Running for Clarity

Why do I run? Some days I run to remember.
Do you know what I mean?
Those glimpses of clarity, moments stored away,
Hidden as they often are in the mundanity of everyday living.

Minutes swirl by each day:
Looking for keys, packing lunches, homework, what I ate for breakfast yesterday,
Or was it Tuesday? Life goes full speed, and the seconds blend into hours, days and months.
Life is good. But busy.

Out on the trail, time slows (especially when there’s pain)
But the focus on each footstep satiates my soul.
Dark branches against sky, the white foam and dark, clear water by Company Mill,
A story shared with a friend, the drum of woodpeckers and crunch of fresh-fallen leaves,
Even the sharp ankle turn that blurs my vision momentarily—all give me crystalline focus.

I savor these snapshots, and store them away for the hectic days ahead.
When the days are long, every hour is filled, and I can’t see the sky,
I steal a few seconds to visit these moments in time.
In my mind’s eye I can see the white boles of sycamore trees, standing along the creek that bears their name.

It’s this temporary departure from the clutter of life–good clutter, and necessary–but easy to get lost in.
I savor these moments now for those busy days ahead,
So I can return to when I’m out on the trail, miles passing
One step at a time beneath my feet.

2012 Uwharrie Mountain 20 Mile Run Report

(With apologies to Robert W. Service)

There are strange things done in the Piedmont sun
By the runners who are feeling so bold;
The Uwharrie trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;

The steepest hills and some ugly spills
Plus rocks and creeks ‘fore you’re done;
It all comes down to a battle of wills
On the Uwharrie Mountain Run.

I had some goals and they had some holes; I had no time in my plan
From everything I’d been hearing I’d just run as hard as I can
I didn’t want to go wrong, and I hoped to run strong from the start until the finish
And not to fall, or hit the wall, and watch my energy diminish.

Now the first mile or so went pretty slow, and I wondered if the hill would end
As we hiked along I said to Danny “this really sucks, my friend.
I don’t like at all this endless wall of folks slogging up so steep.”
And he said “better be patient, Steph, ‘cause if you run this now you’ll weep.”

And this is the end of the poem, folks, because rhyming makes me queasy;
The night’s come to stay and I’ve still lots to say but thinking now ain’t easy.
I tried and tried, but I’m pretty fried, and I’d like to get to bed
So it will have to be prose from here on out, ‘cause I’m not about to bend.

I had an awesome run on Saturday.

I didn’t have a time goal and it was nice not to have that pressure. Don’t get me wrong—Uwharrie was an A race for me and all those hill repeat workouts were for good reason! My goal was to run strong and immerse myself in the whole experience. By running strong, I wanted to keep a smart pace and not do what I’ve done for both of my marathons—that is, run too hard early on and then lose steam at the end. I really had no idea what to expect, time-wise, so I just left it out of the plan altogether. It was a good move.

There was a great atmosphere at the race. Joanna, Danny, Jon and I hopped on the shuttle bus with a bunch of sleepy runners, sat in the back and joked around all the way to the start. We were in high spirits and relaxed, but excited. At the start we had to check in again so they could account for everybody, then we hung out by a toasty fire waiting for the start. The 40 miler was delayed by 20 minutes or so, so we just glimpsed Melina as she was taking off on her way to placing 4th female in the 40 miler.

Any worries I had about starting too fast were put to rest at the start, as we immediately jumped on the trail and started a mile-long, rocky, uphill slog. Blergh. Oh, let me illustrate with the course elevation map (both the 8 mile and 40 mile course followed this as well—the 40 milers turned around and went back—can you imagine?):

Hahaha! Nope, no running that first mile. I was cold and impatient and a little annoyed to be in this huge crowd of people, but we finally reached the top and began the run.

The aid stations were incredible. I had a hard time leaving the first one, with all the great food they had. I finally figured out a strategy—take my water bottle top off coming in, hand it over for quick refill of water (the volunteers were amazing), grab a ¼ peanut butter and jelly sandwich, look for the homemade cookies (banana chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin were the kinds I had), and move on. I’d then walk for a bit while I ate and drank, then eat the last few bites on the run. I wished for a race photographer at these points, so my MyTrainLocal page could have a photo to illustrate my bio (“I like to run trails and eat cookies”). Indeed.

Many of the uphills as Joanna mentioned were super-steep, and I walked any that seemed steep to save my legs. The downhills were crazy fun and the flats were fun too. I had to hold back from whooping a few times. The course was more technical than any other I’ve done—very rocky in places, steeper and longer hills, numerous stream crossings. Fun! Miraculously, I only turned my ankle once and never fell. I credit that to luck and Larisa Lotz’s functional fitness class and the balance and strength moves I’ve learned from her. No ITB pain either–yes!

Somewhere after mile 8 I picked a sight line to rock-hop across a creek when the woman behind me yelled “Don’t cross! Don’t cross!” as she stayed on the same side and headed up the trail ahead of me. Drat. I screeched to a stop but my concentration was broken: I missed my next rock and jumped into the creek, so my feet were soaked for the rest of the run. It was good to get it out of the way, actually, because after that, I consistently passed people at creek crossings by splashing through. There was nothing more than ankle-deep and a bit of mud.

The winter landscape of Uwharrie was beautiful. Without leaves, you could see the landforms and some views. I’d love to go back in May to see all the mountain laurel in flower. The Uwharries are an ancient, worn down mountain range, and I noticed differences in the rocks in different sections, with bright white quartz along one section. And there is just something thrilling about a point-to-point run in a winter landscape that gives you the feeling that you are covering some significant distance. It was wicked.

I have to mention mile 16, because most of the afternoon on Friday that’s about all I heard about from Danny and Joanna. Since I don’t have a Garmin and there are no mile markers, I was tracking miles through the aid stations at miles 5, 8, 11, 14, and 17. They were right—mile 16 cut to the left and then went vertical. But I was expecting it and wasn’t fazed—I just slowed to a walk and did a steady quick step heading to the top. Summiting and blowing down the back side of it sure was fun.

I was having a blast and felt great, so I kept picking up the pace on the downhills and flats even though I worried about my legs burning out. I ended up running slightly negative splits, which I still find surprising. I met my goal! Toward the end I passed a guy at a creek crossing and he said “I guess you’re thinking about those cookies at the finish” and I laughed. If only he knew! After the mile 17 aid station my calves started threatening to cramp, but I told them sternly they had just 3 more miles to run and there would be no whining.

At some point the 20 milers started catching up to the back of the 40 mile pack. These folks were such an inspiration—here I was more than halfway to the finish and they had hours and hours still ahead of them. Most of those I passed looked strong and steady and in good spirits. The weather was perfect—not too cold, but overcast with some steady rain at times. I can only imagine how hard it would be to turn around at the end of 20 miles and head back.

I pulled into the finish to see some of our 8 milers, awesome spectators, and Jon warming themselves by the fire. Not long after, my super-awesome running buddies Danny and then Joanna came in, as thrilled and excited as I was about the experience, and we swapped stories as we waited for the shuttle and headed back. I know that trail running is supposed to be for the rugged individualist types (and I understand the appeal of that too), but it was awesome to be there with friends.

Big shout-out to all my training buddies (you know who you are) who made it through the 12(000) days of Christmas (admittedly, not all on my plan), track workouts, hill repeats, tempo runs and trail runs. You all made me look forward to every workout and put 100% into each one. Y’all rock. And of course my talented coach and awesome husband, Andrew, who not only wrote me a great training plan (which I mostly followed), but also made sure I could get in my workouts. Now I just have to figure out how to pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookies on my race belt for the upcoming Umstead marathon.

Uwharrie: I can’t wait to go back!

Happy Runnerpeeps post-race: Danny, Steph and Jon. Great day!

Postscript: This was my first Uwharrie race and so I had no idea how I might place. I was surprised and thrilled to place 9th overall female. I would have been first Master’s if they had recognized age categories. As someone typically in the top third in road races, it was surprising and exciting to do so well.

Effects of site preparation and vegetation control on the plant communities, successional dynamics, and stand structure of a loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) plantation.

Plantation forests,
despite Round-Up and chainsaws,
Not lifeless deserts.

I recently interviewed for a research/outreach curator at a local biological station. When asked about my doctoral work, I recited this haiku, which I published in 2008 on I’m not certain it was the best move I’ve made in an interview, but the look of surprise (and for some, delight) on the interview committee’s faces was worth it. As the editor of the Dissertation Haiku site, Drew Steen, attests, “Dissertations are long and boring. By contrast, everybody likes haiku.”

After fleshing out the findings of my research for the committee, I explained how I use haiku in the classroom to force my students to focus on a clear, concise argument, and that science communication could be in a better place using such rhetorical strategies.

Also, it makes me laugh.

Winter morning at Umstead

Leaves crunch beneath my feet,
Building cadence, left foot follows right,
Familiar, boring—yet joyful—repetition.
Miles behind me and the trail stretching yet ahead.

Frost-laden air, sharp as it enters my lungs,
And that singular sound of feet crushing frost-heaved soil.
Trees in sharp relief, golden sun filtering through their branches;
I catch my breath at their beauty and their nakedness.

Singular focus on the roots and rocks in my path,
Yet savoring the rich silence of the forest
My mind empties, though a shard of loneliness remains,
As my soul fills with the quiet beauty of December.