20 blustery, cold, hilly, horrible, wonderful miles

Earlier today Melissa and I completed our first 20 mile training run in preparation for Big Sur Marathon in April. We have three more to go. Ugh.

As much as I love Umstead State Park – and it is without debate one of the things that makes living in the Raleigh area so special – today it inspired angst, loathing, and at points late in the run, silent but sincere wishes to be smitten by a meteorite. Lucky damned Russians.

It all started innocently enough. Last week we completed an 18 miler at the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) in the Cary/Durham area. This is a “rails to trails” path – formerly a railroad track, which has been converted into running and biking trails. As such, it is wonderfully, seductively flat. We ran with our friends Martin, Andre and Joanie, and between the flat course and the conversation of friends, the run seemed to fly by. We finished feeling pretty good and began to feel a sense of confidence about our 20 miler for this weekend. ATT had lulled us into a false sense of security.

We had a good week of workouts leading up to today’s run and woke this morning feeling cautiously optimistic. It would be cold – in the 30’s – but sunny and beautiful at least. We ate well this morning, dressed warmly and made our way to the Old Reedy Creek parking area in the Southwest corner of Umstead. From there, we would follow the Reedy Creek Trail to Graylyn trail, then follow the unadvisedly hilly Turkey Creek loop to the Southeast park exit, where we would run alongside Reedy Creek Road, crossing Edwards Mill and over onto the N.C. Museum of Art complex. Here we would turn around and head back into the park, following the Reedy Creek trail all the way back to Old Reedy Creek entrance and our car. (I realized as I typed that paragraph that the planners of the park and the folks who named the roads around it must have been possessed by a zeal for Reedy Creek that bordered on the fanatical).

We started the run at around noon, and as with all long runs, the first miles went by nearly effortlessly. We quickly settled into a comfortable pace and chatted intermittently, but were mostly lost in our own thoughts. Yesterday’s snow, though mostly melted, left traces of white beyond the tree line which gave subtle texture and depth to what is ordinarily a canvas of brown sameness this time of year, and it made for a welcome diversion as we cast appreciative, sidelong glances while plunging along. (Any diversion is a welcome diversion during a 20 mile run).

Friend sightings and the hills of Albatross (er, Turkey) Creek

As we made our way toward the five-mile mark, still feeling good and enjoying the fleeting downhill portion of Turkey Creek, we ran into our friends Lori, Sandra and Lonnie. They were on mountain bikes and we stopped to chat for a few minutes – another welcome diversion. After parting ways, we each took a gel, which provided an instant boost in energy, and we took off again. Lori was our roommate during the Ironman France trip in Nice last summer and happy thoughts of that trip carried us along the next few miles.

One hill led to another – an endless corridor of gnarled, winter-dead trees and hills. This is Umstead. But the sun was high, it was a gorgeous day, and we still felt strong. On we went.

By around mile nine, we exited the park and headed toward the museum. We could feel the wind on our backs and though this pushed us along nicely, we knew there would be hell to pay once we made the turn. Mile ten passed by – halfway home – mile eleven, then twelve, then the much-anticipated turn to head back to the car.

Lunatic Wind

As soon as we made the turn we were greeted by a rude blast of wind that traveled up loose shirttails and down collars, causing us to have to literally lean into the wind to keep our forward progress. We had three miles to go until we were back in the relative comfort and protection of that corridor of trees. Just when we thought the wind had died down, we’d take another body blow of icy gusts. It was wearing on us and taking all joy out of the run. We didn’t talk much during this stretch, other than the occasional expletive deleted which rose and fell in direct correlation to the gusts of wind.

Finally, back in the park at mile 15 – only five miles to go! But the wind and the miles had taken their toll – especially on me. I could feel the distinct presence of “the wall”, as if it were stalking me like some brooding, stealthy predator in the shadows, and I knew from experience that it was bound to appear within the next couple of miles. When I couldn’t stomach a gel at mile 16, I knew I was in trouble.

And so we more or less shuffled along, keeping a sub ten minute pace – not great by competitive standards, but about what we wanted to do – and we started breaking the remaining run down by the mile. Four miles to go – three – two, etc. Getting through these long runs and, by extension, the races themselves, is all about blocking out how many miles you actually have to go and focusing instead on incremental goals – getting to the next mile or the next aid station – or sometimes when it gets bad, just getting to that pine tree 100 yards up the trail. You have to compartmentalize, all the while telling yourself little lies of omission.

Getting ugly

By mile 18, I was blowing up. Every muscle and tendon and ligament in my legs were screaming protests and threatening boycott. I was hurting, slightly queasy and had slowed my pace dramatically. Melissa was still plugging away admirably and, though hurting as well, was faring slightly better. She would run ahead 200 yards or so, then wait for me to drag my carcass even with her, then take off again. My shuffle by mile 19 resembled Tim Conway’s “old man” character on the old Carol Burnett show. It was sad. Melissa, to her immense credit, stayed positive, chipper and encouraging even through her own pain.

Finally, the blessed sight of our car at mile 20, which caused my eyes to smart with tears of gratitude. With stiff, frozen fingers I grappled with the key and managed to unlock the door. We collapsed inside, totally spent, and sat there for a good ten minutes, letting the car warm and collecting ourselves before the short drive home.

Three more of those 20 milers to go. Bad as it was though, I know by tomorrow the pain will be a distant memory and we’ll be focused again on the fun to be had on our trip to the West Coast in April. I guess some people actually take vacations without doing races. We haven’t quite figured that out yet. Who am I kidding – we probably never will. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Last long training run

There are some days during the course of preparing for an Ironman that you just don’t feel like training. Yesterday was one of those days for Melissa and I. It was the long run day for our training week – a scheduled 12 miler – the last long training run of our Ironman France preparation before going into taper next week. The minute I walked through the door after work yesterday, I could tell Melissa was feeling the same way I was – in a word, lazy. Neither one of us wanting to be the one to bring up skipping a long run though, we sluggishly changed into our running clothes and prepared for the workout. We had decided, for a change of pace, to run at Umstead State Park rather than our typical route starting from home, around the Raleigh’s Crabtree Creek Greenway.

Good ole’ Umstead

Umstead had been the sight for most of our night-time winter runs earlier in our training, back in December and January when 6pm start times were well after dark. We did those runs, slipping surreptitiously into a closed Umstead, joined at times by a handful of other scofflaws,   nocturnal runners and mountain bikers, and ran from start to finish with the aid of headlamps. Nighttime is different in Umstead, and you get the feeling that you are being watched as you run along the moon-splashed white-sand fire roads. From time to time, a wondering headlamp beam would catch eerie, glowing orbs floating just beyond the tree line – light reflected by the eyes of deer, sometimes as many as five or six, as if standing around the water cooler, discussing things that deer discuss. Sometimes it was foxes or possums, and you knew that once the gates closed, wildlife quickly reclaimed dominion over the park and you were their guest.

Our breathing and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet was the predominant sound, broken only by the occasional rustling of squirrels in fallen autumn leaves – this always sounded too big to be squirrels – because everything sounds like a bear at night in the woods. It was a little creepy the first time or two we did those runs in the dark, but after a while it was just peaceful – our own little nighttime universe. As we ran through corridors of towering, shadowy pines, our paths lit by jumpy headlamp beams and a harvest moon, we felt fortunate, unfailingly happy and energized. Afterward we would reward ourselves by stopping for a Starbucks latte, which we shared on the drive home. As much as we complained about the June timing of the France race, which necessitated heavy training through the cold and dark of winter, our nighttime runs are some of our favorite memories.

And so, our dread of the impending twelve miler was offset somewhat by the novelty of returning to Umstead – this time in broad daylight – to complete our last long run where we had done so many before. We parked at the bridle trail parking lot, near the Glenwood Road entrance, donned our fuel belts with water and gels, did a quick stretch and started out by around 6:15 pm.

Within a half mile we had worked past the inevitable stiffness, settled into a good rhythm – not fast, but steady – and were starting to feel better. Our earlier dread of the run seemed to drain away with our perspiration, evaporating in the pleasantly cool evening air. I had decided to run without a shirt, most assuredly not out of vanity – I rarely even shower without a shirt – but because I knew that after three miles, a shirt would be so sweat-logged and heavy that I’d regret it. This turned out to be a major tactical error, as the horse flies in Umstead seem to be driven to levels of unfathomable fanaticism by the appearance of pasty white back flesh. This I judged from the dozen or so dive-bombing bastards that always seemed to land in a biting frenzy just beyond slapping reach. I was taken aback by the aggressiveness of the little buggers and despite myself, was impressed by the way they would follow me for a hundred yards or more, buzzing my head like bi-planes in the old King Kong movies. They hounded my every step, dodging increasingly frantic slaps as I pirouetted about, arms flailing, trying in vain to swat them. Viewed from afar by animals just beginning their evening stirrings, I must have looked like a real jackass. Melissa, meanwhile, having smartly applied bug spray, ran along unmolested and despite the rolling eyes, was entertained, no doubt, by my struggles.

Almost finished with the run, around the 10.5 mile mark, horse flies in retreat and enjoyment restored, we ran across a baby deer (there must be another name for this besides “baby deer”), who was curled up in a ball as if sleeping. It was tiny, and in the fading light, we didn’t even recognize what it was until we had almost passed it. It was right in the middle of the trail and had not been there when we passed this point on the way out earlier. It did not seem at all phased by us as we stopped and walked closer to examine it, staying absolutely still. We wondered if it was dead from the perfect stillness it maintained, though there were no apparent injuries and its eyes were open. As we got right up next to it, I could see it was breathing, but it continued to remain completely motionless, even as Melissa poured some water for it. We wondered what to do – we had never run across anything like this before. Had it been abandoned? Should I pick it up, make our way back to the car and drive it to a wild animal clinic? (this option was quickly eliminated as I flashed back to the deer scene from the movie “Tommy Boy”). It was now 8:30 and the park closed at 9. Though we were worried about it getting run over by mountain bikes, we hadn’t seen any in quite a while, so we decided to run back to the parking lot where we would inform a park ranger.

About a half mile down the road we ran into a ranger driving in the opposite direction. He had already received a report of the deer and was driving out to check on it. He informed us that often, when the mother goes foraging for food, the baby deer (I really need to figure out the proper word) will lie motionless in that way until the mother returns. It was unusual for them to do so out in the open like that, but still, was nothing to be concerned about. Relieved that Bambi was likely ok, we finished the last mile and arrived back at the car by 8:45 or so. We were nicely tired, yet rejuvenated in spirit as always, by Umstead’s magical qualities. We were happy to have completed our run and proud that we didn’t wimp out when it would have been so easy to have done so earlier.

As happens sometimes, those workouts you dread the most – the ones you teeter on the brink of skipping, when every fiber of your being tells you to blow it off and treat yourself to a little dinner and TV – those are the workouts that turn out to be the best of all. It was a reminder that in Ironman training, as in life, perseverance is key, and that half the battle is just finding the strength to show up.

Three weeks and counting until Nice…

Rediscovering the joy of running, sans iPod

There was a time when I would never have considered running without my iPod. I purchased one back in 2006 after signing up for my very first half marathon, finally succumbing in my typical laggardly fashion to the latest “must have” electronics craze years after everyone I knew. I remember the excitement of putting together those first running playlists, and the thrilling, almost buzz-like surge in adrenaline during training runs when just the right song came surging through those sweat-soaked ear phones. It was entrancing, motivating, and for this neophyte distance runner doing most of his training runs alone, it was a Godsend.

When my first iPod gave up the ghost, circa five minutes after the expiration of it’s warranty period, I quickly purchased another one. I was hooked, and the thought of doing long solo runs without that magic little music box seemed unthinkable. Every time I began to struggle up one of Columbia’s many long hills, AC/DC came to the rescue with “Rock & Roll ain’t Noise Pollution”, or the Beastie Boys came calling with “Sabotage”, or the Bottle Rockets with “Take Me to the Bank”, and I was instantly transformed, energized and back on my game. It was like music doping.

Following that first gasping, near-death experience in the half-marathon, the inevitable happened – I decided to do a full 26.2. As the training runs got progressively longer, my dedication to the iPod only became stronger. During long stretches of my training for the 2007 Myrtle Beach Marathon I was away from home – mostly deployed in post Katrina Biloxi, MS, in my role as a claim team manager. There may be less runner/pedestrian-friendly cities in the world than Biloxi, but I have yet to visit one personally. In all fairness, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was in the midst of a mighty recovery effort following the worst natural disaster in U.S. history – one in which Biloxi was basically “ground zero”, sustaining overwhelming damage, the level of which could not be grasped until seen first hand. So, constructing pleasant ribbons of asphalt trail through leafy greenways was not exactly a high priority. The focus for them was on putting the pieces back together.

As a result of the aforementioned conditions in Biloxi, I spent the last two months prior to the Myrtle Beach 26.2 training on a treadmill. For anyone who has ever attempted a 16 mile run on a treadmill, you know what I mean… it was awful in the most mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly way imaginable. The only thing that made it even remotely tolerable was the iPod.

At this time, the United States Track & Field Federation (USATF) had placed a ban on the use of iPods or other such devices during their sanctioned events – one of which, being the Myrtle Beach race. And so as the race approached, I began to dread having to run that far without my iPod. I had never run more than three or four miles without it, and I wasn’t sure I could keep the demons of fatigue and pain at bay without it there to provide those timely infusions of energy and diversion of thought.

I made it through Myrtle Beach (barely), and following a short recovery period, was thrilled to be reunited with my iPod for the next round of training. I went on like this for several years, putting in countless joyful and mindless miles, happily preparing for other races while likely doing untold amounts of damage to my hearing. Whatever the price, I was a solid iPod loyalist.

Not long after this, I had the good fortune to find a wonderful running partner (and my eventual wife) in Melissa. As we ran together more and more, I used my iPod less and less – only using it during my solo runs, which were – thankfully – becoming quite infrequent. I began to enjoy running without the iPod – not having to worry about keeping yet another gadget charged, not having to put up with the annoying headphone wires, not having to search for new playlist music as the old sets got stale – it was freeing.

Sometime last year, my second iPod finally died and I have yet to replace it. I’ve come to enjoy even my long solo runs free of the wires and loud music. There’s a connectedness that I’ve rediscovered and it’s wonderful. Loud music has been replaced by (I cannot adequately explain to you how nice this is) a welcome silence, broken only by the rhythm of my own breathing, the crush of gravel beneath my feet and the singing of birds. I think more clearly, and whatever problems I might be grappling with pre-run are typically solved by the time I finish.

In 2008, the USATF amended their ban on iPods and now allows the devices in their sanctioned races, unless you are competing for a podium finish (something I have never had the burden of concerning myself with). I think this is a shame. When I returned to Myrtle Beach to run the half marathon this past February, I was taken aback by the ubiquitous nature of the devices. They were everywhere. Part of the charm of distance running is sharing the experience with your fellow runners. This is rendered nearly impossible since the USATF rule change. Hundreds of racers spent 13.1 or 26.2 miles plodding along in their own private little worlds – cut off from their fellow runners and oblivious to most of what was going on around them. As I passed one lady in particular wearing a “50 States” t-shirt, signifying that she had completed marathons in all 50 states, I was intrigued and started to congratulate her, only to be rebuffed by the sight of white ear bud wires. Unreasonably perhaps, this annoyed me. Further, it marked the completion of my iPod journey from non-user, to dedicated loyalist, to dispassionate burn-out, to fervent advocate for iPod-free running.

Sure, my running may not be as fast now – mostly because, post iPod, I’m more apt to stop and read historical markers and I actually listen to my body, pacing myself accordingly, rather than raging through runs hopped up on Angus Young guitar solos. But I’ve rediscovered the true joy of running, which lies in the medicinal nature of it’s simplicity – free of gadgetry and canned motivation. Besides, I just may have earned myself another few years free of hearing aids.

Mooresville, N.C. – the good, the bad and the ugly

As you may have gleaned from the title, I am working in Mooresville, N.C. this week. Mooresville today is basically North Charlotte, but it was once a small town and still retains some of that small town charm. You just have to look for it.

Home to the corporate headquarters of the Lowe’s (hardware) Corporation and widely known as “Race City USA” due to the number of NASCAR teams, drivers and racing technology suppliers located there, Mooresville got its start, like so many early to mid-19th Century towns, when the railroad came through. The site of the town is located on the former site of a plantation owned by John Franklin Moore, who donated land for homesteads as well as a site for cotton weighing scales next to the railroad.

Arriving at the hotel yesterday – “historic” Mooresville was nowhere to be found. As I pulled into the Fairfield Inn situated on a busy commercial corridor, I was disappointed. The Mooresville that greeted me yesterday was an ugly, exhaust-clogged four lane “every town”, with the usual mindless array of Wal-Marts, Applebees’, Home Depots and McDonalds of the world, shoe-horned on either side of Highway 150 alongside half-shuttered strip shopping centers – remnants of the boom times. If pressed to sum it up in one word, “shit-tastic” comes immediately to mind.

I checked into the hotel, settled into my room and glanced forlornly out of my 3rd floor window at the commercial sprawl before me. From the non-descript blandness of my hotel room to the aforementioned clutter on Highway 150, to the very name of the road on which the hotel was situated (Consumer Square Drive – I kid you not), I could have just as easily been in Fargo, N.D., Jacksonville, FL, Amarillo, TX or any of 1,000 other spots on the map. It was a monument to sameness – a bland and damnable testament to the inane consumerism of the ‘90s and early 2000s, when most of this area was built up. My restaurant choices within easy walking distance (note: there is really nothing within easy walking distance of a place like this – it is patently unfriendly to pedestrians), were Applebees, Pizza Hut and some unpromising-looking hibachi place called “Shogun”, or some other such name of equal predictability. As I sat in my room last night watching Kentucky defeat Kansas for the NCAA men’s basketball championship, I resigned myself to a dull week ahead.

Today, having finished work and, needing a place to go for a run, I did a Google search for running routes in Mooresville. I stumbled upon a 5k route that wound through nearby downtown. Dubious, I scribbled the route on a hotel note pad and hit the door.

Leaving behind the sprawl of the highway and driving toward downtown, I realized now that one of the most depressing aspects of “life out by the highway”, is the utter lack of trees. There are trees aplenty in and around downtown Mooresville – stately oaks and comely firs, and they blend beautifully with handsome turn-of-the-century four squares and 1920’s era brick bungalows. I was reminded of the Shandon neighborhood in Columbia, where I have enjoyed so many wonderful runs over the years, and I was immediately anxious to start today’s three miler. I parked on Main Street and my mood was further lifted to see matching rows of century-old buildings – mostly occupied and bustling, lining each side of the street.

The run went by quickly. This is a “recovery” week in our Ironman training – a week when both the mileage and pace of training decreases – and I took the opportunity to lumber along at an enjoyable pace, soaking in the 75 degree weather and discovering the real Mooresville.

D.E. Turner & Co Hardware

After the run, I decided to come back downtown for dinner after showering back at the hotel. I parked back on Main and took a quick stroll through the heart of Mooresville. Unfortunately, D.E. Turner & Co. Hardware store had already closed for the day, but I will definitely be back there for a visit before my week ends. A Main street staple for over 100 years, Turner Hardware is a treasure. I glanced through the plate-glass windows and, looking inside, it could have just as easily been 1932 as 2012. I can’t wait to go back and take a look around.

I settled on a restaurant called J.J. Wasabi’s – mainly because it had a spacious and inviting outdoor patio, and this was a perfect night for outdoor dining. They have an impressive menu – everything from sushi to burgers. The sushi was initially tempting, but I was a little reticent about ordering sushi from a place with burgers and dogs on the menu. I decided to go with a burger instead. The “Main St Burger” along with sweet potato fries. I was disappointed to learn that they did not carry any North Carolina-brewed beers – a definite shortcoming for a neat little Main St joint like this – so I opted to just stick with water.

It was a pleasant meal, though the road noise was a little much and the burger was not one of the better ones I have had. By the end of my meal, it had been a while since I had seen waitress. Getting anxious to leave, I walked inside and asked the greeter if I could go ahead and pay up. She looked at me as if I were speaking Portuguese… with a heavy Russian accent… and an awkward silence ensued, as I silently debated the use of hand signals. Thankfully, the waitress finally showed up, so I paid my bill and left, while the still-confused hostess stood blankly by.

As I made my way back out of town and towards the lifeless expanse of concrete that is Consumer Square Drive, I was thankful for still thriving – if somewhat hidden – small town main streets. Tonight’s meal was not the best service, or anywhere near the best burger I have had, but I was outside, enjoying picturesque century-old buildings at sunset – pondering what life was like here 100 years ago. It was authentic, it was rustic, and best of all, it wasn’t Applebees out by the highway.

An (almost) perfect run along the Kanawha River – Charleston, WV

There are some runs you simply must grind out. Those are the really hot runs of July and August, or the boring runs around office parks that you do simply to get the miles in, like I did last week in Charlotte (but hey, even a half mile loop around an office park is better than a treadmill). Those are the runs when you feel tired, uninspired and eager to do just about anything at all other than run. Yesterday’s run was patently not one of those. Yesterday was officially the first day of spring, and I celebrated it with a spectacular run along the Kanawha River in Charleston, WV where I am working this week.

I had been wanting to explore Charleston a bit and this run provided the perfect opportunity. I changed into my running clothes after work and walked from my hotel by Charleston’s convention center, over to a greenway which runs along the Kanawha River. The Kanawha flows through downtown Charleston and the greenway provided one of the more scenic runs I have done in quite some time.

I turned left at the river and within half a mile of beginning my six mile jaunt, I passed by the Southside Bridge. I had heard about this bridge because one of my boyhood heroes was Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager. Yeager is a West Virginia native and is probably most famous for being the first person to break the sound barrier in 1947. He was (and still is) also an all-around bad-ass extraordinaire – a WW II “ace-in-a-day” (which means he shot down 5 German planes in one day of combat) and a fearless test-pilot (see “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe**). One year after breaking the sound barrier, Yeager visited his family in nearby Hamlin. Following that, he flew over Charleston’s capital and, on a whim, “buzzed” the town and flew under the Southside Bridge at 500 mph, likely causing a few unsuspecting fishermen to need a change of pants that day. As I passed the bridge, I couldn’t help but think of Yeager and smile. (as an aside, the Charleston airport was re-named for Yeager some time back).

East of the bridge, I ran past the West Virginia Capital Building and grounds. This is truly an impressive and gorgeous, golden-domed structure which dominates Kanawha Street for nearly a quarter mile. As I continued along toward the east, the river on one side and dozens of stately Georgian manors, brick Four-squares and other historic homes on the other, I was in my element. This was an awesome run!

As if Charleston’s planners had laid out the greenway specifically with my six mile run in mind, the greenway ended at exactly three miles out. I turned around and was greeted by a stunning, burnt orange sun making it’s way down over the hills and trees to the west of town. Still enjoying the novelty of daylight at 6:30pm after a winter of 5pm sunsets, I decided to take a little extra time on the way back to run through the capital grounds. When I arrived, I was greeted at the southeast corner of the grounds by a statue of none other than Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, standing gallantly and casting a determined gaze southward across the Kanawha. Jackson was born in Virginia and was one of the South’s greatest field commanders. He died of friendly fire while on reconnoiter near dusk following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. His home county became part of West Virginia when that portion of Virginia separated to stay with the Union. Thus, the statue of a Confederate general on the grounds of a Union state capital.

On the north side of the grounds was a beautifully-done soldier’s monument to West Virginians lost in the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. Just south of that was a statue placed in hard-earned tribute to the gritty and determined West Virginia coal miner, whose plight has been an allegory for citizens of the state as a whole.

After leaving the Capital grounds, I ran at “recovery pace” (as if I had any other speed), for the last mile or so, taking in my favorite historic homes for a second time, enjoying majestic views of the river at sunset and delighting in the aroma of jasmine and the rapidly cooling early evening air. I quickly showered back at the hotel, dressed and, energized by the run and eager for more of that spring air, ambled back out to find something to eat. I stumbled across a little hidden gem of a sushi restaurant (yes, Charleston, WV has good sushi!), where I enjoyed a couple of great rolls and an ice-cold Kirin (aka, “recovery drink”). I was very happy.

All in all, the only thing that separated this evening from perfection was that Melissa couldn’t be there with me.

** Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” is an homage to post-WW II test pilots of the U.S. Military who ultimately engaged in America’s first endeavors in space exploration – NASA’s Mercury Program. For a better read, in my opinion, check out Yeager’s aptly-titled autobiography, “Yeager”.

Wake Forest University run

One of the truly great perks of my job is that I get to travel from time to time to various points within North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. Unlike my prior job, in which I was subject to traveling the entire country and staying gone, sometimes for months at a time, when I travel now, it is for mere days at a time – just long enough satisfy that itch to roam, while still allowing me to be home like clockwork each and every weekend. While on these short trips, I have discovered all manner of wonderful restaurants, history-laden downtowns, museums, battlefields and running trails, among other attractions. The running trails have been especially rewarding.

Over the summer, while working in Frederick, MD, I discovered Monocacy Battlefield – site of a circa 1864 Civil War battle on which there was an outstanding trail run, complete with interpretive signs and panoramic hilltop views. Last month, while working in the charming, historic Northern Virginia town of Alexandria, I discovered a greenway trail that led all the way into D.C. The trail was a easy jaunt from my hotel, paralleled the Potomac river, and provided spectacular views of big jets taking off almost directly overhead from Reagan National Airport. As the trail approached D.C., familiar monuments took shape in the distance and it was easy to become lost in thoughts of the history of that often confounding, but always intriguing town as I plodded along.

I discovered another gem today. I’ve been working in Winston-Salem this week and after work today, I changed into my running shoes and drove over to Wake Forest University, hoping to find a good run there. Boy, did I. It was early evening on a perfect fall day – sixty degrees with fallen autumn leaves riding the occasional gust and providing color as they swirled over expansive, still-green commons. Strolling, sweater-clad undergrads chatted and laughed as they made their way to dorms and after-class activities. Chapel bells clanged in the distance, marking the top of the hour. Members of the Demon Deacon football team trotted to a nearby practice field while oblivious professors in frumpy corduroy jackets shuffled distractedly to their cars. The rich, amber smell of fall candles and clean Carolina pine mingled in the air with the faint scent of cinnamon. Handsome, mid-century brick buildings and mature oaks in full, autumn color set a classic backdrop, while the frenetic, youthful energy common to all college campuses carried me along – it was one of the most enjoyable five milers in recent memory.

I returned to the car, energized in that slightly buzzy way that I wish all non-runners could feel, and I pondered whether the people I saw on this run have any idea how fortunate they are to inhabit that wonderful place.

JFK 50 Mile – The Untold Story

Back in the fall of 2008, I, with the help of Melissa and our friend Jess, I ran the 46th Annual John F. Kennedy 50 Mile Ultramarathon. I wrote a lengthy narrative of that event – because thats what aspiring writers do – and was lucky enough to have part of that narrative published in the September/October 2010 edition of Marathon & Beyond Magazine. As with most magazine submissions, I was subjected to strict word limitations, and so I had to condense my original 8,100 word epistle into a diminutive 3,000 word aproximation of its former self. Much like a mother, forced by her doctor into a choice of cleaving off her newborn’s ears or nose, I was traumatized by the process. Painful as it was though, it was a vital lesson for me in the power and importance of effective editing.

I’m legally restrcted from reproducing the M&B piece on this blog, but I did want to publish one of the edited parts of the original narrative. I’m currently working a temporary assignment in Frederick, MD – not too far from Washington County, Maryland where the JFK took place – and I’ve been thinking back fondly about that weekend in November, 2008. This exerpt comes from the longest portion of the JFK – the 26 mile C&O Towpath portion of the race. This portion of the race took place right after the 16 mile Appalachian Trail portion at the beginning of the JFK. I was happy to see my friends and was thoroughly and lavishly spoiled by Melissa and Jess. How people survive this portion of the race without the help and support of good friends, I’ll never understand…

*****

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is located along the north banks of the Potomac River and was built between 1828 and 1850 to aid cargo ships in navigating around the shallows, thus enabling the delivery of goods and creating markets for commerce further inland. The canal eventually fell into disuse with the rise of the railroads and much of it has since been drained and reclaimed by native forest. However the towpath remains exceedingly popular with runners and bikers alike. The surface was a welcome change – predictable, flat, blissfully boring – it is mostly clay and crushed gravel for the entirety of its length. Melissa & I quickly settled into a run-walk routine where we would run for two or three miles, then walk a bit, then repeat. The conversation was a huge boost to my morale. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about and it really didn’t matter. Just having my good friend there to talk with – to distract my focus from the fact that I still had thirty plus miles to go on this cold and blustery day – having someone with whom to share this experience – it made all the difference.

Throughout the entirety of the tow path portion of the event, I would pass and be passed by the same groups of people in a hop scotch pattern as we all ran and walked at varying intervals. As a result, we began to recognize people, sometimes chatting, sometimes just offering up a knowing and empathetic glance. There was strength to be taken from these interactions. We were all enduring the same challenges – the same discomforts of aches and doubt and weariness and cold. There was a communal spirit among the runners – a shared sense of purpose and a collective understanding and compassion which made the event much more tolerable – and at times, I daresay – even enjoyable. Misery does take great solace from company, after all. There were other people who, I have come to believe, were sent by God – because he does have a healthy sense of humor – to test my patience.

I came to know one such runner during the eleven mile portion that Jess ran with me. I didn’t know Jess as well as Melissa, so I had been looking forward to the opportunity to talk with her at length during this part of the run. Along with probably a dozen other runners on the tow path, “Kevan”, and I had been running at approximately the same pace for several hours now and we had been passing each other intermittently. As Jess & I passed through one of the aid stations at around mile 30 – enjoying a brief walk break and deep in conversation – we were approached by this now familiar runner, wearing Army regulation sweats and an oversized stocking cap cocked jauntily atop his noggin, who had a proposal for me. Oblivious to the fact that Jess and I were engrossed in an ongoing dialogue, he introduced himself to both of us and abruptly proposed that we run together for the balance of the event. I was a little taken aback by this. He volunteered that he had been observing my pace for the past couple of hours, had deducted that we would finish at approximately the same time and, no doubt tired of running alone, decided that Jess and I could use his company. Now I enjoy meeting people – I enjoy conversation as much as the next guy – but a sudden feeling of claustrophobic dread overtook me. I tend to be very comfortable as a solo runner, but I also love running with good friends over long distances because there is a familiarity and ease which allows you to fall into a comfortable silence for miles. You have the option of enjoyable conversation, or you can become lost in your own thoughts while still having the comfort of running with a partner. It is truly the best of both worlds. Running with strangers on the other hand – for me at least – is taxing. Conversation is forced, silence is awkward and it is nearly impossible to fall into that natural pace that seems to come so easily with familiarity.

Kevan was one of those people – you know the kind – who does not necessarily require that you be comfortable with (or that you even consent to) his presence in order for him to find perfect happiness spending time with you. It had nothing to do with Jess or I at all, really – he was simply craving human contact of any kind – we just happened to be there. And so, having been caught off guard and unable to come up with a quick excuse (and also, unable to find a large tree branch with which to smite him dead), the three of us started off running.

Kevan was an interesting guy to say the least. It was obvious to me that he had been dying to talk with somebody for some time now by the way he latched onto us and began, unbidden, a lengthy monologue on all manner of subjects. He began by extolling the virtues of Vaseline and it’s near miraculous capacity to soothe “hot spots” and prevent chapped lips. He never specified where exactly his “hot spots” were located, (this was left to the imagination), but he did speak passionately and at length about the matter. I knew his love of Vaseline was genuine because as he spoke, I noticed that an over-application of the stuff, hanging from his generously proportioned lips, had quickly frozen into petroleum-based icicles, reminding me of stalactites on a cave ceiling. He told us about his military service – he claimed to be an Army Ranger, and being an admirer of the military, he held my attention for a while with this subject. He went on to talk with mind-numbing detail about his three children. Two boys – both named Kevan, and a daughter, named Kevana. He lost me about right there. Was this guy serious? Who does he think he is, George Foreman? Jess and I remained silent but exchanged glances that asked “what the hell have we gotten ourselves into?” From there he discussed his long and illustrious career as an ultra marathoner. He discussed a 24 hour, 100 mile run he did along this same tow path years ago. It seems he had become disoriented during the night portion of the run and stumbled off the tow path into a ravine, some twenty feet below. I silently debated asking him to recreate this fall for purposes of illustration and clarity, but thought better of it. He also shared that he had done the JFK many times before and had developed an air-tight plan to finish in less than 12 hours. “The thing about me”, Kevan droned, “is that I can devise a plan and stick to it. Not many people can do that.” (insert now, more “WTF” glances between Jess and I).

Kevan loved to talk about himself. One of his greatest attributes however, was that he was so engrossed in his own ramblings that he failed to visually engage his audience. This opened the door to silent and conspiratorial communications between Jess and I in the form of me hanging myself and Jess shooting herself in pantomime. We entertained ourselves in this fashion for a couple of miles while Kevan prattled on mindlessly about, among other things, President Bush (Kevan no like), skydiving (Kevan like very much), the economy (Kevan worried but optimistic) and a brief revisiting of the hot spot topic (Kevan concerned as always). Yes, it was childish, and quite possibly mean-spirited of us to make fun, but you would have done the same thing and you know it.

At long last we came to another aid station at around mile 36 during which Kevan stopped for something to drink and, of course, more Vaseline (the man’s vigilance on the matter of hot spot avoidance cannot be overstated.) We took this occasion to quickly and unceremoniously inform him that we were going to move ahead and pick up the pace a little bit. Surprisingly, it worked, and we said our goodbyes. And so Jess and I, suddenly feeling unencumbered and fleet of foot, quickened the pace and began our conversation anew. This, until a mile and a half later during a walk break, Kevan caught up with us again. I wanted to cry – emotional stability during an ultra is egg-shell-fragile, after all. Then, to my great surprise and eternal admiration, Jess spoke up politely yet forcefully, advising him that we were in the middle of an important conversation and could use a little privacy. And so he bid us farewell again and we both wished each other much luck and God speed. I had a newfound respect for my friend, Jess.

*****

Jess, Me and Melissa at the JFK finish – Boonsboro, MD – circa November 2008