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Green Mountain Gravel Growler

I am perpetually a few weeks behind my own calendar and the calendars of those around me. M reminds me that in two weeks she’ll be away for most of the week. I take the week off from work, but don’t know what I’m going to do with that time. My hamstring is tight after running the H2H Half Marathon that feels sore only when I’m running, so a massive multi-day run is probably out of the question. A Canada bike trip is a no-go, since M and I are planning a trip there later in the year. A few days before my time off, M and I are in Burlington to celebrate my birthday. While we are there I look up options for multi-day bike rides in the Northeast. I come across the Green Mountain Gravel Growler:

http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/green-mountain-gravel-growler

This is a massive ride through the deeply hidden areas of Vermont, a simple game of connect-the-dots along a beautiful constellation of some of the best craft breweries in the country.

I had come across this once before and kept it in the back of my head as something I would love to do given the opportunity. Upon reading the details, everything matched up pretty well, being that it is recommended as a 5-day trip, and I have exactly that. I have no shortage of reservations, but this is my chance to explore Vermont's deeply secret inner-country as well as its famous breweries. I can’t possibly pass up this opportunity. I don’t think too far ahead - I’ll give the first day or two a try, and if I run into any insurmountable obstacles I can always turn back or otherwise shorten the trip.

Gearing Up

I don’t have a bike for this trip. The route includes a lot of gravel roads and mountain biking trails that require bigger tires than just a road bike. M’s 25-year-old mountain bike has a really nice bike rack and saddlebags. I’m not sure the bike fits me well, but I fill up the bags with a tent and sleeping bag and some warm but not-too-warm clothes. I take M's bike for a quick test ride and swap out the big soft seat with a hard saddle I’m accustomed to. The cranks are in rough shape - they creak and wobble terribly. I tighten up the bottom bracket as best I can with a monkey wrench (not the right tool by any means) which tightens it up just enough to be tolerable. I happen to notice that the front tire is visibly dried, hard, and cracking everywhere. Clearly this is the original tire that came with the bike and there is no way it can survive this trip so I swap out the tire with a tire from a broken bike in the garage. I am careful to not inspect the bike any more deeply, suspecting that I will make a discovery that ends the trip before it has started. On that note, I pack up the car and head to the nearest possible starting point - the Park and Ride in Charlotte, VT. It’s barely more than a two-hour drive from my house.

Day 1, Leg 1 - Charlotte to Fiddlehead

I first mapped out a clockwise route starting in Richmond, VT. I quickly discovered that most of the exciting breweries were going to be closed if I went this way. On my second attempt I mapped out a counter-clockwise trip starting in Charlotte, VT. Everything fell into place, hitting each brewery while they were open. No breweries open before noon, limiting how much of a head start I can get most mornings, so sleeping in is a must. Several breweries don’t open until 4pm which narrows the window between dinnertime and finding a place to sleep. Eager to get started, I bike an easy 6 miles along side roads to Fiddlehead. I get there well before noon. I’m not much of a relaxer. But one really cool thing about this trip is it’s going to force me to add a little ‘stop’ to my ‘go go go’. With an hour to kill, I find a picnic table and start trying to learn how to chill out. I mostly walk around and fuss with my book. At noon I order a pizza and bring it over to the brewery for a beer. This is a great start to the ride.

Day 1, Leg 2 - Fiddlehead to Bobcat Cafe

I ride toward the next dot on the map on my phone. My very rough notes say I should get to the Bobcat Cafe in 2.5 hours. In just over an hour I reach the first dot! At first I’m convinced that I’m super fast and crushing my time estimate, until I reach the dot and it turns out I’m at a brewery I meant to skip because it is closed today. Darnit! These are a few extra hilly miles I didn’t need to tack onto the trip. Along the way, I communicate with JP who agrees to meet me at the Bobcat Cafe. Along the way there are some great views of the countryside, including views of the iconic Mount Mansfield out past creeks and old farmhouses. The route takes me along muddy dirt roads. Early springtime is ramp season. Ramps are highly sought-after foraged edible plants that are a subtle cross between garlic and onions. I’ve never found a ramp before, but along the trip I stop to examine a plant that sure enough turns out to be a ramp! And they are everywhere! I pull one of the ground and confirm that it indeed smells garlicy.

JP hops on his bike at his house and rides toward me. After a little back-and-forth via text messages, we meet up five miles from Bobcat Cafe. He takes me along an alternative route through some extra trails and takes a detour to a park with an amazing skatepark and a half-pipe, and a dirt track he helped build. Riding around this stunt park on M’s bike laden with gear is goofy but good practice for what is coming in the next several days. We lock up our bikes at Bobcat and enjoy a beer while we discuss my plans and he tells me about some of his upcoming adventures. He offers me a place to stay for the night, but for me, tonight’s struggle to find a place to sleep is really important. I’m a short day’s bike ride from the car, and the weather is decent, so if I’m going to find out that my sketchy outdoor sleeping plans are going to fail then now is the time to do it before I’m too deeply committed.

Day 1, Leg 3 - Bobcat to Middlebury

It’s a little later than I’d like and the sun is going down soon. I hurry down to Middlebury. Otter Creek brewing closed an hour before I arrive. I could have visited the Drop-In Brewing Company, but I really need food and to try and find a resting place before it gets dark. I hit up Two Brothers Tavern at JP’s recommendation. After a great meal, I put on reflective gear, a headlamp, and a flashing red bike light. Along the way I come across a swampy triangle of woods. My choice is to either set up camp in this less-than-ideal spot or try to ride 5 miles, tired, on busy roads in the dark and pitch the tent in a big forest. I choose to camp here which turns out to be the right choice because the next bit of trail is impassable. I pitch the tent and check myself casually for ticks. The ground is cold and damp. Some of my gear is strangely wet inside the tent. Am I sinking into the swamp? Am I going to get soaked in this awful spot? No - it works out. It’s a little chilly but I stay dry and reasonably comfortable.

Day 2, Leg 4 - Lincoln Gap and Lawson’s Finest Liquids

Today I am looking forward to a big moment of truth for the entire trip. The top of Lincoln Gap is the highest elevation of the trip at 2,428 feet. The road is generally closed to cars through May 15, so I am almost three weeks early. This time of year it is blockaded, but is ‘use at your own risk’ for bikers and skiers.

I pack up my tent and head out into the brisk but sunny morning. I cross a biking bridge over Otter Creek. The trail that follows the creek is submerged in a few inches of crystal clear water. I proceed slowly, wondering, can this be serious? The trail widens into a big dirt road, still submerged. The trail and the creek are one! It is quite doable for a quarter mile before it gets to be six inches and deeper and is noticeably faster current up ahead at which point I turn around and reroute along the busier main road with soaked feet. The route takes me along a dirt road past countless beautiful homes almost all of which have people doing some kind of unusually hard work outside: splitting wood, milling planks, pulling stumps, installing roofing, driving bulldozery machines, that type of thing. The weather is cool but through clear skies the sun brightens my mood as much as it does the surrounding landscape.

At noon I turn right onto Lincoln Gap Road. I reach a big orange sign that says, “Lincoln Gap Closed” with several roadblocks. I’m not sure what to expect at the top. I climb the steep grade, pushing my bike for much of the way. It’s a lot of work and I am overheating. I’m a little stinky and sweaty. A cool mountain creek flows nearby. I park the bike and stand in 6 inches of water and wash my shirt and shorts, using them as a washcloth to freshen up. The ice water takes the breath away but it feels great to be cool and clean. Before long steady climbing takes me to the top of the gap. I made it! There was no snow or ice on the road, this was a piece of cake! No sooner do I crest the very highest point when the descent comes into view. It’s deep snow as far as the eye can see. Well that is certainly unexpected! I walk my bike and eventually find clear sections to ride down along the sides of the road. After a quarter mile or so the snow is gone and the way is clear. Once I get past the roadblocks on this side of the gap I pass a few people. Everyone is curious to know if the gap is open, even the locals living on the mountain. I enjoy being the person in the know with the answers to the questions I had myself just a few hours prior.

Woj is working nearby today and agrees to meet me in Waitsfield. As I descend into this small village, the ditch litter on the side of the road consists almost entirely of cans of extremely high-end beer such as Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine and Alchemist’s Heady Topper, as opposed to the usual Milwaukee’s Best, Bud Light, and Natural Ice. I wait for Woj at Mad Taco. This is like the best place ever with an amazing beer list, an active meat smoker outside, and and endless stream of ‘to die for’ plates of food flowing out the service window. Who knew a taco could be so special?

Woj arrives in a shirt, tie, and slacks. Before he approaches, he works as hard to messy himself up as I did to try and clean myself up so we don't look so weird together. Woj is full of questions. “How are you so clean?” I explain my bath. “Did you bring changes of clothes?”. No. “So you carry everything you need like toilet paper?”. I explain that I didn’t bring toilet paper. It hasn’t come up so far in the trip but will soon. Wet leaves from a creek serve the purpose quite well. What he doesn’t ask is if I brought a toothbrush, to which the answer would have been that I meant to but forgot it. We slather our meals in house hot sauces and wolf them down before heading over to Lawson’s Finest Liquids for a beer. Woj gives me a can of Sip of Sunshine and e part ways as I head off into the evening. It’s sprinkling slightly. I work my way up into the hills and end up setting camp with an amazing view of a ski mountain. I sip my sunshine in the dark while I talk to M on the phone and read my book by headlamp. The wind blows and rain falls lightly off and on through the night. I sleep uneasily. I wake up to something pawing at the side of the tent. I don’t want to know what it is, I really don’t. I just yell, “get out of here!” like I would to an intrusive cat or dog. I can hear the animal walk away and paw at my bike bags for a bit before moving on. Fair warning - slightly graphic sentence incoming. It’s raining out so I don’t want to leave the tent so I awkwardly lean outside and urinate into the 16-ounce empty beer can and then reach as far away from the tent as I can and pour out the contents.

Day 3, Leg 5 - Waitsfield to Good Measure in Northfield

I wake up and pack up my gear. It’s not quite raining, but it’s chilly and damp. What to do with the pee can? I shake out as much as I can, but I don’t want to pack it away with my stuff and I it’s not like there’s a garbage can to drop it into. I can't help but wonder what Vermont's rules of etiquette are when it comes to recycling stuff you peed in. I put it upside-down in the bottle cage of the bike for now to hopefully empty any remaining contents. I proceed on the trail which takes me through some mud and muck. The muck doesn’t seem too bad until I pass an old abandoned Jeep where it clearly got stuck and found it’s new permanent home. As it turns out I’m climbing another mountain with my watch reporting an elevation of well over 2000 feet. I’m using all the effort I have to drag and push my gear-laden bike to the top over an hour and a half of rather awful trail that is flowing like a creek. Another rough start to the morning. As I push the bike as hard as I am able, I feel a strain in my leg that tells me, “keep this up and you’re going to get injured”. This is the point that I realize that the designers of the route are intentionally making this brutally challenging. I vow to start taking the easy way out, finding direct routes and spending a little more time on roads rather than let these guys make me carry my bike over bonus mountains like this. I feel no shame in visiting hundreds of miles of breweries without making it unnecessarily difficult.

By the time I reach the top I see snow here and there. Coming down the other side is a little rough at first. Technical mountain biking down a steep mountain feels just dumb on M’s old bike weighed down as it is. I really only have two priorities - don’t get hurt and don’t break the bike. Taking it off sweet jumps is pretty low on my priority list right now. Eventually the trail turns into mostly downhill dirt roads into Northfield. At one point the road is actually wet clay. My tires sink in a little bit, making for a slow mushy ride that feels uncomfortably similar to riding with a flat tire. As I descend into town, I pass a man and a younger fellow in the roadside ditch. The younger fellow picks up a plastic bottle with a smile on his face. Huh. I always think about collecting cans from the sides of roads for the purpose of cleaning up and collecting five cents but never do. I’ve never before witnessed someone actively doing it before. It crossed my mind to offer them my empty beer can but recollections of what I’ve done with it make that impossible.

Once in Northfield, I wait for the brewery to open at noon. The brewery has a coffee shop attached so I take a seat under a speaker and read my book while I charge my wristwatch and phone over espresso and a muffin. Music plays from the speaker at a volume slightly louder than pleasant. A particularly obnoxious song comes on. One of two women sitting together nearby thinks the music is coming from my plugged in phone and yells at me, "Will you turn that off?". I shrug and say it's not mine, pointing to the speaker on the wall. She backpedals,"I didn't think you looked like the type".

As soon as the brewery opens I stop by and have a beer. This is one of those unnecessary beers that is more of a symbolic effort to complete this trip leg than for enjoyment’s sake. Several antique Utica Club metal trays are on display. A screen-printed canvas on the wall displays a tourist map of Northfield. On it is a silhouette of a man pulling a wagon that says, ‘Got an empty? Give it to Eugene’. Was it Eugene I saw on the side of the road earlier? I really could have offered him my empty under different circumstances. The map also displays the location of the “Darn Tough” hosiery company. I bike there first. A pair of quality wool socks is at the top of the list of things I wish I had. When I get wet and move quickly through the brisk air my feet get cold easily in my suede sneakers and thin synthetic socks. I stop by the factory and ask a worker if they sell socks. She laughs and says, "no I'm sorry, we just make them here". I grab half a Subway veggie sub on my way out of town and eat half of it, storing the rest.

Day 3, Leg 6 - Northfield to Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier

According to my notes, Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier doesn’t open until 4pm which is a little bit later than I’d like. I take the easy way along route 10 which is reasonably flat and smooth rather than take the proposed route over yet another mountain. As I cross the border into the capital city of Vermont, Montpelier, a sign reads, “HUNTERS - City limits - No rifle shooting - Only buckshot - Police order”. In the center of the city I see several locations advertise Heady Topper and other great beer options, but I am determined to visit the Three Penny Taproom which is famous for being one of the first and only bars to serve some of Vermont’s most inaccessible craft beers. As my ever-dependable miraculous luck would have it, they are open earlier than expected! It did not disappoint. This was a real highlight of the trip. As I looked over the beer options, one in particular caught my eye, “VT - Wunderkammer Bier - Hyla Crucifer - Wild w/Lichen and Mushrooms - $6”. I once heard a podcast about a brewer making experimental beer using mushrooms as an ingredient. It sounds stupid, but the amazing thing was the dramatic surprise for even the brewer himself as to how well the flavors worked. Hard to imagine, but here I have an opportunity to try it for myself. I sat down and had a glass of mushroom beer. Upon the first sip, “oh my god”! It was delicious! In the moment, I couldn’t help but think this was the best beer I’d ever had. It is one of those magic moments when everything comes together and manifests itself in a few sips of the right drink at the right time. After spending the night and day in muck and mud and sticks and leaves and cow patties, here is a delightful beer that balances all of it into a highly satisfying earthy swill. Yesss! Follow that up with an amazing mushroom soup and I’m ready for whatever comes next! I won’t try to explain it, since it is as opaque as the name of the beer itself (I'll repeat it again here: Wunderkammer Bier - Hyla Crucifer), but apparently this brewery is some kind of side project of a brewer at the most elevated brewer on this trip - Hill Farmstead. As I understand it the brewer focuses on including foraging in each brew. And I couldn’t tell you where you could ever find any of it to actually drink, except here and now. What a score.

https://www.hopculture.com/foraged-beer-wunderkammer-bier-greensboro-hil...

Day 3 and 4, Leg 7 - Three Penny to Hill Farmstead

I finish my now soggy sub. This is my last chance to make things easy on myself and take a quick exit, stage left, and skip more than 50 miles of biking. This is the scariest part of the trip where I’ll be completely away from civilization with extremely limited options for food, shelter, aid, or easy escapes. It takes me deep up into unknown territory and high elevation. It is a point of no return. The purpose of the last three days has been to pose the question: Are my bike and body up to this? Nothing so far has suggested that it can’t be done, so I commit. It’s a little rainy, and it will be over 35 miles uphill to Hill Farmstead.

I am starting to get into the groove of how to navigate. At first I was relying on my phone, which I could quickly turn on and zoom into a map to see if I was on the official track or not. Now that I am looking to take the more direct route, this option doesn’t work as well. Not to mention I can’t possibly look at the phone if it’s raining. However using the Garmin Connect app, it’s easy to map out a course along main roadways and upload it to my watch. It’s ridiculously great using the watch to navigate because at a glance at my wrist I know for sure that I’m on track. And it is totally waterproof. I pedal steadily for nearly 15 miles over the next 2 hours. Along the way I fill up water at a fresh water spring.

The rain is wearing me down. I’m cold and tired before I arrive at the first possible stopping point, a rundown country store. I’m ready for a break. I lean my bike on the railing and sit in a chair on the front porch. I walk around the store, but I’m too tired and hungry to focus enough to buy anything sensible so I buy a Snickers bar and rest there while it rains. I’m not sure what happened at this point. Mentally I was at a real low point. It looked miserable out, darkness is slowly descending, and everything just looked run down and at it’s worst. It felt more like the movie set for a zombie flick right before my brains get eaten by the endless stream of clientele who look to be in even sadder shape than myself. Somebody gets furious at an empty cup and kicks it several times screaming at it before walking into the store. I wearily read the rabies warnings on the pinboard outside the store. Stay away from animals and alert someone if I get bit or if I get any animal saliva in my nose, eyes, or mouth. Is this really rabies? Or is that just codeword for the zombie virus? The list of rabies symptoms sure sounds like a zombie infection:

  • irritability or aggressiveness
  • excessive movements or agitation
  • confusion, bizarre or strange thoughts, or hallucinations
  • muscle spasms and unusual postures
  • extreme sensitivity to bright lights, sounds, or touch

I put on reflective gear and lights. As I’m packing up a guy comes up to me and says, “You taking back roads?”. I answer, “No I’m heading that way” as I point down the main road. “14? You’re brave!”, he gives a laugh, halfway between good-humored and sheer evil.

As soon as I start riding, the road is way worse than it was. Water-filled potholes and little-to-no shoulders push me closer to the driving lane than I’d like to be. It’s about an hour before dark, and I don’t know where I’m going to sleep. I start seeing snow covering almost half the ground surrounding me. As remote as this is, houses line all of the inhabitable land on either side of the road, limiting my camping options. Everything else is water. Lakes and ponds sure, but mostly it’s just flat flowing water looking for the path of least resistance. I might as well be looking for camping spots on the side of the road between islands in Key West. I reach a spot where I can climb down a steep hill to a creek with a small level area free of water, snow, and ice. As perfect as this is, a sickening feeling of guilt takes hold, knowing that I’m surely offending someone or something (I don't even know who or why) by sleeping somewhere without explicit permission. As cars rush by, someone is going to see me slink with my bike into the trees.

I pitch the tent with the door facing a steep drop into the creek. More of a hiding place than a home, the spot is perfect. The hill to the road is easy to climb down with my bike, but it’s steep enough to hide me from view of the road. The sound of the creek helps cover the sound of the cars driving by. I lay in my tent and eat my Snickers dinner and sleep pretty well for the night as it rains.

I wake up in the night needing to pee. I put on my headlamp and walk outside. In my mind I am walking toward the road, not paying much attention. Suddenly I see that I am about to step right off the steep drop into the creek. Whoa, that was close. How did I not see what a bad idea it was to put the tent exit so close to danger?

When the sun rises, I crawl out of bed and rub my eyes. It’s slightly overcast, but there is refreshing sunlight! It’s cold but comfortable. My spirits are lifted as I pack up and hit the road. Again I feel the pain of guilt as I exit the woods, hoping no cars catch me in the act. I can’t help but sense that being homeless must feel this way perpetually. As much as I fantasize about the freedom of just wandering, I think the reality is much harsher than I realize.

After a quick descent into Hartwick, I stop into Connie’s Kitchen. I feel very welcomed as I sit down and have Connie’s Breakfast consisting of eggs, toast, ham, homefries and coffee. I charge my phone and watch and read my book as time passes as I have done each morning, trying to avoid arriving at the next brewery too early before they open at noon. I have 10 steep uphill miles ahead of me. When I’m ready I take a deep breath, suck it up, and start peddling and walking up.

Wow. Just wow. The dirt roads to Hill Farmstead are nonstop beautiful sights and wonderful smells, including burning wood stoves, friendly faces, and the most delightful manure smells imaginable. I don’t know what it is - the time of year maybe? Maybe chilly manure smells better than hot manure. But it smells more like sweet, earthy, refined lawn clippings than what it really is. I enjoy the climb. I pass by Circus Smirkus Camp. I’m excited because I recently watched an awesome show on PBS about the travelling Circus Smirkus. It’s cool to see a piece of it here in the middle of nowhere.

I find myself jokingly annoyed by little signs that say, “Hillcrest” with an arrow pointing uphill. No kidding. The hill crest is up.

I am increasingly elated as my watch counts down the miles toward the ultimate destination. Hill Farmstead marks the end of the difficult and scary half of the trip. Once I reach it, the rest of the trip is generally downhill and civilized. Within a quarter mile I can smell it steeping grains and fermentation! I arrive almost an hour before they open. A line of people has already formed outside the retail shop. A woman laughs as she says she saw me biking up that huge hill and asks me about my trip, and I later hear her excitedly retelling it to other people in line. I have a little cell phone service and talk to M until they open up early. I check out the store, then head to the taproom.

I order a beer, a pilsner with a very tempting description, something about ‘carbonated in it’s own krausen’ whatever that means but sounds cool. It was so impeccably good, even moreso because it’s usually a pretty unexciting option. I don’t know how they do it. The brewing process has a way of magnifying imperfections. So when you taste a beer so perfect it feels just that more more rare and amazing. I needed food. The food menu consisted of three options, two of which were basically, ‘slice of cheese’. I went for the french slice of cheese. It went well with the beer. I later found out that by Vermont law, brewers are not allowed to serve full pours of beer unless they serve food. Which makes sense, you shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach. It also explains some of the hilariously minimal food options at the finest breweries.

I now have a heck of a lot more appreciation for Hill Farmstead, and feel incredibly fortunate that their beers are served at rare local places like the Ruck in Troy and Albany Ale and Oyster.

Day 4, Leg 8 - Hill Farmstead to Lost Nation

The descent from Hill Farmstead was spectacular. It took me through endless farmlands deeply characterized by centuries of hard labor. I am struck by the sense that this entire trip has been on par with visiting the ancient Egyptian pyramids. I just can’t fathom how humans were able to build this place except one little piece at a time. I blast the Melvins from my phone as I descend Rocking Rock Road. It takes me down just the right amount of muddy double track and secret singletrack, mostly down down down dirt roads. Twenty-five miles zip by in three hours. It feels good to gain speed on the downhills and let that momentum carry me as far as possible on the uphills. I visit Lost Nation Brewing for a quick beer and some ahi tuna tacos.

Day 4, Leg 9 - Lost Nation to Alchemist

I’m in a real hurry here, if I make excellent time into Stowe I can make it to Alchemist for a Heady Topper tasting before they close! Missing out on Alchemist would call into question whether or not the overall trip was successful. Luckily service is very quick at Lost Nation while I frantically plan out my route. I leave so quickly I forget my favorite Lake Placid mesh cap and leave it behind. The roads lend themselves well to moving quickly and the downhills over the last several hours have invigorated my otherwise tired legs. There is a distinct rhythm to the hills that help maximize momentum’s benefits. As I pass through Stowe I realize I have plenty of time. I stop by a cheaper hotel and reserve a room. Now that I’m situated I am ready to see Alchemist for the first time! I always pictured a darkly lit shanty built from stained driftwood in the middle of nowhere. What I found was more like a vibrant artsy museum setting. Makes sense, this is more of a high-tech brewing revolution than a scene from Moby Dick. The place looks spectacular but I was strangely disappointed by the on-site offerings. They don’t serve full pours only small tastes. And the draught beer tasted more reminiscent of perfumy baby powder than the complex hop monsoon that their canned concoctions provide. I bought two individual cans, stuffed them in the bike's saddle bags, and headed back to my hotel. Back at the room the can of Focal Banger fully restored my faith in Alchemist and I went out for wood fired pizza. A little overwhelmed by the beer options, I went with the waitress’ suggestion, a classic Hill Farmstead Edward, after which I called it a night.

Day 5, Leg 10 - Omnithermic trip to Stone Corral

Today is my last day of riding. I'm looking at temperatures starting in the 30’s with wind and steady rain. I just need to survive the trip back to the car. I think my original plan had something like 70 miles mapped out. I cut a few corners, and skipped Burlington which I visited just last weekend. This trimmed it down to more like 45 miles. I stuck to roads. It’s funny, when I woke up on previous mornings in the tent, I was super eager to get the misery of the night over with and start the ride. Waking up in the hotel I was full of reluctance to leave the comfort and dryness of my room. Eventually I sucked it up and committed to getting cold and wet. For the first 10 miles I was reasonably dry and bundled up, and was ready to melt from overheating. But I didn’t dare to remove layers because I knew I’d be soaked and freezing by the end of the ride. The rain and wind picked up and I was soaked on my ride through Waterbury and along the Winooski river to Richmond. By the time I reached mile 23 at the Stone Corral I was completely soaked and frozen, on the verge of hypothermic. I arrived at the brewery an hour early and couldn’t possibly bear the thought of standing around freezing for an hour so I pressed on.

Day 5, Leg 11 - Richmond to Frost in Hinesburg and to the car

I was thinking through my options before I start making hypothermic decisions. Or maybe the irrational decision making had already started. My first thought was to find a place with a fireplace to stand next to. Ha! Where did I expect to find that? My next thought was to stop and set up camp and spend a few hours dry in my tent and down sleeping bag. Just enough shake off this chill, wait out out some of this rain, and maybe get some of my clothes a little dryer. Fortunately two things happened on the way to Frost Brewing. First, it was largely uphill, forcing me to move slowly and work hard and build up heat. Second, the rain let up temporarily. I couldn’t believe it but my soaking wet pants dried very quickly once the rain stopped. Before I knew it I was back to dramatically overheating! I don’t know how my body puts up with this. The second half was great, I was reasonably dry and largely coasted into Frost brewing. They were super friendly and served me a flight. I bought a can to take home with me, and sat down to just wait out the rain. I went down the street for a delicious sandwich at the Paisley Hippo. The rain picked up again, but from here it was an easy 9-mile straight shot to the car. I am super thankful that the car was there, I found my ignition key, and the car started up. Trip complete!

Helderberg to Hudson

Today was the Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon. In my spring fever leading up to the race, I indulged in overdoing everything including all-day trail running, an icewater swim, bonk racing, etc. I came away relatively unscathed. However all this week my feet have been strangely sensitive. The bottoms of my feet are speaking in plain english saying in stereo, "please don’t run the Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon barefoot". This has lead to increasing pre-race anxiety. I don’t want to wear sandals because, well, I never do during road races unless absolutely necessary. Why break a nearly clean track record? However, this race is almost entirely on a bike path and bike paths are notoriously rough. Because cars aren’t constantly driving on them to kick all the debris off to the side, bike paths tend to be covered in rocks, sticks, acorns, you name it. It’s not a big deal over short distances, but 13.1 miles is a long way to race while carefully managing every step. I discuss my concerns with Bill, a fellow barefoot running friend who uncharacteristically states, "there's nothing that says you have to run it barefoot". I am pretty well decided to wear sandals for the race. But I know that whatever I decide in the days before the race, I am likely to change my mind at the last possible minute.

My wife drops me off at the starting line. On the car ride I decide to run barefoot, knowing full well that there is a high likelihood that this choice means sacrificing the race. Ultimately, this is the mentality that brought me to barefoot running in the first place. Rather than put too much focus on maximizing speed and trying to create a guaranteed outcome, forge ahead into the great unknown along an uncertain path. I already have a pretty good idea of what's behind door number one. Whammy or big bucks, I want to see what's hiding behind door number two. I hop out of the car and meet up with fellow runners. I’m a little discombobulated, I had meant to leave my sandals in the car but now I have them with me. I will need to either wear the sandals for the race, or put them in someone else’s drop bag. Volker helps me out. I wrap the sandals up in my extra shirt and Volker deposits the drop bag to be picked up after the race is over. We run a brief warmup. The area is surfaced with horrible pebbles. My feet are begging for mercy and I cry uncle. A few minutes before the race starts I run over to the drop bag area to see if I can get my sandals back. Alas the sandals are already en route to the start. Maybe it’s for the best. I dug my grave now it’s time to lie in it.

Is this all just race anxiety? Or are these concerns real? Yes to both, they are one and the same.

Over 2,000 runners are lined up at the start. We observe the giant U.S. flag hanging from a firetruck ladder while the national anthem plays.

Pre-race announcements are made, including an unprecedented mention about somebody running the race barefoot. I get a few amused looks from the runners around me. Meanwhile I’m feeling more than a little insecure about this whole situation.

The race starts promptly 15 minutes late. The first 50 feet are on the worst type of gravel road. I started up near the front so I have got to suck it up and run fast to avoid getting trampled. Next up is the annoyingly pebbly road we warmed up on. A slight uphill is followed by a big downhill with several particularly steep sections and sharp turns. The moment of truth comes at the two-mile mark: the newly paved bike path.

The bike path... is... it's... perfect! It's as though the path is so new and smooth that debris hasn’t yet had a chance to accumulate. What a relief! I immediately relax and pick up the pace. I get into race mode and look for folks ahead of me to gradually catch up to. I’m in no rush, 13.1 miles is a long way. Around the halfway point I am approaching two runners. Just as I catch up to one of them, my wife and her friend are spectating enthusiastically. Shortly after, a runner up ahead starts walking. He said it's his hamstring. I am feeling it too, I ask, "your right hamstring"? "Yeah!". The bike path has a slight left lean that allows water to run off when it rains. This slight unevenness is taking a toll after running on this unusual surface for so long.

One 50-foot long unpaved section of the path is covered in the gnarliest of railroad rocks and gravel, marring the otherwise smooth surface. Yikes. A baiting crowd is cheering apprehensively at the end of this gauntlet.

I pick up the pace and charge through. It’s much easier to hang on with intense focus for 10 seconds rather than drag it out to a painful 25 second tiptoe. The elevated effort triggers something in the brain that immediately embraces the aggressive approach and it's over before I know it.

I see a runner taking a break up ahead. I go by, and he quickly catches back up. I’m feeling ok so I keep pace. After a moment of silence we chat for a bit. With two miles left, the bike path is coming to an end. He warns me of some upcoming sharp turns.

The remaining roads are rough. The course makes its way onto the bike path along the Hudson River for the final stretch. We are now running along this painted green path, "stay on the green!". The roughly textured path is killing my feet which by now are sensitive and tender. I am just thankful that the previous nine miles weren’t like this! I can deal with it, knowing that the end is near. All manner of expletives drool from my mouth. I do my best to dole them out while I'm alone and curb them while spectators are watching.

I push hard to the finish, completing what turned out to be an excellent race. As soon as it's over, I feel much better. The unknowns are now knowns. The source and destination of all my anxieties are behind me. I can look back and say I’m very happy with the outcome and wouldn’t have changed a thing. I just might need a few days of taking it easy after this. Not such bad thing once in a while.

Tenandeho Whitewater Derby

Months ago I had decided not to compete in the Tenandeho Whitewater Derby this year. Instead I would be sensible and just run the 5 mile Delmar Dash running race in the morning and call it a day. So I registered for the Delmar Dash. Then I discovered the Delmar Dash wasn’t awarding Grand Prix points for folks over 40 this year so I decided to not run that either! At which point all of the above had been scratched from my schedule and I was left with a free weekend. A few days ago I said to M, “hey I’d like to do a trail run either Saturday or Sunday”. “Saturday would be better”, she said, so I met with MM for a 7-hour/24-mile trail run circuiting the mini mountains surrounding Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Valley. At the end of the adventure when I hopped into my car, my body and brain were drained of all their juice to the point that I couldn’t readily remember where I was. Just then I got a notification on my phone. Two notifications actually.

"Delmar Dash" tomorrow
"Tenandeho White Water Derby" tomorrow

Hmmmm. I had forgotten all about those, I didn’t realize running on Saturday would leave the option open to do either (or both) events on Sunday. I drive home and M and I head to Muza in Troy for dinner. On the walk from the car to the entrance, Mindy touches my arm. “Let this woman go by”. I’m holding up pedestrian traffic with my hobbling down the sidewalk on my way to the restaurant. As we enjoy our amazing meal of pierogies, kielbasa, and golumpkis, I casually mention Sunday’s running and kayak races. M has some activities planned for the morning, so it fits in with her schedule reasonably well.

Later that night, I crawl up to bed without setting an alarm. At 6:30am I wake up. I look up race times. If I move quickly I can pack up the car with a ton of running and boating gear and make it to the first race of the day. I drive down to Delmar, eating an old cold burrito on my way, leftovers from yesterday’s trail snacks. I pick up my bib and do a warmup run. I’m running really gingerly. My poor feet are tender and sensitive from yesterday. This is their way of making it impossible for me not to take it easy. During the warmup I meetup with some fellow teammates, B and C. Running with them helps me forget my concerns and I actually warm up at a reasonable pace. Things are looking better for the race.

I start the race very conservatively. B passes me early on and he pulls me along for a while, slowly increasing the pace little by little. By 3.5 miles I’m feeling a little soreness in my hip so I ease off a little. I cross the finish line. It certainly felt like a normal race. I ran as fast as I could, even if the pace was a little slower.

I’m getting ready to make my way to the car to the next event when a guy from News Channel 6 with a huge camera says, "Hey did you run barefoot? Would you mind answering some questions?" I’m almost frustrated as he asks me questions like, "does it hurt"? The truth is yeah it hurts, but only because I’m an idiot and destroyed them yesterday! But instead of telling it like it is, I do my best to tell it like it would have been if I weren’t on the verge of total physical and mental collapse.

I drive north to Mechanicville with my kayaking equipment, eating a second burrito which thankfully has been warmed by the sun. I take care of logistics: dropping off the boat at the start, dropping off the car at the finish, registering, and hitching a ride back to the start. After which I have a 30 minute break, so I lay down in a field of onion grass and enter a deep slumber.

"Hey no sleeping on the job!"

I blink my eyes a few times and a man’s face comes into focus.

"Only napping!", he laughs as he and his canoeing partner place their boat on deck for the race. A siren sounds, and it’s announced, “the Kayak race is going to start in 10 minutes.”

I get up, put on my wetsuit, gloves, and spray skirt, and climb into the kayak. Despite the fact that everything is still rather gray in color, it’s a perfect spring day with sunny skies warming temps up to the high 60's.

I’m the very last kayaker to start in my division, I’m #12. Kayakers are released in 2-person waves, with 1 minute between waves. #11 and I wait our turn and take our places at the starting line. The announcer counts down from ten with his bullhorn and we start paddling. My arms don’t work. It doesn’t help that I haven’t kayaked in a year. #11 takes off ahead of me. I do my best to pace myself, paddling aggressively sometimes, and resting other times. It’s kind of a double whammy because I’m going more slowly than I’d like and meanwhile I’m more uncomfortable than I’d like to be. There’s no pity for self-indulgence.

I try to keep #11 within sight, which keeps my pace fast enough to catch up to the occasional kayaker. Meanwhile, a female kayaker who started in a wave after me blazes past all of us. Eventually #11 disappears up ahead.

There are two kayakers immediately in front of me as we approach a stonework island that marks a choice between a left channel and a right channel. The race director instructed everyone to stay left here, but I’ve always gone right. One guy asked, “is it ok if we go right?” and the director said yes. Apparently the right channel is a little rocky, which means you’ll scrape the bottom of your boat a little. I’m ok with that! Both kayakers take the left, and I veer to the right. I made the right choice! As the two paths merge, I am now ahead of both of them.

One of the things that makes this race so great is that the river winds through countless bridges and backyards through the town of Mechanicville, and on a nice day like today, huge crowds are gathered to cheer on paddlers. Just as the rapids get more exciting, encouragement from both sides and overhead help to inject a little more adrenaline into my dying arms. My face is contorting into looks of panic, excitement, and relief as I survive the more difficult sections while under scrutiny from many spectators. During this surge of excitement I catch up to #11 just before the final rapids where the river dumps itself and myself into the Hudson River.

Links

Photos from the race

Hyannis Marathon

My pre-race warm-up run is wet and windy, but I overheated in my light windbreaker. I decide to leave behind the jacket and just run in shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. On my way to the starting line I realize I forgot to apply vaseline to areas that chaffe, my nipples and nuts will pay for that mistake.

The Hyannis marathon involves repeating a 13.1 mile loop two times. During my first loop, packs of half marathoners keep me company. This is the first marathon in five years that I have run with a solid block of training making me feel 100% prepared. I focus entirely on staying relaxed and keeping to my planned pace.

As I near the end of the first lap, I know that M is waiting with a big bag of stuff. I carefully plan exactly what I want to change into. I am in brutal condition and behaving like a caveman as I approach the love of my life repeatedly screaming, “BAG!”, “BAG!” while she takes pictures with her phone. “I have your bag right here!”. “PUT IT ON THE GROUND AND OPEN IT”.

“BROWN SWEATER MITTENS!”. M rifles through the bag and hands over everything I need. I trade my shirt for a wool sweater, and my new awful gore-tex gloves for my old trusty cycling wind-breaker mittens. Ahhh the sweater feels good even as it catches the rain. The pit stop takes no more than 30 seconds.

At this point I am a little better equipped but my poor skinny bare legs are suffering. The wind is blasting my face and soaking wet chest. Usually a tailwind provides a pleasant break, but not today. The ice cold wind finds it’s way up my wet back and makes me shriek with discomfort. Meanwhile areas of the road are flooding several inches, which serves as my only comfort because the ice water feels strangely warm on my numb feet and legs.

At mile 16 my ambitious plan switches over to my conservative plan. At mile 20 I am unable to keep pace with my conservative plan, and I just can’t pick up my frozen legs fast enough. My pace steadily drops mile after mile. I’m losing confidence in my co-ordination and am just trying to avoid falling on my face with my stumbling legs. Meanwhile I’m all alone, running down the middle of the road, with cars driving by at fast speeds. My priorities become: don’t fall over, don’t get run over, and keep moving forward.

I don’t catch up to anyone, and despite my steady decline, no marathoners catch up to me. I am pretty sure I’m in second place, and I never let go of the possibility that #1 is fading worse than I am, that I might catch him towards the end of the race no matter how much I slow down. However he dressed properly and ran a great steady race, completing the race 5 minutes ahead of my goal finishing time, and 15 minutes ahead of my actual finishing time. With 4 miles to go my peripheral vision is flickering but I realize that stopping will only delay my arrival at the finish line so I run along as fast as my legs will let me.

As I approach the finish line, I hear M cheering. M takes a video as I morbidly jog past, not even looking up at her. I cross the finish line and immediately meet up with M and we make our way to the hotel for a hot restorative shower.

Stockade-athon 2018

The 2018 Stockade-athon in Schenectady went very well, although it highlights aspects of my running that I haven't fully processed.

In my day-to-day living, I have a lot of raw emotion that only gets occasional releases that are carefully governed. I absolutely love competing, I love being able to simply run faster and in doing so unleash my deepest aggression. While running there are many opportunities in which the pace you run can be nice and supportive to those around you. On the other hand, pace can be wielded as a weapon with which to crush your opponents. Well you know what? While racing, more often than not my instinct is to crush kill and destroy. At some point I gave myself carte blanche to let that beast out of it's cage during races. I'm not sure there is any safer or more appropriate place to let that out. And it's a bizarre dynamic, to try to crush others by crushing ones self more. The purpose? A race is a vision. I can visualize the event, with competitors I respect, fear even, and rather than shy away, choose to show up and throw down and give it my all. Finishing on top is but one of many possible outcomes. But it's the outcome we are all pushing for. I would be gypped if the competition weren't doing everything they could to destroy me. I owe it to them to do the same.

I felt pretty good before and after the Ghostly Gallop 5k a few weeks ago. For the first time in a year or more I feel like I am able to get some decent training runs in while still feeling good for races. I would love to keep this going. I've had some great races this year, but they have been islands in a sea of aches and pains resulting in poor training. At the Stockade-athon last year, I had to run easy because of the beginning of injury setting in. The year before I woke up before the race with a nasty case of vertigo where I couldn't walk straight and was falling into walls on my way to brushing my teeth. Fortunately the vertigo was mostly gone once the race started, and it turns out that balancing is easier while running at full speed, much like while riding a bike.

The weather is cold today, too cold for barefoot. I arrive with a big bag of clothing to choose from, but at the last minute decide to err on the side of being a little chilly with sandals, shorts, gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt. I have been obsessing over the list of entrants, and am most worried about TVO and KL, two masters runners from nearby counties in Vermont and Massachussets. KL won the masters division at last year's Stockade-athon and TVO is has been a fierce competitor at many of the races I've been running lately.

My plan is to start conservatively. I always try to not get carried away with everyone running too fast at the beginning. A lead pack of runners takes off immediately out of reach. A second ball of runners forms behind them just ahead of me. With the wind in my face and TVO at my side I run a little harder than planned in order to draft along with the pack. We cruise along together for a few miles. As soon as we start settling into a steady rhythm I suddenly have a premonition of running comfortably to the end and then getting outkicked by the competition. Without much speedwork I don't expect to have any extra kick for the end of the race, so it's important that I put in the effort early on and don't wait until the end. TVO is my main concern right now, and my vicious competitive side takes over and increases the pace a little which decreases the comfort level. I think I can keep this up, but now instead of a sure thing a little bit of risk of blow-up has been introduced.

After mile 4, the ball of runners has gotten ahead of me and TVO has fallen back a bit. I'm largely on my own. The runners up ahead are all familiarly faster than me, so as much as I'd love to catch them I don't feel any shame following them to the finish. It's hard to keep as strong an effort when I'm in no-man's land. I don't know my pace since I didn't bring a watch, but I can tell my effort level isn't as much as it might be if there were more nearby runners providing immediate pressure. And it's just as well, an increased effort level could very well break me by the end.

At mile 8 or so we run around a lake where it's easy to look to my left and see if anyone is coming up behind me. I only see one green singlet behind me, a fellow Willow Street teammate. It seems like enough distance separates us that I should be able to hold onto my place, but within a few short minutes BL catches right up to me. We run together through the cemetery, then he blazes off ahead down the final stretch.

I cross the finish line and eagerly watch for other runners. AK finishes in a great time, taking the 2nd place masters spot, followed by TVO and the remaining masters runners. I am thrilled, but can't help but wonder if there are alternatives to the ruthless approach?

Giant Puffball Recipes

At Shmaltz running club tonight, R brought in a giant puffball mushroom. It created a lot of discussion about how one prepares giant puffball mushrooms. In my experience, I have had some less-than-successful attempts at making this large white mass into something delicious. MS provided an endless stream of great recipe ideas, using the mushroom as if it were bread:

- Grilled cheese sandwich
- Pizza
- Croutons
- French Toast

R was kind enough to share, and sliced a portion of the mushroom for me to take home. It was pure white, which makes it good for eating (a little yellow inside would have meant it was too old to eat). I made grilled cheese and pizza.

I preheated the oven to 450 degrees, then sliced a large round of mushroom using a bread knife and browned one side of the mushroom in olive oil and butter in a skillet. I flipped it over, then topped it with sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. Here are pictures before and after cooking:

The mushroom had a gooey melted cheese texture, so I had to eat it with a fork and knife, not like a crispy pizza crust. But other than that the pizza was very tasty.

Next I made a grilled cheese sandwich with Oscar's Canadian bacon purchased from Devoe's Orchard.

The grilled cheese sandwich was also delicious, although the mushroom slices shrunk more significantly so if I did it again I would have made much larger slices of mushroom bread. Again, the mushroom was gooey, but you could still pick it up and eat it like a sandwich. Yum!

Masters 5k xc Championships

“On your mark! Get set! You there! Get behind the line!” Oops I guess this isn’t tennis where anywhere on the line is in bounds. “Go!”

35 runners make their way across the grassy field on the first of two laps around Delaware Park in Buffalo. This race includes only the 40-49 age group. A few days ago I tried running at a fast pace for a mile and had all kinds of problems, so I’ve already decided not to push too hard at the start of this race. If I’m going to hold it together for 3.1 miles, my best shot is to ease into it. It also helps that TVO ran the 50-59 race a few hours ago and warned me that the course looks simple and flat, but is hillier and rougher than it looks.

A few familiar fast runners take off ahead while I settle into a group of 5 runners. There is a stiff headwind, so I just try to relax and let the group pull me along for the first lap. I had plenty of time during the drive to Buffalo to scrutinize the competition, and I’m pretty sure I’m right in the pack of runners I need to stick with. Someone from the sidelines yells “go Tim” to the guy right in front of me. Sure enough, Tim is one of the dudes I need to watch out for. We both ran a one mile race this year, and he was one second faster.

The course winds its way awkwardly past soccer fields, baseball diamonds, trees, and park benches. Two sacks of dried concrete sit in the center of the marked course. Because I’m in a tight group, avoidance is not an option so I leap over the sacks.

As I run, my eyes are nearly blinded by the sunlight reflecting off the giant metal spikes on all my competitors’ shoes surrounding me. The flags marking the course occasionally take us off the grass and onto a bike path surfaced with black quartz. The black rocks look like indian warheads, terrifying in bare feet, but during a warmup run I learned that it feels surprisingly soft as the loose stone presses into the sandy trail. When we run on this ugly surface I feel compelled to run extra fast rather than expose any weakness. It’s a little to soon, but once I start running a little faster I keep it up and chase down the next small group of runners.

By the second lap I’m gaining confidence that I can hold onto this pace. Meanwhile some of the runners ahead are blowing up, I can only imagine that they are making the same discoveries that TVO warned me about. Rather than stay too comfortable I keep scooting ahead catching several runners, with one competitor staying nearby. Nearing the end of the second lap I stay in front of him, but in the last two hundred feet he gives a strong kick and puts some good distance between us. Me, I am super psyched to have held it together for this race and don’t try to outkick him and end up finishing the race in the same second as him, albeit several feet behind.

It was another fun race, I think it was my first race this year where I felt reasonably good before, during, and after. I'm hopeful that this is the beginning of some decent training and a good running year next year!

SRT Run/Hike 30 Miler

A display of weapons adorns the wall above the mantle at my house. It started when we moved in and we were given a hatchet as a housewarming gift. A screw in the wall above the fireplace begged to have the hatchet hung there. After that, other weapons quickly covered the small square of wall. Next up was a spiked club that found its way into my office when I worked at RPI after it was left behind in an abandoned research lab, likely a gift from one travelling student to another. The exhibit developed so naturally that I never realized it had developed into a 'weapons' theme until someone else pointed it out. Then came the Santorinian slingshot and several boomerangs, mostly broken, including one that my father carved by hand which had died on its maiden voyage. So it’s no wonder that I drooled with desire when I first came across the Shawangunk Ridge Trail Run/Hike series of races where the first male and female finisher in each event is awarded a gorgeous Navajo tomahawk. Suddenly I saw nothing but a gaping hole above the mantle where my tomahawk belonged.

That was several years ago. Since then B and T have completed both the 50 mile and 70 mile races, and last year I suffered a glorious meltdown at my first attempt at the 30 miler. This year I would do anything to recover from various aches and pains and had decided to skip the SRT races entirely. A few days before the race in a moment of weakness, I told myself the race is a run/hike (with the emphasis on hike). I can hike 30 miles, and the course is so beautiful that there is no excuse to miss it. So I registered. Meanwhile, B and T are still recovering after running the Leadville 100 mile race several weeks ago so they too are signed up for the 30.

It was great starting the race with memories of many of the intersections where it was easy to take a wrong turn. Several sandalled runners started together in the last wave. The runners in the wave all had similar bib numbers which I’m guessing means that bib numbers are roughly in order of when we registered. Someone asked why all the sandal runners were in the last wave, and we joked that runners wearing sandals are a bunch of procrastinators who wait until the last possible minute to register for races.

T and I ran up the first hill playing leap frog with a group of two runners passing as many of the people in the first few waves as we could. It seemed that the four of us would be in contention for the lead. In my competitive assessment, they are running very strong but I sense a bit of clumsiness on the trail which will take a toll after 30 miles.

The trail was very wet in many places with water running down the trail like a stream. Runners ahead of us were all extremely gracious in letting us run past as we approached. The runners keeping pace were pushing me to go a little bit faster than I had intended but it felt good, as it always does in the early miles of a long race. A few miles in I scooted a little bit ahead and was running alone but I regularly heard conversation close behind me indicating that I was not outpacing anyone.

I ran past a dark cave. A runner with a bib stood deep within the cave looking dazed. I asked him which race he was running. After a long pause he said, “this is a great place to take a video” before eventually understanding my question and responding that he was running the 70 miler. The guy looked like he could use a pacer at that point, someone to tell him to keep focused on moving forward, not deeper into the selfie cave. I passed a few other runners from the 70 mile event. One told me that I was the first 30 miler runner who had come through. Another was wearing Vibram Five Fingers who I had seen last year in the same area. Several of them looked to be in rough shape, having run all night and being 45 miles into the race.

Then things got weird. About 7 miles into the race, there is a steep climb up a cliff. Near the top of the cliff stood a runner looking completely wrecked and out of it. He was just standing on a ledge and told me, “this is my first time running the 30”. Could that be possible? Was he really running the 30 and was that wiped out so soon? Did I mishear what he said? Is he a ghost from SRT past? Rather than dwell on it I just kept going. Immediately after summitting the steep rock face is an area with dirt roads and trails heading off in all directions with very little signage indicating which way to go. I followed my nose. This is where all hell broke loose. I’m running along, leading the race as far as I know, when I see the two runners who were contenders plus one more running towards me. We all look at each incredulously. I get lost so easily I just assume I’m the wrong one and turn around and follow them. The group drops their packs and sits down just as I see T up the hill yelling “what are you doing? It’s this way!”. T has an excellent sense of direction and a GPS watch with the course map telling him when he’s off-course. I turn to the other runners and say “it’s definitely this way” but they are settled in pretty comfortably and don’t make chase. This is the last I see of them until the end of the race.

T and I run together for the next two hours. It’s great. We are both having an easy time of it. We get confirmation from the first checkpoint that we are in the lead. We are not overexerting ourselves. We have all the time in the world to plan out how we’re going to deal with the competition aspect of the race. At the rate we’re going it seems as though we will cross the finish line together if we don’t force the issue. Both of us would rather take it easy for now, but eventually we will need to switch into race mode. For me personally, I don’t feel like I’m trained for 30 miles. I have about 10 good miles in me and I’m happy to save most of those for the end of the race if I can. Then a small disaster strikes. T’s sandal breaks. He gets it patched up but I don’t think is 100% after that.

We reach the area where I suffered my meltdown and gave up on the race last year. It was amazing to recognize that it was, in fact, a very difficult part of the race with steep climbs. I couldn’t believe how short the section was. In 15 minutes we blazed through an area that took me an hour last year. In retrospect I should have not given in like I did and just persevered.

After a few steep climbs I go on alone, nervous to be navigating in my own unreliable way. The trail is thick with memories from last year. I enjoyed the long stretch where Tom pulled me along after falling apart. My pace oscillates between a harder effort and an easier one. What I learned from last year is that I shouldn’t try to hammer the entire race. It just too nice not to slow down and take in the views once in a while. I run across a grassy field and almost step on a huge black snake. I am usually easily startled by snakes, but this one is so starkly contrasted with the green grass that it doesn’t take me by surprise.

The last several miles of the race are great. The trail becomes less technical and more downhill. This is what I’ve been saving up my energy for. Rather than use my energy to slow down on the descents I just let go and move my legs as fast as gravity asks them to. It has been a long race and I am not feeling great, but the knowledge that if I push hard it could be all over soon keeps me motivated. I walk the steeper uphills, and regularly stop to stare at a map on my phone to make sure I stay on course. The last half mile is flat and runs across a huge scenic bridge. I did not expect to have a chance to win a tomahawk this year, but knowing that it is now within reach motivates me to run extra hard to make sure no 30 milers sneak up behind me. For all I know I may never have an opportunity like this again.

I cross the finish line and take a much needed breather. Everything hurts. It is a slow process to build up an appetite, but meanwhile I enjoy talking to other finishers, including the winner of the 70 mile race. He is originally from the area, but now lives out west where he was signed up for a 100 miler that was cancelled due to forest fires so he signed up for this race at the last minute and ran this instead. Meanwhile, more runners arrive. It turns out B, T, and I, the Clifton Park sandal runners, take three out of the top four places in the race.

A few odd feelings strike me after the race is over. It’s absurd, but I can’t help but feel like a slacker for only running a 30 mile race after my friends are finishing 100 milers. Also I am almost disappointed at losing the future goal of winning a tomahawk. In my mind it was going to be a long-term humbling bit of unfinished business that would always be in the back of my mind. This year I was not in top shape, but some of the faster runners from previous years did not run the 30 mile event. So there was a fair amount of random chance involved in getting the tomahawk rather than intense struggle. Did I truly earn the tomahawk? I think I still owe it to the race to throw down an all-out effort one of these years.

On the other hand wow. Just wow. What a great life to have the good fortune and health to be reasonably comfortable showing up and running an amazing 30 mile trail event. And to have like-minded friends who help push each other into these ridiculous adventures.

Boston Marathon 2018

You know it’s a race when...

Several runners stop on the sidelines to pee on trees. Rain is coming down steadily. Various pieces of runner trash litter the ground including hats, gloves, goo packs, and discarded shirts. A folded green rectangle attracts my attention. As it comes closer and I pass over it, I recognize President Jackson’s visage: it’s a twenty dollar bill! Pause for a second.

I am a scavenger by nature. Anything I can find I pick up. A piece of webbing, a metal meter stick, skateboard parts, a carabiner, a trailer pin, and other side-of-the-road refuse are just a few examples of items I have excitedly bent over, picked up, and carried home on my long runs. In fact I still have each of these treasures. The ultimate prize would be any form of cash. Pennies, nickels, you name it. This comes from my upbringing. The saying goes, if you find a penny heads side up all day long you'll have good luck. In my family this was considered absurd. It’s good luck to find a penny, end of story. Heads or tails or covered in mystery slime makes it no less lucky. My father would not hesitate to pull the car over at the merest glint of shining metal that might indicate a coin score.

Back to the race. Twenty dollar bill huh? Now that I have passed the bill, am I willing to stop, reverse my direction, bend over and pick it up? I would lose seconds off my time. Heck I could pull a muscle and my day could be over! Most importantly, today is all about fighting. We are fighting our aging bodies, anxious minds, and the worst weather in recorded Boston Marathon history. The only way to the finish line is to crush all obstacles in our path, including the simple distraction of a twenty dollar bill. Make it a hundred dollar bill! A thousand! It matters not. We’re not here to scavenge. I glance back and watch in amusement as the bill disappears in the distance, getting passed by countless runners. It’s as useless to us as any other wet piece of paper on the ground. That’s when you know this is different from a routine run. This is a race.

Pre-Race

I repeatedly pop my umbrella right-side-in as the wind blasts it inside-out while I make my way to the Boston Commons and hop on the yellow school bus to the start. I am capable of imagining worse weather so at least I have that going for me. The heat is blasting on the bus. Rules are posted at the front of the bus, things like, “Keep hands, feet, objects, and negative comments to self”. As we get close to the start, an inch of snow has stuck to the ground. The bus drops us off at a high school in Hopkinton where giant tents protect us from the falling rain. I am the early bird which means I get one of the few precious seats with a backrest by leaning against a tent pole between two garbage cans. A perimeter of ice surrounds the tent where the snow has slid off the roof. It’s 7:30 and the race starts at 10. With few hours to kill, I have plenty to keep me busy. I sit there and actively try to keep my feet warm, wrapping them in a sweater, sitting on my sandals like a nest to keep them warm, and regularly squeezing out the wetness from my socks. It’s miserable. I look around, what have other people done smarter than me? Oh, nothing, everyone’s in rough shape, shivering and sad looking. Eventually we are called up to go to our corral. I’m in wave 1, corral 8.

The Race

I’m pretty unsure of what pace to shoot for, but trying to get a Boston qualifying time (under 3 hours and 15 minutes) seems like a reasonable goal. I followed a training plan this year, but due to general circumstances I skipped almost all of my key workouts. Fortunately I got in one last decent 20-mile run 3 weeks ago, which is sort of the bare minimum, but at least it gave me confidence that I could survive the marathon. I feel good and keep an average pace of 7:15. At mile 10 my legs go a little wonky (something they’ve been doing lately usually as soon as I run a little faster or longer than I’m used to). I slow down a little and my legs recover, like always. The rain is coming down steady. Occasionally we’ll crest a hill, the wind will be blasting, and the rain comes down in an absolute downpour. It’s exciting! Freezing water just drenches me. “There it is!” That’s the weather we were so afraid of. Fortunately my clothes do a decent job of keeping me reasonably comfortable. At mile 10 I’m in the zone, sort of forgetting where I am. The scream tunnel at Wellesley brings me back to the present. I run along giving high fives, the Wellesley students look like they might explode if I don’t.

As I run I am regularly reminded of how incredible everyone is. The runners, the volunteers, and the spectators. Everyone is out here together making this thing happen despite the worst imaginable conditions, transforming what could be a terrible day into a day no different than a bright sunny Patriot’s Day. This race is amazing. It’s truly an honor to be a part of it.

At mile 13, any freshness has left my legs. It’s going to be work from here on out. I break the race up into pieces. Mile 16-20 are the infamous Newton hills. I just need to cruise up to mile 16, then get through those tough 4 miles and try to leave some energy in reserve for the last 6 miles. The hills come and go. I reach mile 20 and can’t believe how easy it was! I consume a celebratory caffeinated gel pack. Heartbreak Hill was nothing! I’m feeling great so I take off at a fast pace. It’s all smooth sailing from here. As I look around I start getting the impression that something isn’t right. I look ahead. It turns out I had it wrong. The worst of the hills are at mile 20.5, which I now must face after over-exerting myself like an idiot. Oh well. I make sure to proceed up Heartbreak Hill gently. I reach the top and begin the final 6-mile stretch. By mile 22, I am struggling. My left hip is sore and tightening up, and my right knee is misbehaving. I have slowed to 8-minute miles and expect to continue to get slower from here. Unless. Is that… Caffeine kicking in?

Ok, so here are my options. I can downward spiral for the next four miles, running slower as the pain increases, thereby increasing the pain by making the run take longer. OR! How about I just pretend it’s a 5k race and run like a berserker? I *like* running fast. I *want* this to be over with as quickly as possible. Why don’t I just do that?

The next four miles go by effortlessly. I'll pay for this tomorrow but the pain melts away as I increase into a more aggressive pace. I am weaving in and out of runners like a crazy person. At mile 26 I look up to see M and J cheering me on at the sidelines. Seeing them cheering is by far the happiest moment of my race. I wave, point, and yell emphatically. I am wearing the brightest smile of my life, at least I think I am.

I’m flying. I run at a nearly 6 minute pace to the finish. I’m feeling great. I refuse a blanket and forget to pick up my finisher’s medal. Whoops! I double back and get it. Then it’s a short walk to J’s apartment. My brain isn’t functioning but I manage to find my way. I take a hot shower, restoring feeling to my toes, after which we go out for an awesome meal and drive home. Success! What a great year to run! (I can say that now that it's over).

Cider 2018

I picked up some apples at Devoe's Orchard on December 23rd. I made cider using a dedicated garbage disposal to grind the apples and a nut filter bag to squeeze out the juice. This filled most of a 3-gallon carboy with fresh cider. I added an airlock. The next day I added cider yeast, which I activated first like I do with bread yeast, by mixing it with warm cider until it started foaming slightly. A week and a half later, fermentation had slowed and a thick pile of sediment sat at the bottom of the carboy. At this point I siphoned the cider to two secondary fermenters (a one-gallon and a half-gallon jug). I would swear that the cider already tastes a bit off, but it's too early to tell. I'm starting to think that the sediment itself is what makes my ciders go bad. Next time I need to:

- Make the cider and add sulfites
- Siphon the cider off the sediment before adding yeast
- Rack to secondary after a period of time to reduce the amount of contact with the sediment

I have several reasons to continue trying this. First, the fresh cider is really tasty and seems like a great starting point. Second, I had one amazing batch that I would love to reproduce. Lastly there is clearly a flaw in my process and I would love to finally figure out how to fix the flaw.

1/6/2017 - I bottled the cider. All equipment was soaked in a bleach solution and rinsed. I boiled a little honey and water to use to prime the bottles for carbonation. I had to use my mouth to start the siphon because the autosiphon doesn't fit into the smaller (1 gallon/0.5 gallon) jugs I was fermenting in. The bottling process went well, and I got a lot of crystal clear bottles filled. A few sucked up sediment, partly because of the wonky siphon. The cider tasted slightly metallic and boring, but not too bad. We'll see how it turns out in a few weeks.