Ocean of Stars

I want to lose myself in the night sky,
Shiver in the November air,
Lie by the sea among grains of sand.
I want to feel dwarfed by the universe
Tiny, and inconsequential.

Perhaps then my cares, too, will seem small
Fear drifting away with the outgoing tide
My heart growing lighter
So I might twinkle again,
Just one of a billion stars above my head.

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Les Etoiles

lepetitprince_wp7
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You–only you–will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This weekend was hard. Two years have not been enough time to ease my sorrow. It was a long day Saturday missing one of my closest friends. Suzie loved the wisdom of Le Petit Prince.

Running the Shut-In Ridge

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Clouds and sunshine on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Andrew

Andrew, the boys and I camped in Pisgah National Forest for a rainy long weekend. I picked Flat Laurel Gap at Mt. Pisgah because of its elevation (5000 ft.) and proximity to some beautiful areas of western North Carolina. I’d never camped there before, though I’ve taken classes to the bog in the middle of the campground. We’ll definitely go back!

We lucked out on Saturday with the weather. I’d wanted to take the boys to the Shining Rock Wilderness, so we trekked the strenuous Art Loeb Trail above 6000 ft. to Ivestor Gap. After bushwacking (and feasting on wild blueberries) on Grassy Cove Top, we retraced our steps to find the trail, hiking to within sight of Shining Rock from Flower Gap, then turning back on the Ivestor Gap Trail for a challenging 8 mile loop. It was a glorious day, and they loved it as much as I hoped they would.

Family photo at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness.

My peeps at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness.

I’d had several recommendations for an out-and-back run on the wide and relatively easy Ivestor Gap Trail, but after trying to construct an elaborate route to meet Andrew and the boys at Graveyard Fields, I decided to simplify things and have Andrew drop me off at the NC Arboretum to run point-to-point on the Shut-In Trail. I’ve been intrigued by Shut-In for some time. It originated in the late 1800s as a path George Vanderbilt took from his Biltmore mansion up to his hunting lodge on Mt. Pisgah. In addition, there’s a wicked race there each November that I’d love to do sometime.

I knew it would be tough, even without running the full 16.3 miles. The trail gains a net 3200 ft. I figured 14.7 mi was as much as I could do—matching the distance I’d done in Charleston the weekend before but adding hills and terrain. My coach enabler best pal, Andrew, dropped me off at the Arboretum and we made plans to rendezvous at the 151 junction in three hours.

The run was as difficult as it was wonderful, and took me through some beautiful and varied stretches of forest. There were many not-runnable steep stretches, but also sections with a reasonable climb, including a few downhill breaks and flats that gave me the sinking feeling that I was going to pay for them later. [Which I did.]

I took my mind off the burning in my lungs during climbs by inventing a Tolkeinian forest classification. Either the oxygen was too limited or the connection was too tenuous, because I didn’t get very far.

Mirkwood.

Mirkwood.

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Lothlorien.

Maidenhair fern (and cove forests) must be Rivendell.

Maidenhair fern (and cove forests) must be Rivendell.

Shut-In has few views, though it does pop out on the Parkway now and then, usually at overlooks. Since it was either steady rain or mist, I didn’t miss much, though the elevation markers that I only glanced at from the car now took on new significance. However, fog makes the colors in the forest more vibrant anyway, and the wildflowers I saw were a good distraction.

Jewelweed, Impatiens pallida

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida

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Starry campion, Silene stellata

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And a crazy fungus!

For some reason, I was reluctant to pull out my map, even as I ran by several Parkway checkpoints. I didn’t look because I was afraid of how far behind I’d be. Finally, at 2 hrs. 45 min., I looked to see where I was. Sure enough, I was even farther behind than I’d thought. I’d never make the 3 hour meeting point.

That’s when I realized that I should have had a back-up plan—at 3 hours, I should go to the closest Parkway overlook and wait for Andrew to find me if I wasn’t at the meeting point. As luck would have it, we were able to text, so after I emerged from the woods again, I asked Andrew to come south and pick me up at Big Ridge Overlook, at 12.3 mi. He and the boys showed up with a towel, Fritos, a sandwich and a chocolate bar. Best. Pit. Crew. Ever.

Lessons from Shut-In:

Gear: Water in my 70 oz. Nathan pack, 2 Justine’s nut butter packages (peanut butter/honey and maple/almond butter, delicious but sticky), a Luna bar, a Cliff bar that I didn’t eat, and a package of Fritos. Should have brought Nuun. I had a map (no compass—the trail follows the Parkway, so getting lost would be quite a feat), phone, small first aid kit, camera, and a page from my NC hiking guide with trail distances. I carried a long-sleeved shirt and a wool pullover in a plastic grocery bag, stuffed into the shock cords on the outside of my pack. I wore shorts, a t-shirt, a hat, and my Brooks Trail Adrenalines.

Train for distance, but account for time. When will I learn this? I can’t get my head around time-training for long runs, though I know many people like it. My mistake, though, is that I chose a distance but miscalculated my time. A 12 min. pace seemed generous, covering snack time, photos, and navigation. I might have been close had I not gained ~2000 ft. in elevation. Instead, I was closer to a 15 min. pace. Moreover, I knew I was behind and ran hard whenever I could. Fine for a race, dumb for a training run.

Plan smarter. I knew I couldn’t run the whole distance, so I should have had Andrew drop me off higher up, on the Parkway, so I could have run 14+ back to the campground. That way he and the boys would not have had to meet me, and I wouldn’t have worried that I was behind schedule.

Angles count. Shut-In was great training for my trail 50K, with long stretches of climbing. I can run, seemingly forever, on a gentle climb. But the tipping point comes eventually, where the steepness becomes not runnable, which turns suddenly into barely walkable without gasping for breath. I need to work on running steeper angles while breathing easy. Hill repeats!

Walk when you need to. Another great lesson to remember. Sometimes I pushed myself to run steep sections to the point of breathlessness. Then the trail would level out, but I was so out of breath by that point that I couldn’t run.

Mental focus matters. Shut-In was my second birthday trail run for Suzie (last year it was in Acadia). This year it was hard, and I felt it. Toward the end, I was so discouraged by the climbing that I had to stop, and I took a few pictures to re-group. I had a hard time pulling out of the downward spiral. Food did not seem to help. And then there were beautiful stretches where the running was easy and fast and I whooped aloud for the joy of flying, and of having known my amazing friend. Such is the strange nature of grief. 

Joy outweighs sorrow.

She would have loved this. RIP.

[“Bedshaped,” by Keane, has been playing in my head]

Memories of Suzie.

Friends and readers of my blog know that I lost a lifelong friend, my best friend from childhood, Suzie Wetzel Seemann, last September. She was killed by a man who murdered a woman in her home, stole her car, then ran down my friend and her two running partners. Suzie died at the scene. Her friends Terri and Jessie survived, with grave injuries from which they are still recovering. I don’t know that I will ever get past the senselessness of this random, malicious act.

If you didn’t know Suzie, you missed out. Here are her husband Hank’s beautiful words describing her life: http://www.seemann.com/suzie/

This past Saturday, I helped co-lead the memorial part of her service in New Jersey, with Suzie’s sister-in-law Caroline. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. In the days leading up to Saturday, I felt overwhelming sadness, and I worried about how I would handle my emotions during the service. I didn’t want to just get through the service–I wanted it to be personal, warm, and welcoming, reflecting those traits in my friend.

Sometime last week, I wrote that I felt crushed by the weight of a thousand mountains–when I knew that I needed to BE the mountain.

But that introspective time somehow helped me prepare to do what was needed. The memories shared brought together snippets of Suzie’s life in a way that showed the depth of her character, and the richness of her too-short life. And I was grateful to have the opportunity to honor my friend and help her family.

I’ve been asked to share the words I spoke at the service, so they are posted below, along with some photos of us. I kept the tone light, so I could read them at the service. I hope they bring a smile, and convey how important our friendship was to me, from the time that we met all the way into adulthood. We were friends for more than thirty years.

I think this kind of friendship is rare, and I treasured it.

~
Memorial Service for Suzie Wetzel Seemann
Church of the Nativity, Fair Haven, NJ
April 13, 2013

The most memorable part of Suzie and Hank’s wedding for me was their inclusion of stories. So I wanted to share a few stories with you today, from different points in our lives. Each story says something important about Suzie and our lifelong friendship.

**
The first story surprises even me in its clarity, because it happened so long ago. We met around the age Simon and Malcolm are today, so this story is for Stephen, Simon, Malcolm, Evelyn and Belle. My parents kept our sailboat at the Atlantic Highlands boat yard over the winter. Bill’s friend Steve Schoggen also had his boat there, and Bill would come on weekends, bringing Suzie and Becky with him to play while he helped Steve.

My mom and dad encouraged me and my brother Alec to introduce ourselves when we saw the girls one weekend. I wanted to, but I was terribly shy and could not bring myself to even say hi. Instead, I spied on them, peeking around boats propped up on land. The day ended, and I left feeling bad that I was too shy to say anything.

The following Saturday just one of the girls was there. My dad told me not to come back until I had introduced myself. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “She looks like a nice little girl about your age.” Again, I was tongue-tied as I followed her around. And because I was so afraid that she wouldn’t like me, I decided that, most certainly, I was not going to like her. I studied her deep brown Dorothy Hamil haircut, green eyes, blue jeans and sneakers, and convinced myself that she looked like a pretty tough customer. I’m not exactly sure how I reached that conclusion, because she saw me spying and hid behind her dad. If there was anyone shyer than me as a kid, it was Suzie (or possibly Becky).

Luckily for both of us, Bill finally broke the ice. “My little girl’s name is Suzie. What’s your name?” I don’t actually remember the rest of that day. Memories of roller-skating, playing at the playground and the beach, and pizza parties at Steve’s house have blurred together. But I learned that it’s important to take risks, and to find the courage to keep your mind and your heart open. Because you just never know when you might meet a lifelong friend.

The earliest pic I could find with us in it. We're on the bottom left of the pyramid--Suzie on the left, me in the middle.

The earliest pic I could find with us in it. We’re on the bottom left of the pyramid–Suzie on the left, me in the middle. I have no idea who the other girls are–guessing this was a birthday party in Neptune, where the Wetzels lived.

Suzie, Becky, me and Mary Jude. Guessing we're 12 or 13?

Suzie, Becky, me and Mary Jude. Guessing we’re 12 or 13?

**
The next set of memories is for our gang of high school friends. We were good kids—kids who would ride bikes before dawn to the 7-11 in Sea Bright to get bagels, then watch the sunrise over the ocean. But then we’d actually go to school, and make sure we got there on time.

suzie and the gang on boat

Some of our high school gang. I like this one because it isn’t homecoming, prom, or someone’s graduation. Just a bunch of us hanging out, which is what we did best.

suzie and gang rbr graduation

RBR graduation, 1990. Our group of friends included siblings and spanned a 5 year age difference.

Suzie and I were partners in crime and rarely could you find one of us without the other. Together, we negotiated the sometimes bewildering social melee of high school—sometimes we did this well, more often we did it poorly. And we spent many weekends choosing a park as a destination and then relishing the adventure of getting there, sometimes riding 30 or more miles on our 10 speed bikes. The longer the ride, the better we liked it. Sometimes friends joined us, but more often it was just the two of us. By the end of my junior year, we had ridden to every park within a 25 mile radius of Little Silver, including Allaire State Park. [An aside to all our friends who now have kids of their own, remember: we were 14 and 15, and there were no cell phones. But we always carried a few dimes in case we needed to use a pay phone.]

Our opposite personalities meshed well on these adventures. Suzie was the planner and mastermind of our rides, figuring out the details and making sure we had everything we needed. I happily went along for each ride, which was usually longer and much more difficult than I’d bargained for. If things went awry and Suzie’s worry gene kicked in, my seat-of-the-pants intuition about what to do often helped us form Plan B. Once, I talked us out of being arrested when we decided to take a shortcut on the off-limits military road to Earle Pier.

We became passionate about ocean pollution, and volunteered for what was then a small grassroots organization called Clean Ocean Action. It was the height of the ocean pollution crisis in the 1980s on the Jersey Shore, back when it was perfectly legal to dump trash and sewage 12 miles offshore. Beach cleanups were organized by t-shirt color to designate which type of trash you would be picking up, as COA tried to quantify the types and sources of pollution. My friends and I all knew not to get the pink shirts, because that meant you would spend the day picking up plastic tampon applicators.

suzie hypodermic

Suzie, Nans and Becky

Suzie and I spent a summer canvassing beaches with petitions and helping organize clean-up events and rallies. And one Halloween Suzie dressed as a hypodermic needle, with a sign that read “Jersey Shore Hospital Supply Company: From our beaches to your bedside.”

Just last summer we rode bikes out to Sandy Hook like we had so many times. The Sandy Hook of today is noticeably cleaner than it was when we were in high school. The 12 mile dumpsite was closed in the early 90s. And the water is clear, attesting to nature’s resilience. But what floored me more than anything was that I saw a type of boat I’d never seen before—they were clam boats, with their short little sails, all over Sandy Hook Bay. In all my life, I’d never seen these boats, because shell-fishing was illegal when we grew up. Although there is still work to be done, the transformation truly amazed me.

Suzie and I were so different, yet we shared so many of the same passions. She was unwavering in her convictions. And together we learned that some things are worth the time you put into them.

suzie steph gang steph wedding

Milestones: My wedding, August 1995, Charleston, SC

**
After high school, Suzie and I only saw each other sporadically. We rarely talked on the phone or exchanged email. We were too busy doing things that mattered to us. But when we did talk or get together, it never mattered how long it had been since the last time. When you have a connection this deep, and you don’t see each other often, you don’t have time for idle chitchat.

I visited Suzie at Woods Hole when she started there, and we shared a passion for science—for her, it was oceanography, then meteorology, with its data-driven models of storm prediction; for me, it was ecology, with its big-picture understanding of organisms and their environments. Last summer I told her I finally understood the Coriolis Effect. She listened to my explanation, then told me that it was totally wrong but that she would help me understand it. Alas, we didn’t have time, and I still don’t get it.

suzie wedding

Milestones: Suzie’s wedding, September 2000, Green Lake, WI.

Steph and Suzie Yosemite

Simon, Steph, Malcolm and Suzie. Tuolomne Meadows, 2005. One of my favorite pictures of the two of us.

Suzie was my maid of honor at my wedding, and she flew to NC to help when both my boys were born. One summer, before we had kids, we did a camping/canoe trip up in Wisconsin. We plotted way more adventures than we ever had time to do. We talked about gathering all our favorite girlfriends together one day to do the Title 9K in Boulder, but didn’t get the chance.

While we lived in Phoenix in 2005, we made the trip to Yosemite National Park, where Suzie and Hank were working as seasonal park rangers at Tuolomne Meadows. Simon and Malcolm were toddlers, so they rode in backpacks for short hikes and filled toy dump trucks with stones at the lake’s edge. While we were there, Suzie planned a “mom hike” for just the two of us. She wanted to show me her favorite flower, the sky pilot. And I couldn’t wait for our next adventure.

We started early, because she needed to be back by mid-morning, since Hank had a ranger program scheduled. Six miles, round-trip, seemed reasonable to do in a few hours. As usual, I didn’t really pay attention to the details.

I remember emerging from a forest of lodgepole pine and crossing a lush drainage, filled with beautiful wildflowers. As a forest ecologist, I could have spent a happy hour botanizing there and catching up. But Suzie urged me not to linger, because we had some ground to cover to see the sky pilots. And she insisted that I simply HAD to see them.

TuolumneMeadowsFromMtDana

Sky pilots cling to the scree at Mt. Dana. Photo from yosemitefoothills.com.

The trail started switch-backing up a steep slope strewn with boulders. Trees disappeared altogether as we marched up the mountain’s flanks, covered with nothing but barely stable scree. I was gasping trying to keep up. Just before we hit a big patch of snow, we found our first clumps of the flowers we sought. Clusters of clearest blue flowers perched on upright stalks, so fragile, and growing in the harshest of environments. They were perfect.

We reached the summit and signed the logbook. I was ready to kick back and take in the views, but Suzie said we needed to hurry. She wasn’t kidding—we had less than an hour to get back. We started running down the steep trail. I did my first glissading that day and managed not to break my leg. We made it, just barely, and laughed about it later. It was another one of Suzie’s overly ambitious adventures, and I had walked right into it yet again, just like old times.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I discovered that the mountain we had climbed was Mount Dana. Mt. Dana is the second-highest peak in Yosemite National Park at 13,067 ft, and the 3 mile climb to the top had an elevation gain of over 3000 feet. 

Suzie was never one to shrink from a challenge, and she didn’t waste time on unimportant things. She embraced life fully—a life filled with her family, her friends, her work and her passions.

Suzie Malcolm and Simon 2006

Malcolm and Simon watering Wendy’s garden at Becky’s wedding, 2006.

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The same boys last summer–2012–concentrating on a chess game at Bill and Wendy’s kitchen table.

**
Suzie and I always ran a deficit of time. Even when we were in high school, we wrote pages-long letters to each other every week, sometimes nightly, with lists of additional topics we had to discuss. Suzie was the first person I trusted completely with my feelings, and there are things about me that only she knew. I am so grateful for the time we shared last summer, especially for the 10 mile run we did one morning, just the two of us, where we talked about running, our families, our work, and our lives. Our friendship weathered time as well as distance, and in some ways, we led parallel lives on opposite coasts. I had always imagined that we would celebrate life’s mile markers together. Hers was a life too short, and yet, so well-lived.

To DNS or DNF

*To DNS or DNF–that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of a run unstarted
Or run the race and risk a sea of troubles
And by so doing: to die, or at least screw up my leg
And continue my IT band issues: to start, to run until I can
Run no longer; and by DNF, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That flesh is susceptible to? [Hell no!] ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly not to be wished on anyone. To start (or not), to run,
To run, perchance to Dream. Aye, there’s the rub,

For in the grand scheme of life, my IT band problems are self-inflicted and trivial.

Umstead marathon was supposed to be my last big race, but I had to sign up for the Medoc Spring Race, a race styled after Dipsea with a staged start. It’s only 7.5 miles–the perfect distance, plus a fun format to keep me out of a post-season slump.

Then my running buddy decided to drop from the Umstead 100, so I was no longer needed as a pacer. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail 50K is the same weekend, on Sunday. Here was an opportunity to squeeze in an ultra on my home turf. The timing after Umstead was perfect. Steve emailed me and asked, “which distance did you sign up for?” “What kind of idiot do you think I am?” I retorted. It was another two weeks before I actually admitted—um, THAT kind. [He wasn’t surprised.]

When I first went to Mimi, the ITB issue seemed bad, much worse than I thought. I knew my left side was out of balance, but not the extent—weaker, less flexible, limited range of motion. I emailed Bull City. The 12 mile distance is full. It’s 50K or bust.

But, I have made so much progress in two weeks that I have guarded optimism, perhaps too much. Why not start and see how it goes? It’s hard to know how much better I am, though. The only thing that caused pain was running downhill. I’ve done two flat runs with zero pain.

If I consider the distance, my ITBS, and the fact that I would like to be in reasonable shape to run well at Medoc, it seems ridiculous to even start the 50K. Why would I risk the setback on my PT and careful strengthening to do a race that is not my A race, a race that I signed up for out of serendipity?

It’s not just a 50K run, though. The following weekend, I will speak at the memorial service for my lifelong friend Suzie, who was killed last September on her early morning run by a hit-and-run driver in Eureka CA. I had signed up counting on the 50K to help me steady myself for a much tougher event, one that will take everything I have.

I could accomplish this in other ways. But the singular effort of running a long way and the need to focus intently on the trail allow me both time and space for my brain to wander and my heart to find peace. And Suzie loved running trails.

It seems unlikely that I can go the full distance, and I do want to run Medoc with my son Stephen and my friends two weeks later. A friend told me that my brain and body will reach an agreement at some point and I’ll know the right decision.

I’m not afraid of pain, which is temporary. I’m afraid of the setback, of having to start from scratch again and extending the recovery time. If I thought I could run the 15 miles to the dam without causing additional problems, I’d do so happily and call it a very successful DNF. It’s hard to imagine that I’ll be able to run much farther.

My heart and brain will find the right answer. I just can’t see it yet.

*A line from a poem or story gets stuck in my head, and there’s no going back. Acknowledgement and apologies to: Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. “To Be, or Not to Be” [Internet]: Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_be,_or_not_to_be