The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Feb 2012

The SufferFest: Winter Training Gets (a little more) Interesting

Riding the trainer sucks. It's about as mindless as Fox News and as excruciating as a trip to the oral surgeon. But unless you're a Cancellara doppelgänger who thrives in the cold and wet or a cycling snowbird who winters in Arizona, time on a spin bike or rollers is an evil necessity for a good racing season. Like a nightly visit to Fight Club, you plug in your workout, take your lumps, and (hopefully) get stronger.

TheSufferFestIn full suffer mode.

In the past few months I've discovered a way to get through the trainer torture. The SufferFest, a series of short, brutal training videos, makes the winter sessions if not fun, at least tolerable. The Singapore-based upstart offers 10 videos that target specific attributes, from pyramids of short intervals that build max power to long threshold sessions. Visuals are a mix of race footage from the world's biggest events (Paris-Roubaix, World Championships) and helmet cam rides through bucolic mountain settings (mostly for the recovery). There are visual directives (including a cadence and perceived exertion commands), audio queues (a gunshot for an attack, screeching brakes when you can relax), and a thumping soundtrack of rock, punk, and techno. It all adds up to good, hard, fast motivation that never failed to get me going, even on the evenings where the only training I had in mind was Bourbon-related liver strengthening.

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Athlete Playlist: Climber Sasha DiGiulian

In the space of one climb last fall, Sasha DiGiulian went from being a moderately successful comp climber to the most acclaimed woman on rock today. In October, the 19 year old from Virginia redpointed Pure Imagination—a 5.14d, 80-foot, heinously overhanging line of sharp crimps and pockets in Kentucky's Red River Gorge. The climbing media took notice, and within two months, she had landed on the covers of magazines in the U.S., Spain, Japan, and France.  DiGiulian had a banner year on plastic too, winning the overall gold at the World Championships in Arco, Italy. After a year of traveling and climbing in Europe and North America, DiGiulian will start classes at Columbia University this fall. She also has her sights set on becoming the first woman ever to send 5.15. "I don't think that it's an unrealistic goal in any way," she says. "But I do think it will be another process."

To get psyched up pre-send, DiGiulian listens to the following five songs.

5. Africa (Toto)
"It's such a classic song. It's one of those beats that's mellow, but fast enough to get you psyched to do something. You can play it anytime: leading to a competition, or after, when you're just hanging out."

4. Young, Wild and Free (Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, feat. Bruno Mars)
"I definitely experienced my fair share of media backlash this year—'Oh, Sasha is really thin, I wonder if Sasha eats.' Stupid stuff. I think that when I first saw that, I got a little self-conscious.  But I'm just living my life, Young, Wild and Free, and doing what I love to do, which is mainly climbing. With the negative stuff, there's a whole bunch of positive stuff out there."

3. The Edge of Glory (Lady Gaga)
"It's like you're on the edge of doing something really magnificent. I think that's a lot of why I like it. It just pumps you up to go do something cool."

2. Perfect Day
(Hoku)
"That's from Legally Blonde. I'm not gonna lie, that's one of my favorite movies. It's one of those songs where when you're driving down the highway you're gonna turn your music up to the maximum and jam out to it."

1. Like A G6
(Far East Movement)
"I have no idea. Wait, let me ask my friends. (In background: Do you guys know what a G6 is?). It's an airplane. Like, a huge airplane. I guess it has to do with popping bottles on an airplane?"


Download the full, uncut playlist on iTunes

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The House I Live In

In the past decade, Eugene Jarecki has directed documentaries on Henry Kissinger (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), Ronald Reagan (Reagan) and the military-industrial complex (Why We Fight). At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, he premiered his latest film, The House I Live In, an in-depth examination of the nation’s war on drugs. Jarecki traces the roots of the war to Richard Nixon’s famous declaration in 1971, and then illustrates how the battle has become an ineffective enterprise and an unexamined method of suppressing the poor. Jarecki sat down with Outside to discuss the film, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries.

Why did you want to make this film?
There are people I knew, in particular African-Americans, who were suffering from what seemed a surprising kind of aftershock of the Civil Rights movement. There was one family I was particularly close to, the matriarch was Nannie Jeter. They, and I, all thought we were all on a post-Civil Rights path where we would kind of share in the same American promise. Instead, as I met privilege and possibilities, they met a lot of struggle. Over time this has stayed with me a lot. It’s been a theme in my life: What happened to the Jeter family? When I asked Nannie what she thought went wrong, she said she thought it was drugs, that the primary enemy that had attacked her loved ones was drugs. And then of course I wondered why had that happened to them and not my family, and why did it seem to be happening to a lot of African-American families? That led me to ask further questions of experts in the field of addiction, and also society and law. What’s going on here? They all looked at me like the inquiry about drugs was only half the story. Drugs were a problem for people, but as David Simon says in the film, whatever drugs hadn’t destroyed, the war against them has.

How hard was it to find critics of the war on drugs?
As I started to go around the country, I couldn’t find anyone who would defend this war. It has cost over a trillion dollars, there have been over 44 million arrests. It has made us the world’s largest jailer—2.3 million people in prison. That’s more in absolute numbers than any country in the world, including totalitarian countries. We incarcerate a far higher percentage of our own people—not just in absolute but in relative numbers—than any other country, including China. China has about 2.3 million people in jail but they have a population of about 1.5 billion people. We have 2.3 million of just 280 million, so about 1 percent of our population is in jail. This is China, which Americans sort of single out as the country of disregard for human dignity. So that’s startling. You look at all those figures, you can’t get anyone in their right mind to defend a system that has failed in every way to reduce demand, reduce supply. More Americans use drugs than before, so it’s failing on every level and costing a fortune.

You bring up the fact that Nixon initially approached the war on drugs by spending lots of money on treatment, not law enforcement.
Despite his war-like rhetoric, behind the scenes he was spending two-thirds of his money on treatment, not on law enforcement. So he knew, and yet he was willing to play the political game of using tough-on-crime rhetoric to get elected. His success in doing that formed a mold that politicians have followed ever since.

At one point you ask what originally made drugs such a perceived danger, and you trace it back to the illegalization of opium as a way to criminalize the Chinese in the 1800s.
I learned that from [historian] Richard Miller, who was in the film. What we did with the Chinese with opium was so very similar to what we did with crack cocaine. Because in America in the 1860s—the analogy is amazing—the number one user of opium was a middle-aged white woman. In this country, the number one user of crack is a white person. And yet the white woman didn’t go to jail and the white people don’t go to jail today. Instead we put the Chinese away, and we put the Chinese away in a very similar way to the way we put black Americans away. The Chinese got put away because we made one way of taking opium illegal. In the contemporary context, we did the same thing with crack. Crack is a form of cocaine and is actually the same chemically as cocaine—you’re just taking it in a different way because it’s cooked with baking soda and water. They made opium illegal but not all opium. They only made smoking opium illegal because that was what’s called the delivery mechanism that the Chinese used. So both with crack and opium, the laws that have been passed were laws passed against a particular delivery mechanism. The drug itself is of varying legality and illegality determined quite arbitrarily by those in power, and I find that parallel very haunting.

You make the point that many of the drug users and dealers, who tend to get the blame in the war on drugs, are actually acting rationally within a system that is irrational.
How many American wars can we describe that really are rational? And the drug war is simply our longest war, which represents our greatest and longest departure from reason. To have thought you could declare war on a chemical or series of chemicals and not know implicitly that you’re really declaring war on the users of those chemicals, now you have war against a large section of your own people.

Do you think “war on drugs” should be banned as a slogan?
The Obama administration has abandoned it. The director of National Drug Control Policy, who’s also known as the drug czar, doesn’t call himself a drug czar and doesn’t call it a war on drugs. That’s commendable, but it’s kind of window dressing if the policies stay the same. And the Obama administration has not paired its abandonment of the term war on drugs with meaningful policy reform.

You shot this film in more than 20 states. Is that the most legwork you’ve put into producing a movie?
In terms of geography, I’ve never traveled as far and wide. I didn’t wanna leave any stone unturned. I didn’t want someone to watch the movie and say, you know, that’s true on the east coast, but it’s really different down here in Oklahoma. Or that’s true in Oklahoma, but in California we do things really differently. So I wanted to make sure that I had enough places that if you heard a cop in Providence share his reservation about the war on drugs, you could go down to New Mexico and find a cop there saying the same thing, and in Seattle. What you find is a tremendous amount of overlap. You get a judge in Sioux City, Iowa, saying precisely the same things that a perp sitting in a Vermont jail told me. They agree about the unfairness of the law. The judge feels bad that he’s giving a sentence that he doesn’t agree with because his hands are tied by what are called mandatory minimum sentences, and the perp is sitting there about to spend a tremendous amount of his life behind bars because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. 

What are some of the reactions you’ve had to the film so far?
I think people are shocked. People feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the human cost that’s involved, and they wonder what they can do about it. The next time a politician comes around and says vote for me because I’m gonna put away all the bad guys, they’re gonna be able to say that person is simply pandering to me for my vote.

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The Atomic States of America

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, The Atomic States of America casts a timely inquiry into the viability of nuclear energy, a technology with enticing advantages but horrific fallout consequences.

Directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce trace the modern nuclear renaissance to the “peaceful atom” campaign, launched by the U.S. government soon after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ads and PSAs touted nuclear energy as a constructive technology—the way of the future—as Americans welcomed facilities into their backyards. An energy source that emits no greenhouse gases, infuses local economies with jobs and decreases dependence on foreign oil? Hell, yes.

Joyce and Argott carefully consider the flip side as they visit communities that have been rocked by nuclear leakage and hit with inordinately high rates of cancer. They point to a series of cover-ups at nuclear facilities where evidence of leakage and meltdowns have been found. They question whether the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission imposes strong enough safety standards on facilities such as Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York, which lies on two fault lines.

The testimony from victims is emotionally compelling, but Atomic States is ultimately driven by evidence—enough, surely, to urge nuclear proponents to consider whether the potential consequences outweigh the benefits. Or as one activist explains, “We haven’t reached the point where humans can responsibly split atoms.”

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a climate change doomsday tale like no other climate-change doomsday tale—think Where the Wild Things Are meets The Road with an environmental twist. The terrifically unpredictable film evokes a visceral concern for what lies in wait when ecological disaster strikes. It then asks how one is supposed to come to grips with the notion of impending catastrophe. The answer is: celebrate the hell out of what you have right now.

The movie centers on an impoverished but wildly spirited community in a fictional Louisiana bayou called The Bathtub. Early on, a schoolteacher ominously instructs her kids that climate change is transforming the ecology of their community. “Y’all better learn how to survive now,” she warns. To ratchet up the looming threat, scenes of life in the bayou are interspersed with surreal cutaways to a pack of pre-historic aurochs that, once frozen in glaciers, have now been loosed from the melt. Throughout the film, the ferocious beasts stampede closer to the bayou, a metaphor for approaching disaster.

When the storm finally hits, it floods The Bathtub’s ramshackle homes, transforming lowlands into murky rivers and wiping out the animals and plants once relied on for food. Rather than despair, the Bathtub’s steely citizens drink and laugh and feast on the grub that remains. The two main characters—6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her mercurial father, Wink (Dwight Henry)—will not be fazed. They troll the water for catfish, which they hunt by hand. Wink tries to drain the bayou by blowing a hole in the levee. “I got it under control,” he roars. Well, he doesn’t, exactly—he’s actually dying—but that doesn’t make his attitude moot.

In press notes for the film, director Benh Zeitlin writes, “With the hurricanes, the oil spills, the land decaying out from under our feet, there’s a sense of inevitability that one day it’s all going to get wiped off the map. I wanted to make a movie exploring how we should respond to such a death sentence.” If you haven’t already gathered, this is not a pragmatic exploration of ways to avert said death sentence—for those answers, try a documentary. Instead, Beasts offers a much more esoteric take on climate change, and it’s well worth a watch when it comes to a theater near you.

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