I have a ridiculously short and easy commute into work, a little over two miles. I usually try to ride my bike this time of year. I have ridden past this spot a hundred times, and the other day looked down to see brightly colored berries on the side of a short hill alongside the road. I parked my bike to investigate, and before I knew it I was half sick from eating so many delicious black raspberries like it was nature's Halloween candy.
It's strange how difficult it is to get over the feeling of embarrassment foraging for food along a common commuter-line, it feels horribly uncivilized. This is the last place on the planet anyone would ever go. It's a god awful pit full of prickers, poison ivy, and jewelweed (poison ivy's antidote) where you are on display with cars driving overhead watching you sweat and toil. But whatever. It's worth fighting through the discomfort to get to enjoy this treasure, every day til it's gone. How much more convenience can you ask for? It's less than ten feet out of my way. And I can tell you this much, there is *no* competition for these berries. They are all mine.
One day I eat berries like I'm a bear fattening up for a long hibernating winter. Then, on my way home I pick the area clean and collect a pound to bring home. A few days later even more berries have ripened and I'm back at it, eating berries until I nearly throw up. And again the next day, collecting a full two pounds to bring on a visit with friends for the weekend. All on an area not much bigger than a ping pong table.
As I ride away from the berry patch with seeds stuck in my teeth, I spit them out along the road. By doing so I can't help but wonder... Am I planting a giant garden right now? After a few years of this will there be black raspberries growing all along my entire commute? It's amazing to think that foraging is a natural and wild form of cultivation. Consuming and producing are one and the same. Quite unlike consuming anything in a civilized way.
Over the period of 17 days, this little bud of a mushroom:
grew into this behemoth:
This is Berkely's Polypore. I saw one growing in the area last year, a few hundred feet from this spot and wondered what it was. It looks very similar to the chicken mushroom. It is listed as "edible". I broke off a piece of the wild mushroom and it had a rich, fresh, and pleasant mushroomy odor. The reports I read of eating it described it as bitter and bad-tasting, so I wasn't in a big rush to try it. It is best eaten while still young because as it gets older it becomes increasingly wood-like, much like the chicken mushroom. After eyeing the mushroom for 19 days, I assumed it would be old and gross to eat but how do you know if you don't try? So I brought home a leaf. The inner part of the mushroom is more woody than the outer part, so I cut the outer part into small strips.
I then pan fried it with onion, garlic, and olive oil. The end result was really good. No bitterness, it tastes wonderfully mushroomy and has a robust texture, on the verge of rubbery yet not rubbery at all. Kind of like octopus or squid that hasn't been overcooked.
I wouldn't hesitate to use this much like a chicken mushroom, and put it in Jurek Burgers, veggie chili, or any other dish that calls for wild mushrooms. In fact I should freeze some for winter.
The Taconic Crest Trail has been on my running bucket list for a while now. Ever since I heard about E dropping off a bike at one end, driving to the start, running the whole route, and grossly underestimating how difficult a 50 mile bike ride would be after a 30+ mile mountainish run.
The trail proved most elusive. I have repeatedly searched online for a quick answer to one simple quesiton: "Where does it start?" with nothing to show for it except vague answers like, "[The northernmost point of the] Taconic Crest Trail unofficially begins in Pittsfield... But of course you can make your own official start at the northern end in Williamstown, MA via Williams College Hopkins Memorial Forest or Petersburgh, NY via Petersburg Pass parking lot". So it has three starting points? And also, "the trail heads up into Vermont". So I can't even narrow down which of 3 states it starts in, is it NY? MA, or VT? And of course with such generic New England names like Pittsfield and Williamstown, we've got towns with those names in MA, VT, *and* NY. The road to the trail is called, "Taconic Trail" or "Route 2" for short, is that the trail? Or just a highway?
The Taconic Hiking Club provides a map of the trail if you can find it. "The package includes 11 wonderful maps and a booklet"... "Check out Williams College store downtown Williamstown, MA and if they don't have any they'll point you in the direction of a local store that might." So I'm going to drive all the way to Massachusetts to a store that will point me to a store that might have a map? All I want to know is where to start, do I seriously need 11 maps and a booklet for that?
So I'm planning to do some kind of medium-long Saturday morning run when I learn that I'll be on my own until dinner time. I wake up in the morning searching for someplace new and interesting to run and eventually find the Petersburg Pass parking lot on a map and decide to start there. It's an easy 50 minute drive, just 12 minutes past Grafton Lakes State Park where I was originally planning to run today.
When I get to the parking lot, I take a quick look at a graffiti'd info-less trailhead sign. On it someone has pinned up the following sign:
I scanned it quickly and walked away with the impression that somebody's poodle got chased into the woods by a bear. I didn't realize until after I returned and read more closely that this was no poodle. Basically a german shephard got eaten by a bear on the trail. Recently.
I sign into the trial register and mark down my plan: run out 10-15 miles then turn back. The first few miles work their way up the largest mountain on the trail. It's a steep-yet-runnable climb on a wide and incredibly well-maintained trail. I catch up to a small group of hikers. One of them, very attentive as though he is on alert, hears me coming and jokes, "good thing I didn't think you were a bear!".
5 miles into the run, the trail degrades and becomes a bit overgrown with the occasional muddy section. I come across a bird on the ground that goes into a total hissy fit, flapping wings, squawking, and making circles in the leaves, as it slowly departs into the woods. Later, I'm jogging along, and I see movement in the brush. Something is spastically coming at me. I imagine it's a rabid porcupine eager to kill me. When it emerges from the bushes, it's just another one of those darned birds leading me away from its young. During the first half of the run I find the birds amusing. By the second half of the run I am tired and in no mood to be startled by these peculiar animals. I curse loudly and flip them the bird. Right back atcha.
Once I reach 10 miles, I check the time and decide to keep going. I look down to see some giant bear tracks in the mud. The bear tracks are in the middle of a large berry patch. There are no berries at this point, only flowers. What is the bear up to? Eating flowers? Or perhaps staking out his territory for when he can fatten up on plump ripe raspberries?
I've always thought of black bears as little more than giant raccoons: annoying pests that might get into the trash or into your unguarded backpack looking for food. I run through my bear attack plan. "Spread your arms, look as big and intimidating as you can, make lots of noise, bang pots and pans together." I form my hands into claws and raise them over my head and say, "grrr". I look nervously at my skinny arms, realizing that I may have been underestimating my ability to dispatch the dog eaters who made these tracks.
I proceed along the obvious trail, failing to realize that the trail took a hidden left turn. I emerge on a hilltop, and realize that there is a road not far below. If I just go a little farther I can complete this entire section of trail! I bound down the hill for a while. Until I realize how much fun I've been having and how long it's been since I had seen a trail marker. I reluctantly stop and head back up the hill where I came from. After what seems like miles I discover where I went wrong. I explore the correct trail for a bit, but now I've covered 15 miles and it's time I started the long run back.
The relentless hills wear me down and I bonk. I'm walking up hills, taking sit-down breaks, really taking my time. I snack on a Clif Bar and a Granola bar. Not entirely satisfied, I occasionally grab the curled up tips of the ferns and eat those. Boy! A fern has never tasted so good! I drink my water sparingly. My backup is a Life Straw. However, this being a crest trail, there is no water to be seen. I make my way a few miles at a time, telling myself "22 miles, just make it to 22 miles". Then "25 miles, just make it to 25 miles".
As I make my final descent, a group of five hikers gives me a priceless once over. My phone is blasting tunes, I am bombing down the hill with a big grin and bloodied feet.
I am getting closer to civilization. Signage on the trees indicates, "No motorized vehicles". I hear engines blaring in the distance. That must be the parking lot! The engines get louder. I cock my head. Harleys in the parking lot? I am in LaLa Land after 29 miles of running when suddenly two dune buggies, slightly *wider* than the trail, hurtle 40mph towards me on the trail. HOLY SHIIIIIIT! I dive into the woods and watch as the driver gives me an incredibly polite wave, not slowing a bit. I give the stinkeye in return.
I stand up, dust myself off, and cautiously make my way to the parking lot. Nice way to transition back to reality after 7 hours of naturistic solitude.
It's the night before the big race. I'm at J's place after an amazing pasta meal at Basta Pasta. Too amazing. One of those meals where you just can't seem to put the fork down. We are watching The Dig, an awesome movie about the fall of the Atari video game corporation. As I sit my body is falling apart. My knee is aching. My hips feel like gigantic swollen hippopotamus hips. Worst of all, just today my wrist started hurting for no reason. Leprosy. It's the best explanation I can come up with as to why all my body parts want to fall off.
More likely these are phantom pains that all marathoners feel. They are just worse than usual today. Phantom pains combined with a bit of real soreness after a training cycle with more downs than ups.
Logistics are sorted, clothes are picked out, bib and gels are pinned to my shorts. I lay down for 5 hours of deep slumber. Nothing actually matters except waking up, eating breakfast, and getting myself to the starting line. I bundle up and head out the door to the nearest T station. Last year a police officer held open the subway gate saying, "on Patriot's day, marathoners ride for free". For that reason I didn't bring a charlie card with me, not really thinking about the fact that no guardian would be holding the gate open for me, and that the station has no way to buy a charlie card. But that's no big deal. I can just stick my panic-stricken face through the gates and yell, "uhhh would somebody swipe me through? I can give you two dollars." Lucky for me Bostonians are incredibly kind and generous and somebody paid my way.
I get on line for the bus and take a seat. I remain quiet for most of the ride and finally open up to the runner sitting next to me. He's from the midwest, has been running for most of 10 years and has never run the Boston Marathon before. He asks if the crowds are thin for the 'rural' parts of the race. I tell him that last year there were hoards of screaming crowds for the entire 26.2 miles. "Where do they come from?". The occupants of each town along the way show up in mass numbers to represent. Without wanting to give away too much, I describe to him the Wellsley all-girls College. For the better part of a mile, depraved college girls are crawling over each other reaching out for high-fives and kisses, screaming like they're at a Beatles concert. There is more raw energy behind the sidelines than anything 30,000 runners could possibly dish out. He asks if I have advice. Yeah. That's easy. The race begins with several downhill miles. It's impossible not to go out too fast. But do everything you can to hold back at first.
We spend a few hours at the Athletes' Village before being allowed to walk to the starting line. I help myself to a banana and some water. I visit the portapotties, then hide from the intermittently pouring rain under a tent. I walk around a bit and meet up with B. His training has gone incredibly well and it shows. He is confident and ready to run. We chat with C for a bit, who runs a lot of races in Albany.
I head to the starting line. It's an incredible honor to be in Wave 1, Corral 1. I don't expect to run as fast as anyone in the corral, but starting directly behind the elites feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity that I don't want to pass up. I stay in the back of the corral, at the far left. Before long, the elites make their way through. I stick out my hand and high five Meb, Ryan Hall, Sage Canaday, and all the rest.
The national anthem, then the starting gun. We're off! I keep what feels like a comfortable, mellow speed, trying to keep my spirits up while a thousand runners pass me over the next 20 miles. J blazes past in the first mile with a hearty hello. The first 6 miles are effortless. Looking at my watch, miles are ticking by more quickly than I would have planned for, but not so fast as to raise major concerns.
I see some young outstretched hands. I run over to the sideline for some high fives. I slap a larger hand amongst the smaller ones. I look up and hear, "Jake Stookey!". It's C's hand, she's here to cheer on H! What are the odds?
The miles quickly stop feeling easy. Over the next 13 miles or so, a weird sort of hip pre-pain appears and steadily grows. It weighs heavily on my heart as I run. With 20 miles still to run, all I can think about is that it's going to explode at some point. I realize however that I'm running a great pace and it hasn't exploded yet, so I stick with it. The cold and the rain are not helping with the mental aspect of the race. Negative thoughts start to overpower the cheers from the crowd, making for some really difficult miles. My pace slows. I have entered the Newton Hills. 5 miles or so with a significant incline overall. Except I don't know that I'm going uphill. All I know is that I'm going slowly, everything hurts, and that I am sucking. I reach mile 18, where M is going to be cheering for me. Then I reach mile 19 and there's no sign of her. This is my darkest mile. I am truly upset, thinking that I somehow missed seeing her. I make my way to some porta potties. Not really for any good reason, I think I just want to take a break for a minute or so. I've been thinking that I'm not really out of breath while running. However when I stop to take a leak, I can feel my heart pounding and hear my heavy breathing and realize how warped my perception gets during the excitement of a race.
I duck under a rope and get back into the race. Before long I see M on the right and give her a big kiss. As I run away she yells, "Your bleeding nipples!". I look down. Yes indeed, my nipples are bleeding.
I suddenly hit the perfect storm of positive emotions. I indulged in a bit of a rest. I didn't miss M after all. For the first time in the race the remaining miles are not daunting at all. I crest heartbreak hill and hear an announcer say, "this marks the end of the Newton Hills, it's all smooth sailing from here!". As if all of that wasn't enough to lift my spirits, mile 20 means it's time to suck down a caffeinated gel packet.
6 miles? That I can do. I start putting some muscle into the run and passing some of the multitudinous runners who passed me over the first 20 miles. I feel great, like I'm flying. I hold back just a little bit, I can feel the wide open veins in my legs quavering, on the verge of cramping. I catch up to D, a familiar looking sandal-wearing runner. We trade a few words. It turns out he finished two places in front of me at this year's JFK 50 miler. I see J, a local runner with the Willow Street running club who yells out my name.
I know my buddy J will be at mile 26. The rain is really coming down now, and the chill wind is tearing through but I'm feeling great. I hear my name and look to see a bearded face and yell back, waving frantically. Let's bring it on home!
I cross the finish line, amazed at how things turned around for me. I grab a hooded space blanket and a water, and march quickly along to where I'm supposed to meet up with M and J to grab lunch. There is no reason to dilly dally in my soaking wet short shorts and t-shirt. Many people will get hypothermia today, let's just hope it's not me. I walk briskly for several blocks. A runner walks up behind me and says, "Are you from Albany? I'm used to seeing you run barefoot, I hardly recognized you in sandals". The lucky guy takes a right into his warm hotel. I keep walking. Eventually taking a right into the subway station, from which a steady stream of piss-warm subway air wafts out. Another runner says, "I've never been so happy to hang out in a subway station."
Before long we all meet up and grab an awesome lunch at the same restaurant and same table as last year.
I've been dealing with knee soreness for a long time now. I don't know what is irritated, or what the specific cause is (certainly 'overuse' would apply here). Recently a few things have come together to suggest that tight hips might be the root cause. At this point all of this may be a misdiagnosis, but I'm just looking to try out some suggestions that sound promising.
The soreness is generally mild, it never causes me to limp or show any kind of visible swelling. Two things seem to make it feel worse:
1) Extreme running - Long bouts of running long and/or hard
2) Extreme rest - Lounging around on the couch
Things that make it feel good include simple sane activities like walking, biking a few miles, or yardwork.
The soreness makes me feel uncomfortable while sitting, sleeping, running, etc., so pretty much most of the time. Worse than anything else is how it weighs on my spirit by making all future running endeavors seem like a bad idea.
Each knee 'pops' only once if I hop on a bike and pedal a few times. Or if I walk upstairs. This occurs every morning, and a few times throughout the day. Also at times there is a mild crunching or creaking in my knees when I bend them. I suspect the soreness is a result of whatever friction causes this creaking, which over time causes irritation.
It's difficult to pinpoint the location of the soreness, except to say that usually feels like it occurs deep within my knee, right in the center there. At times when it's the most accute, soreness appears on the inside of the knee, which as I understand it suggest s that it's not IT-band related.
Sometimes I notice that my knees want to bend inward while I'm running. It's very slight, but my knees sometimes knock together, and feels related to the soreness on the inside of the knee. It's as if the inside of the knee wants to collapse just a little with each step. We had a coach in high school with knees that bowed inward pretty badly while walking, it feels kinda like the very early stages of that.
My upper leg muscles seem very tight. Not in a stiff-legged way, but often times the muscles don't feel like 'flesh', instead the feel like thick leather, or to exaggerate a little: almost like rock or metal.
I've come to look at the knee as not a 'thing'. The knee is a void between your upper and lower leg. So the cause of knee soreness is not the knee, but everything around it: the upper leg, lower leg, feet, hips, etc.
I usually do yoga at work once a week, and our really excellent yoga instructor R, keeps encouraging us and me in particular as an inflexible runner, to work on 'hip openers', suggesting that it will work wonders for running. Being stubborn, I'm not easily convinced, and the anatomical whys and wherefores are all too complicated for me to wrap my head around.
I was talking to H who has been feeling perhaps similar pain in his knees. He went and saw a doctor about those knees. The Doc probed his knees and said,
"Where's it hurt, here?"
"And what about your ankles, does it hurt here?" (probe probe)
Followed by an explanation that what happens to runners who run too much without giving the body a chance to keep up. He said that the hips gradually get tight which affects the biomechanics of the legs. An inward tendency starts with the hips and works it's way quickly to the knees and the rest of the leg.
I find it interesting how well this resonates with how I've been feeling as well as the recommendations from my yoga instructor. Putting it all together, it seems that maybe the 'hip openers' R has been pushing are worth focusing on. For the most part, this includes three yoga poses:
R's Yoga Studio - We are very lucky to have her instruct us once a week, highly recommended
Comparison of Tenandeho Water Levels for the Tenandeho White Water Derby
Click on the photos for high-resolution images:
|Coons Crossing Bridge||Rapids|
|After October Rain|
|Day After Irene|
|After May Rain|
|After cold snowy winter|
Looking to compare two sets of GPS tracks? GPS Visualizer has a great site for creating side-by-side comparisons. For example, here is a chart comparing the Great Range Traverse, Tongue Mountain Range Loop, Moreau Lake State Park 15k course, Wakely Dam Ultra, JFK 50, and Grafton Lakes State Park:
It's really interesting to see that Grafton is higher elevation than Moreau, in fact it's as high as the tops of the Tongue peaks. It certainly explains the Adirondacksyness of the area.
To compare multiple GPS tracks from GPX files, go to GPS Visualizer and select "Profiles (elevation, etc.)". I chose the options, "Profile Width: 500", "Units: U.S.", Add DEM", "Colorize by track" and "Cumulative distance: No". Select a few GPX files and "Draw the profile" and wait for your comparison!
I took some time off from work. J had time off as well. We made a "plan A", to camp out deep in the wilderness at the "Uphill" lean-to near Mount Marcy. It would be significantly colder and windier there than anywhere else, but the advantage is that we'd have easy access to several tough peaks. As the time drew closer, the temperature dropped from 30's and 20's down to 0's, with predictions at Lake Placid going as low as -26 degrees not including a wind chill! Time for a plan B.
The Seward range in the Adirondacks is a group of 4 remote mountains in the far northwest portion of the High Peaks region. The trails to the peaks are unmarked and the peaks are much less traveled than many of the more popular ones so even in summer you can really get away from it all. Fires are allowed, making it an ideal spot for our 3-day chilly weather camping expedition. It would be zeroish for our first day and night, and a few degrees warmer for our big day of hiking, followed by a chillier day as we make our exit. We'll carry our packs to one of the lean-to's and hike Seymour on the first day. The second day we'll travel light and hike the other 3 peaks, two of them twice for the return trip. Finally, on the last day we will wake up early and make a quick exit.
We made a plan to meet at 6am with the expectation that we would run late, expecting to start driving at 7. I think we made it out at more like 8:30 or so, which was awesome because that's the exact time Sorrentino's Deli opens up in Clifton Park! We stopped for subs, Chex Mix, and breakfast sandwiches along the nearly 3 hour drive to the trailhead. It must have been around noon when we pulled into the parking area. One other car was there: another late starter whose name is B. We chatted with B a bit as we got our stuff together. His plan was to hike the area solo and visit Duck Hole, and possibly the Santanonis for 4 nights! I mentioned that it was going to be cold, and he was aware and had two sleeping bags and a tower of sleeping pads to help him combat the conditions.
During the hike to the lean-to, several barely frozen brooks gurgled under our feet as we big booted across, trying to walk on lumps (rocks) instead of flat stuff (thin ice) as much as possible. We managed to stay dry for the 3.8 mile walk.
We quickly got our day-hiking gear together for the hike up Seymour: snacks, water, and microspikes. Oh, yeah, and headlamps, don't forget those because it's almost dark already!
There wasn't more than an inch or so of snow on the hike to the lean-to. However, within a few hundred feet of hiking towards our destination, we found ourselves walking through deeper snow with 4 or 5 inches making it a little tougher to walk. We turned back and fetched our snowshoes, just in case.
Before long we turned on our headlamps. The 5 mile out-and-back hike sounded very easy. Until we started hiking of course. We always forget just how long it takes to hike up mountains in the snow, especially when the first mile or so goes by quickly. Before long the trail gets steep and each step is a carefully calculated double stomp into the icy crust to gain traction. Hours were ticking by as we worked our way to the summit. I was constantly adjusting the my gloves and hat, trying to keep my hands, nose, and face from freezing. A full moon struggled to penetrate the thick of clouds above us, doing little to light our way to the peak. Once there, we gave a brief rejoice, and hurried our way down and back to the lean-to. The descent went quickly until we hit the flats at which point it felt like we should be there already, but we still had a long hike before reaching home.
B was back at the lean-to to give us company on this cold night. We quickly put on warm clothes and started fetching firewood. B had carried in some nice kindling and started the fire. We gathered a lot of great wood, but it took us an hour or two to really get the fire going. The fire consumed fuel as fast as we could collect it, but we were determined and kept it going for the night while we ate steak and frozen subs before packing it in for the night.
We slept in and got up to get ready for a big day of hiking. I fetched water and went to boil it, but alas, my finicky stove (which I had very recently tried to fix and clean) refused to work. So I woke up J and set him to work boiling water for a quick oatmeal breakfast.
We hit the trail around 10:30am, this time without snowshoes. According to National Geographic mapping software that I use the total distance for today's hike should be around 8 miles (four out and four back), although it has been known to underestimate at times. We discussed that once we hit 2.5 miles we were in good shape, because after that the last 1.5 miles to the 3rd peak shouldn't be too bad! We hit 2.4 miles according to the GPS watch and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done and pressed on. After a long period of hiking I checked our distance. I turned to J and told him, "we're at 2.6 miles now". He replied, "That's not possible". We shrugged it off and continued.
For some inexplicable reason this hike is always much more difficult than the hike up Seymour. It's happened to me twice, and I've heard similar comments from other hikers. It's easy to look at the map and get the impression that Seymour (which we did the day before) and Seward are similar hikes. Comparing the two elevation profiles does little to reveal why one is so much more difficult than the other:
Every trip has to have a special moment or it wouldn't be an adventure, right? Shortly after putting on microspikes while descending Seward towards Donaldson, we come across the scary part of our trip. The trail becomes a super-steep 50-foot long cascade of the worst kind of glistening ice with no "easy way" around it. We warn each other to stop. And to not die. Thoughts of turning back come and go, but we decide to give it a shot. There are roots and trees to hold onto for most of the way, and as soon as we step onto the ice our spikes sink right in. Luckily the ice is softer than it looks enabling us to make it down safely, with only one really sketchy part halfway down where you have to cross from the left side of the trail to the right without any handholds. We breathe a big sigh of relief and bump fists after making it down. However, this sets a mood for the rest of the trip. At this point, getting hurt is not allowed. It's going to be tough getting back up it in the dark if we're feeling 100%. And it's hard to imagine even a well trained rescue team being able get someone back up that precarious drop.
It feels like a very long way before we reach Donaldson. I take a quick look at the map and (wrongly) tell J, "the hike from Donaldson to Emmons is going to be a cakewalk". It looks like a flat ridgeline, mostly descending to Emmons. The hike to Emmons is anything but a cakewalk. The trail is long and not well travelled so the snow is deeper making for slow going, and the trail is nearly impossible to see, even moreso because the trees are thin so every direction looks like a trail.
We spend a lot of time probing for the trail. Eventually we get to where it's obvious we are standing mere footsteps from the peak, yet the trail phases in and out of existence like a haunting spectre. Night has fallen and our headlamps can't work miracles. I am starting to lose it a little. I was foolishly expecting a short, easy hike on an obvious trail with no snow, none of which are true. Admittedly, I'm tired and hopelessness settles in as we thrash around the wilderness winding every which way except the right way. J is holding it together much better than I, and miraculously crashes through some woods and announces, "here's the trail", and we climb to the top. Woot!
The return trip should be easy because we can follow our own tracks. Except for the sections where we sabotaged ourselves by scribbling tracks all over the place. As I said, I'm getting tired and losing it a little. I'm in marching forward in Lalaland, largely oblivious to the icy drop to my left. My spikes lose purchase and I tumble down 10 feet or so, crashing into bushes at the bottom. I stand up a little shaken. J starts to follow and I tell him, "that was not intentional, straight is probably easier."
There is a claustrophobic feeling caused by the icy wall we still need to climb in the dark. We are boxed in by it. It is a great relief to finally reach it and arrive at the top unscathed. From there it is a quick climb to the top of Seward and then the final descent to the lean-to.
We drop down the side of the mountain. Now we notice how incredibly steep this section of trail is. Each small step becomes a giant leap due to the near vertical decline. J points out that this is the section that took forever to go from 2.4 miles to 2.6 miles. The funny thing is, it didn't seem particularly steep on the way up. Just slow.
We cruise merrily back into our campsite at around 8:30. We forego a fire, and cook up some easy food, hang out for a bit, and go to bed. In the morning we wake super early, pack up and hike out, eating a light snack along the way.
We stopped at Druthers in Saratoga for a big lunch. I was the lucky one, my lunch stayed in my belly.
All in all another great trip.
I woke up this morning at 4am. Showered, ate breakfast, and walked a few blocks to the bus to the starting line. I arrived at the start village around 6:15am. I sat on a curb with my knees tucked into a fleece jacket in the cold wind along with 50,000 other shivering runners for over 3 hours until the race started. Brrr! The food supply at the start was a little less of a buffet than what I had hoped for. 5 hours separated my breakfast and race, with only a bagel, half of a power bar, and a few cups of hot water in between. Not exactly an ideal pre-game.
As the start time for the race approached, I did a 10-minute warmup jog in my corral. It felt great to move and get the blood flowing a little. We were moved to the starting line at the toll booths on the Verrazano Bridge. World champion runners like Meb Keflezighi, Wilson Kipsang, and Lelisa Desisa were announced and briefly interviewed 15 feet from where I stood. We were yelling within easy earshot, our individual cheers getting attention from the greats. Talk about inspiration for the start of a race! OMG. It was awesome.
The National Anthem played and the race started! I was caught up in a tight group of people for the first mile up the incline of the Verrazano bridge. The wind tore across the bridge nullifying gravity. By that I mean loogies, snot rockets, etc. whizzed horizontally through the air at face level until they either encountered an obstacle or flew off the edge of the bridge. I'd imagine like spitting in a crowded space shuttle.
Before long I started to feel a light sweat under my arms, so stripped down to a light t-shirt, shorts, gloves, and sandals. I prefer to feel the brisk air than to sweat. I'm happy as long as my hands, ears, and feet aren't too cold.
I was optimistically running at a 6:15 pace without bothering to take the stiff headwind into account. By mile 4 I was already starting to feel the burn from running, not a good thing with 22 miles still to go. I felt no commitment to stay at that pace, but figured I would stick with it and see how it went.
For most of the early miles I constantly heard, "Go Superman!". Apparently a costumed character was running nearby. One hilarious little kid didn't seem to quite get it. He thought we all looked funny. He was yelling, "Go superheros!" to everybody.
I was eager to hit a new borough but it felt like I was stuck in Brooklyn limbo forever. The whole first half of the race is in Brooklyn. At around the halfway point I saw the back of a familiar-looking head in a purple singlet. I could have sworn it looked like B's nephew S who ran in my van at the 2013 Adirondack Ragnar. I recalled that he lives in the area, ran the NYC marathon last year, runs at a similar pace as mine... It's entirely possible it's him. As I drew close, sure enough, it was S. We greeted each other and talked a bit as we ran together for several miles. What a lucky break, having someone to run with during the middle-mile doldrums.
Somewhere on the Queensboro Bridge we parted ways. The course is on the lower level under a steel ceiling and my GPS watch went wacky. I tried to take in the amazing view as we approached the giant wall of skyscrapers of Manhattan. I made sure to stake my territory by running in the center of the middle lane. It's not very often foot traffic owns the bridge, but today, this bridge belongs to ME. Large plastic water bottles labelled with handwritten elite bib numbers sparsely littered the bridge. The elite runners get special water stations where they can deposit their drink of choice. The scavenger in me was tempted to grab a bottle with one of the top runners' numbers on it to keep as a souvenir. Kinda gross though: "He DRANK out of this!" so I just kept running.
It was an incredible feeling descending into Manhattan. Nobody was on the lower level of the bridge to cheer so there is a moment when you go from dark, quiet, windy silence to roaring crowds cheering in the sun. I knew I could expect to see M in the upcoming crowd which put another huge spring in my step. Previously I had been focused on things like keeping pace and drafting, but at this point I was just running. The road was six lanes wide and Mindy could be on either side. At mile 18 I heard her yelling my name from the far side of the road so I made a sharp right to run perpendicular to the other runners to give her a big hug, much to the surprise of the Man in the Yellow Shirt.
I'm running into the wind behind two other guys. A woman on the side shouts, "way to work together!". The guy in the Blacktoe shirt, leading the pack, looks back and freaks out. He yells to the guy behind him, "What the hell how about somebody else takes the lead? I had no idea there were 60 people drafting behind me!"
After that, some of the positive energy started wearing off. I could feel The Wall approaching. The cure was in my shorts: a caffeinated gel packet, but I made the decision to hold off until mile 20 before playing that card, which meant a mile or so of perseverance. At mile 20, as soon as that mocha flavored energy hit my tongue, I felt ready to take on the final 6.2 miles.
The crowds really picked up at this point. Runners had spread out, so I was enjoying some individual attention from the people yelling from the sides. At one point I watched as a woman from the sidelines yelled in slow motion, "Hey guy in flip floooooops... I thiiiink thaaat iiiis awwwwsommme!!". I was super psyched to hear M calling my name again at mile 23 for another much needed hug and boost of support.
For the last several miles I picked up the pace a little. Or to be more realistic, I slowed less than most other runners. It felt great. I was smiling, enjoying the cheers, and picking off runners. Meanwhile, photographers from Marathonfoto were everywhere. I couldn't resist trying to get captured in some goofy poses. As I came into view of one photographer, I was all set to present my ultimate pose but she actually put down the camera to point at me and yell something about the flip flops. Lol.
Another woman was standing on the sidelines. Her hand was outstretched. I'm pretty sure it was there for high-fiving. However, she was talking to a friend, her face pointed away from the runners, having long since forgotten about her outstretched hand. I ran past and at the last second my hand shot out to give her an unannounced high-five. I wish I could tell you her reaction, but there was no looking back. Laughter? Anger? The world will never know.
We ran around the southern end of Central Park and took a right turn. Mile marker 26 let us know we were on the very final stretch, just 0.2 miles to go. I picked up my pace, enjoying the guilty pleasure of passing people. Suddenly in front of me a runner seized up, grabbed his quad, and limped to the sidelines. I thought to myself, "don't be that guy" and slowed back down a little.
I cross the finish line. Smiling from ear-to-ear I collect my finisher's medal. Someone wraps a tiny thin space blanket around me and tries to tape it on with a flimsy piece of NYC-marathon branded tape. Meanwhile another volunteer hands me a 10-pound ball and chain to carry for the next few hours. It is a bag with 3 large drink bottles, an apple, power bars, and god knows what else. All I know is that I needed 3 hands to hold the space blanket, another two to hold the sack of crap, and some new legs to carry me out of here. As thirsty and starving as I am I don't have the hands or the time to ingest anything in the bag. I still have my wits about me at this point. I need to get to Family Reunion Area S where M would be waiting with warm clothes. As I am now, I'm very nearly naked in a howling winter wind so the sooner the better.
I walk forever through a gauntlet of thousands of volunteers. At first it's nice, they say, "congratulations you did awesome, how do you feel?" And I respond with a hearty smile and "thank you I feel great!". By the 100th conversation like this every half second, my responses get slightly less enthusiastic at which point their true raison d'être is revealed. Now they grab my elbow and say, "are you all right? Do you need the medical tent"? I give a big fake smile and "no thank you, feel awesome!". I want to say, "I just ran a f'ing marathon I'm f'ing freezing I need to get to my f'ing wife with my warm clothes as quickly as possible. Do you have a teleporter to teleport me to Family Reunion Area S? If so great, otherwise get out my face". But I am well aware that the punishment for any kind of backtalk will mean getting dragged kicking and screaming to the dreaded medical tent where I will freeze to death all the while getting interrogated, poked by needles, signing papers, anything but warm clothes and a shortcut home.
I lie through my chattering teeth to another hundred volunteers and tell them how great I feel. I get to a fork in the road. To the right is baggage pickup, the long walk in the wrong direction for people who dropped off warm clothes at the starting line. For people who did not drop off warm clothes, there is a shortcut to the left. I notice signs saying, "You must have a NO BAGGAGE bracelet to take the shortcut". Bracelet? WTF? I got no baggage to pick up. I'm TAKING the SHORTCUT. I walk to the left. Volunteers surround me. "Do you have a bracelet?" Yes I have a bracelet. It's right here. You don't see it? Hm, it must be under one of my gloves. Or maybe the other glove. That's funny I HAD a bracelet. It must be here somewhere. This guy does not give up. He escorts me to the baggage lane. On the other side of the fence I see other runners getting repeatedly harassed for their bracelet and I realize there's no point in fighting it I'm taking the long way home.
I walk past van after van containing peoples' drop bags starting with van 50,000-49,000. Followed by 49,000-48,000. And so forth down to 1,000. I watch shivering as countless prepared runners collect their drop bags and change into warm clothes. I occasionally try to jog but realize I will definitely hurt myself trying to run carrying this giant grocery bag so I just keep moving. It feels like hours before I get to exit central park. Of course now I'm way far north of where I need to be. I head south in a tightly caged in area. Nobody is here, I am very alone. I walk and walk. After forever I get to the area where "NO BAGGAGE" bracelet people took the shortcut. On the other side of the fence, volunteers are wrapping those people in giant wind proof fleece blanket ponchos. OMG this sucks. Not only did I have to take the long walk of shame without the benefit of collecting warm clothes, but I'm also going to miss out on the warm blanket. I hold back my tears. Eventually the two paths merge. I put on my best "sneaking into a concert" face and make my way backwards to the shortcut lane. I pass a few blanket volunteers, turn around, and act like I have a bracelet. I target a vulnerable youth volunteer, less likely to be adamant with the bracelet check, who thankfully wraps me in happy stolen warmth.
Signs point the way to "Family Reunion". They have been swirling around in the wind for hours and are now pointed every which-way. I ask a volunteer where the reunion area is. She says ask someone else. I work my way along, asking volunteers who keep pointing me south and naming different street intersections 12 blocks south, plus a few blocks west. I finally reach the street where my reunion area is! All I have to do now is work my way west and I am there! I start to walk but a wall of cops stops me. "You can't enter here. You can only exit via 64th street or 58th street". My jaw drops, are you kidding me? These guys are serious so I head back north and exit there. I walk along a quiet street. I'm hugging the poncho hood to my face for warmth. I am marching and not paying attention. I walk blindly onto Broadway as a Taxi honks and yells. That was a close call. As I turn around and head south, the cabbie screams at a NYPD traffic officer for letting me wander into the street. Like it was his fault.
Oh the suffering. This is the worst. I make my way to the intersection where I'm told I will find Family Reunion area S. I finally get there. It is a line of hundreds of normal people as they wait to get scanned by cops before entering the Reunion Area. I skip my way to the front and look to see that the reunion area is the place I was trying to exit from half an hour ago when they told me I wasn't allowed to exit there. There is no sign that I can see saying, "S", it's just a place like any other. I asked to get through, they told me to get on the end of the line. I look around for M, maybe she's over there. I don't see her so I hang my head and drag my feet to the end of the line. I stand there for 30 seconds when M comes running over. She had just arrived and had gotten on line only minutes before! We did it!
I put on warm clothes and we skedaddle. As it turns out even if I had gotten to the meeting place sooner, I would still be standing there in the cold waiting so maybe things worked out for the best.
Things to keep in mind if I ever do this again:
* Eat a good breakfast and bag a good lunch for the start
* Bring lots of disposable warm clothes to the start, to be donated in the corral
* Think about doing a drop bag. Warm clothes at the finish are a good thing to have. Or if not, be sure to wear the special 'no drop bag' bracelet or else you get stuck with a very long cold walk and no warm cape to wear.
* Arrange transportation ahead of time as soon as possible - I mean MONTHS before the race. I've heard advice recommending the ferry. Because the roads close early and the buses need to guarantee your safe arrival, they get you to the start way early which means sitting around in the cold. The ferry is more flexible. It would have been great to arrive at 7:30 or 8am instead of 6:15.
J and I try to get out once a year to step into the ring for the "fairest fight in all of fishing": surf casting for striped bass during their fall migration. What makes this challenge so addicting is doing the research, coming up with a plan, targeting a spot, exploring the area, piecing together clues, and searching desperately against all odds to find the Big Kahuna of fishing: a feeding frenzy within casting range of the shore.
What is a feeding frenzy? Let me explain by telling the story of my first ever cast into the surf. I was with friends trying to surf the Jersey Shore. We were enjoying some downtime on the beach when suddenly mayhem ensued on the beach. Life guards blew their whistles and mothers screamed for their swimming children to get out of the water. Just off the shore of the beach a flock of a hundred seagulls dive-bombed water's surface, grabbing a fish with every attempt. Underneath them, a gigantic circle of water frothed with skipping schools of minnows, arcing fins, and shredding fish teeth. As the bathers ran to safety, another group of people started appearing from all directions, running against the current of normal people toward the fray. Fishermen.
There was so much excitement in the air. I had no idea what was happening. What I did know is that I had put a crappy little freshwater fishing pole in the car in case we got bored of trying to surf flatwater. I ran to the car and fetched it and put on the only thing I had: a lame little piece of rubber on a metal jighead for a lure. I ran to shore and cast into the tornado. Before the lure had a chance to touch water, a fish gulped it down and swam away, bending my flabbergasted fishing rod in half. I reeled in like mad and pulled the fish towards shore. Just as a big wave receded, the fish popped off the hook and flopped around on the sand. I moved quickly, because the next wave was on deck to crash over the fish and pull it back to the sea. I ran over and carelessly scooped up the fish and ran to dry sand. I held the fish in both hands and watched in horror as it vomited up hundreds of shredded minnows. Giant piranha teeth threatened to bite off my fingers.
What was going on? Simple. The entire food chain was all together at one time. Something attracted minnows, which attracted bait fish. Bluefish (the nasty ones with teeth like I had just caught) viciously tear everything to shreds. They'll cut fish in half just because they can. Meanwhile, big striped bass hang around nearby to collect scraps and stragglers.
Sadly after many many fishing trips I have yet to splash a lure into such a scene.
This weekend we headed to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Sandy Hook is a 7-mile pile of sand that reaches out into the ocean towards New York City, dividing the bay from the sea. We arrived on Friday afternoon and geared up with waders, lure bags, and rods, and immediately headed out to start fishing. We drove to the northernmost parking lot and took a few casts as we worked our way to the northern tip of Sandy Hook. J recalled catching lots of fish as he casted towards a green bouy at the northern tip of the hook on a previous outing.
As we walked along, an excited fisherman walked by and said, "you'd better get up there, they're biting like crazy!". J and I looked at each other and hustled. The walk from the car to the tip takes 30 minutes. When we got there, we were greeted by 15 or so fisherman casting shoulder-to-shoulder, with a few bait fishermen on the sidelines. One of the fisherman had two giant striped bass up on shore. A striped bass over 28 inches is a "keeper". Anything else is a "short".
J and I started fishing to the far left next to some fly fishermen. Birds attacked the water. At any given moment, a rod or two to our right bent as people reeled in fish. Conditions were perfect for a couple of the lucky ones. On our side, the water was flat and calm. On the far side was a screaming current. In between was a line, perfectly visible, where you just knew the big fish were hunting. Unfortunately, we were well out of reach. Fishermen generally keep 10-15 feet or so between them. Not enough room to squeeze in without crossing lines with the salty dogs and turning them all against you. However, a fisherman left his spot and J moved in. Now J was one of the lucky ones in the hot seat, casting into the fast current then reeling into the quiet pool! Jealous, I yearned to join him. I walked over and J kindly agreed to share the spot. We would fish back-to-back. Yes, it meant he and I would cross lines a few times, but we could forgive each other. And to be fair, I crossed lines with one of the strangers next to me and he was super chill about it. I apologized and he just shot me a look as if to say, "What are you apologizing for? We're fishing shoulder to shoulder, it's gonna happen".
Millions of small minnows swam at our feet. Right in front of us, bigger fish chased schools of baitfish to the surface. We fished aggressively and were getting bites on nearly every cast. However, it was all bluefish and hickory shad. Not the elusive striped bass we were hoping for. Eventually the bite died down, and we checked into the hotel and grabbed dinner at The Dive in Sea Bright.
The next morning, J had to leave for several hours leaving me to my own devices. I slept in a bit, and took a gander and the beach in front of the hotel. I crossed the busy Ocean Ave., and climbed the stairs over the dune. The low tide on the other side had left behind huge piles of small clam shells everywhere.
I got excited about the idea of bait fishing and working my way up the food chain. It's a technique that has worked very well elsewhere. I grabbed a small pole casted into the surf with small bits of clam on several tiny hooks, hoping to catch some kind of bait fish that I could liveline or cut up and put on a big hook on the surf rod. All I got was a couple of crabs, which I put on the big rod but to no avail. Also I was surprised to catch a nice fluke on my clam rig.
I looked down the shore and saw a thousand birds, many of them raiding the water! Was it a blitz? I gathered up my things and ran down the beach. Along the shore I saw 7 skates (little sting-rays with out stingers) with their wings removed.
Skate wings are really tough. I could not imagine what sea creature could possibly do such a thing. Malicious bluefish maybe? (It turns out the wings were likely harvested by an unusual breed of fishermen with a taste for cartilage). It was enough to get my hopes up. But of course once I got to the birds, they looked to be just killing time.
No excitement here. But what I could see was a perfect sand bar, which could yield some good opportunities during higher tides.
From this point on, we continued to find promising conditions: birds feeding on bait in the water, but the big fish just weren't there. My guess is we showed up to early. We should have visited further north, maybe along the south shore of Long Island somewhere. One huge problem we ran into was that the tide chart for Sandy Hook is for the bay side. Which was 3 hours or so different from the ocean side we were fishing. We kept arriving late to the part, after the tide had slackened, when we wanted to arrive when the tide was high. We quickly realized something was amiss, but it took a while to figure out why.
With each passing fishless year the excitement builds. One of these years we're going to fish an all-day blitz, reeling in monster fish until our arms fall off. This was the year of mystery. What happened to those skates? Why are the tides several hours different from the tide charts? Where are the freakin fish?