Thursday, December 25, 2014

All I Want for Christmas is a Little Snow

A white Christmas is not just a line from a song or a Hollywood-esque, commercial vision for me. It’s something that I grew up with. My family would spend the holiday vacation on the farm with our grandparents and relatives, feeding cattle and building snow forts.

One winter vacation, when I was running on the high school cross country and track team, I went for a run in the freshly fallen snow. I ran several miles up the road and past the neighboring farm. By the time I turned to come back my tracks had vanished beneath a fresh carpet of powder. When I finished the run, my hair was covered in a layer of white dust and my proud, teenage goatee was coated in my own frozen breath.

It was an amazing experience, running alone in completely baffled silence through the thickly falling flakes. It was also an experience that I would not repeat for many years. Through several moves, and Army dictated adventures, I would not enjoy very many white Christmases for more than a decade.

Until now.

Char and I flew to Wyoming for the Christmas holiday to see her family before we left the states for a three-year extended vacation overseas.

Ok, pretty much everything I do is one form of a vacation or other.

The weather reports looked pretty solid to bring us some new snow on Christmas Day. When we woke up, sure enough, it was snowing. There was a solid two inches already sticking on the ground.

Yup, that's a white Christmas, alright.
I got what I wanted for Christmas, so I decided to unwrap my gift the best way I know how.

Char and I slipped on some winter gear, prepped for the mid-20-degree temperature waiting for us, and took off down the road.

The road out of town led up into the hills out of the valley. My lungs were burning from the extra 6,000 feet of elevation and the steady climbing of the lonely, snow-covered road.

That is a long and lonesome road when you're on foot.
 A mile into the run I stopped at the wild horse holding facility to see the horses and burros milling about in corrals, thick and fuzzy with their winter coats. The neigh of a wild horse is like nothing I’ve heard before. Imagine a horse whinny and a pig squeal mashed together and you’ve just about got it.

The road continued to wind slowly up into the hills and the silence grew more profound, more complete. The sounds of the city behind us, of people waking up to a wintery Christmas morning, were obscured behind thick curtains of falling flakes.

I must admit, I find supreme joy in the solitary enterprise of running. The solitude brought on by the snowstorm, along with the physical challenge of running through snowdrifts, left me ecstatic.

There’s something special and moving about leaving tracks in freshly fallen snow where no one else has yet tread.

Close to my turnaround time I came to what looked like a mountain rising up from the road. I just had to climb it. Slowly, I trotted carefully up the slick trail towards the peak, picking my way carefully across the snowdrifts and subtly hidden rocks. Twice I stopped to catch my breath and enjoy the view back into the valley, my lungs were on fire and my legs were starting to give out. At the top, I realized my mountain was only the edge of the prairie that sits above the town nestled in the river valley. The view was pretty awesome, even though the snow was now falling much heavier and quickly swallowing up the surrounding landscape.

Catching up to Charla, we could barely
see each other from a distance.
During most of the run, I had felt quite warm and even a little sweaty. Now, the wind was picking up and the flakes were falling hard and fast. It was time to go home. I started to pick my way down the hill back to the road when I realized that I might be in serious trouble.

One of the most important rules about running in the snow: Don’t lose your own tracks, or you won’t know how to get home. And I came real close to doing just that. For a minute or two I wandered across the face of the hill, searching the snowdrifts before I found my own trail that led me back to my road home. Getting lost in a snowstorm would have been pretty embarrassing. And a little cold.

The run home was only slightly less peaceful with wind and snow blowing into my face and clogging up my glasses with ice. But, it was all downhill, and I made good time following footprints left by Charla, trotting along in the snow somewhere ahead of me.

Her hair is completely frozen.
I couldn't help but laugh.
We came together just a few blocks from the end, and jogged slowly together, savoring this silent winter wonderland that we had been given.

It really did feel like the empty road and falling snow was a Christmas gift, just for us. And we made sure to unwrap it right away.

How else do you finish a run this awesome?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Autumn is all about Transformation

The first rule of trail running is:

Don’t fall down, roll your ankle, fall off the cliff, get hit by descending mountain bikers, crash into the random Japanese tourist doing shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, get eaten by a bear, molested by bees, or run face first into that tree branch that you should have seen coming.

Sounds easy enough.

I've run in the deserts of the Southwestern States and the Middle East. I've run on pavement and dirt trails all across the world. I've run marathons in Texas, D.C., New Mexico, and Hawaii. 

I've never run on trails like these: East Coast forests in the coastal plain, right at the height of autumn, with soft dirt paths surrounded by endless trees.
We had planned to explore a new trail every weekend, but quickly subsumed to our three favorites.

And, as we ran deeper into autumn, we watched the world change around us.

Everywhere we looked, the leaves were aflame with vibrant oranges and yellows; many had already fallen and cushioned the ground in a blanket of wet, brown tetrahedrons of dead leaves.

They also hid the ankle breaking rocks and roots. But, in the end, we both survived.

Trail running in these forested paths has been a lesson in life and change. As the autumn wore on, the forest transformed before our eyes. Our first runs were through a forest aflame with the early days of fall, the leaves under our feet still wet and cushioning every footfall. The walls of trees were still thick with their vibrant garb, hanging thickly and obscuring both vision and sound from carrying far. Squirrels rustling through the leaves moved unseen and nearly silent apart from their intermittent chatter or light crunch in a pile of dead and dried debris.

As the months wore away, the air cooled and the land drifted towards its long sleep. We exchanged shorts, t-shirts, and hats for warm caps, tights, and jackets. The ground hardened, and the leaves that had wetly cushioned our footfalls before now crackled loudly with every step. The acrid smell of sawdust permeated each breath; thousands of leaves ground to powder under the feet of passersby. Each carefully placed step of a squirrel now echoed through the brush, sharp staccatos rebounding off the bark and magnified through the forest. Bird cries shrieked through the treetops. Intermittent wafts of wood smoke drifted from barely hidden homes fighting off the morning chill.

Soon the first freeze came and the forest became both silent and louder simultaneously. The denuded trees loomed silently over the path, their palette of splendor stripped but revealing other wonders previously hidden. Behind their exposed fa├žade lay quiet homes, tucked into the hillsides; a meandering, icy stream, occasionally crashing over frost covered rocks; and dashing squirrels, their leaping and bounding through the woods now laid bare for the passing eye. Birds, previously hidden, now flaunted their colors through the treetops. Woodpeckers, brightly adorned, flitted from tree to tree. Scarlet cardinals darted between branches. The ground became hard, the leaves crunched sickly underfoot, everything coated in a thin layer of ice. Formerly trustworthy ground became slick and treacherous with ice. Sucking patches of mud became uneven patches of frozen earth.

Change happened swiftly even during a single run. As the sun rose, the ground changed, ice thawed and became slick, wooden footbridges dried out. The air became less harsh, snowflakes giving way to sunshine and warmth.

As with life, change is constant. Before, I had thought upon winter as a time of dying trees and bare, forbidding woods. Now, I understand a little better just how a forest can fall asleep, while also coming to life.

Winter isn’t about things ending; it’s about life transforming and changing. All it took was a little trip to the East Coast to watch autumn fall to teach me a little about life.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Most Patriotic Scavenger Hunt Ever!

How long does it take to run all the way from historic Fort McNair to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, from there all the way around the National Park Mall in DC, hitting every national monument along the way, with stops at Lincoln, the White House, and the State Capitol, and then back to Fort McNair?

About two hours, that's how long. (Check it out here.)

Char and I thought this one up a few weeks ago and chose a beautiful and sunny weekend to try it out.

The plan was to do a modified scavenger hunt in the National Park, stopping at every major national monument around the mall to take a selfie for proof that we’d been there, and circle around the entire park before returning to our start point. It was something I'd been wanting to try since I ran the Marine Corps Marathon back in 2010. 

The problem was, who wants to ride home on the Metro with two sweaty, smelly runners?

Luckily, one of the perks of being in the military is having access to fitness facilities located on any American military base in the world. That includes historic Fort McNair, less than two miles from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

We hopped an early morning Metro, left a change of clean clothes and shower stuff in lockers at the post’s fitness facility, and took off on our grand scavenger hunt. There were enough other runners, joggers, cyclists, and ... um... unique and free-spirited souls (some very strange people wander about the National Park), that we didn't feel at all out of place. There's even a Strava segment for a sprint up the stairs at the Lincoln Memorial that would be more fun without the crowds.

We capped off the last stop with a pause and photo op at the foot of the Capitol building before finishing the two mile run back to Fort McNair and the waiting showers. 


It was a great way to visit almost every monument around the mall without taking all day and combine that with our fitness goals of pushing our distance running. We did cover almost nine and a half miles that morning.

And the best way to finish off bucket-list run around our nation's capital?

Char's go to choice at Capitol City Brewing Co.
Yup, you guessed it.

Seafood gumbo and fish 'n chips!

Yes, we had to look up on Youtube how to eat crawfish.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Time to Get Our Workout On

Now, if only I could remember where I put my pants.

A typical day in the gym for Char and I goes something like this:

Char – So, what do you want to do today?
Me – I don’t know, what do you want to do?
Char – I don’t know, maybe some cardio and some weights…
Me – Yeah, I suppose. Here grab these kettle bell things and swing them around a bit.
Char - Ok. What's this giant box thing for?
Me - I think you're supposed to jump on and off it. But first, walk around the weight room with this heavy medicine ball, and make sure you’re sweating and breathing heavy when you do.
Char – Why?
Me – ‘Cause that’s how people know you’re serious. And while you do that, I’ll grunt and slam this giant bean bag into the floor so everyone knows we’re not messing around over here.

Too Much Weight?
30-90 minutes later we’ve stumbled through a hodgepodge workout of CrossFit-ish moves, weight training, and some other made up stuff. We’re not really focused and no closer to our personal fitness goals than we were before we started.

Used to be, we could just walk in and dream up a dozen or so things to do to get a decent smoke session out of ourselves, but the last month has had us in so many different places and with gyms that don’t have the equipment we’ve come to expect (talking about you Fort Meade, where are all the medicine balls?) and we’re running into the gym rat version of writer’s block. Our workouts are becoming mediocre and boring. Oh, there’s some sweating and some grunting going on, but if we really want to pursue our physical goals seriously, it’s time to come up with a plan.

It’s time to get serious.

So, we’ve come up with a menu of options for inflicting pain and suffering on our bodies in pursuit of physical progress (or prowess; depends on how I feel when I wake up). Each day has a specific focus, with different options that we put together for each focus. For example, choose Weight Training for Tuesday and then pick the Dumbbell Destruction plan from the list; get ripped. Should be simple enough and yet satisfy the Choose Your Own Adventure Book desire embedded in both of us from growing up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Mondays (Endurance Cardio):
Trail Runs (Fort Meade and Maryland are covered with short and medium trails for running)
Lap Swim
Spinning (The apartment complex has two awesome spin bikes with selectable workout videos)

Tuesdays (Strength):
Weight Training
Yoga (as a recovery or second workout option)

Wednesdays (Speed Cardio):
Track Intervals
Swim Intervals
Spin Intervals

So, um, basically it’s an interval kind of day.

Thursday (Strength):
Weight Training

Thursday has the same focus as Tuesday but a different workout.  So, whatever we do on Tuesday, we can’t do on Thursday.

Friday (Makeup Day):
Fill in the blank with whatever you feel you need.

Each day was chosen and built around our plan to build a fantastic fitness foundation (alliteration!) while in Maryland. The intervals help build the speed that we both struggle with in cycling and running. The CrossFit helps Char learn how to jump onto something taller than a toaster oven. The swimming satisfies my innate desire to become the world’s hairiest triathlete. All of this while avoiding the distraction of actual races and organized events and building the foundation in the three core areas of fitness that I often use to judge my health: strength, endurance, and flexibility.

Weekends are adventure days where we choose something fun and exciting. This is a huge change for us. Before now, the weekends were filled with long cycling or running sessions, but we don’t have our bikes here in Maryland and chose not to commit to any specific long distance events in the near future. We can finally use the weekends to explore the local sights, history, culture, and even make up some crazy adventures to combine our fitness with what’s available. 

Stay tuned for the National Mall Scavenger Hunt Adventure that we’re currently working on.