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  • 05 Jul 2020 4:47 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Wherein Dodge the Deer Pulls Up Stakes Yet Again and Bravely Encounters the Trophy of Death:  Or, The Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side

                Once more Dodge the Deer has pulled up stakes, abandoning the tame, predictable nature afforded by Schodack Island State Park for a safer haven in the country. This is not the first time Dodge has moved.  Before Schodack, he had spent his formative years at the Pine Bush until, like all adolescents, he decided to exercise his independence and strike out on his own.  This is, apparently, a common impulse for this species. On the drive over, I watched a harried mother deer herd her offspring along the side of the road, when all he really wanted to do was to cross it in front of my car.  Once on the Northway, dangers increased as a prime venison specimen jigsawed across three lanes of traffic to reach a median oasis.  Little did he know…

                Fortunately, our Dodge, being accustomed to interplaying with humans, did his research and consented to join long-time ARE members Chris and Emily Chromczak and their two children, Sophie and Emily, at the Chromczak Family Farm in the Slingerlands for a 5K on June 27.  In addition to the usual woodland animals –woodchucks, chipmunks, skunks and raccoons –for the first time Dodge confronted a flock of free-range chickens who liked nothing better than to sit on Sophie’s lap.  These refugees, possibly from Susan Montanari’s picture book My Dog Is a Chicken, had no idea they were livestock.  In fact, in acknowledgement of their urge to participate, Josh declared that anyone crossing the finish line carrying a chicken would suffer a penalty. 

                While Dodge was understandably skittish around these strange critters, he had far more to worry about. The ARE crew had spent the previous week in unrelenting manual labor hacking through the brush surrounding the farm to create a socially distanced one-mile loop, which we circumnavigated three times. And the payoff? The discovery of a rare bleached-white deer head, complete with antlers.  While we have all seen trophied deer, it is a rare occurrence to discover an intact skull in in the woods as they are favorites of mice and other gnawers.  Needless to say, Dodge was considerably sobered when confronted with this grim reality, exhibited on the registration table for all to gawk at.  The only reassurance to be gained was that, because of its time hidden underground, said deer’s demise was in no way due to COVID-19.

                As for the course itself, it was a perfectly natural re-creation of a deer stomping ground, complete with freshly mowed extremely stiff weed stubble, divots, camouflaged humps and bumps, sharp turns.  Think horse trail and you have the picture.  Pancake flat, as Josh had described it, was slightly off the mark as far as truth in advertising goes.  Picture a rutted horse trail and you get the idea.  Josh suggested spikes, especially if the promised downpours materialized.  Luckily, they didn’t, but after a brief test run, I reverted back to my winter ice spikes.  Although they didn’t make me any faster, they did offer a level of self-confidence and insurance against a rolled ankle.

                We went off in 25-person waves, two runners at a time, spaced about 30 seconds apart.  This was “easy” to do with Josh’s timing system.  As usual, Josh was the perfect host, providing play-by-play commentary throughout the race.  The neat thing was, though, that because of the loopy course that wound around upon itself, we could hear the entire race being played out as we were in it.  There is always a level of uncertainty in any race, but in this case, because of the staggered start, we were never really sure if the person ahead were really ahead.  Makes you honest.  And then again, since their would be other waves and the final results not compiled until way after each event, sectional victory did not necessarily guarantee overall success.  Rather like a time trial at the Tour de France.  On the other hand, what a way to guarantee multiple winners beyond the traditional age group categories!  After each event, we were offered a choice of yummy sandwiches, courtesy of Bountiful Bread, and sent on our way quickly so the parking lot would be available for the next round.

                Leave it to the ARE to host the inaugural and perhaps only live event of the Capital Region summer season. That this could even happen at all was due to the generous donation of the Chromzack Family Farm. These folks literally put their to-do list on hold as they allowed Dodge to reconfigure their land.  I was lucky enough to score the first wave and received a personalized farm tour beforehand.  Veggies are looking good, protected by an electric fence as Josh soon discovered, and the Chromzacks are getting ready to launch their farm stand.  Stop by soon for some treats and in a few years, for the Christmas trees they intend to plant this year.

                On race day, Dodge celebrated his 17th birthday. All sorts of possibilities present themselves for his 18th as he turns legal age in Canada.  Get your enhanced driver’s licenses ready!  You never know…

                By laura clark


  • 05 Jul 2020 4:25 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    The Athlete’s Gut: The Inside Science of Digestion, Nutrition, and Stomach Distress, by Patrick Wilson, PhD, RD.  VeloPress, 2020.

    What is more important to an athlete on race day? A convenient parking space? A lucky bib number? A perfect forecast?  Not even close.  The answer is a short porta potty line and a reliable source of TP.  Usual race day stressors are dwarfed if either are in short supply, resulting in even more anxiety.  For a seemingly healthy group, placing low on the scale of COVID-19 risk factors, this preoccupation with the lower reaches of the anatomy can be viewed as an equal-opportunity occupational hazard, open to newbies as well as champions like marathon record holder Paula Radcliff.

                Patrick Wilson is the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Old Dominion University and the author of the ground-breaking The Athlete’s Gut: The Inside Science of Digestion, Nutrition, and Stomach Distress. He is nothing if not thorough, with a 30-page appendix of footnotes meticulously documenting his findings and an additional supplement listing stomach woe like traveler’s diarrhea, and common medicines that are anything but gut-friendly.  And while he does not scrimp on the scientific detail, he presents his findings in a manner in which even I, who managed to avoid high school biology in favor of two language classes, can understand.  No small accomplishment.

                And the fact that he does so with a sometimes 1st grade potty-humor style and a pointed effort to utilize every synonym for poop afforded by his online Thesaurus does not hurt his readability.  For me, though, the curbside appeal of this volume, despite an obvious need to complete my chosen event, says a lot for my age.  For on the cover is depicted an intestinal drainpipe layout, complete with colorful Pacman-like figures romping over, under, around and through. My fingers itch to turn the pages and play. And in a refreshing variant on the by now all-too-overused Born to Run sky blue and yellow book jacket, selected for consumer appeal, Wilson presents us with a striking variant: sky blue and sunset orange with a streak of crisp black and white for emphasis.

                So what could go wrong?  It turns out a lot. Wilson encourages us to embrace the emerging science of the gut as the second brain, with a network of 600 million neurons capable of a two-way interchange of messages from the gut to the brain and back again. Referring to a gut reaction or a speaking of a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is apparently more than mere semantics. While much of this messaging remains to be explored, it is clear that what you eat can influence your mood and emotions.

                So what does all this mean for you as a runner? Besides avoiding trigger foods (whatever they are for your particular body) before competition, the implication is that meditation, yoga, music, happy thoughts, visualization, an unchanging set of pre-race routines, should be vital components of your training routine. On the physical side of the equation, Wilson also claims that it is possible to train your gut to behave by discovering the Goldilocks zone of correct fluid intake and experimenting with fueling on the run.

                My dad used to say that if there are a lot of tools to achieve a particular result, for example, upwards of 30 models of corkscrews, chances are that none of them are doing a really good job.  In this vein, Wilson also explores interventions you might be tempted to try, such as probiotics, supplements, sodium pills, ginger, dietary remedies…and their probability of success.  Basically, it all boils down to Dr. George Sheehan’s axiom, “We are each an experiment of one.”  So, go ahead and experiment—just not on race day!

    Reviewed by laura clark


  • 09 Jun 2020 2:34 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Spirit Run:  A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land, by Noe Alvarez.  Catapult, 2020.

                Those for whom a few days without running is unthinkable most likely started out as ordinary individuals who simply wanted to lose some weight, get in shape for a “real” sport, battle mental turmoil, or raise money for a cause.  After a few months of braving the elements, these benefits, while still important, took second place to feelings of empowerment and release.  Once you get your run in, the rest of the day becomes easier, more peaceful, even if in truth it is not.  For a select few, however, the act of placing one foot in front of the other becomes a path to redemption and a threshold to cultural awareness and acceptance.

                Such was the case for Noe Alvarez, the son of Mexican immigrants who labored in brutal conditions in orchards and fruit-packing plants. As a child he had no clue and enjoyed playing in the fields and helping his father in the orchards. But when he was old enough to join his mother in the inhumane fruit packing factories, he saw the disparity.  Running became his escape and good grades in high school a ticket out of this lifestyle.

                Or so he thought.  Confronted by the cultural divide between himself and middle/upper class college students he felt out of place.  It was as if he had been transported into a foreign country with no Lonely Planet guide.  After attending a lecture about a Native Americans/First Nations movement called the Peace and Dignity Journeys, he dropped out to embark on a 6,000 mile run tracing paths his parents and his ancestors had followed.  Nowadays we would term this “taking a gap year,” but at that place and time it seemed more like quitting and running away.

                Alvarez’s decision to discover his roots and learn how he could make a difference in issues that mattered took real courage.  It was a resolution that passes from his mind to his feet as he pushes through thirst, hunger, animal encounters, hostile townspeople and disputes among exhausted running mates.  Through participating in Ceremonial Circles, he becomes part of each culture he journeys through, of each landscape he explores.  There comes a moment, however, when his swollen knees call a halt.  But by this time, Alvarez has realized the power of story, that the ancient traditions he has absorbed will be an alternate way to continue his advocacy. As he so aptly puts it, even before the new COVID vocabulary, “The world that we had put on pause (during the marathon) was beginning to move again.”

                By taking the next step to continue his college education, he learns that “…if we imagine a better future, and speak it with words and the soles of our feet, we just might see it come to fruition.”

                Reviewed by laura clark


  • 09 Jun 2020 2:29 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

                Took the one less traveled by,

                And that has made all the difference.

                            Robert Frost

               

                Although Marshall Ulrich has embarked on over 130 ultramarathons, including the obligatory Western States and Leadville, what remains his chief motivator is self-discovery, keying into running guru George Sheehan’s “experiment of one” philosophy.  He truly does place both feet on the ground in his quest to determine what genuinely matters to his choose-your-own-adventure lifestyle.

                Growing up on a dairy farm, Ulrich lived a life of hard work and inventive play in the outdoors.  His favorite book, and the one that continues to inspire him to this day, is Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which sparked his love of adventure. Today he laments the fact that children and adults suffer from Richard Louv’s nature deficit disorder and are more afraid of nature than at peace with it, labeling certain foods and behaviors as “bad” and others as “good”—afraid to break away from rigid rules and choose the path that beckons.

                And that is the essence of Ulrich’s story, his ability to strive for the seemingly impossible, to rise to the challenge of Robert Frost’s beckoning road, and to still recognize that for the majority of folks a Badwater Quad through Death Valley, the 100 mile Iditafoot snowshoe race in Alaska, or a summit of Denali might not be on their radar.  And while all of these feats make fascinating stories, it is Ulrich’s revelation of failures and near-misses that brings him to the human level.  After a near-fatal bout of altitude sickness in a Raid Gauloises Trans-Himalaya race, he despaired of ever achieving his particular call of the wild—a summit of Mt. Everest.  But with typical persistence, he did conquer the altitude and was glad he had achieved his dream.  But at what price?  Even in 2004 his sensibilities were shocked by the complete environmental disregard summiteers had shown this majestic mountain.  Trophy-bagging had taken the place of awe and respect. 

                So, after you partake in this armchair-style adventure, what’s in it for you?  Ulrich simply hopes that, in your own way, you increase your risk potential.  For the risk avoiders he suggests that you unsettle your status quo—take to the trails instead of the roads, walk instead of drive. If you prefer to reduce risk, find something that scares you a bit, get a coach, develop a plan and go for it! If you are already the “Look Ma, no hands!” type of person, you are primed for further adventures along the road less traveled by.

                But whatever you do, expect to be changed by your experiences and be prepared for a difficult re-entry into your former world.  This is especially valid with the “new normal” challenges we will face in the coming year.  But as Marshall Ulrich inscribed on the flyleaf of my copy of his book, “It’s important to get outside during these tough times!”  For now, that may be all the challenge you will need.

                Reviewed by laura clark

    [This review was also published in Ultrarunning Magazine.


  • 18 Mar 2020 1:44 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    You Are Invited to a Snowshoe Party!

                Bet that header got your attention.  Unfortunately, you are too late. The final event in the Dion Snowshoe Series, Nor’easter’s March 7 Punxsutaweny Phil 5K at the Viking Nordic Center in Londonderry, Vermont included a pop-up birthday bash.  The Catch 22, of course, is that Phil’s birthday was the previous Sunday and not the following Saturday.  But that only gave Phil more opportunity to solidify his prediction of an early spring….                                                                     The route was indeed spring-like, with frozen granular and a few aspiring puddles peeking through, but excellent for a fast 5K tour through the woods.  Occurring as it did after the Spring Ahead mandate, headlamps were required but really not necessary as the fortuitous placement of the full moon, assorted trail lights and kerosene lanterns provide plenty of illumination.  I have come to a greater appreciation of the cast iron stomachs colonials must have possessed to eat their supper while breathing in the fumes.  Running was another matter altogether, but in my mind it was a small price to pay for the atmosphere.

                For me, the most difficult thing to deal with was the timing of the event.  While I love the concept of running in the dark, where it always feels as if you are motoring faster than you really are, it is more difficult to wait around on the weekends.  The Tuesday evening Gore Mountain race series was easier to approach.  You go to work and then drive to the mountain.  Here, on a weekend, when I am accustomed to waking up and going for a long run, things played out a bit differently.  While I did get my errands done while other folks were still watching their Saturday morning cartoons, I then had to figure how to spend the rest of my day.  Did I tire myself out with housecleaning? And when and what to eat for lunch?

                Clearly, the nutritional aspect was already bothering our car mate, Maureen Roberts, who kept chatting about finding a convenience store to score some sustenance afterwards.  Matt Miczek and myself, who had been to Viking before, looked at each other incredulously and wondered where she would find a store open at night in the middle of true Vermont countryside, even if it was Saturday.

    I have been listening to Ben Thompson’s irreverent Guts and Glory series (www.gutsandgloryhistory.com) nonfiction accounts of various pivotal moments of world history.  Coincidently, my current download is titled: The Vikings.  So I was able to distract Maureen with trivial pursuit-type facts.  For example, did you know the legend of the Tooth Fairy was created by Viking mothers who rewarded loose teeth with sweets?  Apparently that was before the advent of dentists.  How about this one: Vikings discovered and then forgot about Iceland a total of three times before they finally broke out their snowshoes and settled it on the fourth try. If you are into history or have kids you want to entertain, these are humorous, lively and totally non-boring accounts. (End of infomercial).

    Moving right along…The Viking  Nordic Center also has cabins to rent and one of these was occupied by a huge group celebrating two birthdays with two kegs of beer, Sloppy Joes and lots of desserts whether or not you  had recently lost a tooth.  And they urged all the racers to stop by after we had sampled mulled cider, pie and fudge in the race cabin.  What a deal!  A race, a party and a dinner solution!  And it was even better than that – trails can seem lonely at night, so the whole crew came out to cheer us on.  Feeling somewhat obligated, we hiked over (groan) to their cabin, Maureen all the while insisting it was “for the story” and not the beer. Weirdly, one of the families hailed from Cambridge, NY, a town near Saratoga, and Dr. Maureen had interned with the local doctor!

    While we arrived home very late and still had to officially Spring Ahead, (think New Year’s Eve), Matt had still another party to attend. The rest of us hung up our snowshoes and went to bed…. a wonderful end to the 2020 Snowshoe Season!

    By laura clark

               


  • 08 Mar 2020 7:34 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Merck Forest Snowshoe Ultra

    Ain’t about how fast I get there

    Ain’t about what’s waitin’ on the other side

    It’s the climb

                THIS IS A SERIOUSLY BAD LIFE CHOICE, cautions the www.netrailruns.com  website. But what the heck?  We are all accustomed to races that try to outdo each other in pointing out the hazards of their events, figuring accurately that most of us will be attracted by bragging rights potential. But a quick glance at the course profile might just indicate that the race directors of Nor’east Trail Runs are not exaggerating.  With the 50K Ultra offering four up and down rounds of Mt. Antone, for a total of 8,500’ of climbing, the difficulty is more fact than fiction.  Thankfully, there is also the option of a 25K “fun run.”

                This is the alternative that Mattt Miczek and I chose. We should have known better as we both completed the 25K last year.  But there is such a thing as selective memory loss, where folks choose to focus on the highs and ignore the pain.  Worse yet, we dragged two unsuspecting friends along with us for the ride…The day after, as I write this, rubbing aching quads, it is tough to believe how I got taken in again.  They say that you will experience maximum soreness day two after a momentous event.  I can only look forward to tomorrow…

                I almost think, though, that year two was tougher than year one.  I knew when I started out that the initial carriage road up the mountain was more suited to Clydesdales hauling beer carts than horse and buggy modes of transportation. I immediately recognized certain sections and remembered how tough they would be.  On the other hand, the final steep hug-a-tree quarter mile to the false top seemed to be pleasantly shorter than I recollected.  And it was comforting to confidently shake my fist at the pretend summit, anticipating the climb to the hole puncher at the real turnaround.  The hole puncher was a new addition –a star for your bib at the top of the mountain and a heart at the bottom of the “baby loop.”  Rather reminded me of a geocache prize and gave me something to look forward to.  Little things matter when, as the website states, “Finishing should be the goal as much as racing.”

               

    Top of the World—Jen Ferriss and Matt Miczek.

    Photo by Jen Ferriss.

                The first year I looked forward to the baby loop to mark my progress; this year I knew better.  First-timers expect a pleasant pat-on-the-back victory lap, but what they get is a runnable downhill and an about-face plod to the aid table, an opportunity to refuel and then tackle the mountain again.  For me, this is the insult-to-injury part.

                But the day was gorgeous, not to mention starkly cold.  Last year, despite the snow storm, there were few things I would have changed about my race strategy.  This year I should have replaced my hand warmers before the second round and bought one of those fancy vests that hug water bottles close to your body.  I did OK because I could always unscrew my handheld cap to drink the icy water, and realistically, that was a nice excuse to pause and look at the view.  Weirdly, although this was a more intimate event, I never felt really abandoned, as folks occasionally ran by as they looped the course. 

    One such person was blue jacket guy who materialized beside me as I was contemplating the lengthy uphill section stuck in the middle of an exciting downward tumble.  He echoed my thoughts when he commented, “This is my least favorite section.”  Just having someone acknowledge that I wasn’t a crybaby after I had just shouted, “I’m 73 years old.  Why am I still doing this stuff?” seemed to help immensely.

                Kim Lengyel, a friend we had convinced to join us, encountered a similar moment of truth.  Within sight of the barn (literally, as there was a bona fide barn) she had only the 1.5 mile baby loop to negotiate.  But doing so seemed unimaginable.  Adam Schalit, co-race director, in his alternate role as coach and cheering squad, poised a simple question with only one possible answer: “How will you feel a half hour from now if you take the easy way out?”  It was just what Kim needed and she navigated the remainder of her first 25K snowshoe.          

                As Garrett Graubins muses in his article, “Everesting” in the 2020 Trail Runner Dirt Annual, “On a long adventure, how often do we dream of the finish line?...But the true reward and occasional answers are found out on the course.”  The encounters, brief exchanges, insights and glimpses of a nature bigger than us all, are the true objective.  And at this epic event where that was the acknowledged goal, everyone walked away satisfied and fulfilled.


    The End. Photo by Jen Ferriss.            

    By laura clark


  • 18 Feb 2020 8:51 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Winterfest/Camp:  A Study in Contrasts

                Once more, Winterfest in Saratoga Spa State Park seemingly justified Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of an early spring, leaving us to contend with treacherous ice melted layers.  Yet only a week later Wilton Wildlife Preserve’s Camp Saratoga featured a magnificent landscape pulled directly from a scene out of Frozen.  But then, in his role as weather prognosticator, Phil, like his human counterparts, is only expected to produce a 50% accuracy rate.  So I guess he hit it right on the nose.  Or maybe he felt sorry for us.

                Another weird fact:  While Winterfest, a traction-only race, attracted 36 snowshoers, Camp, which required actual snowshoes, garnered 30 participants.  A number of possibilities present themselves.  Are folks attracted to shorter races?  Were road/trail runners simply thrilled to find a winter race that did not involve snow?  Or, in the spirit of Turkey Trots everywhere, were folks just interested in earning those extra Super Bowl calories?  Of course, the horrific weather the day before Camp might have had something to do with it…

                For Winterfest, co-race director Matt Miczek and I advised, “This is not a race.”  An odd statement for two race directors to make.  But because of the thick ice on the trail, we advised folks to stick to the sides or even venture off into the woods if they were uncomfortable.  Once more, Jamie Howard brought his screw set and set up shop for anyone without traction.  Especially for our RPI College students who understandably did not bring tons of gear with them to decorate their dorms.  Amazingly, although there were a few tumbles, there were no serious umfalls (German for fall—that term seems so much more expressive to me!).  Once more, our thirty year-old chronoprinters limped along, prompting the Stryders who wrestled with them to vote for new models for Camp. 

                Camp featured every brand of weather Groundhog could throw at us.  Friday morning as I was loading supplies into the Lodge I was greeted by rain, sleet, hail and the occasional errant snowflake.  In a move that made perfect sense at the time, I elected to wear a thick hoodie over my waterproof gear so the gear would stay cozy for our afternoon foray to check trail markings. What was I thinking??!!  This necessitated another trip home to change outfits.  Fortunately, I shoved a few Cliff bars and a drug store flashlight into my pockets “just in case.”  Soon after our 1PM start, Matt and I were heartened to discover that the precipitation had switch to a fast-falling snow, rapidly covering all the previous day’s brown stretches.  We were in business…or so we thought.

                We soon realized, however, that the aftermath of the ice storm turned our route into a version of Albany Running Exchange’s famed December Adventure Race, a Dodge the Debris experience.  So we set to work.  At first it was rather fun, in an Arctic explorer sort of way.  Except for the part about the falling pine tree branches.  Initially, we looked upwards every time we heard a crash, but after ten minutes or so we ignored the carnage and soldiered on.  We were on a mission, after all – foolhardy or not.  Hours later…it grew dark, and as gloves and hand warmers played out, it began to be not so much fun anymore.  We’d no sooner clear a section, walk a few feet and round a curve only to discover more carnage ahead.  Our standards began to sink lower and lower.  At first, we diligently cleared each scrap, then we left branches that could be easily run over, then we finally decided climbing over tree trunks in snowshoes was a good idea.  One neat thing were the spider web curtains of flexible tree branches that had to be parted as you would glass beads hanging in the doorframe of a Turkish restaurant. When we slogged through the Opdahl Farm section, the sun miraculously made a brief appearance, casting pastel pink and purplish light over the glittering trees.  It was almost worth it.    

          

                As darkness became reality and we still had “miles to go before we sleep” and one drug store flashlight between us, we learned that it is not a good thing to hang flagging onto pine trees the day before a major ice storm.  If we couldn’t find the trail, how could we expect others to?  By the time we reached the road crossing, with an average pace of one mile per two hours, we were thinking folks could just head down the side of the road and call it a race.  Then we noticed there a live wire and figured the mighty boom we had heard earlier was the power grid giving up.  So we had to bushwhack around the wire to make it back to the parking lot, only to discover our escape route to Route 50 was blocked on one side by the downed line and on the other by a National Grid truck blocking traffic under a one-way bridge!  I was grateful I had filled my gas tank earlier when I had picked up the drinks from Stewarts.

                Eventually, we made it back to our respective homes, only to discover there was no power.  I spooned supper from a jar of peanut butter, layered on dry clothes and went to bed.  Matt was still hopeful we could do a modified course, but with the power line still down and more trees blocking the portions we had cleared, there simply wasn’t enough discretionary time left in our pre-race budget.  Part of me thought an adventure race would be rather neat, but that would not exactly be truth-in-advertising, and this was, after all, a Nationals Qualifier.  Everyone seemed to have a good time circling around the loop we managed to clear that morning and the snow was wonderful.  Afterwards we traded “Did you lose power?” stories while consuming cold chili and lentil soup.

                 Folks later commended us for carrying through despite the conditions, but since it is well-known I rarely cancel, I figured it was a case of “If you build it they will come.”  And really, with all communication lines down for several days, there was no way to get the word out anyway to a bunch of athletes anxious to get in their daily run.


    Happy Shoeing!

    laura


  • 04 Nov 2019 6:08 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero, by Christopher McDougall.  Knopf, 2019


                Most of us have run on a team -- whether on a high school XC team, a Ragnar team, an adventure race or a club endeavor.  This is so much more than a solo configuration where our performance affects not just ourselves, but our teammates as well.  As such, it is dimensionally more difficult to blow off workouts and definitely adds to race day stress despite the fact that your brain is telling you there is safety in numbers. So why bother? For the simple reason that together we can achieve more than we can individually.  But what if your teammate has four legs and a different understanding of the concept of racing?  What if he doesn’t even speak the same language?

                Taking it one step further, what if your teammate is a donkey, an animal legendary for his swift, punishing kicks and mule-headed stubbornness?  That is the dilemma facing Christopher McDougall, of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes fame, when he adopts a rescue donkey in need of a confidence-building purpose in life.  As his local donkey whisperer, Tanya, succinctly states, “Anything you want a donkey to do, you’ve got to make him think it was his idea.”  Those of you who have adopted rescue animals are already shaking your heads.  You know not only is there physical damage to contend with, but also post-traumatic stress issues, the causes of which can only be guessed at.

                Toppling the curve is the fact that donkeys are extremely intelligent animals. Like cats, they were the last of their equine species to be “civilized” (a fact that is open to heated debate) and as such are frustratingly free of the fawning characteristics of other long-time domestic companions. As McDougall discovered, “Donkeys don’t react, they reason.” And after a few thousand years of experimentation, donkeys are the clear winners. At any time, they could amble off and make a decent living.  And they know it. Sort of like your standard house cat.

                If you are one of the ten people who have not heard of McDougall’s other books, know that he relishes research and digs into his Sherman project with laser focus, consulting training experts, his Amish farmer neighbors and Curtis Imrie, the legendary hero of the Fairplay Mule Race, the event Chris, if not Sherman, was targeting. As Curtis unhesitatingly puts it, “If you want to explore your capacity for murder, try a burro race.”  After roughly four decades of racing, Curtis rates his own proficiency as just slightly above passable.  A donkey’s primary goal is survival and he is not about to let any humans get in the way of that basic instinct.

                As you may have gathered, this book is not just a heartwarming story of donkey/human bonding or animal rehabilitation, but a quest to heal Sherman and coincidentally in the process unite a small Pennsylvania town towards a single purpose.  For just like the goat, Lawrence, who sensed Sherman’s initial distress and became his barnyard protector, donkeys are supremely capable of bonding with autistic, epileptic and mentally upset humans, despite all the mayhem they might cause their owners along the way.

                Taking off from the writing style initially explored by Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible, where each chapter carries the story along from the perspective of one of the characters, McDougall relishes jumping from topic to topic as he bonds with Sherman.  In just the first few chapters he hurdles from trimming Sherman’s hooves, to his own barnyard menagerie, to his stint as a war correspondent in the Rwanda massacre, to purchasing a farm in Amish country and learning about Amish behind-the-barn cash-only stores.  Whew!  But his story is told so skillfully that you are never confused by the convoluted journey.  And what’s more, it is impossible to skip ahead to glimpse what happens as what you might encounter is not another plot twist but an expose on Amish reading habits.  A readable William Faulkner.

                Just like any runner, McDougall figures that more is better and points his 3 donkey/3 human teammates toward the 71 year-old World Championship in Fairplay, Colorado. Notably, way before Kathrine Switzer shook the world as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant, women were welcomed and even encouraged at Fairplay. Young teens, were also encouraged in an atmosphere where runners and burros were expected to stop their race for those in distress.  It was always about acceptance and teamwork.                                                                   Along the way, McDougall’s team is beset with the usual obstacles: injuries, training glitches and bad weather as well as unique challenges like honing in on donkey psychology and locating an animal van. The humans realized that they needed to look at things through Sherman’s eyes rather than trying to mold him to their mindset, the foundation of a true partnership on any level.  They discovered like Emilie Forsberg and other lasting runners that the key to any successful endeavor is the sheer joy of a playful attitude.  And like any team, they learned to rely on each other’s strengths.  In the end it was McDougall’s wife Mika who carried them through.  Unlike the others, she had no need of healing and nothing to prove, just a desire to help everyone else and a joyful acceptance of each moment.  And that is really the key to all endeavors.

                So what now?  Sherman has settled in nicely with his girlfriends Flower and Matilda and they and their human partners enjoy running together.  Chris McDougall has another book in the works, but no hints yet as to what it will be about.  However, unlike Sherman’s story, which began as a birthday present for his daughter and evolved into a book idea, his next offering hints at being more of a planned affair.  Stay tuned for the next blue and yellow cover jacket!

    Reviewed by laura clark

               

               


  • 06 Sep 2019 1:40 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    The Tail of a Lost Cat

                Having less commitment to civilization, feline pets are more like boarders than dependent pets; unlike dogs or goldfish, they can strike out on their own, fully capable of making a living.  They can enjoy an unleashed pleasant afternoon under a birdfeeder, a walkabout lasting several days or a much longer adventure.  Such was the case with Ari, one of the race director’s childhood pets who launched himself into the woods of Dorset, Vermont and remained stubbornly AWOL for several years, until presumably memories of kibble, snuggles and a well-placed scratch on the chin inevitably drew him back. 

                And so, the Lost Cat half and full marathon and 50K retraces the scene of his adventures as we wandered up and down mountains, over highways and on the omnipresent Vermont dirt roads.  There are few events that can claim an appeal to everyone: mountain climbers, trail runners, road aficionados and even adventure racers, but this is one of them. 

                While adventure athletes typically run in teams and are expected to be competent in a variety of sports, we were all singletons equipped with only our packs and our running shoes.  Normally, adventure competitors receive their maps at check in, but we never did.  Try preparing for a long-distance event with no clue about terrain, elevation changes, aid station locations, etc.  Granted, we did know the precise distance we hoped to travel, but to safeguard landowners’ privacy, no maps were posted.  Anywhere.  There were no friendly “You’re almost there” signs, let alone distance indications to upcoming aid stations.  We were truly lost cats, seeming wandering aimlessly on a loopy course, retracing the steps of the fabled lost cat.  It was at once scary and liberating.


                I missed one turnoff, but it was totally my fault; others were not as lucky despite the course being well-marked.  I chalk it up to the dizziness of disorientation, of not having a true sense of where I was and where I should be heading.  Usually when I run a trail event, I may miss a marker or two, but still have a pretty good sense of where I should be heading.  Not here.  On my travels I encountered three fellow lost cats—two of whom regained their bearings and the other who passed me twice, going and coming.  He asked me if he were following the trail.  Baffled, I indicated the many markers, and thanking me profusely, he scurried on his way, never to be seen by me again.

                My downfall came from the assumption that the folks at Nor’east Trail Runs would present a mostly trail race with a few pavement stretches mainly to get to other sections of trail.  So basically, I trained for a trail marathon when I should have been including a lot more road work.  Ouch!  After roughly ten miles or so (who knew?) my feet in their relatively stiff Innovs felt as if a mountain lion had been smashing down on them.  We were warned about the two-mile highway section near the beginning and, while it seemed endless, made me think that “Hey, I could capture a fairly fast (for me) time.”  I forgot about the fact that we were also cautioned to expect “real Vermont hills.”  And while I totally relish the challenge of riding a roller coaster, it does not exactly sync well with cutoffs. 

                The trail sections reminded me somewhat of Merck Forest, Vermont where my friend Matt Miczek joined Nor’easter for a 25K snowshoe adventure trudging up Mt. Antone not once, but twice, hanging on to friendly trees to prevent falling backwards.  And that was with snowshoe crampons!  But in the end, what got to me was the final eight miles or so road section.  The hills were fun, and it was entertaining and, I admit somewhat discouraging, to view the beautiful country houses and awesome gardens, but the flat maze in the middle section seemed to continue indefinitely, with little plan as to where it was headed.  At one point I thought I had it figured out, but then the road took yet another discouraging turn. 


                How many times have you heard the phrase, “It’s all downhill from here!”  How many times have you actually believed it?  Well, this time it was true.  The final downhill mile began hopefully on pavement, soon converted to typical Vermont dirt road and then degenerated into Ferngully construction.  At one point we had to climb over a five-foot pile of stones to navigate a section that was more riverbed than actual jeep-friendly passageway.  What a great ending! 

                Next time I might consider hybrid sneakers and an Osprey (backpack, not pet) as a few times I found myself rationing the contents of my water bottle.  While it worked out fine, had it been a hot day I would have been in trouble.  The neat thing about the Lost Cat is that it delivers for every type of runner and while your adventure does not have you shifting from running to kayak to belay, you do get to alternate between different forms and styles.  Neither the pure trail runner or the pure road racer is favored, but rather a competent mixture between the two.  And then there are those real cats from 2nd Chance Animal Shelter waiting at the finish to provide emotional support after Sunday’s 5 and 10K, should you decide to stay in town, explore Dorset and either double or volunteer.


    Do check out www.netrailruns.comfor their winter schedule of snowshoe races!

    By laura clark


  • 06 Sep 2019 1:36 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Advanced Marathoning, 3rd edition, by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas.  Human Kinetics, 2019.

                I have come to accept the fact that I have a rigid personality. Children’s toys must be returned to their correct receptacles, regardless of the fact that for kids play is a freewheeling jumble of imaginative possibilities.  Books are meant to be read cover-to-cover, no furtive peeking allowed.  And I approach magazines, which beg to be flipped through, in a similar fashion, starting with the editor’s notes and all the way to parting shots.  Sad, but true.  Little did I suspect that when I opened Pete Pfitzinger’s 3rd edition of Advanced Marathoning, I was about to experience a major breakthrough. 

                Yes, I did dutifully read the forward, but that was a given being that it was penned by Molly Huddle.  Although we have never met face-to-face, Molly and I are connected by our mutual friend Diane Sherrer, a Finger Lakes coach and sportswriter, who tragically died of cancer.  Diane encouraged Molly to carry on, when as a high schooler, she felt she could never measure up.  Diane was there in the rain, sick and all, to present me with a dollar store princess crown after my first 50 miler. 

                So, with this awesome beginning, did I continue reading in my customary die-hard pattern?  Nope.  A quick scan of the chapter listings indicated a few departures from the first two editions.  I had done my homework, checking out coffee-stained and dog-eared previous editions from the library.  Expectedly, profiled athletes had changed over time and the training tables were less rigid to account for modern lifestyles, but I was surprised to discover that entire chapters had been added.  The mailman delivered my copy two weeks before my first marathon of the season, The Lost Cat in Dorset, Vermont.  A bit too late to provide training advice, but handy with the tapering suggestions.  Whenever I was tempted to overreach, I consulted that section.  Sometimes I obeyed; sometimes not, but at least I had a rough plan.

                Then it dawned on me.  My next marathon was four weeks away, Nipmuck Trail Marathon in Ashford, Connecticut.  I located the new section on “Multiple Marathoning,” with suggestions on what to do if your next event is 12, 10, 8, 6 and foolishly 4 weeks away.  Apparently, all I had to do was recover and taper with a few medium-long runs thrown in to assuage guilt.  So a week after Lost Cat I found myself at the Mt. Greylock, Massachusetts 8 Mile Uphill Road Race, with an off-the-books downhill return to my car.  Ouch!  Not exactly sure if that is what the authors had in mind. 

                Now that I am in serious taper mode, I turned to the new section on the “Older (And Wiser) Marathoner” to see where I had gone wrong.  I may be older, but the preceding scenario leaves my wisdom in doubt.  One takeaway is the realization that although I still go long, it is more difficult to make myself go fast.  Sort of like the last three-fourths of a race where you figured you have suffered enough.  Except this is my life and not a race.  My other realization? I have signed up for a strength training class.  After work and after the days get dark. My summertime vacation from resistance work, while granting me a few more hours of scarce northeast outdoor daylight, did nothing to nudge my body into race shape.

                And yes, I did read the rest of the book, but thoroughly enjoyed the liberating experience of extracting the advice I needed immediately.  If you own the first or second edition, do consider updating with the third.  As a librarian, I recognize that often there is little reason for yet another edition of a book except to boost a repeat round of income, but this is not the case here.  While the structure of the basics is the same, there is so much new material that you will essentially be perusing a familiar format with more relevant and expanded information.

    Reviewed by laura clark


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