Eating Our Way Through Paris – Part II

I love Ernest Hemingway. There is something about his simple, straight-forward style of writing and his larger than life personality that has always intrigued me – I know I am not alone in that regard. I started reading “A Moveable Feast” on the plane ride out to Nice. A collection of stories of his time in Paris in the 1920’s, it provides a glimpse into Hemingway’s earliest days as a professional writer.

This followed Hemingway’s formative years as a newspaperman at the Kansas City Star. His subsequent service as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, where he was injured and fell in love with a comely nurse, was the basis for arguably his greatest novel, “A Farewell to Arms”. By the 1920’s, he had left the world of newspaper journalism and dedicated himself to writing fiction full time. He was a member of the American literary ex-pat community in Paris, which included Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound.

As I sat on the plane reading the first chapter, “A Good Café’ on the Place St Michel”, I was immediately drawn in as he talked of walking in a cold rain to “…a pleasant café’, warm and clean and friendly…”, where he had a café’ au lait and later a rum St. James (and then another), and started to write. He caught the eye of a pretty girl, but was engrossed in his writing – lost in it – until he had worked many hours. After, he looked up and realized with disappointment that the girl had gone, but he was happy with his work, and tired. He ordered oysters “… with their strong taste of the sea…” and cold white wine.

I imagined him there in that good café’, working productively out of the cold and rain and I was drawn into that place. I could see it in my mind, and I could feel the cool humidity of the room and the dampness of his clothes. I could hear the barista’s clinking of cups and saucers in the background and could smell the light fragrance of the girl’s perfume and the roasted almond aroma of the coffee. Reading this, I knew we would have to take some time to wander the city, exploring the Latin Quarter particularly, in search of some of Hemingway’s old haunts. Which particular café’ he referred to in that chapter is lost to the dust bin of history, but he mentions other cafes and residences which would be easy enough to find.

Hemingway had me excited about Paris.

Friday

After breakfast at the hotel, which was excellent and free, we wandered out onto Avenue de Wagram – one of the main boulevards that spoke into the great roud-a-bout circling the Arc de Triumphe. We wanted to get a closer look at the Arc and figured we would start there since it was so close. We were a little confused when we did not see a crosswalk and were not about to attempt a crossing of the four lanes of furiously circling traffic. We turned left and crossed over several streets to the famous Avenue des Champs Elysees, where we found a staircase leading to an underground tunnel, which led in turn to the Arc.

We ascended out of the tunnel and found ourselves under the great arc itself. We were again in awe of the sheer size of the structure. Sixteen stories tall and 145 feet wide, it is much larger than I imagined it. The main arch is 98 feet tall and 48 feet wide, while the smaller, side arches are 61 feet high. Inscribed on its massive walls are the names of over 500 French generals and the names of the major French victories of the Napoleonic Wars. Underneath the Arc is a monument to the Unknown Soldiers of the World Wars, including an “eternal flame”. This flame inspired Jaqueline Kennedy to request a similar monument at JFK’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery and that flame burns to this day.

We considered climbing to the top of the Arc, but the line deterred us. If there was one monument which we were determined to climb, it was the iconic Eiffel Tower, so we made that our next stop.

The Eiffel Tower is quite touristy, but it is absolutely a must do. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and erected for the 1889 World’s Fair, it possibly the most recognizable man-made structure in the world – certainly in France. Approximately 81 stories tall, it surpassed the Washington Monument as the tallest man-made structure in the world and held that title until 1930, with the construction of New York’s Chrysler building.

Most people were in awe of its scope at the time it was built, and it is still awe-inspiring today. There was a line 200 yards long to ride the elevator to the second-level observatory – a line which would take at least two hours – but there was no line whatsoever for those willing to walk.

Not wanting to kill a large part of our day standing in line, and feeling the need for a little exercise after four days of post-race sloth, we opted to take a vertical hike. After a quick security check where a guard had us unzip our backpacks after which he took a casual and non-probing glance inside (there was no groping – these folks would never make it in the TSA), we were on our way up to the first observation deck.

Walking up the Eiffel is not like ascending a typical building stairway for obvious reasons. You are out in the open, exposed to the elements, and very aware of your creeping elevation gain. Only the stair railing and the structural iron latticework separates you from the ground hundreds of feet below. For anyone with a fear of heights (Melissa), it is gut check time. It is 300 steps to the first observation deck. From there, you go another 300 steps to observation deck number two, which stands at 419 feet – some 41 stories off the ground.

You find yourself questioning Eiffel’s sanity and the engineering behind it all. It’s high up there, friends, and we were very happy to find that we did not have to take stairs to the third and highest elevation deck at the top of the structure. Though the original spiral staircase remains, the public must take an elevator car from level two to three. Ok by us.

Tourists to the core – sipping our 10 Euro champagne atop the Eifel Tower

At the top, we paid ten Euros apiece for two plastic flutes of champagne, removing any lingering doubt as to our status as gullible tourists. But hey, we were in Paris, at the top of the Eifel Tower. And we walked halfway there. What the hell, we had earned a champagne toast.

After a lap around the observation deck, which was truly beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also very crowded, we decided to head back down. Eiffel marked off our list, we were anxious to move onto the Hemingway tour.

Hemingway’s Paris

We made our way across the Seine, to Paris’ Left Bank and then walked along the lively Boulevard St. Germain, to Paris’ Latin Quarter. Here, we had lunch at Café Gustave at Rue de Montessuy. Mel had a wonderful quiche and salad, and I had a 1664 beer and a salmon club. It was 70 degrees and cloudy – very comfortable – and our legs welcomed the rest.

It was on this afternoon that we started a pleasing pattern which continued throughout our time in Paris. We walked and ate, then walked a little more, stopping to rest and eat and have a beer. Then we walked some more and had dessert and coffee, and then we walked again. We walked and we ate, we drank and we walked. This is what we did and how we spent our days. We ate as much as we wanted and never felt guilty. We drank before noon and luxuriated in that rare pleasure. We easily walked ten miles a day, but we fueled ourselves lavishly and without reservation.

After lunch we walked a little while longer and then decided to stop for dessert and coffee at what became our favorite restaurant in Paris – Café De Flores on St. Germain. It was an old hang out of Hemingway’s, and is a classic Paris institution. We sat outside and drank café au lait and shared a lemon tart which was just about the best thing I have ever eaten. We took our time and people watched and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Brasserie Lipp – another Hemingway hangout, was right across the street.

From there, we walked several miles to 74 Rue Cardinal-Lemoine – Hemingway’s first apartment in Paris. I imagined that it must have looked very similar in his day, and it was a cool experience to be there – to see what he saw.

Just around the corner was Café Delmar, where we stopped for a beer and more people watching. It was getting late in the day and our energy was sagging. The beer had a rejuvenating effect though and sitting there with the late afternoon sunlight on our faces, watching the world go by, was exactly what I had in mind. In fact, the thought of it was one of the things that motivated me throughout the Ironman. This was our reward.

A dinner of brains and tongue

After leaving Café’ Delmar, we made the long walk back toward our hotel. About halfway back, on the Rue St. Augereau – just a block off St. Germain – we decided to eat at Café Constant. Owned and run by Maison Constant, one of Paris’ up and coming young chefs. Some years ago, he decided to strike out on his own and opened this trendy, low key restaurant in the Eiffel Tower neighborhood.

There was a 30 minute wait when we showed up, so we shoe-horned ourselves in at the bar and ordered white wine while we waited. We were very hungry from the walking, and the gentleman next to us, dining alone and immersed in a book, was working on something that looked and smelled spectacular. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, so I asked the bartender. He pointed to something on the menu and I nodded, totally unenlightened. It looked so good though, that I decided whatever it was, I would order it.

We were seated by an open window which ran floor to ceiling, affording a comfortable evening breeze – a great pleasantry in that crowded room. We placed our orders – me the mystery dish, which the waiter translated as “Crispy Head” – two words that I had never heard uttered in unison, and Melissa ordered the roasted duck and mashed potatoes.

Within minutes, our dishes arrived and I realized, with a slap of bracing reality, just what I had ordered. The Crispy Head consisted of veal brain, which was a full brain and looked, well, like brain, and veal tongue, accompanied by a side of head cheese.

While Melissa happily dined on her duck and potatoes, I took exploratory nibbles on the veal brain. The taste was good but the texture was soft, like overcooked noodles. Had I not been in Paris, I wouldn’t have eaten it, but it was one of those days in life where you just go with it. The tongue was very good. The taste was about the same as the brain, but the texture was like a pork chop – a vast improvement. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the head cheese however. It was gelatinous, cooked fat from the skull cavity. Fighting a suddenly-vigorous gag reflex, I did by best not to look at it.

At least the potatoes were good!

To finish, we had coffee and profiterroles – a delicious pastry filled with ice cream and warm, chocolate fudge. This went a long way toward erasing my memory of head cheese, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

By the time we ambled fully sated and happy out of the restaurant, it was almost 10pm. A lingering summer daylight lit our way back to the hotel. We collapsed, exhausted but already looking forward to the next day.

Next: the Mona Lisa and a bunch of old naked Greek guys – our visit to the Louvre

Eating Our Way Through Paris – Part I

On Wednesday after the Ironman – our last full day in Nice – it was down to just Melissa and Lori and I. Melissa’s family had moved onto Austria, Martin and Renata were back in Prague and Andre & Joanie were about to head to Czech as well. We celebrated our last night in Nice by dining at Chez Juliette on the narrow, cobbled Rue Rossetti in Nice’s Old Town. We had been trying to eat here all week, but each attempt found it closed. There were no hours on the window and no indication of when it might be open. Nice’s restaurateurs are nothing if not quirky. Luckily for us though, it was open on this night and we were seated at a table on their tiny outdoor patio (I don’t recall us eating a single meal indoors while in Nice and could never figure out why anyone would).

It was worth the wait, friends. Melissa ordered the sea bass & sausage with herb potatoes, Lori chose a wonderful pasta and I went with perfectly grilled pork medallions in a grain mustard sauce. We shared a bottle of cool, dry house white wine, which was a perfect compliment to the food, not to mention a nice way to combat the lingering, early evening heat. As we ate, a jazz trio played nearby and we talked about our plans for the next day – Lori was going to Venice and Melissa & I were headed to Paris. We finished with dessert and coffee – a crème brule which nearly brought me to tears, and espresso.

As we walked along the narrow alleyways and time-worn cobbled streets back toward our apartment, we tried to take it all in one last time – Nice, with all of it’s smells and sights and sounds. Laundry was strung from apartment windows directly above our heads, adding a touch of authenticity – it was a reminder that this was a “real” city where people lived and worked, not just a tourist town. The din of French voices over dinner and drinks, street performers taking smoke breaks and passing the hat for donations, the aroma of fresh bread and good coffee and the pleasing, newfound familiarity of the place after a week of walking its streets. We thought about the spectacular view of the Mediterranean from the balcony of our 6th floor rental apartment on Quai De Etats-Unis, and of eating fresh bread and fruit and coffee there when we woke, overlooking the fragrant morning sea. We would miss this town – our Nice.

Thursday

We decided to take the train to Paris. Although flying would have been about the same price and much faster, neither of us had traveled by train before and we were drawn by the romanticism and novelty of it.

We arrived at the train station in Nice, tickets in hand (we had purchased them earlier in the week), and, not quite knowing the drill, made our way onto the platform to wait. We weren’t quite sure what to do with our luggage. Do you check bags on a train? We had no idea.

As we sat there pondering this and other similarly vexing topics, I started to take it all in. There is something decidedly different and exciting about a train station. Its old school. I imagined all of the people who must have caught trains here over the years and decades past. People in suits and nice dresses, hats and gloves, back in more formal days. Train stations conjure up those images in ways that airports just can’t. Flying commercial is the 21st century’s version of bus travel – done out of necessity and endured. Any romanticism associated with commercial flight died with the advent of the TSA and flip-flops.

We sat at the rail side restaurant, sipping a cold Heineken, snacking on potato chips and reading a London Daily Telegraph – a newspaper still sized the way a newspaper ought to be. 18” wide, unlike the anemic papers back home, which have narrowed with the passing of years and the arrival of the internet and hard economic times. Sitting there sipping my beer, reading the paper in the train station – I was intensely happy.

The 6170 train to Paris pulled into the station right on time. It was the high speed “TGV” train, which travels at speeds up to 100 mph. We boarded the train with minimal confusion and loaded our bags in the appointed luggage area at the front of our car (no checking bags… cool!) We had purchased 2nd class tickets because we didn’t see the need to pay the $60 extra apiece for 1st class and upon finding our seats, were glad we didn’t. There was plenty of room. We sat facing two other seats, only one of which was occupied by a reserved, older man who napped and read the entire trip. The trip would take around six hours and I intended to enjoy every bit of it.

Within minutes of pulling out from the station, Melissa was asleep. I took the opportunity to venture up to the bar, which was only one car up from ours. I ordered a good French pilsner (1664) and sat there watching the countryside roll by, contemplating our trip so far as well as what lay in store for us in Paris. I wrote a bit in my journal, attempting to capture at least some memories of Nice. The trip was already a blur and I vowed to do better about writing while in Paris. I would take my journal everywhere.

By 6:30pm we pulled in at the classic Paris Lyon train station, which was built for the World Exposition of 1900. Despite the crowds and general chaos of the station, we were easily able to navigate our way to the taxi stand (due in no small part to the fact that the word “taxi” in French is spelled T-A-X-I), where we found a cab to take us to the hotel.

Now, if you have never taken a taxi in Paris, you are missing out on some quality entertainment. I clearly know nothing about the personal life of our cab driver, but I don’t think I would be dabbling in the absurd to speculate that he has some anger issues. He was a nice enough fellow at first, helping us with our bags and asking our destination in English. Once he got going though, there was something vaguely demonic about his nature. I’m not sure, but at one point I think we may have struck and killed a pedestrian. It may have been a speed bump – I just don’t know. I didn’t ask questions.

The thing is, all traffic is crazy in Paris. Scooters, motorcycles, cabs, everyday people – they all drive with this aggressiveness and reckless abandon that is truly breathtaking. If the French fought their wars the way Parisians drive, the Nazis wouldn’t have stood a chance. Lane markings mean little and turn lanes are non-existent. If someone wants turn right and they are four lanes over to the left, they will turn right – everyone else be damned. This is followed by the predictable angry cacophony of horns, cursing and hand signals – non of which, by the way, included a middle finger. That would be too obvious, too easy – not stylish enough. Scooters and motorcycles bob and weave, darting suicidally between lanes, filling the slightest of gaps. Even cyclists are daring and fearless. Somehow, it all works out though – we never saw an accident the entire time we were there.

We arrived at our hotel – the Marriott Renaissance, just blocks away from the iconic Arc de Triomphe – and felt as though our time on a great amusement park ride had ended. Though we worried about the emotional health of our driver, we admired his skill and focused aggression, and we were ecstatic that we did not have to drive while in Paris.

Napoleon’s Arc De Triumphe

After a long day of travel and a long week in general, we were worn out. Following a quick rest at the hotel, we showered and walked down to the lobby where we asked the concierge for a dinner recommendation – somewhere within an easy walk, preferably. He reserved us a table at Chez Gabrielle on rue de I’Etoile, just a couple of blocks from the hotel.

As we walked down Aveneue de Wagram from the hotel towards the restaurant, we faced the Arc, and were taken aback by its size and scope. It is truly an impressive structure and a testament to the megalomania of Napolean Boneparte, who had it commissioned in 1806 after his victory at Austerlitz. More about the Arc later.

We dined on steak (me) and some kind of wonderful fish, the likes of which I cannot recall (Melissa). My side was a traditional French potato dish, scalloped and cooked with heavy cream in a small pot. It was unbelievably, sinfully good, and I dared not finish it for fear of entering an irreversible coma for the balance of our trip. We again had a house white wine, which was wonderful, and ended our meal once more with crème brule – the house specialty. The waiter was warm and friendly, the prices were surprisingly reasonable and the atmosphere was just what we were hoping it would be – small and quiet and off the beaten path.

After dinner we made the short walk back to our hotel and were pleasantly surprised by the difference in temperature between Nice and Paris – it was a good twenty degrees cooler.

We collapsed back at the hotel, completely exhausted but looking forward to getting out and about the next day.

Next: A Moveable Feast comes alive

Ironman Nice – Part III

Transition one – T1. The swim to bike transition. It’s a place of refuge between the frantic swim and the 112 mile bike stretching out before you. What eventually comes beyond the bike is immaterial. It never enters your mind at this point. It can’t. The mind cannot process it. For now, you are just thrilled to be out of the water and anxious to start knocking off miles on the bike.

After grabbing my T1 bag, I had a seat and took out a bottle of cold water. It was 7:50am, and I could already feel the heat of the day beginning to settle in. I rinsed the salt out of my mouth, then drank the rest of the bottle. I rummaged around in the bag and began pulling on bike shorts, tri top, socks and shoes, sunglasses, helmet, gloves, etc. A volunteer assisted me with applying sunscreen to my back and shoulders and then I made my way to my bike as quickly as I could in that awkwardly ambling way you are forced to run when wearing bike cleats. I was happy to see that there were still a huge number of bikes in T1, but also knew that a vast majority of them would pass me over the course of the next hundred, plus miles.

The first twelve miles was almost entirely flat, but I knew that at mile 13, there was a brutal, if very short, uphill section. I knew that it began with a left hand turn onto Condamines Road at the 13 mile marker, so knew to gear down into my easiest gear as soon as the left turn appeared ahead. Sure enough, as soon as I made the turn, the asphalt reared up like a startled beast – an uncomfortable 10% grade (which looked and felt more like 20%). It was only a 500 meter climb, but it was a genuine struggle to keep forward motion. I knew that this would be the steepest, if not the most difficult climb of the day.

After passing the village of Tourettes, (whose name made me wonder if the syndrome had been christened to commemorate the spontaneous cursing by cyclists in this area), we were treated to the first real downhill section of the race. It would be a while before we saw anymore downhill, so I tried to enjoy this brief respite to the fullest extent. I was feeling good, keeping to our nutrition plan of 300 calories an hour, plus all the fluids I could drink. I was not feeling any ill effects from the swallowed salt water. I was even looking forward to the infamous twelve mile hill section that loomed in my immediate future. Bring it on.

And then it started. The twelve mile climb to the summit of Col de I’Ecre that we had all spent a year dreading and talking obsessively about. It started so mildly, so innocently, that I wondered early on whether or not I was even on the actual hill. It rose up at a modest 3.5% grade for around four miles. And then the real fun started. It was a predominantly 8% grade for the next eight miles. The brief, fun downhill had been replaced by countless switchbacks, grinding 5 mph pedaling and discouraging views of the road as it wound up the mountain ahead of us. I was passing a few people, but mostly being passed by others. The heat had risen 20 degrees within minutes it seemed, and the sun beat down mercilessly.

By around the halfway point of the long climb, I began to feel nauseous. The cumulative effects of three mouthfuls of swallowed saltwater, high heat, dehydration and the hardest physical exertion of the day were playing havoc on my stomach. I could no longer eat the bars in my bento box and the very thought of eating the peanut butter and honey sandwich that awaited me at the summit, where our special needs bags were located, nearly caused me to wretch. I was shocked at how quickly my physical condition had deteriorated. Literally within the span of two miles, I had gone from feeling good to feeling like hell. I began to focus all of my energies on just getting to the summit. Once there, I could rest briefly, do a system check and attempt to get some solid food into my stomach. The kilometers marked on the road went by with a mind-numbing, grinding slowness.

Finally, after stifling the growing urge to puke for several miles, I made the summit. I was in bad shape and near delirious as I pulled into the special needs area. I could not even remember my race number, and didn’t have the presence of mind to simply look at my arm where it was marked. A race volunteer motioned for me to pull forward where another volunteer was waiting to hand me my bag. How do they know my race number?, I wondered. My addled brain was not connecting the fact that the number was plastered in three places on my helmet.

I took one look in my special needs bag and nearly vomited. Of the sandwich, bars and other goodies stashed there, I took only one small package of Gu Chomps – a sort of soft candy-like alternative to gels. This was the only thing I could even begin to imagine eating at that juncture.

There was no place shady to stop, so I pedaled out of the special needs area about 100 yards, where I found a bit of shade under an ancient, windswept tree. On the way there, I grabbed a bottle of Coca-Cola from a volunteer, which I knew from races past just might settle my stomach. I was dazed, distressed and thinking to myself that if the hill had been 13 miles long instead of 12, I probably would not have made it. I got off the bike and stretched a bit, tried to gather myself and took some small comfort in the fact that I was nearly done with the uphill portion of the race course, save one lingering 6km climb at about the 70 mile mark.

Over the last forty miles or so, the course was mostly down hill – some of it very fast. There were some hairpin turns and you had to pay attention, but at least the uphill was done. I began to slowly recover during this section and over the last thirty miles or so, I was able to eat again. I went through full two packets of Gu Chomps and every bit of Coca-Cola I could get my hands on at subsequent aid stations, which provided much needed calories. I also made every effort to drink as much water as possible because of the dehydration. I began to feel a sense of optimism return as my stomach stabilized.

By the last six miles of the bike course, which ran along the seaside and back into town, I was fully recovered. After not being able to eat for thirty miles and going through serious doubts as to whether I would ever get off the bike, I was alive and well. I felt like Lazarus.

As I pulled into T2, I had a new lease on life. I was worried though, about Melissa. I had seen everyone else on the bike but her. I wondered how she was doing and where she was at that moment. With thoughts of her, I changed into my running gear and made my way out onto the Promenade des Anglais for the 26.2 run along Nice’s spectacular coastline. It was 4:30pm.

The run

Through-hikers along the Appalachian Trail call it “trail magic”. This generally refers to the unexpected good fortune which comes their way every so often along the trail, just at the moment their morale needs a boost. A good-hearted local sharing fresh-baked cookies, rides from strangers into town, a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice left behind by a knowing and kind soul on a hot day. These unexpected instances of serendipity often make the difference between someone finishing the AT or not.

My own bit of “trail magic” happened as I was about a quarter mile into my first loop. I caught up to Andre, who was heading out on his second loop. Only in the Ironman could one heterosexual male describe running into another heterosexual male as “serendipitous” or “trail magic”, but then again, the Ironman casts everything in a different light. Finding Andre, I now had the opportunity to run with a compatriot for 20 of the 26.2 miles. What this does for morale cannot be overstated. The opportunity to chat about the bike and swim – or about anything else, really – with a good friend was invaluable. It kept our focus away from the little nagging aches and pains that often cause you to walk if left to your own devices. It provides motivation and gives you someone to share the burden. It absolutely made my day.

The only way to tackle the marathon on an Ironman course is to focus on going from aid station to aid station. To think beyond that is simply overwhelming. The aid stations in Nice were set up generally every mile or so – some a little further, some closer. The run consisted of four out and back loops, which ran from T2 to the airport and back along the Prom. There were three aid stations, meaning that you passed them going and coming, for a total of six aid stations on each out and back loop. Each aid station had cool showers to walk through, water, fruit, Power Aid and Coca-Cola.

We quickly settled into a pattern of running at around a 10:30 minute per mile pace between the aid stations, then walking slowly through each station, taking our time to cool off as we passed under the showers, after which we’d take a swig of water and a bit of Coke. Just enough to stay somewhat hydrated, but not enough to upset the stomach. Then we would start the pattern over again. Run to the airport, run back to T2. Walk through the aid stations. Drink a bit – not too much. Most of the water we took got dumped over our heads. Keep that body temperature down.

After we made the turn at the airport and were passing through aid station number two, on the way back toward T2, I finally saw Melissa. She looked on the verge of tears. She was frustrated, feeling sick and not sure if she was going to make it. She had had it much worse than me on the bike, and had really suffered through a vast majority of the day. She was nauseous and on the verge of calling it quits. Her trail magic came in the form of Martin, who ran a loop with her, coaching her, encouraging her, making her walk when needed, keeping her focused. I didn’t find out until later that she had hardly been able to eat or drink at all for a large part of the day. It was a miracle and a testament to her toughness and drive that she ever even made it to the run course.

By the time Andre entered the finisher’s chute and I made the turn for my last lap, I had just about had my fill of Ironman Nice. My feet were killing me – they were completely water-logged as a result of walking through the showers at all of the aid stations. I could tell they were swollen and it felt like the skin on my soles was about to split wide open. I imagined the bloody mess I would find later when I took my shoes off. No time to dwell on that now. I hoped for the best and kept plodding along. Aid station by aid station, just keep going.

As I made the last turn out by the airport, everything in me was telling me to walk. I was on track to finish now, regardless of my pace over the last three miles. All I wanted to do was finish – that was the goal. But then it occurred to me that if I ran, I might be able to make a “PR”, by improving on my Ironman Cozumel time – if only by a few minutes. This motivated me during those last few miles, as I ran on sore feet the best I could. As I slowed to walk through each aid station one last time, I paused to thank the volunteers – those kind, patient souls – and I took the time to hug Melissa too, when we crossed paths as she headed out toward the airport one final time. She was on time to finish as well and I felt immense relief at this, even if she couldn’t share in that relief right then.

Leaving the final aid station, I had less than one mile to go to the finish. It was almost 9:30 – blue skies faded to purple and orange and it reminded me of the color of torn plums. As the Mediterranean slowly swallowed the evening sun, a welcome coolness took hold.

I entered the finisher’s chute and was lifted by the incredible energy of the crowd. I saw Melissa’s family smiling and waiving and I thought of my family and our friends back home, who I knew were tracking us on line. I felt intense relief, but was not completely able to enjoy it. Though I was very confident that Melissa would finish, I was anxious to see her.

I accepted my finisher’s medal and made my way beyond the medical tent, where I lay down in the grass. I lay there for a long time – maybe fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to move and thought maybe I’d spend the night there. It felt so wonderful to be perfectly still in that soft grass as night gathered around me – the weight of the medal on my chest somehow medicinal against the rising din of protesting muscles and joints and ligaments.

Martin and I finally found each other and a few minutes later, Melissa came across, with a brilliant smile that gave no hint of what she had been through that day.

We walked back to the apartment with the aid of Melissa’s family and after quick showers, were asleep before midnight.

Me, Melissa and Martin at the finish

Epilogue

It is hard to imagine going through an Ironman race without the good cheer and constant encouragement of our friends and family – both those who could be there and those who cheered from afar. It was a constant source of inspiration and their thoughts and prayers were felt during our most difficult moments.

I will never forget Renata running up and down the Promenade, encouraging us – “you’re almost finished!” I think she ran as many miles as we did that day. And Joanie was great as always – she was a fantastic “Lead Sherpa”. Melissa’s family – I was so impressed with their tireless dedication and seeing them as I ran through the finisher’s chute is something I will always remember. I know everyone in our group feels the same.

Likewise, I could feel my family – gathered for the annual McClam/Piercy/Creel/Sanders reunion in Isle of Palms, South Carolina – offering up encouragement. It was palpable. Finding the many encouraging comments on Facebook the next day was awesome as well, and we realized how much people loved and supported us. It was humbling and we wondered how we could be so lucky.

The next day, feeling better than we had a right to, we rented scooters and rode east along the coastline to the tiny port town of Vellefranche. It was a perfect day – warm and sunny. We were Ironman finishers, all of us. Even then as we rode along, pleasantly sore, eyes feasting on the impossible beauty of the Mediterranean, some part of us wondered what the next adventure might be and where it would take us.

Ironman Nice – Part II

In the weeks leading up to our trip to France, I was glued to weather.com and other such websites, where I would check almost daily on high temperatures in Nice. After reading several race reports from years past, I was struck by how nearly everyone mentioned the extreme heat. I was a little perplexed by this, because the historical high for Nice on June 24th was a seemingly perfect 76 degrees, and that fell right in line with how temperatures were trending leading up to the race. I chalked up the reports of high temps to freak, unseasonal spikes and took further comfort in the fact that the race day forecast called for cloudy skies – the only cloudy day in the extended forecast.

After spending a week in Nice though, I will tell you that weather.com’s reported highs are strictly theoretical in nature, and must be taken deep in the shade of some ancient French oak. Highs in the direct sun were closer to 90 each day.

In addition to higher than expected temperatures, we discovered that the beach – where our swim start would commence – was designed not by the loving deity of children’s Sunday school stories, but rather by some vengeful, sadistic and angry God. A real Old-Testament curmudgeon. This, we discovered two days before the race when Melissa and Lori and I walked down to the beach from our apartment on the Quai de Etats-Unis. We wanted to take a quick dip in the Med to get a feel for the water temperature we’d be facing during the race. Rather than the soft sand of the beaches back home, the beaches of Southern France are covered by smooth rocks, ranging in size from small pebbles to fist-sized, oblong monsters that are inevitably turned up at the most painful of angles.

Melissa and Lori smartly remained behind and let me take the test walk. I kicked off my flip flops, braced myself and with a deep breath, started toward the water. Arms extended for balance, I made my way slowly, painfully, tender feet searching in vain for comfortable purchase. I must have looked like some tight ropewalker in the throes of severe GI distress by my jerky, convulsive gyrations. Though I dared not turn around, for fear of total collapse, I could sense that Melissa and Lori had averted their gazes, disassociating themselves completely with the dumpster fire that was my tortured walk to the sea. Cursing mightily and causing a bit of a scene among the svelte and deeply tanned natives (who made walking on the beach seem totally effortless – damn them), I finally made it to the water where I gracelessly flopped in, belly first.

My exit – which I delayed for nearly thirty minutes, was similarly painful and if it is possible, even less graceful, as I was now exiting the water uphill. This walking on the beach thing was going to be no joke. What’s more, the swim was two loops, which meant that at some point, we would have to exit the water and run along the beach before starting the second, shorter loop. It seemed like torture, and frankly at that point, it seemed impossible.

Race morning

The alarm clock rang out at the appointed time – 4:30. More accurately, it crowed, Gamecock-like, at 4:30. Melissa chose the rooster crow for our alarm tone the night before the race in recognition of the Gamecocks’ improbable bid for a third consecutive College World Series Championship in Omaha, some 4,000 miles away (gosh, I love my wife). Lori, a Clemson grad, was a great sport about it.

We were groggy, still not quite believing the near total sleep deprivation of the previous eight hours, but feeling surprisingly good, all things considered. We made coffee and ate French bread with peanut butter and bananas. At around six am, we made our way down to the chaos of the bike transition area, where we had dropped off our bikes the day before. Here, we pumped tires, made last minute gear checks, then found each other and made our way to the swim start, some 200 yards up the coast.

You could have powered a large city with the nervous energy in the air as we, along with 2,500 others, made our way to the beach, walking stiffly, barefooted and in our wetsuits. We did not have an opportunity to take a last photo with our Sherpa’s as planned – race mornings seldom go according to plan – so we did our best to clear our minds and focus on the task at hand, knowing that our Sherpa’s were there, somewhere. As we walked along – Melissa, Lori, Martin and I – we took comfort in each other and fed off of the collective strength of the group as we counted down the final minutes to our 6:30am start. We somehow missed Andre, yet knew he was nearby, lost among the crowd.

The swim start

Even the rocks did not hurt now, as we found comfortable positions. We helped each other zip our wetsuits, soaking in last reassuring glances, as we were swept up in the frenzied excitement of the moment. Pulsing music, not unlike that which had kept us awake the night before, now was welcome for the energy it brought. A helicopter flew overhead, filming the scene. Excited voices shouted encouragement over the loud speaker in French and English.

Two minutes to go – focus, check goggles, deep breathes.

One minute to go – take this all in, for in 60 seconds you will begin a very long journey. A last, knowing and wordless glance and kiss from Melissa.

Thirty seconds to go – I have to pee… wait until you’re in the water and pee in your wetsuit – how many gallons of pee do you swim through in an Ironman race, anyway? Best not to dwell on that now.

Fifteen seconds to go – more deep breathes. Really try not to drink the water.

The gun.

We made our way, like tightrope walkers in GI distress, toward the sea, leaning on strangers in front and beside, all with one common goal – to get off those damned rocks and into the water. Once in the water it was a great, churning maelstrom. Speed dating for teeth and elbows.

Almost immediately I swallowed a mouthful of the briny Med. Sonofabitch – that’s not good. Can’t think about that now – what’s done is done. Keep on moving. Keep on churning. Elbow in the ribs. Kick in the jaw. Where’s that damned marker buoy? Just follow the crowd – hope the crowd knows where it’s going.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 45 minutes, I reached the end of the first loop. Out of the water, onto the rocks. Hurts like hell. Run thirty yards are so – back in the water – this time going the opposite direction. A shorter, counter-clockwise loop. More banging, more chop – visibility not improved. Saw two jellyfish floating about three feet underneath me – kind of freaky under normal circumstances, but not now. I’m more worried about the guy flailing beside me. Get the heck away from him before he knocks your goggles off.

Then, after an hour and seventeen minutes, it was over. T1 was a beautiful sight. I wonder where everybody else is? Run under the freshwater showers to rinse off the salt. Get that damned wetsuit off. Be methodical. Take deep breathes – it’s a long race. Put on sunscreen. Think it through. Don’t screw up now!

Thank you, Lord, for delivering me from the drink.

Next: The bike and run

Ironman Nice – Part I

It’s hard to compare one Ironman course with another. Some bike courses are hilly and some are flat and windy. Some swims are wetsuit legal while others are not. Some runs are four loops, while others are two. These variations play to your strengths or weaknesses in various ways, depending, in part, on the course’s similarity to your home geography, your physical and mental preparedness on race day, as well as variables both unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as the weather.

Read through the various blogs, magazines and internet sites out there and you’ll get a feel for the courses that are generally considered the toughest in one category or another, and you can adjust your training accordingly (though I’d caution against delving too deeply into the labyrinth of often dubious information and opinion out there, which can result in “paralysis by analysis”).

One common thread that binds every race in the IM series though – you have to swim/bike/run 140.6 miles within the allotted time in order to collect one of those coveted metals. No matter how you analyze, forecast or prepare for it, 140.6 miles is an awful lot of ground to cover. You can waltz into a sprint, or an Olympic distance race half trained and struggle through it. You can probably even fake a half, though it will hurt. There is no faking an Ironman – it will find you out.

This is the allure of the IM, as well as what keeps you up, tossing and turning, unable to sleep the night before a race. Well, that and the “thump, thump, thump” of club music coming from the loud party directly below your rental apartment in Nice following the Spain vs. France match in the Euro Cup.

The night before

The FreeHouba racers, including Andre Olivier, Martin Dvorak, Lori Cove, Melissa and I, were joined for dinner by our friends, family and “sherpas”, Fran and Nita (Melissa’s parents), Lyn and Patrick (Mel’s sister and brother in law), Luke (Lyn’s son and our nephew), Joanie (Andre’s wife) and our wonderful new friend from Prague, Renata. We first sensed trouble when we realized that France was playing – against hated rival Spain, no less. As we dined under a cerulean, early evening sky along the market on Nice’s rue St. Francois De Paule, every restaurant had large screen televisions around which people thronged. They were pressed in and intense in their focus and the energy in the air was palpable. I can only compare it to the pre-kickoff intensity of a Southeastern Conference football game in November when division races are tight. There were loud boos as the Spanish team was introduced and you got the sense that, win or lose, this was going to be an interesting night. We all agreed that it was too bad we had a race to do the next day, because the people watching that night would have been first rate.

After dinner, we retired to our sixth floor rental apartment, which Melissa and I shared with Lori. Our apartment overlooked the bike transition area of the race course and afforded us spectacular views of the Mediterranean. With a 6:30am start the next morning, we agreed on a 4:30am wake-up, set our alarms accordingly and we were in bed by 10:15 or so. Literally within minutes, the music started up. We had heard nothing from our neighbors in the few days since our arrival. This night, of all nights, was the one they chose to throw down like Johnny Cash on a five-day bender.

The music vibrated up through the floor – base throbbing rhythmically as a din of party voices wafted into the night air like so much cigarette smoke. After about twenty minutes we got up to investigate and verified that the party was, indeed, coming from directly below us. I briefly considered venturing downstairs to ask them to quiet down, but wasn’t sure how, exactly, I would do it. I didn’t speak French and doubted they spoke much English. Also, who knows how they would have reacted to such a thing – this self-important American interrupting their party so that he could sleep – I didn’t see it going well. And so, with gritted teeth, I crawled back into bed, hopes rising with the end of each song that the party might be over, only to be disappointed when the thumping started over again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always some variation of that base… “thump, thump, thump”. At one point, around midnight, the springs of an ancient and endangered bed frame somewhere below us got a furious workout as a couple of partygoers found enough privacy to assist each other in relieving post game frustrations, (Spain defeated France 2-0), providing convincing and emphatic evidence of just how passionate Europeans are for their soccer.

Sleep was distant and unreachable. We had passed the point of being able to take a sleep aid, and simple arithmetic added to our growing stress levels. 12:30 am – we can get still four hours of sleep; 1:15am – maybe we can still get a little over three hours; 2:00am – this ain’t good… this went on until around 2:30am when the music finally stopped and we fell into a fitful, dream filled half-sleep.

Less than two hours of poor quality sleep before an Ironman race. It was one of those unpredictable variables that have the potential to break you over the course of 140+ miles. I remember thinking before finally nodding off how easily the sweat and sacrifice of nine months of training can be jeopardized. There was nothing we could do about it now. Ironman Nice was here.

Ironman France – Nice

Next: race day

Ironman France nearly here!

We are now just two days away from heading to France for our highly anticipated Ironman race this coming Sunday. This Wednesday we’ll board a plane at RDU, head to New York’s JFK, then cross the pond overnight arriving in Nice, on France’s Mediterranean Coast, Thursday morning.

Five of us from the FreeHouba Tri-Club will be doing the race, including Melissa and I, Andre Olivier and Lori Cove from the Raleigh area, and Martin Dvorak from Czech Republic. We’ll be joined and supported by Andre’s wife, Joanie, Melissa’s parents, her sister Lyn and Lyn’s husband Patrick.

I can tell the race is getting close by the stress dream I had the other night. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit right from the start that I am terribly, almost comically slow in transition during triathlons. No matter how much experience I gain as a triathlete or how meticulously I organize my transition area before the race, I never seem to get any faster. And so, my dream finds me in Nice, done with the 2.4 mile swim and sitting in the swim/bike transition area (T1). I feel immense relief at having finished the swim and feel rather proud of my time. The race is going well.

For some reason, there is a large buffet table in the transition tent. Pleasantly surprised by this, I amble over to have a look. I’m hungry after the swim and feeling good about my time – I can spare a few minutes to have a bite.

While perusing the impressive buffet, complete with candelabras and a full roasted pig (with apple in mouth), I notice that there is also a large screen television on which they are broadcasting the College World Series live from Omaha – because if there’s one thing the French are crazy about, it’s American college baseball. What’s more, my Gamecocks are playing. I sit down on the large leather sofa with a plate of wings to catch a few minutes of the game while all around me triathletes of both sexes dart around in varying stages of undress (in true French fashion, the transition area is co-ed). This is the best transition area EVER.

Then to my horror, I glance down at my watch and realize I have been in T1 for over an hour! With a nauseating, urgent dread I realize that I have seriously jeopardized my chances of finishing the Ironman. As I pull myself off the couch, bloated by wings and Gatorade (or was that beer?), I shuffle out towards my bike, temporarily blinded by the blazing Mediterranean sun as I exit the tent, and am overtaken by the thought of the arduous 112 mile bike leg that awaits me. And suddenly I hear the disapproving voice of my 8th grade English teacher, Ms. Rafferty, her Yankee brogue haranguing in that “tsk, tsk” manor perfected by 8th grade English teachers.  “You’re going to rust out before you burn out, Alan” (this is something she actually used to say to me – I was not the most motivated of students at that point in my life). I awoke in a cold sweat.

Stress dreams, tying up loose ends at work, packing bikes away and inventorying equipment – it’s been a busy few days, but we are really beginning to get excited about this thing!

Stay tuned…

Lucky cup

Oh yes, I have to give a shout out to my USC Fighting Gamecock baseball team which is in Omaha once again (for real, as well as in my dreams), and have now won a record 22 straight NCAA playoff games and an astounding 12 straight College World Series wins since 2010. All of this has been made possible by the world-class coaching of Ray Tanner and staff, superb pitching, timely hitting, “Reptar the fish”, and of course, this coffee cup of mine. I have sipped my morning brew from this mug on the morning of each of those 22 straight wins, so of course, it will be lovingly packed away for the trip to France, where I will continue the tradition while drinking good French coffee and keeping track of the Cocks through the wonder of modern technology that is Melissa’s iPad.

Until next time, Go Cocks! Free Lance! Fear the Fish!

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.

Welcoming Spring With a 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 stirring 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”.