty of the exams and the amount of studying expected are too much of an abrupt shock for many entering students. What is the point of attending an "elite" school if they institutionalize oppressive amounts of work? Learning can exist in a positive environment, and some schools need to catch on to this concept. --Cornell Freshman

The above passage was the second paragraph of a letter written to the New York Times about college freshmen. The first thing that I noticed was that he should have said "weed-out" courses instead of "weeded-out," unless everyone in the class is high on marijuana. Then the term "weeded-out" would fit.

My second, and more serious, thought about that paragrah was the student's complaint about how courses designed with a high washout rate foster "unhealthy competition." It made me wonder how a person lived for 18 years without having to compete for anything. Does this person really expect to get an A in class for simply showing up, or that the class should be dumbed down so that everyone gets a good grade? There are a limited number of spots in medical schools. I personally want the doctor who's operating on my vital organs to be one of the best and brightest, not someone who thinks that he should get a good grade because he has a pulse or who went through watered-down classes. When I was in college in the late 1970s and early '80s, biology majors accepted that there was stiff competition for a coveted medical school slot. Those who didn't make it through the demanding pre-med courses changed their goals, then moved on with their lives. They didn't whine about the competition being unhealthy because they knew up front that only a certain percentage would make it to medical school.

I realize that I'm generalizing about the writer based on one letter to the editor. But it appears that this person never had to compete for anything in his life. Somehow over the past 20 years people in the States got it in their heads that zero competition promotes self-esteem. The prevailing wisdom has been that kids who don't do as well as their peers, academically or athletically, will suffer from low self-esteem. The way to make every child feel good about himself was to eliminate competition and any source of disappointment. The "everyone wins leagues" in the US are a good example of how competition has fallen by the wayside. Kids get a trophy at the end of the season, no matter how poorly they fared. This sends a message to kids that they don't have to give it their best in order to get an award.

The "everyone's a winner" concept is wrong, mainly because it promotes mediocrity and a sense of entitlement. People will believe that they deserve an award for lackluster effort. Kids need age-appropriate levels of competition to realize that not everyone can win. Competition is also a good way to motivate someone to try his hardest. Back when I was a kid, children had to try out to get onto a Little League baseball team or high school sports team. The kids who didn't make the team either worked harder to try and make it the next season or did something else. Yes, they were disappointed about not making the team. But they didn't complain about it or have their parents demand that they get put onto the team. Competition also prepares a child for real life. When kids get older, they have to compete for limited spaces at a university or for jobs. Having experienced a certain level of competition early in life makes a child better able to handle having to compete for more adult things like a job. I wonder how kids who have grown up without experiencing any competition, like the letter writer, will fare when it comes time to apply for a job.

I've seen the "we're all winners" effect in races that I've done. In the past, only marathon finishers got medals. A marathon finisher's medal signifies that the runner accomplished something that very few people can do. It is really worth something. Then medals began being given out for half-marathons. A half-marathon is still a long distance, so I have no problem with a finisher's medal for completing one. But I recently ran a 5 km race on base where all of the finishers, runners and walkers, were given medals. The top overall and age group finishers also received trophies. When I mentioned to the organizers that medals for finishing a 5K seemed a bit over the top, the response I got was that not everyone is a competitive runner and that the runners and walkers who completed the course deserve something.

My 11-year-old son also feels that non-competition is wrong. He was in the on-base ski program for three years. On the last day of the program, there is an informal race. The instructors record the times, but aren't supposed show them to the kids (some do anyway). After the race, there is a ceremony where all of the kids in the program get a certificate and medal. During my son's last year in the program, he had just turned 9, but was in a group of 12-15-year-olds. He placed second-to-last in the race in his group and was ecstatic about not finishing last. When he came home from the race, he asked why everyone got a medal and not just the top three kids. He then said that he didn't really deserve his medal because he wasn't one of the top three in his group. I tried to explain that the medal was for participation, but it still seemed wrong to him. He had been in both German and on-base ski races where only the top kids in each group got an award and the others left empty-handed.

Maybe our college freshman letter writer needs to learn from a child that not everyone can be a winner and that we can survive a little competition.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Deutsche Schule (German School)

Over the years people have asked me why I put my son in German school instead of the American school on base. The short answer is that he went to a local German kindergarten (preschool) for three years and that most of his friends were the German kids in his class. I felt that it was best for him to start first grade with familiar friends. The base school was always there as a fallback if he didn't do well in German school. But so far he's doing very well in German school.

Here's a little background about German schools for readers from other countries. Grundschule, or primary school, is from 1st to 4th grade. There are three levels of secondary school, which starts in 5th grade: Gymnasium, Realschule, and Hauptschule. A student's marks in 4th grade determine which type of secondary school he'll attend. Gymnasium (5th-12th grade) is for the students with the best marks, Realschule (5th-10th grade) is the middle level, and Hauptschule (5th-9th grade) is the lowest. A Gymnasium has a university prep curriculum, while Hauptschule students get a good basic education equivalent to a US high school diploma and learn vocational skills. Gymnasium graduates who pass their university entrance exams have the equivalent of an Associate's Degree. Grading is on a 1 to 6 scale, with 1 being the best mark. A 1 is very difficult to get; a student must be virtually perfect to earn a 1. A 2 is above average, 3 is average/meets all standards, 4 is passing with some deficiencies, 5 is the highest failing grade, and 6 is the worst failing grade. Religion is also part of the German school curriculum at all grades, even though Germany is a secular country. Students who don't take Catholic or Lutheran religion classes take Ethics.

Here are some of the things that I really like about German schools. They'll help explain why my son goes to one instead of to the base school.

There is no grade inflation like in US schools. In American schools it seems like students get a B just for showing up with a pulse. If they have a pulse and are breathing, they get an A. German students have to earn their grades. German teachers go at a prescribed speed in class, which is geared toward the class average. I have worked in American schools and noticed that teachers go at the pace of the slowest kids in the class. The higher achievers are bored waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. Because my son is one of the better kids in his class, he would be bored if he had to wait for the teacher to explain the lesson to the slower kids. The pacing of lessons in a German school is a better fit for him. German students who don't "clear the bar" must repeat the grade. There is no stigma for repeating a grade. Many kids in Gymnasium repeat a grade. In my son's class there is one boy who repeated 5th grade last year and another who is repeating 6th grade this year.

In the States a lot of "frivolous" courses have been cut out because of standardized test preparation. Many US schools have no art, music, sport, or recess. Because of No Child Left Behind, schools prep their students to take state tests in reading and math. There is a lot of teaching to the tests instead of creative teaching. The schools' funding and ratings depend on test results. In Germany kids must also take standardized tests in German and English. But school funding isn't contingent on the test results, so there is no pressure to teach to the tests. Even before my son started school, I wanted him to have an education that included the arts and sport along with academics. My son is in 6th grade in a Gymnasium and has a very well-rounded curriculum. He's taking: German, English, Latin, math, biology, history, introduction to computers, art, music, sport (PE), and ethics. His schedule varies every day. One would think that a school for high achievers would cut out the arts and sport in order to make room for the academic subjects. That's not the case in Germany. The arts and sport are also considered important.

Another thing that I like about German schools is tracking. Tracking was eliminated in the States because it supposedly made the slower kids feel bad about themselves. By having the three levels of schooling, students are with those of their ability level. The high achievers can go at a faster pace, while the slower kids can get the extra help that they need without making the rest of the class wait for them. I've noticed in my son's school that the kids are proud of having good grades and are in competition with each other to see who can get the best marks. They really push each other to do well.

Teachers are treated by parents and students as the professionals that they are. The teacher's word is law and discipline is strictly enforced. If a child forgets his homework more than three times, he must stay after class and catch up on his work. Students who consistently forget their homework, or who act up too much in class, must help the janitors clean the school. Cheating and talking during tests is strictly forbidden. If students are caught cheating or talking during a test, they are given a 6 and the parents are called in to talk with the teacher. My son recently had a biology test where two kids were caught talking and given an automatic 6.

There are a few things that I don't like about the German school system. One is that I feel that 5th grade is too early to start tracking the students. Performance in 4th grade may not necessarily reflect how a student will do in 8th. I personally feel that it would be better to have the kids go to primary school through 6th grade and then track them. That would catch some of the late bloomers. The other thing has to do with the nature of Gymnasium. Because universities in Germany are free, the government only wants to pay for the best and brightest to attend them. Kids who go to Gymnasium are the future university students. There is a high washout rate in Gymnasium. Students who have trouble in Gymnasium end up dropping down to Realschule. Sometimes I have the feeling that the Gymnasium teachers are deliberately trying to make the kids fail to weed them out early. There are also not very many tests or quizzes. When I was in school, I took a lot of tests and quizzes. If I had a poor mark on a test, it didn't affect my grade so much. But kids in German schools take very few tests compared to their US counterparts. A bad mark on a test has a big effect on the overall grade for that class.

Overall, I've been very happy with the German school system. I feel that my son is receiving the same well-rounded education that I had when I was a child.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

American vs German Races

I started running and racing in San Diego and kept up with it since being in Germany. People have asked me if I prefer races in the States or in Germany. It's hard to say where I prefer to race because my overall experience in both countries has been good. Organizers in both countries do a great job in creating a good race day. Today's post will be about the things I like best in each country.

What I Like About American Races:

1. Flexibility. Americans are more flexible when it comes to having to adjust water points or courses based on conditions. A good example was when I ran the 1992 America's Finest City Half-Marathon in San Diego. The weather was unseasonably hot and humid. The organizers added four more water points to the original four. I've also been in on-base races where the original course was altered due to excessive mud or ice.

2. Porta-Potties. Americans are great about putting Porta-Potties along the course of a long race. Germans haven't quite caught on to doing that. Men have the physiological advantage of being able to simply turn their backs to the course and "take care of business" anywhere. We women either need a Porta-Potty or bushes. Since bushes aren't always available, Porta-Potties are nice to have. I personally never used a Porta-Potty during a race, but it's good to know that one is there if I need it.

3. Races are for Everyone. In the States, you don't have to be a serious runner to participate in a race. A runner can enter a race just for the accomplishment of finishing. Until recently, there was a "serious and fast runners only" mentality in Germany, which discouraged slower runners. In the States "relaxed runners" and walkers are welcome. In races where there is a time limit, walkers and slower runners have an earlier starting time. Opening races to everyone is a great way to encourage people to get off the couch and move.

4. Swag. The last time I raced in the States was in 2004, before the economy went downhill, so things may have changed. But in just about every race I did in San Diego, I got a good-sized bag full of free samples, a t-shirt, and discount coupons. There were vendors at the finish line handing out free Power Bars and sports drink samples. A lot of races also had prize drawings. I won prizes in drawings twice: hockey tickets and dinner for two at a fancy restaurant.

What I Like About German Races:

1. Kilometers. Because Germany uses the metric system, courses are measured in kilometers instead of miles. Maybe I've been here too long, but I prefer kilometer markers. In the late stages of a long race, when I'm feeling tired, I know that it's not so far to the next marker. When I race in the States, I have to remind myself that the course is marked in miles so that I don't feel like I'm super slow. An 8-minute mile is much faster than an 8-minute kilometer.

2. Small Local Races. When I lived in Parsberg, there were a lot of small local races in my area. The people who organized them were very friendly and welcoming to all runners. They made each runner almost feel like a member of the family. In many small races, each runner's name is announced as he crosses the finish line. It makes the race experience more personal. Some small races also had the best prize giveaways. The Velburg Easter Run (near Parsberg) and the Eibsee Run in the Garmisch area are known for their prize drawings. One year in Velburg I won a large chocolate Easter bunny. At Eibsee two years ago I got warm mittens and a calendar. Small races also have very inexpensive entry fees.

3. Free Public Transportation. In big city races the public transportation is free for the runners. Because parking is hard to find in large cities, and is often limited at a race start or finish, people are encouraged to use public transportation. Whenever I race in Munich, I park at a park-and-ride on the south side of the city and take the subway to the start. The trains run every few minutes and are clean and efficient. When I ran the Berlin Marathon in 1994, I also took the subway to the start area.

4. Odd Distances. In big, organized races a course is set to fit the race distance. A 10K race will be 10 kilometers, a marathon 42.2, etc. But the little local races are fun because the organizers plot out a course, then measure the distance. The course is often a scenic trail in the woods. If the trail is 8.7 kilometers, then that's the race distance. To me it's fun to run a different distance than the standard 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon. The Eibsee Run is a surprise because the starting point changes slightly from year to year. The advertised distance is 12.2 kilometers, but it varies a little because of the where the organizers decided to put the starting line.

In both Germany and the States, the organizers and volunteers deserve a big "thank you" for doing a great job and for making each race day a memorable experience.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Munich Two Chapter Two

A few random thoughts about yesterday's race in Munich...

The weather was perfect for a long race. It started off a bit cold (4 C or about 39 F) and sunny, which made me debate whether to wear a short-sleeved or long-sleeved shirt with shorts. I opted for the short sleeves. It was a good call because it warmed up enough that I would have baked in the long-sleeved shirt. The breeze was chilly, but felt refreshing in the later part of the race. 

According to the marathon website, there were over 18,000 runners in the four races: marathon, half-marathon, 10K, and  6 km Trachtenlauf (race where the runners wear traditional Bavarian clothing). I met people from different parts of Germany who came to Munich for the race. 

I ended up running into someone that I knew from my Hohenfels days. He was the principal of the base elementary school when I first moved to Germany. He was also here in Garmisch during my first year here. When I last saw him he wasn't running, so it was a big surprise to see him at the race. We ran part of the first kilometer together and then I took off ahead. He commented on my photo of Bill that I had pinned to my shirt above my number. When I told him who Bill was, he thought that it was a fitting tribute to have Bill with me during the race. 

When I looked at the results, I saw the last place men and women and their times. The last place woman finished in about 3.5 hours. The amazing thing was that she had Down syndrome. She belonged to an athletic club for people with Down syndrome. What a wonderful accomplishment for her to have finished a half-marathon. I'm sure there have been many times in that woman's life where she was told that she couldn't do things because of her limitations. But yesterday she did something that very few "normal" people can do--finish a 21.1 km (13.1 mile) race. 

The finishers medals for the half-marathon and 10 km runs were heart-shaped. They were decorated to look like the big gingerbread hearts that are sold at fests all over Bavaria. Because it was the 25th running of the marathon, the finishers of every race got a medal. The marathon medals were round and look like the one I got when I ran it three years ago. 

My right knee is still a bit sore today, but it will be fine in a few days with some rest, ice, and massage. I can tell that it's an IT band problem because of it being on the outside of the knee. Also, when I use my massage stick on my IT band, the knee pain goes away. It also seems to loosen up when I walk around. Whew! I've had knee injuries where I was out of commission for a couple of months. Suffice it to say that was no fun. 

All in all, the Munich half-marathon was a good experience. I hope that the organizers decide to make the half-marathon part of the marathon festivities. I'd like to go up and run it again. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Munich Two

This is the second half-marathon that I ran in Munich this year. I ran the half-marathon that's part of the Munich Marathon. This is the first year that there was a half-marathon along with the marathon.  There were close to 5,000 finishers at this inaugural race: 1651 women and 3120 men.  My time was 1:53:43, which was about 2 minutes faster than my time at last June's City Run.  I was 296th out of the 1651 women and 24th out of 144 in my age group (W 50-54). The results were segregated by gender. Just for fun I checked my time among the men's results and would have been right in the middle of the pack. 

For the most part, I'm satisfied with my time. I achieved the goal of improving on my time from the City Run. There were also a couple of  things which affected my time. The first 16 km (10 miles) were fast. Then the toe cramps struck. The three smallest toes on my right foot kept cramping. I had to walk to loosen them back up. This was the first time that I had toe cramps in a race. My husband gets toe cramps when his feet get cold. After having experienced them today, I'll never again think that he's being a big drama queen when he gets them. The other problem had to do with the sport drink that was served. It tasted awful and my stomach didn't like it. Even when I diluted the drink with water, it gave me gas pains. This was another first. Normally the sports drinks at races don't bother me. I attribute some of that to the nervous stomach that I had since Friday. 

At first I was a bit disappointed with my time because I really wanted a faster one. I was on track for a much faster time through the first 16 km. A lot of that time I was "in the zone," going fast but still feeling pretty comfortable.  But as I was leaving the stadium after having some post-race refreshments, I saw other people who were crossing the finish line. They were finishing at around the 2:15 mark. Then I realized that there were people in the race who would have been very happy to finish in my time. That and being in the top 20% for both the women and my age group put things in perspective and the disappointment went away.

Before the race, I also incurred some slight injuries. There was a huge line for the women's bathroom. Instead of directing people to the Porta-Potties near the start, the organizers sent women to an indoor bathroom with only 3 toilets.  A group of us women toward the back of the toilet line, myself included,  decided to use some nearby bushes to take care of business. There were nettles in the bushes! I got stung on my left hand, arm, and leg. I've brushed up against nettles while training and the sting lasted a couple of minutes. Munich nettles must be more potent than Garmisch ones because the spots where I got stung are still bothering me. I still have some red bumps on my skin from the nettles. 

The course was the second half of the marathon course. About half of it was in the old city. I remember the last part of the marathon course being a big labyrinth, but somehow I though it was only the last 6 km. But about 8 km was like being in the middle of a maze until heading toward the finish at the Olympic stadium. The last kilometer seemed to be the longest because I kept expecting the turn into the stadium tunnel and onto the track. I remember that feeling from running the marathon too. 

I saw a funny sight in the early part of the race. We runners passed by a restaurant called "Mai Wok." One would think that it would be a Chinese restaurant, especially with the word "wok" in the name. Nope. It was a restaurant which served both Indian food and pizza. I've also been to Indian restaurants and pizzerias, but never to a restaurant which served both types of food. 

The runners were encouraged to use public transportation to get to the start and home from the Olympic stadium. The subway trains were packed! It was like what you see in Tokyo during rush hour. I had a Power Bar with me to eat on the train ride back to the park-and-ride where I left my car. But there wasn't enough room to pull it out of my bag and eat it. It was nice that all of the public transportation in Munich was free today for the runners. 

Now it's time to take a well-deserved rest. My right knee is a little bit sore, but some ice will help it. I'll spend most of this week walking instead of running to let my body recover. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Call Me Lightning

This entry's title, which is a song by the Who, sums up how I've been running over the past couple of weeks. I can tell that I'm peaking because I'm going a lot faster on my normal routes but feel like I'm holding back. I'm peaking at the perfect time for my half-marathon on Sunday. Today's short (about 5 km) run was another fast one, though I felt like I wasn't exerting myself at all. For a lot of the run I felt very "in the zone." I feel the way I did before running my first half-marathon back in 1991. My time in that race was better than I expected.

I can't believe that the race is in two days. All of the training is in, and I'm as ready as I'm going to be. The weather will be almost perfect for a half-marathon. It's supposed to be sunny and about 10 C (50 F) at the start. If it was overcast, then it would be perfect. But I'll take the cooler temperature and sun over hot and cloudy any day. This afternoon I put my chip onto my shoe, topped off the gas tank, and put my favorite Eros Ramazzotti disk in the car's CD player. I know what I'm going to wear in the race and afterward. Tomorrow after work I'll get my clothing and other gear together.

I don't have any specific time goals. My half-marathons in cooler weather are in the 1:49-1:54 range, while the warmer-weather ones range from 1:55 to 2:00. If I had to set a goal, it would be to beat my time of 1:55 that I had in this summer's Munich City Run. If all goes well, that's a very real possibility.

Sunday's race will be dedicated to absent friends. As usual, I'll pin a photo of my former running partner Bill to my shirt. I'll also be thinking about two other friends who have died. Michael was stabbed to death in January 2008. I ran a couple of races up in Hohenfels with Michael. Even though I beat him every time, he was always very good-natured about it. I had gone to Munich several times with Michael. He and his wife always enjoyed being in Munich. Dan died earlier this year from pancreatic cancer. He was never a runner. In fact, he was overweight and didn't exercise. But he always took an interest in my running and races. If my legs start feeling like they're made of lead, I'll think about one of Dan's jokes to take my mind off the pain.

I'll post a report on the race after I get my results.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Seven More Days...

...until the Munich Half-Marathon.

This is the first year that there will be a half-marathon along with the Munich Marathon. So far over 1600 people have signed up for it, which is a good-sized field for an inaugural race. I have a feeling that a lot of people will sign up this week. Many runners tend to wait until the last minute to register.

The half-marathon will be the second half of the marathon course. It will start at the half-marathon mark and finish in the Olympic Stadium. A lot of the tourist attractions in the city center, like the Glockenspiel in the Marienplatz, will be part of the course. I remember the last few kilometers in the city center being rather labyrinthine. It also seemed to take a long time to get into the stadium once it was in sight. But the finish on the stadium track is fantastic. The track is made of a high-tech very springy material that feels wonderful on tired feet. The only down side is that the course won't go through the English Garden. The English Garden was originally in the second half of the marathon course, which is the same course used in the 1972 Olympics. Then several years ago the organizers had runners do the course in reverse and it has stayed that way ever since.

Training has been fantastic and I'm peaking at the right time. It's going even better than for my half-marathon in June. In the past couple of weeks I've been running my normal routes faster. Yesterday I ran my last long run, about 13.5-14 km, or somewhere between 8.5 and 9 miles. I hit my checkpoints with my fastest times this year, yet felt like I was holding back. When I do my short runs later this week, I'll really have to rein myself in and save my energy for the race. All of my training is in and there's really nothing I can do now but have an easy week and hope for a good race and cool weather.

Because the race is a point-to-point course, my plan is to park at the park-and-ride on the south side of the city that I use when I do the Munich City Run and take the U-Bahn (subway) to the start area. The U-Bahn stops about 100 meters from the start. This seems to be the simplest option and the one with the lowest potential for getting lost or arriving late. The other options are:

1) Park at the starting area and take the U-Bahn back from the Olympic Stadium. The down sides are limited parking and the fact that I don't know my way around Munich by car all that well. I can just see myself driving all around trying to find the start area and missing the race. It's the stuff of pre-race nightmares.
2) Park at the stadium and take the U-Bahn to the start. The up side is that all of my things would be handy right after the race. I can just get in my car and head directly home. The disadvantage is that the closest U-Bahn stop is about a 20-25 minute walk from the stadium. I also don't know exactly where it is. Again, I'd be wandering around anxiously before the race trying to find the U-Bahn stop and worrying about arriving on time. If I'm going to have a long walk to the U-Bahn, I'd rather do it after the race because it will help to loosen up my legs after running 21.1 km (13.1 miles). Also, after the race I can ask people how to get to the U-Bahn stop and get there without any anxiety.

Race day has really snuck up on me. It seems like just a few weeks ago when I decided to train for this race. I'm really looking forward to it. My goal is to enjoy the experience and finish the season on a high note without setting any time goals. This anticipation reminds me a lot of what I experienced before my first half-marathon in 1991, when I had a better-than-expected time.

Here's to a good race...