October 25, 2009

The Tale of Two Trails

The Allerton Trail Race was this morning. As you may recall, I've been scouting the course the past two weekends.

On the 11th the course was flooded pretty badly in four places. Everywhere else the trail was muddy, but runnable. The water came right up to the edge of the trail.

On the 18th the water was a couple feet lower and there was no real flooding.

On the 25th (race day) the right height was, well, this chart speaks for itself.

Sangamon River height

The water was 3.5 feet higher than it was when there was serious flooding. Half the trail was literally under water. Fortunately, the race organizers changed the course to keep this a running race rather than a swimming race. The new course used some parts of the old trail, but added a few new parts that have never been used before.

Despite my best intentions of starting out easy, I started out fast. I quickly settled into 10th place before the end of the first mile. We crossed the big meadow where the finish line is located, but we were just getting started. The big rolling hills slowed me down, but they slowed everyone else down too. We ran back into the woods towards the minotaur before heading down a large set of stairs, only to immediately turn around and run right back up them.

A short distance later we hit water. This wasn't a crossing, it was knee deep standing water on the trail. For 200 meters. I leaped through it only to find the trail very uneven and root-covered under the water (where I couldn't see it). After a couple hundred meters the people in front of me finally decided it was better to run through moderately dense brush beside the trail than to brave the water any longer. I followed suit, as I'm sure did everyone behind.

With the frigid water behind my wet calves were now numb and I was running even slower. As we approached the Sun Singer I noticed the leader was heading back down the trail towards me, having already circumnavigated the Sun Singer. I thought this was peculiar because some of the race volunteers informed me that the new route included a half mile section of road... but the only road around was straight ahead (i.e. not the direction the leader was running). This meant one of two things, either my good friends gave me incorrect information, or the leader was off the course. Ugh.

As I reached the Sun Singer I witnessed a bit of chaos. A few people had run all the way around it and were now wondering where to go. The volunteers did not know. When I got half way around I noticed painted arrows on the road indicating a turn which none of the first 5-6 runners took. I was in a group of 4 who all made that turn.

Further chaos ensued about a half mile later when the 3 new leaders (who were not the original 3 leaders) continued down the road past another painted arrow on the road indicating a turn. Again, the group of 4 I was in made the turn. Suddenly I was in the lead pack. One of the runners from the lead pack (who had been off the course twice at this point) turned around and quickly caught up to us, while the others disappeared.

Here's a (time-accurate) comparison of my 2008 (red) vs. 2009 (blue) Allerton trail race. Something funky happened with my GPS in the last half mile of the 2009 race. I didn't cut the course, I swear!

I finished the race reasonably well. I almost caught up to the guy I had been chasing (10 meters behind) since the half mile mark. I barely edged out (by split second) a challenger from behind. I finished 5th place. I probably deserved 10th.

I have mixed feelings about the results. On the one hand, from the sportsmanship point of view, other racers deserved to finish ahead of me. On the other hand, trail racing is not like track or road racing. You really have to pay attention to the course markings. All of the turns the lead runners missed were marked. Granted, the course was new and nobody had run it before.

I won a hat for finishing 2nd in my age group. Fig seemed to like it.

Fig's new hat

October 19, 2009

The iPhone App


You may recall that I was slightly busy from shortly before Will was born until early October. Well, my big project was finally released yesterday. The Wolfram|Alpha iPhone application is now available in the iTunes app store.

The app has generated quite a lot of buzz over the past 24 hours, mostly because the price is significantly greater than the vast majority of iPhone applications. While I was intimately involved in the development of the application, I am completely in the dark about the business and marketing side of the product. On the bright side, most of the reviews speak relatively highly of the app itself, even though many are quite critical of the price.

Since I work primarily on Mathematica, I've been fairly uninvolved with the Wolfram|Alpha project prior to this iPhone app. I'm still not an expert on innards of Wolfram|Alpha but I do understand the big picture a little better than I did before.


If you've never used Wolfram|Alpha before, go ahead and give it a try on the website. It's kind of hard to describe what it does, simply because it's not like any other application you've ever used before. Despite certain visual similarities to web search engines like Google or Yahoo, Wolfram|Alpha is not a search engine. It doesn't find web pages that might be related to your query, it computes factual answers to your query (except when it doesn't).

Typically this means your query must be constructed in a slightly different way (perhaps using slightly different language) than you would use for a search engine. It's worth taking the time to experiment to see what works and what doesn't work. Perhaps my best description of Wolfram|Alpha is that it is a combination of a calculator and an encyclopedia.

The iPhone app features optimized input and output for the interesting and useful Wolfram|Alpha computation engine.

W|A knows all sorts of interesting facts. For instance, Robert was a more popular given name than William in the U.S. for most of the 20th century (though William recently overtook Robert... a sign of things to come?).

The app provides a number of ways to share the interesting results you find. Click the "share" button in the upper-right corner, or press and hold on a result.

The app also has numerous built-in examples to help you get started.

It also contains a complete history of all your queries.

Many of the computations have parameters that can be fine tuned for more precise results.

So there you have it. The app was a lot of fun to write, even if the release schedule was a bit hectic. The next version should be even better.

Late night coding

October 18, 2009

The Autumn at Allerton Park

Allerton Park entrance in autumn
Entering Allerton Park

The changing leaves means the Allerton Trail Run is coming up. This is one of my favorite races for a variety of reasons. I love the trail. The race is a good distance for me. The weather is cooling down, and my running thrives in cool weather. The race falls right before, after, or (like last year) on my birthday. You may recall I ran 30 miles at Allerton last year in celebration of my 30th birthday.

I like to get in a few loops on the trail in the weeks leading up to the race to re-familiarize myself with it, so the last two Sundays I've run at Allerton. Last week the Sangamon river was so high that parts of the trail were waist deep under water. I walked around three of these places and splashed through one other. I was expecting it to be ankle deep, but it was knee deep. That was a wet surprise in 39˚ weather.

Allerton north trail

Fortunately, this week the river was four or five feet lower and no parts of the trail were under water. Hopefully, it won't rain to much this week and the course will remain fast for the race next week.

After my run today I took a little time to snap some photos. For most of them I used bracketed exposures. For each photo I actually took three photos: one with normal exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed. The underexposed photo picks up details in the bright areas of the photo (e.g. the sky) and the overexposed image picks up details in the dark areas (e.g. shadows).

Once back home I combined each set of three images into a single high dynamic range photo and adjusted the levels so both the lights and the darks are visible in same image. If combined well HDR images look spectacularly vibrant and detailed. If combined poorly HDR images look very unnatural and washed out. I'm still pretty new to HDR so I may not of done a great job, but most of them look pretty decent I think.

Fu Dog Garden
Fu Dog garden

Fu Dog Garden
Fu Dogs

House of the Golden Buddhas
House of the Golden Buddhas

Near Allerton Park
Leaving Allerton Park

October 3, 2009

The End of September

If I look tired, it's because I am

Between the baby and work, I've been utterly exhausted. Hopefully the work-related busyness will ease up before the end of this week when I finish up with the big project from the last two months.

Photo of the Day

"September 2009 Photo of the Day"


Well, I've been running a couple times per week, usually pretty fast. I feel like I'm definitely getting back into shape, despite the fact that my fun run times have been slightly slower each week.


MonthDistance# WorkoutsAvg per Workout
January109.34 Mile1010.934 Mile
February55.83 Mile77.97571 Mile
March108.792 Mile1010.8792 Mile
April74.85 Mile89.35625 Mile
May64.5669 Mile97.1741 Mile
June7. Mile17. Mile
August16.3 Mile53.26 Mile
September39.78 Mile75.68286 Mile
Total476.458 Mile578.35892 Mile


I've been doing roughly one ride per week. It's been too hectic to get out any more than that. I had a fun ride up in Chicago last week with the XXX Racing team.

September 2009

BikeDistance# RidesAvg per Ride
Bianchi33.15 Mile93.68333 Mile
Pocket Rocket73.96 Mile89.245 Mile
Thundercougarfalconbird180. Mile445. Mile
Total287.11 Mile2113.6719 Mile

January - September 2009

BikeDistance# RidesAvg per Ride
Bianchi500.65 Mile1124.47009 Mile
Big Red12.07 Mile43.0175 Mile
El Fuego54.42 Mile77.77429 Mile
Pocket Rocket280.93 Mile397.20333 Mile
Thundercougarfalconbird1638.2 Mile3942.0051 Mile
Total2486.27 Mile20112.3695 Mile


Will loves walking, so I've been doing quite a bit of that, more so earlier in the month.

A quiet moment

MonthDistance# WorkoutsAvg per Workout
February3.75 Mile21.875 Mile
April8.51 Mile42.1275 Mile
May6.7 Mile41.675 Mile
June11. Mile33.66667 Mile
July29.52 Mile102.952 Mile
August35.02 Mile142.50143 Mile
September29.82 Mile122.485 Mile
Total124.82 Mile502.4964 Mile