Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Running Stop

“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” It may not be the classiest or most refined of expressions, but most people have heard it and know exactly what it means. Three weeks ago In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I was reminded just how much truth there is in that little nugget. Heading for my best time since I started running half-marathons again just over two years ago – and finally, completely breaking through that psychological 8-minute mile barrier I’ve been working on for a year – I was in the stretch run, picking up the pace for the last half mile. It was as sure as it gets – with a pace of near 7:50 on the horizon – and a new “post-50” PR. When it popped. I’m still not exactly sure what it was – most likely because of the fear of knowing – but the “pop” was a sharp pain in the back of my upper left thigh that stopped me dead in my tracks. Thinking it might be a cramp, I tried stretching it out, then walking it off, but nothing helped. I was unable to run on it – period. I was finally able to walk/hobble my way to the finish line – and even finish with a respectable time due to the previous 12.5+ miles – but the PR was gone – replaced by considerable anxiety about what had happened and the longer-term consequences. And of course the reminder – it isn’t over until it is over.

Initially, my disappointment (and frustration) at not achieving the goal was pretty high….in fact REAL high. However, as I got past the moment, there were even things to be grateful for. At least the injury occurred near the very end of the race. Had it happened much sooner, I most likely would not have finished the race – and there wouldn’t be two Louisiana medals hanging on that peg. It also appears the injury might not be as serious as I had initially feared. I finally decided to check some sports medicine literature and it is, more than likely, a Grade 2 hamstring strain or pull. Although there is still considerable recovery time, only the more serious Grade 3 likely requires surgical repair. If I can manage to do the right things – and keep from doing the wrong (or premature) things – hopefully I’ll be able to participate in our next scheduled race in late January.
As for other race comments – the course was a pretty nice one. It started next to the Louisiana State University (LSU) campus on a pretty lake, wound through several neighborhoods, some campus areas, sorority row( quite impressive along the lake), along the lakeshore for several miles, through some VERY impressive areas with estate-like homes/plantations, and ended back where we began. It was a flat, fast course – with weather pretty well-suited for running. It was chilly, but not TOO cold, generally sunny (but often shaded), little or no wind, and no precipitation. Perfect PR conditions……..sigh.

As for the rest of the trip, it was interesting and enjoyable. We spent a day and a half in New Orleans, including the French Quarter, hurricane-damaged areas and some good food – to include some wonderful Po Boy sandwiches and a Cajun meal at Mulates. We spent part of a morning driving through the Lower Ninth Ward – one of the hardest hit areas by Katrina. It was still VERY depressing. I would estimate that, at most, maybe 20% of the houses are inhabited; most are boarded up, visibly vacant or just plain gone. We only saw one school that was open (most obviously closed); most businesses were closed and there was just very little sign of recovery or reconstruction efforts. Although Baton Rouge wasn’t the liveliest spot we have visited recently, it was certainly better off and offered a number of things well worth seeing…and eating. These included both the Old Statehouse and the current Capitol – both very unique in architectural design and features. The former looked like a castle or fortress from the outside with a multi-colored, glass dome that was very impressive. The new Statehouse looked more like an office skyscraper, but the interior was equally impressive with a Great Hall, beautifully appointed legislative chambers, and an exhibit marking the spot where former State Governor and Senator Huey Long was shot – a most interesting note in a most interesting state history, replete with corruption and intrigue. There was also an observation deck on the Capitol – about 20 stories up – that provided a good view of the city, the Mississippi River and about as far as you could see across the State – since there were virtually NO hills, mounds or even undulations in sight! Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge we also stopped at a couple of very impressive southern plantations….and, of course, enjoyed another great meal.
We look back on the past year and are a bit amazed at our running results! We checked off 17 States – and each one was also a unique and worthwhile trip. We took full advantage of Carl’s Southwest Airlines Companion Pass. As we look forward to 2009, we suspect there will be a more reasonable number of races. We also recognize how richly we have been blessed to make our quest possible. We thank all those who have helped us on our way – watching and taking care of Rachel, traveling with us or meeting us, or just providing motivation. At the risk of forgetting someone, special thanks to Karen’s Mom and sister (Kathy), Jen, Emily, Sarah and several Race Directors and LDS church members who were just super in supporting us along the way. Thanks for helping us have a great running year. Twenty-six down; 24 to go!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Running the First!

Do you have a collection of State Quarters? Do you remember the first one that came out in the series? Do you recall it being Massachusetts? I hope not, because it was actually Delaware – and with our race on the 22nd of November we not only achieved the milestone of 50% of the States, we ran in our first State, Delaware, which was first to ratify the Constitution. As part of our trip, we visited the original building and locations (in Dover) where the signers met to start our Union. Interestingly enough it was a tavern – not the least atypical for the era. It was an impressive, but small complex of buildings from the 1700s (some now restored), to include plaques, monuments and the village green – looking much like it did well over 200 years ago.

As for our race, it was at Rehoboth Beach, located where the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay intersect. It started along the town boardwalk (obviously quite a tourist mecca in the summer), then proceeded through the town, along a running trail through a forest preserve, past fields and wetlands, past Delaware’s first settlement (Lewes – where there were also some interesting old buildings) to a State Park at Cape Henlopen. Since the race was actually a two-person marathon relay, Cape Henlopen is where Karen handed me the “baton” (our timing chip). I then ran much of the same route in reverse – ending where we began on the boardwalk.

Although our 25th race together it was our first with a bonafide taste of winter! As we ate dinner the night before, we looked out the window onto quite a snow squall. It had also snowed much of the way down from Philadelphia earlier that evening. Luckily, race morning broke with crystal clear skies, but quite windy, cold (probably around 30) and some slick/snowy spots – esp. at the race start along the boardwalk. The wind kept our times a bit slower, but all in all it was a really nice race, a fairly scenic course and – of major importance to us – had a GREAT post race food spread (drinks, mini-burgers, veggie burgers, salads, pancakes, syrups, baked beans, pulled pork, and mac & cheese)! Luckily, the food was in a big tent where it was at least warmer. It was really good and we had some great visits with other runners. The race organizers were a couple that ran the local running store. They were also great – and we patronized them with a new pair of shoes for Karen. On the way back to the airport we stopped in Wilmington to visit the original home and black powder manufacturing site of E.I. DuPont. Interesting complex and, of course, quite a history as one of the titans of U.S. manufacturing.

My thoughts during this trip weren’t so much tied to running’s life lessons, but rather the origin of our nation and ideals. Running (and walking) where our founding fathers lived, talked about democracy, and met to set in motion the most significant experiment in the history of man was humbling and impressive. Indeed, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude – along with an equally huge obligation to ensure the continuing success of those ideals and that great experiment. It was great to Run the First! (Picture key, where not obvious: 2 - Old Statehouse in foreground, new Statehouse in background; 3 - oldest home in Lewes, information plaque is #5; 10 - DuPont mansion/home; 11 - Rehoboth Beach after a successful run!)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Running the Oaks

How important is the title? Do you ever debate how you should title a post? Do you wonder if it is "catchy" or appropriate? Does it fit? And have you ever wondered just how many ways you can use the word "Run" or "Running" in a title?? Since that would appear to be one of my criteria...let's end the the debate and use this one.

Actually, it is probably appropriate, although you will see (assuming you read this entire post) it could have been any number of other titles, as well. Our last race was the "City of Oaks" marathon and half-marathon in Raleigh NC. Guess what? The area is known for huge, stately oak trees - and on the 1st and 2nd of November, a good number of them were showing off their autumn attire. Hopefully, a picture or two will give you a flavor for them, but a number of the roads we ran were lined with them. (Picture captions are at the bottom, numbered from top left down.)

Neither Karen nor I remember ever being in the Raleigh area, so it was nice to get acquainted with new terrain....and as we are wont to do, checked out nearby campuses, the downtown area, the Capitol and some historic areas. We were also frequently reminded that this is tobacco country - the bastion of this agricultural commodity and an area that generated almost unbelievable wealth for a number of icons of the industry.

As for the campuses, we visited UNC-Chapel Hill (which is the main campus), Wake Forest (in how is THAT for a tobacco name), and Duke (in Durham). There was also a smaller, liberal arts college in Winston-Salem (Salem College, coincidentally) that was about two hundred years old and quite picturesque. All of the campuses had something unique to offer. UNC claims to be the oldest public university in the country. Most of the campus now looks much newer, but there were interesting reminders of the past and it was a pretty campus. I was especially impressed with the Dean Smith Arena - which is, essentially, the state's shrine to their college basketball program - one of the most successful and storied in the history of the sport. Interesting hall in the arena recognizing great moments and personalities from their sports lore. Wake Forest was much smaller, but architecturally consistent with a very pretty church. The private school was founded by a tobacco baron. For Karen it was particularly interesting since this is where Brian Piccolo went to college. He played pro football for the Chicago Bears in the Gayle Sayers era (60s), but died of cancer at age 26. His story became the basis for a book and movie - and the one song Karen can still sit at the piano and play with aplomb - Brian's Song. His family still headlines a number of fundraising, community sports activities in Chicago and Karen has participated in a number of them. Completely unrelated, of course, to Karen's celebrity stalking tendencies, she enjoyed visiting his old college dorm (now named in his honor) and talking to students who all knew about the annual Wake Forest fundraiser ("Hit the Bricks") to raise money for his cause. That notwithstanding, the most impressive campus, by far - if not the most impressive I have ever seen - was Duke. A fairly new school (~1930), also founded by tobacco grants and endowments (Mr. Duke, of course) - it looks like a rival for any European school 3 or 4 times that old. The architectural theme is Gothic and very consistent across campus. The centerpiece is a cathedral (one of the caretakers talked to us for awhile an wanted us to be VERY certain it was NOT really a cathedral, but the largest non-denominational "church" anywhere). It is amazing! Having seen MANY European cathedrals, this would rival any of them. There was also a beautiful set of gardens, named for Mr. Duke's wife, that perfectly complimented the campus. Well worth our visit - and we wish we would have had longer.

The State Capitol was old, small and impressive - with monuments to all of the US wars surrounding the building. The architects commissioned an Italian sculptor to put a statue of a well-known person in the building. The sculptor had never been in America and had never met his subject. Guess who it is? (Your choices are a. Julius Ceaser, b. Napolean, c. George Washington, and d. LaFontaine. The answer is at the bottom.) Interestingly, the state legislature no longer meets in the Capitol, but across the street about a block in a legislative building that looks more like a convention center and is quite new. We also visited an old historic district in Winston-Salem (Old Salem) - one of the oldest settlements in the state and thoroughly enjoyed dinner there in a tavern that has been around for over 200 years. It was settled by Moravians in the late 1700s and includes an old Moravian cemetery - no one's headstone could be taller than anyone else.

As for the race, it would be difficult to get better conditions. It was sunny, quite cool, very little wind and an interesting course most of the way, but with a few hills. I had really hoped this might be my "breakthrough" - where I could bust the psychological barrier of running sub-8 minute miles again. For the exception of the 3 or 4 miles that were "hill" miles, I was able to do so....but unfortunately had to include those, as well, leaving me just over the 8-minute mark again.

As for my runner's thoughts - I usually do my pre-race homework quite well. In fact, many might think I am a bit anal. I like to drive the course in advance, check out the start area, confirm parking and the exact route we'll get to the race start from our hotel - usually on a "less traveled" route to avoid the worst traffic. This was completed prior to the Raleigh race - and we were very confident of our pre-race logistics. However, we didn't adequately account for the time required for the pre-race dump! If you have ever seen a race start site just before a race, there are dozens of portapotties in multiple banks in the area. However, there are usually about fifty times as many people in line as there are portapotties....and Raleigh was no exception. The lines were VERY long, the "relief" times excessive, and by the time we completed these very essential race preparations and then were depositing our gear check bag, the gun sounded and the race began! And we weren't even in the starting throngs yet - numbering between three and four thousand runners (and we usually try to be near the front of that throng). Okay - so we jumped the snow fence to get on the road, still had to wait a few minutes before we actually got to the start line, and then had to try and make up lost time. (This last circumstance only applied to me, by the way.) For the first two miles I had to try and pick my way through very crowded roads to get into a position I could really run. It took its toll - physically and otherwise. I guess the message here is that its very hard to make up lost time - whether in a race or in life. I won't say it can't be done - but there is a cost..... and our ability and willingness to pay will end up making a difference.

Another great trip; another great race. We thank Princess Jen for helping us with Rachel for the weekend. We are nearing the 50% mark for the States!
Picture key:
1 and 2: Raleigh skyline, with Convention Center "shimmering wall" and a great oak.
3. Bell Tower at UNC
4 and 5: Dean Smith Arena, UNC
6. Wake Forest Chapel
7 and 8: Brian Piccolo Residence Hall
9-11: Duke "Church" (Cathedral!)
12. Sarah Duke Gardens
13 and 14. State Capitol and Staue of, yes, George Washington!
15 and 16: State Legislative Building....go figure!
19 and 20: Old Salem, Winston-Salem, with Moravian Cemetery
21. City of Oaks Finishers!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Running in the Heartland

Okay - admit it. Iowa has never been anywhere on your list of places you just HAD to visit in this lifetime. In fact, you can't think of a single person who HAS Iowa on their list - even the extended "What if I live to be 105" list! Which means I can also confess it was never on my list.....UNTIL, of course, the list included ALL 50 states, including a few in America's Heartland, that might not have otherwise been on the radar screen. But notwithstanding your list or mine, Iowa is exactly where we spent last weekend and I came home realizing that my appreciation for such "heartland states" continues to grow and I continue to be surprised by what each and every state has to offer. Yes - Iowa has a LOT of cornfields - stretching just about as far as you can see in many places. Yes - Iowa has a lot of flat land. And Yes, it has at least it's share of small farm towns that look like they barely survived the last century, let alone the current one. But I suspect I am learning that, more than anything, people make a place what it is.....and there are almost always places most people from anywhere else don't know about....and together they contribute to making each State's visit something unexpectedly interesting and memorable. Such was the case with Iowa.

Our race (Siouxland Lewis & Clark Marathon and Half) was in Sioux City, which is on the Missouri River, where it traces the western boundary of the state at an intersection with both Nebraska and South Dakota. The city traces its heritage to Lewis & Clark who came through the area twice on their exploration - once headed upriver and the second time on the return. There are some impressive bluffs along the eastern side of the river with some beautiful forests, parks and inspirational views to the west across the Missouri River Valley. Even the aging city has its charm in an historic district, riverfront parks and a very interesting Lewis & Clark interpretive center. We also found unexpected charm in Council Bluffs (across the river from Omaha) and scenery in the Loess Hills. Council Bluffs introduced us to the Main Street Cafe - a true heartland eatery with wonderful homemade food and soups and a staff to match, not to mention Halloween decorations that alone were worth the visit. The Loess Hills are a remarkably rugged area of hills and forest over ancient dunes between Sioux City and Council Bluffs. And mixed in there were farmscapes and reminders of their heritage that were pretty remarkable.

There you have it. Is Iowa now on your list? Even though it is no longer on ours, we certainly don't regret our visit - and, in the process, that we checked off State #23. The race, itself, was good. It was relatively small (fewer than 200 participants in the half-marathon), but the logistics and support were excellent, the pre-race pasta dinner really good, the post-race snacks and pizza great, and the people warm and friendly - to include Vicky Eliesa - who we found through the Sioux City 1st Ward and proved to be a superb choice to watch Rachel for a few hours during the race. The course was relatively fast - but you remember those impressive bluffs I mentioned early on? Well, we had to climb those between miles 3 and 4.5, and they were pretty grueling. Luckily, the forest parks made it at least scenic (when you were seeing beyond the racing heartbeat and lack of oxygen during the climb). I ended up with a time in the 1:45 range, so felt pretty good, and Karen was likewise not disappointed with her time.

Another fun trip - another increase in understanding what America's Heartland is all about. And considerably more information about Lewis & Clark! The thought to share? I think you'll find it above - don't underestimate people or places and what they have to offer.