Sorry Girl Scouts, you were not my type

October 13, 2017

If I could go back in time, I’d apologize to a few people. My Girl Scout leaders would be some of them.

You see, I was raised in a household of rambunctious, hockey-playing boys. I am still a “tomboy” because I require a pretty significant level of physical activity to balance the amount of time I’m required to sit still most days. Back when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old I was a good student and focused in school, but wanted to let loose afterward. I was into climbing trees, building forts, playing football or baseball or whatever the other kids in the neighborhood were up to. I delivered newspapers on my skateboard. I started running races around age 12 (just a few but it planted the seed). Girl Scouts was the wrong organization for me to join.

Girl Scouts was anathema to me. It was more sitting still. The leaders, God bless them, tried to teach me things like paper mache and embroidery. We used miles of colored yarn to earn badges that required nothing more than channeling our natural energy into a checklist of pseudo domestic skills designed to make us better housewives. That’s the worst thing for pubescent girls who are beginning to battle body image issues, to face “mean girl” school cliques, and often having few outlets for confidence building activities. Girls need to test their physical skills and keep endorphins flowing through rock climbing, biking, problem solving and meaningful activities like public service, in my opinion. Like I believe Boy Scouts do.

Girls belong in trees and on climbing walls and participating in more than glue and glitter activities.

In Girl Scouts, when I was participating, we never went hiking or learned survival skills, but my brothers did in Boy Scouts. In Girl Scouts, we never rode bikes or camped outside, but my brothers did in Boy Scouts. In Girl Scouts we never shoveled snow for the elderly, paddled canoes, or learned fire-starting techniques as Boy Scouts did. I asked to join Boy Scouts but was told no, that’s not for you. Instinctively I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do but in 1978 or thereabouts very few people were challenging the rules and my parents were not going to rock the boat. So I made my Girl Scout leaders miserable by misbehaving.

Later in life I became a Girl Scout leader, hoping to provide the right opportunities to my daughters and other young girls. Sadly, I wasn’t able to offer the kids much better than I had experienced in  my youth. Up against a bulwark of rules designed to protect the organization from liability, we could not push girls to participate in activities that they didn’t want to do, perpetuating a system that clearly discouraged physical activities in favor of using more yarn and glue and glitter. It was nearly impossible to even teach the kids to cook or allow them to use scissors. It was ridiculous. But if you sold lots of cookies and made money for the organization to pay its attorneys (the troops got pennies on the dollar) you got a pat on the head.

The climax of this frustrating exercise of working within the status quo was when I went as a leader with a dozen other troops (total of 60-100 girls) for a camp experience. We were going to be allowed to cook over fires (if you followed a dozen pages of rules of course)! We were going to be outside! What actually happened was these 60-100 girls were stuck playing kickball in a big field under the burning sun on a 100 degree day while a nearby beach had to be ignored because of rules and liability issues. That’s when I had enough.

Girl Scouts is nothing more, in my opinion, than an outdated organization run by old biddies who believe girls should be seen and not heard, clean and not dirty, still and not active.

This week, the Boy Scouts finally announced that they’d allow girls to join. I surely hope that means more kids will be allowed to run outside and be physically active and learn meaningful skills. The attorneys who have made their living writing rules that made generations of Girl Scouts sit miserably still should be forced into retirement.

You see, I’m still climbing trees and playing in the dirt, despite Girl Scouts.

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Rules for Ragnar and other relays

June 1, 2017
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chugging along Lake Ontario

The smell hit me and nearly made my eyes tear up: it was something acrid, like a solvent. Great, I thought, it’s impossible to hold my breath and run at the same time. Maybe the chemical in the air will kill me before some ax murderer steps out of the bushes and grabs me. (It happens, read this.)

This sort of fatalistic thinking is not normal for me, but nothing was normal that day. I was in the midst of a 36-hour relay race with people I didn’t know, in an unfamiliar place, it was nearing midnight and I was on a dark, desolate stretch of industrial road between factories with no one else in sight.

Compounding my growing panic was the following calculation: I was probably on the wrong road, headed in the wrong direction (what race director would send runners down an isolated, unlighted industrial road on the fringes of a city?). The course was sparsely marked and it would have been easy for someone to move the relay race’s last directional arrow, sending me to my death. Even better, I realized —  if I got lost in Toronto at midnight and couldn’t find my team of near-strangers, I wasn’t carrying any identification or money or a working cell phone (mine stopped functioning at the border). Great.

Doesn’t this sound like fun?

Believe it or not, I paid for this experience. I was doing one in a series of popular “Ragnar” relay races that each covers 180 miles (or so). They’re all over, this one being along the shore of Lake Ontario in Canada, ending at Niagara Falls. Six of us decided we could take turns running 4-9 mile portions, each covering a total of about 30 miles in 36 hours. Other teams had 12 people in 2 vans, each covering approx. 15 miles.

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Obviously I survived being on this side of Toronto.

However… in the 6 years since I ran my first Ragnar (Greenwich Conn. to Boston) the emphasis has apparently shifted from running to a silly group bonding exercise on wheels. It’s a trap. My observation is that lots of people get sucked in by the party atmosphere, the option of wearing silly costumes like tutus and viking hats, decorating their vans, as well as buying all sorts of Ragnar branded crap to show that they’ve done one of these expensive weekends … and the running is secondary.

That’s not the way it works.

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Viking hats, how original.

Oftentimes the “bonding” experience flops when people are tired, cranky, and wishing they hadn’t bought into this trip. The fun part of spending two days in a van with 5 other people lasts for about the first 4 hours, and after that you need to focus on running. Sadly, lots of people are not prepared to deal with the less-fun parts of completing their portion.

Here are some suggestions to make your decision to run a long relay race go smoothly:

No smelly food in the van: it’s one thing to share the aroma of your favorite dish with those around you, it’s something else entirely when the smell is amplified by your moist breath when you fall asleep. Nix the jalapeno chips and garlic chicken in favor of bland, energy-rich food like bananas. Please.

Control your mess: before the race I saw a great article about giving each person a bin for clothes and shoes to limit the piles of cast-off gear that others had to climb over between seats. Whether that might work in practice is still unknown to me, because our van devolved from orderly to chaotic, leaving us crawling across seats layered in clothing and others unhappy about people falling asleep on our stuff..

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Van management and navigation should be required courses.

Train the driver: Part of the issue with my team was the isolation of running an hour through unfamiliar territory with the same misgivings I described above. There were several desolate stretches on this race. However if your van actually stopped midway on each leg or otherwise accompanied the runner when possible, thoughts of axe murderers might be alleviated.

Stop: Part of getting cranky and uncomfortable was the lack of facilities. Filthy port-a-potties were easy to find, but running water and actual soap was elusive. With a little planning and flexibility, everyone would be happier using a Dunkin Donuts/Tim Horton’s bathroom (and getting hot coffee) once in a while. We didn’t do this often enough.

Change: dry clothes make a huge difference in a runner’s attitude and comfort. Strip off the wet layers when you’re sitting in the van waiting for your next running leg. Bring warm layers even if you don’t think you’ll need them (our weather turned cold and rainy).

Plan for priorities: Costumes and markers and group t-shirts are not even secondary to logging training miles. Things like 18557438_1827871270863859_1406266920653950139_nappropriate food, access to your stuff, and small comforts (like coffee) become far more important once the race starts. These are the important things to plan for, as well as having a fallback if someone gets hurt and can’t run.

Van necessities: Get a vehicle with separate controls for heat and ventilation from front to back. We had a van with lots of room (for lots of crap) but temperature was controlled on the dash only, and windows only opened at the far ends (front and back). Discomfort and noxious smells resulted in further unhappiness.

 

Resist the urge to succumb to Ragnar’s increased commercialism. Do you really need to pull out your credit card at a (lousy) transition area and buy a hat, sweatshirt, or souvenir with the Ragnar logo on it? Really? Why not withhold that additional cash until the race director(s) supply decent (clean) facilities, frequent and reliable route markers, or, God forbid, a snack for runners along the way. That way, when you get to the finish line and find that they don’t give you so much as a freaking free beer and burrito you don’t feel like so much of a chump for buying their brand along the way.

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There were no “extras” for the runners — no hot coffee, power bars, and not even a free beer at the end — but they’d take your money for branded crap even at a transition area in the middle of the race.

Be honest: are you in it to push your physical limits, to test yourself, or are you in it for the silly costumes and party atmosphere? Think about it. If it’s the latter, do a 5k. Don’t screw up another person’s budget and training just so you can wear Ragnar gear and say you were part of a team.

Mom needs a kayak

May 12, 2017

Yup, you read that correctly: it’s your answer for the annual Mother’s Day conundrum — and you still have two whole days to shop (or procrastinate).

Freedom. Power. Shopping. Those are the reasons why you’ll buy Mom (or your wife or significant other — or yourself or your daughter!) a kayak this year. Let me explain (note: this is one of those kayak-endorphin inspired musings that revealed itself to me as I plied the windy waters of the St. Lucie River, which will make more sense as the explanation unfolds):

Freedom: The realization that she can’t do anything she wants and she can’t do everything the boys do is something that slowly and insidiously seeps into a young girl’s consciousness. The result is often a home-bound woman frustrated by her limited choices and afraid to step outside the boundaries that society and the media have created. Those boundaries tell her she’s too old or too weak or it’s dangerous for her to do something like kayaking.

Of course the first problem with kayaking is “I can’t lift one of those onto my car.” But this video (link below) shows plenty of ways to get around that issue, even for a small woman. Where there’s a will …

Think about this: As we age and grow, true freedom evaporates for girls. We’re in the kitchen cleaning up after parties and dinners while the guys continue drinking and watching the football game. There’s little choice in the matter. We’re constrained by expectations of appearance in dress and manner, further eliminating choices and options. By adulthood, because we’re working and nurturing others or doing free work at schools and libraries many women are too pressed for time to do anything for ourselves. We’re too concerned about smelling bad or looking disheveled to participate in anything athletic, so we turn to finding cute outfits and cooking or keeping house as our outlets.

But eventually the beast emerges, hungry for freedom and choices that aren’t satisfied by retail therapy. A woman who’s been saddled with raising children, toiling under an ungrateful boss, and frustrated by time passing will inevitably implode.

Unless she has a kayak and freedom.

A kayak is a vehicle that doesn’t need roads and signs; it carves its own path to adventure and happiness. Travel quickly or meander aimlessly, the kayak doesn’t care. She may look for fish, for birds, for signs of spring or fall colors — or nothing but peace and quiet.

A in kayak Pittsburg NH  Freedom. Serenity. Power.

Power:  Women are generally discouraged from building or using muscle. “Let me do that for you” is a frequent phrase we hear for everything from lifting groceries to moving furniture. Call the handyman when a job requires lifting. Get a man to do that. Well, I’m calling BS — start with a kayak and pretty soon she’ll be doing pushups like Ahhhnold.

The sore muscles are a badge of honor after a long paddle. They remind you that you did it yourself, you propelled a watercraft and succeeded. You tamed the wind and were challenged by the tides, but you survived. Pretty soon the desire to tackle more physical challenges takes hold and the sky is the limit: a 5K run? climb a mountain? anything is possible.

Shopping: This is the gateway, it’s one of the ways a woman’s mind works when her options are limited. Bear with me: If Mom/wife/daughter is used to handling the family shopping, she will love a kayak because it opens a new world of choices and decisions. Cruise through a scenic harbor and she’ll begin to imagine herself aboard a variety of yachts or looking down from the balcony of a chic townhouse (whether as a Bond Girl or maritime skipper, that’s up to her). Glide by some cute seaside shacks and she’ll consider the scenario of running away from responsibilities to make a new life without the SUV and 9-to-5. She may be immersed in the suburban lifestyle now while raising a family but things will change eventually and unless she’s got some inkling of her next step (through “shopping”) the transition could be rocky.

It’s liberating to enjoy sights and sounds and sensations that aren’t loading up the car, getting kids to school, or the same old power walk around the neighborhood. You might have let the genie out of the bottle, but that’s OK because she will escape one way or the other.

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Note to readers: if you’ve read this far, I have one small item of advice — DO NOT buy a tandem/2 person kayak. If she’s timid of the water then start on a quiet, windless day on a small pond in separate kayaks. Tandems simply accelerate the implosion that I warned you about.

Also, don’t buy a crappy $300 kayak. Spend the $1400 and get something above 12 feet with a bit of a keel. If she’s nervous about controlling it, get a rudder installed. Mom is worth it.

Agony of the feet

March 12, 2017

There’s a phobia for everything. Podophobia is fear of feet. Agliophobia is fear of pain. So I have Agliopodophobia, I guess. And the headache to go with it.

Some runners have shin splints or sore knees. I have feet that have morphed and changed over my 40ish years of running. They no longer conform to traditional running shoes, and shoes that worked in the recent past have been discontinued, so finding the right pair is an endless cycle. The pain issues are kept at bay when I’m home chugging around my usual trails and cross training on my bike or swimming to keep from wearing my feet out, but right now I could use some relief.

It’s with great irony that I write this as Nike unveils the shoe that’s supposed to help the most elite runners in the world complete a marathon in less than two hours. That’s great, but what kind of resources is the shoe giant expending to keep over-50 runners on their feet a few more years? We’re certainly a bigger demographic than those twiggy Kenyans who defy gravity.

So, this is what’s on the floor next to my workspace.

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Worst part is that they’re all rejects, collected within a week. I had high hopes for each that they’d solve my issues and allow me to keep hitting the pavement. So far, no dice. I even went off the reservation for the Altra Impulse (yellow/pink ones) which look like “corrective” shoes of a bygone era. I had such hope — I waited for their delivery with desperate anticipation — but sadly their weirdly exaggerated square toe shape just didn’t do the job.

Not shown are the Hoka Cliftons that I wore for a couple weeks then sold online when they caused one of my toenails to violently detach from my foot. That wasn’t good, but other than the toenail they mostly didn’t hurt my feet, so I kind of liked them. They’re the kind with almost clown-like huge soles, called “maximal” cushioning. It was a new feeling for me to run a good 8-10 miles one day and not have sore feet the next day (other than the one toe that was in pretty constant agony), so the Hokas had some redeeming value.

The reason for this exercise in footwear testing is that there’s a race event on my schedule this spring that I already have something like $300 invested in. I don’t want to miss out on training and I’m actually enjoying “long” runs again (long for me). I’ve figured out the right mix of Tailwind to avoid dehydration and cramping (which is HUGE), started getting some speed work in on short run days… it was all lining up for me until I had to admit I couldn’t wear the Hokas any more. Back to square one, and no running for a week as I waited for new shoe orders to arrive.

Don’t tell me to check online reviews — I’d catch holy hell if Someone knew how much time I’ve spent trying to research the right shoe. Forget the online gurus and comparison guides and “best of the year” articles. It all comes down to how it feels on YOUR foot, which today meant blowing most of a Saturday trying on one pair after another.

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Apparently after working my way down the above pictured wall of shoes today IN EACH OF THREE DIFFERENT STORES, the simple request for shoes that fit and don’t harm my feet may indeed be elusive. It’s strange that New Balance makes great trail shoes that work for me (Leadvilles) but it’s been such a challenge to find NB road running shoes that fit right (note the purple Vazees in the “rejects” photo — never even wore them across the living room!). There were even Nikes and Asics in the mix during a full day of running shoe shopping today, and I haven’t worn those brands in many years.

I’ve thought about keeping a spread sheet of all of the different types of running shoes I’ve had — or remember having — so I don’t go back to bad ones that didn’t last or caused problems. It’s a waste of time though because manufacturers are always coming up with new styles and materials.

Here’s my rating:
“fresh foam” soles that everyone is selling: good if there’s enough in the right places. not everyone is a heel-striker and the foam is too thin under the ball of the foot in so many shoes

stretchy mesh uppers are a great addition to shoe options, especially when paired with fewer stiff design components that rub against the foot over long distances (even some Asics have bonded designs rather than their old stiff style on the sides as shown in photo below)

integrated tongues that are seamlessly part of the upper rather than a separate piece sewn in — fantastic!

 

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I love running shoes, but I love running in them most — not spending a beautiful Saturday schlepping from one store to the next, hoping to find something adequate and not painful.

In the end, I forked over an extortionate amount of money at a specialty running store after trying on at least 10 pair and listening to the advice of a saleskid who wasn’t born until I’d been running 20 years. I took the shoes home and did 6 miles in them.. and will probably take them back tomorrow. The struggle is real.

My Walmart century ride

March 6, 2017

Sitting home was not an option, but neither was running another mile in the shoes that had just claimed a toenail. (Sitting at home hadn’t been an option yesterday when I ran 7 miles in them and regretted it all evening as I hobbled around on a swollen toe.)

So today I set out on the uber craptastic Walmart bike of my nightmares. My approximate destination was a state park about 10 miles away that has mountain bike trails. As I got closer I realized it wouldn’t be fun on a busy Saturday afternoon when lots of other people would be on the small circuit I rode a few years ago. Despite its full suspension and knobby tires this bike is just a look-alike, it was never meant for actual mountain biking. I do it because I would lose my mind if I didn’t get a dose of trails once in a while — even if I worry about snakes and gators the whole time.

I rode at that state park back then the Walmart bike was brand new and I was pretty cocky about how easy the trails were (swoopy but flat, with a few obstacles thrown in). But now the bike isn’t new. In fact, I think I it’s neutered itself into a fixie with just one gear thanks to a combination of the corrosive elements in Florida and the stress of throwing it on the bike rack again and again (sometimes for 2,500 miles). Oh, and then there’s the issue of genetics: it was born bad, made of cheap components designed to appeal to 12-year-old boys who dream of pump tracks but really just sit on their bikes in the 7-11 parking lot eating Cheetos. Last summer I took it to the Vietnam trails out of desperation and was mortified that someone might see me on it. Mike bought its craptastic twin at Walmart and his is so bad that he has a screwdriver taped to the crossbar for those (frequent) occasions when the chain pops off and gets stuck between the sprocket and the frame. And he never even shifts gears. It’s pitiful.

So when I got to the state park entrance I just kept going. How far could it possibly be to do a big loop around the next town and back through some nice scenery? Not an awful way to kill a Saturday afternoon, right?

Except I became obsessed with how awful the bike is. I decided that riding 25 miles on it counts as 100 on any other bike, therefore I did a Walmart century. Pushing the pedals became a cathartic exercise in forcing the bike away from me. The miles melted away as I longed to end the agony of its existence.

There’s squeaking from the suspension that reminds me with every revolution of the pedals that I’m on a lousy bike. So I turned up my futuristic MP3 player and sang along with Shakira.. it was especially fun when a serious biker came up next to me, hunched over his aero bars and I was wailing away, a capella:

“Whenever, wherever
We’re meant to be together
I’ll be there and you’ll be near
And that’s the deal, my dear..”

As if that didn’t compound the shame…

Its one redeeming quality is the loud shuddering scream of the brake pads on the rims that generally gets attention from any driver pulling out of a street or driveway. So I guess I have the Walmart bike to thank for not being road kill yet (note to self, rear brake is almost nonexistent). So maybe if I had a nice, squeak-free bike with gears and disc brakes I’d be dead by now.

 

Flip Flop to Costa Rica

February 4, 2017

This Central American country had been on Mike’s bucket list a long time. He showed me magazine articles about traveling there in the first month we were dating, but it remained the elusive, exotic goal for a few years.Costa Rica surfing

We were there a year ago this week. Was it amazing, was it worth the wait? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

First, we had visions of dipping our toes in the Pacific as soon as we got off the flight, but that evening we were instead schlepping chicken and canned beer from a street vendor to an unanticipated overnight in a city hotel room. That’s because we’d arrived too late to make the drive to our guest house by the sea. And because the car rental agency had abandoned us when we got stuck at an airport. Travel in Costa Rica is still pretty third-world. Our hostess had warned us that the 30+ mile trip from the airport to her guest house near Manuel Antonio National Park would take two hours or so, depending on traffic. I didn’t believe her until we were zig-zagging around food vendors who walked in traffic with bags of snacks for sale. Or maybe it was when we got on the main highway and discovered it was only one lane wide.

Narrow roads are the norm in Costa Rica, and I won’t exaggerate but I need to be clear. They’re often twisting, steep lanes where it’s risky to walk or drive because cars come at you at top speed only to skid to a stop just as the Grim Reaper has his hand on your shoulder. Once we arrived in our little village we decided we wouldn’t travel far for that reason. But this location would be just what we needed for relaxation and access to what matters: great waves on a long stretch of beach on one side of the peninsula, a calm lagoon for snorkeling on the other.

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The first thing we discovered is that the calm lagoon contained very little sea life. We had hoped to snorkel to some coral or pretty fish or SOMETHING to look at,  but there was very little. The water was also MUCH warmer than expected (yeah, I know we were close to the Equator but this is the largest ocean in the world..). Swimming was barely refreshing because of the ocean temperature. Everyone told us it was a warmer than average January, but isn’t that what we’ve been hearing everywhere?

The surf side of the peninsula was pretty spectacular. Big waves rolled in across a sandy break. We could walk for miles along the beach, right to the national park entrance. We both rented surf boards and had a great time practicing that (despite the bandage-covering-stitches-and-wrapped-with-duct-tape on my hand).. until Mike caught some waves that were a little too big and got freaked out (what’s sport without near death experiences??). But the sunsets here were to die for!

[I wasn’t joking about the lines at Manuel Antonio National Park, nor the monkeys]

Our outings included a morning in the National Park (honestly my assessment was a resounding MEH because of the crowds, the heat, and the damned monkeys). It was scenic but a chore to shuffle through with a million other people looking for sloths sleeping in the trees, and much of the park was closed to hiking without a permit and a guide, which was disappointing. When we took a sanctioned hike around a not-so-crowded peninsula to see cliffs and jungle we were accosted by a couple nasty monkeys on a bridge who wanted snacks. Also had a nice conversation with a giant iguana that got between me and my stuff on the beach — those suckers look lazy but can move really fast!

Another interesting day trip was to zip lining recommended by our hostess at the guest house. It included a bus ride with a ton of other American tourists into a very scenic area of the interior of the country (about an hour each way). We weren’t disappointed by the big trees we were frequently jumping off of! My issue (and this isn’t a minor one) is that the crew here made the quickest, most cursory equipment checks I’ve ever seen. I haven’t done a lot of rappelling or rock climbing or zip lining, but I know that  the way they were slapping on the carabiners that were going to hold a person 125 feet above a river isn’t enough of a safety precaution. I was nervous much of the time on this side trip but tried to put a good face on it. Also, I couldn’t help but analyze the return on our investment: we saw a beautiful area, we can say we did zip lining, but the reality of it was a lot of driving and standing around and perusing the base camp’s butterfly exhibit with a total of about 45 minutes of actual zip lining thrown in.

One of the aspects of the trip that we revisit is that we met some great people. Our guest house had a common room with kitchen that allowed us to relax and interact with couples from Europe, Canada, and the US. We had sundowners at a bar one night and met a naturalist who works at a local hotel and was very fun and interesting to talk to. There were people on the beaches who enjoyed sharing their suggestions and travel tips. All in all, the people were friendly, unlike the monkeys who were cute for about a day then got pretty annoying.

[Monkeys were cute for the first day or so.. and grocery shopping in foreign countries is so amusing to me!]

This blog item might sound cynical — Costa Rica is beautiful, but go with your eyes open. Don’t expect American-level facilities or infrastructure. Don’t try to pack in too much.

We had fun but we’re not in a big hurry to go back unless I decide to do the cross-country MTB race… which would probably result in the Grim Reaper REALLY getting his hands on me. (Check out this story!)

 

An exotic domestic trip you’ll remember

January 30, 2017

Winter getaways are so sinfully fabulous: you go back to the office after a week or so with a mild tan, refreshed attitude and a secret smile about “something I just thought about.” Yes, that means the absolute best part is that your coworkers wish they’d done the same rather than blowing their vacation time on an extended Labor Day weekend stuck in traffic.

Here’s one to do, and it’s incredibly simple: Puerto Rico.

Want to be out in the sun, to enjoy a tropical vacation without going broke, and not have to endure the snobbery of resorts? PR has it all, plus surfing and mountain biking and easy-to-navigate services. And, there are ways to avoid the crime that the little island was once known for.

[It took us about an hour to end up bushwhacking to a beautiful rocky overlook on Day 1.]

Jet Blue flights are pretty inexpensive to the island (you don’t need a passport!). We took a late-night flight to save a few bucks (Orlando-Ponce). The island is small enough to travel the perimeter by car in a day (but why would you?), so distances are easy to cover as long as you avoid San Juan-area traffic. Don’t expect high rise beachside resorts here (maybe in San Juan if that’s what you like) — better yet, skip them entirely! We found a lovely AirBnB accommodation that allowed us to enjoy home cooked meals on the wide veranda with other guests and offered local info from the owner.

Our route was Ponce-Guanica-Aguadilla, running from the south-central coast to the northwest coast on Route 2. If I were to go back (yes I would), I’d love to spend more time around Aguadilla, a small city with a decent airport and great beaches/surfing nearby, including the surfing hotspot Rincon.

In the south, the coast has small waves and from what we could determine, not much to look at when snorkeling. There are many mangrove islands offshore that make an interesting destination if you rent a kayak (just don’t rent a tandem, a.k.a. “Breakup boat” with your partner unless you’re prepared for all of the possible ugly ramifications). Guanica’s coastline in particular is bounded on the east and west by nature preserves, so the water was clear enough to see the sea urchins lurking on the bottom, waiting to stab bare feet!

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It only took a couple hours to drive from the Guanica area to Aguadilla on a Saturday afternoon. The main highway is 2 lanes in each direction but goes directly through several towns including mid-sized Mayaguez and Rincon. There are lots of opportunities along the way to stop and check out beaches or surfing but we were rewarded for waiting until we reached Aguadilla and Borinquen.

Weekdays were the best time to access beautiful stretches of beach, long rolling waves and some colorful snorkeling around Aguadilla’s Crash Boat Beach and Surfer’s Beach.

[Crash Boat Beach above]

[Surfer’s Beach above]

We also visited the north shore’s premiere surfing beach, Jobos, on a stormy day when the waves were crashing over offshore islands of lava rock in spectacular fashion. The beachside bars were empty and Mike’s memories of the place included being swept out past the surfers by a killer current. He learned later that more people die at Jobos than any other beach on the island due to the current. He made a joke about it at the Coast Guard gathering he spoke to but few people laughed (ahem).

Please note: Undertow and currents at these beaches aren’t funny! If you go, scout first and use caution. Crash Boat Beach had a great gradual break but the undertow would leave you at least a quarter mile south if you had a good run on a wave. Many beaches have  waves that can land you on rocks.

If you’ve read this far, I’ve got a reward: the best hike you can do in the NW of PR. Go to Surfer’s Beach and take the little bridge on the northern end to a trail. Here you’ll begin a spectacular jungle and cliffside journey to the remote, secluded Coast Guard beach, which is the sort of strand of sand and palm trees that your Caribbean dreams are made of.

The day we went, the surf was pounding the rocks. While it made for a spectacular walk, it cut off access to the beach at the end and was a little worrisome as we’d gone out with just enough time to get back during daylight (nothing new for us!).

The route was just challenging enough to make it worthwhile, the scenery was gorgeous, and there were some huge, spectacular lava rocks where the surf spume roiled and hissed. Plus, we saw a huge iguana on the trail on the way back. It was hard to keep moving as I wanted to take so many photos. If you go, you MUST try this hike.

Inspiration for propulsion

December 12, 2016

The pond iced over last night. All morning I sat in my sunny porch and ruminated about getting outside, but the sight of the ice and thought of frigid temperatures were holding me back. Plus, there was sad news online: a guy I “knew” only through Facebook had died. It was not unexpected, but his passing added significant weight to my decision to run today.

His name was Darrell Henry, and he lived in Arkansas. He was a runner and an inspiration to a lot of people all over the world. Darrell had suffered many physical challenges: a brain tumor, significant bouts of cancer and related complications, plus removal of a large part of his intestine. But he never stopped running, or wanting to. He was very open and frank about his ailments and his ongoing treatment. Hundreds of people knew when he had chemo, when he went back to the hospital for fluids, how he struggled to keep food down in the last few weeks, how the once-strong runner struggled to stand and walk.

In recent months I’ve also watched someone close to me go through cancer treatment. Driving to radiation appointments was all I could do to help. The disease as well as the treatments can be physically and psychologically damaging but now I grasp the importance of finding a way to look past the immediate treatment and pain, to have something like running to look forward to. If you stop making plans, I guess, you stop living.

dhenry

Friends of his made t-shirts with this logo on it.

Darrell had been a marathoner with great philosophical insight about the act of running, plus a burning desire and need to run. He brought together a great variety of people who enjoyed his quips and took inspiration from his experiences. I often had to reconsider my petty excuses for not lacing up my shoes when he’d post something like this:

“The best remedy for throat, inner ear and jaw pain from chemo? Hill repeats. Find a steep hill and run up and down that thing till the pain from the act overshadows the pain from chemo. Punish yourself harder than life can, and life will cease to cause you fear.”

One woman posted a long exchange she had with him in which he described a terribly difficult race with cold winds and hills — while he was having chemo treatments that made him ultra sensitive to cold. He thought about laying in a ditch out of the wind, he said, but instead used the wind to pull himself to the top of the hill. “I did what I advise others to do,” he wrote. “Fall forward one step at a time until you’re finished. That’s running isn’t it?”

Here’s a post of his I found that pinched my heart, because we all have those trails we dream of escaping to, but he had so many more reasons to want to escape the confines of his medical bondage: “In the past week we discovered I have a blood clot that nearly affected the entire length of my left arm. Fairly common with chemo, plus it happens with ports. Just part of the game. A few days later I developed an intestinal obstruction … I can’t exert myself in any way for a week or two because of the clot, so I’m doing something I did in the hospital following my colectomy. Closing my eyes and daydreaming of a trail in the national forest that I love to run. I’ll be back there soon.”

My struggle has always been mental: overcoming the comfort of my status quo, like putting on multiple layers of shirts and socks to go out on a cold day. His, I realized, was the opposite, it was making his damaged body do what his mind never stopped wanting.

So I went out to my favorite trails today and enjoyed a beautiful run with Darrell in mind, like thousands of other runners who knew him. I have so little to overcome and so much to be thankful for. The colors may be dull this time of year but the feeling of strength in my legs and air in my lungs made this one to treasure. It was better than falling forward one step at a time by a long shot.

Fall hikes: Look out above!

October 2, 2016

Without April’s muck, May’s black flies, July’s thunderstorms, and August’s crowds, hiking in the fall can be sublime. Consider dry conditions, warm sun, and quiet trails for opportunities to see animals foraging for berries and nuts. Think of the golden late-afternoon sun warming yellow and orange foliage.

Then consider that the seasons change faster up north than at home. The ranger wasn’t joking when she admonished my daughter Grace and I that the summit we sought last weekend was 20 degrees cooler than the trailhead where we began, and the wind chill up there (at 10-15 mph) made it colder than that. We laughed at the warning sign posted at the trail head. C’mon, the sun was shining, we had food and water — what could possibly go wrong??

warning-sign-madison-hike

We’d chosen the trail to Madison Spring Hut because the 4,800-foot ascent was spread over a 3.8 mile trail, making it a relatively gentle hike. Compared to Mount Monadnock’s 3,600-foot scramble/climb in just a mile (white dot trail) it was a breeze. And then it got breezy.

As we climbed under the protection of a canopy of trees, we stripped off layers. I wondered several times if I hadn’t over-packed, as my backpack seemed to bulge with food, survival essentials like headlamps and gatorade tablets, extra clothing, and even waterproof matches. Surely I wouldn’t need most of it. My biggest concern was avoiding blisters caused by the new boots I’m still breaking in. The one thing we were slightly troubled about was our water supply, as we each carried a large bottle of water (and I had another bottle of Gatorade in my pack). We were counting on refilling at the hut, but the ranger at the trail head told us the hut was closing for the season that day and “might” be able to provide some. Neither of us liked that situation and it might have made us hike a little faster to get there before they closed the doors for the last time. (We had water treatment drops too but I’m not crazy about that option — we’d used it in Peru and didn’t die…)

Many of the people we met coming down were dressed for much colder weather. My brain took notice but didn’t completely register the reason: of course it was colder at the top, much colder. Given my experience at the Kinsmans a couple years ago, it should have hit me like a brick. But there was no snow on the ground to make it completely undeniable and duh, I was enthusiastic and enjoying myself so it never sank in.

When we broke out of the treeline, I looked up and saw thin clouds sweeping quickly across the summit. We were briefly showered in a light sleet when the wind blew. Windbreakers were in place before we approached the hut, but I could already feel myself cooling off rapidly. The northern side of every spruce tree was white with frost.

madison-hut-panorama

As we approached the hut, a sign to the left showed the trail to the summit of Madison (5,300′) to the left. I figured we’d go inside, get our water and have a snack then continue over the peak and down another trail … but it wasn’t to be.

Inside the hut, everything was boxed up and being inventoried. The kitchen was being cleaned by the AMC staff. And I quickly realized that the staff were not wearing hats and Patagonia down jackets because they’re young and hip but because the hut was just as cold as the outside temperature minus the wind. It was unheated. Still, we were there for water and a snack, which we immediately refilled and consumed. Then things unraveled.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize signs of hypothermia. I could barely eat and had trouble holding my water bottle to my lips for a drink. Grace immediately got me a hot cup of tea from the staff but it wasn’t quite enough. I stripped my wet layers off and put on dry clothes, then a down jacket and hat (look at that, those “extra” supplies in my pack were actually necessary!). I was still shivering uncontrollably. Grace put on tights under her pants, then extra layers. We were both shaking. I was amazed at how quickly the symptoms started and that they wouldn’t go away (multiple cups of tea later).

“Well, let’s hit the summit and head out,” I said to Grace. She shook her head. “No, we need to go back down. This is close enough to the summit today.”

I felt like a kid who had been denied a treat. I wanted to say we’d summited a 5,300′ mountain. It was only a few hundred feet away — we could SEE people climbing it. She pointed out that we could see people climbing it because the approach was completely exposed — to the wind, sleet, and whatever else. I knew she was right. Dammit.

grace-at-madison-hut

We took some pictures and hiked out. Thank God the trail we’d chosen was gradual as I was a little shaky at the beginning. Then we had a little Nutella and pretzels to celebrate, and made it back to the car in no time. And without injury.

Hike carefully out there. And don’t think that you have to go to the big mountains to enjoy beautiful scenery — there are at least 52 mountains in New Hampshire with gorgeous views that are more accessible than those over 4,000 feet. See this list for ideas.

madison-hike-sept-2016

 

Walmart bike shame

September 14, 2016

On the first uphill, I downshifted and things seemed to go okay… until the hill peaked and I hit the brakes going down the other side. That’s when the bike made a sound like a Canadian goose getting goosed — good old rim brakes making their presence known throughout the woods. Then I tried to shift back into cruising gear and realized the cable to the rear derailleur was shot. Oh great, how do I ride the challenging Vietnam trails without shifting gears??

For a moment I considered throwing the Walmart bike in the bushes and doing a trail run instead. Either way I needed my 60 minutes of sweat and solace after spending 9 previous hours staring at the computer screen and dealing with all sorts of deadlines.

walmart-bike

Riding a Walmart bike is a shameful practice, even for someone like me who can’t afford to be a bike snob. People post photos online of mis-assembled bikes in their stores with forks on backward and other scary issues. My early mishaps were a lesson to me that Walmart bikes may look like “real” bikes, but decent components may be a matter of life and death on real trails.

Why was I on the Walmart bike to begin with? My good bike was at home, 50 miles away. My back-up bike has a flat and needs a new tube. Mike’s got all sorts of bikes in his garage but none I’d ride off-road… or probably at all. In fact, his Walmart bike is in worse shape than mine, with a screwdriver taped to the crossbar to help get the chain unstuck from the frame when things go awry (basically, anytime he shifts)!

We bought the bikes in Florida to ride in Florida. Florida is frying pan flat, or I might have found the shifter cable flaw earlier. When we’re there I just ride on sidewalks, to the beach or the gym. Nothing serious.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t so bad once I figured out how to hold the right shifter in place when I climbed hills. Soon I encountered a fleet of other mountain bikers flying through the woods. I decided the best tactic for staying anonymous was to ride behind them because then they’d never see my shameful Walmart bike.

In the rare event that I might actually see and talk to another biker, I rehearsed my lines. It was going to be something like, “I know, it says Mongoose, that’s Walmart all the way. I just had to ride today or lose my mind. I’d take a tricycle out here before I’d stay home on a night like this.” Fortunately I didn’t have to explain myself as all the bikers I saw were on their own flight paths. They didn’t hear the brakes squeal or the suspension squeak.

After a while I got into my own groove and found some great terrain I hadn’t tried before, smooth singletrack through a garden of ferns. The tiny frame of this cheap bike made navigating around rock gardens much easier (was it this easy on my real bike, I wondered?). I owned the hills, even when my hand slipped and the gears went back up. The mosquitoes weren’t even as bad as they usually are. Maybe faking that I was riding a “real bike” made me ride harder than I usually do. I enjoyed hopping the logs and taking the drops because it was a brief thrill every time the Mongoose performed like my good bike.

At the end of the night I was just as sweaty and relaxed and as happy as I generally am when I have my best bike to ride. Is that a score for Walmart, or for riding in stealth mode? Whatever — the distance from my computer is the same no matter which bike I’m on.

 

 


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