Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stone Cat 50

Last Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of my ultrarunning career (if , as I do, you only count races of 50 miles and up). What better way to celebrate than run the race that started it all: the Stone Cat 50 in Ipswich, MA.

This year's course was a different. It was still four 12.5 mile laps, but single track sections were added (hooray!), and I could be mistaken, but it seemed like the course looped backwards from last year's direction. Admittedly, I have no head for remembering terrain, but I recognized almost nothing from last year's course, save the in and out section at the beginning and end of each loop. (But then again, each loop seemed like a brand new course to me, so take whatever I say with a huge grain of salt.)

I liked the new course. The single track was twisty and fun. Kept my mind off running. Every time I came off the single track onto the wider carriage road my body felt heavy and clunky.

I must be getting used to running these long races, because the whole day went by in a weird time warp. Hours and hours drifted by without my quite noticing. At one point I looked down at my watch to see that I had been running for something like 5 or 6 hours, but I swear it felt like 15 minutes. It was a very enjoyable day.

I kept a conservative pace for the first three laps, because I was worried about my stomach. I ran with Penny, whom I found in the bathroom just before the pre-race meeting. We moved in and out of a big group of women for the first two laps. Oddly, most of the women had three kids at home. There was lots of parenting talk, Halloween stories, etc. I have to say, I wanted no part of that conversation. This was my parenting vacation.

The aid stations were wonderful. I recognized many of the same people working them from last year. I think many of the GAC runners work this race to satisfy their volunteer requirements for the VT 100. It's so great when the volunteers are ultrarunners themselves, because they know exactly how you are feeling and exactly what you need. Penny used to run with these guys before she got injured, so everyone at the aid stations knew her by name. I felt like I was running with the mayor of the race.

Just before heading out for the fourth and final lap, I changed my shoes and socks, which had been thoroughly soaked during my three traverses of the beaver dam section of the course. This gave me new life, and I fairly flew through the last lap (or at least it felt like I was flying -- I think I kept up a 12-minute mile, hee hee). I felt bad leaving Penny behind, but she had run a road marathon the weekend before and a 50K the weekend before that. I think her legs were done.

Miraculously, my stomach held up all day. As per the advice of Vespa Peter, I have continued to cut back on carbs in my daily diet and to eat minimally at all the aid stations during races. And Penny, who is a trainer and dietitian, gave me great advice as well: no fiber and minimal dairy for the last 2 days before the race.

I ate a little pasta with ground beef and mushrooms the night before the race and a sunflower bagel with jam a couple of hours before (while driving in the car listening to my book on tape). At the aid stations I had only a single piece of potato with salt or a couple of Saltine crackers. This was just enough (with the occasional addition of a Clif Block left to dissolve between my cheek and gum like those guys back in high school with the milk carton spittoons at the back of the class) to get me from aid station to aid station. The aid stations were roughly 4 miles apart.

After picking up the pace in the fourth lap, I kept waiting for the old queasiness to kick in. But it never did. At the last aid station I had a little chicken broth. It tasted like the best, most expensive meal you can imagine. After an entire day of nothing but potatoes and Saltines, the broth was like manna from heaven.

I once again passed on the Scotch at Fred's Cafe, though I must admit it was tempting.

By the end of the second lap I noticed that someone had tapped a keg in the woods and there were a few people milling around it. Mind you, this was maybe 11 in the morning. By the end of the third lap the crowd around the keg had grown and the unmistakable smell of sour beer, reminiscent of fraternity parties and office Christmas galas of old, wafted across the field. These people were clearly having too much fun.

I finished the race half an hour faster than last year, though I'm not sure how significant that is given the course changes. But I felt way, WAY better. Last year my father had to practically carry me to the car. This year I spent half an hour trotting up and down the road trying to figure out where I had parked the darn thing.

All in all, it has been a great year of running. Happy anniversary to me, and here's to another healthy, enjoyable year!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One thing leads to another...

Today was one of those days that unfolded to its own rhythm. These are the best kind of days, unasked for and freely given.

We started out at the big table in the playroom drawing and writing -- Nell from Draw Write Now and Simon from Draw Then Write. Ben colored pictures of his choosing that I drew for him. We listened to a Rabbit Ears Radio collection of Christmas stories.

When the drawing had run its course I pulled out David Macaulay's book, The Way Things Work. We had a little discussion about the inclined plane, and then made a couple of ramps with out K'Nex. We used a spring loaded scale to pull Webkinz up the ramps. We proved to ourselves that longer ramps make for less effort, steeper ramps less distance, though more effort.

We then raided the loose change bowl and had fun estimating how many quarters, how many nickels, etc. The combination of money and Webkinz naturally led to a rousing game of Pet Store. We slapped a price tag on each animal and sold them to each other. Ben made 10-cents-off coupons. This was the first time Simon got the abstract concept of money. A dime is worth ten cents, etc.

We wiled away the afternoon at the Nature Center. Simon studied centipedes and millipedes while Nell learned how to make a stick and leaf shelter in the woods. Ben and I went to the health food store and then wandered around after Nell's group. Ben spent a long time rolling a slug down a big rock and retrieving it. Sorry, slug.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Little Jacksons Everywhere

Today Grandma came for art class and the kids make Jackson Pollock splatter paintings. They were tired from an afternoon at the beach (IN the water on November 4th!), but they perked right up for this art project. It was a tremendous hit.

Here's everybody getting started with the brushes and the paint outside on the driveway. We were lucky that it wasn't too cold.

And then the kids got to work.

Jackson Pollock must have been quite a child at heart, because these kids took to this project like pigs to the mud bath. And the results weren't too far off the mark. All three kids spent about an hour channeling our friend Jackson.

When all was said and done, it was hard to tell the artist from the art.

Training Eddie, Raising Kids

Here is a piece I wrote for my newspaper. I thought it was funny, but some of the commenters thought I was inhumane for crating the dog while we run errands and for bringing the electric fence into the house. No sense of humor? Or am I inhumane?

Training Eddie

About a month ago we brought home a 2-year-old Walker coonhound named Eddie from the Quaker Hill Humane Society. Eddie is a lovely dog with a sweet personality, but he has spent much of his young life being shunted from shelter to shelter and has never been properly trained.

Having just escorted our spirited third child through “the terrible twos” and half way into “the turbulent threes” I have a few thoughts on the differences between training a dog and training a child (and yes, I realize we do not TRAIN our children, we RAISE and NURTURE them, but please bear with me).

I have always been against bribing the kids. This doesn’t mean that I have not on occasion stooped to saying, for example, “Get in the car right now and I’ll give you a bag of popcorn,” but these instances are few and far between, and most often uttered in moments of extreme duress – late picking up my mother at the airport, or late for a sibling’s very expensive horseback riding lesson. And I always feel slimy afterwards.

But training the dog is a whole different thing. Dog training is nothing but bribery:

“Come over here, Eddie, and I’ll give you a hot dog.”

“Get off the new sofa and I’ll give you a heart-shaped organic dog treat.”

“Get into your crate and I’ll give you a pig’s ear.”

I was at first reluctant to partake in these blatantly shameless and corrupt enticements. My parenting instinct was to reason with the dog, make him see how it was in his best interest to come down off the new sofa, make him WANT to get down off the sofa from the center of his being. Let him learn for himself how his dog nails were ruining the upholstery and greatly reducing overall quality of this fine piece of furniture.

I do this with the kids every day: “Stop jumping on the couch. You’re wrecking it!”

Never works. The couch is just too cushy and fun. But Eddie gets off in a hot second whenever the treats come out.

I worry that all of this bribery will stunt his emerging sense of ethics. How will he truly know right from wrong when his entire moral structure is based solely on the presence or absence of a kosher beef frankfurter?

Oh, Eddie, what are we doing to you?

I especially appreciate Eddie’s dog self whenever its time to, say, go to the grocery store. 2-year-olds are the worst grocery shoppers. You have to force them into their jackets and shoes, stuff them into their car seats, and keep a constant eye on them in the store to make sure they are not tossing candy and cinnamon buns into the back of the cart from their high perch in the front.

Eddie is so much easier. You simply bribe him into his crate with a pig’s ear, where he will munch and take a little nap until his people return. Easy as pie.

Another remarkable fact: Eddie can go outside and play in the yard ALL BY HIMSELF. He does not leave the yard (or at least not very often – we’re still working on this), because crossing the border to the neighbor’s yard results in an electric shock (or, as the invisible fence people so comfortingly state it, a STATIC CORRECTION) from a wire buried two inches under the grass.
There is simply no equivalent for the kids. You have to watch them every second.

And if you REALLY don’t want the dog on the sofa, and you don’t want him chewing the toys, and you feel like you are going out of your mind because you are trying to home school your three kids, but you are getting nothing done because you are spending all of your time making sure the dog doesn’t nip the boys’ butts, well – you simply demand that your handy husband splice into that wire outside and run it through the middle of the house. And when he tells you it will take three or four days to figure out a path for the wire under the floorboards and through the joists, you count to ten and growl, “No! No! We will run the wire in through the window and tape it to the floor. RIGHT NOW!”

And then you head out to T.J. Maxx to purchase a few funky throw rugs to cover the unsightly wire snaking across the floorboards.

Eddie now receives a static correction whenever he tries to venture into the living room or the playroom. One little shock and he never tries it again. My life is like a dream!

I really could have used this device when Simon and Ben were going through their bookcase-climbing phase. And their kitchen-counter-scaling phase. And their banister-sliding phase. And their table-jumping phase….

Friday, October 31, 2008

Tipping the balance to unschool

It happened yesterday. The balance in our homeschool finally tipped from "eclectic schooling" to "unschooling." And, man, did it feel good.

After two days of trying to force the workbooks -- math, writing and Draw Write Now being the last vestiges of the crop from early September -- I finally gave in, gave up, gave over. At least for the moment, we are unschooling. Though I tend to shy away from labels, this on does seem to fit.

I think the addition of a 2-year-old dog to the mix is what finally did it. Between walking the dog, letting him in and out, keeping him away from the boys (who love him, but get him riled up), and stopping him from chewing every hat, mitten and sock in the house, all semblance of structure eroded.

When Brian came home from work Tuesday afternoon, I was fit to be tied. "This dog needs to be contained!" I yelled. (Actually, that's not what I yelled at all. It was more like, "We need to keep this fucking dog out of the playroom and living room or he's going back to the pound, so help me!").

Whatever it was I said - I only remember a day full of yelling -- it worked. I don't get easily worked up. Brian saw I was a mess. He said he could splice into the electric fence outside and run a wire through the middle of the house. But it would take a few days to figure out the path the wire would need to take underneath the floorboards and through the joists. (Brian has a lively working knowledge of the innards of the house, which I lack entirely.)

"Oh, no, no, NO!" I said. "You run the wire through the window and tape it to the freaking floor!"

Bless him, he did it. He brought the wire in through some duct work in the basement and taped it across the playroom and living room floors. It almost killed him aesthetically, but he did it.

So yesterday we had a dog-free day in half of the house, which made all the difference. We love the dog, lovely Eddie, but he simply cannot have run of the house.

The kids were so thrilled to be able to play with their toys in the living room and play room without fear of Eddie stealing them and chewing them that they more or less played all day. All three together. Not wanting to disturb that magic, I let them.

They built a city for the guinea pigs while I made whole wheat anadama bread. We all played a fractions game from Family Math (best book I've bought this year, which is really saying something). They created a town for their stuffed animals in the living room complete with houses, stores and a library. I went online to research unschooling on Sandra Dodd's wonderful site. I read to them from American Tall Tales while they painted and drew. We went apple picking in the afternoon (last time this season) and carved pumpkins when we got home. And Brian and Nell took Eddie to obedience school.

It was a great day. I did not feel like my head was going into orbit at sundown.

It seems to be a question of control and trust. Do I trust the kids have some (or all) control of their learning, or do I not. I am slowly giving over. I can plainly see that their instinct is to learn. Left to their own devices, they learn beautifully. And get along beautifully. Which is itself perhaps the best lesson of all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bimblers Bluff 50K

Much of this post is lifted from a blog I wrote for my newspaper.

Sitting around our tent site last summer the tense and unreal evening before the Vermont 100, local Connecticut runner Kerry Arsenault dropped over to tell Chuck and Grace and me that her husband, Jerry Turk, was planning to direct a 50K (31-mile) race called Bimblers Bluff on October 26th right here in Southeastern Connecticut.

I took a flier and kept the race in the back of my mind during the intervening months, knowing that I was planning to run a 50-miler just two weeks later, but thrillingly tempted by the possibility of running an ultra just 45 minutes from home. The race was to be run entirely on trails in and around Guilford and Madison, CT.

About a month ago I bit the bullet and signed up. Having just run a pair of races in the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire I was feeling cocky. I thought to myself, “A 50K here in mountain-less, gently rolling shoreline Connecticut – piece of cake!”
Oh how wrong I was. I had failed to take into account just how narrow and rocky and rooty and twisty and oh, so difficult-to-find the trails in Guilford and Madison can be.

I talked my friend Susan into running with me, telling her that I was not planning to break any records, but merely to indulge in a long, leisurely training run in the woods. Had we known just how long we were going to be in the woods, I’m not sure we would have gone ahead. Ultimately I’m glad we did, and I had fabulous time. Susan, however, is terrified of getting lost and felt tortured for much of the run. She was a trooper (for the most part).

We arrived at a Guilford elementary school gym just in time for the pre-race meeting and joked with Stonington runner, Davnet, her husband, Paul, and our trail friend Nipmuck Dave about how slow we all were. We gathered for the start and took off comfortably in last place, where Susan and I stayed for most of the day.

I have never in my life gotten so lost on a course. It was confusing and poorly marked. We hadn’t run 2 miles when we got lost for the first time. We had run about half a mile off course before realizing that we hadn’t seen any of the pink ribbons that marked the course in quite a while. We backtracked with our new friend, Marv from Colorado, telling ourselves how lucky we were to have gotten lost so early in the race, and how we would all be much more careful to look for pink ribbons. We eventually found the trail, only to head off in the wrong direction, running half way back to the start before realizing that everything was looking a little too familiar.

Alas, it was to be a full day of losing the trail and searching for pink ribbons. But the weather was perfect – crystal blue and warm after a week of forecasted rain – and the forest was lovely with the yellow leaves backlit against the trees.

Our pace was excruciatingly slow. We were running at a snail’s pace to begin with, and all of the route finding and rock dodging slowed us to a near crawl. Suffice it to say that it took us almost 3 hours to get to the second aid station at Mile 10.

The aid stations in this race were outstanding. All of the volunteers were cheerful and encouraging, especially to the pour souls in last place. Each time we came to an aid station (there were 5 on the course) I would stagger in gasping, “We’re alive!”. The volunteers joked with us, filled out bottles, and tried to feed us. I was eating only one piece of salted potato at each station, trying to run on a minimum amount of food to keep my poor stomach from getting sick. This strategy worked. During all of the 9 hours we were out on the trail, I only felt sick for about 10 minutes near the end, having finally indulged in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup with 2 miles to go.

The climb up Bluff Head after Aid Station 2 was epic (at least by Southeastern CT standards). Once at the top we could see for miles into the lake and rolling hills below. The view was remarkably reminiscent of Vermont.

I was chomping at the bit by now to go faster. But this would have been dumb. I kept reminding myself that this was a training run. Stone Cat in 2 weeks! Stone Cat in 2 weeks! Susan's ankle brace was killing her and this, combined with lots of little climbs, was slowing us down to a walking pace for long stretches. Every inch of me wanted to go faster.

Around mile 20, I started to up the pace and Susan and I briefly parted ways. Half an hour later I got a call on my cell phone: Susan saying she had lost the trail and was hopelessly lost. I ran back as quickly as I could, maybe a mile, yelling SUSAN! into the woods over and over. She called me again to tell me she could hear me. She somehow followed my voice back to the trail.
I had meanwhile gotten a bit lost myself. In my crazed state of mind, I missed a critical turn and was now looping back, still on the course, but now in a section we had run hours ago. I backtracked, found the crossroads and thankfully got myself back on the green-dot trail I had left. I was now, however, several minutes behind Susan. She ran/walked slowly until I caught up and, hugely relieved to have found each other, we stayed together for the rest of the run.

She owed me her VERY LIFE! Though, on second thought, she wouldn't have been out there in the first place if I hadn't talked her into running with me.

The last 8 miles or so were a repeat (more or less) of the first 8, so we did not loose the trail nearly as often toward the end of the race. We found one guy at a road crossing wandering up and down looking for the way back into the woods and we ran with him for a while, figuring six eyes looking for pink were better than four.

A quarter mile from the finish we popped out onto another road, having missed a turn on the trail a few yards back. We spent about 10 desperate minutes asking neighbors and construction workers where the elementary school was. Finally a woman stepped out of her house and directed us back onto the trail.

The finish line was a glorious sight. Susan’s kids were there to cheer us on and seeing their smiling faces was absolutely delightful. We both received a cool Buff (kind of a headband-hat type thing) as a finisher’s award, as well as bags of bagels and cider (if you stay out long enough you get to take home the leftover aid station food!).

All in all, I probably ran between 35 and 37 miles. The course itself was long (32.5 miles) and I ran at least three extra miles off it. Even so, I had a great day in the woods. I loved the race and will definitely be back next year with the detailed course description (available on The Bimbler’s Sound Web Page) tucked into my pocket.

I have a year to convince Susan to join me. She says NO WAY.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I haven't written here for a while. Trying to adjust my schedule to our newest family addition: Eddie the 2-year old Treeing Walker Coon Hound. He has been with us for two weeks now and is just starting to setting into our family.

We found Eddie at the Humane Society. Nell had been begging us for a dog, and one afternoon Brian and I cracked and we made a family trip to the dog pound. We stayed for about an hour and didn't see any A-Ha! dogs. Just as we were about to leave, one of the workers walked in with Eddie and for Brian and me it was love at first sight. Nell had set her sights on a smaller dog, but once she saw we were serious about Eddie, she quickly changed her tune.

Eddie is about 50 pounds and he looks like a beagle on stilts. He has the same coloring and ears as a beagle, but longer legs. Brian calls him a beagle and a half. As I write this he is bouncing around the living room desperate for a romp and a play.

The day we brought him home he was painfully shy. He cowered in the basement and wouldn't eat. He had been at a different Humane Society location for months before coming to ours 2 weeks ago. Coon Hounds need lots of exercise, and he clearly wasn't getting enough. He was frightened and freaked out and depressed.

He gets tons of exercise here, which has endeared us to him forever I think. I take him for long runs early in the morning, the kids and I walk him around the block after breakfast, Brian plays with him in the yard in the afternoons, and Nell and one of us takes him around the block again in the evenings. If he would only stay inside the electric fence, his outdoor life would be complete.

I like having a running partner during my dark early morning runs. Eddie is mostly good on the leash, but he does get easily spooked. I tried to take him under the I95 bridge on River Road yesterday and he nearly had a heart attack with the trucks and police cars roaring overhead. He pulled me all the way home, Gentle Leader collar be damned.

I am running a 50K on Sunday and it's tempting to take him along. I bet he could make it, especially at the pace I am planning to run. I wonder what the dog policy is for trail races? I've never seen a dog in a long race, but that may be because most dogs can't run that far. Eddie could! ("Treeing Walker Coon Hounds will run tirelessly in pursuit of game." I have no trouble believing that.)

Once we teach the boys not to act so bizarrely around Eddie, we'll be home free. They never pass up an opportunity to freak the dog out. They dance around him, fake wrestle, poke him, anything to get a rise out of him. Makes me a little nuts. Eddie too, I'd imagine. I give it another week until the novelty wears off.

But Eddie is a great homeschool project for Nell. She goes with Brian to his obedience classes and is learning how to handle him beautifully. She adores Eddie and the feeling is clearly mutual.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Protein, anyone?

I have been (relatively) wheat free and dairy free since Saturday. I did sneak a half spoonful of ice cream and a pretzel after dinner just now, and I had a peanut butter cracker on the playground yesterday because it was in my pocket and I was starving. But for all practical purposes, I have not let any wheat or dairy pass my lips for five days. In addition, I've cut way back on carbohydrates.

And I feel pretty good.


This is supposed to happen, but I didn't really believe it would.

The difference, as I was warned, is subtle. I don't have to fight to stay awake in the afternoons. I don't loll at the table after meals. I don't have steep sugar crashes just before lunch (scenes of some of my worst parenting moments).

Strange to say, my new diet is making me a better parent. I have more patience and more endurance. I am a peppier homeschooler, a more attentive co-learner, a more inventive teacher.

At least I think I am.

And the longer I stay away from the sweets, the less I crave them.

But even with all of these obvious benefits, I don't know if this diet is sustainable. I don't like thinking about what I can and cannot eat all the time. Perhaps if I stay with it, the whole thing will become second nature, but right now it all feels like a chore.

I made a lovely chicken salad for lunch today with cashews, avocado, grapes, apple and ginger. But it would have been a lot easier to throw together a peanut butter and honey sandwich.

Onward and upward. I'll stay with it at least until I get through my next two races. I do, however, need to find something satisfying to snack on besides nuts and fruit. I am way too gassy for polite company....

Sunday, October 5, 2008

My poor old stomach

Every time I run an ultra, no matter the distance, I always end up sick during the last quarter of the race. It doesn't matter if its a 50K, 50-miler or (my one and only unsuccessful) 100-miler. The symptoms are almost always the same. Low grade nausea, leading to more acute nausea and then to real pain in the lower part of my intestine. Transitioning from walking uphill, which soothes the system, to running downhill, which pounds every interior organ I own, is excruciating. I never actually throw up -- I'd probably feel better if I did -- but the whole business is horribly unpleasant. I honestly don't know what keeps me coming back for more.

Anyhoo, I posted a question about Stomach Upset on the Yahoo Ultra running Group and I got a couple of informative responses. Ultrasteve said that he gets nauseous when he runs at a pace faster than his training has prepared him for. This makes sense to me. I think I may be upping my pace (subconsciously or not) as soon as I hit the half way point. I conserve energy all through the first half of the race, and then start running more of the uphills and pushing the pace all through the second half. And hence the belly trouble. I have a couple of races coming up in a few weeks (50K and 50-miler), so I am going to make a concerted effort to keep an even, comfortable pace from start to finish. Easier said than done, no doubt.

Peter from Vespa wrote to ask about my typical daily diet. His thought is that I am taking in way too many carbohydrates and not enough protein and fat. I have always been a carbo junkie. The Atkins dies flew right by me, as did all of the other no-carb alternatives that thinned-up so many of my friends about 5 years ago. (All of them have regained the weight, I might add, in the the intervening years.)

Peter ascribes to a version of the Paleo diet. I checked The Paleo Diet book out of the library and found the menu to be way too restrictive for me, especially since I must feed four growing people besides myself at every meal. Paleo is grain-free, wheat-free (obviously), dairy-free, sugar-free. Which basically leaves you with lean meat, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables. The whole thing reminds me of a book I read earlier this year called Into the Forest: 2 teenage sisters survive in a post-apocalyptic world by eating acorn mush, wild berries and the odd shot rodent.

Just give me my Ben and Jerry's from time to time, for chrissake! This is the freaking 21st century.

I have decided to try a wheat-free and dairy-restricted diet for the next month and see if it makes any difference in my stomach's behavior at my next two races. And I will cut back on the carbs. Eat more nuts for snacks. Nuts and raisins. And I'll grow my hair down to my butt and paint my nails camo-pink.

I ordered Paleo for Athletes and the Maffetone Method (Ultrasteve's guy) from Amazon. The library does not stock these particular books. Shocking. Not enough ultra-running, hunter-gatherer types around here to justify the shelf space I guess. And I'll try the Vespa. Hell, I'll try anything.

We'll see where it all goes.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vermont 50

I woke up Saturday morning all stressed out. The weekend weather report was dismal: wind and rain, thunder and lightning. The idea of getting up in the middle of the night to drive to Vermont and run 50 miles on Sunday was becoming less and less appealing.

I was ready to ditch the whole thing when I logged on to the race website to check the list of entrants. And what to my wondering eyes did I see? My friend Penny had upgraded herself from the 50K to the 50-miler. Penny was running! I would have someone to run with!

My friends, things began looking up.

Saturday evening I set two alarms for 2 a.m. and proceeded to sleep not a wink as I watched the hours tick by. I got up at two, just before the alarm, quietly dressed, made my tea and slipped out of my sleeping house.

It rained all the way up. Three hours and twenty minutes of rain. I listened to a collection of humor pieces from the New Yorker called Fierce Pajamas on CD, which proved to be excellent company. All the great writers from the last century humored me along, and before I knew it I was in Vermont. AND IT STOPPED RAINING!

I found Penny in line at the Porta-Potties and stayed with her for the rest of the long day. We were thrilled to have found each other.

650 mountain bikers went off in front of the runners. They went in stages based on age and ability. By the time our race started at 6:40, the sky was light and fog was starting to lift.

Not such a great picture (I took it while running), but you get the idea.

As usual, I don't remember much about the first 20 miles. Penny and I ran together, talking our heads off. We moved in and out of other runners' orbits, but didn't stick with anyone for very long. The weather was perfect, strangely enough: cool-ish with an occasional mist from above. The leaves were just starting to turn (unlike here in Southeastern CT where everything is still green).

We ran on dirt roads and nice wide trails. There were no technical bits. The running was smooth and lovely. We walked the uphills for the first half of the race to save our legs. Penny is a phenomenal uphill walker. She told me that Jeff Washburn (of GAC fame) once told her to always "walk with a purpose." Indeed she does.

Here I am around mile 12, still looking fairly energetic. I actually felt mostly good all the way to mile 40.

Right around mile 20 (if I remember correctly) we started to go up. Up and up and up. I love uphill running. All those years of pushing heavy strollers have beefed my uphill muscles. Give me up-hill over down-hill any day.

We ran by horse farms.

And made friends with the horses.

Right near the midpoint of the race we came upon the World's Best Aid Station at Smoke Rise Farm. Jimmy Buffett was singing Brown Eyed Girl and the food spread was phenomenal. Check out the homemade WHOOPIE PIES!!! Absolutely divine.

The farm itself was to die for.

If you like the idea of living on a Vermont hillside, it looks like the neighbors are moving.

Coming (reluctantly) out of Smoke Rise, we continued up and up. We should have been at the top of a freaking Alp by now, we had been running up for so long.

We finally said goodbye to the road and headed back down on the trails.

I'm not sure how long we ran on this lovely trail. We moved through a couple more aid stations, feeling progressively less peppy. Around mile 35 my stomach started to go south (it's like clockwork) and Penny's hamstring started giving her trouble. We took turns jollying each other along. Luckily, when one of us was feeling poorly the other was feeling pretty good.

Somewhere along the way, the trail turned labyrinthine. It twisted and turned along a narrow path. The trees seemed to be closing in on us. With all of the switch-backs and circle-backs, it felt like we weren't making any forward progress. Just when I thought I would go zipping out of my mind, the trail would twist down, tantalizingly close to a road, only to wind up again into the gruesome trees.

Between mile 40 and 45 I was really quite sick. Penny pulled me through this stretch, and we made it to the last aid station with 4.6 miles to go. I couldn't eat anything at the aid station, but did choke down a couple of Cliff Blocks and a cup of Coke to carry me through to the end.

We walked out of the aid station and then started a little shuffle, telling ourselves that we were keeping up a good pace and making great time. (We were barely moving forward, mind you.) We could hear the finish line as we headed onto the cross-country ski trails at Mt. Ascutney.

Just as we came upon the darkest, muddiest, most treacherous stretch of trail, the skies opened up. It could not have been raining harder. I was wearing my road shoes rather than my trail shoes, and I could not get any traction in the mud, which had been chewed up by the 650 mountain bikers. (How mtn bikers got through this stretch, I will never understand). At one point, as I slipped and slid through the snot-like murk (think of your three-year-old's first sneeze of the morning right in the heart of flu season) on a narrow trail high above a deep ravine, I started to seriously worry for my safety. I would not have been the least surprised to have been accosted by a Rodent of Unusual Size. I despaired that I would never, never, never make it to the finish line. Those last miles took us an hour and a half.

And then we came out, still in the rain, to the grassy hill above Mt. Ascutney and the finish line.

What a welcome sight it was. We ran down the hill together laughing and linked pinkies at the finish line. 11 hours, 2 minutes (or something like that).

I immediately got in the car and drove home. The rain came down in buckets the entire trip. I listened to Tom Perrotta's new book, The Abstinence Teacher, and, what with my head all full of endorphins, did not even notice the passage of time.

Thanks to all of the race officials and volunteers who made this such a great race. In the end, it really was a wonderful gift of a day.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Slouching toward Bethlehem

Today Nell did ten minutes of math, ten minutes of angry dictionary digging, and then spent the rest of the day in her room listening to By the Shores of Silver Lake (Laura Ingalls Wilder) on CD.

I emailed my unschooling friend Susan: Tell me its okay that Nell is in her room all day listening to a book on CD.

Sister, she said, it's more than okay. And then she hit me with a quote from John Holt.

Nell is turning me into an unschooler. Every day I get closer.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Taper Malaise

I hate tapering for races. The logistics of long races make me nervous (travel, drop bags, clothing, food, electrolytes, water bottles, etc. etc.). I need to run when I'm nervous. Running helps me feel better. It is difficult to wrap my brain around the self-defeating notion that I am nervous about running, but I cannot run to soothe my nerves. I am an roiling, breathing Escher drawing come to life.

I am running the Vermont 50 on Sunday.

Or at least I am signed up.

I am not nervous about the running itself. I cannot WAIT to begin running. I am nervous about getting up to Vermont, finding the starting area and parking the car amidst something like 600 mountain bikers. I have to get up at 2 a.m. in order to be at Mt. Ascutney by 5:30 for the pre-race meeting. I also have to figure out where to get my number. The vast majority of runners will have already checked in and obtained a number on Saturday. Alas. I cannot go up on Saturday. Too many things to do. (And I don't want to shell out for a motel room.)

The details are killing me. And all of the unknowns.

AND the forecast calls for pouring rain. Again!

Just let me start running. Once I start running, I'll be fine.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Getting out

We are still at the stage of our homeschool development in which it is important (or at least I think it's important) for us to get out of the house every day. I always go through this stage when I find myself in a new, attention-demanding situation. I need a mental and physical break. And the kids probably do too.

When Nell was first born, we would go for a run in the stroller every morning and a walk in the front pack every afternoon. Ditto after the birth of both of her brothers. I couldn't stand the thought of being stuck in the house all day with a baby (much as I loved them all). As time went by and I got more comfortable being "confined," however, the need to get out waned, and sometimes disappeard completely.

But right now, we all need to get out of the house.

There are so many homeschool activities here that finding someplace to go is never a problem. But getting everyone away from their projects, out of their pajamas, into their shoes, and into the car is an energy draining propostion. Every time.

There is always one kid who doesn't want to go wherever it is we are headed, and one or two who cannot wait to get out. I am constantly coaxing at least one kid into the car. It's exhausting.

Monday we went to the Humane Society to look at the dogs. Excellent outing (once we were all in the car). There were dogs, cats, kittens, guinea pigs, birds, and even an exotic lizard, all in need of a nice long visit from a bunch of excited kids. The woman working there loved them. She gave them a tour and introduced them to each animal. We all fell in love with a 2-year-old greyhound named Paco. We are inching closer to getting a dog.

Yesterday we went to Community Think, our local homeschool coop at the library. Again, excellent. The kids played dramatic games while I chatted with some of the other parents, all of whom seem to be kindred spirits. Then everyone went over to the skateboard park. Nell, Simon and Ben loved sliding down the slippery hills with all the other kids. It was good for them to connect with other homeschoolers.

Yesterday afternoon, Grandma came for her weekly art lesson. They made collages!

Today we take Nell to art class. I want to check out a local trail I have not yet been on with the boys while she's there. We'll see.......

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Living the myth

While preparing to homeschool the kids I read tons of books about homeschooling. Naturally. And most of these books spent a good deal of time waxing poetic about homeschooled children letting themselves go, losing themselves in the happy vortex of some self-chosen, intelligence-building activity. The books spoke of homeschooled children spending hours on writing projects, science projects, math projects, thoroughly engaged (almost always sprawled on the floor), actively connected to their learning.

I was beginning to think it was a myth.

Until yesterday.

We started the day with a family run on River Road with Karen and Roxie.

Nell, after some initial hesitation requiring a couple of calls back and forth to Karen ("We can't run. Nell doesn't feel well." And then, "We can run! Nell has recovered!"), had a wonderful time on her bike. And the boys sat happily enough in the stroller eating saltines and watching the birds and the boats. Both back stroller tires were completely flat, which added a hefty upper body component to the run.

Back home afterwards we settled down to work. (Note to self: a bit of exercise before learning makes for tremendously compliant children.)

I asked Nell to write captions for some of the photos from her triathlon. I thought this would get her creative juices flowing. No dice. Nell does not do creativity on demand.

My friend and homeschooling guru, Heather, told me that she once had similar problems motivating her kids to write, until she broke down and allowed them to dictate stories while she did the actual writing. Several of my homeschooling books (most particularly Marty Layne's book Learning at Home) also recommended this tactic for young writers: Become the scribe.

I tried this with Nell. "You tell me what you remember from the swim and bike and run, and I'll write it down."

Still not much. "The water was cool," etc.

"What do you want to write about Nell?"


"Okay, tell me about Chizzle."

And we were off and running. Chizzle is Nell's guinea pig. She gave me a blow by blow description of everything Chizzle was doing at that moment. And while I read it back to her, she grabbed the pencil to write a bit more.

Then Simon dictated a story about Sammy (the other pig). "Sammy peed on the floor....."

And then all three kids got involved in writing up extensive menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'm not sure how that project evolved, but they spent an hour happily engaged, and I felt like I, as a homeschooling parent, had arrived.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Beginning to gel

Three weeks in, I think our homeschool is starting to gel. All of our activities are up and running, our schedule is becoming more predictable (a huge comfort for me, if not so much for the kids), and our "work" is getting done on a daily basis rather than on a weekly basis.

Because my legs are tired from last weekend's 50K and I'm trying to save them for next weekend's 50-miler, I haven't been running as much this week. I've been doing more research, less writing. More sleeping, less swimming. I slept right through my swim yesterday morning because I was out late the night before kvetching about the horror that is Sarah Palin with my excellent, like-minded friends.

I shouldn't call her a horror. If I knew her, it's possible that under certain very limited circumstances (sharing snack bar duty at our kids' hockey game? -- though I cannot imagine my kids playing hockey) we could be friends. Or at least chatting acquaintances. Which is the very thing about her -- her realness, her it-could-be-me aura -- that attracts so many people into her orbit.

What happened to Leaders We Can Look Up To? ("I'd like my president to be just like me. Or maybe even a little bit worse!")

But her politics are scary. If even half of the unsolicited information about SP that pops into my email inbox is true, we're in for a wild ride if she gets elected. (Notice I have not mentioned a word about McCain. The actual candidate. Nobody is talking about McCain anymore.)

But I digress. As the commenters on my newspaper blog would say: Stick to my area of expertise.

But as a new homeschooling mom, I no longer have an area of expertise. I am flying by the seat of my pants. Winging into the stratosphere without a parachute or a net. Look, mom, no hands!

We have signed up for a bunch of activities. Community Think, art, Seaport, Nature Center, Classical Kids. We have somewhere to go almost every day. This is mostly for Nell's benefit. She needs social activity. Simon and Ben have each other and would happily stay home most days. I feel bad interrupting their games every day to drag them to activities that they would prefer to skip. It's a tough balance. Am I stressing Simon out too much? Overstimulating Ben? It's difficult to say.

Yesterday at the Seaport class Simon walked from venue to venue clutching the hand of a 5-year-old blond girl. The women will save him in the end.

We are going to try our first homeschooling run this morning with my friend Karen and Roxy the dog. Nell on the bike, boys in the stroller. Or maybe Simon on his bike as well. We'll run on River Road. Up and back at 8:30. There shouldn't be much traffic. I'll try to remember to bring the camera.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Making math fun?

Our math books finally arrived. I was casting about for something productive to do yesterday after lunch when I wandered by the front door and saw the box of books out on the porch.

Simon uses Singapore Math. He is a "visual" learner -- he is tremendously concrete in most things -- but he does fine with Singapore. He doesn't seem to need many math visuals to get the basic concepts. Numbers make innate sense to him.

I started Nell on Singapore Math and she hated it. Actually, I'm not sure it she hated Singapore per se, of if she simply hated the fact that I was making her do math. We talked about it and I said I would switch to a different math program.

After doing a bit a research, I decided on Miquon Math, which is very visual and somewhat off the beaten path (just like Nell!). Miquon makes heavy use of Cuisenaire Rods. Nell loves to play with these rods, so I thought the program might be a good fit.

So the books arrived, and after leafing through the first few exercises (called Lab Sheets) and reading the accompanying Lab Sheet Annotations, I called Nell down to talk about even and odd numbers.

She grumped down next to me on the floor and started fidgeting with the rods. I explained to her how each rod color corresponds to a number from 1 to 10. We practiced many different ways of making ten. And then we talked about even and odd numbers from every angle: divisibility, pair-ability, even-plus-even makes even, even-plus-odd makes odd. We used the rods every step of the way. I wrote the answers on the worksheet so Nell didn't feel like she was doing busywork.

After it was all over, Nell said, "That was fun."


Monday, September 15, 2008

Pisgh Mountain 50K

It could not have been raining harder when Brian and I woke up at 4:30 Sunday morning to get ready to head up to the Pisgah Mountain Trail Race. The rain was beating the windows and flooding the gutters while I made coffe and toasted a corn muffin. Big raindrops flew by the porch light as I changed into my running clothes and gathered my bottles and Gu's. I had to put on my raincoat for the first time since June just to haul all of my stuff out to the car.

The kids were spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa's so the house was weirdly quiet as Brian and I made our frantic last minute preparations (where was the Vasoline? where was Brian's wallet?) and departed for the race.

Driving on Rte. 95 I hit a big puddle and hydroplaned just as another car was passing me on the left. I clutched the steering wheel for dear life as the car skidded over the water in the dark. And then I slowed down. If we missed the start, so be it. I wasn't going to orphan my babies just to get to the race on time.

Half an hour into the trip we stopped to pick up Grace and Steve, who were also running. Grace was using the race as a long training run for the NYC Marathon and Steve was hoping simply to finish without completely blowing out his knee.

We arrived at the start with 20 minutes to spare and made quick work of getting our numbers and our complimentary loaf of Vermont bread. For the moment, the rain had eased up, though the sky was still ominously dark.

Grace is a much faster runner than I am, and Steve is even faster than Grace, but the three of us started together and planned to stay together all day.

Grace and me at the start.

We positioned ourselves at the back of the pack and shuffled up the road when the gun went off. Brian, who was running the 23K, was further up and we never saw him again.

The first two miles follow a long uphill on a hard-packed dirt road. We ran this very slowly to save our legs for the rest of the day. Once on the trail, the route for the 23K quickly splits off to the right (a tempting diversion!), while the 50Kers continue to the left. Grace and I ditched our long sleeved shirts at the trailhead. A woman standing there said she would bring them back to the finish line for us (which she did -- thank you!).

The first trail miles were wet but lovely, mostly on an old, wide carriage road with a few rolling ups and downs and one major climb. We walked the ups and ran the downs. The woods were drippy and foggy with an eerie darkness everywhere. It reminded me of early spring in Portland, OR and my long ago runs in Forest Park.

Coming into the first aid station, Steve decided to drop. His knee was hurting. The Chopat strap he had hunted down the night before the race was doing nothing for him, and he feared permanent damage.

So we said goodbye to Steve at the aid station in the rain.

But we hadn't seen the end of him. He reappeared like Lazarus of the Trail about 20 minutes later. Evidently the people at the aid station had no idea how to get him back to the start. They told him that the next aid station was much closer to the start/finish and he could walk out from there. So we had the pleasure of Steve's company for a few more miles.

I started to go a bit too fast over the next stretch of trail. I was out in front with Grace and Steve behind me. Those two are much faster than me, so I felt obligated to keep up a stiff pace. We marched quickly up the uphills and flew down the downhills. Barrelling down was fun, but I worried for my quads later in the race.

I fell going uphill (not downhill, thank my lucky stars) and almost wrecked my knee on a pointy rock. That slowed me down. Grace said I was going too fast. Point taken.

We came zooming down to the next aid station (roughly mile 10) and said goodbye once again to Steve. I looked at my watch and was shocked, SHOCKED to find that we had been running for almost 2 1/2 hours. It had taken us 2 1/2 hours to go 10 miles. Dodging the muddly puddles had taken a huge chunk of time out of our run.


We walked the long, steep hill up from the aid station. I was breathing hard, my heart was racing, and my stomach felt ready to let go. This was going to be a long, long day.

I tried to drink while walking and I took a couple of S caps to settle my stomach. By the top of the hill I was feeling a bit better. That climb, it turned out, was the low point of my race. Luckily, I never felt that bad again.

I don't remember much about the next section. Grace and I chatted away about everything under the sun. We didn't see another soul all the way to the next aid station about four miles later.

Just after aid station 3, we came upon a beaver dam.

Which made the trail all around it look like this.

After wading through this Big Muddy, we no longer made any attempt to keep our feet dry. The jig was up. Soggy, heavy shoes for the rest of the day.

The next section of trail was a roller coaster of steep ups and downs through a lovely stand of pines. I felt like Little Gretel wandering around looking for the witch's gingerbread house in the fog. It was surreal.

We started running the uphills here rather than walking. We were more than half way done now and our legs still felt good, so what the hell. We shuffled up at a pace slightly faster than walking. I hate walking uphill. The shuffle is faster and less of a drain on the hip flexors. We passed six or eight people in the hills, the most people we had seen all day. Everyone was taking about the mud and the puddles. We just nodded politely, said hello, and shuffled on.

It was a relief to come into the next aid station, because we knew we only had 10 miles left. 10 miles is nothing. We would definitely finish.

About a half mile into the 5-mile Kilburn loop I heard, "Hey, Pam!" It was my old friend, Penny. She and I had run Pisgah together last year and had a fabulous time gabbing away the hours. She was rehabbing then from a serious hamstring injury. We stayed in intermittent email touch, but the last time I saw her in person she could barely walk. I was volunteering at the Lake Waramaug Ultras and Penny stopped by to say that she wouldn't be running because her plantar fascia has just popped (pause for stomach dropping groan).

I never thought I see her on a race course again.

But here she was, toodling along at a decent pace on the Kilburn Loop. She told Grace and me that back in the spring she had been at mile three of a ten mile trail race when she felt (and heard!) her plantar facia pop away from the bones of her foot. She kept running another six miles until she couldn't take another step and had to be carried to the finish. She was told she would never run again.

Evidently she persevered until she found a surgeon willing to let her run. He completely detatched the fascia and now she runs with lots of tape and an orthotic insert.

The grim details of that story got us all the way back around to the aid station and down to the last five miles. Grace and I said goodbye to Penny and picked up the pace (or so we thought) to the finish line.

The last miles were nothing but a long slog through slippy, slidey, deep-seated mud. The trail had been torn up by an excavator putting in a new snow mobile trail and all of the rain had turned it to soup. It took us a full hour to run (and we did run every step of the way) three miles through this slop.

The final mile was back on the road, and we toughed it out to the finish, where our now clean and well fed husbands awaited us. Brian had a great race, finishing 18th in the 23K in 2 hours, 18 minutes. He would be a fantastic trail runner if only he would train a bit more. Alas.

Here we are at the finish, in a time of roughly 6 hours and 42 minutes, muddy to our knees and thrilled to be out of the soup.

And just a few minutes behind us was Penny, the miraculous, facia-less wonder girl!

I had been hoping to beat my time from last year, but with all of water and mud on the trail I was 20 minutes slower. One of the guys at the last aid station told us that the winning time this year was also 20 minutes slower than last year. So I don't feel too badly.

All in all it was a wonderful race. Beautiful trail and dramatic weather and good friends to share it all with. It doesn't get much better.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Baby's first tri

A few weeks ago I found an application for the Mighty Kids Triathlon at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme online and asked Nell if she was interested in trying it out.

"Will you come with me?"

"Of course."

"Let me think about it."

And a day later she said, "I'll do it."

Driving to the race, Nell seemed remarkably at peace. I was more nervous than she was, pre-race jitters being de rigour for me. She stood calmly next to Brian in the long line to get registered while I stood back with her bike and her brothers. We set up her transition space with her bike, helmet, shoes and shirt. Brian and I, along with many other fit looking parents, were giving her great tips for making speedy transitions. She nodded politely, but seemed much more concerned with getting all of her hair into the lime green swim cap. ("I get to keep it!")

Down at the beach she gathered with all of the other 8 - 10 year olds in identical lime green caps. There were thirty or forty of them bunched together at the edge of the water. Nell's was the youngest age group and the first to go. She looked a bit pensive during the pre-race instructions.
I tried to urge her to move to the front of the pack. She has been swimming on a swim team for almost a year now and she's pretty good. I figured she would probably be one of the stronger swimmers in the group. But she was reluctant to move from her spot in the back. "Nell," I said. "You're a good swimmer. If you get stuck behind a bunch of slow kids you might get kicked."

Just before the starting whistle blew, she moved up and dove in at the far left of the group.

Most of the kids swam with their heads up the entire way and Nell was no exception. The kids swam about 75 yards out to the big red ball and back again. A few kids chickened out in the waves. The East Lyme swim coach tried to help them by holding their hands as they swam, parents on the beach yelling at them to keep going. It was heartrending.

Nell came running out of the water looking happy and strong.

The path to the transition area went under a train bridge and up the sidewalk next to the bath house. I ran along beside Nell telling her how great she was. She was all smiles.

Parents were not allowed in the transition area, so I ran around to the exit to catch her starting out on the bike. She took FOREVER getting her shoes and shirt onto her wet body, but finally she mounted the bike and toodled through the parking lot. Off she went, in no particular rush, looking for all the world like a little person out for an enjoyable morning ride.

The bike portion lasted six or seven minutes and then she was back in the transition area. Evidently she had a little crash with some kids coming in on bikes as she was leaving for the run. I missed that. Brian told me about it later. But she seemed none worse for the wear as she started out running.
A little over half way into the quarter mile run, Nell got a stitch in her side. My heart sank as I saw her grab her belly and stop to a walk. She walked for about ten steps and then started trotting again, still holding onto her shirt above the stitch. She finished well, still with a huge smile on her face.

She keeps asking me when she can do another triathlon. "I loved it!" she says. Next year seems like such a long time to wait.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Writer Teaching Writing

Last week Nell began writing a story about building a house out of blocks for her guinea pigs, Chizzle and Sammy. Since she had just built said housing, we decided to write the piece from the perspective of a journalist. Or a memoirist. We talked about how it could be funnier if we added bits that didn't actually happen. We talked about the "difference" between fact and fiction and the hazy line in between.

Nell started by making a chronological list of everything that happened (as per the instructions in our writing book, Writing Strands 2). On the second day of the assignment, she wrote the story up. She was not nearly as happy doing this as she was making the list. The writing was good, but I was surprised by how bad the spelling was. Words she absolutely knows like "house" and "other" were misspelled. I suspect that she was so caught up in the creative process that her spelling skills went out the window.

A weekend intervened, and today was Day 3. I circled all of the misspelled words and wrote them correctly spelled under her story. I instructed her to re-write the story using correct spelling. Being a writer of sorts myself, I love the editing process. Fixing up existing writing, to my mind, is much easier and more enjoyable than the blood-from-a-stone-process of coming up with new ideas.

Nell disagreed wholeheartedly. She did not want to do this re-writing assignment. She stalled and sulked and kept telling me that she couldn't pay attention. I thought this would be easy-peasy. Evidently I was wrong. I toyed with the idea of giving up. I don't want to stifle her writing this early in the game. But I persevered. I sat with her while she re-wrote line by line with neat printing on writing paper. The minute she finished, her mood brightened, and all was well again.

I took it easy on her for the rest of the day. We played math games and then went to the Book Barn, an amazing used book store with goats and cats and a playground.

We found frogs.

The boys found a cat.

And a random woman offered to take a photo of the boys and me.

I gave the camera to Nell and she snapped one of me.

I look like a brand new homeschooling mother just doing her best to get through the day. A little bit harried, a little bit tired, a little bit thrilled to be outside with all of her kids in the middle of weekday at the beginning of September.

Sweet Jesus, I look 100.