Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fond Memories

The other day I was going through old photographs when I came across this little gem.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don't think we need nearly that many to assess what's going on in this photo:

Believe it or not, this is my wedding night.  Post-reception, John and I changed so we could go out in Red Lodge, Montana (it's not really the kind of town where you wear a wedding dress or your uniform for bar hopping).  I have no idea what my mother said to make me this pissed off (and it had to have been my mother, as the only other two people who could possibly make me that mad are standing next to me in the photo), but I'm guessing it was something along the lines of "Everyone say 'cheese!'"

The expressions here are priceless.  John looks absolutely terrified, but, good sport that he is, he's smiling anyway (and probably wondering what the heck he just married into).

I believe I'm telling my mother that if she takes one more picture I'm going to strangle her with the camera strap (or I could be speaking in tongues; it's entirely possible that I've just been possessed by the devil). 

Sarah has obviously decided that words are a complete waste of energy when you can kill someone with looks alone.

And then there's poor innocent Christina, who clearly wants no part in our drama.  "If we keep quiet and back up veeeery slowly, I think we can make a run for it." 

Ah, memories... It's hard to believe John and I will have been married seven years next month.  Thank goodness we have precious photographs like this one to look back on...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: The Metro

The D.C. Metro may be one of the most unlikely places on earth for anyone to gather inspiration, but for a writer, it's a treasure trove of material.  I don't ride the Metro very much these days - maybe once every other week if I go to the movies with LNRB and Sarah - so I am still able to enjoy it (I'm sure if I commuted on it every day all those sweaty lost souls would be a nuisance rather than a resource).  I don't get to be "alone" very often either (without Jack, in other words), and I had always hated being alone up until having a baby.  But now I relish those rare moments where I can get lost in a crowd.  There is an unexpected sense of freedom that comes with simply walking without a stroller and a diaper bag.  I feel like my old self again.  I can put on my head phones and grab a book and pretend to be completely absorbed in either one of them when really I'm checking out all the people around me.  I learned the great art of people watching from my mother when I was young, a very useful skill when you have to wait eons for a ride at Disneyland, for example.

The other night I met up with Sarah and LNRB for dinner and a movie (tapas and The Beginners; both were very enjoyable, although I suspect the pitcher of sangria may have helped).  On the way into the city, I was so excited to see a man I'd seen on another recent metro trip that I had half a mind to say hello to him.  He wasn't someone who would stand out to most people, and I'm honestly a little surprised that I remembered him, but there was something about him, with his slightly squinty eyes, gray beard, and spare tire that reminded me fondly of my father.  He also had a tooled belt that looked to be adorned with dragons and castles from where I was sitting, which was pretty fabulous.  Besides, what are the odds of getting on the same exact car of a train as someone, at rush hour when the trains come every few minutes and there are a dozen cars on every train?  I made a deal with myself that if I see him again I have to talk to him. 

On my ride home the train was pretty crowded and I was forced to take a seat next to one of the homeliest men I've ever seen.  He was short and overweight, with a bulbous nose, a hairy back, and several unfortunate moles.  He was also sweaty and emitting a rather unpleasant odor, but I didn't have the heart to move.  Sitting next to him, I couldn't help but feel like my life is pretty damn good in the great scheme of things.  I get down on myself a lot, about my writing, my looks, whether or not I'm a good wife and mother, but imaging what kind of a life the man sitting next to me must have helped put things in perspective.  Maybe I'm wrong - maybe this man invented some million dollar computer program and is actually surrounded by friends and adoring women.  I hope so.    

There was one other person who caught my eye on the metro ride home.  She was a woman in her thirties, pretty in a very conventional sense, with glossy brown hair in a pony tail, a diamond cross around her neck, wearing a pink blouse, black tweed shorts, and a pair of black leather sandals.  But there, clawing its way up her ankle, was a tattoo of a black panther, the kind you see on heavy metal albums from the 1980s.  It was so completely out of character with the rest of her appearance that I was absolutely fascinated.  I felt like I'd just gotten a glimpse of the rebellious teen she'd once been before she married an accountant and became a soccer mom.  I know there's a short story in there somewhere.

That's the thing I love about people: every single one of them has a story.  And you never know when one of those stories could end up in one of mine...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different: Shrimp on the Barbie Jesus

This post is totally random, and it is dedicated to my sister Amy.  Enjoy!

The last time I was in Paris, in February of 2009, my sister Elizabeth took John, my sister Amy, and me to a small museum called the Musee Jacquemart-Andre.  It was a lovely little museum with a fabulous tea room, but the thing that really stood out to Amy and me was a painting, Vierge a l'Enfant by Alessio Baldovinetti.  This was just one of many paintings of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, but there was something special about this baby Jesus, namely, his swaddling.  In the painting, Baby Jesus is wrapped up like a mummy from the armpits down, with a tuft of red fabric where his feet should be.  In other words, he looks like a shrimp.  And so Amy and I gleefully dubbed him "the Shrimp on the Barbie Jesus."

Just in case any one thinks I'm being sacrilegious, I offer you this:

Come on, it's Shrimp on the Barbie Jesus!
And since this painting was apparently nowhere else on the Internet, I scanned the postcard that Amy and I bought at the museum gift shop.  So really, I'm doing this for posterity.

And also, it just makes me laugh. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

So What's Up With That Writing Thing, Anyway

It's been a while since I've mentioned my novels.  Usually when that happens you can count on one of two things: nothing is happening, or something bad has happened and I'm too embarrassed to talk about it.
Lately it's sort of been both.  Not much has happened, which is basically a bad thing, and therefore I'm too embarrassed to talk about it.  BUT I have been doing a lot of writing, so all hope is apparently not lost.  An agent has my chick lit novel and I have sent out a few more queries, so we'll see.  I did get a rejection from an agent who said my book sounded too much like chick lit, which editors are still steering clear of.  This kind of annoys me since they have chick lit listed as one of the genres they represent on their website, but she was nice about it and I understand where she's coming from.  The thing is, CHICK LIT IS NOT DEAD.  When I sent How the Other Half Lives out in 2008, an agent at a large agency told me the same thing.  And yet, since then, plenty of novels that could easily be called chick lit have been published.  Chick lit novels from five or more years ago are just now being made into movies (Something Borrowed, for example), and yet agents and editors continue to say that chick lit is a dead genre and writers should move on to something else.
So after I got that rejection, I came across a fabulous blog, aptly titled Chick Lit is Not Dead.  I love that this blog exists in the first place, but what's even more fabulous is that the women who write the blog (chick lit authors themselves) feature tons of authors with new and upcoming women's fiction/chick lit novels.  And if you go to those author's websites, you can usually find out who their agents are.  I've discovered several agents this way recently.  So, thank you Liz and Lisa, for having such a great blog and reminding people that as long as women are writing about "high fashion and happy endings" (as they put it), there will be women who want to read about it.

On another note, I'm a few chapters into my new paranormal YA and loving it.  Writing it is so much fun, which is how writing should be, only I'd kind of lost sight of that with all that's happened over the past year.  I'm excited for Jack to start preschool just so I can have more time to write.  I'm hoping to write this novel fairly quickly, but who knows what will happen.  I'm also entering a few contests, and just writing this blog makes me feel like I'm doing something

A fun story: I sent the short story I submitted to a literary magazine a few months ago to my good friend LNRB, but I didn't hear back from her so I assumed she hated it, and I certainly wasn't about to bring it up.  Then the other night at dinner she mentioned that she'd been reading it out loud to her husband while waiting for the ferry in San Francisco, and a crowd of people gathered around and applauded when she finished reading it.  Now, LNRB can be slightly prone to exaggeration, so "a crowd of 25" may have actually been two, and that "applause" may really have been people swatting at flies, but I'm choosing to believe this actually happened.  Whatever the case, LNRB liked it, and that's good enough for me!

And on that note, it's time to get back to the novel.  Have a great weekend, everyone!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Parenting: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I love Facebook.  I really do.  I think as someone who lives far away from most of her family, it's the best way to keep in touch and share photos, especially once you have kids.  But one of my biggest pet peeves is when someone posts something positive, particularly to do with their children, and someone else has to come back with a negative comment.
For example: Someone's baby has just learned how to walk.  This is a major milestone in a child's life, and one that is undoubtedly thrilling for new parents.  But every time someone posts about their child's first steps, someone has to make the comment: "Look out!  You're in for it now!"  Or someone is nine months pregnant and remarks that they just can't wait until their baby is born, and someone writes, "Enjoy the peace and quiet while you still can!"  Talk about raining on someone's parade!

Parenthood is hard - I think we can all agree on that.  But it is also filled with innumerable moments of joy.  For every challenge that comes with a certain age, there is something equally amazing to counterbalance it.  And so I've decided to compile a little list of sorts - all the "good" and "bad" parts of each phase that we've experienced so far (and let's face it, you wouldn't trade in the bad stuff even if you could, right?).
So the next time someone tells you to "watch out" now that your baby can roll over, you can come back with, "Ah, but he can find his own foot!"  That'll show 'em!

0-3 months:
Let me paint you a little picture: You are a new parent.  Your child is literally the most beautiful child on the planet.  Everyone tells you so on Facebook, and you believe them.  (Later on you will look back at the photos and say to yourself, "Hmmm... he wasn't quite as cute as I thought he was, was he?" but by that point he really IS the cutest baby on the planet, so you don't mind.)
You are a walking zombie.  You have not had a full night's sleep in weeks, if not months.  You walk around with spit-up on your clothing and in your hair, but you are blissfully unaware, because you have a new baby, and nothing else matters (either that, or you are simply too tired to care).  Every breath your baby takes is a miracle - every blink and nose crinkle elicits gasps of sheer delight.  Surely no other child in world history has crinkled their nose quite so adorably!  And when your baby smiles for the first time, a smile that actually seems deliberate (i.e., not a facial spasm or the byproduct of a particularly satisfying fart), your heart melts into a warm puddle of goo.  Also, your child can sleep through anything, so you can go out to dinner after 7:00 pm and still have a reasonably leisurely meal (assuming you have the energy to put on real clothing, and the energy to do the laundry required to wear the real clothing).  Your baby might not be sleeping through the night yet, but he totally will be by four months.  At least, that's what all the baby books say... 

Jack at a few weeks old

3-6 months:
From what I remember (it's seriously unbelievable how quickly one forgets), this was a pretty good phase.  Jack was still young enough to take out in his car seat and prop in a restaurant booth, and he was actually sleeping through the night (I know, I know, don't hate me).  He also seemed old enough to leave with a babysitter who was not an immediate family member or a close friend with a top secret security clearance, so we could have a real "date."  Of course if you're breastfeeding (and have a child who literally eats every 90 minutes, like Mr. Pig over here), your date won't last long.  But it's a start.
At some point during this phase, your child starts eating solid foods.  This is good because it's something new and exciting (and at this point, there's not that much new and exciting going on - rolling over is somewhat overrated in my experience), but it also means that diaper changing is about to get a whole lot more interesting (note the "ugly" in the title).  Fortunately your baby is getting cuter by the day, at least until all his hair falls out, so the ugly is well balanced by the cute. 

Jack at four months, courtesy of Mer Trowbridge

6-9 months:
This is the height of cuteness according to my friend Amy, and I'm inclined to agree.  Your baby can sit up and is crawling at some point during this phase.  He is curious and smiley and giggly and hasn't yet developed an attitude.  He is (hopefully) napping on a schedule (up to four hours a day in Jack's case - woohoo!) and is sleeping through the night.  Unfortunately, he can no longer fall asleep anytime, anywhere, which means you have to be home early every night for bedtime.  Eating in a restaurant has gotten far less pleasant.  Teething is in full swing, and it feels as though it will never stop.  Seriously, how many teeth does a person need?  Surely four is plenty!  Thanks to the teeth - and Jack's lack of interest - we began a sort of involuntary (on my part) weaning around this time, which I dragged out with pumping for much longer than I probably should have.  Jack didn't mind formula and clearly we had no issues with weight with this child.  I wanted to make it to a year, but it wasn't going to happen, and if I had let go of that sooner I would have enjoyed these months even more.  But mostly, Jack was just damn cute at this age.

Jack at 8 months.  Love him!

9-12 months:
Air travel is about to get a lot less pleasant, so if you've got family to visit, do it now!  Your baby might be starting to walk (fortunately Jack was slow), which means they will want to be on the ground moving, not tethered to your lap.  Things like buttons and paper cups are no longer fascinating to your child, and you will relinquish all claim to your iPhone at some point during this time, most likely while you are on a plane for four hours.  On a brighter note, your baby has a real bed time now, so you can put him to bed and leave him with a babysitter for several hours without worry.  This is pretty much awesome.
If your child is starting to walk, it's time to babyproof.  John and I decided not long after Jack started walking that fencing off the kitchen would make everything safer and easier for everyone, and I am so happy with that decision (although I do have nightmares that twenty years from now my child won't know how to cook and will blame it on the fact that I never showed him the stove...).  You also get to plan your baby's first birthday party, or in our case, crash on your baby's friend's birthday party.  Yay!

Ten months, in one of my fave outfits ever.

12-15 months:
Now your baby is really walking, and he's not really a baby anymore.  He's a toddler.  The strange thing is, when you look at him, you will still see a baby.  People will comment on how large your child is ("He's built like a line-backer," they'll tell you) and you won't understand.  You'll see another woman with a baby who looks to be about your baby's age, but then you'll see them next to each other and realize a midget Sumo wrestler has actually eaten your baby and is sitting in his stroller.  The nerve!  And yet this stuffed sausage insists on following you home and calling you "mommy." Hmmm...
The good thing is, your baby is also starting to talk.  You realize that all those books you read to your child when he was little more than a semi-animated lump have actually sunk into his brain (and start to pray that all the swearing you've been doing has magically managed to slip by).  Every day your baby is learning more and more.  His personality is really starting to shine through.  He is his own person!  And he's about to let you know just what he thinks of you.

Jack at 13.5 months.

15-18 months:
Now is the time when, if you are a stay-at-home mom like myself, you start to wonder if that part-time job 30 miles away was really such a bad thing after all.  You're down to one (hopefully long) nap a day, and your darling angel has a firm grasp of the word "no."  Oddly, he hasn't yet mastered the word "yes."  He is running around like a maniac (Seriously, what has your husband been feeding that child? Pixie Stix?) a good ten hours a day, meaning you are running around like a maniac after him.  He will develop a healthy fascination with body parts, mostly his own, although your belly may soon be making unplanned public appearances. 
If you're really lucky, you'll have a baby with a temper, like Jack.  Fortunately, he has turned most of his aggression on inanimate objects and hasn't yet bitten another child.  Unfortunately, he has chipped both of his front teeth in the process. 
On the other hand, your baby may also be incredibly snuggly, like Jack.  He will give you kisses and cuddles (generally on his own program, but occasionally when you ask for them) and will sometimes let you hold him for more than 30 seconds at a time.  These are wonderful moments.

Jack at 15 months. Photo by Ali McLaughlin.

 And that's all I've got so far!  I'm sure I've forgotten all kinds of ups and down, and hopefully some of you can remind me of them.  Overall, the thing that has surprised me most about motherhood is how much I've laughed in the past nineteen months.  Sure, it's been the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's been rewarding in ways I never imagined.  I can't wait to see what the next 18 months have in store!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: Girls Trip!

The most recent girls trip I took was a brief one-night escape to Annapolis for my birthday with Sarah and Kim.  Before that, I can't remember the last time I got away with my girlfriends (it was before Jack was born, I know that!).  Sarah mentioned a month ago that she wanted a vacation (a non-work trip, to be specific), and I realized that I wanted (heck, NEEDED) a little getaway too, particularly one sans Jack.  Tahoe was great, but we were there for John's race, not to really relax, and I haven't taken a beach-y vacation since high school.  When LNRB and Kim jumped on board, I knew we had to plan a girls trip ASAP.  But where to?  And when?

We decided the best time to go would be when John could watch Jack, and when all of the other girls could take as few vacation days as possible.  Hence, Thanksgiving.  Next we had to pick a destination.  After researching affordable options (Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Caribbean, Costa Rica) we chose Cancun because of its location.  Since we're only going for four nights, we didn't want to spend two entire days traveling.  Cancun is also relatively equidistant between the coasts, and since Kim is coming from San Francisco and the rest of us are coming from D.C., it made sense to pick somewhere in the middle.

Our hotel!  I'll be under that thatched thing, reading.

Even after we agreed on the where and when, I still couldn't quite believe we were going to make this happen.  I have tried to plan these kinds of trips in the past, and everyone seems so excited at first, but then something else comes up, or people drag their feet and no one really wants to commit.  But my girls seemed serious.  And god knows I was serious.  So I went to Orbitz and started researching packages.  I found several that seemed good, but they changed constantly, literally every five minutes, and I was starting to get discouraged.  I was afraid to take the plunge on everyone else's behalf.  But I also knew that if I didn't just pick a package and go for it, we could procrastinate forever.  So last night, Sarah and I sat down and picked one.  And guess what?  We booked it!

Sure, I feel guilty and self-indulgent already.  But come Thanksgiving, I will be foregoing yams and stuffing for a margarita and guacamole.  Make that two margaritas.  Poolside.  If I'm going to be self-indulgent, I might as well enjoy it!


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Food For Thought

They say you are what you eat.  If that's true, then I'm a giant glob of peanut butter (I eat A LOT of peanut butter).  To that end, I'd like to present my new favorite snack: Trader Joe's Roasted Seaweed Snacks.  They're salty, crunchy, cost 99 cents, and they have only 60 calories in an entire package. 

Not that I have any plans to stop eating peanut butter.  But hey, it's a start.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Autumn of My Discontent

So earlier this year I made a proclamation.  John was still taking classes for his Master's degree, working long hours, preparing for the Foreign Service Orals, and training for Western States.  Jack was ... well ... a baby.  I needed a break, a little time where life wasn't necessarily about me, but it wasn't all about everyone else either.  "This shall be the Fall of Mara!" I declared.  John and Jack looked at me like I was crazy and went back to their business (reading and drooling, respectively).

In March John passed the Foreign Service Orals.  He graduated from grad school in May.  Last month John ran Western States, and all was right with the world.  Finally, I thought, we can take a break.  No more talk of economics or electrolytes, international relations or interval workouts.  I daydreamed about the fun family activities we could do with all this extra time.  (What those fun family activities would be, I had no idea.  But we had all that extra time to figure it out!)  Life was good.  And then, two days after we came home from Western States, John and I were lying in bed, trying to get back on east coast time.  John mumbled something, something that sounded suspiciously like "50k in two weeks."  But no, that couldn't be, I told myself.  My season had begun when Western States finished.  John knew the rules.  No more races for the rest of the year.  But really, it had sounded a lot like "50k."  I rolled over.  "I KNOW you're not talking about doing a 50k in two weeks."  "Uh, nope, wouldn't dream of it.  You must have misheard."  John wisely scooted onto his quarter of the bed and went to sleep.
Hmph, I thought.  I sure showed him.  He won't be mentioning running again for months to come.  The Fall of Mara has BEGUN!!! 

Some time last week John lost his mind and asked if he could run the JFK 50-miler in November.  The look I gave him could have melted steel, and John quickly tucked his tail between his legs and scurried off.  But then the guilt began to creep in, pecking at the edges of my conscience like a beady-eyed rat.  Guilt, that terrible, resolve-destroying beast, is John's greatest weapon against me.  After all, John is a wonderful husband who never makes me feel bad for staying home with Jack and pursuing this writing nonsense when I could be generating an income.  Who am I to keep him from his true passion?  There are far worse hobbies than running, after all.  Like gambling.  Or porn.

So on Saturday, when John asked me what time the mail went out, and I asked him why and he replied, "Because the check for the JFK 50-miler has to be sent out today," I didn't strangle him as I was inclined to do, but instead told him, "If you go to the post office right now the check will probably make it."  And he did.  And it did.
And so it seems that the glorious Fall of Mara is not to be.  This will be the Autumn of My Discontent, filled with more races and long Sunday runs, more talk of wasp larvae extract and enough Zappos orders to make Imelda Marcos proud.  Because at the end of the day, we should all be lucky enough to be married to someone who allows us to follow our passion, wherever that road may lead.

And my road, as it turns out, will be leading me to Cancun, Mexico, for a girls trip at Thanksgiving.  Holla!

Hey, who ordered the giant nut?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Because I'm a Mom

Last week Jack and I went to a friend's house for a playdate.  My friend and I had a lot of catching up to do, having not seen each other in several months, and after we covered the major bases, our chat turned to what it so often seems to on play dates - husbands, or, to be more precise, fathers.
I promise we don't sit around bitching about our husbands for three hours straight on play dates.  In fact, a lot of the time we're talking about how great our husbands are, how much they love their children, and how grateful we are when they come home at the end of the day.  But let's face it, moms and dads just do things differently.  Case in point: my friend's husband was allowing their daughter to stand up in the bathtub.  They'd been discussing "rules" lately, trying to establish a few ahead of time so they could be on the same page when something comes up.  Bath time had not been discussed, however, since to my friend, not standing in the tub seemed like a pretty obvious "rule."  Slippery surface, wet baby, large quantities of water, porcelain tub ... it just kind of seems like a no-brainer, right?

And then.  Yesterday John was giving Jack a bath.  When I walked by the bathroom, Jack was standing up in the tub.  "Sit down," I commanded.  "No standing in the tub."  Jack dutifully sat down.  "Oh," John said.  "I didn't realize that was a rule."

WHA!?!?!  Seriously guys, is this not one of those things everybody knows??  For future reference, Dads, NO STANDING IN THE TUB is a rule!  Learn it, memorize it, enforce it.

Moving on. 

Earlier today, John and I were strolling around the Old Town waterfront.  It was hotter than hell, Jack kept insisting on running towards the water, and I had finally given up and retired to a shady bench.  John was holding Jack by the Potomac, watching the boats go by, when I called over to him that it was getting late and Jack looked pretty overheated.  "You sure do worry a lot," John said to me.  "Of course I do," I replied.  "I'm a mom."
When we got home, Jack gave John dinner while I swooned on the sofa.  I finally peeled myself off the couch and went upstairs to put a few things away while John made pizza dough, when suddenly I heard Jack crying.  A lot.  I waited a moment, trying not to immediately go into mommy panic mode, but when the crying didn't stop I knew something was wrong.  I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen, where John was standing with Jack next to the sink.  "He cut his finger," John told me.  My eyes flew to Jack's left hand, where the blood was dripping off his middle finger.  John's shirt was covered in bloody smears.  Jack was hysterical.

Naturally, so was I.  I realize it doesn't help to be a blubbering mess in these situations, but I can't help it.  I'm a mom.  I couldn't see past the flap of skin hanging off my son's finger or hear past his cries of "owieeeee!."  Have you ever watched "Inside the Actors Studio" on Bravo?  During the celebrity interview, James Lipton asks a series of questions, including "What is your favorite curse word?" and "What profession would you not like to have?"  I'm sure I'm not the only person who has come up with their own answers to these questions while watching the show ("Shiza," and  "Professional mover," personally), and I always got annoyed when a guest would answer "What sound or noise do you hate?" with the predictable, "The sound of my child crying."  Come on, I would think to myself.  Surely you hate something more than that.  An alarm clock is so much worse than a baby crying!  What I didn't understand then - what no one can understand until they're a parent - is that the sound of your own child crying in fear or pain is literally the worst possible sound.  I get it now, I really do!

When Jack got his finger slammed in the door this afternoon, I was immediately angry with John, trying to assuage my own guilt for not watching Jack myself by blaming John for the accident.  The truth is, it could have happened on my watch (It didn't...but it could have... theoretically... I guess).  Accidents are just that - accidents.  John didn't mean for Jack to get hurt, and I know he felt worse about the situation than I did.  So, first of all, I'm sorry John.  I know it was an accident, and I'm sorry I made you feel bad about it.  I know the day will come when Jack gets hurt while I'm watching him (theoretically...I guess) and I would hate it if I felt like you blamed me for it.

But the truth is, I can't help it.  I am physically incapable of not worrying about the safety of my child 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  And when he's hurt, I'm physically incapable of remaining calm and rational.  Why, you ask me? 

Because, is all I can say.  I'm a mom.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Job That is Way Cooler Than Your Job

So my twin sister, Sarah, is an associate producer at National Geographic Television.  That's probably one of the coolest things you can tell somebody (not me saying it, obvs, but Sarah telling other people what she does for a living).  Unfortunately, she doesn't get to brag about it as often as you'd think (mostly because she's not a bragger, so unless someone asks her what she does for a living, she doesn't talk about - unlike me, who has to tell everyone everything about her super thrilling life as a stay-at-home mom). ANYWAY.

I'm here to do a little bragging on Sarah's behalf.  She is currently in the Arctic (John has informed me, more than once, that the Arctic is not a country so I shouldn't just say she's "in the Arctic," but I don't know exactly where she is and I'm betting most of you aren't super familiar with the Arctic either, so for all intents and purposes, she's in the frigging Arctic) filming Arctic foxes for the show she's working on, which is all about predators.  Not only am I insanely jealous that Sarah gets to travel all over the world and film cool animals, but she is amassing a collection of stories that will make for the best memoir ever.  So for now, I'm living vicariously through her, and praying she'll let me help with her memoir in some capacity (I'll take un-credited ghost writer at this point).

Last month Sarah was in Mongolia filming wolves, including a litter of adorable wolf pups (I just wrote puppies, then realized how totally un-National Geographic-y that sounded).  I may have been more excited about the baby bunny she got to hold, however. 

Why hewwoooo wee widdle bunny wabbit.  I wuv you!

Sarah is hopefully going to South Africa next month to film baby cheetahs.  Yeah, it's a pretty sweet gig.  Although let's not forget how hard Sarah has worked to get here!  From lowly unpaid intern to producer in two years?  Well done, sis, well done.  Now take me with you, dammit!

Sarah (in the sexy orange parka), a cameraman, and a color-changing fox.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: A Game of Thrones

I had never heard of A Game of Thrones until my fantasy-loving friend Erin mentioned it on Facebook.  The HBO series had just started and she was raving, and since Erin is my source for all things fantasy, I knew it must be worth checking out.

As children, Sarah, Erin and I read fantasy constantly.  We were obsessed with Piers Anthony's Xanth series (which, looking back, wasn't all that appropriate for a sixth grader), and in seventh grade I read The Eye of the World, the first title in the late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  In high school I stopped reading fantasy for the most part, and I didn't start again until our friendship with Erin was rekindled after college.  She assured me the rest of the Wheel of Time series was worth reading, and since I was living in Kingsville, Texas, at the time, and had little better to do than sit on a stationary bike at the gym and read giant paperback fantasy novels, I picked up where I'd left off.  I made it all the way to Knife of Dreams, which I'm sorry to say I was never able to finish.  I need to get through it one of these days, since Erin assures me the series (picked up after Jordan's death by Brandon Sanderson) does get good again.

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark

I decided to record "Game of Thrones" on HBO, although I'd already missed the first episode by that point.  I have to admit, I was a little lost at first (as tends to happen with this type of epic fantasy book and movie - there are just so many characters, and so many weird names!).  But by the third episode I was engrossed in the series.  I finished Madame Bovary (FINALLY - my god that book is long, and slow!) in California, so I purchased A Game of Thrones on my Kindle, the first novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.  I'm a little nervous about getting involved in another one of these potentially endless fantasy series again, but Erin assures me the first five books (books six and seven are forthcoming) are fabulous.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen
I'm about halfway through the book, and I have to say, this is one of the closest book-to-film adaptations I've ever read/seen (so far, anyway).  In a way it helped to watch the show first, because I am able to picture all of the characters so clearly that there's no way I can get them mixed up.  They did a remarkable job casting the show.  I have always been a fan of Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings, National Treasure), and many of the other actors, who are relative unknowns to me, fit their characters so perfectly it's hard for me to believe the book wasn't adapted from the show.  So far the only major difference I've noticed is the age of the characters (which makes sense, since it wouldn't be very PC to have a 14-year-old marrying a man in his thirties on a television show; besides which, this is HBO, and what HBO series would be complete without graphic sex and nudity?).

I'm excited to read the rest of the books in the series, and I was very happy to see that "Game of Thrones" will be a series.  The show (and I'm guessing the book as well) ended on an exciting, albeit fairly predictable, note, and I am eagerly awaiting Season 2.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

White House 4th of July 2011

Last night John, Jack, and I were lucky enough to go to the White House for the 4th of July.  It was something we'd been told we'd probably have a chance to do when John took this job, but last year we weren't able to get in.  After not making it into the Easter Egg Roll either, we weren't holding our breath for this year's 4th of July, but fortunately John's entire office got to go this year!  It may have been my favorite 4th of July ever.

Down at the end of the South Lawn. 
We met John's coworkers across the street from the White House at 5:00 p.m. and didn't even have to wait in line to get in.  I was worried it would be a zoo, but it was remarkably uncrowded.  Tables were set up on the lawn, some with "candy" centerpieces, and others with what looked like cupcake centerpieces.  Naturally I gravitated towards the cupcakes, but alas, they were apples (should have known Michelle Obama wouldn't put candy and cupcakes on the tables!).  The candy centerpieces, as well as the stands for the apples, were made with paper plates.

Jack and a Model-T.

After we settled in at our table, I took Jack to play with the giant beach balls strewn on the lawn.  The President's Own Marine Band was playing in the background.  We waited for the lines to die down before getting our free family photo taken in front of the White House, and in the meantime I got Jack his first balloon animal.  The balloon animal artists (seriously, these people were ARTISTS) made some of the craziest balloon animals I've ever seen.  There was a giant octopus, monkeys with bananas, mermaids, helicopters, adorable little balloon wrist-corsages (I saw a pig and a ladybug, as well as various flowers), a giant giraffe, and for Jack, a tiny little panda bear.  It was adorable, and Jack thoroughly enjoyed it, until he ate its nose.

Jack and his panda balloon.

Obama spoke briefly, flanked by veterans who were being honored for their service.  There was a receiving line after he spoke, but he didn't make it to the end where I was standing with Jack.  John and I walked with Jack all over the lawn, and we finally made it down to the vegetable garden, which we'd missed during the Spring Garden Tour.  Dinner was simple, and unfortunately not veggie-friendly at all, which was sort of surprising given Michelle's campaign for healthy eating.  There were pre-made hotdogs and hamburgers (so we couldn't even make a meatless burger), grilled corn on the cob (tasty, but not the easiest thing to eat in polite company), a salad with candied walnuts and cucumbers, grilled chicken, and a potato salad that I didn't realize had large chunks of pork in it until after I'd put it on my plate.  There were also watermelon skewers, and - thank goodness! - Dove ice cream bars for dessert.

Obama, Michelle (to his right), and some very special American heroes.

We camped out on the lawn after dinner, hoping to catch some of the concert before leaving, but Train didn't come on until around 8:30 (I'm guessing - we left at 8:15 so we could get Jack to bed at a semi-reasonable hour).  We missed the fireworks too, obviously, which was a shame.  Maybe we'll get to go back some year when Jack is older, but even without the "show," we had a wonderful time.

Happy Independence Day!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Runner's POV: Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

Some of this may be redundant, but I thought it would be fun to share John's Western States experience in comparison to mine (ie runner vs crew-er).

(Warning: Long-Winded)
For the uninitiated, WSER is something like the Boston Marathon and World Championships of ultra-running all wrapped into one.  Like Boston, its course sections and primary challenges are well known to runners who’ve never seen them. Places like Robinson Flat, Devil’s Thumb, and Rucky Chucky are to the ultra scene what Wellesley and Heartbreak Hill are to aspirants and veterans of Boston (admittedly there’s nothing quite like running through Wellesley, but Devil’s Thumb is a 2000 foot ascent over 2 miles whereas Heartbreak is an 88 foot ascent over .4 miles…)  Both of these races earned their respective places in running lore by being the first – or nearly the first – of their kind. WSER began in 1974 when a Tevis Cup competitor’s horse went lame and he decided to complete the 100 mile endurance horse race on foot.  Gordy Ainsleigh finished the first known human powered run of the WS trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn in just shy of 24 hours, thus establishing the unofficial benchmark of the sport and the race’s motto: “100 miles, 1 Day.” The depth of competition is also unique within the United States.  Because of its history and place in the sport, WSER attracts the fastest ultra-runners from across the globe, and is also seeded with the winners of various races and race series. The rest of the field is comprised of lottery winners and athletes who enter via title sponsor slots. WSER is the seminal event on the ultra calendar, and for most of the ~400 runners toeing the line in Squaw Valley, the race of their lives and the culmination of years of training (and trying to get in).

I started taking running seriously in 2004 after a 5 year hiatus from “real” training and 3 years of the USMC standard ~20 miles / week. Ever the optimist, my goal was to someday run 100 miles in under 24 hours. I can’t pinpoint where this ambition came from; it just made sense. I vaguely recall my high school chemistry teacher, Willis McCarthy, wearing one of his many WSER silver sub-24 belt buckles and thinking that he was completely insane, but that’s now part of the appeal. Years later he has become a huge resource of ultra-running wisdom before each of my now annual 100 milers. I often get asked why I do this, and the short answer is that there is something very powerful about finding, testing, and exceeding your perceived physical, emotional, and mental limits. With each race the boundaries get pushed further and further out. Running 100 miles virtually guarantees even the best prepared elite athletes a stark reckoning with their individual weaknesses. It bears mentioning the obvious here: preparing for and running an ultra is a very selfish endeavor. It requires countless hours and days of solitude that could be spent with family. It is not unlike other addictions in many important ways. Mara, Jack – thank you. All I can say is that hopefully my running serves as an example that the limits we assume for ourselves are all too often arbitrary and there to be broken.

We arrived in Squaw Valley on Wednesday after leaving Jack with my Mom in HMB and settled into the aptly named “PlumpJack” inn -  a VMFA-323 haunt from way back and purveyors of the finest homemade granola. 3 good reasons to go back! The inn entrance sits about 500 feet from the start of the race, which is both a blessing and a curse depending on how susceptible a runner is to the sometimes negative energy that can infect pre-race venues. WS, however, proved to be the opposite. Everyone I met was so amped to be there and so supportive of their fellow runners’ buckle-hunts that it felt more like a party and less like the all too familiar size-ups at big road marathon packet pick-up expos. The pacer-crew duo of Mike and Alexis arrived on Thursday and we made an afternoon of attending a crew strategy briefing and hiking most of the way to the top of Emigrant Pass on the race course. I had previously run and built quite a bit of familiarity with the final 75 miles of the WS trail 4 weeks earlier over the Memorial Day weekend, but this was my first look at the unorthodox and daunting first 4 miles.

Friday started with more granola, and I must admit here, my first piece of bacon in over 16 years (not disappointed; maybe in myself a bit, but certainly not otherwise). Not unlike other 100s, WSER requires a pre-race medical check in conjunction with packet pickup. I was super-light, but my blood pressure and pulse were both through the roof; I attribute this to nerves and a lingering giddiness over the impressive amount of free “schwag” given to all entrants (a Mountain Hardwear backpack, Moeben arm-warmers, Moeben leg-warmers, a Moeben neck-gaiter, an Asics technical T, a cotton T, Injinji socks, and a full-zip fleece jacket – all emblazoned with WS branding). Again, that self-indulgent “look at me thing.” We made a point of getting out of race central and headed for my Uncle Ray’s place in Incline Village and planted ourselves on the nicest fully wait-staffed private beach on Lake Tahoe for a too short 2 hour interval, and then proceeded back to the (somewhat patronizingly redundant) mandatory pre-race briefing for crew, pacers, and runners. Mara, Mike, Alexis, and I huddled one last time to inventory my gear and go over the final plan for the race, and then spent the rest of the afternoon hanging around Squaw Village with the feet up. My standard pre-ultra high-protein/high fat dinner of fish, rice, and lots of butter followed. Serendipitously, there was a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir on PlumpJack CafĂ©’s wine list that shared its name with my trail shoes (Peregrine), so we obviously obliged and were not disappointed! Unsurprisingly I had some trouble getting to sleep, but still managed about 6 hours.

I woke at 3:29 – exactly 1 minute prior to the alarm – and felt remarkably well rested. Mike quickly followed and beat me out the door to hold a place in line for the second pre-race weigh in (WS instituted a race-morning weigh in to combat the practice of runners weighing in light the day before; each participant wears a wrist band with his/her pre-race weight so that medical personnel can monitor relative weight loss at multiple check points throughout the day. A 7% drop is grounds for a mandatory drop). The next hour.5 went very quickly, and before long I had worked my way to near the front of the jittery hoard of ultra-runners at the well-lit start line set to the Rolling Stones. I was concerned about bottle-necking behind slower runners prior to hitting the back-country single-track, but the 2500 feet of gain in the first 3.5 miles along wide jeep trail and ski slope mitigated any problems that weren’t wholly self-inflicted. We set out to the RD’s welcome to the “Holy Grail of ultra-running!” and within ¼ mile a group of about 20 of us split off from the front of the field. I was surprised to find the pace comfortably aerobic, and kept the leaders within about 45 seconds as we hit the snow about 3 miles into the race. The opening shots of a 100 are a relief; after 3 weeks of reduced volume and a very steep taper over the preceding 3 days, it’s a welcome return to normalcy to get the legs and lungs working again. I could have dropped a gear and maintained contact with the lead 10 or so, but for obvious reasons it seemed inadvisable. The snow started about a mile from the summit, and proved a bit easier to run on than I’d anticipated. I’ve had a bit of experience running in snow from the past two winters spent living in Northern Virginia, but that didn’t stop me from at least 5 spectacular but non-injurious falls over the 9 or so miles of crusty side hilling that WS had in store for us. One dude in front of me broke through some tell-tale pink snow into a sub-surface stream, so things could have been worse. I was totally outclassed by the downhill / snow running speed of the guys I went over the top with, and by the end of the snow section around mile 15 I had fallen back to around 40th place. This presaged my experience throughout the day: catching and passing runners on the climbs, and getting passed on the descents; definitely room for improvement there.

I had gone through all of the 60oz that I had in my pack by the mile 15 aid, so I gratefully dropped it with the volunteers there who insisted on taking it from me for a refill while I quickly grabbed a few ounces of dilute Sprite and a piece of watermelon. Unfortunately, and despite their best efforts, the FIVE people struggling with my pack managed to tie the thing into a Houdini knot without adding a drop of water. It cost me about 3 minutes un-effing the thing and finally getting it refilled. I should have cued into the fact that I was the only runner in that lead group who was wearing a hydration pack. Oh well… Miles 15-29 went smoothly as we cruised through the beautiful back country and began the gradual descent down from 8600 feet. Most of this section proved runnable and I settled into an effortless 7:45ish pace. At ~30 I went off course with an INOV8 sponsored runner from named Chris from PA who I’d fell in with for a few miles. Apparently the lead 4 guys did the same thing and went even further up the wrong trail than we did, so I feel less bad about it, but it’s annoying nonetheless. The course marking crew had slung a bunch of surveyor tape at a trail intersection, but it either fell or an animal took it down in such a way that it indicated a right turn instead of the intended left. The entire course is marked with yellow and black tape approximately (in theory) every ~100 yards, so if you’re paying attention it’s easy to determine pretty quickly if you are or are not on course.  It took us about ½ mile to realize our error. No biggie in the grand scheme; getting lost at least once is pretty standard fare for most ultra-runners and me in particular. After retracing our steps we quickly came into the much anticipated mile 31 aid station at Mosquito Ridge. Because crew access to any of the aid stations before mile 55.4 was restricted due to the immense amount of snow, most of the runners had drop bags planned for either 23.8, 31, 38 or 43 (or all 4). Mine was supposed to be at 31, and wasn’t. None of the drop bags made it to this aid station. The aid stations are plenty well stocked with food, but unfortunately I needed something very specific, and missing it had implications for me through mile 65 or so. I typically race on very few calories, and this is enabled by an great product that I use called Vespa (long story short, it’s a bio-peptide derived from the secretions of Mandarin Wasp larvae that is believed to shift the body’s energy utilization toward fat and away from stored muscle and liver glycogen during protracted exercise). In practice this means that I get by on about 200 ingested calories for 50k, and about 400 for a 50m. For the skeptical of you out there, I ran 50k and 50m PR’s this spring on 300 and 400 total calories, respectively. Take the Vespa out of the equation, however, and I’m in uncharted territory. Beware single points of failure. I had enough on me (they are about 18 calories each and a bit larger than a GU) to last through about mile 35, so I started to preempt the inevitable by  significantly upping the food intake.

I ran strong into the infamous canyons, and beat my target times for both of the major mid-race ascents of the day (2000 feet in 2 miles from Swinging Bridge to Devil’s Thumb, and 2000 feet in 2.5 miles from El Dorado Creek to Michigan Bluff). It was at this point in the race that I passed quite a number of runners who I wouldn’t see again until the next day’s awards ceremony, but I ultimately paid for it with a hard bonk that started to materialize just around the time that I saw my crew for the first time at the mile 55.4 aid. Speaking with them afterward, I apparently didn’t look too great. There’s one photo of me from a distance and it’s obvious that my form is jacked. In practiced style, Mara took my shirt and tied on my ice-cold “Cool Off” bandana, Mike handed me a Vespa, some baby food (trust me), and a chilled coconut water, and Alexis swapped my pack for a hand-bottle. I was out of the aid within the planned 3 minutes, but the next 6.6 into Forest Hill were the toughest of the day for me. I struggled to run, rehydrate, and refuel after the protracted effort up the Michigan Bluff switchbacks. My crew wore shirts with my name and number expertly painted on the front, with “IMO John J. Rutherford III” on the back. For those that don’t know, my father passed away unexpectedly at age 61 on May 5th, and I’d decided to dedicate this effort to him. He would have been there, as he’d been at literally hundreds of other bike races and ultras throughout the years, and suffice it to say that I continue to find inspiration in his example of selfless compassion and work ethic. Coming through the physical and emotional nadir of the race, and despite the immense difficulty that forward motion posed at this point, I knew that there was no way in hell I would allow myself to cease forward progress. At Angeles Crest last year I learned that I could come back from severe dehydration and caloric deficit, so I comforted myself in the knowledge that with persistence and discipline I’d get my legs back. Everything hurt, and I began to question whether I was injured or just tired (my right leg gave way on its own running up the hill out of the aid station). Lesson learned: when you’re bonking hard, most if not all the pain is metabolically induced.

I was just beginning to come around by the time I ran into the huge crowd at the Forest Hill / mile 62 aid station. Vespa purveyor, coach, sponsor, and ultra-guru Peter guided me through the medical check while Mike, Alexis, Mara, and Nathan waited for me down the road for the shoe change / re-arming / pacer pickup point. Our good friend Kim from UCD - a Forest Hill native - was also there to cheer me on (Thanks Kim!). My feet felt like they were in good shape, but I was looking forward to the comfort of dry socks and road flats for the rolling and generally runnable final 38 miles of single-track. I also took off my compression sleeves because I felt that the downside heat retention outweighed the upside of accelerated post-race recovery. The plan was for Mara to knock out the shoe change while I recharged, but as it turns out it’s actually much easier to change one’s own shoes. Somehow or other my feet had torn through both of my brand new DryMax socks (fail: don’t try new products on race day), and the trail shoes were heavy from the multiple stream crossings of the preceding miles. I threw on a singlet here, too, and re-donned the hydration pack that Alexis had stuffed with my requested supplies for the next 20. Inside of 4 minutes or so I was headed down the road with the first of my 2 pacers, Mike. Utilizing a pacer in a 100m serves a very practical purpose, but it is also a huge psychological boost. At WS, all runners are allowed a pacer from Forest Hill to the finish. The two buddies I had pacing for me knew the drill. Mike is an elite triathlete and veteran of multiple Ironmans, 100m mountain bike races, and other ridiculous adventures, and Nathan has a slew of ultra-runs under his belt and quite a bit more experience running in the dark than I do. Both understood how I was feeling and what I needed to do to take care of myself and continue pushing through to Auburn. Some runners use a single pacer, but I think having 2 for ~20 miles each worked out well. I assumed that it was going to take me about 3 hours to get from 62-80, and 4-5 to get from 80-100. These estimates were a product of both projected fatigue and the terrain as 62-80 is mostly downhill whereas 80-100 is more technical in spots, mostly uphill, and mostly in the dark. That said, the shorter duration with Mike was bound to be tougher on the pacer as it was in the heat of the day, and I intended to push.

Mike ran behind me and doggedly whipped me into maintaining my form, and kept me on a salt, broth, Coca-Cola, GU, and Vespa schedule that had me running an honest race down to the river. We run together quite a bit back in NoVA/DC, so he’s got a pretty keen sense of what I ought to look like if things are going well. This familiarity was priceless, and I don’t think that either of us will soon forget those 18 perfect miles. Picking off runners through this section on the ups was a huge lift, and from past experience and knowledge of the course I knew that my last 30 were going to be strong. We hit 3 aid stations between FH and the American River crossing at Rucky Chucky, and spent less 30 seconds to a minute in each. Coke, broth, go. The river crossing at WS is both a literal and figurative Rubicon. It’s massive, and the crossing point is between two incredible rapids (the larger of which is the name sake of this point in the race and a North Face trail shoe: Rucky Chucky). It’s a matter of conventional wisdom that if you make it across uninjured you will finish the race. The water was so high this year that rafts were set up to ferry runners either individually or in pairs. Mike and I shuffled right down to the makeshift dock with broth and Coke in hand, threw on life jackets, and were being paddled across without delay. I must have mumbled something about Vespa about mid-river because the rower chimed in and offered me one from a stash he had sitting in the bow. Talk about full-service! Peter definitely had something to do with this; in addition to being an event sponsor, he was responsible for setting up the Rucky Chucky crossing logistics (and literally hundreds of hours of other critical WS preparation services).

A challenging, too steep to run climb out of the river gorge starts immediately on the far side, and I think I surprised Mike with my complete bypass of the aid station situated there. I had been so self-absorbed for the preceding 2:45 that I failed to notice that Mike, completely focused on my well-being, wasn’t taking care of himself in terms of salt, fluid, and chow. The bonk-monster reared its head and I found myself gapping him on the road up to the planned pacer swap at the Green Gate aid station. Nathan, anxious to get going after a day of waiting, came down the road about ¾ of a mile and started his duties early. Mara and Alexis were waiting for us, and Alexis had set out all of my requested supplies in the most organized, inspection-ready, “junk on the bunk” style that I felt bad for taking hardly any of them! I ditched the pack for the last time, took a hand-bottle of Clip-2, threw on my headlamp, and followed a very fresh Nathan on down the trail to Auburn. Before long I asked him to run behind me as we were in very different, er, places, and there was no way I could maintain 8 minute miles at this point. 10, yes, 8, no.

There is something magical about miles 80-90 in a 100 for me, and I also love the revitalization that comes with the falling temperatures and different sights and sounds of dusk. This is only my third 100, but without fail this is the stretch of the race that I enjoy most. Completely in tune with my body’s requirements, remarkably comfortable, smelling the barn, and honestly a bit high (for lack of a better word), there is no place on Earth like mile 85 of a 100 that’s going well. I don’t remember exactly what Nathan and I were talking about at this point, but he did a good job of playing along with my altered mental state! Adding to the surreality of these miles were the over-the-top aid stations (the saner of us confirmed that they were, in fact, ridiculous). All I can compare them to is the ridiculous scene in “Apocalypse Now” where Martin Sheen’s patrol boat pulls into the USO Playboy Bunny light show turned riot. Wow.

I fell off the trail and partially into a ravine around mile 86 and sustained a respectable laceration on my shoulder that will definitely leave a scar. We spent an extra minute in the mile 89 aid amid blasting Doors music cleaning it out with peroxide before getting on our way, but all told this mishap didn’t cost me much. We found Mara, Alexis, and Mike at 93, and I dropped my bottle for the push to the finish. I was regrettably a bit mean to Mara here in my insistence that I didn’t need anything (sorry!). Amy Sproston and her pacer caught us (trading places all afternoon) about ½ mile out, and her pacer asked if I was John from VA. I answered in the affirmative and she said something to the effect of “your wife says hi.” All I could think was that she must be (justifiably) pissed (Mara, that is, at me)! As it turns out she wasn’t; they’d just struck up a conversation at the last aid... Phew.

The section from the Hwy 49 crossing to No Hands Bridge at 96.8 was much more runnable than I’d anticipated. At this point in the race, and truth be told from about 65 on, downhills were no longer welcome occurrences. Nathan and I made good time loping through the moondust and soon cruised through the NHB aid. I downed one last GU with a Sprite chaser and set my mind to leaving nothing on the table for the final 3 mile climb to the finish. I knew that Mara was going to meet me where the WS trail transitions to road in suburban Auburn, and I made this my motivation to time-trial to the top. I don’t know if it was the Sprite, endorphins, or adrenalin, but I felt no pain between here and the finish. I can’t remember a time when running felt more effortless. Nathan, not to be outdone by Mike, decided to let me go; we were close and his duties complete. I passed Amy one last time (she’s kicked my ass many a time), and within minutes rounded the corner onto Asphalt and a waiting Mara. I felt bad for the folks in the aid station there at mile 98.5 as I doubt many runners bothered to stop; I certainly was in no mood to delay the finish any longer. I think I surprised Mara but she got right in step as we set out together on a very fast last 1.7. There were quite a few Auburnites (drunk?) out cheering us on despite the hour, and we hammered through the streets marked by the permanent orange footprints indicating the last stretch of WS into the track at Placer High School. My finish time was generally meaningless at this point as I was well inside my “Plan B” time of 20:00 - “A” was sub-19 and top 20 overall, but I got it in my head that it would be cool to break 19:30. We entered the the stadium and hit the track at the beginning of the first straightaway for the final .2 miles to an impressive crowd, all the while watching the finish clock click right through 19:30... No big deal. It was so awesome to run the last stretch and cross the finish line with Mara. She had put so much into my preparation for WS that it was only right that we finish together. 19:30:49 chip time. Not quite up there with the leaders, but 8 hours faster than last year at Angeles Crest, 2 hours faster than my rookie go at Vermont in 2009, and 4.5 hours better than I’d hoped for when I first embarked on the WS buckle hunt in 2004. I am satisfied, but eager to test myself again; the limit is out there still waiting to be found. 33rd overall, 12th in my division.

As soon as we crossed the finish mats I got “medaled,” weighed, and ushered into a very welcome chair for a BP check. My weight was only down 2.5 lbs, and I’m not sure what my BP was, but the RN assured me that I was going to make it (I was lame and asked something along those lines). After the immediate hoopla of the finish I was led off to a tent to have my blood drawn for a research study. I haven’t checked the results yet, but it’ll be interesting to see how the heart and kidneys fared. I unfortunately disappointed a medical student who desperately wanted me to pee in a cup for his own hyponatremia study. He would have had to wait another 5 hours, and I needed first-aid, chow, and sleep! Sorry, dude.

I was completely floored to find one of my Dad’s best friends from UC Davis vet school right there waiting for me at the finish. I hadn’t seen Lane since my father’s funeral, and before that I think it had been at least 15 years. Suffice it to say I was greatly moved to see him, and it made my finish that much more emotional. We shared a few moments immediately after I delivered my father’s eulogy in May, and it all sort of came back to me in those moments after seeing Lane again at the finish. It was an honor to see this kind man track my progress all day and come out to the finish. Thanks, Lane; I am humbled and I know that my Dad would have been touched by this. Dr. John III never did anything quite like WS, but I know that he understood how much this sport - and cycling before it - meant to me. I never would have realized my own athletic, professional, or personal successes without his selflessness and unconditional support. He wasn’t there to share in the achievement of this long held goal, but it would never have been a possibility without him. That buckle is going to be an heirloom.
If you’ve read this far, thank you, and if you’re even a smidge intrigued by what it’s like to go out and test your limits, go and do it!
Happy Trails,

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Western States: The Blog Post

Hello all and welcome back!  It's been a crazy couple of weeks, but I think we're finally starting to get resettled here in Alexandria, which means it's time for my Western States blog update!
A lot can happen in two weeks, so I'm going to break things down a bit to make them more manageable.  First I'll talk about our pre-race adventures, followed by the race itself, and finally the few days post-WS.  So, without further ado...

John, Jack and I departed for San Francisco on Saturday morning, unwittingly beginning what John has since dubbed "The Most Challenging Day of Parenting Ever."  Jack, who up until now has been a champion traveler, decided to whine, kick, bite, and occasionally scream for our entire first flight of approximately four and a half hours.  We walked on to the plane a relatively serene and tidy family, and left with both John and I wild-eyed and trembling, our hair and clothing askew, our nerves shattered.  Jack, on the other hand, fell asleep the moment we set him into the stroller to walk to our next flight.  About half an hour later, when we boarded our second flight, Jack's eyes sprang open and thus ensued another two and a half hours of torture.  At some point during the second flight, around the time that Jack let out a blood-curdling scream for no apparent reason, John and I looked at each other in horror.  "It's happened," I said, choking back tears.  "We have finally become those parents."

Fortunately, rest and relaxation (and the eager arms of Grandma) were awaiting us in Half Moon Bay.  We spent three full days there, stuffing ourselves with Patti's cooking and taking giant gulps of crisp ocean air blessedly devoid of humidity and mosquitoes.  John did a few "easy" runs (meaning I could just about keep up with him) and Jack played with Dasher and Capone to his heart's content, occasionally poking one of them in the eye while gleefully declaring, "Eye!"

A lovely, if not exactly stroller-friendly, hike near the ocean.
Jack, whose love of the ocean becomes more apparent every time we visit, got to enjoy the sand between his toes again at Maverick's. 

Just what Mama loves to see - lots of sharp and slimy things for Jack to play with. And eat!
We had a fun visit with some old friends, ate at John's favorite restaurants, and discovered some extremely delicious (and highly addictive) peanut-butter chocolate malt balls.  (Anyone noticing a trend here? Apparently I also needed to load up on calories prior to Western States...)
After several days of allowing Jack to settle into his new surroundings, John and I left on Wednesday morning for Squaw Valley.  It should be noted that this was the first time John and I have left Jack for any significant period of time, and the first time I have ever been away from Jack for more than 24 hours.


Of course it helped that we were leaving Jack in the very capable hands of Grandma Patti and Uncle Mike, and that we were preoccupied with all kinds of race stuff.  I missed Jack a lot, especially when I saw other munchkins, but it would have been nearly impossible to do the race with Jack in tow (I think the flights out pretty much erased any lingering doubts we may have had on that front).  Suffice it to say, I think we all enjoyed our time apart, but were extremely happy to be reunited at the end.

John and I stopped in Davis for sandwiches from one of our favorite restaurants from back in our college days, Zia's Deli.  I'm happy to say not much has changed in Davis in the ten years since I went there, including Zia's sandwiches.  We stopped again in Auburn for race supplies (coconut water, baby food for John, sadly no more peanut butter chocolate malt balls) and arrived in Squaw in the late afternoon.  After checking in, John and I headed straight for the bar and enjoyed a large glass of wine by the pool at our hotel, Plumpjack, and commented on the graciousness of the resort in naming itself after our son.

Sunday morning we feasted on the buffet breakfast, including the granola that John had been raving about for months, literally (I'm happy to say it lived up to the hype), and headed into Reno to pick up two of our crew members, Mike and Alexis, who flew in all the way from Alexandria to help.  Yes, they're pretty much the most awesome friends ever.  We grabbed lunch in Truckee at Burger Me, then headed back to the hotel for a brief question and answer session for crew members.  John wanted to take a quick hike up the trail where Western States starts, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to work off the granola, yogurt, scone, sticky bun, eggs, and toast I'd had for breakfast (not to mention the burger and fries I'd polished off at lunch). About an hour later, Alexis and I caught up to Mike and John two miles or so up the trail.

John: "Isn't it just beautiful up here?"  Me: "Can't...breathe...Air...too...thin...."
 Seriously, I have no idea how they walk so fast.  The first three miles of Western States goes straight up hill, taking runners from about 5,000 feet of elevation to over 8,000 feet.  This year, the course had to be altered to account for the vast amounts of snow the Tahoe region received, but even still, the runners had to contend with ten miles of snow on the course.  As I wheezed my way over to Mike and John, I became convinced that hill was put there just to rub it in my face that I will never in my life compete in an ultra ANYTHING, let alone 100 miles.  The snow did look inviting, however, so I plodded in first, followed shortly by Mike and Alexis, who started an impromptu snowball fight that I wisely stayed clear of.  Meanwhile, John looked out over the vast expanse of snow and mountains, no doubt kicking himself for ever signing up for such a ridiculous race.  No wait, that was me.  John was wondering what the hell he'd been thinking asking Alexis and me to crew for him.

Alexis takes her husband.
 Another hour later, when Alexis and I had finally made it back down the hill, we went to dinner in Tahoe City and returned to the hotel for a brief with John's coach and several other runners.  I did my best to look like I was paying attention for a good thirty minutes.  Woo hoo!  Friday morning we ate more granola, scones (chocolate chip this time - yum!), eggs, potatoes, toast, etc. and attended the pre-race check-in session with John. 

John, Mike and Peter at the Vespa booth
Alexis and I scored free T-shirts while Mike helped someone do something useful and John filled out paperwork (you're starting to get how this whole crewing thing works, right?).  When that was finally over (sheesh, you'd think we were there for a race or something), we drove up to see John's godfather in Tahoe.  As luck would have it, Uncle Ray has an awesome condo on the lake, and we got to spend an hour basking on the beach.  I think it's safe to say that was my favorite hour of the trip.  I kid, I kid.  Obviously John finishing the race was the best part.  Duh.  (Did I mention they had cabana boys and lounge-side service?)

Yeah, I'm pretty freaking happy.

Friday afternoon we made our crew T-shirts (those free shirts at the pre-race expo came in handy!  See, Alexis and I were helpful!) while John got organized and went over his final plan.  We'd had to make some adjustments when the course changed just a week prior to the race.  Due to the snow, the first place crews could access their runners was at mile 55, as opposed to 23 in "normal" years.  John would have to rely on aid stations and drop bags in the first half of the race, and we wouldn't get a chance to see him until sometime around 2:30 p.m.  I think I was more concerned about this than anyone (another trend forms), but John was his usual calm and collected self.  We ate another fabulous meal at the hotel and turned in early.  Western States check-in started at 4 a.m. sharp.

Eating.  Again.
Race Day:
At 3:30 a.m. John and Mike got up (which pretty much meant that Alexis and I were up too) and got dressed before heading down for John's pre-race medical check and weigh-in.  He came back to the room at 4, and we stood around nervously until about 4:45 when we walked down to the starting line (luckily only about 500 feet from our hotel).  It was pitch black and freezing cold, but there were still quite a few people there to cheer on their runners.  Once John walked into the crowd at the starting line, we didn't see him again (Not that we could discern, anyway.  These ultrarunners all tend to look alike, aside from varying degrees of facial hair growth.  At some point I described John to a woman as a skinny guy with a shaved head.  She looked at me like I was insane.)  A few minutes later the shotgun went off, and at 5:00 a.m., the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race was on!

About thirty seconds later most of the runners were walking.  Remember the giant hill?

On that note, Mike, Alexis and I returned to our hotel room for a little extra sleep, ate breakfast and checked out at nine, then headed towards the first crew check point nearly three hours away.  We stopped to pick up extra supplies (the folding chairs and umbrella I'd stupidly forgot to pick up in Half Moon Bay - you'd think after standing in the sun for most of Vermont I'd have learned a thing or two - as well as lunch for the crew).  Then we began a quest to find fudge almost as epic as Western States itself.

At some point during his running career, John decided that fudge is the perfect ultra food.  Unfortunately, we forgot to look for fudge before getting to Tahoe, and despite the presence of several candy and chocolate shops, fudge was nowhere to be found.  At the grocery store I bought the closest thing, fudge brownies (I was pretty sure someone - meaning me - would eat them if John didn't), and we headed to three more candy stores before finally finding "fudge" at our fourth stop.  For some reason, everything in this particular candy store was covered in chocolate, including the fudge.  Later in the day, when I chipped away at the chocolate coating, praying to find something akin to fudge underneath, all I found was more chocolate.  Crap.

Fudgeless - but wearing a damn cute shirt - at Michigan Bluff.
However, John's faithful crew carried on admirably, arriving at the first crew access point, Michigan Bluff, early enough to score a great parking spot.  We took the shuttle down to the aid station, plunked down our chairs, and waited.  And waited.  And waited. 

Fabulous chairs to go with our fabulous shirts.

Finally, about two hours later, John pulled into Michigan Bluff.  Unfortunately, he was looking less than thrilled.  Turns out the singular drop bag John had dropped off on Friday hadn't made it to the mile 31 aid station, which meant John didn't have the Vespa supplement he takes.  I'm not going to go into a big spiel on Vespa, but essentially it allows you to consume fewer calories during endurance exercise by metabolizing fat stores.  Because John doesn't eat a lot during races while using Vespa, it's extremely important that he consume it at regular intervals.  The Vespa was in his drop bag.  By the time John came into mile 55, he had already bonked twice.

Ready for our runner!  John was #339, and we called ourselves Team HAPpy Trails in honor of John's dad, Hap.

We did our best to patch John up, gave him fresh water bottles as well as GU, Vespa, the baby food he likes to eat while running (those little squisher things I feed to Jack apparently make for great ultra food; I'll take John's word on that one), a wet bandana and hat, sprayed him with sunscreen, and sent him on his way.  The next aid station, Forest Hill, was only 6 miles away.  We packed up, got back in the car, and headed straight for Forest Hill.  The rest of John's crew - ie John's good friend Nathan - was waiting for us, along with my best friend Kim, who grew up in Forest Hill.  It was so fun seeing Kim there, and it was Kim's first chance to see John running an ultra.  She was so moved by the whole thing she was actually tearing up.  I was trying not to go crazy waiting for John. 

John and Peter coming down the road at Forest Hill.
John finally passed through the aid station about thirty minutes behind his projected time, which wasn't too shabby considering the shape he'd been in at Michigan Bluff.  After we did a quick sock and shoe change, got John in his water pack, and refilled his supplies, he and Mike (who was pacing John through mile 80) were off down the road.  When I offered John some of the "fudge," he took one look at it, said "Yuck!" and never asked for it again.  Hmph.

Just a little side note here, folks.  As you can see, ultra races aren't exactly a spectator sport.  You get to see your runner at 5-10 aid stations throughout a course, usually for a few minutes at a time.  The rest of the race is generally off in the mountains or in some other inaccessible location.  It's a whole lot of hurry up and wait at ultras, which is why it's so important to have at least two people crewing for you (and I'm talking about for the sake of the crew here, not just the runner).  It's a stressful endeavor with very little pay off.  Having good friends around helps significantly.
Our next crew stop was at mile 80, where Nathan would trade places with Mike.  We said our goodbyes to Kimmy, packed up the car, and headed towards Green Gate.  Once we parked, we had to take a shuttle ride to the crew drop-off point about two miles uphill from the aid station.  As we were walking down the fairly steep hill, we passed a few people whose runners had already come through.  They didn't say much, but their eyes said "BEWARE.  You are nowhere near the bottom.  And you still have to come back UP this hill later."  We trudged along with our cooler and chairs and finally made it to Green Gate, just on the other side of the race's major river crossing (this year involving rafts, due to huge amounts of snow runoff).  We unpacked our gear, sprayed massive quantities of bug spray on ourselves, and settled down to wait. And wait.  And wait. 

Nathan, me, and Alexis's spread: "Special deal for the pretty lady. Very nice, very nice. You like?"  And yes, I look twelve.
Finally, John came up the hill to the station.  Alas, Mike was not with him.  John assured us he was just a quarter mile down the course, so Nathan and John headed out after a quick refueling.  Mike showed up not long after, but it was clear he was hurting.  He'd been so busy looking after John that he'd forgotten to take his own salt tablets, which are crucial during the heat of the day (we're talking 90 degrees here, in the blazing sun).  Alexis and I didn't want to tell him about the massive two-mile trek awaiting him, but we set off soon enough, Alexis interjecting with a chipper "Just around the corner" every so often.  Unfortunately, it was never just around the corner.  Somehow the hill had morphed into the longest hill ever in existence while we were at the bottom of Green Gate.  I secretly relished every rest stop we took, all the while cursing Nathan for leaving me with his inexplicably heavy backpack and the 30-year-old cooler we'd found in John's mom's garage that was awkward to carry and remarkably weighty for its dainty size.  We finally crested the mountain... er, hill, waved down the shuttle bus, and crammed ourselves into the back row of a bus-turned-sauna.  Let's just say it was crowded, stuffy, and ... malodorous ... in the back of that van.

Our next stop was mile 93, which required another drive and shuttle ride.  We stood in the dark with a bunch of other crews, most of whose runners were very close in pace to John.  We hadn't had time to get dinner (it was around 9 p.m. at this point) so we drank some of the instant hot chocolate provided for the crews and stomped our feet to keep warm.  John and Nathan flew through the aid station, both looking well aside from a nasty gash on John's right shoulder.  I offered John a water bottle, but he was getting a mite testy at this point.  Apparently he wanted to drink the water from the bottle but not take it with him?  In my defense, I'm not sure he was entirely coherent at this stage, but I was clearly missing some crucial piece of information.  At any rate, John grabbed his last few supplies and headed into the dark.  I promised to meet him at mile 98.9.

The only decent shot of John running. (Photo courtesy of Gary D. Avey)
Alexis, Mike, and I got back on the shuttle, loaded into the car, and drove to Auburn High School, where Western States finishes.  Mike and Alexis decided to wait at the finish for John, so I bravely strapped on a head lamp for the first time, asked someone for directions ("Just follow the orange footsteps," a girl told me) and headed into the dark.  Let me tell you, even with a headlamp, those orange footsteps were incredibly difficult to see.  Before long I had been swallowed by darkness.  It was also utterly silent, aside from the two or three runners who passed me on their way to the finish line.  All I could see of them were headlamps shining in the dark.  At some point I heard a wolf rustle in the brush (okay, fine, it may have been a squirrel) and I decided to pick up the pace.  At mile 99 a house loomed up out of the darkness, surrounded by a crowd of drunk people waving their red cups in the air.  It was like stumbling on a frat party in the middle of nowhere.  A guy stopped me and asked me if I'd just run 100 miles.  I decided not to remark on the implied insult there, but instead politely told him, "No, I'm running to meet my husband.  Am I going the right way?"  His friend nodded, while the other guy, who I had just noticed was holding a camera, said, "Probably.  But who cares?  Take a picture with my friend."  I'm not sure why anyone would want a photo of a stranger who had just run less than a mile, but the whole thing was so surreal, who was I to argue?  Somewhere out there some random guy has a photo of me around mile 99.  Anyway, I said goodbye and headed back into the dark, eventually finding my way to mile 98.9, Robie Point.

Another bizarre scene awaited me at Robie point, where an aid station sat at the dead-end of a street.  Several tents were set up, trimmed with Christmas lights, and a group of people sat around talking and laughing.  Eventually a nice man came over to me and asked me who my runner was and offered to track him on their computer, but the tracking was so far behind that it didn't have John checked in at the last check point.  I gratefully accepted a cup of water and waited for John.  About thirty minutes later, John emerged from the darkness, moving startlingly quickly.  "Let's go!" he said, before I'd even had a chance to say hello.  I handed my cup to a stranger, thanked them, and charged after John.  "Where's Nathan?" I asked, a little concerned.  (John is starting to develop a bad habit of dropping his pacers.  He dropped his brother, Mike, in the middle of the night at Vermont.  The poor guy didn't even have a headlamp.  At least we'd learned from that mistake.) "He's right behind me," John said.  He was going so fast I could barely keep up, and his breathing was disturbingly rapid.  "Are you alright?" I asked.  "No serious damage," he said between breaths.  I decided that was good enough, and that there was no way I wasn't keeping up with my husband after he'd run 99 miles.  But I'm not going to lie.  It was an effort. 

When the stadium finally came into sight, John sped up again, and we hit the track at what felt like a pretty good clip.  Running that last 200 meters with John was incredible, and I finally got a tiny taste of what it must feel like to accomplish something so amazing.  We crossed the finish line together at 19:30:30, only 30 minutes off of John's goal time. 

Mike, John, and Nathan (who got a little lost in the dark but finally found us!).
John was immediately weighed and taken to medical, where they took a frustratingly long time patching up the significant slash in his shoulder.  Only one person was allowed into medical, so Mike, a former EMT, went with him.  But from where I was standing, I could see that John wasn't faring so well.  I made eye contact with one of the medics and told him John needed food and a blanket, and they quickly finished up so I could get John into some warmer clothes.  Then I ran over to the food tent and asked for John's requested meal: a grilled cheese sandwich.

While I was waiting for the sandwich, an older man with long gray hair and a beard turned to me and asked me if I'd just run.  I explained that I'd ran the last mile with my husband and, kind soul that he was, he seemed genuinely impressed with my effort.  It was clear he'd run the race, given his outfit and the number 00 on his shorts, but before I had a chance to ask him how he'd done, he informed me that he hadn't finished.  "But," he said, "I've done it 13 times in the past, so it's okay."  When he turned around, I wasn't surprised to see the name "Cowman" written on the back of his shirt.  It had taken me a few minutes, but partway into our conversation, I had a feeling I was talking to the infamous Cowman A MooHa, the second man ever to run the Western States course, in 1976.  It seemed a fitting ending to a long and, I have to say it, epic day.

Post Race:
On Sunday, after a much-needed shower and a good night's sleep, as well as a grotesque amount of food at the Cheesecake Factory, we headed to the awards ceremony.  John was absolutely beaming when he received his sterling silver Western States "100 Miles, One Day" belt buckle.  We piled back into the car, then drove towards Half Moon Bay, stopping only once in Davis, for a much-deserved Blizzard.

The faithful crew and our runner.
Mike and Alexis spent the night in Half Moon Bay with us, then left early Monday morning.  John and I spent one last lovely day in HMB, savoring the cool temperatures and Patti's cooking for as long as possible.  On Tuesday morning we headed back to SFO, bracing ourselves for what would undoubtedly be another long and painful venture. 

I think it's pretty clear what Jack thinks of the whole "ultra running" thing.
About midway through the first flight, while Jack was putting on a show even more horrifying than his display on the trip out, I looked over at John, whose face was contorted in misery.  "I don't get it," I said.  "You just ran 100 miles.  You should be able to handle this no problem."  John looked at me earnestly and replied, "I have to admit, this is actually harder than running 100 miles."

And there you have it folks.  I've never run 100 miles, but I've dealt with a cranky toddler for countless hours all alone.  I may not have a belt buckle to show for it, but I am arguably just as tough as my ultra-running husband (John basically admitted it.  Okay, maybe not in so many words, but still...).

Maybe I have it in me to run an ultra one day after all.  For now, I'm the proudest Western States Widow around, and incredibly grateful for all the support from friends and family over the past six months.  Thanks especially to Kim, Nathan, and most of all, Mike and Alexis.  We couldn't have done this without you guys!