Sunday, June 23, 2019

Biscuits and Gravy - A Memorial for my brother, Billy

I read this at the memorial service for my late, beloved, big brother Billy. This is a Billy fish tale. But, unlike most fish stories, this one is absolutely true. After nearly 40 years, it’s still one of my favorite memories and a story Billy and I recounted with each other many times over the years. I hope  you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy remembering it. I call this fish tale,

Biscuits and Gravy

Momma dropped us off by the railroad tracks where Idol’s Road makes the hard left turn. We pulled our tackle boxes and fishing poles from the back of the giant, wood-paneled station wagon and waved goodbye as she drove away. “Come get us in the morning!” Billy yelled.
I think we were both somewhere between 11 and 14 years old. Those last childhood years when the closeness of brotherhood comes easy.  Before high school, before cars, before serious girlfriends. 
How Billy had talked Momma into letting us camp overnight at Idol’s Dam on the Yadkin River, I never knew. Smooth talking was one of his gifts. Like most of our adventures together, I was just along for the ride. 
Fishing poles. A cast net. Tackle boxes. Some matches. A good knife.  That’s all we brought. No tent. No sleeping bags. No flashlights. No shoes. And no food. 
We’d spend the night catching fish and roasting them on spits over the fire. That was our plan anyway. A couple of country boys camping on the Yadkin, eating like kings!
We made our way along the quarter mile of warm railroad tracks, to the trestle bridge spanning the Yadkin River just above Idol’s Dam. The Summer sun had melted the black tar on the railroad ties of the trestle. It stuck to our bare feet in sticky black spots as we crossed. 40 feet below the muddy waters flowed lazily towards the dam. On other visits, we’d climbed the lower iron girders far below, carving our initials, BL & SL, into the thick black tar that coated most of the trestle. I sometimes wonder if they are still there. Still as vividly carved as my memory of them.
Catching bait fish with the cast net in the rocky whitewater below the dam was a Billy specialty. Standing knee deep in the rapids, Billy would gather up the net in his hands, carefully folding it in on itself. Then with one smooth swinging throw, he’d let the net fly, expanding into a perfect circle, before sinking into the foamy, rushing water. Hauling in the net revealed a dozen or so small, shiny, silver Shad fish. We threw them into a cut milk jug that we had found by the riverbank. Even with water in the jug, they never lasted very long. They lived fast, and died fast.
We’d camp on the tip of the spear-shaped island that sprouted near the hydropower building at the far side of the dam. The river was low, so crossing the dam on foot was easy. Just an inch or two of warm muddy water spilling over the top and splashing the rocks 12 feet below. 
The long, skinny island had a viney, tree-covered spine, and narrow, sandy shores. We headed to the point to set up camp. Billy knew the fishing would be better there. 
With no tents, making camp was easy. Billy cut bait and set up the rods. I gathered wood from the island and made a fire pit with some river rocks on the sand near the point.
And then, we fished, talking confidently about catching a big striped bass for dinner, as the sun slowly sank behind the tall Sycamore trees upriver. 
By 9 o-clock, the sun was gone, and so was most of the light. I started the fire even though it was still warm. We’d need it to cook supper soon. We were sure of it. Still, no fish.
11 o-clock. A million stars dotted the clear night sky. The air by the river was crisp and cold. The fire was burning warmly, but in our shorts and t-shirts, we were freezing. The sand was still warm, so we buried ourselves in it by the fire. Warm sand sleeping bags and soft sand pillows for our heads. Still, no fish. 
2 AM. We woke up FREEZING. The fire was just glowing embers. Our now cold sand beds had sucked the warmth out of us. Nothing is more miserable than freezing sand in your underwear. Still, no fish. 
2:15AM. Billy and I huddled together for warmth, teeth chattering. We’d rebuilt the fire with the last of our wood. Our fronts were warm. Our backs were frozen. Still, no fish.
3:30AM. The fire nearly gone, and colder than ever, Billy suggested we abandon camp and see if we could break into the hydropower building. It just had to be warmer there. Screw camping!
Tripping and stumbling over rocks and logs in the darkness, we made our way along the island shore toward the pale cold light of the power station. Climbing over the fence into the lower open area of the building, we found all the heavy oak doors locked. It wasn’t any warmer here either. In fact, there was a steady breeze that made the cold night air bite even deeper. In a dark corner we found a few old, sand crusted burlap sacks. We took them and headed back to our dying fire.
Billy dragged a large dead log out of the trees by our campsite. I snapped the branches off to rekindle the fire. Billy heaved the fat part of the log onto the flames. Hopefully, that would get us to dawn.
We each crawled inside a prickly, gritty, itchy burlap sack and inched as close to the fire as we could without setting our sacks alight. And there we lay, for the next 3 hours. Freezing and miserable. Trying to sleep in sandpaper sleeping bags. And still, no fish.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Race Across Durham Trail Marathon - 2017

I'm tired of marathon training. It takes too much time. It exhausts me. It make me feel guilty for sitting on the couch, or eating some pie, or drinking a beer, or really anything that makes life worth living. For the Race Across Durham trail marathon, I decided to just skip all the bad parts (in other words, nearly all of it). But before I tell you about my master slacker plan for marathon glory, let me tell you about the race.

Race Across Durham winds its way all the way across Durham County on the Mountains to Sea Trail, and through a good portion of my favorite place - the Eno River State Park. The scenery ranges from bucolic to gorgeous, especially in the finishing miles.

As usual Bull City Running put on an excellent race. Dozens of friendly volunteers and decent aid stations helped me as I stumbled through the 26ish miles of rooty, rocky trails. Post race, there was a live band, BBQ, massages, and free beer! Instead of a weaponized finisher medal, they gave us these lovely little handmade Christmas ornaments (mine is currently hanging on my tree).

In terms of difficulty, this one is difficult to grade. The first 16 miles are actually pretty easy, with gentle rolling hills and lots of flat riverside and lakeside trail. Then around mile 18ish, things get ugly. A series of relentless river-to-ridge climbs and descents begin hammering away at your already battered legs. Cruelly, the hills get bigger and more technical as you approach the finish, with the nastiest stretch around mile 25. The race director is a sadist. In a good way. Here's an elevation graph that shows how I feel about the course.

My beautifully marbled quad muscles are now digesting deep in the belly of this beast. 

Whisky, Laziness, and Long Runs
I've been slowly whittling my marathon training down over the years. I just don't have the patience for it any longer. Like my shoes, I'm a fan of minimalism in marathon training. This time, I took a bold step into laziness and decided that all the mid-week mid-distance tempo runs and speed work were useless, so I skipped them. Also, I waited  until the last 5 weeks to train. My Strava training log is a barren wasteland, punctuated by a handful of weekend long runs. I figured a long run, followed by some good whisky for recovery was all I needed. Over 5 weekends, I ran:
  • 9.8 miles
  • 10.5 miles
  • 12.5 miles
  • 13.5 miles
  • 19.5 miles
I skipped milk, pickle juice, or any other foolish recovery drink for the perfect long run recovery beverage.

Did it work, you ask? You know what? I don't care if it worked or not. I did survive the race, and I nearly enjoyed my marathon training. Well, at least I enjoyed the recovery beverage. Next marathon, I'm just going to skip all the training runs and wear a hydration vest filled with whisky on race day. I'll probably have a great race! Or die happy. Either way is fine, as long as I don't have to train.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

It Ain't About The Running - Drool Deer 2016

Sometimes running isn't about running at all. I mean how can it be about running when it's 145 degrees outside with 102% humidity? How can it be about running when every square inch of your clothing is bathed in your own salty sweat and your soaked socks weigh 50 pounds? How can it be about running when faced with a climb up a 30% grade on the sun baked slope of an exposed mountainside? How can it be about running when old Sol's angry rays are baking the back of your sweaty neck and blistering your overloaded retinas as you trudge across a giant solar oven made of bare, merciless, prehistoric granite? It can't. It just can't be about running.

What IS the Drool Deer all about then, if not the running? There's not a single answer to that question that I can give, but here are a few things that *I* think it is about.

The races put on by the mad genius race coordinator, Derek Cernak, are just plain fun. Miserable, sweaty fun, but FUN. Like the Rabid Squirrel race, there are parades, proclamations, prayers, and plenty of props at the start of the race. During the race, there are anagrams to figure out (try that with a hard boiled brain!), rocks to stack, and songs to sing at various checkpoints along the way. I've honestly never had so much fun being so miserable.

No matter how much I cursed the heat and humidity, there were enough drop dead gorgeous vistas along the way, that even as my brain boiled inside my baking skull, I had to stop and look. And smile. Stone Mountain State Park in North Carolina is perhaps one of the most beautiful places in the whole state.  To do anything there, even suffer mightily, on a glorious Summer day, is a gift worth appreciating.

There's no better way to be miserable than to be miserable with friends. Laughing about the sheer stupidity of intentional suffering somehow makes the suffering so much more bearable. I mean how bad can you feel when you are high-fiving a friend and actually get splashed with sweat? The hilarity of that sloppy smack can wash away the misery of the moment. More sweaty high-five. More laughs. More smiles. More cheers. More "thank you!" to the awesome volunteers. More runner fellowship.

Ok, it's not all sunshine and happiness. There are stairs in the Drool Deer. Lots and lots and lots of stairs. Evil, nasty, painful stairs. Merciless, brutal, gut busting stairs. If the finish line is heaven, you have to go up stair hell to get there. If someone finds a sour stomach, or some trashed legs, or a shattered soul near those stairs just before the finish, they are probably mine. Please mail them to me. I'll be needing them for next year's Drool Deer.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

It's All About The Equipment - Umstead Marathon 2016

I've finally cracked the marathon. On my 8th marathon (my 4th Umstead Trail Marathon), everything finally clicked and fell into place, at least in my head. How? Good question. Here's my final solution to the marathon puzzle.

Just skip it. Really. It's not worth the time or effort. I ran 32 miles the month before the race, and that included a 20 mile "hike" in the Uwharrie Mountain Run 20 miler. The two months before that weren't much better. Looking back, I realize I could have trained much less and had the exact same result in the Umstead Marathon. Next year, I'll train by only running my favorite races. My Strava training log will be a barren wasteland, much like my quads, and it will not make a damned bit of difference come Umstead Marathon race day. I'm fine with that.

Training Miles: Low. Very low. 

Pancakes, lots of them. And waffles, and omelets, and bacon, and hash browns, and coffee, and... My weekend "training" for the past few months has been an informal social run along the Eno River, ending with a visit to a diner for some classic greasy spoon breakfast goodness. Not low carb, not high carb, but high happiness. Eat what makes you happy, especially after a fun run with friends along a beautiful riverside trail. There is no greater happiness in life than good food with good friends.

Pancakes: 15, or as many as you can happily stuff into your gut.

New shoes, right before the race. Why new shoes and not some well known, well worn shoes? New shoes make me happy. It doesn't matter if your toes are rubbed into oblivion during the race, or if you develop a raging neuroma between your toes, or even crack one of the small unimportant bones in your foot (there are plenty more of them down there to take up the load). Your pre-race happiness is all that counts. Make sure you have ZERO running miles on your new shoes before the race. Their suitability should be a complete mystery, solved only through the marathon laboratory crucible of pain and suffering.

Blisters: Dozens. Deal with it.

Choose The Right Race
Most importantly, you must choose the right race for total marathon domination. I recommend the Umstead Trail Marathon. It's devilishly difficult. Even the guy who designed the course said he would never run it. However, having a stupidly hard course isn't the right selection criteria. You have to choose the race for its atmosphere, and that's where the Umstead Marathon wins. Even when my suffering was at 11 on the 10 point scale, I only had to hit an aid station to be reminded of why this race is so freaking great. The people. Umstead organizers and volunteers are absolutely top notch. It's a runner's race, pure and simple. No gimmicks, no massive crowds, just a run through a gorgeous park surrounded by awesome people. It just doesn't get better.

Happiness: Off the chart.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bile Burping Miles - Uwharrie Mountain Run 2016

Well, my fifth Uwharrie was perhaps my slowest, but that's fine. I'm just happy to still be able to get out there and finish 20 miles in a place like Uwharrie. I'm not racing much these days, so the blogging has slowed down as well. Besides, my races aren't really that interesting unless things go horribly wrong.

Starting hill conga line. Fun!

Speaking of races going horribly wrong, let's talk about today! After 5 miles, some horrible switch flipped in my stomach and gave me severe gastro distress. I thought seriously about dropping out of the race after 8 miles, but I soldiered on, because I'm stupid that way.

I spent the final 15 miles trying to get my stomach to stop cramping. The bloating was so bad, I swear I looked pregnant by the end of the race. No amount of burping or farting seemed to release the pressure. I must have generated some significant green house gases today, mostly in the form of burps. My apologies, Al Gore!

Uwharrie is always beautiful.

I can hear you now. "Well, did you try this or that or some other magic trick that always works on my cousin Susie?" Yes. Yes, I did.

I tried running faster. I tried running slower (walking, then stopping and sitting). I tried drinking water. I tried drinking Coke. I tried eating some salty soup broth. I tried eating potato chips. I tried eating some salty chocolate (OK, I just wanted that because salty chocolate is food of the gods!). I tried Gatorade. I tried Heed. I tried some medicinal liquid that vaguely resembled vodka (thanks, Heather!). That made me feel better for about 1 mile, but then the endless burping continued. I tried holding my breath (this was stupid and resulted in me nearly passing out and falling down). I tried belly breathing. I tried chest breathing. I tried short steps. I tried long steps. I tried, and I failed to stop the burping.

15 terrible bile burping miles.

30 minutes after finishing the race,  my stomach finally settled. Figures.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Iron Mountain Trail Run - 16 Miler

I love that the Iron Mountain Trail Run web site has this gnarly warning:

        Before you register, please understand this is a trail race with sections that are very challenging and potentially dangerous.  Some runners may feel that the course, especially the steep technical downhill near the end, is too dangerous.  Please understand that the course is what it is.  You will need to adjust your pace to stay safe.  You alone are responsible for your safety on the trail.  If you enjoy a challenge, sign up.  If you feel that steep, rocky, muddy, and potentially dangerous trails do not make for a good race course, good luck at a different race with terrain that suits your preferences.

I'm guessing that this is meant to keep the riffraff away. Or maybe it is there to attract the right sort of dirtbag trail runners. Either way, it makes me want to run the race more than ever. I like crazy, stupid-hard races.

And make no mistake, this race is hard!

From the start in Damascus you are treated to a 5 mile warmup run on the Virginia Creeper Trail, which is an old railroad that has been converted to a multi-use trail. It's flat enough to let you go out way too fast, and with its steady ascent of about 300 feet over the 5 miles, it's perfectly designed to quietly steal all the energy you should be saving for the last 5 miles of the race. Evil.

Choo chooooo!!! Express train to Dead Leg City!

Hitting the single track after the Creeper trail is sort of like running full speed into a concrete block wall. Except you keep hitting it over and over for about 3 miles. The trail just never seems to go "down".

Rocky, rooty, steep.

Around mile 9.3, you fall down a 42% grade "trail" and into the turn-around aid station, where a bunch of very friendly and helpful volunteers help reattach your limbs, fill up your water bottle with hope, and push you back up the 42% grade cliff with a handful of cookies. I would have taken a picture of the aid station, but I was too busy stuffing my face with sugar cookies and Coke. You'll have to take my word that it was *awesome*!

After a short but steep couple of climbs, you spend most of the remaining 6 miles of the race descending with a brief one mile climb just before the last killer descent.

The descent down into Damascus is where all your Creeper trail shenanigans come back to haunt you and where you get to practice all your swear words. In terms of curses per mile, I would rate the 2 mile descent into town at an astounding 100 "f*&!^$@ s#!7 kickers" per mile. An all time record for me. I have never cursed so much, or so loudly on any other trail. Ever. It was f*&!^$@ awesome.

Emerging from the forest you are greeted with a cheerful sign informing you that you still have to somehow haul your battered carcass "~1 mile" through town and back down the Creeper trail to the finish. I believe that translated to about 5 billion painful steps for me.

But I finished. My second longest trail race in the past 2 years. As I lay sprawled in the grass weakly attempting to stretch all the crampy muscles in my legs, I thought to myself, "I'm doing this again next year!"

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Rabid Squirrel Half Marathon

The race started with a parade of racers chanting in greek chorus style, "Everybody Walks!". I'll just let that sentence settle into your brainpan for a moment. To say that the Rabid Squirrel is a "unique" race is an injustice. Actually I can't think of a single word to sum up the race, but here are a few choice ones: creative; random; fun!; excruciating; surprising; beautiful. The race organizer, Derek, is either a mad genius, or simply mad. It doesn't really matter since his race is awesome. I mean, where else are you going to be carrying acorns in your pocket as you stumble across rocky mountain trails? Or singing songs and dancing at aid station check points? No other race that I know of, that's for sure.

The Race
I'll forgo all my usual blather and just graphically describe my race experience. It will speak for itself.

The Start
We were organized into starting corrals based on the creativity and insanity of our written test results. You read that right. We took a test after signing up for the race. I won't spoil the wonderful, random nuttiness of the test for future participants by giving away the questions, but suffice it to say the questions left me scratching my head and laughing at times as I "answered" them. The corrals were labeled with various sledge hammer ratings. I was in the Rainbow Vomit corral.

I can't explain this madness, so I'll just copy Derek's explanation:

"your sanity score will be on your bib. no sledgehammer means you didn't take the test. the plain sledgehammer means you are just crazy enough to take the test. 

the white border is a score of "acorns". you are nuts, but you are still a squirrel in training, but you've got some growing to do. the yellow border means you are bananas! who doesn't love you?! but don't slip! 

the multi colored border means you are rainbow vomit (this was decided months ago, so we're not riding the fb wave). in your head there are pretty colors and thunderstorms and barfing unicorns barfing up pots of gold with little dancing green guys running around smile emoticon....and if you get the pink border, you scored "flamingo toothpaste". for all of us, this is self-explanatory... "

And in case  you were wondering, the corrals determined your starting order, which for the first half mile of very narrow single track trail, made the difference in being passed by many people, or having to pass many people. Next year, I'm shooting for Flamingo Toothpaste.

To Moore's Knob
After starting, we headed up to Moore's Knob. I have been to Hanging Rock State Park dozens of times, so I knew exactly what to expect: STONE STAIRS. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. I know exactly how many, because I've counted them at my other favorite Hanging Rock race, Top Of the Mountain To Ya!. For the benefit of my fellow racers, I started counting them out loud as we ascended. I made it to 37 before I was told to "Shut up!" by friends (hi Brandy!) and strangers. So, I'll let you do your own counting from now on.

There are precisely a steaming, heaping, crap-load of these stairs leading up to Moore's Knob.

At the top of Moore's Knob, there was a check-in point and a tiny little aid station with pineapple chunks, gatorade and water (in tiny little shot cups). The view was simply gorgeous!

Sauratown and Pilot Mountains in the distance

To Magnolia Springs
After having my bib marked, I headed down off Moore' Knob towards Magnolia Springs. I kept waiting for the trail to become "runnable", but I was sorely disappointed. In fact, my hip flexors really started getting sore since all I seemed to do for the next mile was hop, skip, and dance down a very rocky gully that was labeled as a trail. Finally, near the bottom there was a whopping 50 yards of runnable trail before we started the grinding climb up to House Rock.

To House Rock
The climb up to House Rock wasn't as bad as the climb to Moore's Knob, but it still required a good bit of hard, joyless climbing.

My friend Brandy makes climbing look easy and happy.
I hate her.

Arriving at House Rock, there was again a small aid station with water, gatorade and a small selection of snacks. I grabbed a cookie and was about to leave when a volunteer with a bag of acorns said "Here, take this acorn!". Okay. Um, sure. This seems random, but I'm fine with that. I put the acorn in my pocket and continued down the trail towards Wolf Rock.

To Wolf Rock
For the next mile I had this acorn bouncing around in my pocket. I had all these strange triple nut thoughts rattling around in my brain, which I tried to keep to myself. Stumbling into the next little aid station at Wolf Rock, I was greeted by a volunteer who instructed me to smash my nut with a sledge hammer. I made sure it was the extra nut and smashed it hard!

Photo stolen from Chris Boyce, a man
who was both slower and smarter than
me in this race.

I may have been a bit too enthusiastic with my nut smashing. Sorry, Derek.

To Hanging Rock
After my smashing success at Wolf Rock, it was off to the next check-point at Hanging Rock. If I thought any of the previous climbs were stupidly unrunnable, the climb up to Hanging Rock proved to be the worst. Not only was it totally unrunnable, it was also swamped with day hikers. But I eventually made it to the top where another volunteer instructed me to dig through a bucket of acorns and find the one that had my initials written on it. I spent what seemed like an hour digging through a bunch of acorns unable to find the one with my initials. Eventually, I told the volunteer I couldn't find it. She looked in the buck and in one second, found my acorn, sitting right on top in plain view. The nuts in my brain had apparently been smashed in the first 7 miles of the race. I chucked it over the cliff edge, got a quick picture with my friend Heiko, who had been running with me for the past 5 miles or so, and then headed down, down, down.

Me and Heiko after carrying, smashing, and throwing nuts off cliffs.

Down, Down, Down to the Finish
Getting down off of Hanging Rock was nearly as difficult as getting to the top. Heiko and I took a wrong turn and ended up falling down a very steep rock filled gully. Luckily, the gully intersected the trail we were supposed to be on, so aside from hammering our legs, no damage done.

Arriving at the visitor center, we were again greeted by a volunteer who assigned us a song to remember and sing at the next checkpoint at the bottom of the mountain. I was lucky enough to be assigned the "Chicken Dance" song, which really has no words. I could barely remember my name at this point, so song lyrics would have been problematic to say the least.

Somewhere along the waterfalls section of the Indian Creek Trail, the trail became so steep that you had to side step your way down tiny little rock ledges that were supposed to be steps. It was in this section that Heiko and I were separated. I turned around at one point and he had simply disappeared. I learned later that he was attacked by the trail. I couldn't hear the thump of his body slamming into the ground over my own banging heartbeat and screaming quad muscles.

At the bottom of the mountain was the final aid station. A young volunteer asked me to sing my song. I stumbled around flapping my arms in a seemingly drunken imitation of the chicken dance chanting "Chicken Dance! Chicken Dance!". It's all I could manage with what brain power I had left.

At this point I just wanted to be done, but still had about 3 miles of rolling single track left. After several near wrong turns and some running through some very beautiful creek trail, I arrived at the Dan River, and what I thought would be the finish. I looked around in confusion at where the trail dead-ended at a boat launch into the river, but another friendly volunteer quickly informed me that the finish was only 0.2 miles downstream. Great, I thought, almost finished! But then she informed me that I would have to run through the river to get there.

Way down the river on the right in the white shirt is my friend Aline.
I somehow managed to catch her just before the finish way around the bend.
Sorry, Aline!

I tried everything to get down the river as quickly as possible. I ran in the middle on the rocks. Very slippery. I ran near the edge in the shallow water. Lots of tree roots and hidden snags. I ran along the bank immediately next to the river. Lots of sucking mud. I ran through the woods above the river. Briars, brush, and poison ivy. Nothing worked. It was all slow miserable going. And I loved every second of it!

Actually, the river finish was the best part of the race, and probably the reason I will endure this madess again in the future. This race was definitely insane, but just perfectly nutty in the best way.

Hand made finisher award. Custom bib. And timing "chip".