Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Fastest Kid in the Fifth Grade - (Celebrating Banned Books Week)

This week in my 8th-Grade Literature class we’ve been recognizing Banned Books Week – a celebration of children’s freedom to read and a campaign against censorship in our schools and libraries. It’s been a fun project, prompting some passionate discussions when students found some of their favorite titles on the ALA's list of banned or challenged books from the past decade. For myself, I’m always floored, and rather heartbroken, to see these lists of much-treasured books, including titles, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, There Eyes Were Watching God, Beloved, Huckleberry Finn, and, well … the list is seemingly endless.

Although the week is nearly over, I’ve spent more than a few thoughtful moments in these recent days reflecting upon how some of these books have influenced me – how I might not be the same person if not for the experiences these books gave me. And so I thought I’d wave my banned books flag one last time on this, its last day.

Via Nathan Bransford's blog: Young Adult Fiction author T.H Mafi is writing a review of her favorite banned book, The Giver, and encouraging other writers to write their own “banned book” reviews. She’s compiled a list of all the reviews, and I’ve decided to join the ranks.

Following is my review of the banned book Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson.

I’ve always known that I loved Bridge to Terabithia, a children’s book about an unlikely friendship between a boy and a girl in rural Virginia. I can’t remember how old I was when my mom first read this story to me and my older sister, but I know I was too young to be capable of reading it myself. One reason I knew it was a good book is that it made my mother cry. I’d beg her to read it to me again and again. Although she indulged me often, she would also frequently steer me to other books because it was just too sad for her.

When I was finally old enough to read it myself, it became a book I returned to often, even once it was far below my reading level. The same hardcover copy still claims a space on my bookshelf – tattered cover, and sticker inside declaring “This Book Belongs to” and then my name, written carefully in an 8-year-old’s cursive.

As a kid, I probably couldn’t have told you why the story captivated me so much, but I had a few revelations about that during this week’s reflections. Looking back now, as an adult, I can only think of course this is the most treasured book from my childhood! It makes perfect sense.

Jesse Aarons is a shy 5th-grade boy who loves to run. His family is not well-off, and he spends most of his summer doing chores on their farm, and getting up early to run. He is determined to be the fastest kid in the fifth grade.

When he is beaten on the first day of school by the new kid, a girl, Jesse and Leslie soon become friends. Leslie is many of the things that Jesse is not – outgoing, enthusiastic, hopeful, and full of imagination and a longing for adventure. Together, she and Jesse create their own imaginary kingdom of Terabithia where they can rule and leave behind the troubles of school and parents.

Patterson does an incredible job of creating appealing characters with a great deal of depth. It was in thinking about the characters that I finally recognized the heartstrings that tie me to this book: Jesse and Leslie feel exactly like the two halves of my own self.

Jesse – the shy artist who craves more than his simple farm life has offered him so far, who has so much fear, who finds solace in his running and lets it fuel his dreams.

Leslie – the outgoing lover of learning who runs faster than all the boys, who has a vivid imagination and a passion for adventure.

Leslie feels like the exterior me, and Jesse more like the interior, but they’re both there. Always. Perhaps this is as much about the person I am as it is about the book, but certainly it is the sign of a talented writer when she can create characters with whom a reader so passionately identifies.

I find beauty in the innocent friendship between a boy and a girl – the kind of friendship that doesn’t often translate easily into the complexities of adulthood. I also find that the way the characters handle the tragedy that befalls them, although painful to read, is an incredible lesson about growing up and dealing with life’s deepest fears. For these reasons I think this book will continue to rise above the attempts at censorship and remain a classic love for many children and adults.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Lake Tahoe Half Marathon

This morning I took part in a Fall tradition here in Lake Tahoe – The Lake Tahoe Marathon events. After several years at the Marathon, and one year at the Triple, this year I thought I’d take my first go at the Half. Most of my friends gave me some justifiable ribbing about not returning to defend my title at the marathon, but I had other plans. Truth be told, I know the likelihood of ever winning that race again is slim, but I also know I’ll be back. I love that marathon!

I have another marathon coming up in a few weeks, and while I considered running the full at LTM and just “going easy,” I knew it would never happen. Well, at least I know myself. I’d convince myself I was just going to go easy, but then I’d get to the hills and start getting all competitive or something. Yup, that’s exactly how it would go down. So I decided that the safer “training run” route was to stick with the half. I could run as hard as I wanted and I knew that I would still have plenty of recovery time before my upcoming marathon.

On Saturday, I’d warmed up for the event with Jamie during a trail run in the Desolation Wilderness. It was predicted to be a very summer-like weekend, and it did not disappoint. A rugged trail run in the high-country, followed by a swim and a nap on the beach at Sand Harbor, was the perfect first half to my weekend.

Sun rise over Emerald Bay Saturday morning on my way to the trailhead into Desolation

Sunday’s race didn’t start until 10:20 A.M. so that we could finish with the mid-pack of the marathon. I’d planned to park at the starting line in Rubicon, at mile 13 of the marathon, instead of taking any of the various shuttle options. This allowed me to sleep in and get a few things done around the house in the morning. Not only was it a bit strange for a pre-race routine, but apparently all that extra time is not good for my brain. I was in a bit of a sour mood, and I spent more than a few moments contemplating skipping the race all together. Why on earth that sounded like a good idea, I’ve no clue, but fortunately I snapped out of it in time. I know from experience that such a choice would only serve to make my temperament even more acidic. Idiocy averted, I pinned on my number and headed down the West shore.

A Scottish bagpiper entertained us, until a man with a shotgun sent us barreling downhill onto the course. I stayed reasonably back from the front line so that I wouldn’t start too fast, but I took note of some of the women jack-rabbiting into the distance – one in a blue sports bra and white cap and one in a black tank top. If I ever caught up to them, I’d know I was near the front. Then, I settled in and tried to figure out how to pace myself for a half-marathon.

My splits can essentially tell the story of the elevation profile. Anything close to a 7-minute mile was downhill (miles 1, 2, 6, 8 and 9), close to a 9-minute mile was uphill (miles 3, 4 and 7), and close to an 8 was either mixed (mile 5), or it was flat and I was really tired (miles 11-13).

Mile 1: 6:45

Mile 2: 7:01

Mile 3: 8:50

Mile 4: 8:33

Mile 5: 7:29

Mile 6: 6:40

Mile 7: 8:31

Mile 8: 6:23

Mile 9: 7:08

Mile 10: 7:10

Mile 11: 7:43

Mile 12: 7:31

Mile 13: 7:30

Thanks to Turi for the following photo sequence on the Hill from Hell, at miles 3 and 4 of the half-marathon. This hill was a lot easier with only two fast miles on my legs, rather than the 15 already incurred by the full-marathon runners.

I fell in right away behind a woman in a red t-shirt that I guessed would be a great person to pace off of. She looked to be a few age groups above me, and the well-defined muscles in her legs screamed “fast!” I knew there were women ahead of us, but I wondered if she might not end up winning the event. She just had that look. I tucked in behind her up the big hill, and tried my best to hold on. She pulled away a bit, but was still within range when we reached the top. I’m typically a strong climber, so the fact that she’d made ground on me on the uphill was telling me that it wouldn’t be easy to pass her.

Miraculously I managed to do just that on the ensuing downhill. I figured I’d see her again on the next uphill, so I didn’t get too confident. I just kept plugging away, and enjoyed the intense beauty of Emerald Bay.

I downed a GU even though it was only about mile 5 or 6. I figured my stomach wouldn’t be interested much farther along than that, and breakfast felt like a long time ago. Somewhere through here I spotted Turi moving through the pack of marathoners. I was surprised to see him, so I wasn’t totally sure it was Turi, but the Running ‘Round Reno shirt confirmed it. It’s always kind of a boost to see a friendly face out there, so I was stoked.

Heading up the hill on the other side of Emerald Bay, we passed the 10K start line. That meant only about 6 miles to go. I was starting to feel it a little bit at this point, but I have to confess that it was an intensely enjoyable kind of pain. Running up that hill, I was focused on a girl in a white tank top who I was pretty sure was in the half marathon. She was running too fast to be in the marathon, and all the 10K and 5K runners were well ahead of us. I decided that with only 6 miles to go, I had nothing to lose, and I was going to enjoy pushing myself a little bit. I worked the uphill to gain here, feeling the lead as it built heavy in my legs, gazing on the crystal blue of Lake Tahoe, feeling the sun radiating on my shoulders, and smiling all the while. I reeled her in bit by bit, but I just couldn’t quite pass her. No matter. I’d thoroughly enjoyed giving it a go.

I finally saw blue-sports-bra-white-hat girl in the distance, and the white-tank-top girl and I were both catching up to her. I flew down those steep switchbacks on the South side of Emerald Bay like I never have before. Yes, I was passing the cars. (Okay, maybe that’s not saying much since those are 10 mph hairpin turns, but still, I was having a blast!)

I never did catch either one of those women, but I really enjoyed giving it my best shot. The last 3.5 miles of this course are completely flat, and I’ve always found them to be a total sufferfest during the marathon. It’s amazing what a difference is had by running only half the distance. They weren’t easy, but they didn’t feel nearly as bad this year. I made my annual quick gaze upon the brilliant spawning Kokanee salmon during a creek crossing, and headed in along the bike path to the finish.

The way these events are timed means that many race distances are finishing at once. It’s a little confusing, (as in last year, when the officials weren’t sure if I was finishing the marathon or some other race), but it does make for a very lively finish line, which is fun. Based on the women in front of me (blue-bra-white-cap, white-tank-top, black-tank top, and of course last year’s winner, Sarah Raitter) I figured my best-place-scenario was fifth. I’ll take it!

I was gathering myself for a little chill time on the beach when a marathon finisher claimed her recognition of me from my blog. How flattering! (She’s in training for her first ultra at Helen Klein in November. Good luck, Erin!) This came as a small irony in the wake of recent questioning from a fellow blogger as to whether I was ever recognized randomly from my blog. My answer, of course, being “no.” But she was also the second person that weekend to give me a shout out from the blog. I won’t even try to explain how the first guy to recognize me was the exact same guy who recognized Donald at Glacier Point a few weeks ago, which is what prompted the question about getting recognized in the first place. Has anyone else noticed that this running community is smaller (in a good way) than we give it credit for? I love runners!

My finish time of 1:38:51 felt more than acceptable. Given the fact that my PR for the distance is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1:35, (on a flat course at sea-level) I was happy to be under 1:40 here. I did indeed end up as 5th place woman and 17th overall. (Complete results here.)

My recovery routine consisted of a good soak in Lake Tahoe, a hot dog and a beer, and a stretch-out on the sand in the sun. Wow. I probably could have stayed there all day, but I could feel my crabbiness still simmering just beneath the post-race glow. I high-tailed it out of there on the first shuttle before official results had been posted.

Back home, a long dog-walk and a much-needed nap preceded a solid night of homework. After a soothingly beautiful taste-of-summer-in-fall Tahoe weekend, it was time to get back to reality.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

2010 Race Shirts Reviewed

I’ll never forget my first race shirt. It was from the Orange County Cross Country Invitational in 1987. I wore that shirt until it had holes in it. Then I kept wearing it. A white, cotton, ringer-T with multi-colored, neon palm trees on the front - it might actually be fashionable again. (Why do we insist on revisiting such a frightening fashion era as the 80’s?) But even if it met general fashion standards, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t meet modern ultra-runners' race shirt standards. A somewhat surprising fact I've noticed int he last couple years: We're pretty picky about our shirts.

As ultra-runners we don’t put up much with cotton, but our love (or hate) of a shirt goes way beyond performance. From fit (like the baggie-but-short-waisted women’s shirts at AR50 last year) to color (like the pink-on-black of those Quad Dipsea shirts) we seem to be highly critical. And with so many running shirts in our closets, why not? I have too many shirts that I love to bother with shirts that are just “okay.”

It was with these thoughts in mind that I realized what great shirts I received from the four ultras I ran this year. What makes a great shirt? Well, I suppose it’s a matter of opinion. Here’s what I think …

Leona Divide 50 – April 2010

This shirt kicked off the season with what I find to be the most important feature of any shirt: a women’s specific style. I’m not talking colors here; I mean the cut, fit, and drape. I want it to be flattering. I did mention I was picky, didn't I? This shirt was fitted (maybe just a bit too fitted – I could have gone with the medium instead of the small), a non-dirt-showing gray, and with a decent logo. My only complaint is that the fabric is just a bit thick, which means it stays in the closet on warm days.

Silver State 50 – May 2010

This was definitely the girliest of all the shirts. The cut was perfect, but the pink color was just a bit too pink for my taste. Still, I loved this shirt except for one major flaw: It had a scratchy tag. This tag was on a seam that comes across the abs, and it bugged me, so I cut it out. Big mistake. Now there is an even scratchier piece of “fringe.” Dangit! But I’m hoping after a million washings it will soften up.

Tahoe Rim Trail 100 – July 2010

This shirt scored big points for being a Patagonia silkweight capilene. Best fabric ever! (Well, except for Icebreaker, but we can’t hold our standards that high, really.) It also has a cute logo. Nice job, TRT! Unfortunately, this one doesn’t get a lot of use because it’s not a women’s shirt. Boxy and big—it’s simply not cute on me. Guess what? Women don’t really like to wear men’s shirts. Funny, huh? Still, I wear it running sometimes under my hydration pack. It will likely get a lot of use in the backcountry and as a layering piece in the winter.

Where’s Waldo 100K – August 2010

I consider this shirt the big winner of the year. I have zero negative things to say about it. If you have seen me out on the trails in the past month, there is a 90% likelihood that I was wearing this shirt. Yes, this means I have to do laundry frequently. Or else it means I’m kind of smelly. I won’t say which. But regardless, this shirt has it all: A comfortable, flattering fit (women’s styling, of course); light, airy, Sporthill fabric; that "doesn’t-show-the-dirt" gray; and a cool logo depicting the major climbs of the race. Beauty and performance! What more could a girl want?

The races out there just seem to get better and better. As do the shirts. I do, however, feel strongly that a good shirt is of secondary importance to the overall quality of the race. I was one of the few people that did not complain about receiving no shirt at TRT in 2009. Hey, give me a Buff and a coffee mug! That’s cool! But when a race shirt scores big, like these did for me this year, it’s pretty fun. They may not get as much use as that OC Cross Country shirt did, but they also have a lot more company in my closet.

What’s important to you in a race shirt? Does it matter what kind of shirt you get at your race? Do you have any particularly loved or despised shirts from recent years? I’d love to hear about them!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Tahoe Races Calling Your Name

Ah, Autumn in Tahoe. The crowds are gone - the kids long since torn from their wakeboards and BMX bikes and forced into desks, noses in their textbooks. The caboose on the long train of playa-dust-covered motor homes, strapped to the hilt with bikes and costumes and pieces of art-car scraps, has finally rolled through town on its way back to 'real life.' The first rain has soaked up the moon dust, but also kept the mountain bikers safely home sipping
Sierra until the clouds clear. The sky is enormous, and the trails are empty.

And they're calling your name.

The beautiful, quiet, and nearly perfect trail running conditions alone should be enough to get you up to the mountains before the first snow flies. Additionally, I'd like to tempt you with some of my favorite local races. I've run them all, and I adore them. I'll be missing most of them this year due to schedule conflicts, but I'd love for all of you to go, have fun, run your hearts out in the mountains, and then tell me all about it.

Lake of the Sky Trail Runs (9/11/10)

Taking place on the Tahoe Rim Trail between Tahoe City and Brockaway Summit, LOTS offers distances of 8 miles, 18 miles, a marathon, and 36.4 miles, plus 2-person relay categories for the marathon and 36.4-miler. You get a laid-back atmosphere with beautiful trails and great aid stations. I've always had a great time here!

Race Website
My 2009 race report

Emerald Bay Trail Run (9/19/10)

This was, without a doubt, my favorite new race of last year. Short, flat, fast and with incredible lake views. What more can I say? This 7-mile course blew me away. I'm pretty heartbroken that I'll miss it this year.

Race Website
My 2009 race report

Lake Tahoe Marathon (9/26/10)

The Tahoe Marathon puts on an entire week of events from which to choose. There is quite honestly something for everyone. From multi-day ultras, to biking around the lake, to speed golf, you will definitely find an event to suit you (or any member of your family). I've run the Triple and the Marathon, and this year I think I'll be trying my hand at the half. If you haven't yet registered, you can get a 10% discount with the coupon code 'brugmanblog'. Pretty cool, huh? As far as I'm concerned, that's the best benefit of a 2009 win. That discount is good right up until the day before race day.

Race Website
My 2009 race report

Frog Creek Benefit Run (10/2/10)

2009 was the first year of the Frog Creek Benefit Run, a 10-mile trail run that is a benefit for the
OHF foundation for medical research. This race is put on by a friend of mine and Truckee local who hosts the start/finish at the family-owned Frog Creek Lodge. The race features a beautiful setting and a laid-back atmosphere, along with unbeatable single-track on the PCT near Donner Summit.

Race Website
Turi's 2009 Race Report

Autumn in the mountains is its own special bliss. Aside from the LTM Half, I'll be busy with other adventures and miss these races. But I'm loving the cool-weather trail running right now. Smooth, damp trails, and the only people I run into out there are friends, whether I knew them before or not. Given the fact that the kids are trapped in their desks, and therefore, I am as well, it's a sweet release.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Epic Adventures Part I: Travels with Charlie

"A journey is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

-John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

September, 2010

“On my trip with Charlie …”

It’s a phrase that has begun a thousand or more sentences—a reference point for so many endeavors that followed.

In August of 1995, three months after my college graduation, I set off on a road trip around the country with my friend Charlie. Living out of our trusty van, we spent five months travelling, running, writing, hiking, camping, racing, visiting friends, meeting new people and seeing corners of the continent previously unknown to me.

The experiences from that trip were, in some ways, more education that I’d had in my four years of college. I learned how incredibly diverse this country is – both culturally, with its people, food and architecture, as well as in the landscape. I learned that when your mind is open to new adventures, they seem to present themselves to you, and that more often than not, strangers are incredibly kind. If you want to restore your faith in humanity, take a road trip when you’re young and broke.

A few years later, when I first met my husband, the phrase “On my trip with Charlie …” was still part of my standard daily lexicon. It seemed 80% of my life’s experiences had taken place during that five months, and I always had some story to share from it. Andrew’s internal lament during those first weeks of our relationship, that “Gretchen will never get over Charlie,” was the source of much amusement when he finally figured out that A)Charlie was a woman, and therefore B) not an ex-boyfriend.

Of the many experiences Charlie and I had, writing about them turned out to be one of the most important. It seems funny to me now to realize that running and writing had already developed such an integral partnership in my life so many years ago. We set out with the intention of writing a memoir of those experiences, and although we never quite finished that project, reading the many pages we did write brings the journey back to me with startling clarity. It is yet another affirmation of how we learn so much through writing about our experiences.

Reading what we wrote, I can’t help but laugh at how young I truly was. So young. And yet, there I am, staring out clearly from the pages of my own past—daring my current self to either deny who I am, or to go ahead and live the life I had set out for myself even then.

The unedited excerpts from our writings that I’ve included in this post don’t talk about the many places we visited. I didn’t provide a recap of backpacking in Idaho and Montana, running the Naval Academy students off their own track in Annapolis, jumping in a boat with two nearly-toothless strangers off the Miami coast in an attempt to outrace the setting sun, finding the locals’ hangout in Key West, meeting the bull mastiff that slept on the bathroom floor at 3 A.M. in New Orleans, or our day (and night) running and drinking with the Memphis Hash House Harriers. I didn’t include painstakingly detailed race reports from Hood to Coast, our first 30K in McCall, Idaho, our first marathon in the Twin Cities, or the culmination of our trip—a little marathon we ran back in Boston in April of 1996.

The pieces I chose to include discuss the intentions and hopes we had at the beginning of our trip, and our perceptions of each other. As so many people have said, in as many ways as there are words, life isn’t so much about what you have or where you are, it’s about the people with whom you share the experience. Put more simply: Life is about friendship.

And although through its course I amassed a slew of life-experiences upon which I still draw to this day, this trip was ultimately about friendship.

August 23, 1995


“Are you crazy?”

The shout came from the open car window of a much agitated and no doubt confused motorist. Nothing could be more fitting. Yes, we’re crazy. We are wild nomadic women on the eve of our greatest adventure. It seems perfectly normal to us that we are running through the streets at 1:30 in the morning clad in sports bras. We are not afraid. We are crazy. Running through the night, intoxicated with self-admiration, sweating streams of anticipation as though nothing in the world can stop us.

Nothing can stop us.


Oddly enough, to this point, nothing had tried to stop us. No one had looked at us with disapproving eyes and said, “Shouldn’t you be getting a job?” Most people had in fact encouraged us, and even seemed excited for us. I wasn’t sure Charlie’s parents were too excited about the prospect of her quitting her job and running around the country with a girl who had never held down the same job for more than three months in her entire life, while they slept in the back of a VW bus parked in random corners of the continent, running through streets they’d never seen before just to see what was around the next corner and over the next hill. Maybe something new and exciting. Maybe anything.

But like good parents, they knew she was going to do what she wanted, and they finally resigned themselves to biting their tongues and sending her off well-stocked with chocolate chip cookies. Aside from that, we seemed to be thought of with envy among most of the company we kept.

And why not? Weren’t we about to have the adventure of a lifetime? In all honesty, it seemed perfectly normal. We wanted to travel. We wanted to run races we’d read about in the glossy pages of Runner’s World. We wanted to see places and do things we’d never seen or done. When my mom offered us use of her old Volkswagen Van (“No one else is going to be driving it,” she’d shrugged), there was nothing standing in our way of doing exactly what we’d been talking about.

“It’s a great idea. This is the only time in your life when you can do something like this.” I heard the statement in a thousand different voices, coming from countless mouths. I smiled and nodded, but I silently wondered why that was. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, can’t we? But I wasn’t brash enough to say that – a girl who had just graduated from college, had never supported herself, and never had to be responsible for anyone else – to people with jobs and spouses and kids and mortgage payments.

I felt I could almost see the burden of responsibility in their eyes when they looked at me. “I wish I had done something like that.” Their voices sound regretful.

I want to scream, “It’s not too late!” But who am I to tell them this? Maybe it is too late. Is it possible that there comes a time in life when fulfilling others’ needs becomes part of fulfilling one’s own, and those things don’t include jumping into a car and driving down the highway not knowing exactly where you’re going to stop?

All I knew was, if there was such a point, Charlie and I wouldn’t be arriving there any time in the next five months. We were finally absolved of the responsibility of school. We didn’t have jobs. We didn’t have husbands, no kids, no pets, no rent, not even any boyfriends. In short, we had no strings—nothing to think about but ourselves and each other.

If people were right, and this was an opportunity, a golden moment in our lives, then I intended to enjoy it. I’ve never seen myself as the housewife type, baking cookies and sending the kids off to school with their Power Ranger lunch boxes and their Hello Kitty backpacks. And I know I’ll never be Ms. Executive, staying late at the office and wearing panty hose and make-up to work every day. But regardless of the future, Charlie and I have a lot to accomplish right now. Anything can keep people from pursuing their dreams, and it usually does.

Sometimes it felt like just another race: “Get as much out of life as you can before you’re tied down with responsibility!” But I didn’t want to see this as the only perfect time in my life, and neither did Charlie. This was the beginning. It was merely a first step. We weren’t going to sprint a hundred meters, barely breaking a sweat, and call that the finish line. We were in the early miles of a marathon, and we did not intend to make the mistake of going out too fast. We were not going to sit in the office when we turned forty and talk wistfully about the things we wished we’d done. Nor would we remember these as the best days of our lives just because we had done something different. Taking this trip was simply something we’d decided to do. It isn’t a detour for us, a deviation in our otherwise “on-track” lives. Instead, it is an intricate, though small, piece of our future. What would happen on this trip was anyone’s guess, but the decisions were ours alone.


It is only fitting that our final action on this, the eve of departure for Charlie and Gretchen’s Amazing Adventure of a Lifetime was to run wildly through the streets of Claremont, down to the track and sprint a victory lap on that red clay that first brought us together – “the best damn dirt track in Southern California.” This was the meeting place for two women with the desire to run, the drive to win, and the passion to go beyond only that. It was from here that our adventure was born and here that our adventure would begin.

“Ladies, take your marks …”

September 7th, 1995


If I’d stopped to think about it, it might have seemed strange that here I was, off to conquer the world with Charlie Stoddard. My first impression of Charlie had been, of course, that she was cool. Everyone thought she was cool. And me? Well, I had never hung out with what one would call the popular crowd in high school, and being a freshman on the team, and not exactly one of the fastest runners at the time, I was definitely not cool enough to be friends with Charlie Stoddard.

It’s not that she was aloof or reserved. She just had something that people admired. I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what it was she possessed, maybe her quick wit or her unending supply of amusing sarcastic remarks, but I think it could best be described as spirit.

Charlie was the local girl. She had grown up in the town of Claremont and attended Claremont McKenna College. She seemed to know everything and everyone that had anything to do with Claremont or the colleges or the team. We could hardly go on a run or a van ride when she wasn’t doing silly things like pointing out buildings where she had gone to school and claiming them as famous historical landmarks based on her attendance, or telling us who lived in the particular house we were running by and what local story they were involved in.

During that first season I tried desperately to stick with Charlie on runs, certain that she was my only hope of not getting lost (some things never change), but she was the fastest runner on the team, and I was certain I would never be able to keep up with her.

If anyone ever had a name that suited her well, it was Charlie. Of course, that was only her middle name, her real name was Mary, but I couldn’t imagine anyone calling her that. To me, the name Mary evoked images of little girls in flouncy skirts with pink bows in their hair, or old women in white habits with long rosaries, or various other things I would never associate with Charlie. The fact that it was a man’s name is not why it suited her. It was a name which contained a certain amount of what my mother would call sass. This isn’t to say she was bratty, for she was nothing of the sort. She was an independent and assertive woman, which I think made her seem opinionated to some. But even when she had no real feeling about the issue at hand, she would argue with anyone until they gave up simply because she was not going to let someone push her around and, God forbid, tell her she was wrong. This commanded a great deal of respect in my eyes.

It wasn’t until my sophomore track season (her junior year) that Charlie and I became something more than just teammates. Sarah joined us as a freshman on the team in racing the 1500. The three of us had a good season of racing, and it was then that the “1500 Posse” was born. I liked racing with them, but what I really loved was having a group so close to my own abilities to train with. Our goal pace workouts, 10 repeats of 300 meters, seemed much more bearable running with the two of them. Sarah always came through first, and then a second later Charlie and I would finish together. Something about it felt natural and almost easy. We never had to think about our pace or how many repeats we had left. We just kept cranking them out as hard as we could, running smoothly side by side, rounding the turns, down the straightaways, over and over until we thought we couldn’t possibly go another step, and then collapsing onto the infield in sweet exhaustion.

I always told Charlie that she was one of the most competitive people I knew, while she always made the same assertion about me. I think it was this similarity of attitude and intensity of desire that made us such great training partners. We respected each other in a lot of ways, and especially as athletes. That season she, Sarah and I raced every event from the 400 to the 3,000 because our team was so small, but we were definitely 1500 runners.

Charlie and I obsessed our way through several seasons of cross country and track together during our time in college. My freshman year, our cross country team finished nearly last in our conference. By the time Charlie was a senior, and team captain, we finished second in the Western Region and qualified for Nationals. It may seem like together we transformed the team, but in actuality, it was the team that had transformed us.

So now here we were, on some highway driving through the middle of Idaho and planning to spend the next five months living in a Volkswagen van. Actually, now that I did stop to think about it, there really wasn’t anything strange about the idea at all. Somehow, I knew we would make perfect traveling partners. I came up with all the brilliant ideas (“Maybe we could go up to Alaska after Hood to Coast!”) while Charlie remembered all the details (“Gretchen, Alaska is cold. We don’t have a heater in the car.”) She had a knack for forgetting to turn the headlights off on occasion, but somehow she always managed to keep me from driving down the wrong highways and getting off at the wrong exits. We could fill endless hours of driving with complete silence, each of us off in our own reverie, or we could talk forever about running or relationships or our futures, or how to mix powdered milk and water without getting the cereal too soggy.

No, it definitely didn’t seem like a strange idea, (although Coach couldn’t stop telling us how we’d never survive together), and we knew we could do it. After three years of getting up at 5 A.M. with the same person running mile repeats, hill repeats, hundred-minute runs, tempo runs, fartleks, runs carrying weights, and whatever else Coach chose to throw our way, we were pretty sure we could survive anything together.

September 8th, 1995


Heading north, Montana-bound, we made a quick stop at the border to take pictures with “Welcome to …” signs in both directions since we didn’t get one when we’d entered Idaho the week before, (Brad being opposed to stopping in the median of the freeway). Deep into Montana we drove, past the Bitterroot River, past the Bitterroot Gift Store, the Bitterroot Laundromat, hair salon and drug store.

“Bet you can’t guess what the state flower of Montana is,” Gretchen challenged, chuckling at what she obviously considered brilliantly witty humor.

“I haven’t a clue. Now would you quit aiming for every available bump on the highway? I’m trying to write a postcard to my grandmother!” I shot back, holding up a stunning three-by-five still life of what looked like a Pepto-dipped daisy, “Bitterroot – State Flower of Montana” in fluorescent yellow cursive across the front.

Gretchen drove the next mile with one tire on the reflective dots separating the two lanes of highway.

“Hey, a little respect for your elders!” I yelled.

She swerved in and out of the drainage ditch. I guess that was my answer.

We pulled into the Walmart parking lot in Missoula, the sight of the way-too-expensive but highly-necessary one-hour photo. After dropping off our film, we made a quick change into running clothes behind the relative privacy of our home-made madras curtains and headed off for an easy 4-miler—a far better alternative than hanging out in Walmart for the better part of an hour.

“Farting!” warned Gretchen before letting one rip.

“Incoming!” I returned the courtesy. Though this warning system had become standard routine for us these days, it still never failed to make me hysterical with laughter.

“Farting again!” Gretchen announced. By now we were so completely immersed in a most chic-like giggle fit, we had to walk a few strides to keep from wetting our pants. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of anyone I’d rather be travelling with.

I couldn’t have guessed, during Gretchen’s first year at school, that she and I would someday become such good friends, let alone move into a Volkswagen together. With the exception of my friend Sarah from high school, I had never been extremely close friends with any of my teammates. In general, the distance runner circle didn’t often associate with the people I usually found myself friends with. My other friends considered the runners geeks. The runners generally didn’t bother to consider my other friends, except to point out what jerks they were and ask me why I associated with them, neither group bothering to get to know the other, content to accept the stereotypes as fact.

As for me, well nobody really knew quite what to make of me. My outside friends were constantly frustrated by my fluctuating team dedication, rolling their eyes when I refused to go out on Friday nights with them, or when I went to bed early during the week in order to get up at 5:00 A.M. for cross country practice. The people on the team, I guess, simply expected me to be a bitch. After all, how could I hang out with that crowd and not be? Every yearbook entry from high school teammates said essentially the same thing: “Once I got to know you, I was really surprised. You’re much nicer than I expected.” Something like that. Hey, thanks for the confidence. I received similar statements from people on my college team as well. I’m not quite sure what they expected. I certainly wasn’t hauling my ass out of bed at that ungodly hour of the morning and running until I nearly puked simply so that I would look good in a bathing suit.

I would imagine that Gretchen met with similar experiences, at least during her first year of college which she spent much like I had, trying to fit in as many parties and social events as possible, while still attempting to maintain some weak semblance of dedication to running. She found, as I did, that you can’t do it all. No, we didn’t get to know each other that first year. She was busy being a freshman, and I, I was still busy trying to manage my own schizophrenic social life.

As the years passed, Gretchen and I became better friends. We travelled in similar circles, though she had a much higher annoyance threshold with the team than I did and could tolerate their antics outside of practice-related activities, while I tended to leave those relationships on the track. At the beginning of my junior track season, I was faced with a decision. Was I going to suck it up and run, spending the first month of the season sweating off ten pounds of English ale, or simply scrap the whole competitive running thing? It wasn’t a difficult decision, just a hard one to follow through on.

I don’t know what Gretchen’s thought process was going into that season, but essentially we had ended up on the same page. We decided to be runners. Not runners because that was what we had always done. Not runners because we had nothing better to do, or because someone else expected it of us. We were runners because that was who we were, because that was who we wanted to be. We trained together that season – really trained, something I hadn’t yet totally committed myself to in college. We raced together – really raced, using each other, pushing each other, beating each other, getting beaten by each other, but never losing to one another. We ran better that year, better than I had since high school, better than she ever had. But we were never satisfied.

Such a drastic change in a person in only one year. From a giggling freshman girl suddenly emerged an independent, opinionated, self-motivated woman; Coach’s ideal athlete, and also his worst nightmare. Stories of her ‘sit-in’ in Coach’s living room the infamous season that he ‘quit’ the women’s team reached me all the way on my semester study-abroad in England. Was this the same girl who missed the end of her freshman season because she broke her elbow falling off a chair, no doubt, we assumed, at a party? This, the same girl who was, incidentally, last year’s recipient of the esteemed purple lampshade award, given to the freshman who had made the biggest ass of him/herself during the course of the season, had planted herself down on Coach’s couch and refused to leave until he promised to take the women’s team back. The rest of the team had long since written him off with a ‘good-riddance’ to his horrible attitude that season. But there Gretchen sat, wanting, of all things, to talk about the situation rather than run away from it. Something had definitely come over her. I only wished that I could claim it was in some small way due to my influence. But being eight thousand miles away, I could only sit by and read about it, two weeks after the fact, in various letters from other awed members of the team. Coach still found some way to implicate me in her corruption, but she and I both know, it was all her own.

Now I can hardly remember that first Gretchen. I only see her as I do now – hair up in two looped braids, backwards sweater and hiking boots, peeing in highway turnouts, munching on Cheetos, and running my ass into the ground day after day after day. I can only describe her personality as one of existential everything. Subscribing to no one theory or way of doing things, she combines bits and pieces of every philosophy, lifestyle, recipe or clothing rack to form something entirely her own. One minute she is touting the merits of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself for five months with nothing to aid her but an ice axe and a box of raisins. The next moment she is bouncing off to the campground bathroom at midnight, blow-dryer in hand, to dry her bangs straight simply because she likes them better that way. Hypocritical she isn’t, nor is she fickle about her convictions. She’d carry a switchblade in the sleeve of her evening gown and not give it a second thought, but don’t dare scoff at it because she’d do battle – no holds barred – drawing from Shakespeare, Mother Goose, and Truckdriver’s Quarterly to prove you wrong. And she would prove you wrong – well, that is, if she didn’t slip off into a day dream about climbing Mt. Everest or painting her future kitchen in the middle of the argument.

“Farting again.” The call interrupted my reflecting. “Wow. Must be all those Cheetos,” she diagnosed to no one in particular.

Already trying desperately to control my bladder, we rounded the corner to face the steepest, longest, most intimidating hill I have ever laid eyes on. Four tiers, straight up the side of a mountain, not unlike the hills of downtown San Francisco, but longer, and with no direction to turn for escape. We were stunned with its colossal proportions, and the only thing left to do was simultaneously, and quite harmoniously, exclaim, “Oh shit!”

This, of course, inspired further peals of laughter only to be contained by stopping and bending over to stabilize our contorting stomach muscles. Eventually we started running again though, and kicked that hill’s ass. Because hills have asses.

September, 2010

Charlie is still the best running partner I’ve ever had. That may not sound like much, but to a girl who has defined herself as a runner for 25 of her 36 years on this planet, it says everything. It’s not just because we trained and raced well together. It’s mostly because we understood each other as people, respecting our similarities as well as our differences. There’s something quite permanent about a friend who’s learned so many of the secrets of my heart during shared miles out on the road and trail.

Charlie and I don’t get a lot of running in together these days, although I still manage to drag her out for the occasional painful marathon in a hurricane (read: CIM in 2001) or to pace me through my first 50-mile race. But she and I could go years without a visit, and I rest easy in the knowledge that when we do finally see each other, it will be as if we were running down the trail together just yesterday.

In some ways, Andrew was right. I’ve never gotten over Charlie. But that’s okay, because I don’t have to.

Twin Cities Marathon starting line, October, 1995

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Epic Adventures: An Introduction

"To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble,. It is not safe."

-Robyn Davidson, Tracks

Given the name of this blog, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I appreciate adventure. I seek it out, mostly in moderate forms, so that I can learn and explore. And while the constraints of daily life necessitate this moderation, sometimes, I like to go big.

As any good writer of fiction knows, when the heroine travels the path of a story, she must descend the far slope of the arc as a changed person. She must learn something.
And life, at its very essence, is a story. I’ve found that the learning, the change—that is, in fact, exactly where the adventure lies.

Of late, I’ve been contemplating the greatest adventures of my life. The biggest of these for anyone, of course, manifest themselves in life’s major decisions: moving, changing jobs, getting married. But there are other adventures that affect who we are and who we will become.

I think I give so much thought to these adventures because I’m constantly searching for the next one. One of the things I value most in life is learning, and I consider my biggest adventures to be the ones that have taught me the most. As the heroine in my own story, they’re the the ones that have changed me. Although I still think, or perhaps simply hope, that the greatest adventure is yet to come, I also know it’s important to cement the lessons gained from past experiences. I, as you may have guessed by now, do this by writing about them.

So it is my hope, over the next several months, to stray from the daily variety and write posts about what I consider to be my five, most epic adventures. For this project, I’m leaving out the personal life decisions, and focusing on actual journeys I’ve taken. The travels themselves are as diverse as a lifetime could offer, and in writing about them I hope to deepen my learning of each.

I’ll post the first one at the end of this week, and after that … well, it’s anyone’s guess. I’m thinking these pieces may take a bit of effort to write. I’m someone who can turn a fifty mile race report into a five-thousand word epic. Just imagine what I can do with a five month backpacking trip. Nonetheless, I’m hoping to roll one out ever three to four weeks.

If these reflections can offer anyone a bit of inspiration, or even merely a pleasant distraction, then in some ways, the adventures themselves continue. I hope you’ll all stick around for the stories.