One More Saturday Night: The Dead At MRF

I liked the Grateful Dead, but never anywhere near enough to earn the title “Deadhead.” Those folks followed the band all over the country, seeing multiple shows on a given tour, trading tapes back and forth, and generally living their lives for the Dead. Some would keep track of how many concerts they’d been to — the most dedicated (pun resisted; you’re welcome) would claim dozens or even hundreds of shows.

Me, I saw one.

It was at the Mississippi River Festival, exactly 30 years ago tonight. I went with my cousin Bruce — who COULD call himself a Deadhead; I think his concert list stretched to more than 50 — and my friend Kurt and his brother Webster.

The Mississippi River Festival was an annual summer-long series of concerts held at an outdoor amphitheater on the campus of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Although the festival for the most part predates my years of concert attendance, I did manage to see three shows there: Linda Ronstadt (my first concert), Doc Severinson (with my parents, so maybe it doesn’t really count as a concert), and, on August 16, 1980, The Dead.

The four of us drove in my dad’s station wagon, and when we arrived at the campus, it was a beautiful night. I parked the wagon in one of the huge fields being used for parking lots, and we made our way into the concert and found a place on the lawn for our blanket.

Musically, I’ll have to confess that I don’t remember a whole lot from the concert. Alabama Getaway was the first song; it started out loud, but then, after a few bars, the volume was cut back. And I remember Bruce being elated as the band segued from the song China Cat Sunflower to I Know You Rider … just as they had done on the excellent Europe ’72 triple live album. But honestly, I didn’t know most of the songs in the first place, and, after 30 years, most of the concert blurs into something of a haze. I do remember a great game of Frisbee we played up at the back of the lawn during the concert. This being summer in St. Louis, what can start out as a beautiful evening can turn nasty, and before long storm clouds started rolling toward Edwardsville. We went back to our blanket to watch more of the show, and soon we could see lightning in those clouds. Bruce’s favorite memory of the concert — which I can only vaguely remember now — is that during the band’s lengthy drum solo, the drummers were taking turns playing off the thunder and lightning.

Well, before long, the storm was on, and we were caught on the lawn in a drenching downpour. We tried holding the blanket over our heads, but as you can probably imagine, that worked about as well as rowing a boat with a  feather.

We were soaked. But the stage was covered, and the band played on. And all around us on the lawn, everyone else was just as wet as we were, but everyone was having a great time. It was the most unique concert experience I’ve ever had.

Here is the setlist. And here, since the Dead were pioneers in allowing fans to tape their concerts and trade shows, is the actual concert, if you’re interested in downloading it. (Here and here are two more versions from the same source, I’ll let you decide which is better.)

After the final strains of One More Saturday Night (and it was, in fact, a Saturday night), everyone started the long slosh through the mud back to the parking lots. Except that the parking lots were quagmires as well. Lots of tires were spinning in lots of mud puddles. Grateful Dead fans are by nature mellow and friendly, and everyone was helping everyone else get their cars unstuck. We must have pushed at least a dozen cars out  before we decided we needed to think about making our own escape. All I remember is that the parking lot was shaped like a huge bowl, with sloped hills around the outside. The bottom of the bowl was a lake of mud, so we somehow got the station wagon on one of those hills, and with Bruce, Kurt and Webster pushing, I was somehow able to keep it up out of the really messy stuff, and we slipped and slid our way out of there.

We stopped at a Denny’s somewhere in North St. Louis County for something eat on the way home. We were all covered head to foot with mud, but for some reason they served us, and it was a great way to end an absolutely incomparable night.

Scorcher Four – Part 2

Note: this is the second part of a two-part series; part one is here.

It was raining when I left the house. By the time the race started, the sun was out. The perfect St. Louis recipe for … humidity!

But no one ever said the weather conditions for today’s Scorcher Four race in U.City would be ideal. It’s in St. Louis in mid-August, after all, and the “Scorcher” name was well-chosen by the race’s sponsors, Ghisallo Running.

I had everything pretty well planned out for this race, but the one thing I failed to set up was my music plan. I should have stuck a CD in the car of appropriate songs — something by The Who would have been nice — but I completely forgot, and was stuck with the radio. The last song I heard before arriving at Ghisallo was “Bad Company” — not exactly ideal music to have going through your head while trying to run a race.

After a short warmup and a little stretching — my right calf muscle, in particular, has been problematical lately — I was ready for the start. There were a lot of skinny runner-types there, and I could see early on that I wasn’t going to be competing for any prizes today. That’s fine. The starting crowd was a little strange; normally lots of people try to crowd up on the starting line, but most of this group held back, so there was actually a loosely populated gap for about 15 feet behind the “elites” at the line and the bulk of the runners. I placed myself in that gap, and when the horn blew started off at what I thought would be a comfortable pace.

The course was slightly downhill for the first quarter mile or so, and then there were some little up-and-downs until the one-mile mark, which was at the base of a short but steep hill. My split for that first mile was a very encouraging 6:38, but as we headed up the hill to start Mile 2, I knew that wouldn’t be repeated.

I used to love hills. I live in a fairly hilly area, and I would always attack the hills when I’d run. When I’d get in races, I’d consistently pass people on the uphills. Inevitably, they would pass me back on the downhills, because I never really stressed that aspect, but I’d always blow everyone else away uphill.

No more, though. The hills today were killing me just as much as everybody else.

“Bad company, ’til the day I die…” It’s a mediocre song to begin with, made unseemly by the fact that the band named the song after itself, or named itself after the band, whatever. Anyway, it’s never been on my list of high-energy running songs. I tried to get myself thinking of the song “Gettin’ in Tune” from Who’s Next; also not a high-energy song, but good enough. It worked for a while — that’s a pretty easy song to shift to, if you ever find yourself in that situation — but before long the hills were driving any thoughts of music out of my head anyway.

Mile 2 was much slower: 7:17. No surprise, considering it was net uphill mile by a wide margin. There was a very welcome water stop about halfway through, immediately followed by the longest hill of the race, up Delmar Blvd. By the third mile, it was just a game of survival: how could I make it to the finish without melting into the pavement? That Mile 3 split was 7:11, and should have been faster, considering it was slightly downhill.

At three miles, there was a feeling of relief, both that the race was nearly over, and from my memory of a year ago that it was mostly downhill from there. The field was pretty spread out by then, of course, and I was just trying to hold my own with the few people running near me. Up ahead I could see Charles K., who for many years has been the closest thing to a “rival” I’ve had in local running races. For a while we were so evenly matched that our names would almost always end up right next to each other in race result lists. These days, though, he’s comfortably ahead of me; I could see him up ahead for most of the race, but there’s a difference between seeing and catching.

Down a hill and a turn onto the “homestretch.” That last section was slightly uphill, but by then it didn’t really matter much. I didn’t really have a goal going into this race, but it now looked like I had a real shot at finishing under 28 minutes. I picked up the pace as much as I could — not really “sprinting,” but just a faster, steady pace — and rolled across the line in 27:58. Compared with last year’s 31 minutes-plus, it was a huge improvement — that alone is enough for me to consider it a successful race. I felt pretty good afterward, although drenched in sweat.

After a short cooldown run, I happened to run into Al B., a friend of my brother’s and with whom I’ve run a few races over the last year. Al completed the Lake Zurich Ironman Triathlon a few weeks ago, and we chatted about our summers and our future plans, but not much about the day’s race. Shortly after that, I took off and headed for home, not wanting to hang around for the awards ceremony.

But not long after I got here, there was a Facebook message from Al — we had both won awards in our age group. Cool! Now I know that age-group trophies for these races aren’t a big deal, but it certainly does feel good to win one once in a while. That definitely adds to the “success” level of the race for me.

So that’s about it. If you’re really a geek, try out this link: It’s the race profile from my Garmin GPS watch. Not only does it give speed and distance (it measured the race at 4.03 miles; a pretty small margin of error considering the inevitable weaving back and forth in a crowd of runners) but it also gives elevation and even my heart rate throughout. I don’t fully trust the heart-rate information, however; it consistently gives readings that are much higher than they should be for my age; if I hit 198 bpm like this data says, at age 51 I should be, well, dead. But the other info can be fascinating for us geeks. Hit the “Player” button near the upper right, and you can actually see my race played out in sped-up time. Make it full-screen, hit the Go button and watch my little red arrow zip around the course and up and down the hills, all the while with constant readouts of pace, elevation and heart rate. I love my Garmin.

For the rest of you non-geeks, TMI, I know, I know.

Scorcher Four – Part 1

One year ago, I entered the Scorcher Four running race; it was my first race in three or four years after a long layoff due primarily to knee problems.

The Scorcher Four is a four-mile (natch) race that circles through the streets in University City, Mo. It is sponsored by Ghisallo Running, and it starts and finishes in front of their U. City store. Not only does it come during the hottest part of the year, but the course seems to find every single hill in that municipality.

Needless to say, I was apprehensive. Not just because of the hills and the heat and the fact that it was my first race in a while, but I had also really only been running again for about two months. I’d gotten in a few long runs, but my “comeback” was definitely still a work in progress.

I tried to take it easy in the race, but those hills were mean. After about two miles, I was seriously considering talking a walking break. But I forced myself to keep running and I made it to the end, with even a little sprint in the last quarter mile. My time, though, was much slower than I know I could have done when I was in shape (and younger). For the record, it was 31:11, an average of 7:48 per mile.

Well, now I’m in better shape … although certainly no younger. While last year I ran a total of about 50 miles in June and July, this year I ran 185 miles in that same time frame.

The 2010 Scorcher Four is coming up this morning, and once again I’ll be toeing the line. I’ll post here again after the race, and we can see how far I’ve come in the last year.

ETA: For my after-action race report, click here.

Driving A Formula 1 Car

Since May 1970, when my dad took me to the first day of Time Trials for that year’s Indianapolis 500, I’ve been a fan of automobile racing. Back then it was all the American varieties, of course—USAC, NHRA, even NASCAR. I even rooted for Lloyd Ruby at Indy in the 70s, because I was impressed, that first weekend, by the stars-and-stripes paint job on his car.

At some point, though, my allegiance shifted to Formula 1 racing. Perhaps it was seeing the movie Grand Prix, or maybe it was getting access to broadcasts of the races on some new cable television package. Whatever, I know I was an F1 fan by the mid-90s; I still remember exactly where I was when I heard that Ayrton Senna had been killed in an accident.

Nowadays, I soak up all the F1 I can. The Speed TV network does a great job of covering the sport (although they could prioritize it a little more, in my opinion), and my DVR contains all of the F1 races from this season if I ever need a fix.

There’s a lot to like about F1: the exotic locations, the wide variety of tracks around the world, the wildly international roster of drivers, the precision of every aspect of the racing teams’ work on race weekend, etc. But I think the best might be the cars themselves. They are probably the most highly engineered cars in the world, and the teams spend the entire season trying to tweak them to shave thousandths of a second off their lap times. With each new race, some team or another debuts a new wing shape or some other kind of device, and then the other teams evaluate the change and, if it seems to work, try to imitate it in time for the next race.

The acceleration, braking and cornering abilities of the cars are absolutely breathtaking, and the engines operate at up to 18,000 rpm. — that’s the limit under the regulations; the teams would undoubtedly try to go higher if they could.

There’s a great pair of F1 car facts that I love:

1) A Formula 1 car can accelerate from a standing start to 100 mph. AND brake back to zero in a total of less than five seconds.

2) The downforce generated by the aerodynamic features of the F1 car is so great that the car could theoretically drive upside down. (Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to visualize how that one might be tested/demonstrated, but I know it’ll never be done.)

So anyway, I was intrigued when I saw this video yesterday. Every F1 fan would love the opportunity to drive one of the cars, for just a little while. The editor of got the chance, and treats the opportunity with all of the reverence it deserves.

Note: the video linked on this page is more than 10 minutes long. They start him out in some lesser cars — Formula 2 or Formula 3, I think — and work their way up to the F1 car.