Thursday, December 31, 2009

Running the ONEderful Mississippi Gulf Coast

Okay, I admit occasionally having envied Karen’s plaques and mementoes for those races where she has actually placed in her age group or a category. And despite the pride factor, I don’t really remember (of course, I have failings there now, too) using the “I” word (for injustice) or coveting them. I wondered whether I realistically ever had a chance of placing in my own group. Ultimately, I think I came to the conclusion that if I found a race small enough….it might just be possible. Welcome to Mississippi! On the Saturday following Thanksgiving, we ran the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon and Half-Marathon on the Stennis Space Center in the southwest corner of the state, just a few miles from the Gulf and Louisiana. I won my age division! True, there were only 11 other men in that division, but it just so happened I also ran a “Karen-era” PR – by a considerable margin – finishing the course in 1:42:40. I’ll take it! As it turns out, this was NOT our smallest race. In fact, there have been quite a few that were smaller – but it was definitely more “down home” than many have been. However, it was a perfect day and course for a PR. It was cool, overcast, very little breeze, and about as flat as a pancake. And there was irony, as well.

Karen also finished first in her age group – and had more competitors! So we had a bit more in our luggage on the return trip – two plaques to help us remember our moment in the spotlight.

It was another great trip and weekend. It was actually preceded by a complete surprise trip (for Karen) to Chicago for Thanksgiving for a very nice, but quick visit with family. We then had 2-3 days in Mississippi, where neither Karen nor I had ever spent much time. We enjoyed an afternoon on the Gulf Coast (still quite a few reminders of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina a few years back) – which looks like it would be ideal for family and kid bathing in season!

The whole area is part of the Mississippi River delta, so lots of swamps, southern forests, and bayous. Our half-marathon was through such forest and bayou country – certainly no urban areas. We drove up to Jackson and, after church on Sunday morning, visited the Capitol where we got a private viewing. We found it closed, but knocked and a security guard let us in to tour the very impressive edifice. We then spent half a day driving down the Mississippi River or along the Natchez Trace, a famous trading route for centuries.

We visited Vicksburg National Military Park (a Union victory that had perhaps more significance than any other during the Civil War); stopped along the Trace to enjoy an authentic southern fried chicken lunch; and had a little time in Natchez – which, in its day – was one of the wealthiest cities in America and was replete with southern estates and mansions.

After Mississippi we flew from New Orleans to Orlando and met Buggy and Grace for several days at Disney World – which was a great finish to our week away. But more on that trip in a later post. As for Mississippi – it was ONEderful! (And by the way, at the end of 2009 we have completed 37 States! Thirteen plus DC to go!)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Running a Nor'easter

Sooner or later it was bound to happen. Every once in awhile - albeit VERY briefly and only until I knock on the nearest wooden object - I catch myself thinking how fortunate we have been with our race weather. We have missed a lot of storms, but really only run part of a couple of races in somewhat inclement weather. Rhode Island - indeed our smallest state - decided it was time to even the odds - and ordered a uniquely New England Nor'easter for the occasion. We suspected the weather might not be cooperative the day we landed in Providence. Our Thursday afternoon and evening drive out through the hill country to see the fall colors included snow - and cold. However, the brunt of the storm waited until race day, which broke with a steady, cold rain. As the race started the wind picked up and the rain changed from vertical to horizontal, with blustery gale force winds along the coast and especially at the finish on the beach. Needless to say, by then every runner was completely soaked through whatever attire they were wearing. We would have been grateful to have been through had the race had adequate warming facilities, but "cooling" off after a race. . . soaking wet . . . in the rain . . . with temperatures around 50 and winds howling didn't make for happy runners. It was compounded by the fact the start and finish were 6-8 miles apart and buses were to take the runners back to the start area. However, no one knew where they were loading, and when we finally found out, it was half a mile away . . . and all for naught - the busses weren't running, anyway! Hundreds of people were lined up waiting . . . and no buses. I was, literally, shivering uncontrollably and thought I was going to have hypothermia. Luckily, I don't think it progressed that far and, after waiting for 30-45 minutes and giving up on the busses, we flagged down some passing motorists who had pity on both of us and took us (albeit on a circuitous route) back to our car. The bright side? We now know what a Nor'easter can look like up close and personal!

On race morning (Newport RI) we seriously contemplated not running the race (which, apparently, was what some 700-800 decided); however, we concluded we had too much invested. As for the results - we thought there were likely two possible outcomes: 1) either we would want to get through as quickly as possible to get out of the elements (had we only known), or 2) it would be a very slow race due to conditions. For me, it was more the former. I ran an 8-minute/mile pace. It wasn't a PR, but anytime I'm at an hour-and-45 minutes or less, I'm pretty satisfied. My disappointment was learning that, for this race, rather than the normal 5-year age group categories, they had 10-year categories. Among those men 50-59, I finished 5th of 93. However, had I been competing in my normal group (55-59), I would have been first (of 38)! Oh well....

The weather obscured much of the natural beauty of the course. Fortunately, we drove it the day before and it would have ranked among the most scenic we have done. Much of it was right along the quintessential New England coast - rocky, headlands, points, wind and sea-swept vegetation, hills - and some absolutely magnificent homes (actually estates or mansions) overlooking the water. Beautiful.

As trips go, and despite the weather, this was another really great one. For such a small state, Rhode Island packs a powerful historical punch. Colonial history started with Roger Williams and there were some very impressively preserved homes and areas from that era in Providence. The Capitol was equally impressive and we had two great meals in the city - one of which included a seafood first for me . . . an oyster! (More on that later.)

We followed Providence with a scenic drive through RI (where we made an "ascent" of RI's highest point, Jerimoth Hill t 812'!) and eastern Connecticut and ended up in Newport - not only an important port during colonial times but, more recently, hangout of the "rich and famous" during the gilded age...and still today. It seems every wealthy industrialist in the East had a summer "home" (actually a mansion) in Newport - the Vanderbilts, Biltmores, Astors, Berwinds, and dozens more. Although many of the 19th century estates are no longer there, many have also been preserved to tell the story of a bygone age when even the wealthiest did not have to pay taxes and could lavish their fortunes on mansions they used only a couple of months in the summer. Having visited and toured many of the chateaus and castles of Europe, I can unequivocally say that many of these Newport mansions rivalled them in every detail, every expense, every ornate room, and splendor - not to mention size. They were pretty amazing. We toured three of them (The Breakers, Marble House, Elms), ran by dozens more and on the 4-mile Cliff Walk saw still others perched along the rocky promontories overlooking the ocean. If you've every read "The Great Gatsby" - you would immediately relate after spending a day or two in the Newport Mansions.

Before leaving Newport, we also had some great seafood and Italian meals and ate lunch in America's olderst tavern - the "White Horse" - established in 1673 - indeed, a living historical museum and well worth the rather pricey lunch.

(And a special note dedicated to Karen - who you know has NO interest whatsoever in celebrities - esp. Kennedys - and their comings and goings. Well, it just so happens Newport is where John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married. Do you think we visited the Catholic Cathedral where that event mesmerized millions?)

Three thoughts are worth sharing after finishing our 36th State. First - don't let size influence expectations unfairly. Rhode Island is half the size of Utah County, but packs a powerful historical punch, has a beautiful coastline, some pretty forests (esp. in the Fall), and some weather everyone should get acquainted with!
Secondly - break down a barrier that has prevented you from doing something. In my case, I've told myself for years that eating raw, slimy oysters was gross and something I would NEVER do. A great waitress in Providence convinced me I should at least try one of Rhode Island's true delicacies. I did! And I now know why they don't really eat them - they advise just sliding it in and swallowing. Hmmmmm. You know, it wasn't bad, but now I have a basis for my disposition towards oysters. Finally, how much adversity are you willing to endure to achieve a goal or to make something work? This question should not imply that we overcame some immense obstacle - but the weather certainly did not welcome us on race morning. Into every life some rain will fall...and some wind will blow - and sometimes we have even invited them in. How we deal with them, no doubt, speaks volumes about our character, our commitment and our recognition that "this, too, shall pass."