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Tapering my expectations

This is a tough post to write. The Yakima River Canyon Marathon is four days away, and I’m sick.

I was able to generally follow my training plan all the way through to the 21-miler three weeks before race day. By “generally” I mean I completed most of my planned runs, but I ran at least one long run at a shorter distance than originally planned, I skipped at least one long run, and I wasn’t able to complete the 21-miler until March 14 — 19 days out rather than the planned 21 days. Yes, I was close to my plan and I felt generally okay, but by no means could I say that everything had gone perfectly. Still, I felt better about my prospects than I did in the final couple of weeks before my aborted October marathon. I wasn’t expecting to be fast, but I was completely confident that I’d run a steady pace and finish the race. I started my taper period feeling relief mixed with cautious optimism.

Then I woke up coughing on March 21. When I went out for my scheduled easy 12 mile run, I felt fine, but my heart rate was elevated so I decided to call it a day at 10 miles.

Over the next couple of days I coughed a lot more and started to sleep a lot. I had no other symptoms, just a dry cough. I figured that — because spring is bursting out all over right now — I was feeling some pollen sensitivity. Then I lost my appetite and with it, I lost a couple of pounds. This was in the midst of my taper period, when I should have been eating lots of carbs, drinking lots of water, and putting on a pound or two’s worth of stored energy for the race.

I canceled a run and rested as much as I could. I ate lots of vitamin C rich foods and tried to drink as much water as I could.

Yesterday I decided I’d go out and run 6 miles and see how I felt.

Neither my chest nor my stomach thought that was a good idea. I stopped running at 1.7 miles, mostly due to stomach distress. I figure the stomach distress was due to all the vitamin C. Now there’s a catch-22! The foods I’m eating to beat the respiratory symptoms so I can run are making it impossible to run.

Last night I slept 12 hours. Today I’m not coughing nearly as much, but I’m finally needing to blow my nose. I guess that’s progress.

Actually, I really do feel better.

You will tell me I’m crazy, but as of today I’m still planning to “run” a marathon on Saturday. I have worked so hard for this, and I was so disappointed last October when I trained so hard and then couldn’t get out of bed on race day. I don’t want to go through that disappointment again. I’d rather run and finish this — even if it takes me six hours — than miss another race.

But I am certain of one thing. This will be my last marathon. My body has told me very clearly that marathon training is too much for me. My knees and hips won’t permit me to do the high weekly mileage that is needed in order to be properly prepared to run 26.2 miles on race day. I am forced to cut corners on mileage. I reach race day without an adequate training base, with depleted energy reserves and accumulated fatigue.

It’s difficult for me to conclude that this is too much for me. I have to remind myself that I’m 60 years old, I’m the total opposite of a lifelong athlete, and I’ve already far exceeded my original expectations of myself as a runner. It’s time to recognize that the age-dependent sliding qualifying time for the Boston Marathon will always be just out of my reach. No, I’m not going to run a marathon in under 5:10:00 at age 75, or even 5:25:00 at age 80. Not gonna happen.

It’s time to taper my expectations.

It’s time to recognize that I’m not immortal.

I have other plans and goals and I want to keep them intact as much as possible. The half marathon is still my favorite distance and I hope to run many more of them before I’m through. I want to keep running 2-3 days a week, however slowly, for as many years as I can. Running makes me happy! Running has changed my life in all kinds of wonderful ways for which I will be forever grateful.

I also have big goals as a cyclist this year and in the future, and I’m looking forward to focusing on them. And I expect to continue walking every day without fail, as I have done every day since January 1, 2013.

I’ll let you know how the race turns out. Whatever happens, I still hope to have fun.

Right now, I’m going out for a walk.

Slow and happy!

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Learning to love the taper

The Victoria half marathon is now only seven days away, which means that I’m well into taper mode. My last few weeks of training have gone well enough. My longest long run was a solid and steady 11-miler back on September 20 (V minus 22 days) followed on 9/30 (V-12) by a very brisk 9-miler.

I have mostly focused my recent training on pacing. I’m feeling very strong (for some odd reason!!) so I’m having to fight the urge to go out too quickly, which always only results in tiring too much in the later miles. To train for my race strategy, I’ve practiced staying steady on pace during the first half and then making each mile in the second half just a little quicker. For the most part I’ve been successful doing that.

Over this past week my focus has turned to rehearsing for race day itself. I confess that now that I’m no longer working, I’ve developed a very casual attitude toward mornings… as in, I don’t do them at all! I’ve never been a morning person, but these days if I’m out of bed before 8:00, that’s early. But the race will start at 7:30!

So for my last two runs, I have set the alarm and made myself get up. On Friday, I had it set for 5:40 and managed to talk myself into getting up at 7:00.

This morning I set the alarm for 5:30 and I was up at 5:40. What an improvement — hurrah!

Unfortunately I can’t simply wake up, go out the door, and run. There is food to consider, and there are morning rituals. My goal for this week’s running has been to duplicate as many aspects of race day as possible.

I know from experience that if I’m up three hours before the start of the race, and if I’ve finished eating two hours before, my stomach will usually allow me to run without too many complaints. I also know from experience that a banana or two along with a slice or two of bread and a cup of coffee will usually work well for me on race day, provided I’ve eaten well (three cheers for pasta!) the night before. So — despite the fact that I really don’t like bananas at all — I’m eating bananas.

The other good thing about bananas is that I can usually find them in Victoria. Running this race means international travel — albeit only 20+ miles across the strait. I’ve learned what foods I can and cannot bring with me into Canada. I’ve never had any problem bringing a few slices of bread, but fruit? Yogurt? I’m not even gonna try. But there’s a little deli restaurant along the way from the ferry dock to the motel, and I’ve never failed to find a bowl of bananas there. They might cost me a dollar or more apiece, but I’m reasonably confident that I’ll find them there.

I plan on running just one more time between now and next Sunday. I’ll set my alarm for 4:30 on Wednesday. I’ll eat a danged banana or two and then I’ll go out and run 4 or 5 easy miles starting at 7:30, just moments after sunrise.

I was thinking about this whole taper thing while I was running this morning. I was thinking about how nice it is that I don’t freak out about it anymore. I no longer talk about “taper terror.” It’s not that I’ve become blase, but simply that I now know what to expect. I know I’m going to be anxious. I expect to gain a pound or two. I’ll have nightmares and butterflies and at some point I’ll become convinced that I’m going to fall apart. Or not. Whatever. On race morning I’ll be an insufferable basket of nerves, but I’ll somehow get myself to the starting line and I’ll run.

I’ve done this. I know how it works. I know I can do it. The nerves and the spreadsheet obsession are simply parts of the process for me.

Within the next week, I’ll pass two life milestones. One is a birthday — my 59th — and the other is the 6th anniversary of the day I first stepped onto my new treadmill and pronounced myself a “runner.” I put those two numbers together and marvel at the fact that I’ve been running for more than 10% of my life. Given that, I guess it’s about time I figured out a few of the tricks of the trade, right?

This morning I took some time after finishing to look around and enjoy the beautiful morning that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

 

It was worth getting up for! I could learn to love this.

One step at a time!

“Slow” is a relative term

I’ve been reflecting on what I wrote the other day:

As I go longer, I (necessarily) get slower — and that messes with my head.”

I wonder whether I’ve got that backwards.

Is it really necessary (inevitable?) to slow down SO much merely because I’m going long? Am I messing with my own head before I even take the first steps of my long runs?

Whenever I set out to run longer than ten miles, I tell myself at the start to slow down and focus on maintaining a steady pace. For me right now, that translates to about 10:15 per mile. Yet as I approach that 10 mile mark, I find myself getting tired. I don’t seem to be able to maintain that pace beyond ten miles, although in the recent past I’ve run several half marathons at faster than a 10:15 average pace.

So today I decided to find out whether I’m still able to run any faster than this snail’s pace I’ve settled into lately.

Actually, I set out with the intention to simply run 6 miles and enjoy it, but I felt so strong at the start that I decided to push just a little bit and see what might happen.

Well, I can’t call it “official” because I stopped twice — once to give directions to a lost cyclist and once to chat with a friend that I met along the way. But I ran 6.2 miles in 59:19. Woohoo! Another formerly-impossible sub-60 minute 10K! Not only that, but I ran mile 6 in 8:56 — my first sub-9 minute mile ever! I was still picking up speed on that last two/tenths of a mile.

I finished feeling a bit tired (it was warm out there) but very strong. I could have run much further today, although I’m not sure I could have sustained that pace much longer today.

In any case, I feel like I’ve hit the reset button and recalibrated everything. “Slow” is a relative term. I haven’t actually lost any speed — in fact I’ve gotten faster, when speed is the primary objective.

I’ve learned that I need to stop telling myself to run slowly!

Obviously I still need to do the long runs. But I can shift my perspective on those long runs. I can just run them and enjoy them. That seems like a far more positive approach than starting out already thinking, “OMG I’m going XX miles today and I’ve never run that far before!”

One step at a time. One foot in front of the other.

I know how to do this, so I’m going to go out there and do it!

Here we go again! It’s taper time

When I planned my race calendar for 2013, seven weeks between the Whidbey Island half marathon and the upcoming North Olympic Discovery half marathon on June 2 seemed like a long time. I’d have time to rest, recover, and return to what passes for peak slow happy running form.

One of these days I’ll learn that no matter how carefully I build my training plans, they never go exactly as planned.

I really did a number on myself this time. If you’ll recall, the Whidbey Island race was the day before the Boston Marathon. The events at Boston shook me up, as they did everyone. They also inspired me, as they did many runners. One of the stories from Boston that really inspired me was the runners who — having just completed a marathon — kept running another two miles to go to the nearest hospital to give blood.

Eight days after Whidbey I went out for a nice, easy five mile run in one of my favorite places. Coming back in the car afterwards, I was feeling strong and grateful for the opportunities that I have to run in beautiful places. I passed the sign that said “blood drive today.” I’ve seen and driven past that sign dozens of times in the 10+ years I have lived here. On that day I said to myself, after I shower and change clothes I’m walking downtown to give blood. I hadn’t given blood in about 20 years, but I happen to have a desirable blood type and I’ve always felt bad about having gotten out of the habit of regular donations.

So I gave blood. I felt a little light headed afterwards, but don’t we all? I drank my orange juice and ate my cookie and walked home. No big deal. I took it easy the next day and everything seemed fine.

On the second day I went out to run. It was like I’d dropped anchor! I was gasping for breath and couldn’t finish two miles before stopping.

A bit of Internet research turned up this article by Jenny Hadfield on the dos and don’ts of donating blood as a runner. Too late, I learned that “the common side effects as it relates to your running include higher heart and breathing rates, heavy legs and lower levels of energy. Ultimately, this means slower running paces at higher effort levels.” Furthermore, I learned that full recovery might take me several weeks — or even longer.

YIKES!

So I’ve been easy on myself since then. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that right now, I’m not able to run ten miles or more without stopping. I’ve learned to stop when I need to. I’ve reluctantly brought walk breaks back into my running routine. My speed is gradually returning, but my endurance is still not what it was.

I’ve written here any number of times that I can’t possibly continue my streak of PRs! I can’t possibly top that last race when I blew through all my notions of what I was capable of doing! This time, it may actually be true.

The only thing I have in my favor is that I know this course like the back of my hand. I know where I need to conserve energy and where I can safely push. I know the places that will surprise out-of-towners and I know what a big psychological uplift it is for me to pass everyone around me in those places. I know that on race day, my competitive spirit will keep me pushing past the point at which I’d say “enough!” if it were just another routine training run.

So I haven’t given up all hope that I’ll have a good run on race day.

Meanwhile, I’m tapering for this race. And I’m already looking forward to taking a week or so post-race break and then kicking off my marathon training plan!

I’ve chosen my race. I’m going to run my first full marathon on October 13 in Victoria, BC. I’ve run the half marathon there twice. The half marathon course is basically a long out-and-back, and the full marathon is a longer out-and-back. This means that I’ve already seen half of the marathon course — the first 6.55 miles and the last 6.55 miles, more or less. I know the terrain — it’s about as flat as it can be. I’ve got all summer to gradually increase my mileage. I can do this, slow and happy, one step at a time!

But first I’m going to run my fourth North Olympic Discovery half marathon, and one way or another I’ll give it the best and most I have on race day. With lots of guts and… I hope… just a wee bit of slow happy glory.

Every finish line is a victory. One way or another.

I’ll see you there soon!

Thinking about what it means to become and be a runner

So my disappointing long run the other day did turn out to be just a fluke… as I’d sort of thought it was even at the time. Yesterday I ran a perfect 10-miler that left me feeling entirely satisfied and ready to give myself some extra rest and a proper taper over the next ten days before the Whidbey Island race.

I spent some time after that run thinking about running and reflecting on the literal and metaphorical places I have been as a runner.

Off and on over the past few days I have mused quite a bit about the experience of running, about what it’s like to become a runner, to be a runner, and to discover strength, resiliency, courage, and happiness as a runner. I’ve been re-reading old blog posts (on this site and previous more private sites) from the period during and shortly after Kurt’s illness and death. I’m re-reading my words from that time because I’m working on a paper proposal for a conference… which may finally begin to lead in the direction of the book that I want to write about running through grief.

It hurts to look back and read words that screamed forth from my pain. But it’s also very heartening to see that I found sources of strength… and a big source of my strength was the fact that I somehow managed to get out there and run. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other.

There were plateaus and setbacks in my running ability and in my ability to hold my life together. There were times I thought I was going to rip my heart out of my chest. Then there were times when I knew that my heart and mind and legs were all strong and I was going to be able to put all the pieces back together.

Running has taught me — and continues to teach me — that anything is possible with determination and practice. I had to complete a PhD program at age 53 in order to finally convince myself that I am intellectually authentic. Learning to run since then has been something like a PhD program for the rest of me.

I’m tempted to say that coping with Kurt’s illness and death were the comprehensive exams for that second PhD, but I don’t want to contextualize or diminish that experience. I do wonder, however, if I’d have become such a dedicated runner if it weren’t for what happened to Kurt. Before his diagnosis, I hadn’t begun to challenge myself as a runner. I walked a lot. I worried about injuring myself. I never pushed myself hard to see how much more I could do. After his diagnosis I began to see running as something I could do to help myself — sometimes it was the only thing I could think of that I could do to help myself. It was the only thing that brought me any sort of respite.

After he died, running got me out of the house. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning. It gave me a reason to eat. It put things on my calendar.

Of course, it gave me places and times to cry.

And it gave me reasons to celebrate.

We all have our life challenges, and we all find our ways to cope.

By choosing to become and be a runner, I have found pride — satisfaction — peace — confidence — and a goodly measure of humility.

Life is short. Our days are numbered. How many steps we take, the places we go, the ways we choose to spend the time we have — these things are up to each of us to decide.

As for me, I’ve logged 250 running miles so far this year. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 550,000 steps just since January 1. They haven’t all been steps of sheer joy, but most of them have been pretty good. And they’re all steps in the right direction.

Slow and happy…

One step at a time!

What a difference a year makes

I was feeling pensive this evening. I guess it was the approaching holidays. I went back and re-read my blog posts from around this time last year.

I was still deeply grieving for Kurt, but I was beginning to look around and ask “what now?” I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to going down to Palm Springs for the winter. How would I manage down there all alone? How did I want to choose to live my life from that point on? Could I ever dare to love again? Might I be so lucky as to love again? Who was I, and who was I becoming now that I was no longer Kurt’s wife, his partner, his caregiver?

What I didn’t share at the time was that I had just met CFL. We met, through friends of friends, two weeks before I packed up and moved south for the winter. We barely had time to begin to get to know one another, but he helped me finish packing and stood in my driveway looking sad when I drove away the day after Thanksgiving.

I was so torn. I kicked myself for leaving but I knew that I had things to do on my own, and that I needed to go.

Then followed hundreds of text messages and hours of phone calls. It wan’t anything like the courtships of my previous experience!

But I think the timing of our meeting and immediate separation worked in my favor — the separation and my loneliness gave me the time and space to figure out what I actually did want to do and who I wanted to become. It allowed me to focus on my job… which helped me to see that there really wasn’t anything left of my job worth focusing on, and that my talents and energy would be better spent elsewhere. The separation from both CFL and the Pacific Northwest helped me to see that I didn’t want to be bi-platial… that friends and community are things that I truly value. I deeply want to be rooted, grounded, at home, in place.

So there I was, deeply engaged in thinking through the issues that I needed to resolve and the decisions that I had to make in order to move on with my life. Meanwhile, I was being wooed. It was an honor, a thrill, and an utterly rejuvenating experience to be wooed.

Re-reading my posts from those months, I see my mixed emotions — confusion, joy, optimism, fear, relief when I made the big decisions to sell the condo and quit my job, resolutions of “I shall have fun,” and wide-eyed speculation about the future.

What a difference a year makes.

I wish I could convey adequately to Kurt’s daughter and his closest friends that there will never be another Kurt in my life. I will grieve for him and miss him until the day I die.

But love is a many-splendored thing. It is beautiful. It is rare. My relationship with CFL may or may not be forever, but it is real. We’re both taking it one day at a time, both of us sharply aware that life is short and moments are all we have. I know that we have enriched one another’s lives immeasurably. As I look back tonight and remember the person that I was and the person that he was a year ago, I am grateful that both of us have had this second chance at love in our lives.

And on this holiday, I am grateful for loved ones and for being in love, both past and present. I am cherishing the memories and looking to the future.

One step at a time.

Things I learned while running today

After all the shouting and divisiveness of election season, I looked forward to my run this morning as a cleansing event. It ended up being exactly that, in a bigger way than I’d expected.

It started out as an ordinary enough run. The temperature was in the high 40s so I had on my new running gloves (with touch-screen-friendly fingertips for easy Garmin operation) and a hat. The sun was in and out of the clouds but the wind was calm, and I stayed comfy for the full 5 miles. I wasn’t going particularly fast, but that was okay because it gave me that much more time to think.

Lately I have been feeling some pressure in my life. It’s been over eight months since I quit my job and I haven’t even started any of the big writing projects I’d envisioned. I’ve run, hiked, and biked. I’ve rearranged some of the furniture in my house. I’ve gradually continued to redefine the logistical details of my life after Kurt. The other day, for example, I finally called the cable company, reduced the super-premium-bazillion-channels package to basic cable (cutting my cost in half), and got that last utility bill put into my name.

I’ve kept myself very busy, and I’ve wondered several times in this blog how I’d ever found time to work. But what have I actually accomplished? Am I truly spending my short, precious lifetime doing and being the things that I value most?

Last night, I watched and cheered as a nation reaffirmed its belief that the world can be a better place, that the future still holds more promise than the past, that together we can be better and more than any of us can be alone.

I was simultaneously watching cable TV news (yes, I turned on the TV for the first time in weeks), monitoring my favorite political blog, and scanning my Twitter feed. For the most part the tweets in my feed were expressing the same positive emotions I was feeling. Except for this one really annoying person…

You may recall that when I came home from Palm Springs I joined a local group that is doing community organizing for local sustainability. I was very enthusiastic about this group because it seemed to be an opportunity to build my local connections and help make my community a better place to live. However, as I got to know the other team members, some of them revealed themselves as downright apocalyptic thinkers. These people were not merely trying to prepare for climate change, resource scarcity, and the like — they seemed to be determined to hasten the demise of the world as we know it. Rather than build on the goodness that exists in our society and at all levels of government, they seemed to want to tear it all down.

That kind of thinking, in my opinion, is toxic.

I don’t have room in my life for people who complain, criticize, and seek to destroy. No, we don’t live in a perfect world, but there is so much here that is good. Let’s celebrate our successes, no matter how small, rather than lash out in anger over not getting more things done more quickly.

I have often repeated my running mantra: “One step at a time. One foot in front of the other.” In the months of Kurt’s illness, and in the weeks and months after his death, those words kept me going in running and in life. One step at a time. Sometimes an individual step might be weak or wobbly. Sometimes I’ve had to take a step or two sideways or even backwards. But I’ve done my best to keep moving, keep the momentum going. Small steps and sideways wobbles are still progress, and they’re much more productive than falling — or jumping — off a cliff.

I’ve come to realize that the world is not going to collapse overnight, any more than it has any of the many previous times that people thought it would. Civilization actually seems to be quite resilient in the face of crises and emergencies. If I am mistaken about this, I will expect to deal with the consequences in the best way I can at the time. In any case, I always try to keep my pantry well stocked. And I always try to keep moving forward and building on what I have accomplished so far, because I believe that my doing so is my one small step toward making the world a better place. In any case, it beats the heck out of small-minded, churlish rants on Twitter!

I finished my run feeling refreshed, energized, and optimistic for the future. I have plenty to feel optimistic about. I live in the state that voted for marriage equality and legalized marijuana! I am represented by two awesome female senators who are about to be part of the largest contingent of female senators ever! Whatever your political leanings, whether these specific events seem good or bad to you, you gotta agree that the world is changing, indeed.

I came home feeling profoundly grateful for being alive and healthy on a beautiful autumn day.

I wrote a resignation letter to the sustainability group, wishing them well but telling them I could not support their gloomy outlook on the future.

I am giving myself more time to write, more opportunities to be outside in this beautiful world, more freedom to get involved in positive actions to benefit community and society. Most of all, I am giving myself full permission to enjoy my finite life as much as I possibly can.

I’m going forward — one step at a time.

Getting from here to there

Running has been interesting the past couple of weeks. I came out of the half marathon feeling completely strong, fit, and confident. I did give myself a brief break from the long runs, but at the same time I immediately attempted to increase the number of my weekly runs from three to four, and added the new element of unpaved surfaces.

The trail running is going rather well and I’m enjoying it immensely, although I’m not yet running on really challenging trails (I have one planned for this weekend).

I’m not doing so well with my plan to run four days a week. In fact I haven’t yet succeeded in doing that at all. I have managed to run two days back to back (a feat that was impossible for me not so long ago), but after I do that I find that I need an additional rest day. I’ve scaled back on the distances for this week’s attempt to run four days, and that may make the difference.

The sequence I’m trying to train for, which I’ll be doing on the Alaska marathon cruise, is:

  • 3 miles paved/level
  • 10 miles trail/rolling
  • rest day
  • 6.2 miles paved/hilly
  • 7 miles trail/rolling

At the moment, this is looking fairly daunting. I’m beginning to think that I’ll just go out there, have a great time, take lots of photos along the way, and congratulate myself for having the courage to try.

My mind is willing but my body keeps whispering that it’s a little tired. I find reasons to postpone that next-day run and give myself a 1-day break.

I ran yesterday morning in a new place, along the spit that frames the harbor. Most of it was completely flat (as you’d expect at sea level) and paved road, but wherever I could I ran through gravel parking areas and sandy paths that wind between the road and the beach. The mix of surfaces was pleasant on my feet. I kept the distance short, only just over 3 miles. The weather was perfect: high 50s and completely calm. As I ran along the spit’s narrow strip of land, I had a close-up view of the harbor, city, and mountains to the south, and of the strait and Vancouver Island to the north. Here is the view to the north.

I came home feeling physically great, and with a mental sense of relief as I had been getting edgy from a couple of days of not running. That’s the ironic part — my mind really wants me to run more frequently. My mind craves the release from all the everyday concerns, stresses, and hassles of life. My mind thinks running is really fun and wants me to do more and more of it. My body seems to agree and has responded remarkably well to the demands I put on it, but only up to a certain point. My challenge is balancing the desires of my mind with the physical limits of what my body can do on any given day. As an intensely cerebral person, I keep having to re-learn that I need to listen more closely to my body.

This afternoon I’m planning an easy 4 mile run along the waterfront on the city side, followed by a local microbrew with running friends. I’ve vowed to run comfortably, have fun, and focus on resilience. What my body and mind need to learn now is the simple discipline of going out the next day and doing it again.

I’m getting from here to there one step at a time.

I have to keep reminding myself that in running and in life, we can’t shortcut the process. We can’t (and shouldn’t) be someone other than the person we are, but we can take those steps to become the person that we want to become. One mindful, careful step at a time, with an eye to the future while also fully experiencing, being present in, and cherishing the quality of each moment now.

I want to believe that this balancing act between present and future is not an impossible ideal.

What do you think?

Downstream transitions

My last post earlier today was completely focused on running, which is appropriate because with my local half marathon less than three weeks away, I am primarily focused on being ready for that race. This will be my sixth half marathon, and it will be the first one for which I have actually managed to stay with a training plan, get all the planned long runs in on schedule, and (I hope!) will feel ready, rested, and able on race day. My new post-corporate status has helped make that possible, but it’s also because I haven’t ever given up. Over the last three and a half years I have kept at this running thing, making the plans and honoring them, adjusting them when life circumstances required, learning to listen to my body, when to push and when to back off. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other, I have kept on moving.

Hiking and (to a lesser extent because I’m still wobbly) biking have been wonderful cross training experiences, and I really do feel the difference in my strength especially when running hills. But hiking is a slow, immersive, meditative experience that I’m really coming to enjoy for itself.

Over this past weekend I had the great privilege of hiking the former Lake Aldwell. Not far from my town an incredible, unprecedented transition is taking place. Two century-old dams are being removed from the Elwha River. It is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in the US, if not the world, and it’s been in the planning/approval/funding process for more than 20 years. The intention is to restore the historic salmon runs (according to folklore, in the old days you could walk across the river on the backs of the 100-pound salmon) and to return the Elwha, much of which runs through Olympic National Park, to its wild river state. Scientists of every stripe have come here to plan and oversee the process of removing the two dams, draining their lakes while managing the 100-year silt accumulation, letting the river find new channels through the lake bed, and watching new vegetation reclaim the area (while keeping the invasive species out).

The removal of Elwha Dam, the lower of the two dams, began last September and was completed a month or so ago. I saw photos of the lake bed shortly after the dam was removed and really wanted to go there, but I wasn’t excited about sinking into mud so I’ve waited until now.

What I saw was otherworldly and wonderful. The river has indeed found its channel, and it is a meandering one that cuts through layers of silt, sand, and gravel. The most striking feature of the landscape is the tree trunks. These are the remains of gigantic old-growth Western Red Cedars that were cut and salvaged just before the lake filled. The stumps range from 4 to 12+ feet high depending on where they sit relative to the silt/sand/gravel beds. They apparently were burned at the time, but because this is a virtually indestructible wood, much of the mass is still there… after being cut, burned, and submerged for 100 years! Most of these stumps are ten or more feet across, and they are everywhere. The lake bed is a “moonscape,” eerily desert-like, but teeming with signs of life.

See those notches in the stump? Those are proof that it was cut more than a century ago, using old logging techniques that I am unable to describe to you (but you can probably google it).

While it may look desolate, I’m happy to report that life is definitely returning to the former Lake Aldwell. My hiking friend and I marveled at the large number of tracks left deeply and precisely imprinted in the fine silt on the west bank. We saw lots of elk (or possibly mountain goat) prints, but what really caught our attention were these prints:

We can’t decide whether these are coyote or cougar prints. Based on their large size (compare the shoe prints) and roundness (not elongated/oval) we think they are cougar, but my field guide book tells me you wouldn’t see claws on cougar tracks. However, my field guide may not take into account how thick and gooey the mud was when those tracks were made. If I were a cougar I might have extended my claws to keep from sinking too deep. What do you think?

After we hiked about half the length of Lake Aldwell, we drove up to the upper dam (Glines Canyon Dam). This dam is still intact, but Lake Mills is being drained at a rate of about one foot a day. The reason for this slow trickle is to prevent a wall of silt from rushing downstream to the fragile, recovering downstream riverbed. It will be nearly another year before the upper Elwha runs free. I couldn’t photograph Lake Mills because construction barriers have been put in place… but I could peek through.

Back here in town, another transition is being envisioned. You may recall that one of my goals for post-corporate life was to become involved in local community building initiatives. Well, I have found my place, at least for now, with the Transition Towns movement. This is an initiative that began in the UK and is focused on creative local response to environmental and economic threats. Transition initiatives emerge within communities in a grassroots fashion in response to this question:

“For all those aspects of life that our community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)?”

I’ve become a core member of a Transition Initiating Group, and we’re in the process of figuring out how to address this downshifting question in a way that uniquely fits our local small town — geographically isolated, with a dying/dead logging industry, millions of acres of protected wilderness, seasonal tourism, a short growing season, but LOTS of water. Our demographics range from Libertarian to Green, from Microsoft millionaire to retirees who are barely scraping by on Social Security. I don’t believe Sasquatch exists, but I know for a fact that there are homeless veterans living back there in the woods, and they do not want to be bothered by outsiders. All of these people, these voices, need to be brought into the conversation about the future that we are trying to initiate.

So it’s an interesting project, but it’s giving me exactly what I hoped to find. I’m meeting and working with people who may have widely differing perspectives but share a desire to thrive in the face of whatever future challenges we may or may not face. Whether or not you “believe” in whatever predictions one or another scientific model may make, isn’t it prudent to be prepared in case this or that worst-case scenario might happen? And even if it never happens, isn’t it a great thing to sit around a table with thoughtful people, sharing a meal and talking about one’s hopes and dreams for the future?

I think so.

It took vision and perseverence to make the Elwha River run free, and I want to lend my vision and perseverence to making my small town a freer, happier, more neighborly place to be.

Wouldn’t you?

Really scary bridges

While I was out running the other day it occurred to me that I would have two opportunities (going and returning) to examine the REALLY SCARY bridge that gave me so much trouble on my last bike ride. I thought that perhaps if I stopped and studied it, I might be able to overcome my irrational fear of crashing into the rail while attempting to ride across it. After all, this bridge is no big deal while running!

What I found is that there are several things going on that make this particular bridge so scary. Approaching from the west, it is a nice straight shot from a broad asphalt parking area — and in fact I’d handled it just fine when going that direction on my bike. Approaching from the east, it’s a different story.

The waterfront trail that I run most frequently is paved for most of its length. It’s a soft, thin chip-seal, which makes for a comfortable and pleasant running surface. Just east of this bridge, however, the trail makes a “temporary detour” around an old mill that closed about 15 years ago. Because this section is “temporary” pending final cleanup of the mill site (which may happen sometime this century), it has been left unpaved. Approaching the bridge from the east side, the trail is a combination of loose gravel and mud. It winds downhill and then makes a hard downhill left turn just a few yards from the bridge.

EXHIBIT A: Downhill left turn on gravel, approaching really scary bridge

So here I am, pedaling along, focusing really hard on simply trying to stay upright, because I haven’t done much bike riding in the last 30 years or more. I approach the turn, hit the brakes, try not to slide on the gravel, and hope I’ve got myself straightened out for the very short approach to the bridge. The bridge itself also runs downhill, and is only about 7 feet wide.

EXHIBIT B: The gaping maw of the REALLY SCARY bridge

I ask you: is that not REALLY SCARY?

But the funny thing is, once you are out on the middle of the bridge, if you take the time to stop (or if you find yourself coming to a screeching halt) and then look around, this is truly a beautiful place. This is Ennis Creek. Several years ago I was on a team that monitored water quality on this creek and another one nearer my house. I’ve scrambled around in the water at this location many times. This is NOT a scary place at all. I actually love this place.

EXHIBIT C: Ennis Creek from the bridge

Now that I have studied the bridge and understood the elements that make it so scary from my bike-riding vantage point, I’m hopeful that the next time I try it on my bike, I’ll sail right through. Or at least I’ll be able to laugh at myself for my obstinate, persistent irrationality.

There is a life lesson in this, of course. A really scary bridge is just a metaphor for all those really scary crossings that I have had to make over the past two years. A cancer diagnosis in one’s dearest loved one is a really scary thing. Watching helplessly as he endured one complication, one indignity, one setback after another was really scary. Realizing that I was going to have to get through the hardest parts, Kurt’s final weeks and days, without him being “there” to cheer me on as he had always done for me when the going got tough, was really scary. Saying goodbye to someone who was beyond responding was really scary. Finding myself alone was really, really scary.

He’s now been gone for almost a year. I can look back and know that I did everything as well as I possibly could have. I have crossed one bridge after another. I have learned to enjoy the view. Sometimes I still feel really scared, but I’m learning that I have so much life still to live, so many new adventures that I never thought would be within my reach, and a growing community of new friends who are encouraging me to cross new bridges.

I’ll get over this bridge, and others beyond it. Life does go on, and there is joy in the journey.

One step at a time!