Dirt is different everywhere. But it’s still dirt.

20 Mar

This evening’s update on… everything comes to you from a cheap camp chair plunked on a dusty limestone gravel driveway in a “recreational vehicle park” overlooking the mighty Mississippi. For one of these places, this particular place is actually quite nice; it is clean, friendly, quiet, and has places to walk and trees to stand under when the sun is high in the sky. It has an evocative view and history nearby enough where a culture day was in order today. We have been here two days. Before this, we were in a Louisiana state park that featured doubletrack cross country trails in low wood and field. Before that, a dusty and a bit faded “campground and cabins” in Ruidoso, NM (but wait, for one night we were in a state park in Texas) and before that, in Arizona for nearly two months. We are on the return leg of our first trip “out”. We hit the end of the bungee-run of a road trip in Tucson, and felt the pull back in the same way a baby duck does after bravely swimming out a foot or two from its mama. Not quite missing home (homesick?), but not compelled to venture further westward or northward or southward until taxes are done, our van gets a checkup, and we see our families.

It’s so funny how we get into these things. As with the alpacas, the conversation began, “wouldn’t it be cool if we…” and some frenetic googling and a few years and loose plans later, here we are, pretty much everything we own whittled down to what can fit in the cupboards of this van (and in a closet and the small loft of my mom’s garage.) I can’t even begin to describe the process we undertook – I don’t even know where the energy came from – to get the house sold, physically pull my body away after hugging my daughter, to say “see you guys latah” to dear friends, and take one last look in the rearview after hitting the Rhode Island border. And then establishing residency and a basecamp life at my mom’s in four months was kind of a weird experience, if only because she is such a good cook that it was a really hard thing to resist the temptation to stay. For one thing, we got to know the local dirt.

Carolina Dirt

Carolina Dirt is reddish in tone, sometimes black and peaty, but mostly red, clay-like in consistency, and easy on the ankles for trail running, nice and fast for riding on the mountain bike. When you get home from a ride, you have a trail tan – fine red silt running from the sock line up to the base of the shorts. If like me, you scrape your ankles with the backs of your shoes when you run, you will come home from trail runs with red streaks like dried blood between your calves. When you land from a fall, the red dirt mixed with gravel stains the knees and thighs, but generally doesn’t mess you up too badly. The air is clear. There are birds everywhere.  People – we – will drive for miles to hike or run or bike up red dirt in lyrical-sounding places like Pleasant Ridge, Dupont Forest, Paris Mountain, Pisgah Wilderness. The Carolina dirt gets under your nails and if you garden, it’s hard to get it out from under there. The dogs love to dig ditches and cool their bellies in the soil. It tracks in the house and mixes with dog dander. It colors the vacuum filters red. When my parents first moved to North Carolina in the 1980s I remember my sister, who got there before I did, writing to me that the soil was red clay. The first time I saw it, I didn’t really like it; it was not at all like the peaty, sandy soil I was used to in Rhode Island. But now when we travel home, we love to see it. We know we are getting close when we start seeing red clay and kudzu.

Dirt Poor

I do not know what it is like to be desperately poor. The closest I came was after dropping out of college, in North Carolina, when I was too embarrassed (proud?) to talk to my folks about it, and got through a few sucky months living on Marlboro Lights and Oodles of Noodles, mostly bought with sofa change. Healthcare happened through the emergency room and I relied on friends for rides. But it was short-lived. I was not born into it and didn’t have the right muscles for it and probably wouldn’t have survived had it gone on much longer. Also, I have lived a pretty sheltered life. In New England, you do not know dirt-poor. It takes a road trip through the South to understand dirt poor.

Georgia, Alabama, parts of Mississippi and Louisiana. Trails so lovely you could cry, but as you drive through areas to get to the trails with your sweet bike on the back, you pass trailers and shacks so derelict that stove-in roofs are one good storm away from being skylights. I mean, the Carolinas have this too. And actually parts of the Adirondacks, and the midwest, and everywhere -poverty is everwhere. But in the south, because it is warm, people turn their houses inside out. So everything is exposed. Entire lives up on porches in the form of stuff – appliances, furniture, parts of things. There are pecan groves right up next to power plants and strips of pawn shops, pop-up churches, Dollar General stores, gun stores. People don’t have much. There’s nothing around. There’s no access to anything. There’s no real industry. This is dirt poor.

We went to visit some Indian mounds – places where the natives built these earthen mounds – they are really incredible. Apparently they hauled baskets of dirt on their backs to build them. In the delta, they sort of make sense in a very practical way. During a flood, one could escape the waters by getting up on top of a mound. Nevermind the mystery surrounding their spiritual or communal reason for being. They are dirt piles to keep from drowning.

Many of the trailers are up on concrete blocks. We passed one that was build up on maybe twenty rows of concrete blocks. A modern-day mound.

Bayou dirt is close to water so that when running, it sometimes feels like you are running a path through swamp. In warmer weather, snakes and alligators create a real life obstacle course. Fortunately, the only trail critter I saw in Louisiana was an armadillo. Believe it or not, they are fast.

Texas is a big pile of rocks and dirt.

I had no expectations. Therefore, I was surprised.

Texas should just be its own country. It has a seashore with sandy, porous dirt trail and shady live oaks. It has hill country and mountains and canyons. Watch out for things called stickers that live in the pretty grass and hurt dogs’ feet. Texas is best when you can find a place with no fences. There are a lot of fences in Texas.

In Austin, right in the city, there are trails to explore. We took the dogs on a hike that started off of a highway behind an office park and quickly became remote and entirely scenic.

At Seminole Canyon, we ran and mountain biked on trails with fossils and pictographs and a 100 foot cliff dropping down to the Rio Grande. You could fit whole Rhode Islands into the ranches in West Texas. Marathon was a tiny town with blowing dirt and tumbleweeds, and public art and poverty. Texas is too big to be one thing.

Dragonfly

If you go to New Mexico, head up to Silver City and to the Gila wilderness and ask a local directions to Dragonfly trail. Prairie grasses, tumbling streams and lone trees on hillsides make for lovely trailgoing. It is rocky, so watch out when you’re tired. Also nearby there is good dirt up on Boston Mine. You can see the whole town as you ride. It’s not easy going (for me it wasn’t) as it is gravelly and slidy. But it is fun.

In town, in the shops, the people talk dirt about each other.

Desert 

Talk about being out of my element. Arizona trails are like cats: you want to snuggle but you have to always keep in mind that it could end up with you being seriously bloodied. So we were basically backed up to Seguro National Park, a place where you can pretty much ride or run forever. However, while the dirt is fine and flowy and not as skiddy as New Mexico, when you fall, it is always into a cactus. And the cactuses grab on and get in there (like really in there) and you may have to ask your husband later to take cactus needles out of your rearend with a pair of tweezers.

But it is seductive, sandy, reminiscent of long beach days, but no ocean. It is rough on dogs pads, on shoes, on mountain bike tires. It is dusty, and gets into everything. It is hard packed and hurts when you fall on it. It has holes in it in places from things that root (like Javalina) or live in it (like big spiders.) Coyote saunter around like they own the place, and the yipping is lovely and different from northern coyote yipping.

There is poverty here, too. The reservation just west of us was vast desert with tiny tiny pockets of residential scatterings. This is a place where one could disappear.

In the cities – in Tucson and Phoenix – I got to stay (for work) in box hotels and in both cases there were homeless people living right in the dirt outside of my window. It is dry and warm in the daytime, but I worried about them at night. In Casa Grande, Tom and I saw one homeless woman with a dog in a crate that was suspended from a shopping cart who we could not see but we could hear it happily barking as its owner talked to it. Where do you go at night when you are homeless, with a dog?

In the desert the rock is flat and layered like shale, and so it makes a lot of noise when you ride a bike down it. I’m sure we did our little part to whatever erosion/entropy issues the area naturally experiences during the summer monsoons.

Van Living and Dirt

So this is piggish of me, but Tom pretty much does the housework nowadays, since he is not working. Living in a van makes this easy, though. Basically, we have to shake out the three throw rugs we have and give a quick sweep down of the cork floor. He washes our clothes once a week and does the dishes most nights, and he cooks. Most of the dirt comes from the dogs. But living small also means that you don’t have as much stuff. It’s pretty much perfect if you hate housecleaning.

The thing is, when you live in a small space, you are outside more. You sit on the grass under a tree after dinner, instead of on a sofa. It’s just a different kind of dirt.

No more garden, but we have some plants.

We bought a couple of wee cacti at the desert museum, and from the free shelf we got a little pot which Tom planted something in (it hasn’t come up yet, so I will be surprised once it does.) We also got from the free shelf (that’s like, such a great concept and I wish every campground had one) a “garden in a can” which was basically a basil plant in planting soil in a can. It felt good to smell that smell of peat moss and potting soil, especially in the desert, and I spent a few minutes inhaling the scent of it and remembering our little vegetable garden we left in Rhode Island. So now as we travel back east we have our little garden. It rides in the little sink and then when we park it goes on the windowsill on the dashboad or outside on the picnic table, weather permitting. It is not tomatoes but it is a just enough dirt and green to be companionable. And in the tread of our tires, both van and bicyle – in the nooks and crannies of our shoes – under the fingernails and maybe in the crevices of our knees, we carry a little of the dirt from all of the places we have traveled to. It’s kind of cool, when you think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

Paris Mountain Ultra, October 2016 (and a little blog catching-up)

5 Nov

I wasn’t sure about signing up for any races this year. After last year’s DNF at Free To Run in the Berkshires, I realized I had way, way too much happening in my life to fully commit to training for anything. Having our house on the market and all of the stuff that goes along with that (improvements, getting rid of junk, etc) and getting used to working from home 8-6 every day was keeping me busy and maybe I was just a wee bit burnt out on running at the end of last year. I still ran on weekends with Georgia, through the winter, and a bit during the week, but mostly spent it doing yoga and walks with Tom and the dogs.

As Spring came on, I decided I would run a marathon in South Carolina while visiting family just over the border in NC. I signed up for Upstate Ultra’s Altamont Challenge, and started in on the training again. Knowing Altamont had some serious elevation gain, I did some hill training where possible in Rhode Island and then in April ran the race. It was my slowest marathon ever, but I had a great time running up and down the mountain road. The folks from Upstate Ultra and the Greenville running community were all so nice and welcoming. It felt good to be back.

While there, Matthew Hammersmith, the race director, told me about Paris Mountain Ultra, which happens in October. Not knowing if we’d be back, I put it in the back of my mind.

And then we sold the house.

There are whole blog posts I should have written this year about this strange, intense experience. Saying “see you later” to friends and to my 23 year-old daughter was surreal and hard. I had a couple of drafts started, but never found the time to sit down and finish them. Despite missing my daughter, I felt good leaving, knowing she is where she wants to be, with good people in her life.

We have had an amazing summer and fall. Just after the closing, with Tom and Coco in the truck, towing a small u-haul trailer, and me driving the van (with Charlie as co-pilot), we headed south, first stopping off in Glastonbury to see Tom’s family. On the way, we went through Delaware Water Gap, camped a few nights in Pennsylvania’s Caledonia State Park, saw Gettysburg, Antietam, camped in two spots on Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shendoah Valley, and finally ended up in late July at our new Base Camp – Black Dog Farm in Tryon, NC.

Once settled in, we got busy exploring.

One thing about Tryon – it’s pretty far away from the coast, on the western edge of East Coast Standard time – so mornings are dark, even in summer. It can make it hard to get out of bed to run in the morning, especially with a retired person on no work schedule snoozing contentedly beside me.  The only consolation of rising before dawn was avoiding the heat of the day, so little by little, we got used to running in the pre-dawn, again.

At first, I thought perhaps I might put an Arizona race on the calendar. Arevaipa Runners puts on races around Phoenix all year long, and since we had plans to visit Arizona some time in the winter, I thought that could help motivate me to keep running. So that set some training in motion. In the hottest part of North Carolina’s summer, we headed to trails within an hour’s drive radius. All of these deserve their own blog posts, but in the interest of time, I’ll list them here with links, so that perhaps one time if you are visiting this way, you can try them yourself.

Mountain biking (which is a great cross-training for trails):

Duncan Park Hub City trail system, Spartanburg SC – great beginner trails to get your mountain biking legs back, on clay, in an urban spot, so bathrooms and services close by.

Pleasant Ridge JFA trail – Greenville, SC – the Upstate SORBA Ladies ride met here Thursday nights through late summer and introduced me to this incredibly fun and fast 6 mile loop. Maintained by SORBA, it features screaming downhills with just enough obstacles to make it interesting but not frustrating for an amateur like me. Good for running, too. They switch the trail direction each month to keep things interesting.

Bent Creek, Pisgah National Forest, Asheville NC – miles of trails from beginner to challenging.

Trail Running

Pink Beds, Pisgah National Forest, Asheville NC – a five mile woods loop, non-technical, in a beautiful spot.

Blue Wall Preserve, Palmetto Trail System, SC – We did two sections: From Lake Lanier, goes straight up Vaughn Gap (chest burner) and is a scream coming down. From Orchard Lake Campground, trail heads along a ridge through pristine woodland. Rarely used trail. Bring Bear spray. You can get some serious solitude miles here.

Green River Gamelands – Start across from Green River Cove tubing. Technical trails along river and rapids, up into the woods. Hunting in Sept – May so summer is best.

Mountains-to-Sea Trail – close to the parkway, limited to foot traffic, this a good trail for getting miles in. Not technical on the parkway portion.

Table Rock State Park, SC– A great place to learn how to fast hike.

We avoided Paris Mountain State Park, although it is used for hiking, trail running and mountain biking, it is about an hour away, and we had so much to explore that was closer. As you can probably guess by this blog post (after a year of no posting) that we’ve been busy.

By September, I learned we would be here a little longer than we thought, and gave Paris Mountain ultra a second look. I decided I would sign up for the 50K. Since we are leaving so late to go on the road, I thought it would not allow for a consistent training schedule, so I might as well put all the summer training to good use. I knew from reading about it that the Paris Mountain Ultra, in its third year, promised some good climbing and challenging trail. Tom signed up for the half marathon, and suddenly our training developed more focus. I had a month and a half to get into “local trail” shape.

As October 22nd approached, I felt pretty good. All of our runs had gone really well, including a 20 miler going up over Howard Gap into Saluda and down Pearson’s Falls Road, an epic half day in the hot sun. My legs felt strong. I had a bit of the mojo back I feel was lost last year. Although I am not racing as much, these training runs and rides and hikes had reminded me what I love about being out there. If you have the legs to take you far, you can see some amazing stuff that some people will never see.

My sister and her friend and friend’s daughter decided to volunteer, and knowing she would be there raised my spirits as well. Trail running is pretty boring to watch until your runner comes across the finish line, so I’ve rarely had family watch me race. Nancy, Ted and Mia were put to work immediately on making chili, and were there when we turned up at 6:30 a.m. It was a balmy 50 degrees, and I was ready for a long day on the trails. From looking at the previous year’s times, I was banking on about eight and a half hours on trail. My best 50K time is 6:30, on flattish trail, but I knew with the elevation gain my time would be much longer. Matt gave a pre-race meeting in the picnic shelter, where a roaring fire in the rustic fireplace kept the runners warm before starting. I tried to pay attention to most of it, but I figured I would probably get lost at some point (amazingly, I did not. First race ever where I did not get lost!)

At 7:28 we lined up on the road adjacent to the picnic shelter start-finish line, and promptly started at 7:30. I stayed near the back and settled in to a nice me-pace. That’s me with the plaid armbands.

parismtn

The trail climbed up to an old waterworks feature, and then circled a lake on flattish trail for a few miles before crossing the park road and going over what I nicknamed “Rootsville” for a half mile, and then began its ascent up the mountain. Knowing I would climb this two more times today kept my pace tame. I fast-hiked, quickly getting dusted by a group of three guys ahead. I could hear a few people behind me, but for much of this part, I was alone.

The water is very low now, as it has been dry. After crossing a dry stream, the trail takes one more push before the split. 50Kers go left. I took a deep breath, a swig of water, and then banged a left, immediately encountering faster runners having completed the firetower loop coming back the other way. We waved enthusiastically at each other, and I pressed on along the ridge, this trail slightly uphill and quite scenic. At the remains of the old firetower, I turned to the person I had heard breathing behind me and introduced myself. Kasey was also from North Carolina, a Physical Therapist, and just my pace. We ran together as the trail began to descend the other side of the mountain – a smooth, flowy few miles that were pure heaven. After about 20 minutes, we were joined by another woman, Joann, and the three of us made our way up to the second lake. Joann had been on the trail a few weeks prior, and was wearing a GPS, so was able to keep us posted about when we would hit the first aid station at 8 miles. But first, we had some more ascending to do. It was great running with these two women. We kept busy telling each other our life stories – and of course, I have to be careful with being too distracted, because that’s when I usually fall. Surely enough, just before the first aid station, on a gnarly downhill, I took a superman style flight after hitting a root with my shoe. A moment in the air, followed by a thud in the leaves and dirt. It was comically loud. I did the usual bout of foul-mouthed swearing, sat up and took note of the dirt-covered, quickly-reddening left knee. All my parts moved fine, I was just a little sore. I got up, dusted off, and we gingerly headed down the trail. After awhile, I forgot all about it and we ran along swiftly. Another tough little climb took us up to the first aid station.

The first aid station was the longest I’d “raced” before an aid station appeared, ever. Not that we were exactly lightening fast, but in those eight miles, I’d polished off my two bottles of water. The aid station was unmanned, and featured, among the usual pretzels and bars, oddly, unopened packets of Oodles of Noodles. I wonder if that’s an ultra thing I don’t know about? Crunch down on uncooked noodles? Suck the salt out of the seasoning packets? We had a good laugh over that one.

After that, the trail descended slowly back down to the lake for several miles, and circled back through the start/finish. There was my sister! I gave her a big hug and she took note of my knee, asking if I wanted to clean it up. I figured it was better to leave it, as the blood had dried at that point and the dirt was sort of a band-aid, right? They told me there had been a mile kids’ race and that they had enjoyed volunteering but they would be going. I thanked them for being there and said goodbye before heading out on loop 2 with Kacey and Joann.

The second loop was a little slower on the uphills. It was warmer, now, and we three were tired, but our spirits were still high. Knowing we had another (albeit shorter) loop to complete after this one, we kept the pace sensible (read: a lot of walking.) Kacey’s IT band was starting to bother her after the firetower. I was rearing to go after the downhill started, feeling that feeling I get on the mountain bike and enthused about the upcoming flowy downhill. At the second lake, we took a group photo, and pressed on to the next climb. I got behind Kacey and Joann and just followed their feet as best as I could. Strong women! Kacey had a bad headache as well as the IT band. At the aid station, the water cask was nearly empty. I filled up on tailwind and we made note to tell them down below that the water was nearly out. I was getting close to that bonky feeling, until Kacey gave me one of her gels – a brand I can not recall, the flavor something like watermelon lime cherry cold medicine. It was awful but it did the trick. I came back from the dead, my feet no longer brushing rocks and roots. In my newly energized state, I started in on another distracting story when BAM! Down I went for fall number two of the day. Again, on a downhill, this time on rocky trail, my left knee and leg got scraped up a little more. Frustrated, I got up and we resumed our trail. At this point, Kacey’s IT band was screaming and she bade us go ahead. Joann took the lead and I followed her down the trail, past the lake and into the start/finish once more.

One thing about loops – it’s easier to feel done with the day when people are sitting around on lawn chairs and the car is invitingly nearby. I felt done. We no longer had Kacey with us and I wasn’t sure she’d do a third loop when she eventually came in. I ate some chips, refueled, and visited the ladies’ room. Joann was heading back out. A volunteer with a green ball cap eyed me and my bloody leg and asked if I had everything I needed for the third loop. “Hm, I’m considering stopping” I replied. He said, “No, no, this loop is much shorter, it’s much easier. No worries. Just go.” I thought that if I thought more about it, I wouldn’t go. Joann was leaving. I sucked it up and went with her. (Note: Kacey did indeed come in from the second loop and then went on to the third loop, to finish the day, even with a messed up IT band. Now that’s badass.)

That third climb sucked, but knowing it was the last one, I kept sane by remembering that at the top, I would be going right instead of left, onto the shorter trail. Joann led the way. I spent this last climb noticing all the little things I hadn’t noticed on the first pass. I felt better than the second climb. At the top, we were overjoyed that we finally got to take the right turn, and it led to a really lovely doubletrack trail, slightly downhill, that was pure bliss after the climb. We had a good flow going. While I was mentally done for the day, this was the perfect time to throw this section in – just easy enough to not challenge a tired body – just fast enough to feel fast after 26 miles of running/hiking. Joann kept me entertained with stories about her work, about South Carolina history, and her family. I took the front for awhile and just listened to her. At the bottom, we met back up with the lake trail and made our way in. On our second pass through, we had met a group of runners who had stopped for an elderly hiker who had fallen and broken an arm. I wondered whether she had gotten out okay as I passed the same spot on the way in to the finish line. I couldn’t believe I still felt as well as I did after 32 odd miles and we picked up the pace in the last mile. Up the hill we went, around the bend, and in to the finish. 8 hours, fifty two minutes. Tom was there to cheer me in – he had done his half in a little over 2 hours, 2nd fastest in his age group. The volunteers (awesome, every one of them) encouraged water and food. Joann and I talked a little more, we waited some to see if Kacey  would come in, and then I finally sat for a bit. Another 50K done; another adventure in the upstate SC area (who knew there were so many beautiful trails here?), and a great day meeting new friends on the trails.

Now that that is in the books, I am ready to hit the road in a couple of weeks and see what new trails we might see in the deep south as we slowly make our way west. It was great to be made to feel so welcome by Matt and his friends at Upstate Ultras and SCUM Runners. We will carry the SCUM runner bumper sticker proudly on our van.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feels like Christmas in July

24 Dec

It is a very mild christmas eve in Rhode Island. In fact, it has been mild here all fall, right into December. We have thrown open all of the windows, and despite both of us having little colds, have taken several walks today. Nature is confused. On a walk with Zoe at Oakland Beach this morning, we saw what I think were Greater Scaup floating on the waves at the beach, goose-like in their look and call, making a big fuss as if summer were suddenly back and the tourists might invade their beach. On Zoe’s road, a lone forsythia blossomed on a fat bush, bare enough to reveal a sweet little birds’ nest, empty for the day. Everyone is out and about, although it is not sunny. Everything is damp, but heck, it’s Christmas Eve, so people seem cheerful out there despite the lack of a white christmas.

Working from home, I am now afforded a fine view of the side yard, where two or three fat squirrels play all day long. One pretends to work at digging a place for a store of nuts or seeds; the other waits until the time is ripe and then, in a fit of spring-like energy, runs and pounces on the other’s tail. It’s pretty cute, and beats staring at the wall of a cubicle. When the snow finally comes, I won’t have to worry about digging out to get to the bus to get up to Providence to then spend a day worrying about getting home in the snow. My commute is quite short: put the dogs out, come back inside, refresh my coffee, and get to work. It hasn’t gotten old yet.

With a little more time in the mornings, I can now devote a good portion of it to a yoga lesson with yogawithadriene.com, followed by a run or, with this mild weather, a solid bike ride. I am not really good at yoga, and I’m not a big fan of classes or gyms, because despite having done yoga for awhile now, I am the least limber person I know. I can’t touch my toes. I like Adriene’s classes because she seems like someone I would talk to on the street, and she always says in her videos that it doesn’t matter where you are, but to enjoy the journey. I always laugh at people who say that. Just when you stop to enjoy a moment, it’s gone. But when doing yoga with Adriene, I actually have those moments that seem to hang on for a bit – either I’m cursing her – “move on, woman!” – or I am relishing a twist that relieves a sore back muscle. I recommend her to you if you are a beginner or just like doing things by yourself at home. Following Adriene’s lesson, I sometimes do these hip exercises to strengthen weak muscles that caused some problems for me this year. It’s pretty funny how a woman who trained for and then ran across the state, and went on to hike/run the Pemi loop in a day with her crazy friends, has weak hip muscles, but I do. So I do the full six minutes but it is HARD. The cheerful instructor says to do them several times in a row. Really? Ha. I can barely get through six minutes. But I DO already feel the benefits of these activities. I can lift my knees higher, and have a stronger upstroke on the bike.

Living out here, it is hard sometimes to not be outside all of the time. Even when it is cold, we are surrounded by beautiful trail, especially now that the DeCoppet Preserve Trails have opened, just down the road. Tom and I spent a good portion of our weekends this Fall exploring these woods. There are lots of old cellar holes, stone walls, boulders and grown over fields. DeCoppet wanted the preserve to be given to the state with the explicit wish that it be kept hunting-free, for use of foot hiking only. We still wear blaze. You just never know.

We have rediscovered the joy of the long ride the past few weekends, riding to the ocean in Narragansett, over through the woods in Ashaway, and along the coast in Newport. My solo rides are ten to fifteen miles in the morning before work to check out what’s going on in the area, seeing the sun come up over dew-blanketed hay fields. We truly live in a Paradise.

We took the house off the market temporarily to freshen up our kitchen and fix some logs on the north side of the house. The log guys were here for a couple of weeks. They were very professional and we are so happy with their work. With all the construction noise, I took my laptop and tried out some of our local coffee shops. My favorite was Fresh Ground Garden Cafe. They make excellent sandwiches, and the coffee was good. I might go back, although I make a perfectly fine cup of coffee at home and have grown used to my routine over the past couple of months. But it is nice for a change.

Spring events

This is the week for signing up for races and lotteries before prices go up. I have my eye on a few for next year, but I am hesitant to sign up for anything without knowing our housing destiny. If we can’t sell the house this spring, I suppose I can run a race here. But I have been intrigued by races put on in North and South Carolina, in particular, one race which is claimed to be the hardest marathon in the country, and another, Quest for the Crest, claiming to be the hardest 50K. As my mother says, why? It is hard to explain. Either way, both require a level of training I am not sure I am prepared for, seeing as I have taken some time off of running until I can strengthen the hips. So, we’ll see. There’s always the opportunity for a bicycle adventure. I’ve been promising Mad Legs we’d do the Kancamagus Highway for years now. Maybe this is the year. Thank goodness my best friend and training partner is so tolerant of my whims. Whether it is running, hiking, biking or laying around watching movies on the couch, Tom goes along with whatever I want to do. Lucky me.

The most important part is the journey, right?

Happy Holidays.

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Just Say Yes! The Pemi Loop

13 Aug
Panorama from Mt. Liberty. courtesy J. Sanderson

Panorama from Mt. Liberty. courtesy J. Sanderson

I’ll start this post by saying, just say yes. Say yes, even if you are pretty sure you are not trained enough to tackle it. Say yes because this might be the only chance you will get.

This is turning out to be one helluva Summer Of Adventure. Between planning for and then executing the whole Dames Across Rhode Island run, putting our house on the market with another fantastic sell-everything-not-nailed-down yard sale, pacing at Vermont, dealing with a Prius that decided to shed its mortal coil (hybrid battery bailed at  250K miles – well WELL past its warranty) and discovering the newly opened DeKoppet Preserve (more on that in another blog post…), the summer has gone by in a whir. Back in June, my friend Janet asked if I would be interested in running the Pemi Loop. My first thought was, OF COURSE I WOULD! But then I looked at the calendar. We had another thing planned coinciding with Janet’s planned traverse. I put it out of my head for awhile as a maybe, while still staying in touch with the planning on Facebook. Mary, Janet’s friend and fellow runner, who ended up pacing my last desperate miles at Dames Across Rhode Island, would also be attempting the Pemi Loop, as well as fellow TARC runner extraordinaire Annette, as well as Laura, a runner from Connecticut with a 3:38 marathon time. This was turning out to be a good group of strong women. Janet recruited Brenda, a friend from Trail Animals Running Club (who originally planned to run Dari), and as the summer wore on, I had to make up my mind: should I go? When the Other Planned Event fell through, I had no more excuses. I should go.

The Pemi Loop traverse circles through the Pemigwasset Wilderness in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Starting and ending at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead off of the Kancamagus Highway, it can be run/hiked either clockwise or counter-clockwise. It is thirty two miles, and crosses about nine peaks, with the option of adding three more. Much of the trail is on exposed ridge; below the ridge, the trail is often rocky (it is the granite state, after all) and either descending or ascending one of its many peaks. The trail never goes around. The weather can be tricky and change quickly. Our forecast showed perfect conditions: a high pressure system would sweep out all the humidity and heat, bringing in clear, sunny conditions.

courtesy gearx.com

Adventure is one thing, keeping up with a group of strong fast women is another. This has been a cruelly slow summer for me. Sure, I have logged plenty of miles, but none of them have been fast. With nothing in particular to train for after DARI, I ambled from one trail race to another, to half marathon on road to long bike ride, training runs consisting of the odd eight mile dirt road commute to work, or a weekend 20 miler with plenty of walking; nothing terribly taxing, although the summer has been a hot one. While I knew I was going in to this under-trained, slow but strong, I had a deep desire to meet the challenge. I sent a message to Janet et al... I would be joining them!

In the weeks leading up to the traverse, we all did our homework. Annette messaged that she was a no-go; she needed time to heal an injury from her wicked cool adventure in Scotland. So now we were down to five of us. In a party-line call a few days before the run, we all laughed and planned for what we imagined would be a 12-14 hour adventure.  We weren’t shooting for any fastest known time, but we certainly could come in by sunset, in time for a nice dinner at the Woodstock Inn, and maybe a sit in the condo’s hot tub. I packed a bikini in my overnight bag. A little voice inside my head said, um, you know? This thing has mountains… lots and lots of them. Reading blogs by both mountain runners and hikers, I couldn’t decide if we were being overly optimistic, or whether I was being unnecessarily wary, but something worried me it was going to take a little longer. I had done, three times – once in very foul, cold weather – the western ridge trail from Haystack to Lincoln and Lafayette and down again – and all three times it had taken all day – eight or nine hours – to hike it. I wasn’t sure we would be much faster with the running, but I hoped we would. In fact, as I glossed over the elevation map, I had visions of the group of us gliding effortlessly across the ridge trail once we came out at tree-line. Because once we were up there, it would be flat and smooth ridgeline, right? Plus, I had the optimism of my fellow runners. We bolstered each other on the ride up, and over a great dinner at Portland Pie Company.

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Arriving at the condo, we made last minute preparations before going to bed. I packed everything into my “kitchen sink” Ultimate Direction SJ hydration vest. I probably had two pounds of food – sliced turkey smooshed between four slices of Italian bread, cut into eight squares. A bag of cheezits, one of fig newtons, one of dried fruit and nuts. Three Builders’ bars, some Honey Stingers’ chews, and extra NUUN caps for my many water bottles. My pack’s bladder leaked the moment I put water in to it; three distinct holes told me a fork must have been in the sink the day I washed it. Brenda loaned me two collapsible 16 oz bottles which I filled and stuffed in the big pocket on the back, and with two bottles in the front – one with a Katahdin filter – I had 64 oz of water. All told my pack, including above-treeline just-in-case clothing and emergency gear, plus styling 1980s fanny pack added 20 lbs to my summer-solid frame.  It was going to bounce. Oh well. We went to bed, sleeping a few hours before the alarm cut in to the dawn.

Flume (4,328), Liberty (4,459), Little Haystack (4,780), Lincoln (5,089) and Lafayette (5,260)

We set out at 5:39 from the Lincoln Woods parking area, everyone cheerful and ready for the day. From the flat, easy Lincoln Woods trail, after a mile or so we turned left to ascend on the Osseo trail, which gently climbs (until it’s not so gentle and your heart is going BANG! BANG! BANG!) a granite-bouldered trail, reaching the summit of Mt. Flume in about an hour and a half. The weather was PERFECT. The small summit boasted stunning views, just an appetizer to the main course. We paused to take photographs, take stock of how we were feeling. I could not help but admire the grace and ease Mary and Janet showed taking the lead on the climbs. Laura stayed not far behind them. Brenda and I brought up the back. Janet was so happy that this had all come together and that we were all out here enjoying it. That feeling was contagious – soon we were all skipping along the small ridgeline trail on our way to Mt. Liberty. At one point, an emergency beacon app I had bought for my phone suddenly went off. It sounded like a school fire alarm. What the hell is that? Is that coming from the valley? No, it’s coming from MY PHONE!  I struggled to turn the darned thing off and prayed it didn’t really send a signal but merely sounded an alarm. How random! Why had it done that? I put my phone in airplane mode and forgot about it.

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What a beautiful day. Sunny, 70 degrees, with light clouds riding the front. Ahead, the visible peaks of Liberty, Haystack, Lincoln and Lafayette showed us what was to come. It was hard to believe that from here, we would eventually be over there. Looking east, we could make out where we would be even later that day.

We actually ran some between Flume and Liberty. The trail stays fairly well at elevation, and was mild up and down, plenty rocky. It was walk, jog, run, step through some rocks, run a little, walk some more, for a couple of miles. Out along the knife edge of a cliff, into the low woods again. Suddenly, we emerged at Liberty, another summit that seemed less like a summit and more like the shoulder of the big summits to come. From here, we could see the ridge trail ahead, exposed and open to the weather, which fortunately was fine. We descended back down into the woods, and then down a steep side trail 800 feet to Liberty Springs campsite to get water. We were all pretty good with water at that point but the next water stop would be much further, so we chugged a few ounces to make room and then filtered some more to carry. Back up the side trail with mountain-cold spring water chill against our backs, we moved along. Soon, we ascended Haystack, and at that point, we were out on the ridge. On a bad day, this trail can feel like Siberia. Today, it was all skipping and hopping through alpine rock and granite-hugging stunted greenery. We stopped to admire the views, and I started my routine of eating something at each stop. Keep fueled, keep happy. I did not sit down. I generally don’t on these things. It is too hard to get back up. I tried to pay attention as my brain dueled with the two purposes of getting the trail done, and seeing the world around me.

From here, the trail from the junction of the Falling Waters trail (which ascends steeply from a busy parking area a couple of miles below) until the other side of Lafayette has often been described as “Grand Central station.” There were day hikers, AT Thru Hikers looking dirt-tatoo’d and weary, families with little hiker children, and runners like us. Although it was only Friday, I counted fifty people between Haystack and Lincoln. Conversations melded together as hikers and runners passed in both directions. Janet, Laura and Mary were up ahead; Brenda and I were laughing at some private joke, as if these crowds, this herd of people, were not all  around us. There were a lot of high-school groups. One young boy descending the rocks toward us with a sour look on his face had on a New Order t-shirt beneath his over-sized pack. I said hello, complimented him on his shirt. He said Thank you like a high schooler would say politely to his friend’s mother. “I hope he didn’t steal that shirt from his grandfather” I said out loud. Someone chuckled. We were in two lines: one going up, one coming down. Everyone was talking, everyone was snapping pictures, admiring views, shouting to friends, parents snagging the collars of over-zealous rock-hopping children. The land drops off on either side.  I recalled to Brenda my time up here in a storm. It seemed to take forever in the high winds and cold rain to get from one blasted rock to another. By contrast, today we easily climbed up the rocks and could see our destination. At some point, the stupid alert app went off again. I quickly shuffled off my pack, reached for my phone and pressed around until it turned itself off again. “If this thing does this again, I’m uninstalling it.” After a third false alarm, I uninstalled the app and shut my phone off.  Pay attention. I thought to myself. You’ve only been up here three times and there is still so much to see. See that slide over there with mica shining in the sun? See the clouds backed up against Mount Lafayette? Hear the breeze against the rocks?
It was all so pretty, overwhelmingly so.

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The atmosphere on top of Mt. Lafayette – a whopping 5,000 plus feet – was jubilant. Lafayette is a sort of a crossroads; turn left, and one can descend to Greenleaf hut, and eventually to the Lafayette parking lot and route 93 far below. Our option was straight ahead, continuing over the summit ridge to descend, open views all around, another tumble of rocks, as if a giant child had thrown a handful of boulders down a long alley. Most of the hikers were back at Lafayette. It was much quieter here. Brenda and I hiked with an older guy – maybe in his late sixties? – who reminisced about bare-booting the Bonds trail in the dead of winter. Those were the days. No one does that, now. He teased us about our long day ahead. “The Pemi Loop? Hope you brought headlamps!” We laughed. I glanced down at my watch and saw that we were seven hours in and not yet to our halfway point. So much for our 14 hour goal. But then, they said it was easier on the second half… I thought of this as I clomped down the exposed granite and looked around. Nothing but beautiful green wilderness as far as the eye could see, and granite trail beneath the toes.

Garfield Ridge Trail, Mt. Garfield (4,500) and the madness of PUDs

Now began the Garfield Ridge Trail, down from Lafayette, leaving Ted Our Old Timer Hiking Friend at the Skookumchuck trail (the word means, according to Wikipedia, “strong water’). Brenda and I descended into a series of PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs). We hiked fast, hoping to catch up with the other three. Time seemed to slow. Below treeline, the trail now offered less for views and our eyes were busy scanning the trail ahead for foothold and loose boulder. Being unfamiliar with this portion of the trail, I had little expectation, but it did seem to go on. and on. and on… Eventually it turned upward, and soon we summited Garfield. A guy at the top, munching on a granola bar with a handsome black lab by his side told us our friends had just been there before us. We took the quick side trail to inspect the base of what once was the fire tower and to listen to the wind against the rocks at the top. 360 degrees of gorgeous. A French-Canadian couple lunched at the base of the tower. Hopping down near them, we asked if they knew which way the trail went, since it wasn’t readily apparent. We spent a few minutes with them looking for it, and finally found we had to go back down to where we had gone off the trail to come up. Once there, we ran into another group of summit dogs. I love meeting the dogs.

Laura and Mary descend. courtesy J. Sanderson

Laura and Mary descend. courtesy J. Sanderson

We were well behind the rest of our group, and it was getting on to late afternoon. Coming off of Garfield, a sign read 2.9 miles to Galehead hut, which is where we were headed to meet up with our gang. More granite bowling balls, a stop at the campsite to filter more water, another drop, and suddenly, just around a bend, the trail was IN a waterfall. I have hiked wet trail before, but this was exceptional. Steep, wet, with running water right down the middle, I had a moment of panic as I reached for a tree root and it pulled away from the rock. It took us nearly an hour to do that mile. Oy vey! Beyond that (finally!) we roller-coastered along rocky up and down trail. At one point, in the distance, we could see the Galehead hut, our next destination. It seemed incredibly far away from us. Around Garfield Pond we looped, and as the trail ascended again I thought to myself that this just HAD to be the ascent to the hut – because, well, it just HAD to be. My right ankle was twitchy and giving me some pain from turning it several times through the bowling ball trail. We passed a family with wee hiker children with their wee hiker backpacks. Up ahead, we came to a clearing, emerged from our climb to another juncture and there, there was the hut. Our halfway point, and we were nine hours in.

An AT thru-hiker hailed as I passed. “Are you coming from the South or the North?” I hesitated… didn’t we just come from the West? “uh, the West.” He scowled. “Yes but… on the AT it’s always North or South.” “Oh, then, uh, I guess the South.” He asked if we’d seen one of their friends, and we had, so we told him that we had seen her by the waterfall-trail and she had been hiking fairly well (as well as could be with a big AT pack and, well, the waterfall trail.) Brenda and I wasted little time getting up on the porch and inside. And there was Janet, Laura and Mary. Hugs all around. They had been worried about us. They had been waiting 45 minutes. They had had soup. There was no more soup, but I spied a coffee pot and went right to it. We refreshed, re-hydrated, re-fueled, and all caught up, and I insisted that if we happened again to get separated that they not wait. Brenda and I would be fine. But that’s not how Janet, Laura and Mary roll – they would wait for us on each of the following ascents and junctures ahead, because we were doing this together. As we talked and regrouped, I watched as families came in for the night, the end of their days and a good night’s sleep ahead. It was now 5 o’clock. Laura was feeling some stomach issues but was ready to press on.

South Twin (4,902), Mt. Bond (4,698), and Bondcliff (4,265)

We left Galehead hut to ascend South Twin Mountain. You know those stair machines at the gym? You know how they have like big, non-standard 14 inch steps? They would be perfect training for the ascent of Twin Mountain. The sun blazed on our backs as once again, we watched Mary and Janet glide on up ahead. Laura stayed back, dealing with her stomach, but soon found her wind and pushed out ahead of Brenda and me. Within minutes, they were lost to our view, and Brenda and I took turns pushing each other up the granite-strewn trail. I had known it was coming – I had read all about it – but it still surprised and humbled me with its relentless UP. At this point, we had been moving forward for twelve solid hours. It was pointless to whine, because we were all doing this together, we were all tired, but we were all amazingly strong and capable. And the best part was that we all knew it – for my part,  I felt secure in this experienced company of women – that Janet could not have picked a better bunch. If anyone was the weak link, it was me, because I was slow. But otherwise, there was no doubt we would all be able to handle what was to come.

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I have to admit it was hard at the top of South Twin when I saw how Laura, Janet and Mary had waited, yet again, for what looked like long enough to get cold, when we had barely gotten there and caught our breath. And I felt guilty about that. It was discouraging to feel that I was slowing them down. I had to take a moment to back it up in my brain and remember what we were doing this for. It was not a race! And some people are just naturally good at this, and dedicated to their fitness, and instead of discouraged I should feel inspired. Attitude change with altitude change!

Attitude summarily changed, we pressed on at a light jog to Bond on a truly luxurious softer trail just below treeline. What a beautiful, beautiful place to be. Finally finding flow on the quiet trail, the day’s frustrations left me. Quiet all around. Green summits in all directions. At the top of Mt Bond, a lone hiker took our photograph while we watched the sun get lower across the sky to the West, the way we had come. I fantasized momentarily about stretching out against the rocks, finding a good old rock pillow, and spending the night alternately sleeping like the dead and waking to watch the stars… ah… if only. We had miles to go. The hiker told us his brother was coming up the trail that we were going down, and to say hello. On the way down, we saw the brother, and I recognized the face – it was the one I had on earlier. The slow-hiker face. The holding-them-up face. I mentally wished him well, knowing he had a ways to go before their campsite. “Hope you all have headlamps” he said, as we passed.

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Descending Bond, Mary turned to us and said, part motherly, part efficient cheer-meisterly: “Now, see Bondcliff up ahead? That’s our last mountain.

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We have to get over that before sunset. We DO NOT want to be on the hard part of that descent after sunset.” We worked our way along this very, very rocky trail. Our ankles were quite tired, and our quads were sore, and OH, the views. Oh. To sit, to stare off into the never-ending wilderness, the sun sinking just beyond a tall peak in the distance, was all that the heart desired. The siren call of summit views. To our right, just feet from where we walked, the side of the ridge dropped sharply to a valley below. Ahead, the impressive summit of Bondcliff loomed. All ideas of time and what could be accomplished seemed to be swept from my head. It was 7:45 and sunset was in 30 minutes, if that. Beyond Bondcliff, the trail would go down – at first sharply, then less steeply, then eventually “boring and flat” another eight or ten? miles. I didn’t see us finishing before ten. So much for dinner out. Someone joked about food at the 24 hour CVS.

Janet and Laura pressed ahead, following Mary, who was anxious and therefore moving fast. Brenda and I dawdled, not yet willing to give up what we had climbed so hard to see. To our left, shadowed by our own mountain, the closer hills hugged in varying shades of green. The granite looked scorched, reflected in the red of the dropping sun. A few minutes of running along a spine of ridge, and then another climb. Past cairns and between low stone walls, we made our way up Bondcliff. At the top, Brenda took a few minutes to climb out on the profile and I snapped her photo while she snapped mine.

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Up ahead, a man in a blue running shirt with a big camera took photos of the sunset from a daring position at the cliff’s precipice. The mother in me wanted to drag him back from the edge and lecture him on safety. I’m pretty sure that his photographs of that day are awesome and were worth his precarious perch. We hiked past him, once again finding ourselves descending a mountain, the last of the day. A very quick few hundred feet of serious downhill – hands required and granite-hugging, knee scraping drops –  and we emerged in a little clearing where the other three waited for us. “Yay!” we cheered, celebrating getting off of the mountain just before sunset. Headlamps on, we now prepared to descend the last of the trail, a few hours ahead of hiking by headlamp and stars. At one point, the photographer we had seen ran down past us. And then it was just us for a long time.

My headlamp is pretty strong*. At river crossings, someone would call me to the front so I could point the beam forward to see where the trail led. We crossed the creek leading to the East Branch of the Pemigwasset several times. In the dark, with rocks flattened by my headlamp, I lost my usual rock-hopping fear and found myself crossing with ease, despite being tired. I wanted badly for Brenda and I to keep up with Laura, Janet and Mary. We were moving in a train, down the hip of the mountain, easing our way back. Songs came into my head. Very bad jokes were passed around. I thought about how lucky I am. Truly. How many people can be thrown together like this, use everything they had for eighteen hours, and come out in the end with a smile? While we were all tired, and desperate for our sleeping bags, something in me wanted to bottle this moment of fatigue and camaraderie… five women walking in a line, in the footsteps of so many before us, alternately quiet and rambunctious on the night trail. At some point, this night would be over, we would be back at the car, back at the condo, showered and done and part of us wishing we were still out there.

The trail finally emerged back on the flat former railroad bed of the Lincoln Wood Trail, described by everyone we passed as “boring and flat”, and we resumed what we had left in our legs of a running pace. The job here was to avoid tripping on old leftover rail ties. Other than that, it was wide enough for a truck and good for running. We ran, walked, ran, walked. I got ahead, for the first time that day, and turned off my high powered coal-miner’s headlamp to walk blindly in the dark. On again, off again. I could hear the others behind me. What a day. Finally, after almost exactly eighteen hours, we emerged onto the bridge across the river, only a stone’s throw from the parking area. We turned off our lamps and looked up at the carpet of stars. Laura pointed, “a shooting star!” Lucky us. Make a wish. It might just come true.

* shameless, unsolicited plug for the Petzl Tikka R+, which has never failed me and goes hours on a charge.

Our Pemi Loop adventure came out differently in different measurements. I measured us at 28 miles, but Mary tells us it was 31 point something. In all, with stops of about 1.5 hours, our traverse took 18 hours. Out of the food I brought, I was left with three wedges remaining of the two sandwiches; half of the Cheez-its, most of the fig newtons, and a handful of nuts and dried fruit. All but one bite of the bars were gone. I had used two NUUN tablets and gone through about 5.7 liters of water. At different points, I wore all the clothes I brought except the tights. I did not need the backup headlamp but I recommend one anyway.

I want to say thank you thank you thank you Janet Sanderson for getting us all to agree to do it, for planning the adventure, and securing the awesome accommodations. Mary deserves mucho praise & hugs for her never-ending optimism and leadership. I am glad I got some time to hike with lovely Laura, whose still waters run deep, and whose persistence and strength in the face of feeling like crap is inspiring as hell. And many thanks to Brenda Morris, the most cheerful ultra-runner out there, who sure knows how to make a long slog the most fun thing ever. We went in smiling, and we came out smiling.

Vermont 100: Horses, Runners, Crew and Pacers

23 Jul

It is 3:00 a.m. on a warm, rainy Saturday in July. The showers have just let up, and now the rain is a steady pit, pat on tent flies across a muddy field in the Mount Ascutney region of Vermont. We are all here, and no one is sleeping, for the 27th annual Vermont 100 Endurance Run footrace and horse rider event, which takes place on mostly private lands and dirt roads in the Hartland/Woodstock area.  All day Friday, the weather was gorgeous, but the rains came at night, fast moving, making me double-cross thankful that I was not running, but would be pacing a runner, for this event.

Suddenly, headlamps on, the first runners emerge from sodden tents, firing up camp stoves and slipping into gear that will carry them for the next 100 miles. As the 100-mile runners swiftly make their way to the main tent below, the rest of the campers turn over collectively in their sleeping bags. The next to rise will be the 100-mile runner crew (if the runner has a crew), followed by the 100-kilometer runners who will start later. And between tent city and the main tent, the horses and their trailers begin to awaken. Out come curry combs, picks, owners looking disheveled, with bits of hay in their coffee mugs. In the parking area there are two or three campers – an A-Frame trailer, a small home-built box trailer, and our Airstream B-190 hippie van, complete with tie-dye curtains and dancing bear decals that we thought we’d leave on when we bought it, in the spirit of happy camping. The hard top was certainly appreciated when the skies opened, and water for coffee heats easily on its propane stove. From our elevated loft window, we have enjoyed a view of rain, mud, runners, pacers, crew, dragging gear back and forth across a rain-drenched gully.

We get up around six o’clock, realizing that already the 100 milers have been on the trail two hours. A second round of activity erupts around seven o’clock as the 100 kilometer runners make their way to the start line. We watch. There are maybe thirty runners for the shorter distance, which still, at sixty odd miles, is a challenge and takes on much of the hardest part of the overall course. Off they go, skies cloudy but the rain holding off, for now. We mosey back up the hill, then out for breakfast. Up in Hartland, the Bassett family (a local family very involved in the race) owns The Hartland Diner that serves knock-out Vermont maple sausages. We each had three. A Bassett youth with red braided hair and “VT 100” in glitter on her cheeks serves us eggs, toast, sausages, and for Tom, big Vermont pancakes. As a pacer, I had the leisure of hanging out. Most of the pacers would not join their runners for several more hours. In the meantime, we finish our breakfast and joke about the diner’s decor, which consists of many plastic diner-saurs on the counter. Clever. The Bassett waitress asks if we were involved in the race. “I’m pacing” I reply. “Oh! I’m pacing too!” A brief exchange of smiles, pleasant see-you-theres.

The weather really starts to clear on our return. With the exception of backing into a fence (it was me), stopping to knock on the door, pay for the fence, the drive to and from breakfast was uneventful.

Back at camp, the sun came out strong. The 100 mile runners had been out for about six hours at this point. I estimated the mid-packers to be about mile 40. Nap time.

Pacing at Vermont 100 is a curious job. The pacer is picking up his or her runner, for the most part, at mile 69.4 at an aid station called Camp 10 Bear (or Bear 10, I’m not really sure.) The runners are tired. They have just run 70 miles. At six-thirty p.m., Camp 10 Bear was a very busy place. The two port-o-lets doors were constantly locked. Crew, most looking like bedraggled family members, stood around car hatches gaping with gear. When would their runner arrive? Did someone see him at the last aid station? I heard so-and-so dropped. Here come some horses! This is how conversation goes at 10 Bear. Runners, riders, crew cars arrived in trickles, each time an occasion for applause, cheers, families running forward to take water bottles and find out what their runner needed. The crews looked as tired as the runners and had been up driving back roads since five. A scan of the food at the Trail Animals Running Club Aid Station told me that, as usual, the best of the aid stations was right here.

I go from spectator to evaluator to friend to big sister in a fell swoop at 7:30 p.m. as I spot my runner. He is shaking his head as he comes down the hill, not smiling. I greet him and we move to get him weighed in. Then he immediately sits in hopes of recovering from a sour stomach, and after a few minutes, taking some time to lie down on one of the aid station cots, under a pop up tent. There are two other runners there – one with trench foot, one with severe chafe. They commiserate. I am anxious and want to get us moving, but I know that I have to be patient. Then the skies open. Sheets of rain come down. We are for the moment barely covered by the tent. We wait to run. Run? Off we go.

Crews cannot help after the aid station. This is now the pacer’s job. While we can’t carry gear for the runners, we can “hold on to” a bottle or jacket while the runner adjusts her pack, or headband, or while he tries to eat. Pacers can try to make conversation. Sometimes, this is not effective and is even annoying to the runner. A good pacer needs to know when to shut up. A great pacer can sense when to pull out a good story after a long silence. Mostly it’s a guessing game. A pacer needs to be thinking for his runner, willing to let a fart happen without comment, be ready to run ahead to aid stations to get water, or saltines, or to shout out a runner’s number. A runner just needs to at most run, but at best, by this time, walk efficiently. Each step forward is further than the last one. Sunset happens. The runners look hang-dog while the pacers try to be perky, taking in the view before everything goes black.

At dark, headlamps come out and bop along in front and behind, picking up sparkling sodden leaf reflection and mud spatter. At one point, I go down so fast I barely feel the landing as my butt slides in the mud. Hopping up, I am covered from ass to shins in Vermont’s finest.

Pacers from 10 Bear only cover the last thirty miles. Much of this is walking and fast hiking, but nothing too technical. Someone says this is the hardest part of the whole route because of the unrelenting mud and hills. Aid station, big hill, enter trail, mud, slide, down, out onto dirt road, a few miles, aid station. Several moments of bliss as we bop down a mud-covered trail when my runner is feeling well.

At the next aid station, Spirit of ’76, a volunteer remarks that they have seen many, many upset stomachs all day. Could it have been dinner the night before? No, probably not, he says. It was the rain and then the sun that came out, and the humidity. It is humid, still. Maybe seventy five degrees, at night, and the air is like breathing a cloud. I remark on the jazzy patriotic decor and pretty lights. A time-wizened volunteer tells me one runner came through and asked, “What does Spirit of ’76 mean?” I laugh. Probably wasn’t born yet!

The runners look battle-worn. Some lie down on the ground napping and alternately shivering. A couple go and retch up whatever is in their stomachs – not much. Hard to eat on a sour stomach. Hard to catch up when you haven’t eaten. Can I help? Would you like some soup? Soup seems to do the trick for now.

Crews look worried. They have been following – and then waiting on – their runners all day. Some of their runners have not come in yet. Even though the cut-off is a long way away, did they get caught in that awful storm? Are they somewhere out there being sick? Are they in a ditch? No, not likely. Just making their way, one foot in front of the other.

I have that go-go-go-go need in my legs. It’s one thing to have only gone seven miles when your runner has gone 76. Let’s find some compromise. I hear other pacers making the same case on either side of me. The pacer also has to continually assess the situation. Shivering is not good. Here, I say, hold this soup. The shivering stops. I get drillmaster big-sister bossy. This is not well received. But cajoling does nothing. Only time fixes this.

A pacer is fortunate if she has made sure to catch sleep for several hours before going out to pace, because a pacer needs to keep a clear head when the runner starts to get bleary. I am reminded of college drinking days, walking home from a party with someone much drunker and much more prone to be just about to puke than me (we all had that friend, right?) Trying to distract. I look around at what scenery I can detect in the dark – grassy hillside, wet tree limbs dripping, some animal crashing through the woods ahead. We come upon a pacer-less runner we had spent some time with before. She is off-and-on. She does not want a pacer. She is stubborn and resolute as she stumbles forward. I am beginning to think this 100 mile thing is for the birds, and I am glad I did not sign up to run it. (Nor will I ever. Tom jokes I will be online signing up for my first within days of Vermont… it’s been four and I’m still never doing it. Eighty is plenty for me.)

There are fleeting moments of great revelation between runners and pacers. I see a pair of headlamps ahead and hear laughter as we climb a hill. Laughter is good. We are catching up, and I strain to hear the conversation. On and off we pass people, and they pass us. In my head I have an image from my runner’s story that won’t go away. A good story to remember to tell Tom later when I get back to the hippie van.

An unmanned aid station and several hills later, I am beginning to school-nurse worry about my runner friend. We discuss the situation. Things get better, but then slip back to worse. The words “not sustainable” are uttered and I wrack my brain trying to think of every anti-nausea solution out there that hasn’t been tried yet. It is three a.m. and I know from studying the elevation that we have a couple of good dirt road hills ahead. I have a tin full of first aid but none of it will work, unfortunately. At Cow Shed Aid Station, I know we are just down the road, down the hill, from headquarters and the campground. From here the route goes out away from headquarters and back again in another part of the clover leaf. Runners at this point, mile 83, are either jubilant or simply done. There is a nice campfire here that seems to dry the humid air. A man tending the fire asks questions and talks a lot. The chairs are all taken. One runner snores, given in to sleepiness.  This aid station has COFFEE, which I take, black please and thank you! Soup for my runner.  The volunteers quietly chat as runners come and go. A decision is made. We are Calling It A Day at mile 84. A respectable distance but nothing much registers except weariness for my runner. I offer myself to pace a new runner but I know that at this point, every runner who wants one has got one. I will jump in the van with another pacer and runner who are CIAD. The van arrives. The pacers climb back to the third bench back, since the driver wants the sick runners to sit near a window, just in case. I greet my fellow pacers, one on either side of me. The woman on my right says, “My runner already got taken, but I had to wait.” We are all quiet. “You guys should check in with medical.” It is a short drive back up the hill to the campground and the big tent. We stagger out of the van and into the tent. Now I get to be runner, if needed, for dry clothes, cell phone, wallet? Then I am released from duty. It is a little less than 24 hours since my runner started. I go back and forth in my head as I walk back to the car. Should I have not let him quit? Should I have not insisted on the medical tent check? I get into the van and Tom is sleeping. He wakes up when he hears me. Another adventure over. Now we can sleep. In the morning, I will find out how my runner fared, but for now, it’s lights out.

Sunday we rise bright and early to another gorgeous sunny day. Oh, had the weather been like this yesterday it may have meant a little less trench foot, a little less chafe, a little less sick and shivering. Horses, Runners, Crew and Pacers start to pack up. You know the runners because they walk funny. Crews sleep in. The horse owners are taking down temporary fencing and brushing everyone down. There are still runners out there.  In order to be official finishers, they must finish by ten. I wonder when my runner would have finished had he felt better. I am guessing 25, 26 hours, enough for a coaster but not a buckle. It will take time for him to get back into the swing of things, to find and sign up for another 100 attempt. This distance is not for sissies. Even the 30-hour folks are tough as nails and determined as the horses that joined them on the trail yesterday. We see them stagger in, the sun at their backs, a day and night out there behind them. They are all heroes to me, course finished or not.

Photo courtesy 30bananasaday.com

Show me the Waze.

29 Jun

Call me a luddite. I like maps. To get to a new friend’s house yesterday, I mapped possible routes in advance on maps.google.com (okay, so I like paper maps, but I’m advanced enough technologically that I can see the advantage of google maps.) and then, pen in hand, wrote this information on a piece of paper.

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I pride myself in my sense of direction. Especially when it’s sunny out.

Once off the highway, our destination proved madly elusive.

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I make a phone call.

Our host: Are you using gps? Sometimes, gps sends people the wrong way.

Me: No, I used a map.

Our host: [deafening silence]

Me: Hello?

Our host: You mean, a paper map of Connecticut?

Me: I mean, I used google maps.

Our host: Oh, well then. Tell me what it said to do.

Me: It said go left on West.

Our host: Left?

Me: On West.

Our host: West?

Me: Who is on first?

After some miles, and “sightseeing”, we found our way there. Late.

wherefoodbro

We actually had a very nice dinner, and it was even at dinner time.

So before we left, I asked for directions. I “knew” what our host was describing, because we had taken those very steps about three times incorrectly on the way to their house. But whatever. Tom drove. We eventually got back to a highway onramp, which I could see from the bridge overhead, was stopped traffic.

“We can’t go on I-95. We have to go back to 395.” I said.

“Well, no, we have to cross the river, so we have to get on 95. What are you going to do? It’s traffic. It won’t last too long.”

I thought a moment. I have this thing in my bag, it’s a phone. It’s even one of those new fangled SMART PHONES. I remembered that I had, out of curiosity, installed an “app” called Waze. I had never used it. The icon was cute – I think that was what made me download it. That and “free.” I had taken the time to set it up (easy) a few months prior, but never took the time to learn it.

Waze

So, I turned it on.

It took a moment to load my location.

And then, all hell broke loose.

“Hey! It’s showing us on I-95! There we are!!! Look!”

“I can’t look. I’m driving.”

“Hey! There are like, twenty other Waze users stuck on this very bridge!!!

“I’m sure there are.”

“Holy shit. This is so cool. This guys says we’re going 10 mph. Are we going 10? Confirm.”

“[driving]”

“Now we’re going less than 20 mph, but more than 10. Construction. Hey, there’s construction, see this little hardhat guy? We should be coming up on construction in 5, 4, 3, 2…”

“there’s the construction.”

“Is there a cop? It says there a cop. Confirm? Thumbs up?”

“I don’t see a cop.”

“Okay, keep looking.”

“There’s usually a cop further up on the left…”

“OH MY GOD THERE’S THE COP HOLY CANOLI THIS IS LIKE, REAL TIME!!!”

“[driving]”

“Yes, Thumbs Up! there is a cop there. Are we going 40 mph now?”

“We’re going 50.”

“Oh, now it says 50. Isn’t that incredible?”

“Yes.”

“There’s like, twenty other Waze users in my immediate vicinity. Probably that guy, and that guy…”

“They do this while they’re driving?”

“Well, no, it’s probably the passenger.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Oh there’s a car broken down in Stonington. I know that’s like ten miles but I want you to be prepared.”

“Uh huh.”

“OH NO LOOK THIS LITTLE PURPLE GUY IS WAVING! DO YOU SEE THAT?”

“No, I’m driving.”

“He’s coming up on our rear! He’s going to pass us!”

(A car zooms by on left. I wave hi across Tom’s field of vision.)

“He waved back. Huh.”

“NO WAY!!! This is incredible! So like, he WAVED on HERE, and it meant, WAVE! Like, for REAL wave! This is so exciting!”

It had been five minutes.

I was completely and utterly transmorgaphied.

lpm326phone

“This thing is eating my battery!”

“There’s a charge plug right there.”

“[silence, because on Waze]”

“[silence, because his wife has been overtaken by Waze.]

“I have to stop.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. So I am turning this off.”

“Yep.”

“Do you know that they probably can collect this data, and then over a period of time, say you have like, I don’t know, 21 users per minute pass by a certain spot, they could compile the statistics from this and sell this data to the DOT and the DOT can then take this data and use it to make improvements or efficiencies or plan construction or, like, anything.”

“Uh huh.”

I looked over at Tom. Why wasn’t he excited? This was very exciting!

“Aren’t you excited???”

And then, I realized what I had become.

In five minutes, I had gone from new user to acolyte to all,

heart-iconPraise Waze, we have all been saved!!! heart-icon

Real time social collective, onscreen. While it was happening right in front of the windshield. I recalled the days of radar detectors and CB radio. I remember thinking how cool it was that there were people out there, talking to other people, long into the night.

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And do you remember when the internet came into our lives? I remember Prodigy. Typing into the night, “Hello? Is anyone out there?”

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They’re out there. And they are waving at us! Really!

I might buy you a drill

19 Jun

For Father’s Day, I was thinking, I might give the bird book

to the pre-school, down the street, and tell them, “not every tweet

is the same.” Or maybe I’ll whistle through my teeth, and send

in the wind, your name.

I might give a quarter to the homeless guy, say good morning

(you would), read the news and think, what a shame.

Out back, I might check on that seedling you pointed out

– now a tree – to me, higher than our heads as you promised

it would someday be.

I might look in the mirror at the schnoz, so like yours, long and broad

like a beak, what a nose, smelling all the best and worst. Like a dog.

Speaking of dogs,

I might walk, watch their paws against the dirt trail ahead of me.

Pay attention. I might miss what you might have seen.

All the dads, on their day, with their JC Penney ties, and drawings

of you, me, mom and us all.

In their voices, in their hands, their skin and their faces, there is you

with us still, laughing with abandon and ease.

You used to slap your knee, your head back, even if the joke was bad.

I miss you, but I am not sad.

Dames Across Rhode Island – an 80 mile run on the North-South Trail

11 Jun

The beginning

As a kid growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, the extent of my outdoor time was spent at the beach. For any excursion “off island” the joke was, you would need to pack a lunch. For hiking, there was not much available except for the much beloved Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown. To find hikes in nature when he was home from sea, my father had to look farther afield. In the 1970s, Ken Weber produced his first “Walks and Rambles in Rhode Island” book, and my dad picked any available kid not at the beach to join him on hikes off-island. I was often that kid. At the end of some thirty- or forty-minute drive over one or the other bridge, we would end in a dirt lot with a trailhead which would be the beginning of a day of discovery. Acres of club moss disappearing into stands of young pine… glacial erratics leaning haphazardly into hillsides of mountain laurel… hidden ponds with burping bullfrogs and elegant, prehistoric looking egrets… who knew such mysteries of nature existed in Rhode Island? As an adult, I continued the tradition, leading friends on Sunday hikes through strange little towns and management areas with names like Wood River Junction, Rockville, Summit, and Wickaboxet. And on some of these hikes, I learned that many of the trails were connected to create a trail across Rhode Island, called the North-South Trail. Starting in Burrillville at the Massachusetts border, the North-South Trail crosses Rhode Island vertically, ending at the beach in Charlestown.

I dreamed of a thru-hike. Perhaps a mountain bike attempt. Later, as a runner, I wondered if it could be run straight through. And then, Ben Nephew and Bob Jackman did it. In 2013, beating a previously set fastest-known time (FKT) of 20 hours, Ben Nephew completed the entire trail in 12 hours and change. 78 miles in less than 13 hours. It was inconceivable and took my breath away when I read about it.

I was training for something else last summer, an ultra by the name of Wakely Dam, a self-supported 33-mile run in a remote area of the Adirondacks. I decided to do part of the North-South Trail from Route 6 to Arcadia as a trial run, using my water filter, and packing food to carry on my adventure. Tom dropped me at Route 6 at six a.m. one Saturday morning and six hours later I was in Arcadia with an idea in my head. I bet I could do this whole thing, I thought. I could set a fastest known time for women to run this trail. It wouldn’t be twelve hours, like Ben Nephew, but there was a chance I could do it in 20. I could carry much of what I needed and have Tom meet me every ten miles with the extras. Never  mind I hadn’t yet run anything over 32 miles. I had a 50-mile race planned for the fall, and I knew if I built up to it, I could at least attempt it.

The planning started. Tom mentioned it might be worthwhile to open this up to trail running-friends. I sent a few e-mails out, and a feeler on Facebook. I had some tentative interest from some girlfriends. In the meantime, I spent the fall examining the trail in more detail. By January, it grew by word of mouth and within a few weeks, it had exploded into this event I had never really imagined it would be. Frankly, I was quite worried.  “I wonder if…” turned into “I will have to…”

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The original crew. L-R Alison Cleary, Claire Gadrow, Brenda Morris, Anj Shaw.

Tonight, coming home South on the bus, in which I traveled 30 miles in less than an hour, it seems unbelievable to me that just last Saturday, I ran the length of the state with two other women, one of whom set the fastest-known-time for women on the North-South trail of sixteen hours, fifty two minutes.

aaanst_overall_map

 UP ALL NIGHT

We arrived at the Park-and-Ride at the Towers on Route 1 Friday, June 5th, at 10:15 p.m. Three of us – Claire Gadrow, myself, and Alison Cleary – quickly pulled out our drop bags (we each had two) and put them into Eric Winn’s car. Eric would serve as overall Crew Lead for us, driving us up to the start of the trail, running us to the Massachusetts border, and then driving his car southward to the various trail / road intersections to allow for mobile aid stations.  It was dark up in Buck Hill Management area. Eric parked and we piled out, making last minute adjustments to packs and filling water bottles. Around 11:55 we headed up the Prosser trail, negotiating a few intersections and relying on memory (Claire had been the one to run this section most recently) to get us up to the border. It was a fairly fast run/hike up to the state line. I had hiking poles with me and used them intermittently, trying to get used to them again, as I had not used them in over a year. Our headlamps created bobbing tunnels of light. Eric kept a flashlight as well, to see the trail junctions. Once at the border, Eric snapped a photo of the three of us aaanst12and we leapt off down the trail into the dark at 12:25 p.m. A mile further, we signed in at the trail register. I think I forgot to put the date but I did state it was the Dames Across Rhode Island, signed my name, and passed the book to my right. We ran on.

At the junction with a trail back to his car, Eric left us. I was glad to have the poles as we slalomed along through basketball sized rocks along a singletrack hugged by fern overgrowth. My eyes stayed on the two women in front of me. I didn’t like to be first, because I knew that they are both faster than me and it was better that they set the pace and allow me to fall back a bit. I am used to running alone, and was comforted just by their lights and conversation ahead. I was feeling pretty good, but I did wish Brenda, our fourth Dame, was there. She was home with her daughter and had written that she may join us the next morning (she unfortunately was not able to join us for the run at all.) Morning seemed a long way off. I knew that my pace would seem snail-like to the girls ahead of me, and felt bad that maybe they didn’t want to leave me alone. We had all agreed to stay together until dawn, but it was clear that had Brenda been there, it might have been possible to split into groups of two. Oh well. I did my best to keep up, determined to save some in the tank for later. Alison was good about reminding Claire to walk the ups. Alison and I both seemed to bomb the downs, which helped me catch up to Claire, who was more evenly paced with both up and down.

We were having a heck of a good time for one a.m. An owl swooped low into the beam of my headlamp. We came along by the pond and heard big bull frogs singing. Pretty soon, the trail popped back out onto Buck Hill Road, which we crossed, and then ran down Staghead Lane through a quiet neighborhood. A lemonade stand from the day before stood at the end of one driveway. Most lights were out. A long uphill, a last turn past the house at which, during one training run, Alison and I had seen a big german shepherd. It was good he was asleep inside. Soon we were under the power lines. Claire told us that during her training run she had been lost somewhere here. I looked down the power lines and the moon briefly came out from the clouds, illuminating the long grasses beneath the lines. Ahead, Eric’s car was parked at the base of the dirt road. We quickly grabbed more water and moved on.

The next section was a few miles of a zig-zag of dirt road, which we quickly traversed. At mile seven, the markers abruptly turned left into the woods, onto the Walkabout Trail. The Walkabout Trail – more affectionately known as the Stumbleabout Trail – was designed by 300 bored Australian sailors waiting for their ship to be repaired, back in the 1960s.. At night, the footing can be tricky, and the trail markers, interspersed with red, orange, and blue local trail markers, are hard to spot. Luckily for us, Claire and I had run through this section only a few weeks before. The poles helped me a lot here. Crossing a little brook was a hop, skip, lean on a pole, and jump. There were campers here, and I reminded Claire and Alison, like some old granny, to keep their voices down. Quite suddenly the trail emerged by the pond and the bathhouse where we knew there was a spigot.

photo by Claire Gadrow

photo by Claire Gadrow

We refilled water, went to the bathroom, and returned to the trail. We got turned around in the campground and added about a half of a mile. We rejoined the trail just north of the campground entrance, coming out onto Route 44. A car passed by honking its horn. We crossed, and headed down Durfee Hill Road. The trail tucked briefly into the woods here, emerging once again onto the road, where Eric’s car waited. I re-watered, and grabbed more food to carry. I tried to open a package of Tailwind, but I couldn’t, and asked Eric for a knife. “This would be a great time for the cops to come by, eh?” I joked. Eric, with a knife, and three women on the side of the road.

I was hungry. Claire leaned in and mentioned she was going to take off, because she needed to stretch her legs and go a little faster, but that Alison would stay with me. I mentioned that the trail went up Durfee Hill and was trail for awhile, but it would be fine. I said to Alison that I had food to eat, and would walk a bit, and she should go on ahead. After a couple of minutes, both Alison and Claire were far ahead, and I was finishing my first breakfast. I picked up my pace and began to run, watching Alison’s red flashing backlight recede ahead of me.

LITTLE RHODY IS NOT FLAT

Resigned to running alone, I kept vigilant about trail markers. I had tossed my poles into Eric’s car at the last stop, believing I would not need them. The trail, a double track with loose stone and sand, rose gently at first and then began the climb up Durfee Hill. I power walked and looked up at the moon and trees. It was anything but quiet. Crickets, frogs, the wind in the trees, owls, all entertained me as I climbed. I had my powerful handheld flashlight in addition to my headlamp to check markers. I saw no sign of Claire or Alison, but I wasn’t too worried. This section was familiar to me from our training run, so I followed along and let the miles pass.

At the top of the hill, the trail leveled for awhile. I could no longer see a moon, as either the clouds had thickened or the moon had moved to make way for dawn or both. I thought about where I was. The trail runs along a ridge, and has several intersections. Eventually it goes through a gravel pit, then descends as the road turns from dirt to paved, into civilization. From there, a few miles of paved road roll south and southwest toward the Connecticut border. A right turn up Snake Hill Road slowed me to a fast walk. The road went on. Along the border, it curved around a pond, revealing a lightened sky to the east. At the dike at Killingly Pond, I snapped a photograph of the emerging day. It was a bad photo. As it turns out, Alison snapped the same scene, so here is hers:

Killingly Pond. Photo courtesy Alison Cleary.

Killingly Pond. Photo courtesy Alison Cleary.

I could have stood there much longer. I wanted to linger, but the ultrarunner in me nudged me to move move move. I wasn’t tired, but maybe a little dismayed that all I was doing was running through, not seeing or really experiencing what was around me as the sun came up. I also realized that to do that would require much more time than I was willing to give to the endeavor. Perhaps a future through-hike over more days would allow for more sitting and experiencing. I moved ahead back into the woods. Another mile or so, and it was fully light. The trail jogged left and I remembered Claire looking at the guide and saying, during the training run, that we weren’t far from Shady Acres now. I got halfway down this juncture when I saw Eric up ahead, running toward me. Hey! Hi! I expected him to turn and run with me but he just said, “where are the other two?” I said I didn’t know — I had been far behind them, and I hadn’t passed them. He had been waiting at his car on Riley Chase Road, and when they didn’t arrive, he got worried. We ran along, wondering what could have happened. The trail went out onto a road, then left over the border, onto Pond Road. I mentioned that maybe they had been talking and missed that turn (it turns out that this is probably what happened.) We ran along til we got to the car on Riley Chase Road. I put on bug spray, mixed some Tailwind, grabbed a half a sandwich, and kept going. I crossed Route 101 where the CT welcome sign is, and now was on road for awhile. After a couple of miles, the road went right, then the trail turned left into the woods on this beautiful old road (now just a trail) with rhododendron, an old mill, mill race, and pond. I had really dug this spot during the training run and now picked my way up the wet trail. At some point, I had to pee, and did so among the greenery. As I came out, I heard voices behind me. Claire and Alison caught up as the trail turned south. We reconnected and the pace picked up as we were not far now from Shady Acres, our first marathon done. Eric stood at the base of the trail and said “where were you???”

CLAIRE GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS

We came out to the parking lot of Shady Acres. It was 6:15 and Claire was ready to run. She switched into road shoes and grabbed some Tailwind and was gone. I told Alison to go ahead, that I was fine running alone, but she wanted to stay and run with me at a slower pace. Apparently when they missed the turn, they were doing eight-minute miles! My 5K pace – not something I could maintain for more than a few miles. I told Alison she had nothing to worry about. We crossed Route 6 and I ate an apple. Soon we turned off of Route 6 and headed down some very pretty country lanes in Foster.

RICE CITY TO ARCADIA

Alison and I chatted as we ran. She is a scientist, and we talked about her upcoming six month stint in Norway. The miles went along. Now it was warming up, and the roads were more exposed. Johnson Road in Foster took about forever. We passed Amber Ridge alpaca farm, friends of ours from our farming days. Then along came the the golf course, and miles of hay field. Eventually, this road ended on Moosup Valley Road, which we took west, and then after a half mile, south again on a gravel downhill. This road snaked around past a cemetery that read “Coventry” and I thought to myself, we are already in Coventry??? Finally, after nearly running out of water, we came upon Rice City Baptist Church, where Annette, our second crew lead, was waiting. She took our picture, her dog offered us kisses, and she basically got our water bottles filled and us on our way.

Coming in to Rice City. Photo by Annette Florciak

Coming in to Rice City. Photo by Annette Florciak

We crossed Route 14 and ran along down the narrow shoulder. I have biked this many times. It is one of my favorite bike routes. At the bottom of the hill, the road crossed an old bridge and, ahead, the trail turned south again, into a lovely pine-carpeted trail. Easy running for a bit, into a field of wildflowers. Alison skipped while I sang. A narrow deer path crossed the field to the woods on the other side. When I had run this alone the summer before, this field had stumped me. Now, knowing where the trail lay, I felt freer. Back in the woods, the trail came out at a little falls at Carbuncle Pond. I stopped to look. Alison kept going. I have to appreciate this, I thought. I have to give it some time.

I wet my Trail Animals Running Club Buff and put it back on my head. I ran to catch up to Alison. A box turtle was in the trail, so I stopped to pet him. The trail climbed straight up a bank. Alison, from California, cannot understand why New Englanders do not know about switchbacks. At the top, a doubletrack road gently descended, banked for mountain bikes. We flew.

The fields are alive!!! Photo by Alison Cleary

The fields are alive!!! Photo by Alison Cleary

The trestle trail eventually becomes the bike path I take to work from Coventry a few days a week in summer. Here, it was a pitted track humped by motorcycles’ tire-digging jumps. A high trestle crosses the river. We stopped to take a picture, and then came out on the roads.

Dirt road brought us to Nicholas Farm Preserve. This trail was fun because they were foresting a big swath in the middle, making way for deer and bird habitat. I called this section “low-tech” and it was trail I could have run all day long. Slightly technical, downhill all the way, Alison and I took a slightly faster pace and rumbled down. We passed the halfway point sign of the NS trail (“39 miles to the Atlantic Ocean!”) and I was feeling pretty good. We came out onto a dirt road, one which I had forgotten was quite long. In fact, it was about four miles of dirt and paved road, little shade, hot late-morning sun. Alison and I were nearing to be out of water again. The road discouraged me. Two motorcycles passed us, the lead rider looked like a guy who, just the week before, had sold Tom and me our new-used van. I waved, just in case. Small world.

“I think it’s just around that next curve.” I said for the third time. Alison wasn’t having it. This part was slow going.

Finally, the trail turned left off of the road. Into the field I remembered from last summer. We go straight – NOT up the hill. Down left into the ravine, along the barely walkable stream-trail. We passed a snapping turtle laying eggs in the sand. It was surreal.

At this point, we were both out of water, my shorts were quite swampy from chafe and the little red cousin, and for the first time, I thought about quitting. We weren’t quite at 46 miles. I knew we were close to Arcadia and the next water stop, but I was cooked. I groaned a little. Alison plunged forward. Then, in the distance, we saw Eric. “Come on. Come on!” he hollered, and we ran.

At Stepstone Falls: “Eric I am seriously done. I might not finish.” “You’re fine. Get moving.”

Home trails. Arcadia is just a few miles from home. Maybe that’s what did it. We edged along the stream, in the shade, and the trail got easier. With some food in my belly, the cranks disappeared. I ran again.

Sweet trail dawg. Photo by Annette Florciak.

Sweet trail dawg. Photo by Annette Florciak.

Four miles later, Annette was waiting at the white church on 165. A couple of weeks prior, I had parked here and run trails. There was no sweet ride home waiting for me there today. Fifty miles. A few steps more would be the furthest I had ever run. I crossed 165 behind Alison and we went up the Bald Hill trail at a fast hike. At Annette’s car, I had switched out my backpack for the one that holds a big water bladder on my back. It is not the best for trail running, but the way I was drinking water, the other pack with the little bottles was just not cutting it. It turned out to be a wise decision.

I love this part of Arcadia. I have a history with it. I lived on Arcadia Road with Zoë for about two years in my first house. I explored all of these trails with her, and with Tom, too. The dam at Browning Mill, gentle Arcadia trail, just nice stuff to run on, soothed my frazzled nerves.

I was actually looking forward to the boulder field and rock garden. After all, we had plenty of water, and I was running with one of the best trail runners in Rhode Island. Alison was feeling much better and I marveled at her quick stepping ahead of me, trying to mimic her. I found I could keep up. This is my favorite kind of trail. We were light and sure-footed. It was a great couple of miles.

photo by Claire Gadrow

photo by Claire Gadrow

Another stop at Baker Pines, at route 3, still home turf. We picked up Janet for the final 23 miles. I was happy to see her, but once again felt like the slow-man out. I don’t mind, really, but it takes some adjusting to go from running two to running three. Janet had fresh legs and was really enjoying herself. I love people who love the trails.

This part is part of my run commute to the bus. At any time, I could turn left and be home within the hour.

After another pit stop, I came out behind Alison and Janet onto Buttonwoods at the dog run. We walked up the hill in the hot sun, right onto Carolina Nooseneck and into some shade, again. This road is lovely… Old Meadowbrook Farm and the cows. Janet texted Tom for me to let him know where we were. This was starting to feel achievable, like I just might finish this thing. We got out onto route 138, and I just got into a groove, and we trucked right along. I surprised myself here as I thought it would be pure drudgery. Left on Meadowbrook Road and then back into the woods. Wheeee!

UP ALL DAY

I was feeling pretty good but I was in a zone. Meadowbrook trail is just a straight shot south on soft dirt. The sun was high and clear. No more clouds. I wondered whether I was going to lose my stride and have to finish in the dark. This started becoming an obsession with me. What time was it? Was it four o’clock? Because if it is four, I want my fucking headlamp. That’s what I kept thinking. It was weird, a dreamlike state. I was so sleepy, suddenly, like I could just lie down on the side of the trail and nap.aaamonkeysleep

I wasn’t paying any attention to Alison and Janet. I was on a track. Moving moving moving.

TRAIL ANGELS

We came out into Carolina and up ahead, I see this group of women, and Eric, and I hear Janet call hellooooo! I was not prepared for this, and I am trying to think of why there are these women here, and my mind cannot put two and two together. Janet and Alison stopped to talk but I slipped around the bunch and kept moving, afraid that if I stopped, I couldn’t go again. Eric ran a little with me, asking how I was. I told him I was really beat. Then all of them were running alongside, and Janet, Eric and Alison moved ahead. I started feeling a little discouraged. How long ago had Claire passed through? About an hour, they said. Wow. Wow, I thought. I really suck. I’m so slow. A woman beside me said, “Oh no way. You guys are incredible. You are doing great.” I looked sideways at her and slowed to a walk. “You can go ahead” I said. “I’m really tired and I am going to walk.” “That’s okay.” she said. “I’m Janet’s friend Mary.” Mary walked with me, and when I ran, she ran with me. We were far back now from the other women and Eric. “I’m sorry I’m so slow.” I said. She said, “well, I have nothing else to do all day.”

We all congregated at the Pine Hill Road stop. We were nearing the final miles. My friend Tina from work showed up with orange slices. Eric made me take 3 Aleve. “But I don’t take this stuff normally” I said. “Shut up and take it. You’ll feel better.”

How do people know these things?

Mary stayed with me the next couple of miles. She has long, graceful legs, and a light, sunny complexion that makes her look a little like a fairy with a ball cap. I kept it at a run, knowing it was downhill to flat to the field and Alton Pond Fishing Access area on Route 91. I think I walked a little as we came out to the field. It was breezy on the field, with crows circling, and nothing growing yet. Stumps of brown, and the dirt track down the middle. I listened to Mary tell me about herself and her family. It helped me not think about what I was doing.

Suddenly, Alton Pond appeared, and more people. Sara and Aaron were there, Sara ready to run in a sparkly running skirt. Aaron held their baby and offered me neatly sliced peanut butter and jellies. I ate one and instantly felt guilty and nauseous. Guilty because I had recommended what he should have at this stop (not really understanding that by that late in the game, food is just… not. for. me.)

with my RISD Balls snot band. Ready to go from Alton Fishing Access / Meadowbrook Pond.

with my RISD Balls snot band. Ready to go from Alton Fishing Access / Meadowbrook Pond.

He poured me a cold Coca Cola. Coke and V8 had been magic potion from mile 46 onward. It kept me from quitting, and gave me legs in the boulder field. I downed the Coke, thanked him earnestly, and… ready? Sara, Mary and I crossed Route 91. Once again, a steady plonk plonk plonk as we ran down the highway. Left on New King’s Factory Road with an unfortunate slight uphill. Not made better on Shamunanunanunanunanunanunuck Hill Road (seriously, I don’t know how we pronounce half the roads in Rhode Island.) I think we just walked that whole thing. Maybe I half-heartedly jogged a few feet. What time was it? Is it five o’clock? Because if it is five, I really, really want my headlamp. I do NOT want to be stuck out in the woods at night without it. This road is so pretty, so charming, so New England. No time for views, we pressed on.

NOW, IT’S A RACE.

At Burdickville, once we turned back into the woods, Mary meant business. No more coddling. Not quite mean, but a little more than suggestively, she turned up the pace and started to holler at me to get it in gear. I don’t think she once stopped coaching me down the rest of the trail. Sarah ran behind me, her GPS beeping encouragingly every so often. “Keep up this pace” she said, just above a whisper, “and you will totally be under 20 hours.” Really??? Really. But I still want my headlamp! The doubletrack that seemed eternal a month ago in training now just flies by as we once again meet up with Eric at a road crossing. “I want my headlamp!” I yelled. He yelled back “You don’t need it!”

On the Vin Gormley Trail, home trails once again. Tom and I run here all the time. We just ran it last week, as a matter of fact. In a low voice, Sara mentioned, from behind, that I am trucking. I felt it. I felt disembodied. The sun was getting low behind the trees. I raced along what I know of the trail, all memory, not really seeing. I stumbled a bit here and there on roots. Walk the ups. I thought of Claire, who does not like to walk the ups, and who by this time must be already finished. Amazing. We came out onto Buckeye Brook Road and far ahead I could see Tom! He was our last aid station. I know I had to run then, especially if he was taking a photograph. Also, I could not hug him, or I might not keep going. He filled my water pack and I retrieved my headlamp-safety-blankie from Eric’s car.

We jetted along the trail in Vin Gormley. It was probably the fastest I had run all day. A mile from the end of the woods, once again, Eric joined us. Now it was both Mary and he coaching Sara and me along. We were nearing the end… the trail at this point goes on forever and ever, around the campground, over a hillock, through some piney woods, and finally, finally, out onto the road.

I put it in gear and off we went. Mary shouted to some people in a house “this woman just ran 76 miles across Rhode Island!!!” I ran, without looking, without thinking, just running. “Here we go!!! Across Route 1!”

The last mile, I became very un-tired and very straight-going. Just run. Mary alongside. I felt Sara back there but couldn’t turn around. I had to had to had to keep running. I was almost done. Keep plonking down that road. Counting. Thinking, I did NOT need my headlamp after all. Not wanting to guess the hour. One more turn. We came around the corner and the smell of beach roses hit me hard. I could see people up on the rocks and I could hear them in the parking lot because they were cheering! It was so cool! Claire was already dressed, had had time to go and get her beautiful dog Pearl, having finished a couple of hours before. I was suddenly quite weepy. Very proud of Claire. Tom was clapping and I just passed them all, ran across the sand, and right up to my knees into the surf.

Coming in with Mary at the finish. Photo by Janet Sanderson

Coming in with Mary at the finish. Photo by Janet Sanderson

photo Nancy Freeman.

photo Nancy Freeman.

photo by Tom Shaw

photo by Tom Shaw

It was a good finish.

In some ways, it seemed like it happened too fast. Like a wedding, or Christmas vacation, or that first kiss.

But now I know I have crossed the state on foot, beating sunset, beating 20 hours, beating my own doubts.

ABOUT THE RUNNERS

Three dames ran across Rhode Island, establishing the fastest known time for women on the North-South Trail. Claire Marcille Gadrow killed it with a time of 16 hours 52 minutes, followed by Alison Cleary in 19:37, and myself in 19:44. It was amazing, beautiful, and the hardest run I’ve ever done. 80 miles for Claire and Alison (since they lost the trail around 5:30 a.m.) and 78 for me. And 2 from the trailhead to the Mass border. Pretty awesome.

Claire Gadrow is a sub-three hour elite masters marathoner from Narragansett, Rhode Island. After being seriously injured while competing at a horse show in October, Claire decided to sign on for Dames Across Rhode Island to see if ultras are REALLY what she is built for, as people have told her. In the process of setting the fastest known time for women, Claire made some new friends, fought with boulders, and learned to use swear words in new and interesting ways.

Alison Cleary competes with the Shenipsit Striders and has won or placed in her age group in several challenging trail races around New England. A  recent PhD graduate from URI whose research will take her to Norway this July to further her work in zooplankton ecology, Alison chose this adventure in order to give one last shout of appreciation to her adopted state of Rhode Island. Between skipping through fields of wildflowers and talking about how the first thing she will learn in Norway is how to avoid being eaten by a polar bear, she is perhaps the most interesting woman one could ever choose to run with.

Anj Shaw has been running and biking since 2005.  The furthest she had run before this was 50 miles in 11 hours at the November 2014 Stonecat Trail races in Ipswich, Massachusetts. She organized and planned Dames Across Rhode Island, raising $450 through gofundme.com for her friend Tyson Cluever, who was diagnosed recently with brain cancer. Now that she has run across the smallest state, what’s next for Anj? ‘Maybe I’ll run across all 50, starting with the next smallest – Delaware!’ Anj lives with her husband, Tom, and two corgis on a little farm in West Kingston, Rhode Island.

Dames Across Rhode Island event on Facebook

Wapack and Back from the Back of the Pack: 21 miles journeying Greenfield to Ashburnham

12 May

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It is two o’clock in the afternoon, a hot Saturday in May, and I am climbing again. I am down to a sip of water in each of my two six ounce bottles; on my back, the collapsed bladder inside my pack has the residue of water mixed with lemon/lime NUUN “pixie dust” electrolyte flavoring. I have been passed by a woman who was playing slingshot with me most of the day, and my legs are burning. The trail, rocky the past mile, has opened up to reveal another peak of some sort – hill or mountain, everything I’ve climbed today is higher than I’m used to in little Rhode Island. I wonder about the water. I wonder how much further the next aid station will be. I take a moment to check the view, but just a moment. I don’t have a lot of time and I need to keep moving. The pressure to move is always there. It seems a shame to pass the views by, but the brain takes on a linear focus of moving moving moving, of getting some water, and moving until you don’t have to move anymore.

I was pretty sure when I signed up for this race in January that I didn’t really think much about the words “elevation gain” or “challenging.” Somehow, sitting in the safety of a cold winter day with a hot coffee in one hand and a laptop open to ultrasignup… this can be a dangerous thing. The ideal of a community, the comraderie, of a beautiful May day doing something you love with a hundred or so other like-minded people is very fetching. The reality is somewhat more like a terrifying middle school dance mixed with being chased by slow demons across beautiful trail that you can’t spend a lot of time with. Speed dating the trail, sort of. You discover as you go. You wrestle major anxiety leading right up to the very start. You resign yourself to a steady state of urgency for the next several hours. You finish, usually, to little fanfare but plenty of kind words and quiet slaps on the back.

Wapack and Back (because, yes, there are these ultra-godlike humans who somehow think it is fun to go in one direction for 21.5 miles, but turn around and do it AGAIN, and then, a few of them turn around and go BACK OUT another 3.5 miles [this includes 2 “hills” for a total of 4 climbs in addition to what they did x 1 more than you did]) is put on each May by Trail Animals Running Club. For a ridiculously low entry fee, runners are treated to all the royal treatment one can expect from TARC: outstanding volunteers and race directors, most of them very talented runners themselves, fully stocked aid stations, and serious trail.  I signed up for the 21.5 miles, thinking that the “and back” was going to be more mileage than I needed at this time, or had time to train for. Once again, I paid no attention to the elevation profile. Like, I was in denial. I knew from glancing that it had lots of pointy tops. Since I am an analyst, I look at lots of charts like this (none of them having anything ever to do with elevation, so I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I blew off the elevation chart like, huh, you can present data in any way and elevation charts are no different.) I just remember filing away in my mind that there would be some up and down and I would have to walk some ups, and that this would somehow make me enjoy it more, like, this isn’t a race, just a fancy training “run” with fully stocked food stops so I wouldn’t have to carry my own snickers bars!  Except one doesn’t take into account that despite the desire to treat it like a Sunday jalopy ride in the country, it IS a race, after all, and one has a bit of a competitive (and altogether unrealistic) streak and there was no way I was not going to do my very best to “race”, since damnit, I paid to do this.  Also, my ego thinks that since I have done a few races at this point, I could handle whatever this thing threw at me. I did make the mistake of reading some blogs. Even fast, elite people were saying it was hard. I told Janet, my fellow Rhode Island runner, not to read the blogs. Of course, she read them, so that morning we were both a little bit worried.

It was quickly apparent what kind of race this was when we arrived at the Finish, where we were to leave the car and board the bus for the start. I saw some serious trail people, including some whose names appear regularly in the top ten winningest winners for these races. I immediately felt klunky, like a freshman sitting at the wrong lunch table full of the cool seniors who know exactly what to say and wear and eat. Then I remembered that these people are seriously real, and kind, and that while it was appropriate to be awed in their presence, it wasn’t polite to stare. I yanked my eyes from examining the shoes of a fast looking blonde, and made a mental note that she, too, is a fan of Cascadias.

We took the big yellow school buses up to the start. Too soon, we were let off at another parking lot where GOD, REALLY?, the first runners who had started at 5 AM were passing through for the turnaround. Shirtless wood nymphs flying through the aid station, bandanas and black shorts, unearthly gliding through, back out, up the hill. Running. Someone shaking a cow bell. Uh oh.

I go and pee from being nervous, and then we get together to start. The race director gathers us and sends us down the road and into the woods. Up the trail. It starts uphill pretty much immediately.

I am thinking about what Wendy, a Trail Animals Running Club regular and all around nice person, said in the parking lot when speaking of her first Wapack and Back. She said, “I thought to myself in the first mile, Oh my God What In The Hell Have I Gotten Myself Into?” We are all in a conga line and Wendy is up ahead, somewhere. Obviously, she has come a long way since then. Should I be worried?

FIRST CLIMB

I am at the back of the line. I’m pretty sure I’m the last runner. My first experience being dead last. I am taking it easy, holding back, because we still have like twenty miles, right? So it’s just ridiculous to run at this point, right? And someone has to be last. You know. Like maybe I could be the sweep, which is a very important person, if you ask me.

But up there, see? They’re running.

I run a little. Now I am hot. Off comes the pack as I walk, off come the two thin top layers.

I hear panting behind me. I run a little.

The panting one runs a little. So now, I can’t really walk, can I?

SECOND CLIMB

We spread out. So, I haven’t been passed by the panting one, and I am panting, so we two are in a tandem place of acceptance. We will be winners today because we will finish this thing, but we will be last. I have passed no one at this point. Janet and her friend have moved ahead, out of reach. I settle in to a run-where-I-can, hike the ups, skedaddle the downs. During a skedaddle session, I passed three people. I tried to stay consistent on the climbs, keeping my steps small and billygoatlike, my breath even and full. The trail here is big slabs of granite. We are in New Hampshire, after all. I finally catch up to Janet and Laura. But not for long.

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I stayed with these awesome chicks just long enough to be like, guys? guys? Hey I’ve been chasing you like forever and I finally caught up, guys? Hey, wait for me!

And just on the other side of this, we entered this clearing and there was Aid station number one. All I had to do was glance at my watch to know that this wasn’t quite a third of the way in. In fact, one volunteer loudly proclaimed, we were one lifetime yet only five point five miles in. I did that cartoon head shake thing, gave some love to the volunteers as they filled my bottles, and processed that I had sixteen odd miles to go, and wouldn’t it be strange if they were as hard as the first five?

CLIMB THREE

Just after the aid station, we crossed a road and then went up this dirt road that was quite steep. Disliking the direct sun and no shade, I power walked and kind of tried again to stay with Janet and Laura, who were talking and neither one was panting. And I was like, pant, pant, um guys?

Not sure exactly where I lost them. they lost me.

RIDGELINE

Alone for awhile, I took a moment to pee. One nice thing about trail running is peeing in the woods. One eye on the trail, the other on my shoes, I hear some panting and see a woman come up the trail. I am being passed as I pee.

Let me just say that this section, the ridgeline between those first climbs and the next climbs, was pretty stunning running. Pocahontas light feet, a swell view, the promise of a sunny day, birds singing.

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Except that if you stop to take this picture, you risk slipping back to being last, again. Or, there is always this moment that you think, am I even on the right trail? Sometimes, it’s just better to keep moving.

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I am feeling pretty good at this point. I’m maybe two and a half hours in. I am not hungry, and not thirsty, and the day is perfect, and while I wish I wish I wish I were a little faster, because wouldn’t it be nice? I accept the fact that I am not, but I am something that is pretty cool: tenacious. I am dedicated and have good stick-to-it-iveness. I love being out here and I know I will finish. I won’t be first and maybe I’ll be last, but I am steady and determined. That’s a skillset!

CLIMB FOUR

I could have stayed up on that ridgeline forever. It began to descend fairly gently (compared to some of the others.) I heard some fast feet behind me. It was two of the “and Back” fellas, and boy, were they speedy. I hooted and clapped and pretended to chase them like some annoying old lady. They kind of laughed. At the bottom of this wonderful long flowy mountain bike downhill doubletrack dream, the trail abruptly ended at a road and this vision of a woman with her kid surrounded by about forty gallons of water. I stopped, refilled, and asked her which way? She said, go to the road, down the hill, and the trail is at the end. THANK YOU!!!! Real tears.

It was here that I caught? two people and passed them. On the road. I know a lot of trail runners don’t do a lot of road running and dislike it. I moved across the road into the shade and trucked along, knowing if it was the only place I was going to all out run today, I might as well go for it.

When you do that, it means you have to maintain it. At least until they can’t see you anymore, and then you can stop and pant for a bit.

At the end of the road, the trail collapsed into the forest and turned into a muddy doubletrack leafy ATV trail. I pretended I was awesome and ran for the next few miles, mud, ruts and all.

CLIMB FIVE

I have stopped running. This is interesting, this trail goes straight up. Like, normally, wouldn’t there be switchbacks? I really, really need to keep moving though because if I stop to catch my breath those two people who I passed on the road will pass me, and I will be close to last or even last, again.

Suddenly, at the top, I am dumped out at a road, a couple of roads, and I lose the trail.

I head down this long dirt road, knowing I am stupid to do this because I have not seen any trail markers.

It is now officially hot out.

Wait – is that a person? Coming toward me?

She has a number!

I run faster to catch up. She looks pissed. She is shaking her head. She has gone to the bottom of the road and there is no trail marker. Together, we shuffle back up the hill.

CLIMB SIX

We get to the top of this road and I see the guy I passed earlier heading right, where we missed the turn. I follow him, eventually passing again. I am ahead of the guy and the lady who I had met at the bottom of the wrong road. We come in to aid station two (I don’t want to know where we are in the run, because if they tell me like, seven miles? I will lay down and die), and I am feeling devilish and a little hyper and fun, and grab my M&Ms and make idle chitchat while I notice the wrong turn woman had come in just behind me and gone. So I skedaddle, trying to stay with her. I get ahead of her on the climb, a beautiful, sweet staircase of a climb. I stop to take this picture at the top:

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See that person? That’s the wrong-turn girl who just passed me. Ah, well. She looks strong, doesn’t she? That’s because she is.

CLIMB 7

I can’t even. I am out of water. How did that happen. Wait, I’m five hours in? How long since the last aid station?

CLIMB 8

A photographer. How’d he get up here? I wonder if he has any water?

BEAVER POND

Somehow, I never expected this Adirondack scene in the middle of this trail on the NH/MA border:

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I am tempted to strip and swim.

And then goodness, some nice boring safe flat stuff for awhile. The stuff that makes me think of my Dad, of how he loved being out hiking… all the wonderful things to see and here… you feel secure enough to try to identify whether that wuk wuk you heard was a bullfrog or a juvenile pileated woodpecker and then BAM! Down you go.

Okay, so that’s good, I got that out of the way. I’m tired. I fell. At least I didn’t open that knee I always seem to skin. I just have pine needles up my shirt. Get on up. Get moving. I reach for my water and shake the empty bottle. I wonder whether that last aid station was the last aid station. I check the other bottle. Empty. I check the bladder on my back. I can taste NUUN fumes. I’m also a little peckish. And hot. I have a GU in my pack and a melted snickers bar, but both require water because otherwise GUH! So I run and worry.

LAST AID STATION

Two guys and a dog. Water! I get my refill, and venture the question. Hey guys, I have like, five miles or something left? Nah, more like three. Oh, I think. Like a 5K. They ask, so how do you like it so far? I say, this is the hardest thing I have ever done. Then I say, I think I am close to last, guys, so you won’t have to be out here much longer. And the one guy goes, for the 21.5? No, it looks like there’s about fifteen people behind you. So you better get moving.

This next part is a dirt road, so I get to think, again. And I’m like, duh! I totally forgot that they have yet to see some of the 43 and 50 milers, so they will have to be there even after the last 21.5 miler kindergartener has gone through. You know, it is really a big deal to volunteer. They are out there all day long. They are there to help you. They are awesome. I am going along thinking this and then BAM! Down I go again. This time, I hit knees and elbows. I don’t even have to look to know there’s blood. Ow. I sit there for a moment. I am not going to go crying back to the aid station, now a half mile back. I get up, squirt some of my precious water on the knee, and shakily start jogging.

CLIMB 9/10

I begin to see some signs of civilization, or at least, that I am nearing the finish. It seems that way. I am seeing people as I climb. These are people not decked in spandex or carrying water and so that means these are normal people out for a nice hike with children and stuff. I get to the top and this woman, she has an umbrella stroller she is dragging, and this toddler, and two bigger kids, and she says, “does this trail go down to 119?” and I said, yes, that is where I am going. And she says, but we just came all the way up here, I thought!” She was all turned around. I said, well, I just came from the other way and 119 is not that way.” Then she got a look at my blood and was like, uh, are you okay?

I chucked down the trail, thinking, that must have been the last climb, right? Well, actually, it kind of was, but it wasn’t. The trail started back up the other side of the saddle. I could see what must have happened to the woman. She had already been to the top of THIS part, and had gone down the wrong way, and ended up at the top of the other one. I felt badly that she would have a couple of miles or so to get her and that stroller back down. At this point, there were more people. Everyone I encountered stared at my bloody knee.

And then it couldn’t be anything but the last descent.

Lovely piney woods, big rocks.

I saw more of the 50 milers coming back for their last seven.

Families with children.

My last fall, this time, on my ass.

And finally, finally, the down turned to slightly down and then to flat, and I knew the finish was just ahead because I could hear 119. I pulled whatever energy was left out of my rear end and “sprinted” to the finish. wapackfinish phone-spr-2015 285 phone-spr-2015 284

I love trail running, because everyone so mellow and nice and easy going. Let’s get a picture of that awesome carnage before we find some peroxide to pour on it, shall we?

I found Janet asleep in her car, having finished over a half an hour earlier. As she drove us back home, I thought about the day, and how my expectations have changed the more of these things I do. How I am never as sore as I was the first time I did one of these crazy trail races. How quickly I take it all for granted, and how easily this trail humbled me. How while I was not dead last, I was close to it, and that was okay, all ego aside. We need people like me in these things. We turtles who are out there twice as long as the winners, who stop and take pictures, who play catch up only to lose any gains joking around at the aid stations. How strong I’ve become, even if I’m slow. How some people wish they could do what we do.

Back home, after this simean princess took a long bath and ate an entire Pizzeria Uno Potato and bacon pie, alone (Tom had taken the pups up to Grammy’s for a mother’s day overnight) with my battle wounds and twitch-inducing memories of the day, I thought about something my brother had said to me when I saw him last, in March. We had been discussing smoking and other little or big (however you might want to look at it) habits or addictions, something I used to do a lot of. Like, a pack a day of. It’s been years and I don’t miss it. He raised an eyebrow. One could argue, he said, that your trail running is just an addiction replacing another addiction you gave up? Nah, I said at the time, it’s nothing like that.

I take a bite of my potato-bacon pie and glance at the mud covered shoes in the corner. Maybe, I thought. I didn’t really have time to think of it, though, because I was logged in to ultrasignup, checking out this race in South Carolina in the fall.

I will never, ever do that again. Until next time.

I will never, ever do that again. Until next time.

Persephone finally digs herself out

26 Apr
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Cellar hole, South Kingston land trust trail, January 2015

I realize I haven’t written here since December. I have had many adventures this winter in which I shoveled snow, shoveled more snow, ran in snow, worried about ice dams and the weight of snow on the barn’s roof, slipped and fallen in snow, and driven in snow. The snow didn’t stop until… well, we had a few flakes last week, and it’s April.

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…and then the snow came, in February.

But it *really* stopped in March. And although I did get out there and run in the stuff, I slowed down some this winter.

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A beautiful winter run in Canonchet preserve. Farm field and woods. January 2015

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Curious monkey with Mister Monkey, coldest run ever. 2015.

Part of it was that I did not have a specific race I was training for. Despite my perhaps overly-ambitious plan to run the 80 mile North South Trail in June, I didn’t have any marathons on the calendar. I signed up for the Quonset Point half marathon because it was cheap and it was going to happen on my birthday. For the most part, Tom and I spent our winter hibernating, and running some.

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Farm scene, Kenyon village, February 2015

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Headstone, Kenyon village, February 2015

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Monkey done. No more snow, please.

Around mid-March, we learned that my Dad was not doing well, and so I made plans to get to North Carolina. We all scrambled to get there. My Dad’s reputation of being hardy and history of bouncing back made me slightly doubtful of all of the hubbub, but then I got a second call that my plans better be firm. I flew in on Wednesday, March 25th. In some ways, it was like a reunion, because all of his kids were there. We got to spend three long days talking, singing Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel (badly), and eating my mom’s wonderful dinners. My Dad, Bill Janes, died on Saturday morning, March 28th.

My Dad.

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Two artists sketching. Christmas 2014.

I could wax poetic about my father, what he did, what he meant to us, what he MEANS to me, how fair and wise he was, how giving and courageous and curious he was (he put the curious in Curious Monkey) and what a lover of justice, the environment, and family he was. He has many fans. I’m not sure I have the words. He was just a really cool guy. He was tough when he needed to be. He liked to hike and run. He loved being outside. He loved his kids and grandkids. And his dogs. He loved to eat. He loved my mom.

The day he died, we were all there. He was home. It was sweet and sad.

After being pretty much cooped up in the house for three days, we all kind of burst forth into this sunny day. I took my rental car and went for a run in Blue Walls Preserve.

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It was hard. Lots of climbing. But it was beautiful and that’s what my dad would have done, if it were him in my running shoes.

He left a wonderful legacy, and he also left us all with a tremendous chest cold. I spent the next three weeks with the worst cold I have had in years. I am still not over the cough.

A week after he died, my grand-niece Diana was born. I still haven’t seen her because of my cold. I intend to make a trail animal out of that kid. Lily and Jake are great parents so far and I am so proud of them.

When I say I didn’t make plans this winter, I was a little bit lying. I DID put myself on two waiting lists for trail races. Right around the time that Dad died, I found out I was going to be running both the TARC (Trail Animals Running Club) Spring Classic Trail 50K, and the 21 mile Wapack and Back (without the “and back.”) I was happy, because it meant I finally had a goal, but I couldn’t seriously train until the cold let up. Maybe the cold was a physical way to grieve. I don’t know. I did get on the bike one or two days. And out on the road I went. Eight miles here, three miles there. The week I got back, my good friend Georgia got me out for a 24 miler on the East Bay Bike Path. It was a glorious sunny day, with a high wind. The birds were singing. I thought about Bill, and had a moment where I fell apart. Like a passing shower, I recovered quickly. Just one little bird did it.

Then, on April 12th, I ran the Quonset Half Marathon put on by Ocean State Multisports for my birthday. It was a great day and I felt strong despite the chest congestion and coughing. I finished in two hours, and of course, had wonderful birthday cake that evening to celebrate. The following weekend, my friend Georgia invited me to run the More Half Marathon in New York City with her. My friend Bonnie from work loaned me a RISD Road Kill jersey, which I wore to both half marathons.

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Georgia and I had a great time in the city. I saw my childhood friend MLE in Brooklyn. We had dinner and many smootchie moments. She was a little bit Janes kid growing up and so it was nice to celebrate Bill’s life with her. The next day, I ran central park. And once again, coming up over a hill and seeing the dogwood in bloom, I had a passing shower moment. Just utter, gut crunching sadness that passed almost as soon as it came.

Since I was running for Georgia’s daughter, who had hurt her knee, we kept the pace light, and even ran with Ang the last mile. We finished in 2:14.

Going from a season of “signed up for nothing” to race almost every weekend, yesterday I did the TARC Spring Classic 50K. This endurance run takes place in Weston, Massachussetts. Tom and I had been here before when volunteering for the TARC 50 and 100 miler, a few years ago. We arrived bright and early, and dragged my gear from the car to the fenceline by the horse area. I wasn’t nervous. I have gotten my share in of longer trail runs and like I said, I wasn’t afraid to get out and run in the snow. But I hadn’t run all week due to a little pain in my hamstring. The day before, I had ridden 41 miles on the road bike, hoping that would give me some warm up for the owie hamstring and serve as my “back to back” endurance effort I needed in preparation for the North South Trail in June. I had a goal time of six hours, thirty minutes. It was about 40 degrees at the start, a bright sunny day promising temps in the 50s by the afternoon. I was a little over-dressed to start with, and didn’t know too many of the other runners. I did get to meet a woman from TARC who deals with their merchandise. She was super friendly and helpful, and I couldn’t help but buy a TARC jacket. I went out on lap one wearing the jacket. It would come off by lap two.

First lap, I went out conservatively, in the herd, running slowly, stopping occasionally when everyone else ahead of me stopped. Things thinned out about mile two. The course was delightful. Not a lot of rocks and roots, like Rhode Island, but a lot of leafy lanes and doubletrack. Some good hills. A lot of turns, all well marked. TARC puts on a good race. As I came in from lap one, I knew I needed to take off some clothes, and maybe fix a bunched sock. So I did that, and ate, and went to the porto-let, and all in all spent far too much time at the snack table.

 

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TARC Spring classic trail map

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TARC Spring classic, in my head.

 

Second lap was hard. I was alone, having lost a buddy who had been chatting with me and telling me stories. I was mostly alone, and failed to recognize where I was, so everything seemed longer. I knew from the first lap that there was this last.   left.   turn.  It came right before the finish, and it was followed by a little climb, a drop, and then an exit onto doubletrack that led straight to the finish line. I could not wait for that left turn. Where is it? Maybe I went the wrong way. Come on. Where’s that turn. Where’s that f**king last left turn??? A right turn. Another right turn. A long straightaway… some singletrack with some stones, rocky, rooty, muddy, hop a creek, another right turn. Another straightaway. And finally… The Last F**king Left Turn.

Third lap, back out. I took less time at the aid station. Time was cooking. I got in to a groove, and reconnected with my buddy Pete. Pete was from Massachusetts and works as an IT guy, and comes from a big family. His sister is an artist. Hearing all of these stories, lap three really flew by.

Lap four, I lost Pete, and was on my own again. But there was a group of marathoners who were finishing up their last lap, and they were having a trail party. They sat on my heel, which was fine, entertaining me with their talk. I kept my pace even and tried not to think too hard about my hamstring. I caught up with Pete at the end of this loop.

My fifth and final lap, Pete and I agreed to stick together to make it more bearable. Everyone was tired. The half marathoners and marathoners were for the most part done, so it was quieter out on the trails. We ran with Brenda, a Trail Animals regular, and she kept us talking and alert throughout. Tradition dictated I “say goodbye” to different trail features as it would be the last time I would be seeing them (until next year.) Goodbye steep hill. Goodbye lovely farm. Goodbye ferny glade. GOODBYE LAST F**KING LEFT TURN. I didn’t think about my dad during the race. Each of my loops was maddeningly consistent: 1:15 with 2-5 minutes at the aid station. I finished with a time of seven hours.

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Finish line, 2015 TARC Spring classic. Smiling because done.

I hugged Brenda and Pete, and then invaded the aid station. M&Ms, oreos, fig newtons, cheetoes, leftover potatoes, corn chips, half an apple, an orange, a snack bar, two cups of straight coca cola. The last of the runners were coming in, and we cheered for them. The two guys in kilts. The determined last runner. We all sat or stood around, on tarps, in chairs, or changing to fresh clothes. Finally, Tom and I decided to hit the road.

As we pulled up Bell Schoolhouse Road, Tom pointed out the great blue heron alighting from a pine tree at the base of the hill. Suddenly, the seven hour day gave way and I choked on a sob, and had another passing shower where I was filled with such loss and sadness that my Dad was gone, and I would never see him again.

It was over before it started. Winter seems endless. We await that final F**king left turn. A bird takes off. Something pushes through the earth and blooms.

 

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