Monday, April 18, 2011

My Tuscan Run

On the “You Might be a Running Addict If….” quiz, I’d suggest “If your luggage is lost for a few days while you’re on a trip, and what annoys you most – and very deeply -- isn’t wearing the same clothes over and over to the conference, but not being able to run each morning.”

When I was invited to a conference at the European University Institute, on the outskirts of Florence, I said yes almost immediately. My last visit to Florence was in 1997. It would be just the right time of year (great weather, not too overrun with tourists), and the conference would bring together people from political science as well as sociology, history and economics, a bit of an eclectic group, all working on issues related to transnational governance and regulation, with several people whose work I knew but hadn’t met. At work, it wasn’t the best time to run off to Italy, because it coincided with the last couple of hectic days for graduate program admissions, but oh well.

One of the things I love to do when traveling – whether it’s to College Station or to Bangalore – is to run. This is partly about keeping up my mileage, but it’s also such a great way to see a new place. One can cover lots of ground (especially useful if it’s a work trip and there’s not time for long, leisurely walks), and one usually ends up in places that one wouldn’t find on a sightseeing walk (not that there *would* be a sightseeing walk in College Station, but that’s another story).

Right before this trip, I was feeling a little fatigued from running, without much motivation for long runs. The Mountains to Sea race wasn’t long – after their 50k was cancelled, I instead ran the 12 mile – but my effort to run fast (which wasn’t very fast…I was a whopping 16+ minutes behind the women’s winner, and another 6 minutes behind the second woman) seemed to have worn me out a bit. I knew I wouldn’t be able to run for more than an hour at a time during my trip, and that this would be a good rest. But I certainly *did* want to run in Florence, especially given that I’d be spending the bulk of my time – all but my first afternoon there – on conference-related activities. So I packed my La Sportiva Fireblades, liking the idea of running in my Italian running shoes while in Italy, and figuring that they’d be cushy enough for roads but also useful on any trails I might encounter.

I planned to run a bit when I arrived early on Thursday afternoon, as a way of resetting my body’s clock after the overnight flight to Europe, and then to run on Friday and Saturday mornings. The civilized starting time for the conference on Friday (10am, very un-American) might even allow for a longer run.

But here was my mistake: I lingered too long at work on the morning of my departure, and so I found myself frantically hurrying to pack my bag. Not wanting to have to make tough decisions about exactly what to pack (or what not to pack), and also thinking about the three flights it would take to get to Florence, I decided to take a slightly larger suitcase, one that was too big to carry on. I might have thought better of this once I got to the airport, where I found out that my original flight was delayed by a couple hours. After about an hour, I was rerouted through DC, bag checked through to Florence. I had a short layover at Dulles, not quite 50 minutes, but certainly enough for my bag and me to make the change.

As it turned out, we were about 20 minutes late arriving at Dulles. I broke into a sprint once off the plane, because I had to change terminals. And then another sprint after the train, up the stairs, and down to the Lufthansa gate, where they were paging me and another passenger (she’d also been on the flight from Raleigh, but I had managed to outrun her. Yes, I was happy with myself for that -- one of those rare times when running is useful in "real life"). I was thrilled that I made it just in time, and also pleased to learn that Lufthansa had my checked bag. And I was happy that I had worn sensible non-running shoes, and that I hadn’t had to sprint through Dulles with my suitcase dragging behind me.

When I arrived in Florence, after a change of planes in Munich, my suitcase was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t the only one missing bags, so I waited in line to fill in my report. Florence is a small airport, and they have one office that handles all lost luggage, regardless of the airline. And one person working there, it appeared. They couldn’t find the bag anywhere in the computer system, but they assured me that there were three more flights in from Munich that day, and that they’d bring the bag to my hotel.

I headed to my hotel, which was in San Domenico, on the edge of Florence and a 10 minute walk to EUI. I was disappointed not to get in a run, but I walked to the city center, maybe about 3 miles, which was a nice opportunity to get some fresh air (and some gelato). I wandered around various tourist sites, and I bought a couple of shirts and a pair of pants, since I had to go to the first conference dinner that night. Once back at the hotel, I called the luggage office, and I was told that they had no report. I phoned again after dinner but, of course, they were closed by then.

I was beginning to get annoyed:  the downside of the hotel was that it was far from the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Ponte Vecchio – all the usual Florence tourist stuff. The upside was that it was perhaps a mile or two from the village of Fiesole, near the top of a hill, and apparently with some nice running routes beyond it. On Friday morning, the sun came streaming through the windows of my tiny hotel room, and I really wanted to be out for a run. After breakfast, my phone call to Lost Luggage turned up good news: my bag had been located, and it would arrive on the 12:30pm flight from Munich. They’d send it out with the courier after that. I decided that I’d sneak out of the last session of the conference (we were scheduled to go until 6 or 6:30, also very un-American) and get in a run before dinner. Oh, and that I’d be able to stop wearing the same two sets of clothing (and one pair of socks – ick).

Around 5pm, I happily made my escape, walking a slightly longer way back to campus. I was treated to a view from some of the other buildings at EUI. EUI is housed in a collection of villas – really fabulous, and some great views both of the hills in Tuscany and of the city of Florence. I can see why people like to spend time there! But the news at the hotel wasn’t good – no sign of the bag. Another call to Lost Luggage yielded the news that, yes, the bag was in Florence but, no, the courier hadn’t yet left with it. I begged the nice woman to send my bag (why didn’t I just go to the airport to collect it myself?), and she promised that it would arrive by 8pm. Of course, our dinner was at 7:30, so I just had to trust them.
In the meantime, I took the bus up the hill to Fiesole, where I had an hour or so to wander around. I went to the ruins of an Etruscan amphitheater, and then up a steep hill to a great lookout and a monastery. And then I wandered down a steep series of back roads, the other way back to San Domenico. If I couldn’t run, at least I could get a bit of a sightseeing walk.

If you’ve read this far, maybe you can guess what happened on Friday night: a late return to the hotel  (with a belly full of pasta, chianti and biscotti), no bag, further annoyance. No Thursday afternoon run, no Friday run (did I mention that Friday was an absolutely gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky?), and no Saturday morning run. By this stage, I was beginning to wonder if my bag would arrive before it was time to fly home. On the one hand, I was happy to know that it had been found (I would have hated to lose my Garmin, my Lululemon running clothes, and everything else in that bag); on the other hand, it was almost more annoying – It was in Florence, but it wasn’t with me. And I was realizing that, as much as I don’t consider myself much of a materialist, I’m attaching to my running stuff, and I’m not one for wearing the same clothes over and over and over.

Saturday morning brought what may have been the best exchange of all with Lost Luggage: they said, yes, my bag had been there since yesterday. And, yes, they had given it to the courier, around 9pm Friday night (later than they said they would, but whatever). And, yes, the courier had the address of the hotel, and he would bring it. Sometime. Wait, he’s had the bag for 12 hours, and this doesn’t worry you, and I’m supposed to be ok with it too? She explained that the courier’s contract requires him to drop a bag off within 24 hours after it’s given to him. So, yes, while the bag had hit Florence at 1pm Friday, it was completely acceptable for it not to get to me until Saturday at 9pm (after I finish this post, do I have the energy to write a whinging letter to Lufthansa?). After some begging, pleading and fibbing (“I’m leaving the hotel at noon today”), I extracted a promise of a noon dropoff. And, when I called the hotel from the conference, just after noon, I found out that yes, finally, the bag had arrived. Less than 24 hours before I was to leave Italy, and definitely a bit worse for the wear, but still, it was there.

So, after all of this, I once again ducked out of the conference early. I headed out for a run around 6:45pm, with lots of light left, and another clear blue sky. I ran up the road in San Domenico, past EUI, and then took the turnoff for the Vecchio, the back way up to Fiesole. Wow, what a climb – slow and unrelenting, a very narrow road, lots of villas up the hillside. I managed to run all of the way up, but I was worn out only a mile and a half in. But I was also so happy to be running – the addict, getting a little fix, and with fabulous views to boot. Through Fiesole, then just guessing about where to go, after I realized that the runs to the other villages would take too long. After I passed through town, I saw a turnoff for a “forest park” (as well as for something Olympics-related, but I never figured out what that was). I ran through a school, and then onto a wide path into Parco di Montececeri. I have no idea how large or small this park is, but it featured some double and single track trail, often rocky and rooty, with more climbing, views out to all sides, and some rock formations, I did a loop almost all the way around, then popped out on the other side of the park.

I began to head down the hill, then realized I had no idea where I was going. I used my four words of Italian to get directions from locals, and then enjoyed the downhill run back through Fiesole, and then on down the main road back toward Florence. The sun was setting over the city and the green hills. Wisteria was in bloom, peeking out from the walls of some of the villas. A perfect way to end the day. I saw some of the conference group halfway down the road, at Le Lance, the site for that night’s dinner (I turned up about an hour late, but didn’t miss much dinner, since the dinner seemed to be about a dozen courses – and very yummy too. I didn’t say no to any dessert while in Italy, and Italian coffee – the coffee itself plus the way its done – is great). I carried on down to the hotel, perhaps a total of 8 miles, and such a wonderful run. I was sad that it was to be my only run – so much to explore in those hills beyond Fiesole – but also thrilled to finally get out for it. My body and my mind need to run, no doubt about it.

And at dinner, I think that the rest of the group was thrilled that I was finally wearing clean clothes.   And next time I fly to Europe and want to check a bag, I will. (Although maybe not next time I go to Italy!). But I’m putting the running shoes and running clothes in my carry on. Showing up a bit crumpled and disheveled to an academic conference is ok. But not having the option to run is not.

Unrelated: check out this hairdo, on a US Airways agent in Frankfurt. It almost didn’t seem real.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Umstead 100....the Pace Report

Think back to college. Perhaps you had this experience: there’s a party on campus, and you and your friends plan to go. But, for some reason or another – maybe you have some reading to finish or a paper to write for Monday, or maybe you’re arriving back late from a cross country meet, or your parents are in town and want to take you to dinner  – your friends leave for the party without you. You eventually make your way there, a couple hours later. In that time, your friends have been somewhere or another in that frat house, doing shots of tequila or playing quarters. And so, when you walk in, you’re the only sober person around. It’s not pretty, seeing everyone in their various states of intoxication. They think they look ok – or even good – but they don’t. They think that they’re moving well, maybe dancing a bit, walking in a straight line, but they’re not. They think they’re making sense, talking coherently, but they’re not making much sense at all. And all you can think to yourself is “carnage.”

That scene – turning up once the party is underway, and almost unable to comprehend how ugly it looks – was my first experience at the Umstead 100, in March 2008. I had run one ultra, a 40 miler, and I’d never been anywhere near a 100 mile race. Sure, I’d heard a few of the Trailheads talk about them, but I didn’t really have any sense of what was involved. But I had decided to volunteer as a pacer for Umstead (one of the great things that Umstead does is to provide volunteer pacers to runners who request one). The race had begun at 6am, but my pacing shift was to start around 10pm. I arrived in the dark, slowly made my way to Camp Lapihio, the race headquarters and site of the main aid station, and I walked into the main lodge. I couldn’t quite comprehend the scene in front of me: a huge fire in the fireplace, and runners in various states of alertness (or not) and distress (quite often). They had family and friends taking care of them, but they often were unable to stand, or they weren’t making sense, or they just seemed dazed. Welcome to the party. Carnage.

As it turned out, that night, I bumped into a friend who was – unbeknownst to most of us – attempting his first 100 miler, and I paced him for one 12.5 mile lap. Out on the course, it was a similar scene – pitch dark, some runners walking, others managing a jog, some headlamps moving in a straight line, others weaving from side to side. Pacers attempting to keep their runners fed, warm and motivated. My friend, aka Trailhead Gumbi, went on to a great finish and has since done many more 100 milers. I left wondering why anyone would do such a thing. Then again, by that stage, I had already sent in my entry for the Cascade Crest 100, so it was only a matter of time before I’d find out for myself.
The Umstead 100 attracts many first-time 100 milers. It has excellent and loyal volunteers. It’s run as a 12.5 mile loop, repeated 8 times, on the wide trails of Umstead State Park, in Raleigh. There’s no single track to navigate and, from the point of view of family and friends, it’s so very easy – just hang out at the main aid station and wait for your runner to come through. If you get cold, go into the lodge, where there’s yummy food in the kitchen and a warm fire at the back.

Given the layout of the course (which includes an out and back spur), runners see each other over and over. The weather is often perfect, cool temperatures at the start, mid-60s during the day, not too cold at night. There are some hills on the back side of the loop, but nothing too big (maybe 1000 feet of elevation gain over the 12.5 mile loop). Of course, there’s the boredom factor, eight times around the same route. But many people use Umstead as their first 100 miler.

And the setup of the course means that one has an experience that one doesn’t get in point to point or single loop 100 milers: you see people from across the spectrum, from the front of the pack to the back. As the day goes on, the runners at the front of the pack finish (this year’s men’s winner was done around 4pm); and so one is more likely to see people who are, perhaps, struggling through the race. It’s both inspiring and – back to the party analogy above – a little frightening.

Last year, I did the 50 mile race at Umstead, which starts with the 100 milers and just involves 4 loops. I was happy to be done, since I was getting bored with the course (and wondering how people could do 4 more laps of it!). Several friends did the 100, some as their first 100 mile finish, but I was glad to be at home and relaxing while they ran into the night. 

This year, I had the opportunity to pace a friend, who was attempting to complete his first 100 miler. He’s a lifelong runner, someone who used to focus on things like 10Ks and road marathons (and someone whose marathon PR, set at the age of 45, is 2:49…not too shabby). He’s done many 50Ks and 50 milers, and he’d attempted Umstead a couple years ago, but dropped out with a nasty case of plantar fasciitis.  He was in great shape this year. A friend of his had hoped to come in from out of town to pace, but couldn’t make it, so I offered to do the last 50 miles. We talked a bit about time goals and race strategy, and we decided to save any other conversations for race day, when we’d spend lots of time together.

The short version: my runner finished in 23:12, a bit slower than he had hoped, but comfortably under 24 hours. I like to think that I helped get him there, although he was certainly very well trained and prepared. Had he not had a tough time with nausea (and therefore with getting calories down), he would have been a bit faster. One of my primary jobs was to figure out what he was willing to eat, and to collect it for him while he sat down. And to then stand nearby, subtly tapping my foot, reminding him to get up and get moving again (see the photo below, from our 7th lap, at aid station 2). It was great fun to be out – I got to start running just before 4pm, when it was a beautiful, if windy, spring day. 

It was nice to start early enough to be able to see runners from across the spectrum, including some folks familiar from various races. And, as night descended, I saw more familiar faces – several Trailheads who had volunteered for pacing duty, other Trailheads who had come to hang out at the main aid station to see if they could lend help with anything, and other folks from the NC running scene, both those doing the race (congrats, Sultan!) and those volunteering out on the course (thanks for the photo, Shannon!). But most importantly, it was really nice to pace someone. I can only begin to describe how wonderful it was to have a pacer and crew, all there just for me, at Western States in 2010. So nice to be able to offer a tiny fraction of that to someone else.

Unrelated: earlier this week was the funeral for my colleague George Rabinowitz, who died very unexpectedly. He was 67 years old, on sabbatical in Oslo this semester, waiting to catch the bus one Friday morning, and suffered a massive heart attack. His death came as a shock to all of us; his wife is also a colleague, making it all the more upsetting. At his graveside service, many wonderful things were said. George was the nicest man one could imagine, welcoming each new faculty member and graduate student into the department, and always genuinely interested in how one’s life was going. And he was also a tough critic and a very sharp mind, with high standards, someone who was always ready with tough questions about papers and presentations. What was wonderful was the way in which he combined these things. 

Of the many beautiful things said, I was struck most by something from his younger son: that George was happy, and that he found happiness in all sorts of everyday things. He loved his wife, his children and his grandchild dearly. He loved going to work, working on papers, teaching class, meeting with graduate students. The night before he died, he went to the opera with his wife. That morning, there was fresh snow on the ground, and he took the dog for a walk before heading to the bus.  And so, his son hoped, he was, even at the moment of his death, happy. Finding happiness in the small, everyday things that are part of the fabric of life – something to remember to do.