Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Misadventures of Uncle Norm

They say lightning never strikes twice.  Maybe that explains why my Uncle Norm's been struck four times.  There was the first time, when he was 18, bailing hay in a field, and it burned right through his work gloves.  There was the time, just after putting his youngest daughter in the car, when it launched him into the air across a parking lot.  There was the time on his boat when his friends saw it arch between him, the boat, and the water.  And, finally, there was the time in his garage/workshop, when he didn't take his boots off for several hours, convinced that they had been scorched and were no longer there.  Needless to say, no one in our family will go out on the water with him if there is the slightest chance of poor weather (fortunately it was all clear skies the day I caught my first walleye on his boat.  I can still hear the thunk his mallet made on the top of the fish's head when I reeled it in after Santiago-esque battle).

You sometimes hear fantastic stories of super-human feats, especially in the realm of survival.  If there is one thing that the outside world would say of Uncle Norm, it is that he is a survivor (among many other, more incredible things).  Once while deer hunting in tree blind, he fell while climbing down, breaking his back in three places.  For many, this would be a death sentence - his friends were all back at camp and he had gone out for another go at tagging a trophy.  Yet, impossibly, Uncle Norm managed to crawl the mile back to his truck and get to his friends.  The doctors said he was lucky to be alive and would probably never walk again.  I've never seen him in a wheelchair.  There was also the time when a tree fell on one of his friend's legs.  Uncle Norm lifted the tree off his friend, and carried him to the car.  Later, four men could not move the tree.  

The last Christmas I spent with Uncle Norm and my family in Michigan, about ten years ago, I noticed the large scar on Norm's thumb, and asked what happened.  He nonchalantly explained how he had nearly sliced his thumb off while hunting.  The story got much more interesting when he explained that this happened while wrestling a buck.  Being a runner I have become fascinated by the idea of persistence hunting.  My uncle, who probably never ran more than half a mile at a go his whole life, had lived this dream, in a way: he had shot a buck, which proceeded to jump over a log and collapse.  Uncle Norm gave it a few minutes before going to examine.  As he straddled the tree, the buck picked its head up and started at Norm.  Uncle Norm describes the next several moments of his life as a flurry of deer spit, antlers, sweat and adrenaline, before he was able to unsheathe his hunting knife from his leg, and slit the deer's throat (and his thumb in the process).  As he lay on the ground with the deer on top of him, its blood and his own covering him, he heard another deer running through the forest - sent to avenge its brother.  It took him a minute to realize this was actually just his heart thumping in his chest.  The only thing that made this story better was the fact that moments later Uncle Norm would scoop an enormous portion of wasabi, thinking it was guacamole, onto a tortilla chip.  I swear, just like in cartoons, there was smoke coming out of his ears!

Sadly, Uncle Norm, my mom's baby brother, died this morning.  The man who had more lives than a cat, and lived each one of them full of nature, family, friends, and hard-work, spent his last days valiantly battling cancer.  When he was diagnosed, with stage-four lung cancer (he never smoked) his first doctor told him he had a few weeks to live.  That was almost two years ago.  Two years filled with trips, farming, hunting, spear-fishing, boating, the birth of grand-kids, and, typical for Uncle Norm, practical jokes.  

May all our lives be filled with the sort of moments that make us laugh and give us joy.  May all our lives be filled with misadventures like Uncle Norm.  

Smiling to the last - Uncle Norm enjoying a banana split a couple of weeks ago

Monday, August 13, 2012

Slackin' & Sufferin'

When one slacks, one usually suffers.  It makes sense - if you are concert pianist but never practice you will, likely, suffer from embarrassment.  If you want to run long distances, but don't run consistently or very far, well, you will likely suffer on some of your runs.  I discovered this to be very true on a run today.

As I continue to try to build myself back from a disappointing summer of running, I have completely slacked on being consistent (there have been moments of solid running, but nothing like what I am used to).  While there are perks to this (most notably, more time with the family to do things like hike up mountains in New Hampshire or play around on our new slackline - and in the end, this is more important than getting in solid training), the negatives were brought out in sharp relief when I met up with a couple of inov-8 teammates, Double J and Kevin Tilton, for an "easy" run tonight.  

After a long day at Storyland with the boys (this is typically its own form of suffering, but today it was quite fun, albeit, very long), and a short run to test some new earbuds (my ears are freakish and not designed to hold earbuds, even ones "guaranteed not to fall out," I discovered), Liz dropped me off at Cathedral Ledge for a 10-miler with Jim and Kevin.  These guys are exceptional runners: name a race in New England, and, chances are one (or both) of these guys have won it.  I was looking forward to running with them (as I don't race the shorter events, I've never seen these guys at a race) and getting to know some more of the local trails.  We took off from the bottom of Cathedral Ledge and meandered some trails that I was familiar with.  The pace was mellow, and we were chatting away.  About 7.5 miles in (at this point I was thoroughly turned around and lost), we made it to the top of Thomspon Falls, an impressive waterfall.  It was here that I knew things were going to be heading downhill (unfortunately, not literally).  I was thirsty.  I was very thirsty.  I started salivating thinking about drinking from the falls.  Or at least lying down in it; I was soaked in sweat).  One mile later I pulled up during a short incline, nauseous and dizzy.

As a runner, I think there are fewer things more embarrassing than running with some guys for the first time, bonking, and having to stop and hike, especially on a short, easy run.  It sucked.  I felt bad for slowing these guys down (they were both quite nice about it.  I would have mocked me mercilessly and fully expect to be, should they ever agree to "run" with me again!).  I felt bad because we were less than two miles from the car and I could barely lift my legs up an incline (flashback to the last many miles of Western).  I was frustrated because it was exactly one year ago when I had been floating up these trails with ease, sometimes twice a day.  The nausea didn't help things much either.  Neither did the slight spins.  I was thinking a lot about water.  This is what I expect in the late miles of an ultra if I've done a horrible job with nutrition and hydration. I'll chalk it up to not eating anything after breakfast and being completely dehydrated.  That's better than fully admitting I've been slacking on the running front and have a long way to go to get back to where I want to be.

There was a silver (or slightly less-precious metal) lining to this run for me (aside from the fact that Kevin and Jim were very gracious and let me suffer in silence - maybe it was all our talk of speedwork that made me ill . . .).  As strange as this sounds, it was turning down Kevin's (very tempting) offer of a ride back to my rental condo.  I knew it was about 3 miles, and that it would really hurt (mentally more than anything).  It did.  My legs were lead.  It was just me and my thoughts, which were few beyond, "One more step." I had missed dinner with the family.  I thought I was going to miss bed time (I made it back as Liz was finishing a reading of Captain Underpants).  These were some of the toughest miles I have run.  Ever.  But I got 'em done.  They weren't pretty and I knew I had earned all the suffering I got.  Which is where that silver lining came from.  

Today's suffering reminds me of my first foray into long runs, when I returned home after about 19 (unplanned) miles and was literally smelling water in peoples' homes.  That was almost ten years ago.  Today's suffering reminds me of descending off of Cayambe with my dad, and lying down at the refugio, body so spent that I could barely move, but my spirit in a state of euphoria (it could have been sleep deprivation).  That was about eight years ago.  It was a different suffering than what you feel at the end of most ultras even.  Today's suffering hurts (physically and it's a big-time ego bruise), but it's a special place, one that doesn't present itself very often, because, well, it's pretty ugly and actually takes a considerable effort to get there.  Today's suffering is a place that I don't readily want to return to (at least for several years!), but I know how to avoid it: stop slackin'!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What's For Dinner?

In lazy, or uninspired, moments, this seems to be the question de rigueur for Liz and I.  After a morning of mini-golf and an afternoon of river swimming (note to self: googles make everything in the water better - it was great to be able to see the river from its perspective!) and ice-cream, I was not feeling an elaborate meal preparation.  A fun movie, an enormous cucumber and hummus, and I wasn't even feeling getting out for a run.

So it was a salad, green beans (picked from from Google Grandma's garden the day before), and noodles with olive oil and salt followed by a short little family walk to the entrance of Whittaker Woods here in North Conway.  My belly was stuffed, but, as the boys were going to be taking an extended bubble bath, I took the opportunity to get out for a couple of very easy miles.  At least that was the plan.

The first 0.75 miles, despite having several pounds of pasta in my belly, felt comfortable enough that I decided to go a bit further before turning around (my running our first two days in North Conway had been marked by a lot of UP and a lot of DOWN.  My legs, after 6 weeks of little training, were feeling it, hence the planned easy day).  Right at a mile, I was running up a slight hill to where I would be turning around when I discovered that the Katzman family had not been the only ones considering the question "What's for dinner?"

From the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game: What you should do if you encounter a black bear:

  • Make it aware of your presence;
  • Remove any sight or smell of food;
  • Stand your ground and slowly back away.
I bring up this official New Hampshire State checklist of how to safely enjoy wildlife because, right when I was about to turn around and head home for bed time, my planned easy run took a sudden shift.  There, a mere eight feet from me, was a large (nigh gargantuan!) black bear, considering, for itself, what to eat for an evening meal.  Let's consider how I did in regards to the experts' recommendations for such encounters:
  1. Make it aware of your presence: FAILED.  I was essentially snuggling with this fellow (or lady?) before either of us knew what was going on.
  2. Remove any sight or smell of food: NEEDS IMPROVEMENT.  Considering I had eaten a large meal about 10 minutes before, I probably smelled delicious (at least to bears.  I don't think I had showered for a couple of days, but had been in the river earlier . . .).  At least I was not wearing a shirt.
  3. Stand your ground and slowly back away. EPIC FAIL!  Apparently I lack the nerves to stare down an animal that has more strength in its small claw than I have in my entire body.  After a brief moment of eye contact and a very loud noise from my ursine friend (probably an equally loud noise from myself), flight beat fight, I turned, and high-tailed it from whence I came.  Clearly, I would not do well to write brochures regarding wildlife encounters.  
As I ran, back turned to ursus americanus, adrenaline coursing through my tired and stiff legs, I had no idea how fast I was moving, but it was faster than I have for some time.  Unfortunately, probably no more than 30 seconds after fleeing my impending mauling, I felt my dinner trying to make a second appearance.  At this point I began thinking, "I'm totally f'ed.  I can't keep running this hard.  I am what's for dinner tonight!"  To gauge how much longer I had before Smokey made a meal of me, I chanced a looked behind me.  There was no sign of my friend.  Perhaps he was stalking me from the brush.  I kept running hard until I hit the train tracks.  Still no large black shadow pursuing me.  I spent the rest of my run checking behind me every couple of seconds, until I made it back to our unit.  The boys were mildly interested in my wildlife encounter - covering each other with bubbles was much more engaging at the moment.  

Falling asleep last night, I kept thinking about this little run.  As a human, I was stoked - how many people have a chance to experience something like this (and, melodrama here to make it more exciting, live to tell about it?)?  As a runner, I realized I'm really slow - but have a whole new incentive to hit the track!  In the end, one thing is clear - I LOVE New Hampshire!

Sunday, August 5, 2012


In my graduate training to become a teacher, we were drilled about the importance of reflection.  I know the value of it (both personally and professionally), but, at times, it is necessary to remind one's self just how powerful and important it can be.  This is such a reminder . . .

Recently, as we packed for our annual pilgrimage to North Conway, New Hampshire, I decided, naturally, to procrastinate by looking back at my training since February (thank goodness Garmin Connect collects all this for me!).

Six weeks removed from Western, still not feeling 100%, I have been getting a little antsy to feel more consistent in my daily runs - just getting out for longer each day.  I’m trying to be patient, but when I’m not working in the summer and the weather is perfect, it’s hard.  After running through my second speed workout (an 8 X 400 workout on a rolling dirt path yesterday), my confidence was pretty low.  Just a few days ago I was running 200 meter repeats at well under sub-5:00 pace.  Yesterday, it was a struggle to approach 5:00 pace (and I think I only did once).  I blamed it on the 95 degrees and the fact that there were a bunch of uphill sections (the “track” I used is a great, rolling ~0.5 mile crushed-gravel loop around a local park).  What was going though?  I should be able to run harder.  Shouldn’t I?

Then I looked at the data on Garmin Connect.  Following Rocky Raccoon (my first 100 miler), I remember feeling “off” for a bit, but it didn’t seem as long as this summer.  The record tells it differently: it took me five weeks before I ran 14 or more miles at a go. For that first 14 miler, Adam Wilcox drove down to the Blue Hills and I remember being very tentative about my tight knee.  It was six weeks before I made it 20 or more miles.  But most of my runs remained less than 10 miles, and were largely flat.  Since Western?  It took me only two weeks to make it to 14 miles, and I've had several more 10+ mile runs at a solid effort.   There was a hard 12 miler.  There were a couple of hard mountain runs in Vermont.  And there was 39 miles last weekend pacing for Scott.  D’oh!  I should remember the past – I’m actually mending faster following Western than Rocky.  I may not feel like it, but I'm actually being pretty consistent and, mostly, am running them hard (a little aside – as I looked at all my runs in the month and half or so leading up to Western, it was clear that my average pace to/from school (which is the same run each day, twice a day, and, as such, a good measure of my fitness/energy) completely plateaued and even got a bit slower, when it should have been getting faster.  Again, D’OH!). 

Lessons?  One, it looks like it takes me 5 – 6 weeks to recover, physically and mentally, from a hundred miler (this, the 6th week following Western, was the first that I made it through all my runs without really noticing the tightness in my knee, which, according to Garmin Connect, is just when I started feeling better following Rocky).   Two, I should use the info in Garmin Connect and start being less stubborn (foolish) when I begin feeling worn down or when I get warning signs about injuries, and try to take more days “off,” at least from running – swim around Walden Pond (or the Y . . .), take the bike out for a couple of hours, something like that.  Three (and I’ve written this earlier this week), patience is key.  

It is amazing what a little reflection can do . . .

Friday, August 3, 2012

In Thoreau's Shadow

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. 

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: What I Lived For

Growing up I was not much of a daredevil.  I didn't like climbing trees.  I was tentative about jumping into swimming holes.  I was scared to light a firecracker.  I never rode a roller coaster until I was 21.  So, you can imagine my sense of equal parts dread and joy yesterday when Cooper and Jacoby told me they were swimming across Walden Pond.

Since moving to Massachusetts ten years ago Walden Pond has always held a certain mystique on me.  Thoreau made it famous, but my own experiences have cemented it as a "favorite place:"

  • On my first 30+ mile run, running around the pond as the sun came up, totally alone, save the loon that was calling through the mist rising off the water;
  • The first hike that the boys and I took with my father, the smell of autumn hanging in the air;
  • Seeing Liz enjoy the cool water on a sweltering day, just days before Cooper was born and our lives were changed (for the better) forever;
  • The humid summer run, my first with a handheld water bottle, when the skies opened and thunder rolled.
Some say that Walden is overcrowded, that the fences along the paths go against Thoreau's ethos of living free.  But it is still a special, beautiful place, and since today was a boy's day (Liz was working), and it was over 90 degrees, we drove the 15 or 20 minutes to swim.  

As we walked down to the pond (you come out to the main, roped-off, life-guarded swimming area), Cooper kept asking how far it was from our place.  I told him about 11 miles the way we came.  "I could run that or I could ride my bike here," he said.  He's 6.  I was proud.  Seeking a bit of adventure, we shunned the crowded "beach" and began walking around the pond to one of the "private" entries.  Jacoby (who can, at times, be less than enthusiastic about these "hikes") picked our spot, and climbed down the steep rocks to the pond first.  Both of the boys were a bit tentative about getting in the water - this was one of the first times we were actually swimming in wild (more or less) water - no ropes, no life guards, just us.  And so it was, after both boys dunked their heads, I decided to jump in and swim out - to encourage them to push their limits a bit, to live fully and in the moment.

We spent about an hour in the water, trying to catch fish with our hands, and swimming a little further out at times, but always returning quickly to the shore (because of Walden's depth, once you get a few feet from the shore, you can't see the bottom - it's pretty intimidating, especially for a 4 and 6 year old!).  When the boys got cold, we decided to walk a little further around the pond, and ended, auspiciously, at "Thoreau's Cove," a small inlet near the site of old Hank's cabin.  It was here, where I had been expecting to simply enjoy some more "fishing" and easy soaking, that Jacoby said he wanted to swim across the inlet, to the other side (Cooper had wanted to swim the ~0.5 miles across the entire pond earlier).  At first my mind said, "NO WAY!" The water is deep, it is further than Cooper has ever swam, and there is no chance that he can simply bob to the bottom and come back up (the water is probably about 25 feet where we crossed).  Plus we didn't have our googles, and the boys, who are both incredible swimmers, are not quite as confident without them.  Yet, they persisted, and after agreeing that Jacoby would hold onto my back (tightly!) the whole time, and that Cooper would stay within arm's reach, I was floating on my stomach and Jacoby was climbing on.  We were off.

Thoreau's Cove is only about 70 meters across.  Yet that small distance led to one of the toughest and proudest moments of my life.  It was difficult to put my kids into a potentially dangerous situation - I knew they could both make it, but still, what-if?  I was incredibly proud of the confidence both boys showed.  Jacoby for wanting to do something like this and for cheering both me and Cooper the whole way and staying cool as we swam (he was a bit upset that I didn't let him swim alone, but I wasn't ready for that).  Cooper for diving right in, and as he struggled a bit towards the end, for sticking with it, for staying calm and reaching the other side.  Despite my reservations, seeing the joy and sense of pride from both boys made it worth it.

The boys' original plan had been to swim both ways (we had to get our stuff!).  Cooper summed up our decision to hike back along the path as such, "Jacoby (who was all for swimming back), that was hard!  My chest is pounding so hard!"  So was mine.

Perhaps my two boys will forget this day in the near future.  I will not.  I will remember the day when both of my children, together, "fronted only the essential facts of life," and truly challenged themselves, and truly lived.  The mystique of Walden continues to grow.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Running 'Round in Circles

This past Saturday, I ran around a 3.17 mile sidewalk loop.  For 39 miles.  Boring?  Mindless?  Awful?   Nothing could be further from the truth . . .

Just ask Scott Traer.  While most people would think my 39 mile around this loop was impressive, consider this: Scott ran 101.5 miles more than me on this loop.  That's 140.5 miles.  Without stopping.  That's why this run was so incredible.

Scott was competing in the 24 Hours Around the Lake race.  He had competed in this race last year (when I was competing in the measly 12 hour version) and had some unfinished business.  I have been fortunate enough to run with Scott throughout this past year, and was looking forward to joining him for as long as I could (five weeks out, I am still combatting a post-Western funk, and only had two "long" runs of 14 miles since that point).  I joined Scott around mile 83 or 86 for him.  He was cruising.  As we started out, it became clear that he was having a solid day, easily running 7:30ish pace.  For the next six and half hours we just ran around in circles, stopping at his all-vegan, self-service aid station at the start/finish, where I discovered the incredible power of dates, with sliced almonds and agave nectar.  Simply amazing fuel.  Conversation and energy ebbed and flowed, but still we ran the circle.

Suffice it to say that Scott ran hard, stopping only because a two-hour downpour near the end left him hypothermic.  Watching him for a more than 6 hours got me thinking: his training and diet are pretty intense, and to continue to try to compete in this sport, I've got to revamp my own training.  Leading up to Western I had 11+ weeks in a row over 100 miles and about 15 weeks in a row in the 90+ range.  But those miles were mostly junk.  Just casually running to and from school, exhausted physically and mentally, because, well, I was exhausted (I wasn't confident to take a bit of a break when my body was telling me to and I believe that is now why I still feel a bit haggard).  It was with this new thinking that I found myself three days after pacing Scott, again, running 'round in circles, this time at the Arlington High School Track.

10x200.  It may not seem like much, and, considering I ended the day with a mere 5 miles, I usually wouldn't think of this as much of a workout, but to me it was a start.  I had just finished assembling the boys' new swingset/fort (not an easy 8 hours of work, especially since I missed lunch and drank nothing all day).  I was beat and I smelled.  My back was sore from leaning over to tighten screws and level the fort.  My legs were still sore from the shock the received pacing Scott.  But I laced up, and jogged the ~1.25 miles to the high school track.  I planned on running 5 - 7 200m repeats.  Then I started running hard.  200 meters.  Online I had read to give myself 2 - 3 minutes recovery.  That seemed too easy, so after the second repeat, it became a 200 meter recovery.  I kept the pace consistent (and fast, for me).  I got to the fifth repeat feeling pretty good.  I decided to go for 8 (1 mile of hard running).  I got to 8 and went for 10.  I felt like I could have kept this up, but am trying to ease into this whole speedwork thing.  Trying to be patient.

And that is what I am taking away from running around in circles the last few days - patience.  Think of things as a part of a cycle.  Be patient with this cycle of recovery for my body, even if it seems to be interminable.  Be patient listening to what my body is telling me.  Be patient as I try to rebuild myself into a stronger runner.