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6 Training Tips to Steal From Boston Marathoners

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Today marks the 121st Boston Marathon and this morning, thousands of runners will toe the start line of the 26.2-miler, the oldest annual marathon in the world. The race is known for its history but also its challenging course: It starts with several fast downhill miles—so people tend to begin too fast and find themselves tired and with aching quads by the time they hit a series of notoriously tough hills late in the course.

To race Boston takes not only hours and hours of long runs and speed work in prep but also strategic training for strong legs and good pacing. Read on for lessons learned from training for the Boston course—and tips about how you can use them to be a better runner yourself, whether or not you'll ever hoof it up Heartbreak Hill.

1. RUN IN THE RAIN. 

Getting wet while you work out sound less than pleasant? Get used to it. "Race day in Boston often presents runners with imperfect weather, like rain and cold," says Michael Meliniotis, a coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City, and an age group runner who has finished 13 marathons (including three in Boston). "To manage those conditions, you need to experience them first." That means if you have a outdoor run planned and it starts raining, don't take your miles to the treadmill; make yourself jog in bad weather now and when you encounter rain or sleet or snow later, it won't seem like such a big deal. To keep from slipping, shorten your stride a bit. And to make it a little more comfortable, make sure to wear a waterproof running jacket and hat, suggests Ali Baldassare, a Precision Running coach at Equinox in Boston. "Staying as dry as possible will reduce your chance of chafing or getting blisters, and it helps keep your core body temperature warm," she says.

2. DON'T GIVE IN TO THE WIND.

Along with occasional showers, Boston runners are also often hit with heavy spring winds. "Depending on how strong and persistent the wind is, it can sometimes feel like you're getting punched in the stomach or slapped in the face over and over again," says Baldassare. It takes a lot more effort to run into the wind than when there's no breeze, so she recommends maintaining a consistent effort level and not paying attention to your pace. And help yourself out a bit by wearing form-fitting clothing, she says: It'll cut down on some of the resistance.

Wind at your back? That can give you an awesome boost, but there's a lesson to learn with a tailwind too, says Meliniotis. Take note that it's helping you run a little faster, and if the breeze stops, don't try to keep up the same pace, he advises—as you could end up raising your effort level too much and zapping your energy too soon.

3. DON'T GO OUT TOO FAST.

Competitors in any road race tend to start speedier than they planned to because of adrenaline and the excitement of the starting line—but it's even easier to begin too fast in Boston because the first four miles are a steady descent. Keeping your pace on track is both a science and a feeling. Wear a Garmin or other watch with GPS and check in on your speed every mile or two, then adjust your pace if you need to. However, Baldassare recommends not keeping your eyes glued to your wrist but paying attention to your breath and how your body feels to judge your effort. "During a race, your target pace might feel ‘easy’ because your adrenaline has kicked in and you settle into your groove. The mistake happens when you're feeling good and you think you can do more, or run faster. Don't. Hold back and save it for when you're going to need it the most—the last few miles of your race."

4. STRENGTHEN YOUR LEGS

The early downhill section of Boston may seem like a breeze, but it actually gives legs a beating, especially your quads. In addition to practicing running downhill often, doing leg exercises like lunges can prep your quads to better handle the impact. "Strength training is crucial and such an integral part to any good running program, especially when it comes to hill running," says Baldassare. Also, focus on engaging your abs and glutes to take some of the impact off your quads and spare them from some soreness later, suggests Meliniotis. It can also help to take quick, light steps on the downhill and make sure you're not over-striding, he says; to do so, pay attention to where your feet go and try to make sure they're always landing directly under your body.

5. RUN HILLS THE RIGHT WAY

After the initial decline on the Boston course, runners hit a set of rolling hills. Your approach should vary depending on whether you're heading up or down, says Baldassare. On the uphill, she recommends leaning into the incline from your ankles and to move your arms more. "Pumping your arms parallel to your body revs up your energy," she says. Then when you crest the hill, don't put on the brakes! "Too often I see runners go into recovery mode down a hill," says Meliniotis. "Downhills are not recovery, they're an opportunity. Think about it as a roller coaster and you're gaining momentum." As far as form goes, continue to lean forward slightly so you don't land on your heels, which can hurt your knees.

6. SAVE SOME ENERGY FOR THE END OF YOUR RUN

Probably the most well known feature of the Boston course (besides the pumped-up cheer section in Wellesley) are the Newton Hills, including the infamous, dreaded Heartbreak Hill. They're fairly tough on their own but can feel downright torturous if your quads are already aching from the first two-thirds of the race. The secret of powering up tough terrain late in the game: Run some hill repeats at the end of your workouts. "It'll train your body how to efficiently use energy later on, when you're tired," says Baldassare. “The more your legs become accustomed to the energy demands of your running, the better they’ll be able to adapt and perform.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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