What really counts? Not so much what you've done, or what you're doing, but rather what you can do. That's why the Golden Ticket is so powerful a concept. It's a free-admission pass. Use it whenever you please. The door is open.
Everybody holds different metaphorical Golden Tickets at different times of their lives. Some people can tell jokes and give impromptu speeches, some can rely on the unconditional love of a close companion, some have the resources and courage to quit their jobs and head off on adventures at a moment's notice, and so forth. The variety is almost infinite across the range of human capability. At the moment, one of my Golden Tickets lets me go out jogging and walking for hours at a slow, comfortable pace. It won't last forever, but I'm enjoying it while I can. During the past month I've used that Ticket and covered ~100 miles in pursuit of various whims including GPS coordinate-collecting, speedwork around a track, cold-weather trail exploration, and local low-key road races. Some scribbles from the ^z logbook:
Today offers a fine chance to survey the lower 11+ miles of the Seneca Creek Trail at a relaxed pace (thanks to Ed Schultze et al., who've organized a series of go-as-you-please practice runs for the 4 March 2006 Seneca Creek Greenway Trail "Marathon" & "50k" – devil quotes because actual distances are perhaps ~5% longer). I rise at 5am, eat my customary pre-exercise Dutch stroopwafel, drink a cup of coffee, and set out to meet Comrade C-C at roughly the midpoint of the course. Dawn glows in my rearview mirror as we rendezvous. We leave C-C's vehicle in the lot by the Darnestown Road bridge over the creek and ride together to Riley's Lock on the Potomac River. A small crowd of early risers are there ahead of us, milling about. The thermometer shows a frigid 19°F.
Thankfully the highly rustic and always delightful Poole's General Store on River Road is open early. C-C and I score cups of fresh hot coffee at 35 cents each. (Ha! Try to compete with that, Starbucks!) We gather our gear and ride in a minivan with Cathy Blessing plus half a dozen others upstream to the Riffleford Road jumping-off point. C-C ditches an extra sweatshirt behind the nearby pumping station. This is her first long run since the Marine Corps Marathon last October, after which she was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the shin. Our prepositioned escape pod offers an option to cut the run short at ~5 miles, but Cathy encourages us to eat the whole enchilada today. In her opinion, "You might just as well – it's only two months until Race Day!"
With my GPS initialized C-C and I set off several minutes ahead of the gang, since we plan to take our time and enjoy the journey today. We're chilly for the first couple of miles in spite of gloves, caps, tights, and multiple layers. Then the sun rises above the ridges and my beardcicles begin to melt. We chat, mostly about our families and the trail. A while after everybody else has passed us we arrive at C-C's car and, both feeling strong, decide to go on a bit farther. C-C phones home and confirms that all's well. Our pace slows from sub-15 to something closer to what I did last year at this point of the actual race, but conversation makes the miles flow by quickly. C-C points out three turkey buzzards circling overhead; they soon give up on us. Horses in a field adjacent to the trail eye us as we pass.
Overall it's a comfortable, successful shamble through the woods. C-C and I cross streams and detour around bogs without getting (very) wet; I neither twist an ankle nor fall in the mud; and we never get lost for more than a minute or two. Many thanks to Ed for caching cookies, water, and chocolate at several points along the way!
Postscript: I drop C-C off at her car and then proceed homeward ... stopping at red lights and digging through my pile of stuff in search of a cellphone ... not locating it ... beginning to worry ... pulling off the road into a parking lot ... doing a full survey, no joy ... remembering a strange "thump" as I drove away from Riley's Lock ... further recalling that I had put the phone on top of the car as I was taking off my fanny pack and gloves ... driving 5+ miles back to Riley's ... walking around the parking lot, still no joy ... then finding the missing phone where some kind soul has put it on top of a metal box by the side of the road – happy ending! (^_^)
I'm off work today for a routine eye-doctor appointment, and in early afternoon have a debate with myself: go buy some trail running shoes, or take a jog? The jog wins, because: (0) it's free (I'm a cheapskate!); (1) time is tight, as I've gotta do some more family laundry today; and (2) I've just cooked up a double-sized batch of tapioca pudding and it needs to chill before I can suck down a bowlful. I drive to the University of Maryland campus and gamble (successfully) on not getting a parking ticket during the between-semester break. The route is my customary Northwest Branch / Northeast Branch / Paint Branch circuit . All goes uneventfully, albeit slowly, with extensive walk breaks and brief pauses every half-mile to take photos of trail marker posts for use someday on web pages. Unseasonably warm weather (~60°F) makes me roll up my sleeves and be glad that I'm wearing only thin shorts, no hat, and no gloves. A pint of gatorade, a root beer barrel, and a cola Clif Shot fuel the journey. At the end I rendezvous with #1 Son (the chem grad student) and give him a ride home — and then it's off to the laundromat!
During last Saturday's Seneca Creek trail journey C-C intrigues me with her description of the "ladder" of speedwork, so today at the UM track I try to climb one ... but I don't do a very good job, with times for 400 + 800 + 1200 + 1600 + 1200 + 800 + 400 meters of 1:48 + 4:05 + 6:47 + 9:25 + 7:00 + 4:23 + 1:58 respectively. Between rungs I walk a lap to get my heart rate out of the death zone. (Adding those recovery laps into the average gives a total of 6 miles at 11:10 net pace.) Throughout the ordeal I'm wearing a new "Ultimate Direction" brand "Walkabout" fanny pack, picked up earlier today at RnJ from the half-price bin. It feels great and shows no tendency to bounce even with a full water bottle. (Perhaps the advertised "designed for a comfortable fit on a woman's hips" is just what my shapely derrière demands?)
Afterwards I amble to the Student Union to drag Merle and Robin away from the video-game-dance machine, and on the way back to the car one young gentleman avers that he can beat me in a lap around the track. I try to dissuade him from taking on his Old Man, but he insists so all three of us blast off ... and I soundly defeat the challenger, but am in turn surprised by the kick of the other son, who finishes ~5 seconds ahead of my ~1:55 quarter mile.
Today my daughter replaces the battery in our scale and I discover that I weigh 184 lbs., a number that demands either several inches more height, an earlier pushback from the dinner table, or significant exercise. A strong low pressure system brings temperatures falling into the upper 30s and zephyrs from the northwest gusting 20-40 mph ... perfect jogging weather, when combined with intermittent drizzle and a major football playoff game to keep the crowds off the trails. So, after a mid-afternoon visit to RnJ Sports (where I snag some Clif Shots and another half-price-bin fanny pack) I park at the soccer fields near Dewey and Edgebrook Roads (just north of Randolph Rd.) and at 3:30pm head into the wind past milepost 9 of Rock Creek Trail .
Double shirts and gloves plus a hat don't seem like quite enough given the wind chill today, so I stuff an extra hat into my shorts for insulation (no comment, please!) and put on wrap-around sunglasses. They protect my eyes from the breeze but thermal contrast makes the rest of my face feel extra-cold, and the dimness makes me a bit nervous as the day progresses (I end up carrying the shades for the return journey). When I look down after half a mile my bare legs appear to be bright red, an exaggerated color illusion somehow created by the dark lenses; the skin is only a bit flushed from the cold. The first five miles go by at an average 11:40 pace, including pauses at major road crossings and delays as I tiptoe around (and through) puddles (and mud) on the pathway.
High winds have knocked down a mix of small-to-medium branches, and occasionally I hear a sharp crack as a tree fractures near the trail. I arrive at Lake Needwood (milepost 14, ) and take a 7-minute walkabout, eating a cookies-and-cream flavor Clif Builder's Bar and eyeing the clouds that race low above. Then it's back again, at a brisk average pace of 10:37 minutes/mile with a 3:1::jog:walk ratio. Some of the traffic lights along the way home are black, probably from power failures due to falling branches. I was warm enough throughout the run, but get violent shivers during the short walk between car and house.
C-C and I venture out to Howard County where Denis and Christelle McDonald host the annual Pancake Run, an informal go-as-you-please chance to jog along country roads and visit with fellow runners. At 7:30am we're among the first to arrive. We chat, grab maps, and don caps, gloves, and windbreakers over layers of running clothes. The 25°F air buffets us with 25 mph gusts of northwest wind for a single-digit windchill. We pick a five mile circuit to follow, along Jennings Chapel Rd. to Ed Warfield Rd. to Florence Rd. to Daisy Rd., which then leads us back to our start. Comfortable walk breaks on the hills let us keep up the conversation. The subjective miles flow by quickly. My new garish-bright trail shoes feel good.
Today turkey buzzards (aka vultures) are out in force. C-C points out dozens resting on an open field, and shortly thereafter we pass below bare-limbed trees where similar numbers perch. A distant shotgun blast bestirs many to launch themselves; I keep my mouth closed as I look up. Four miles into our loop we see a pair feeding on a roadkill deer corpse. They lumber into the air and soar overhead. C-C asks them politely not to vomit on us. (She informs me that regurgitation is one of their defense mechanisms.) After our run we chat with marathoner Betty Smith and others, enjoy the McDonalds' pancakes, bagels, and coffee, admire their lovely home's spiral staircase, and then head back to our families.
Mid-30's temperatures and light breezes greet us at 8am this morning as comrades Ken & Ruth & I converge on the Locust Grove Nature Center (Democracy & Seven Locks). Ruth shows us her massive medal from the Disneyworld half marathon last weekend, where she PR'd smartly. (She also describes the unusually cold Florida weather and the madness of a 4am race arrival time and a 6am start.) Ken sets a brisk pace downstream on the Cabin John Stream Valley Trail (see LateOctober2005JogLog and HalfBeast for notes on northern and southern segments of the CJT respectively), We climb ridges and circle warily around boggy areas, and tiptoe or leap across tributary creeks. Ken points out a large deer on the opposite bank of the stream. Small frigid birds flit away upon our approach, perhaps scared by my bright yellow-and-blue trail shoes. After ~3 miles we arrive at River Road, where I've pre-cached munchies and drinks behind a bush. We take a couple of minutes to nibble there, then cross River and do a mile down-and-back to Seven Locks Road. Another pause to eat and sip, and it's time to return to our starting point. I take the lead and inexplicably feel invigorated – or perhaps it's just the pressure from those behind me that keeps me moving along. Ruth keeps a GPS log of the journey; I carry a camera and snap a couple of photos. At the finish line Ken rewards us with his home-baked cranberry muffins.
It's unseasonably warm (~50°F), esp. compared with the past two years (looming blizzard in '05, single-digit mercury in '04). Comrades Ken and Ruth and I confer before the event. I joke that we should do 9 minute miles, based on my "double the distance, slow the pace by 1 minute/mile" rule-of-thumb combined with Ruth's recent 10 min/mi half-marathon PR; Ruth is skeptical and suggests just aiming for sub-10:00 which would be a handy PR for us all. At the "gun" we launch ourselves downhill and, as usual, go too fast (8:57 for the first mile by my watch). Then on a long uphill grade Ruth suffers a significant asthma attack and sends Ken & me ahead. (She walks through the wheezing, however, and continues on to finish strongly.)
The second mile is 10:11, during which Ken's daughter Hilary greets us on her way back to a sub-40 minute result. After the midcourse turnaround I try to follow Ken's advice to go faster on the descents and manage to cover mile 3 in 9:47. (At the water stop I grab a cup, drink a sip, and dump the rest over my head; it cools me but also washes sweat-salt into my eyes.) The fourth mile, including the long downhill grade, is my fastest at 8:36. I keep pushing hard and close the books with an 8:59. Add ~10 seconds that we started behind the line and the result is 46:40, ~5 minutes better than my best prior at this distance. Both Ken and Ruth likewise PR in well under 50 minutes.
At 9:30am Ken & I meet at Lock 6 of the C&O Canal and I fire up my GPS to gather waypoints of the markers along the first five miles of the towpath. We jog slowly (I'm not feeling frisky after yesterday's speedwork!) toward the rising sun and enjoy ourselves in the cool (upper 30's) air, with pauses to photograph mileposts and capture their coordinates. Bottoms-up ducks dabble in the water as we pass. At the Georgetown end of the canal we walk to the Thompson Boat Center and head back along the Potomac waterfront, returning to the C&O towpath via stairs near the endpoint of the Capital Crescent Trail. I attempt to photograph some gulls perched on the railing by the river but have limited success. Our average pace during the running segments is probably ~11:30.
Ed Schultze has organized another training run along his beloved Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, and C-C, Ken, and I decide to try it. At 7:25am when Ken and I arrive at the MD355 trailhead the parking lot  is almost full. C-C climbs into the back of Paulette's MINI Cooper, as does ultrarunner Pete, who tells us about some of his adventures during the drive to Damascus Recreational Park  where the day's journey begins. We leave early, planning to go at our own slow pace and preparing to be passed by speedier runners. (But during our jog Ken offers the zen-like riddle: if you're never passed, then are you the fastest or the slowest?)
The air temperature is at freezing, so we layer on the clothes. We walk for a few minutes to warm up, then jog down the paved pathway to the beginning of the Magruder Branch Trail . Blue blazes are so abundant that we never get significantly off-course. A few miles into the trip people running upstream meet us, and a bit later those heading downstream begin to catch up and zip by. A herd of whitetail deer leap through the brush on both sides and then cross the trail just in front of us. Their tails are amazingly fluffy, like featherdusters. Does this portend a hard winter ahead?
Our progress is steady; psychological pressure from my companions' presence keeps me moving a bit faster than I probably would have gone alone. We take walk-breaks on hills and as we get tired. Banter between Ken and me keeps C-C amused. After several uneventful water crossings earlier in the day, with only a mile to go at a small tributary stream C-C's foot slips off a stepping-stone and she get wet up to the ankle. "You're trail-baptized now!" I remark. As the MD355 parking lot comes into sight C-C sprints up the hill in a strong finish. My GPS measures the distance as 10.6+ miles, but since it's usually low by ~5% for winding routes I suspect that the actual path we took is ~11 miles, at an average pace of ~14:30 min/mi, including ~5 minutes we stopped to eat and drink along the way.
We eat, drink, and chat with fellow runners for several minutes. Then, as planned, I refill my water bottle and begin the return trip to Damascus where I left the car. That journey is marked by much more mud, since temperatures have now risen into the 50's and frozen bogs have melted wherever they're not well-shaded. I spy a few more large fluffy-tailed deer, including one big buck with a well-developed three-point rack. He turns his head to eye me until the trail takes me out of sight. After three hours hoof time I'm sweating enough to take an electrolyte capsule and remove my outer shirt. An hour later when I look for my tin of caps to take another I can't find them; I must have dropped the little box and not noticed. I eat a Cliff "Builder's Bar" and console myself by reading the wrapper, which implies that it contains enough sodium and potassium to meet my needs.
With five miles to go I'm walking a lot now, and who should I see striding briskly toward me but Comrade Way-No! His broken foot continues to heal nicely, he reports. He warns me that the Magruder Branch Trail takes some tricky turns and is easy to lose heading upstream. Appropriately cautioned, I turn on the GPS map display for the track I recorded during the downstream trip and thereafter have no problems following it back to the parking lot. A few young runners are waiting there and I beg a drink of water from them, since my supply ran out half an hour earlier. The GPS measures the round trip as 21.23 miles, again likely a few percent low. I took about 10 minutes longer to get back solo, for a net overall pace of ~15 min/mi. The odyssey ends with no blisters and no chafing, but the soles of my feet feel a bit bruised. My bright new trail shoes emerge with a legitimate layer of dried mud.
Plenty of excuses: today's forecast is for rain, maybe thunderstorms; I've never been to the official group starting point via car, only along the trail; there's a race tomorrow; and I've got family errands to perform later this morning. So it's an early solo jog for me, starting at 7am from the Maryland route 355 parking area on Seneca Creek Trail and heading downstream. Three other runners are there as I depart, and as expected they pass me within the first two miles though I manage to keep them in sight for a surprising distance. The trail is fun today: muddy in places from yesterday's showers, and blocked at a few points by trees that beavers have recently felled. A fluffy-tailed deer flees my approach, and a big orange-brown creature (a raccoon?) scurries across the path ahead of me. The temperature is in the mid-40's and I soon get overheated and have to peel off my outer shirt.
At Riffle Ford Road, ~4.5 miles into the jog, the three fast runners zip onward without pausing. Beside a water pumping station I find the cache of goodies kindly left there by Beth & Paul Dobson and Steve Smith. The food is wonderful and I'm too embarrassed as the first to stop there to open the cookies or candy, but I do tear into bag of "smokey mozzarella mini baguettes" and snarf down a fistfull. The saltiness does me good. I refill my bottle, save the GPS trackfile for this segment of the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, and begin the return trip. Gusts of wind commence to blow in my face and I don the windshirt again.
I'm getting quite tired now but continue to make steady progress and arrive back at Clopper Lake at 8:30am. The rain hasn't started yet, so I decide to do a loop along the shore. I've never gone that way before and it's the extra distance that makes the official race an optional 50k instead of an over-long marathon. Azure blazes guide me nicely along the coastline, where I scare a blue heron into flight and am scolded by a cacaphony of geese. When I get back to my starting point on the SCT, 50 minutes later, the GPS indicates that the loop was only about 2.9 miles, far short of the ~4 miles that I had heard estimated for it.
Continuing now on the regular trail I meet Ron "Tarzan Boy" Ely and Ed Schultze along with a fleet of other runners as they proceed downstream. I thank the Dobsons for their food donation. A light drizzle begins at 9:30 and a genuine rainshower starts at 10am, but I'm back to the car a few minutes later and thus don't have to pull out hat and gloves from my fanny pack. My shoes are coated with mud and I've got a small gash on the back of one calf from stepping too close to a fallen branch. A good day!
I'm frying a pan of bacon (for two of the carnivores in the house) when I realize that it's after 7am and I've still gotta change into running garb. I arrive only ~10 minutes before race time and soon find comrades C-C and Ken. We compare notes on our respective injuries and recent training, then take our place near the back of the pack. An announcement before the start of this MCRRC club event notes that that course isn't USATF certified. My GPS odometer pegs it as 4.87 miles: ~3% low, well within possible error based on past experience. And the long rolling hills arguably make up for any shortfall in length – or at least, so I tell myself! My splits are 10:02 + 9:39 + 8:42 + 8:33 + 9:04 and the official clock has me a few seconds over 46 minutes. Perhaps controlling the pace properly for the first mile or two (thanks again to C-C & Ken, who were chatting with me) helped.