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Month: July 2012

my journey down the trail

About 15 weeks ago, I began trail running. Trail running is like road running but it begins where the pavement ends. It has taken me to hidden trail loops in local forest preserves, to vast networks of rough-and-tumble mountain bike trails, deep into the tall pines of the north woods, along the remote and isolated beaches of Lake Superior, and eventually to places of the spirit that I’ve yet to only glimpse.

Yesterday, I completed my first official endurance run (some call it a race) when I ran the Grand Island Half Marathon in the Hiawatha National Forest. Grand Island is in Lake Superior in Michigan’s upper peninsula just off the shore from Munising. It’s a beautiful 49 square mile (31,000+ acre) national [singlepic=1144,350,350] Heading to the finish…preserve, heavily forested and flanked by 300-foot tall sandstone cliffs. It’s breathtaking and remote. The course offered two-track forest roads, single-track trails, beach running, some technical climbs, cliff-side views, and a fast descent to the finish line.

Having trained for weeks leading up to this event, I knew my body was ready, but I was still nervous. I was worried about the unknowns of the course and about how I would be affected psychologically by the race itself for all of my running leading up to this day, I had run alone. I wasn’t sure what my mind would do in a field of 300 or so. I wanted to be sure to run my race. My goals were simple–to finish, not to get hurt, and to have fun. I didn’t want to get caught up in what others were doing–to have competition get the better of me. This was about my run. (To be honest, though, I just didn’t want to be the runner one step in front of the sweeper bike at the end of the pack. And while I worked hard to put it out of my mind, I did have a very conservative time goal/expectation for myself–but this was not my focus.)

Maybe the hardest challenge of the day was getting up at 5am (4am for me, still on Central time) and getting my butt going in the cold predawn hours. Really, it wasn’t that bad–as the adrenaline was already flowing. In retrospect, we probably got going a bit earlier than we had too, as the “halfers” didn’t start until 8am, but I was nervous and didn’t want to miss the bus or ferry. It was good to get there a little early, to get a feel for the people and how things were organized. We were on the island by around 6:45am, and got to see the marathoners take off.

We milled around, I picked up my timing chip, and Chris snapped some photos. (I feel bad that she wasn’t in any of them.) By the time 8am rolled around, I was more than ready to run. The course was beautiful and pleasant. I can say I enjoyed every part of it and didn’t have any especially tough moments. (This, of course, probably means I didn’t run hard enough, but that’s okay as my goal was just to finish and have fun–at least for this first time out.)

The people were great on the trail. I observed runners helping one another out, encouraging one another, and just being good friends to one another–even if they just met. I loved this aspect–the camaraderie on the trail. I ran with a few folks along the way and enjoyed some conversation, but no one took offense when it was time to focus on the trail ahead in silence.

In training, I used Jeff Galloway’s walk-run method, which served me very well. My plan was to continue this method during the race itself, which Galloway stresses as essential. I found it hard to walk early on, though, being tight in the pack during the first few miles. Once things thinned out a bit, I took a few walk breaks–forced myself to–as I feared what the second half would be like if I didn’t. I skipped many of my walk intervals, though, shortened the others to about 30 seconds or less, or shuffled instead of walked. I think this more aggressive approach to the race helped with my time in the end, which was better than any training run I had previously at that distance.

All in all, I felt prepared for the terrain. I had trained on everything the course threw at me–hills, single and wide track trails, a bit of technical work, even beach running. I think I did very well on the beach, in fact, where many runners fell back. That five mile beach run I had a few weeks earlier helped considerably, I think, to get me ready for the mile of beach I faced on this course.

Heading into the last three miles, I began to think I kept too much in the tank for this run. I picked it up a bit and pushed hard across the finish line. Hearing people cheer the runners on made a difference. I had heard that it would but didn’t appreciate fully how much it helped until I experienced it first hand. One of the volunteers along the route was clapping and telling us we had already won and that we were good role models for others. In the moments of an endurance challenge, these words make a difference. I truly appreciated every kind word that was said to me along the way.

By far, my biggest source of strength came from Chris and Aidan who supported me every day leading up to the race. They gave up many of their Saturdays to be my trail crew on my long runs–meeting me at checkpoints to refill my water bottle and cheering me as I finished. I attribute much of my strength on the actual race day to Chris’ work in helping me “carbo load” with some delicious pasta dishes during the days leading up to the event. I had the needed glycogen stores that kept my legs feeling strong throughout the distance.

As for my first “big race,” the Grand Island Half was a blast. I met all of my goals–finished, had fun, and didn’t get hurt–plus I beat my secret time goal by more than 30 minutes. I couldn’t ask for more.

Next up, a full marathon. I only hope the experience is just as positive.

a footbridge and a red picnic table

Went north again this week. I feel myself drawn there more than ever lately. There is something about being just out of reach. Life moves more slowly. Cell phones seldom work. There’s nothing to plug in and nowhere to plug it.[singlepic=1143,330,330] So much depends upon a red picnic table… Staying connected means parking pickups side by side in the middle of the road for a spell to shoot the breeze with a passing neighbor. I like it this way–in the woods.

This week our plans included building a footbridge across our creek, clearing some dead wood, and finishing our picnic table. You’ve got to start with the basics after all. So this is what we did. First, I had to fall a dead leaning tree that was hung up in the trees across the creek and right in the way of our proposed bridge crossing. I was a bit nervous about this, having heard and read plenty about how folks have gotten killed messing with trees in this situation–not to the mention the fact that I don’t exactly know my way around a chainsaw. I didn’t let this discourage me. You’ve got to start somewhere after all. So, I purchased my Husqvarna 455 Rancher (along with all requisite safety clothing–including the Kevlar saw-resistant chaps, and forester’s helmet and face screen); I read the safety manual, watched countless instructional videos online, observed a couple experienced chainsaw users, and then pulled the starter cord. With a healthy bit of fear, caution, and respect for the destructive machine I was wielding, I successfully downed the troublesome tree and cleared away a lot of deadwood laying about our site. I survived the first wave of this week’s work.

As for the bridge building, the hardest part was by far getting the 250 pound stringers across the creek. We managed inch-by-inch with a little creative physics and a whole lot of sweat and patience. Our good neighbor George showed up just in time to lend a hand–just after we had gotten them across ;-) Seriously, we’re lucky to have such a good neighbor. He’s always willing to lend a hand it seems–to anyone along the three-mile stretch of forest road whom he calls neighbor. I suspect he considers most people in his life to be his neighbor.

Once we got the behemoth stringers across, the ordeal was far from over. Leveling, shifting, balancing–were all far more difficult tasks than I would have imagined. Eventually we got them close enough to where they needed to be and nailed them up. Add a bunch of blocking, cross braces, and decking and there you go–a genuine rickety footbridge in the woods. As long as no one decides the bounce in the middle makes for a nice trampoline, I think it will serve its purpose for a few years anyway. Time will tell, but that’s okay with me.

While I plunked away at the details of the footbridge, Chris and Aidan got to painting our new picnic table–classic red. It took a couple of days to prime and get three or four coats of paint on it, but it looks great now, and offers us the comfort of a home–a place to break bread together by the camp fire, to talk about our adventures, and to listen to the serenade of the ever-present creek.

We worked hard this week, but accomplished a lot and had the joy of working hard with our bodies outside in nature to meet some fundamental needs. When one strips away the complexities of life that we seem so eager at times to layer on, when we have to deal with attending to fundamental needs, using our hands and simple tools, things seem to make much more sense. There’s more work to do on our little spot in the woods. We’ll return soon to stoke another campfire and get back to the elemental aspects of our lives.

saving the american columbo saturday morning

Last Saturday morning I dragged my butt out of bed bright and early (okay, it was 8 o’clock) and drove to a local forest preserve for the benefit of a strange looking stalk of a plant with green flowers. It’s the American Columbo plant–a native to the Oak Savannah and my neck of the woods apparently. Actually, upon heading out that morning, I hadn’t even heard of such a plant. I simply was meeting up with a three of my students (roped into my service-learning composition course) and about 15 folks from the Forest Preserve Volunteers of Cook County to spend the morning engaged in “Ecological Restoration.” [singlepic=1133,280,280] The American Columbo I didn’t quite know what that meant, but I was eager to find out.

To Pioneer Woods I went. Drive to the tail end of the parking lot, I was told. As I pulled up I noticed a group of men and women standing about chatting near the open trunk of one of the cars. I jumped out of the truck and walked tentatively over to the group. So, are one you Joe, I asked? “Nope, he’s not here yet,” said a younger man in a Boonie hat with a gold hoop earring, “but I’m Dan.” I gathered I was in the right place based on the number of “I’m-a-Forest-Preserve-Volunteer-and-I-make-a-Difference” T-shirts in the group and the open trunk full of loppers and orange bow saws. “Hey get a load of this,” said an older gentleman with gray beard and sagging jeans. “I asked the guys for a brush cutter and look what they gave me–a damn weed whacker. What are we supposed to do with that.” The conversation went on like this for a while. As more folks began to arrive–I realized I was among good people–a friendly bunch who welcome newcomers as well as seasoned volunteers to come out and make a difference in the woods.

“Hey,” she said, “you want to know why we’re really here?” I was intrigued…

After a bit, an aging Ford Taurus lumbered into the lot and out stepped another white bearded man–but this one younger and petite–baseball cap yanked down tight over his head with tufts of long white hair flaring at the sides. This was Joe. The lilt of his voice matched his physical stature, but he was clearly the man in charge. Joe is the steward of this preserve and the man we were all waiting for.

I’d done a bit of research on Joe prior to coming that morning, and learned that he is rather accomplished in the area of habitat restoration–having written and published several articles on the subject and being charged with the stewardship of several preserves throughout the region. This experience, I thought, would be sure to be one of learning as much as one of service.

The plants, the insects, the animals, and a group of sweaty forest preserve volunteers–we were all connected that morning whether I knew it or not.

So, after some introductions and a little orientation from Joe as to why we were all gathered in the woods this fine morning to cut, saw, herbicide, and burn invasive vegetation so that the natives could thrive, we traipsed into the woods. Quickly Joe set my students and I–along with a handful of others–to work on removing a large patch of honeysuckle and an invasive European rose that is spreading throughout the woodlands and crowding out the natives. The rest of the crew headed farther in with brush cutters and chainsaws.

The work was hard. Temps were pushing the mid 90s, and I was sweating bad enough already when Joe lit the burn pile. Yes, that’s right, we were burning the cut debris in a bonfire size heap on this already sweltering day. We continued to work hard–side-by-side–making a bit of small talk here and there while we cut and chopped.

After about two hours, Joe called us around for a break. He offered us Gatorade and Oreos. While cooling off and sipping my Gatorade, I got to talking to a more experienced volunteer. She was very friendly (as was everyone). “Hey,” she said, “you want to know why we’re really here?” Okay, I was intrigued. “Follow, me,” she said. I walked with her through the tall grasses and deeper into the woods until we stood surrounded by a small patch of thick-stalked plants, standing about five or six feet tall. “It’s the American Columbo,” she said. She told me how very rare this strangely beautiful native plant was to our area–due to non-native invasives crowding it out. “We’re here for this plant,” she said. To put things back into balance. And now it all made sense.

The plants, the insects, the animals, and a group of sweaty forest preserve volunteers–we were all connected that morning whether I knew it or not.

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